By Johnny Stringer
In a previous article, Scriptures were cited which conclusively prove that it is essential for us to be guided by God’s law. Those who believe that people can persist in violating the law of Christ in their worship and service to God are wrong.
It was also shown, however, that we do not depend just on law for our justification. We have more than law; we have grace by which we can be forgiven when we violate God’s law. Forgiveness, however, is conditional, and one of the conditions is repentance (Acts 2:38; 8:22). Hence, men cannot persist impenitently in violating God’s law and receive his gracious forgiveness.
Paul’s teaching in the book of Romans is often cited by those who teach that we are not amenable to law. Some of the statements most often invoked are found in Romans 3:19-4:8. Hence, we need to understand the real point of this passage.
First, we must understand the point Paul had been establishing in the context. He had begun in 1:18 to drive toward the conclusion that all men have sinned and therefore need the gospel. He showed that Gentiles had been guilty of sin, hence had not been justified by their manner of life; they needed the gospel. Then he showed that the Jews had failed to keep the law God had given them. Having failed to be justified by law, they needed the gospel.
After proving that the Jews had failed to be justified by the Law of Moses, Paul stated the conclusion in verse 20: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
Why would no flesh be justified by the law? Simply because no flesh would perfectly obey the law. Inasmuch as all would violate the law, all would be condemned by it. The only way to be justified by law (law alone; no grace) would be to keep the law perfectly. Regarding the Law of Moses, Paul said that “doers of the law” would be justified (Rom. 2:13; 10:5); but no one “did” the law – not perfectly. All who did not continue in “all the things written in the book of the law” were cursed for their violations of the law, but no one continued in all the things of the law – not perfectly; hence, all were cursed by the law; none were justified by it (Gal. 3:10-12). Whenever one is described as keeping God’s law, the meaning is that his life was generally in accordance with the law; no one kept it perfectly except our Lord.
Paul’s point was that no one had kept God’s law perfectly so as to be justified by it. Men, therefore, needed another method of justification – a method other than perfect law-keeping. The experience of the Jew under the Law of Moses proved for all men for all time that man will not achieve justification by perfect law keeping. We need more than mere law; we need grace so that we can be forgiven when we violate God’s law.
In the text we are discussing, Paul’s statements regarding law must be understood in the light of the point under discussion in the context: Man had not kept God’s law perfectly so as to be justified by it; hence, men needed another method of justification. In this context, when Paul spoke of “the righteousness of God without the law” (3:21), he meant “the righteousness which we obtain by a means other than law. ” We do not become righteous simply by having a law and keeping it. We are indeed amenable to law, but we do not depend simply on law for justification. This would require keeping God’s law perfectly, and this is the thing Paul had been laboring to show that men had failed to achieve.
Similarly, in verse 28, when Paul said “that a man is justified by faith Without the deeds of the law,” He did not mean that we are not amenable to God’s law. Paul had been showing that we are justified by a method other than perfect law-keeping. Hence, “without the deeds of the law” means “without performing the deeds of the law perfectly.”
The point is, we stand righteous and justified before God not because we have lived in perfect obedience to divine law, but because we were forgiven of our sins through the blood of Christ when we submitted in faith to the Lord’s conditions. But we cannot stand righteous and justified before God if we persist in violations of divine law, for the conditions we must meet in order to be forgiven include repentance.
We will continue this study in or next article, particularly noting Paul’s usage of the word works in the passage we are considering.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 9, p. 264
May 5, 1988