Law vs. Faith: one of the main conflicts Paul seeks to resolve in his letter to the Romans. Dig deeper into Romans 3:27-31 with Marvin C. Pate and this excerpt from his contribution to the Teach the Text Commentary Series.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. — Romans 3:27-31
These verses contain three contrasts between boasting in the law of Moses and justification by faith in Christ alone: boasting in individual legalism versus justification by faith and acceptance before God; boasting in national exclusivism versus justification by faith and monotheism; boasting in the old covenant versus justification by faith and the new covenant.
- Paul has in mind three nuances with regard to nomos: “principle,” “law of Moses,” and “covenant.”
- Paul attacks both individual boasting before God based on obedience to the Torah (3:27–28) and national exclusivism based on circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and dietary laws (3:29–31). The basis of Israel’s national boasting that Paul criticizes is not just the three covenant markers but the entire Torah
UNDERSTANDING THE TEXT
THE TEXT IN CONTEXT
Romans 3:27–31 is a transitional passage. It points backward to Paul’s argumentation in 1:18–3:26, reiterating that justification before God is conditioned on faith in Christ and not on the works of the law. And it looks forward to Paul’s argumentation in 4:1–23 that Abraham, the founding father of the Jews, was accepted by God on the basis of faith some four hundred years before the advent of the law of Moses.
The theme of Romans 3:27–31 is that boasting in the law is antithetical to justification by faith. Three contrasts drive that message home:
1. Boasting in individual legalism versus justification by faith and acceptance before God (3:27–28)
a. Law (3:27a)
b. Faith (3:27b)
bʹ. Faith (3:28a)
aʹ. Law (3:28b)
2. Boasting in (Jewish) national exclusivism versus justification by faith and monotheism (3:29–30)
3. Boasting in the old covenant versus justification by faith and the new covenant (3:31)
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL BACKGROUND
1. As Simon Gathercole has perceptively demonstrated with regard to Romans 3:27–31, against the New Perspective on Paul, the literature of Second Temple Judaism is filled with individual boasting before God based on observing the whole Torah—boasting, no less, in anticipation of judgment day (e.g., 2 Maccabees, Testament of Job, Sibylline Oracles, Psalms of Solomon, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Dead Sea Scrolls). In other words, boasting in the Judaism of Paul’s day went well beyond Jewish national pride in the three covenant markers (circumcision, Sabbath, diet). And it is individual boasting in the entirety of the Torah that Paul condemns in Romans 3:27–28.
2. Romans 3:29–30 draws on the fundamental tenet of Judaism: God is one—monotheism. Thus, Jews recited the Shema (Hebrew for “hear,” the first word of Deut. 6:4) every day: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD [Yahweh] our God, the LORD is one . . .” (Deut. 6:4–5).
3. Two covenants are at work in Romans 3:27–31; 4:1–23: the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant. For Paul, these two are in tension, and the former anticipates the gospel, the new covenant.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law [nomos]? The law that requires works? No, because of the law [nomos] that requires faith . . . a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law [nomos].
These verses point out that boasting in individual legalism is antithetical to justification by faith. This is seen in the chiasm that these verses form:
A Law (of Moses) (v. 27a)
B Faith (in Jesus Christ) (v. 27b)
Bʹ Faith (in Jesus Christ) (v. 28a)
Aʹ Law (of Moses) (v. 28b)
There are two standard opinions on the meaning of nomos (“law” or “principle”) in 3:27–31 (v. 27 [2x], v. 28, v. 31 [2x]). Some think that “law” in verses 27, 28, 31 refers to the law of Moses. Others think that two different nuances of law are intended: “law of Moses” (v. 27 [the first instance], v. 28, v. 31 [both times]) and “principle” (v. 27 [the second occurrence]). I suggest instead that nomos, both times in 3:27, means “principle,” but two different principles: the principle of obeying the works of the Torah (v. 27a) versus the principle of justification by faith (v. 27b). Many commentators who take nomos here either as the law of Moses (v. 27a) and the principle of faith (v. 27b) or as the law of Moses in both cases miss the antithetical parallelism and the double meaning of nomos in 3:27:
Verse 27a: principle (nomos) of works (of the Torah) (cf. v. 28b)
Verse 27b: principle (nomos) of faith (cf. v. 28a)
On this reading, in 3:27–28 Paul is summarizing his argument in 1:18–3:26: no individual can boast before God regarding obedience to the law of Moses because no one can ever follow the law perfectly enough to be accepted by God on judgment day. More than that, the law stirs up disobedience, not obedience, to God in the first place. Verses 27–28 add one more vital detail to Paul’s argument: the law itself stirs up individual pride before God and others. Rather, it is only by faith in Christ that anyone will be justified before God.
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?
Here Paul turns his attention to criticizing Jewish national exclusivism. Jews fancied themselves to be better than Gentiles because they worshiped the one true God and possessed his law. In 3:29–30 Paul turns this argument on its head: monotheism means that the one true God is uniting all humankind (Jew [circumcised] and Gentile [uncircumcised]) on the basis of justification by faith in Christ (see Paul’s extensive argument in Rom. 4:1–25). In other words, for Paul, justification by faith is rooted in monotheism. In this scenario there is no longer any room for the law of Moses. It divided humankind, but justification by faith unites humankind. This is because all can have faith in Jesus, whereas only one nation (Israel) can lay claim to the law of Moses.
Do we, then, nullify the law [nomos] by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law [nomos].
This verse has generated three major interpretations, to which I will add a fourth. First, the more traditional perspective on Paul sees a problem with his statement here about faith establishing the law of Moses. Up until now in Romans the apostle has said next to nothing positive regarding the Torah, but now suddenly he seems to assert that faith establishes the law.
This view answers that Paul is talking not about the law of Moses per se but rather about the intent or commands of the Torah. In light of Romans 2:25–29; 8:4; 13:8–10 (which seem to say something similar: faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit empower the Christian to do even better than the Torah, namely, to fulfill the divine intent behind the Torah in the first place without getting bogged down in its 613 specific laws), this may well be the case.
A second traditional view…
is that Paul is not making a positive comment about the law in 3:31 but rather is saying that the purpose of the Torah is strictly negative: to bring all humanity up short of the righteousness of God and thereby drive all people to the gospel (cf. Rom. 3:19–26; Gal. 3:1–4:7). This, too, is quite possible.
Third, the New Perspective argues…
that nomos is the law of Moses throughout 3:27–31, and Paul is criticizing not the law but rather the improper usage of it whereby Jewish covenant markers are used to marginalize Gentiles in their relationship with God. This view seems to me off base in that it does not recognize that Paul is using nomos in more than one way in these verses, and that in 3:27–28 he is attacking individual boasting before God, not just national exclusivism.
A fourth view of 3:31…
is reflected in my suggested translation: “Do we then nullify the old covenant [nomos] by faith? May it never be! [Implied: faith did not need to nullify the old covenant because the law of Moses itself already did that by stirring up humans to sin against God.] Rather, we establish the new covenant [nomos] by faith.” Here, nomos means “covenant,” and, as in 3:27, Paul is using nomos in antithetical parallelism and with a double meaning:
Verse 31a: we do not nullify the old covenant (nomos) by faith
(implied: the law of Moses itself did that by stirring up sin)
Verse 31b: rather, we establish the new covenant (nomos) by faith
Several factors lead me to this translation.
(1) The law was the stipulation of the covenant for Israel; the two ideas went hand in hand. Indeed, the New Perspective assumes that Paul is talking about the “covenant” markers in 3:29–30.
(2) My suspicion that Paul is continuing to think about the covenant in 3:31 seems confirmed by his choice of the word “establish” (histēmi), which is used in the LXX for establishing the covenant (Deut. 28:69 [29:1 ET]; 1 Sam. 15:13; 2 Chron. 35:19a), including the new covenant (Jer. 42:14, 16 [35:14, 16 ET]). In other words, for Paul to say in 3:31 that faith establishes the covenant would have reminded his Jewish readers of the Old Testament phrase “the law establishes the covenant.”
(3) Here the antithetical parallelism surfaces in 3:31: the other word that Paul uses of nomos in 3:31 (besides “establish”) is “nullify” (katargeō), which in 2 Corinthians 3:1–4:6 Paul uses four times regarding the demise of the old covenant in light of the arrival of the new covenant in Christ (2 Cor. 3:7, 11, 13, 14). Thus, it appears that Paul signals by the two words “nullify” and “establish” the antithesis between the old and new covenants.
(4) Immediately following 3:31 is Paul’s discussion of the contrast between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.
(5) Since Paul uses the word nomos in two different ways in 3:27–28 (“principle” [2x in v. 27] and “Torah” [v. 28]), it would not be surprising that he would continue to offer another nuance of the word in 3:31 (“covenant”). This to say that Paul provides a play on the word nomos throughout 3:27–31: “principle” (v. 27), “Torah” (v. 28), and “covenant” (v. 31).
(6) The verb katargeō is also used in Romans 4:14 of the promise to Abraham—the Abrahamic covenant—as being void if that promise/covenant is based on the law of Moses.
(7) This proposed reading would mean that Paul is perfectly consistent with his negative presentation of the law of Moses throughout Romans 1:18–3:31. These seven considerations combine to suggest that 3:31 contains a third contrast between boasting in the law and justification by faith: the former is not appropriate since the old covenant has passed away; only the latter is the avenue to the new covenant.
Even though it is a short passage, Romans 3:27–31 is full of profound theological truths.
First, individual boasting before God because of one’s supposed good works is a dead-end street spiritually. Such arrogance only distances a person from God because trying to match one’s righteousness with God’s is a hopeless endeavor.
Second, boasting in one’s supposed national superiority over others can also lead to a quagmire in relationships. Patriotism is not wrong, but it can go awry and bring about disastrous results. What we can learn from these two theological insights is that humility before God and others is the best way to go through life.
Third, the divine plan for salvation is based on faith, beginning with the Old Testament and continuing to the New Testament. The Abrahamic covenant (compare Rom. 3:29–30 with Rom. 4) revealed that acceptance before God is based on faith; indeed, the true children of Abraham are those who are saved by faith, not by the law of Moses. Why, then, did God give the Torah to Israel? Ultimately, it was to drive both Jew and Gentile to belief in Jesus (compare Rom. 1:18–4:25 with Gal. 3:1–4:7).
Fourth, the overarching argument that Paul makes in Romans 1:18–3:31 is that the stipulation of the new covenant is faith in Jesus Christ, not the law of Moses.
TEACHING THE TEXT
The best way to preach or teach Romans 3:27–31 is to title the message something like “No Boasting before God” and then simply to explain the three contrasts between boasting in the law of Moses and justification by faith.
First, individual legalism constitutes a roadblock to justification by faith…
because most people in this category are religious by nature and therefore assume that their good works—church/synagogue/mosque attendance, helping others, living a morally upstanding life, and so on—will earn them salvation. Indeed, Christian evangelism exposes such a baseless assumption when a person is asked, “If you stood before God today and he asked you why he should let you enter heaven, what would you say?” Most folk in the category of individual legalism will point out the good works in their lives as grounds for their justification on judgment day. The challenge of the Christian evangelist is to wean such persons from trusting in their own merits before a perfect God.
Second, millions of people trust in their national identity to be justified by God.
One thinks especially of Americans who claim that their country is a Christian nation and therefore they have inherited the blessings of that faith, including acceptance before God. But Paul and Jesus vociferously denied that one is born a believer by being born in Israel (compare Rom. 3:29–30 with John 1:11–13), and the same argument can be made for America.
Third, Paul contrasts the old covenant with the new covenant in 3:31.
Since the law and the old covenant failed to justify humans before God, the new covenant received by faith in Christ alone is the only legitimate way to be accepted by God.
TEACH THE TEXT COMMENTARY SERIES
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