One of the difficulties with the section of scripture we are studying is that Paul says so little and means so much. We have already seen this in words and phrases like “works of the law,” “redemption,” and “propitiation.” In verses 27-31 we notice that Paul uses short, quick remarks to amplify the conclusions he has drawn in this chapter. Paul has pointed out that the works of the law (possession of the law, circumcision, Sabbath keeping, clean and unclean food, etc) are not the marks that show a person to be in a covenant relationship with God. Rather, the marks of those in a covenant relationship with God are those who have faith in Jesus and live faithfully. God’s righteousness has been revealed in the faithful life of Jesus. Through the faithful life of Jesus, God keeps his promises to Israel and to the world. We access the blessings of a covenant relationship with God through faith/faithfulness in Jesus.
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:27-31; ESV)
We first need to ask, “who is boasting?” It is easy to think that Paul is talking about all people. But to think this is to ignore the context of the chapter. The chapter began asking if there was any advantage to being a Jew. The first twenty verses of chapter 3 reveal that Israel stands side by side with the Gentiles as guilty, being unfaithful to God. The law of Moses is not an advantage to Israel because Moses’ law simply gives us the knowledge of sin (vs. 20). The law of Moses does not justify. The contextual question is this: what becomes the boasting of the Jews (or of Israel)? The Gentiles are not boasting. It is the Jews who are boasting in the works of the law. The Jews believed that possession of the law, circumcision, sabbath keeping, and defilement laws gave them a reason to boast in their relationship with God. The Jews thought these things were marks that revealed they were in a covenant relationship with God and therefore were justified in the sight of God. This boasting is reflecting in their writings which we still have today. Israel had a tradition that said that God offered the Torah (the Law) to all nations, and all, except Israel, refused (see Schreiner; Baker Exegetical Commentary). They were wrong. What becomes of the boasting of the Jews? It is excluded. There is no special status or advantage for physical Israel.
The next question is: By what law are we declared righteous and part of God’s covenant? We are not justified by the works of the law. I think the apostle Paul has been very clear on this up to this point. This has been the key of chapter 3. A person is not justified before God based upon possession of the law of Moses, circumcision, Sabbath keeping, defilement laws, or anything else that distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles. We are not in a covenant relationship with God by the works of the law, or, to draw the parallel that Paul is attempting to draw, the law of works. The works of the law and the law of works are synonymous terms.
Now the answer Paul gives ought to be fascinating in light of how Romans is traditionally interpreted. Paul’s answer is that the kind of law that we shows to be in a covenant relationship with God is not the law of works (works of the law), but the law of faith. This verse should blow a gaping hole into the idea that Paul is teaching that justification comes through no law keeping whatsoever, but just faith only. Paul is not saying that there is no law at all. Paul is simply saying that which shows us to be in a covenant relationship with God is not the law of works but the law of faith. Faith is the thing that sets people apart for God. Faith is the thing that shows us to be in a covenant relationship with God. Faith is the mark of the covenant and shows one to be in God’s family. Faithful living is the extension of faith. One does not have faith without faithful living. The two cannot be separated from one another. There is still law. Paul will give more explanation about this in Romans 9:30-10:13. Israel has nothing to boast in because faithfulness is the mark of the covenant. This point reaches back to Romans 2:29, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” The point reaches back to Romans 2:13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” God is looking for faithfulness. This leads us to verse 28 of chapter 3.
Verse 28. Notice the first word is “for” in the verse, so Paul is connecting us back to the point of verse 27. This verse is an explanation of what we have just examined. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This is the point we just made in verse 27 so we know that we have drawn an accurate conclusion because verse 28 fits. People are declared righteous (given the status of “justified”) by faith in Jesus, not by the external Jewish marks (the works of the law). Faith is what marks out God’s covenant people. Faith is the thing that enables all people to stand together on the same, flat ground.
Verse 29. Verse 29 reveals that we have come to the appropriate interpretation and that the traditional interpretation completely misses. Notice that Paul says, “Is God the God of the Jews only?” This question shows us we are on the right track. If Paul’s point has been that there is no law, we can’t observe the law, and obedience is completely discarded, then what does this question about God being of the Jews only have to do with anything? It is entirely out of place and does not follow the logical progression of the text. However, our explanation makes perfect sense of the verse and of the point that Paul has been making through chapter 3. If justification (being declared righteous) is only through the works of the law (possessing the law, circumcision, sabbath keeping, defilement laws), then God is only a God for the Jews. That is, only the Jews can be given the status of righteous and be in a covenant relationship with God. If those are the things that makes people “the people of God,” then only Jews can be the people of God because the Gentiles do not possess the law of Moses, practice circumcision, keep the Sabbath, etc.
God is not only a God of the Jews but also of the Gentiles. One simply needs to remember the covenantal promise made to Abraham: “In your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” It would not be through Abraham’s seed that Israel would be blessed. The whole world is going to be blessed through this promise. God’s righteousness is not for the Jews only but also the Gentiles. If justification were through “the works of the law,” God would show himself to be a God only of the Jews. Then God would be partial and show favoritism. God can only fulfill his promise to Abraham with the creation of a worldwide, Jew and Gentile, family.
Verse 30. “Since God is one” continues the apostle’s point. It seems to be a reference to the daily prayer of the Jews, which came from Deuteronomy 6:4. Since there is one God, there can only be one family that is the seed of Abraham that receives the blessing of being in a covenant relationship with God. There cannot be many families. God is not a God of the Jews only and there can only be one family. Therefore Jews and Gentiles must have access to this one family. One becomes part of the “one family” through faith. Faith is the mark of the covenant. God will justify the circumcised (Jews) and the uncircumcised (Gentiles) through faith. Both are justified on the same basis.
Lest we become confused and come away with the wrong idea about the first covenant (as many do), faith has always been the basis of justification. Faithfulness has always been the covenant mark.
12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deuteronomy 10:12-16; ESV)
Faith (circumcision of the heart), not physical circumcision, is the decisive mark for entrance into the people of God.
Verse 31. So is the law of Moses overthrown? The NASB uses the word “nullify” and that is probably the best rendering to use here. Has the law of Moses been nullified, that is, rendered inoperative? The law of Moses was not worthless. The law of Moses was not a waste of time. The law of Moses was not useless. In Jesus, the law of Moses was been fulfilled. It accomplished its purpose. The law of Moses had a function and we (Jews) uphold and establish that function. The law brought us the knowledge of sin (3:19) and make us ready for the coming of Christ (Galatians 3:24). See how Paul fleshes out this same idea in Galatians:
21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:21-29; ESV)
Notice that Paul’s point in Galatians in the same as in Romans. The law of Moses is not contrary to God’s promises at all. The law of Moses does not give life, otherwise we would be justified (declared righteous) by the law of Moses. But the law of Moses puts us imprison because it gives us the knowledge of sin, but offers no way to rectify our sins. The promises of God are not fulfilled in the Law of Moses, but by the faithfulness of Jesus and those who believe are recipients of God’s promises. Before the faithfulness of Jesus, we were imprisoned to sin, as we already mentioned. The law of Moses was a teacher and babysitter until Christ came to get us ready to be able to be justified by faith. Now the faithfulness of Jesus has come and we are no longer under the law of Moses. We are justified by faith, not by the law of Moses, nor by the works of the law (possession of the law, circumcision, Sabbath keeping, defilement laws, etc). Because the faithfulness of Jesus has come, we can be children of God through faith in Jesus marked by a life of faithfulness. That faith is initiated when we are baptized into Christ and are joined with Christ. So there is one family. All distinguishing marks have been removed. There is no Jew or Greek. There is no slave or free. There is no male or female because there is only one family is Jesus. When we are in Jesus, we are the offspring of Abraham, meaning we are the recipients of God’s righteousness promised to Abraham that he would declare people “righteous” or “justified.” Thus, we are heirs according to the promise given to Abraham!
Coming back to Romans 3:31, Paul is saying that we uphold the function of the law of Moses. It served its purpose and was very useful. To say that the law of Moses is useless, pointless, null, or void is impossible. The law served its purpose. However, the faithfulness of Jesus has come and we are declared righteous because he is the propitiation for sins and through faith in him, God grants us that status of righteous.
- Is our life characterized by faith? It is the mark that shows we are in a covenant relationship with God.
- There are no other badges of membership in the family of God. Not even baptism alone is a badge. One can be baptized and still be out of the family of God because faith/faithfulness is not the component of their lives.
- Paul is not at all talking about the removal of all moral codes or obedience. We are commanded to be faithful to God.