Romans 3:21-26 ESV
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Under the Old Covenant Relationship that God had with the Jews, who were his chosen people at that time, his people were given, not only the ten commandments, but a whole lot of ceremonial and purification laws that they also were required to obey as part of keeping covenant with God.
But, none of them were saved by keeping the law, because not one of them could keep the law perfectly. For, we read in Romans 8:3: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” And, “For God has done” is in reference to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins. For, the law could save no one. The law was to lead them to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).
So, how were they saved under the Old Covenant? In reality, they were saved by faith, just as we are, for they were judged by their unbelief (Hebrews 3:19). But, if we look back to v. 18, it says that God swore that the disobedient would not enter his rest. And, based on this whole chapter of Hebrews 3, we see how God equates unbelief with disobedience. He did then, and he still does (Jn. 14:23-24; Rom. 6:16; Heb. 5:9; 1 Jn. 2:3-6).
But, when he says “the disobedient,” he is not talking about one act of disobedience, but a practice of disobedience. For, they hardened their hearts against God, they put God to the test, they went astray in their hearts, and they did not know God’s ways. They knew them intellectually, but not experientially. They were not intimately acquainted with God’s ways through regular practice. So, he swore they would not enter his rest (vv. 7-11).
But, back to Romans 3, we read that we are all sinners, and we all come up short of God’s glory – of his righteousness and of his divine approval. So, no one then, and no one now can be saved by trying to keep the law. But, as we read through the New Covenant teachings on law vs. grace, when it refers to “law,” it is primarily referring to those ceremonial and purification laws, and circumcision, and some of the religious celebrations they kept.
Romans 3:27-31 ESV
“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. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
But, this isn’t just a New Testament thing, in reality. For, all throughout the Old Testament God chided his people for their forms of religion. They did the sacrifices they were supposed to do, and they went through the ceremonies, and outwardly it appeared as though they were righteous. But, the problem was that their hearts were far from God, and they were not living in obedience to his commands. So, their “faith” was “lip service” only.
So, even back in the Old Testament, God separated the idea of trying to be considered righteous by works of the law vs. righteousness by faith, which then resulted in true obedience to the Lord. For, a person can do all the religious things outwardly, like the Pharisees appeared to do, and yet inwardly be evil and wicked and be committing atrocities against God.
So, we are not made righteous by keeping a list of religious rules, which we can’t keep perfectly anyway. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, which is a gift to us from God. In fact, both God’s grace to us, in providing for us salvation from sin, and the faith to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation are gifted to us by God. Even repentance is granted to us by God (Eph. 2:8-10; Acts 5:31; Acts. 11:18; Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 2:4).
We Uphold It
But, and this is key here. We don’t overthrow the law by this faith, but we uphold it. So, what does that mean?
If we read all of the New Testament beginning in Romans, and excluding the four gospels and Acts, we get a well-rounded picture of how all of this works. And, it can be confusing if we don’t read these Scriptures in context. Context is critical to truly understanding law and grace and where we are now.
Basically, we who believe in Jesus Christ are not under the Old Covenant Relationship God had with the Jews. We don’t have to obey all the ceremonial and purification laws they were required to obey. Circumcision is not required, and we don’t have to keep all their religious celebrations.
But, what was happening as the Jews transitioned from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant is that there was a group of people called Judaizers who were trying to convince the Gentile believers that they had to be like the Jews in so many ways, and that they had to follow some of their Old Covenant laws, customs, and traditions. And, I believe that is still happening today, or that there has been a new movement in that direction today.
And, so a lot of Paul’s teachings to the New Testament church were to dispel that notion that Gentile believers in Jesus had to be like Jews in many ways. And, I believe we need people today within our churches telling believers in Jesus Christ the same thing, for I am witnessing a strong movement of Judaizers today who are trying to convince followers of Christ of the same. And, we need to give them the same message as Paul did in Galatians 3-4.
But, let me get back to the main point here. It really comes down to this. We are not saved by keeping a bunch of rules. And, we are definitely not saved by following a bunch of religious rituals, rites, customs and traditions. For, they have nothing to do with our hearts. For, just like in the Old Testament, and just like the Pharisees in the New Testament, we can have all the forms of religion down pat, but if our hearts are not given over to God, well…
And, let me say this, too. If we are going to make a case against obedience to the Lord’s commands based off Paul’s teachings on law and grace, then we need to look at all of Paul’s teachings on the subject of our salvation from sin. For, going back to Romans 8, which I referenced early on, when he said, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do,” we need to read what comes after that.
“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:3-8).
The righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us, who walk (in practice) not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For, if we set our minds on the flesh, that results in death, but to set our minds on the Spirit is life. For, if we live according to the flesh, we will die in our sins. But, if by the Spirit we are putting to death the deeds of the flesh, then we will have eternal life with God (see also Rom. 8:12-14).
So, the gift of God’s grace is not just forgiveness of sins, the escape from hell, and the promise of heaven when we die. The gift of God’s grace is freedom from SLAVERY TO SIN, and it is empowerment to live according to the Spirit of God, to Christ and to his righteousness (Rom. 6:1-23; Rom. 8:1-17; Eph. 4:17-24; 1 Jn. 1:5-9; Tit. 2:11-14; 1 Jn. 2:3-6; Lu. 9:23-26).
So, yes, not one of us will be saved by following a bunch of religious rules which are external only and which do nothing to change our hearts. We are only saved by God’s grace, through God-given faith in Jesus Christ. But, that faith, because it is of God and from God, submits to Christ as Lord. And, the person of faith, thus, leaves his old life of sin behind him to follow the Lord in obedience to his commands (Rom. 6:1-23; Eph. 4:17-24; 1 Jn. 1:5-9).
And, if we don’t repent of our sins, and if we don’t walk in obedience to our Lord, because we think we don’t have to under God’s grace, and thus we don’t submit to the Lordship of Christ over our lives, then we will die in our sins, not have eternal life with God (Gal. 6:7-8; Rom. 2:6-8; 2 Co. 5:10).
Writer(s): C. E. Couchman, M. W. Bassford
…Scorned by those who watched;
Mocked by all the wise;
Loved within belief;
Son of God.
Born to take my death;
Slain to give me life;
Jesus Son of God.
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