The Meaning of Romans 3:31
Please explain Romans 3:31. “Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? Indeed not, we establish the law.”
The correct interpretation of this passage depends upon four things — the meaning of “law,” the significance of “faith,” and a consideration of these terms in both the immediate and remote contexts of scripture. We must note at the outset that respectable scholars hold slightly different views on certain elements of the verse, without any major conflict on the general sense of the apostle’s conclusion.
In his epistle to the saints in Rome, thus far Paul had argued four main points in chapters 1 through 3. (a) The pagan Gentile world is lost. Generally speaking, it had rejected the evidence pertaining to the true God, as such is revealed in his creation. The heathen had turned to idols, and in the aftermath of that apostasy, the most heinous sins had been engaged (Chapter 1). (b) The Jews had not fared any better. Though they had a written revelation from the Lord (the Mosaic code), they largely ignored it and practiced the inclinations of the flesh (Chapter 2). (c) In summary then, sin is a universal phenomenon of the human family; none, therefore, can stand before God and boast of his “righteousness.” Even if both Jew and Gentile had substantially kept the respective laws to which each was amenable, they could not have been justified thereby, because any degree of sin condemns, and mere law has no intrinsic remedy for sin (3:1-20). (d) Heaven’s response to this problem is the gift of the sinless Christ, who freely offered himself as a substitute sacrifice for sin on behalf of all who, through faith, are willing to receive the redemption provided (vv. 21-30).
The key to the interpretation of 3:31, therefore, is the meaning of “law,” and also that of “faith.”
To what specifically does the term “law” refer in this passage? Some contend it alludes to the Mosaic law, and that alone (Cranfield, 223; Vine, 58-59). Others allege that the term has to do with the general concept of law. This would include Moses’ law, but not be restricted to that legal code. It would embrace “that great system of Law that prevailed everywhere until the coming of Christ” (Sanday & Headlam, 96). The reference to “law,” from this vantage point, would embrace both Jews and Gentiles. In principle there is little difference, practically speaking, whether “law” is assigned the more narrow, or the broader scope — though the latter seems more likely from the larger context of chapters 1-3.
The question then is this: Does “faith” render “law” of none effect? And the answer is, “No, it definitely does not, and for the following reasons.”
First of all, “law,” generically speaking, declares there is a difference between right and wrong. “Law” defines the nature of “out-law” conduct (1 John 3:4; cf. Romans 4:15; 7:7ff). “Law” points to a need for some method of justification, inasmuch as no one can keep law perfectly (Galatians 3:10), and law itself provides no ultimate remedy for violations. Even in a perfect legal system, a broken law cannot be un-broken! History cannot be reversed.
Second, in addition to the foregoing principles, the Mosaic law (i.e., the canon of Old Testament scripture) contained many elements (e.g., prophecy) that prepared the world for the coming of Christ (Galatians 3:24-25). There was even some hope of deliverance among the Gentiles as a consequence of Hebrew influence (cf. Matthew 2:1-2). The Law of Providence worked toward the same goal among the Gentiles as it did on behalf of the Jews (Galatians 4:4). These elements, as revealed in the biblical record, are still of great value in Heaven’s marvelous plan of salvation.
Again, there is some difference of opinion as to the significance of “faith,” or, as it literally is, “the faith” (with the Greek article).
The expression “the faith” is not infrequently employed as a synonym for the gospel system itself. Paul preached “the faith” (Galatians 1:23). The one who refuses to care for his family has denied “the faith” (1 Timothy 5:8). And Jude urges Christians to contend for “the faith” (Jude 3).
If this was Paul’s point, he simply was contending that the Christian regime does not nullify the value of “law” generally (including Moses’ law), for law played an important role in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan. The Old and New Testaments are not antagonists. As Moses Lard observed, “Law is of no service as a means of justification; yet it answers countless other important ends” (126).
The manner in which most students seem to view the matter, however, is that “the faith” here represents the “principle of faith” or, as designated a few verses previously, a “law of faith” (v. 27). But as Lard also noted, the “law of faith” (as here set forth) “and the gospel, are but two different names for the same things” (123). Hence the only difference between this explanation of “faith,” and the previous one, is semantics, not substance.
The main obstacle to understanding the truth relative to this subject is the limited definition the denominational world has assigned to the noun “faith.” Many see it as a mental process by which one merely expresses “trust” in Christ with the resolve to “accept him as Savior” — yet in the absence of any accompanying obedience, e.g., repentance, immersion in water, or faithful Christian living. This is a seriously erroneous idea with a deadly consequence.
In my commentary on the book of Acts, I have included a special study pertaining to the way the word “believe” is used in Luke’s inspired history of the early church. The book of Acts constitutes a textbook of case histories that demonstrate the true significance of the word “believe” (Jackson, 415ff).
A False View
Before concluding this brief discussion, we must address an erroneous theory that has engaged the interest of some in the community of “Christendom.”
It is alleged by many that Romans 3:31 demonstrates that the Mosaic law, with the exception of the offering of animal sacrifices, is as binding today as it was thirty-five centuries ago. Hence advocates of this ideology, appealing to this text, attempt to justify some of their practices, e.g., a physical priesthood (Catholicism, Mormonism), carnal forms of worship (burning incense, the use of instruments of music in worship, and holy dancing—cf. Hebrews 9:10), or the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.
While there are many lessons to be learned from the Old Testament (cf. Romans 15:4), and though the former law contains principles that are timeless in nature (cf. Proverbs 6:16ff, for example), the law of Moses itself, as a legal system, is not an obligation for modern man (and never was for Gentiles).
Even the Israelite people (to whom the law was given initially—Deuteronomy 5:1-5) have been released from the Mosaic code. The following list reflects some of the terms used in the New Testament to signify that severance: “fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17), “dead to,” (Romans 7:4), “discharged from” (Romans 7:6), “passing away” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 11, 13), “no longer under” (Galatians 3:25), “no longer bondservant” (Galatians 4:7), “set free” (Galatians 5:1), “called for freedom” (Galatians 5:13), “broke down” and “abolished” (Ephesians 2:14-15), “counted as loss” (Philippians 3:7), “taken away; nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:14), “no longer judged by law” (Colossians 2:16), a “new, better covenant,” with “better promises” than bestowed under the “old” covenant (Hebrews 8:6, 13).
Such expressions could be multiplied, but these should be sufficient to show that the Mosaic code, as a law system, is no longer in force. Hodge puts the theme into perfect balance. “That law is abolished, not by being pronounced spurious or invalid, but by having met its accomplishments, and answered its design in the gospel” (83).
Are “law” and “the faith” in conflict? They are not. Does “the faith” nullify the value of law in general, or Old Testament law in particular? Of course not! Are the two systems compatible? Indeed they are. Were the ancient Jews or Gentiles amenable to the gospel of Christ? No, for it had not yet arrived. Are Jews or Gentiles today responsible to the same systems to which they were accountable before the coming of Christ? No, for a new, universally applicable regime has arrived (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16), and the whole world is subject to Christ and his law (John 17:2). This is the message of the gospel (Romans 1:16-17).
Does the concept of salvation by faith exclude submission to the “law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2), otherwise known as the “law of faith” (Romans 3:27) in those conditions preliminary to salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16)? Certainly not! The “principle of faith” does not negate the need for obedience; rather, it establishes it. This is the apostle’s argument. Multiplied thousands in the “Christian” world have missed this important point, and such is a tragedy of no small magnitude.
- Cranfield, C.E.B. (1990 ed.), A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Romans (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark), Vol. 1.
- Hodge, Charles (1836), A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Philadelphia: James S. Claxton).
- Jackson, Wayne (2005, 2nd ed.), The Acts of the Apostles â€“ from Jerusalem to Rome (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications).
- Lard, Moses E. (n.d.) Commentary on Paulâ€™s Letter to Romans (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company).
- Sanday, William & Arthur Headlam (1930), â€œRomans,â€ The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
- Vine, W.E. (1948), The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oliphants).