The Law in Romans (part 1)

Paul’s letter to the Romans is in many ways his greatest work. It gives a theological meaning and interpretation to the whole of Biblical history, practically functioning as a commentary on the rest of the Bible. A central point of dispute within the letter is the Law of Israel and its relationship to the church. In this two-part series, I intend to explore Paul’s use of the Law in Romans. In this part, I will be exploring the ways that Paul personifies the Law, treating it as a central character in his argument.

The Law as Witness

Early on in the letter, Paul spends some time outlining the nature of the final judgement (Romans 2:1-16). According to this passage, the judgement will be in accordance with “works”, in accordance with how people have lived their lives (v6-11). This raises the question as to what standard is being used to evaluate people. What sort of “works” demonstrate that one person is righteous, as opposed to another?

The second half of the passage answers this question (2:12-16). It’s those who have obeyed the Law, the “doers of the Law” who will be “justified” (v13). This is another way of saying that they will be vindicated at the final judgement. Paul’s opponents were arguing that being Jewish gave you an advantage at the final judgement (2:17-24), but Paul explicitly denies this, arguing that the same standard applies to both Jews and Gentiles. In support of this, he gives the example of faithful Gentile believers who have the Law written on their hearts (v14-15).[1]

An interesting feature of the passage is the role that the Law plays. Rather than being merely an impersonal law code, the Law functions as a key character in his argument. This comes out in verse 12, where Paul teaches that those who sin under the Law will be “judged by the Law”. In Paul’s argument, the Law functions as a judge, as a witness against unfaithful Jews who sit under the teaching of the Law but don’t obey it.

Works of the Law

Paul continues by arguing that there are righteous Jews and Gentiles who obey God and have his Law upon their hearts (2:25-29). They are characterised by the fact that they seek praise and recognition from God rather than from human beings. However, such righteous persons are an exception to the norm; by and large both Jews and Gentiles have rejected God and are “under sin” (3:9-18). At this point, the Law steps in as a witness once again. According to Paul, the Law “speaks” to Israel, silencing their objections and thereby holding the world accountable to God (3:29).

Then we have a summary statement which explains why Israel is in such a dire state. Paul denies that anyone can be justified on the last day by “works of the Law” (3:20). What does he mean by this expression? He cannot simply mean good works, as he has already spoken of them positively in his earlier treatment of the final judgement (Romans 2:6). More likely he means rather “the works produced by the Law”.[2]

Paul goes on to unpack what he means by this later in 7:7-25. In this passage, the commandments of the Law become an opportunity for sin to take its hold upon a person, by increasing their awareness of sin without them having the power to overcome it. Though the Law itself is good, it can be usurped by the power of sin.[3] Paul anticipates this in 3:20 with his explanation that “through the Law comes knowledge of sin”. The “works of the Law”, then, are the works that the Law produces in a person because of the way that sin uses the Law.

Justified in Advance

The Law continues to function as a witness in 3:21, alongside the prophets. Except this time, the Law is not being hijacked as an instrument of sin, but is a “witness to… the righteousness of God”, to God’s saving justice. This justice is revealed through “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (v22a),[4] particularly as shown in his righteous death on the cross (v24-25). It is for the benefit of both Jew and Gentile, with “no distinction” implied (v22b).

Under the old covenant, both Jew and Gentile had by-and-large rejected God and ignored his will, now there is a fresh start for the human race. Through Jesus, God has made a way for human beings to be “justified” – declared righteous – in advance of the final judgement. This should be a surprising revelation, since Paul had been quite clear a chapter earlier that the justification of the righteous would not take place until the last day (2:13). It should bring great assurance, knowing that even before the final verdict we already have a sure word of promise that God counts us as righteous in advance, by faith.


[1] Some believe that Paul here is merely referring to a generic “law of the conscience”, or to hypothetical Gentile believers. However, the language of the Law being written on the heart is a clear allusion to the new covenant promise that God would write his Law upon the hearts of his people (Jeremiah 31:33). The mention of “conflicting thoughts” appears to anticipate the later discussion in 7:7-25, which many interpret as the struggles of a righteous believer.

[2] See Peter Leithart’s “Delivered from the Elements of the World” for a defence of this interpretation.

[3] Note the way that sin, like the Law, is personified in this passage. The Law speaks to Paul (7:7), sin seizes him and kills him (7:11). The description as a whole is reminiscent of the fall of Adam and Eve, in which the serpent uses the commandment as a means to tempt Adam and Eve into sin (Genesis 3:1-7).

[4] I have opted here for the translation “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ”, as argued for by Wright, Hays and others. The essential argument is that verse 22 would otherwise be tautological, as in “through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who have faith”. It would also make the faith of the believer the central revelation of God’s righteousness, rather than the faithfulness of Christ, which seems unlikely.

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