The Law in Romans (part 2)

In the first part of this series, I discussed how the book of Romans treats the Law as a personified entity, as a judge and witness to Israel. I mentioned how the Law is hijacked by sin and used to produce evil works in those hearing it. In this part, I will be considering how the Law functions as a symbol pointing to Christ.

The Law of Faith

In our earlier discussion we noted how the Law in 3:21-26 bears witness to the righteousness of God, particularly as shown in the death of Christ. Following on from this, Paul concludes in v27-31 that those who boasted in the Law have now been overcome. Not by a “Law of works” (that is, human attempts to obey the Law), but rather by a “Law of faith”. What sort of contrast does Paul have in mind here?

We noted last time that the expression “works of the Law” points us to the fact that the Law by itself can only produce bad works in people, since they lack the power to obey it. This assumes, of course, that it is impossible for human beings to obey the Law in their own strength. So a “Law of works” then must denote flawed human attempts to obey the Law. This human inability to receive divine blessing is explored further in Romans 4, which demonstrates that even Abraham had to receive God’s blessing as a gift.[1]

What about a “Law of faith”? Clearly there is a contrast being drawn between human attempts to obey God’s Law apart from his divine power and the humility of faith which admits its own failings and asks for God’s grace. However, the “Law” here is not the Law of Moses but is likely a way of referring to Christ, the object of faith. This is consistent with the contrast drawn between the Law and Christ earlier in the chapter. People are not justified by “works of the Law” (v20), but by the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (v22). Jesus fulfils everything that the Law pointed to, he is the hope that the Law always bore witness to.

The Righteousness of Faith

Paul makes this association between the Law and Christ even more explicit in a later section of his letter. In 9:30 – 10:4, he contrasts two approaches towards the Law. Firstly, there is the approach of Israel, who for the most part have attempted to gain a status of righteousness by human effort (works) and failed. Secondly, there is the approach of Gentile believers, who have not pursued righteousness by the Law but have gained it by faith. The “righteousness” pursued by both groups is the same righteousness, but Israel largely misunderstood the Law in thinking that this righteousness was something established by human effort.

As mentioned earlier in the letter, one of the main tasks performed by the Law was that of bearing witness to the righteousness of God displayed in the righteous death of Jesus Christ (3:21-26). The Law was like a signpost pointing to the coming of Christ. Paul concludes the section as follows: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). We see in Christ the culmination of everything that the Law signified.

This is explored more in the passage which follows (10:5-13). Paul cites various passages from Deuteronomy concerning the Law of Moses and applies them directly to Christ and to the Gospel. Moses, in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 teaches that Israel doesn’t have to go far to find the Law, since the Law has drawn near to them. Paul sees in this a veiled promise of Christ. Just as the Law came down from heaven to Israel and was near, available for them to follow, so too has Jesus come down from heaven (10:6) and is near to us by the word (message) of the Gospel preached to us (10:8). Paul sees in the life, righteousness and blessing promised through the Law an ultimate fulfilment in Christ, who is our life, our righteousness and our blessing.

Bound to the Law

In Romans 7:1-6, Paul describes Israel’s relationship to the Law as being like a wife’s relationship to her husband. Israel was “in the flesh” and held “captive” to the Law under the old covenant (v5-6a). But now that Christ has come and put old covenant Israel to death through his death on the cross, she is now released from the Law and can “serve in the new way of the Spirit” (v6b). Just as when a wife dies, she is no longer married to her husband, so too now that Israel has died through the death of Christ, she is no longer bound to the Law (v1-4). And through his resurrection life, he has made her alive and bound her to himself, the true husband which the Law could never be.

Paul continues along the same lines in 8:1-6. The Law was “weakened by the flesh” and so could never deal with the problem of sin. But through his death on the cross, Jesus the true Law has “condemned sin in the flesh” (v3) and thereby redeemed those who were under the Law. And now that we are set free, we are to “live according to the Spirit”, to set our minds “on the things of the Spirit”, no longer living according to the flesh (v5). The death and resurrection of Jesus means a new beginning, and a new way of living by the power of the Spirit.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
(Romans 8:1-2)


[1] Of course, the “blessing” in the case of Abraham is the promise of offspring, as Genesis 15:4-6 demonstrates.

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