The Letter to the Romans



12. All boasting is excluded


Romans 3:25-31

Paul has just presented the righteousness that comes to us "through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (v. 24) He now explains that God sent Jesus to demonstrate God's justice. The reason for such a demonstration was that before Jesus came, God had "left the sins committed beforehand unpunished." In other words, sinners (whom Paul has already identified as every person who has ever lived) did not receive the treatment the curse of the law dictated. They lived their lives with apparently no enduring consequence for their unrighteousness. Even though humans may not have understood that they were going "unpunished", the existence of sin in the universe continued to create an unbridgeable gap between God and creation. The law of sin and death kept mankind out of the presence of God.

Even though God could not be intimate with mankind while sin went unpunished, he nevertheless gave them evidence of himself and of his love for them. He sent them rain, crops, kindness, and provided plenty of food and gave them joy in their hearts. (Acts. 14:16-17) Humanity had drifted so far from God since creation, however, that they had lost clear sight of their sinfulness and didn't recognize God's graciousness as undeserved gifts. Consequently, He provided the law so they could become aware of their sinfulness. He gave them sacrificial ceremonies so they could see that the consequences of their sin meant that innocent life would die. He provided special feast days when they could see that God would provide a way to forgive their sins without their having to atone for themselves.

The law made people conscious of sin and drove them to despair of being good. The sacrifices represented the forgiveness of their sins, and the Day of Atonement foreshadowed the true, once-for-all atonement the Messiah would one day provide. The sacrificial goat and the scapegoat represented the two-fold reality of the salvation they needed which God promised they would receive: the ransom death which the law required, and the removal of people's sins far from them where they would no longer be counted against them.

God left humanity's sin unpunished until Jesus came because if he had punished it before the time came to send the Messiah, God would have had to destroy the human race. Now, however, God has demonstrated his justice; he sent Jesus to atone for mankind's sin.


Both Judge and Justifier

In human courts of law, the judge is the person who declares the defendant guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found not guilty, his justification does not usually originate with the judge. The defense attorney presents evidence that hopefully will exonerate the accused. If the attorney's arguments are convincing, the judge will officially declare the defendant "not guilty". In the case of humanity's sin, however, the one who judges us is the same one who justifies us.

This phenomenon of the judge also providing justification removes the fear of judgment. Such deep commitment to an accused race of people is all the more remarkable when one considers that the most powerful being in existence is the one who gave up himself in order to accomplish this undeserved salvation.

Early in Israel's history, God commanded his people not to allow an executed person to hang from a tree overnight, because anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) This command foreshadowed the redemptive death of Jesus long before humanity understood what would happen. Jesus' ultimate death on a cross justifies us (Galatians 2:15-21); he redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13) and hanging on a tree. This redemption happened when God determined that the right time had come. The Father sent his Son, a human born under the law, to redeem us from our hopeless sin so we could receive our full rights as God's sons. (Galatians 4:4-5) Christ became "the wisdom of God" for us. In other words, God's wisdom was that Christ would actually be our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption (1 Corinthians 1:28-30). God made Jesus, who had no sin, to become sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Without shed blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22), and Jesus shed the required blood to remove the sins of the world (Heb. 9:27-28). He set aside the old covenant and established the second one by his own death which made us holy (Hebrews 10:8-10) We can now draw near to God through the living way opened by Jesus' body (Hebrews 10:19-22). Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for sin (1 John 2:2). This sacrifice demonstrates the definition of true love: God loved us before we loved him, and he sent his Son as the atonement for us (1 John 4:10) God has given us eternal life through his Son. If we have the Son, we have life; if we do not have the Son, we do not have life (1 John 5:10-11).

God did the physically impossible: he both justifies humanity and judges it. Jesus both provided the ransom for sin in his own person, and he was the ransom. He both appeased God's wrath by his death, and he removed the sins of humanity far from them. God loved us while we were still sinners, but he could not restore his relationship with us unless sin was atoned. He retained his justice, demanding that blood be shed as the price of sin, while he also provided part of himself-his Son-to shed that blood in place of hopeless sinners. He sent Jesus to prove that he is just-that he insisted on the wages of sin being paid-and he also showed us his mercy by justifying us through the blood of Jesus.


Boasting Excluded

Because of God's active role in being just and also justifying, we have absolutely no reason to boast. We can't brag about our relationship to God because of our observance of the law, because our "law-keeping" doesn't ever qualify us to know God. (Romans 2:17, 23) We can't boast about our righteous works, because even Abraham, who obeyed God to the point of being willing to sacrifice his son, wasn't counted righteous because of his performance. (Romans 4:2) The things we consider impressive accomplishments, God considers to be nothing. Our only legitimate boast can be our boasting about Jesus. (1 Corinthians1:29-31) We are saved entirely on the basis of the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus. Not one human being will ever be able to boast having been so "good" that God saved him. (Ephesians 2:9) We are justified not by our lawful behavior but by having faith in Jesus.

If our lawful or altruistic behavior does not credit us with any favor in God's sight, the question looms: what was the purpose of the law, and exactly how does the law relate to faith?

Paul provides a clear answer to that question in Galatians 3:23-25. The law, he says, held us prisoners until faith would come. The law kept us locked up-deprived of freedom, and it was in charge of leading us to Christ. Humanity couldn't escape from the law. It clearly declared the level of behavior God expected of his creatures, and it clearly stated the death sentence those creatures were under for failing to be perfect. God gave the law to make people conscious of sin (Acts 13:38-39). Spiritual death had begun to seem normal to humanity; as the generations passed from Adam to Moses, people had less and less consciousness of what it meant to be righteous or of their own deep sinfulness.

The law, in fact, kept humanity from self-destructing. In the same way that putting a criminal in prison prevents him from committing more life-threatening crimes, the law brought accountability to humanity. The law put men and women under bondage with a death penalty to add impetus to the demands for righteous behavior. The law protected mankind from itself; people were no longer allowed freely to sin against each other and themselves. They now had boundaries and penalties; people knew what was expected of them. Further, the law made them realize they weren't intrinsically good nor could they be. People now began to understand that they needed a Savior; they needed some power outside themselves to help them become righteous.

The law, though, couldn't make anyone righteous. Even if people committed themselves to observing it, they couldn't become righteous by lawkeeping, Instead, they became more aware of their guilt as they grappled with the demands of the law. (see Romans 3:20-22) In fact, the law held all humanity under a curse. The harder people tried to keep the law, the more they were aware of their failure. Jesus, however, solved the problem for mankind. He redeemed his wayward people from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for them. (Galatians 3:10-13) He gave us himself in a consummate act of grace, and when we embrace him by faith, he saves us whether or not we have done any noble works. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Astonishingly, God redeemed us and brought us to life spiritually while we were still sinners. He does not save us only after we've tried to obey him and he sees we are "deserving" of salvation; he saves us while we are sinners.

In fact, Jesus not only saved us, he "cancelled the written code", or the law, that spelled our doom. He figuratively nailed it to his cross with him, taking its curse onto himself, and simultaneously defeated the powers of darkness that claimed dominion over the world. He fulfilled the law and revealed that it had always been only a shadow of himself, never the final focus of our attention. (Colossians 2:13-17) The law pointed forward to Jesus. People's faith was never to be in perfectly keeping the law; rather, it was always to be in the Lord who provided the law as a mirror to reveal sin and as an external protection to keep people from destroying themselves in their sins.

The writer of Hebrews makes the relationship of the law and of faith even more clear. He states that Jesus became a priest after the order of Melchizedek, not after the order of Aaron. Where there is a change of the priesthood, he says, there must also be a change of the law. (Hebrews 7:11-12) When we accept Jesus and his intercession for us, we begin to live under the eternal priesthood of Jesus, unlike Israel who lived under the temporary Levitical priesthood. This change requires that the law which defined the Levitical priesthood also be changed. The Holy Spirit replaces the law as the standard of belief and practice in the life of a Christ-follower. The law leads us to repentance; repentance leads us to faith.

In Galatians 5:2-4 Paul gives his most clear explanation of the role of the law in the life of a Christ-follower. If a person receives salvation by grace through faith and then returns to the law, requiring obedience to certain parts of it while simultaneously professing faith in Christ, that person has "fallen away from grace". If a Christ-follower decides that a certain part of the law is important to keep, he is then obligated to keep all of the law, Paul says. A person cannot have it both ways; he cannot both live by faith and observe the law. The law has been fulfilled; it has no authoritative role in the life of a Christ-follower. As author Dale Ratzlaff has pointed out, if a Christian tries both to live by faith and to keep the law, he or she is committing spiritual adultery. A person cannot live under the old covenant and the new covenant at the same time. The law has value still to lead unbelievers to Christ, but it does not have value as a moral influence in the life of a born-again Christ-follower. The Holy Spirit assumes that role when he seals the believer by indwelling him. To return to the law is to ignore the presence of the Holy Spirit and to put one's own efforts to be good over the promptings of God himself.


One God

Paul introduces his conclusion to this part of his discussion by saying that there is "only one God" who will justify both the Jews and the Gentiles through faith. In Romans 4:9-12 Paul refers to Abraham as "the father of us all." Paul's point is that while Abraham was the father of the Jews who had the gift of the law, he also is the father of the Gentiles who, like Abraham, are saved not by the law but through faith. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that all who are saved by faith-Jew or Gentile-are Abraham's offspring. The true definition of Abraham's offspring, those who inherit the blessings God promised to him, are those who put their faith in the one God. It is those who are spiritual offspring, not genetic offspring, who inherit God's promises.

Paul reiterates the central role of the faith of Abraham in Galatians 3:6-9. He points out that Abraham is the role model for all who are saved. He believed God, and God counted that faith as righteousness. He thus became the father of all who are justified through faith in Jesus. The law is never an agent in justification. On the contrary, God himself justifies and saves all those who accept his gift of saving faith and embrace the finished work of Jesus. There is only one God-the God who counted Abraham's faith as righteousness-who loves and justifies all who come to him.


Until Heaven and Earth Disappear

Romans 3:31 is confusing to many people discovering the new covenant after years of trying to keep the law. If our righteousness has nothing to do with law-keeping, why do we not nullify the law? This text is often used an argument to endorse law-keeping, yet interpreting the text this way does not fit Paul's explanation that righteousness comes only by faith in Jesus. How are we to understand that we uphold the law and do not nullify it while simultaneously saying that the law has nothing to do with our salvation?

Jesus himself proclaimed the permanence of the law. In Matthew 5:17-18 he said, "Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished." Luke 16:17 records Jesus saying that it's easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the law. Psalm 119:89 says of the law, "Your word is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens."

Seemingly contradictory to the words of David and Jesus are Paul's words in Galatians 3: 17, 19, 21-25. In this passage he explains that the law was given 430 years after God's promise of blessing to Abraham and his descendants. It was to be in effect until the promised Seed, Jesus, would come. Until Jesus came, Paul explains, the law was an overseer intended to lead us to Christ. It kept us in prison, bound by its requirements and curse. It's imprisoning also kept us restrained so we would not destroy ourselves and others by abandoning ourselves to sin with nothing to put a check on our behavior.

If God hadn't given the law, there would have been no objective definition of sin. People would have had no external standard by which to measure their behavior. Each person would have been a law unto himself, and fallen human nature would have rationalized evil. The law was necessary to define sin objectively and to convict people of their sinfulness. (Galatians 4:14-15; 5:20)

Further, the law testified to the coming reality of Jesus and of God's righteousness promised to those who have faith in him. When Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for their idolatry of the Scriptures (the law and the prophets) he said, "These are the Scriptures that testify of me." (John 5:39) After Pentecost Peter went to Cornelius's house after receiving his vision emphasizing that he could not call any Gentile unclean, and he said that all the prophets testify about Jesus, that everyone who believes him would receive forgiveness of sins. (Acts 10:43) Paul also credited the law and the prophets with foretelling the gospel. In Romans 3:21 he wrote that a righteousness from God apart from the law has been made known to which, he said, the law and the prophets had testified.

In other words, the law and the prophets foretold Jesus and the reality of the gospel. The law and the prophets are the evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be. Without the symbols, metaphors, and shadows of the law and the prophets, we would have no objective way to know that Jesus is who he said he is. We would have no way to understand what Jesus really came to do or what he really accomplished.

The law, therefore, will last as long as heaven and earth last for two reasons. First, it still defines sin, convicts the unsaved of their hopelessness, and promises a curse to all who refuse to accept by faith the righteousness of God. Second, the law and the prophets contain the proof of Jesus' identity. They testify of Him; they testify of the gospel-the righteousness of God granted to all who accept Jesus by faith. On this side of the cross, the law has no authority over Christ-followers; its curse was nailed to the cross in Jesus' body. All who believe in him have been released from its accusation; instead of observing the law, they answer to the Holy Spirit himself. The law, however, still stands. We uphold it; it is our proof that Jesus is the Messiah.



Jesus is asking you to surrender to him by faith. He knows how deep your wounds are; he knows the intensity of your guilt and shame. Jesus knows how hard you may have tried to live by the law's standards, and he knows how miserably you have failed. Yet in spite of his knowledge of your most intimate evil, he longs for you to surrender to him: wounds, guilt, and all.

Jesus is also asking you to let go of the security of the law. He has already completed the work of your salvation; he asks now that you surrender your control and your fear of losing the habits and observances that make you feel secure. Jesus wants you to discover that he is your only security.

Not only does Jesus want to be your only security, but he also desires to be your only identity. He is asking you to take your eyes off your good works, our coping mechanisms, your adherence to the law, and instead listen to His Spirit. Reality is defined in Jesus; your desperate attempts to be busy for God and to do good works and to manage your stress are deceptions and distractions. Only when you release your firm grip on all that is important to you and take Jesus' hand instead will you find your life's meaning and fulfillment.

Surrendering to Jesus is a risk. You can't see what will happen to you if you release your familiar props. He has promised, however, that if you trust him, he will never leave you; nothing will ever be able to separate you from his love.

Turn to Jesus, and let the veil of the law and of your own good works fall away from you. Let the light of his truth and reality transform your desperation and despair into peace. Let Jesus' work release you from yours. Let his omnipotent grace give you rest.

Praise the Father for the gift of Jesus. Praise Jesus for his suffering and death. Praise the Holy Spirit for birthing us into new life.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!


Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted October 19, 2003.
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