27 Where then is the boasting? It has been shut out. Through what law? [The law] of works? No, but through the law of faith. 28 For we consider a man to be justified apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God only [God] of the Jews? Is He not also [God] of the Gentiles? Yes, even of the Gentiles, 30 since there is one God who justifies [the] circumcised by faith and [the] uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? Certainly not! Rather, we establish the Law.
Once again we had a great discussion on Sunday on some vitally important topics. We also managed to finish chapter three! I would strongly encourage those in the study, and anyone else following along, to keep in mind what Paul has been talking about thus far, since this forms the context for the discussion starting in chapter four.
Paul opens with a question that should, by now, be rhetorical. If anyone is boasting in their works, believing that they have some kind of superior status before God and men as a result of their law-keeping and good deeds, they should realize that no-one is righteous. We all start from the same sinful position. So, there is no room for boasting: it has been shut out. There is no room for arrogance and pride in the face of our depravity. Ephesians 2:8-9 comes to mind, where Paul declares that salvation is by faith and not by works, “so that no-one may boast.” Since our efforts can’t attain righteousness in the eyes of God, and our salvation is only by faith (which, as the Ephesians passage points out, is given to us by God), then we have nothing in which to boast. If we could claim to be saved by the fact we did something, a good deed, or even by making a “decision,” we could claim credit. If it was my free choice that saved me, me casting the tie-breaking vote between God and Satan, then I have a reason to boast. I was smarter than the person who didn’t choose, or I spoke to the right person–in other words, as long as I do something to give God a reason to save me, then I can pat myself on the back. But we have no reason to boast. Salvation is all of God. He is the one who makes us righteous. The faith we declare is given by Him and it is a result of His first saving us.
What law is it that shuts out boasting: the law of works or of faith? Clearly the answer is the law of faith. Should “law” here be capitalized, reflecting the Law, as in the Torah, the Law of Moses? Some say yes, since what Paul is talking about here is two different ways of approaching the Mosaic Law, either by works or by faith. According to this viewpoint, Paul is saying if you approach the Torah by works, you can’t be justified; you have to approach the Torah by faith. However, in the next verse Paul says that a man is justified apart from works of the Law. Further, in verse 31, Paul thinks his readers might conclude from his argument that faith nullifies the Law, a conclusion that would be impossible to reach if he was talking about the same Law in verse 27. So, I favor a view that looks at these “laws” as two different things.
What makes this verse confusing is the fact that there is no separate word for “law” in the Greek when referring to the Law, or general laws or principles. Philo and Josephus, who were both first century Jewish writers use the Greek word nomos to refer to the Law, and also laws of warfare, laws of music, as well as other types of “law.” I think Paul is using “law” in this latter sense, but I suspect there is a deliberate play-on-words here too with “the Law.”
Verse 28 is interesting in that it affirms that a man (Greek anthrôpos) is justified apart from works of the Law. Not “a Jew” or “a Gentile,” but “a man”–anyone. Once again, he affirms that both Jew and Gentile are in the same boat with regard to sin, and the Law will not help the Jew any more than the Gentile not having the Law may or may not help him. Neither will be saved because of their relationship to the Law. Paul underscores this in verse 29: Is God only the God of the Jews? The Jews were (and are) monotheists. Deuteronomy 6:4 was at the heart of their understanding of God. Just because the Gentiles didn’t believe in the God of the Old Testament, that didn’t mean there really were other gods. Regardless of what the Gentiles believe, there still is only one God. So, whether they like it or not, God is the God of the Gentiles too.
In verse 30, Paul says God justifies the circumcised by faith (Greek: ek pisteôs), and the uncircumcised through faith (Greek: dia tês pisteôs). Is there significance in the change of prepositions? Since ek can also be translated “from,” it’s possible that Paul is saying that the circumcised are justified from (in the sense of “coming out of”) the faith they have as God’s people, and the uncircumcised are justified through, or by means of, that faith which is not native to them. Others think this is a bit of a stretch, and really doesn’t make a lot of sense, preferring to see it as stylistic difference. That is, there’s no real reason to change prepositions, Paul is just making his writing a little more interesting. Whichever position one takes doesn’t change Paul’s meaning in the slightest: whether Jew or Gentile, circumcised or not, it is the same God who justifies both by faith.
Since we are justified apart from the Law, does that mean the Law is useless? Has it been nullified now that we no longer need to worry about it? Paul rather emphatically says “no,” using the mê genoito phrase we noted in a previous section that Paul likes to use: certainly not! The Law isn’t nullified by our faith, but it is established. In other words, through our faith in Christ, the Law comes alive in our hearts. God’s standard of righteousness is our standard. We love His Law, and our heart’s desire is to keep it so we might please Him–not that we might be saved. Of course, because we still have sin, we cannot hope to keep God’s commands perfectly, but that’s okay. We’re not declared righteous on the basis of our ability to keep the Law, but because of our faith in Christ. Further, Christ perfectly obeyed the Law, and His righteousness has been imputed to us. This means that God looks upon our failure to keep the Law and sees Christ’s perfect obedience instead.
Thought from the passage: What do you consider to be unjust, or unfair? The suffering of the seemingly-innocent? The guilty getting away with their crimes? The US tax code? Is it fair that guilty sinners such as us should get away with our sin? God owes us nothing, so wouldn’t His justice be fulfilled by pouring His wrath upon us for our flagrant, willful disobedience? And yet we have in the gospel this wonderful truth, that God’s justice is fulfilled in what, to our eyes, is the most unjust act in human history, wherein the truly guiltless and blameless Son of God takes the punishment for our sin upon Himself, so that we can have His righteousness.