A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 3:27-31. Question 3: Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? (31).
The law was the Jews most treasured possession. By ‘the law’ (Torah) they usually meant the Mosaic legislation, that is, the Pentateuch. Sometimes, however, because the word *torah* was derived from the verb ‘to instruct’, they extended its meaning to embrace the whole of Old Testament Scripture, conceived as divine instruction. How, then, would they react to Paul’s unremitting insistence that justification was by faith only, and that ‘the works of the law’ could not possibly provide a satisfactory basis for God’s acceptance? Paul seemed to them to set ‘law’ and ‘faith’ in opposition to each other, to exalt faith at the expense of law, and even to nullify the law altogether.
Paul denies this conclusion. Indeed, he affirms the contrary. *Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?* he asks, and replies: *Not at all! Rather we uphold the law* (31), or ‘establish’ it (AV). What does he mean? Our answer will depend on what connotation he is giving to ‘the law’ in this context. If he is referring to the Old Testament in general, then his gospel of justification by faith upholds rather than undermines it, by showing that the Old Testament itself taught the truth of justifying faith (cf. 3:21). If this interpretation is correct, verse 31 becomes a transition to Romans 4 in which the apostle argues that both Abraham and David were, in fact, justified by faith.
If, on the other hand, Paul is using ‘the law’ in its more restricted sense of the Mosaic law, then his assertion that faith upholds rather than nullifies the law may be understood in two ways. First, faith upholds the law by assigning to it its proper place in God’s purpose. In his scheme of salvation the function of the law is to expose and condemn sin, and so to keep sinners locked up in their guilt until Christ comes to liberate them through faith (see Gal. 3:21ff.). In this way the gospel and the law dovetail with each other, since the gospel justifies those whom the law condemns.
The alternative explanation of Paul’s statement sees it as his response to a different set of critics. These held that, by declaring justification to be by faith, not obedience, Paul was actively encouraging disobedience. This charge of antinomianism Paul will decisively refute in Romans 6-8. But he anticipates these chapters here by the simple affirmation that faith upholds the law. What he means, and will later elaborate, is that justified believers who live according to the Spirit fulfil the righteous requirements of the law (8:4; cf. 13:8, 10). It seems to me that this is the most likely explanation.
Here then are three implications – positive and negative – of the gospel of justification by faith alone. First, it humbles sinners and excludes boasting. Secondly, it unites believers and excludes discrimination. Thirdly, it upholds the law and excludes antinomianism. No boasting. No discrimination. No antinomianism. This is the apostle’s effective defence of the gospel against current criticisms.