A Commentary by John Stott
To other commentators the assertion that the Jews *did not know the righteousness that comes from God* means that they had not yet learned the way of salvation, how the righteous God puts the unrighteous right with himself by bestowing upon them a righteous status. This is ‘the righteousness of God’ which is revealed in the gospel, and is received by faith altogether apart from the law, as Paul has written earlier (1:17; 3:21). The tragic consequence of the Jews’ ignorance was that, recognizing their need of righteousness if they were ever to stand in God’s righteous presence, they *sought to establish their own*, and *they did not submit to God’s righteousness* (3).
This ignorance of the true way, and this tragic adoption of the false way, are by no means limited to Jewish people. They are widespread among religious people of all faiths, including professing Christians. All human beings, who know that God is righteous and they are not (since ‘there is no-one righteous, not even one’, 3:10), naturally look around for a righteousness which might fit them to stand in God’s presence. There are only two possible options before us. The first is to attempt to build or establish our own righteousness, by our good works and religious observances. But this is doomed to failure, since in God’s sight even ‘all our righteous acts are as filthy rags’ (Is.64:6). The other way is to submit to God’s righteousness by receiving it from him as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ (Phil.3:9). In verses 5-6 Paul calls the first *the righteousness that is by the law* and the second *the righteousness that is by faith*.
The fundamental error of those who are seeking to establish their own righteousness is that they have not understood Paul’s next affirmation: *Christ is the end (telos) of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes* (4). *Telos* could mean ‘end’ in the sense of ‘goal’ or ‘completion’, indicating that the law pointed to Christ and that he has fulfilled it. Or it could mean ‘end’ in the sense of ‘termination’ or ‘conclusion’, indicating that Christ has abrogated the law. Paul must surely mean the latter. But the abrogation of the law gives no legitimacy either to antinomians, who claim that they can sin as they please because they are ‘not under law but under grace’ (6:1, 15), or to those who maintain that the very category of ‘law’ has been abolished by Christ and that the only absolute left is the command to love. When Paul wrote that we have ‘died’ to the law and been ‘released’ from it (7:4, 6), so that we are no longer ‘under’ it (6:15), he was referring to the law as the way of getting right with God. Hence the second part of verse 4. The reason Christ has terminated the law is *so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes*. In respect of salvation, Christ and the law are incompatible alternatives. If righteousness is by the law it is not by Christ, and if it is by Christ through faith it is not by the law. Christ and the law are both objective realities, both revelations and gifts of God. But now that Christ has accomplished our salvation by his death and resurrection, he has terminated the law in that role. ‘Once we grasp the decisive nature of Christ’s saving work’, writes Dr. Leom Morris, ‘we see the irrelevance of all legalism’.