Does Romans magnify the role of faith at the expense of the law? Do Christians have to choose to live by one or the other? Or are faith and the law inseparable?
Paul’s letter to the Romans was written about A.D. 57 or 58. It is, perhaps, Paul’s most well-known and favored epistle. In most Bibles it’s the first book after Acts, as if it were Paul’s first epistle. But, despite what its placement might imply, Paul had already written five of his epistles: Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians.
Romans is the largest epistle of Paul. Interestingly, Romans uses the Greek word for “law” (nomos) 75 times—more than both “grace” (charis, 25 times) and “faith” (pistis, 40 times) combined. No other book comes close to this number of references to the “law.” Nevertheless, the question is, does Romans support the notion that the law has been abolished?
Below are seven subdivisions of Romans, followed by a discussion of key points in each section (though we can’t cover every key aspect in Romans in this overview article).
- Obedience to the faith (Romans 1:1-17).
- The whole world is guilty (1:18-3:20).
- Justification by faith (3:21-5:21).
- Freed from the law of sin (6:1-8:39).
- God, Israel and gentiles (9:1-11:36).
- Practical Christian living (12:1-15:13).
- Personal messages, greetings and blessing (15:14-16:27).
Obedience to the faith (1:1-17)
In Romans 1:5 Paul wrote, “Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name.”
Paul says that “obedience to the faith” was a driving force of their apostleship. But how does one obey faith? There are at least two ways this expression supports faithful works.
- Several translations say, “obedience of faith” (English Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New English Translation). In the Greek the word for “faith” is a genitive noun, often preceded by “of.” Here, obedience belongs to faith or is produced by faith. Paul always supported obedient works that spring from faith. Similarly, the apostle James wrote, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).
- This expression can broadly convey obedience to “the body of doctrine which he teaches” (Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary). Faith includes the requirement to follow written doctrines in the Bible, not just one’s conscience or feelings.
Acts of obedience are works. When we obey instructions, we do something, regardless of whether it’s keeping commands or another labor of love. Obedience to the faith includes obeying biblical doctrines and laws.
The whole world is guilty (1:18-3:20)
First, the guilt of gentiles is discussed in chapter 1.
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
God’s creation is a perpetual reminder of the Creator. The gentiles’ rejection of this fundamental fact was reflected in idolatry (verse 23).
This also led to a false intelligence, as is the case today with evolutionists who deny the existence of the Creator: “Professing to be wise, they became fools” (verse 22).
Rejection of this evidence from the natural order fed idolatrous practices, as they “exchanged the truth of God for the lie” and worshipped created things instead of the Creator (verse 25).
Their rejection of the Creator of nature also contributed toward their blindness with regard to other areas of His design, such as natural relations between males and females:
- “Lusts of their hearts” (verse 24). Harlotry accompanies idolatry.
- Homosexuality, “leaving the natural use” of the opposite sex for same-sex relations (verses 24-27).
In general, there was widespread sin (verses 28-31).
Next, chapter 2 shows the guilt of Jews.
“You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?” (2:23).
Notice that breaking the law dishonors God. Conversely, keeping the law is a way of honoring God.Notice that breaking the law dishonors God. Conversely, keeping the law is a way of honoring God. It was now 25 years after the resurrection of Christ, and many laws of God still weren’t abolished.
“Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?” (verse 26).
Justification by faith (3:21-5:21)
Does this imply justification by faith alone, as in the law being abolished? Consider the example of Abraham:
“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness’” (Romans 4:2-3).
- “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
- “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (verse 24).
Justification is not by faith “only” or “alone.” Neither is one justified by works “alone.” Yet faith and works are inseparable. Similarly, Paul says, “The doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13).
Jesus Christ associated the 10 Commandments with “eternal life” (Matthew 19:16-19). We cannot earn salvation through works—but we can lose it by rejecting God’s law.
Freed from the law of sin (6:1-8:39)
Did Paul teach that we’re “freed from the law”? Let’s take a closer look at his words.
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7).
Are we now free to covet as much as our hearts desire, thereby breaking the 10th Commandment? “Certainly not!” The 10 Commandments still define what sin is.
“But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead” (verse 8).
Today this is called the “forbidden fruit” syndrome, which alludes to the notion that if God had not forbidden Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, no one would have lusted for its fruit. That’s human nature. But Paul wasn’t anti-law:
- “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (verse 12).
- “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (8:7).
We’re not freed from God’s law—we’re freed from “the law of sin and death” (8:2).
God, Israel and gentiles (9:1-11:36)
God has a master plan, and He decides when and how He’ll deal with people (Romans 9:14-18). Various examples are provided to underscore God’s sovereign mercy: “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion” (verse 15). God works in mysterious ways, but His ultimate purposes always “make known the riches of His glory” (verse 23).
Romans 10:4 contains another statement about the law that’s easily misunderstood: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Does this verse support anti-law approaches that are widespread today? No. Paul had already noted that the law isn’t abolished: “The doers of the law will be justified” (2:13; see also 7:12). However, Jesus ended the system of trying to be right with God by law keeping alone, apart from faith in Christ.
The Greek word for “end” (telos) can also indicate the “purpose, intent, goal” (Louw-Nida Lexicon). This application tends to be supported in translations that embrace the Judeo-Christian, law-based practices of first-century Christians. For example, The Scriptures 2009 says, “For Messiah is the goal of the ‘Torah unto righteousness’ to everyone who believes.” A footnote for “goal” says, “Or end purpose; not termination.” Also, the Complete Jewish Bible states, “For the goal at which the Torah aims is the Messiah” (David Stern). Accordingly, our goal is to be Christlike in behavior.
After Christ forgave the woman caught in adultery, He said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). His forgiveness did not terminate the Seventh Commandment (“You shall not commit adultery,” Exodus 20:14).
Chapter 11 explains that Israel is not lost. Paul makes this point by returning to the nature theme, where Israelites are the “natural branches” and gentiles are the previously “wild” branches.
Paul exhorted them to use their God-given “gifts” to serve “in proportion to our faith” in seven areas.“For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and against nature grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much easier will it be to graft these natural [branches] back on [the original parent stock of] their own olive tree” (Romans 11:24, TS2009).
Consequently, gentiles became Jews “inwardly” (2:29).
Practical Christian living (12:1-15:13)
Paul exhorted them to use their God-given “gifts” to serve “in proportion to our faith” in seven areas (Romans 12:6-8):
- Prophecy (inspired understanding and speaking).
- Ministry (service).
Chapter 13 begins with instruction to be respectful of the office of political leaders. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. … The authorities that exist are appointed by God” (13:1).
This can be a challenging command, as it was when Paul wrote it. Consider the leading governing authority around this time. Emperor Nero had an affair with his friend’s wife, Poppea. He had his mother stabbed to death and his own wife executed. After marrying his mistress, “Nero killed Poppea with a single kick to her belly” (history.com).
Obviously, the morality of political leaders didn’t determine whether Christians should show respect for their offices.
Next, Paul pivots to the fulfillment of law through love.
“For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ … Love is the fulfillment of the law” (verses 9-10).
Was this fulfillment something new? No. The last commandment above is from Leviticus 19:18. The Greek for “fulfill” can mean to “fill (full), fill (up)” (Bauer’s Lexicon). Paul also said, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Bearing others’ burdens doesn’t terminate the law of Christ, it fulfills it—or fills it up! Likewise for the impact of love on the 10 Commandments.
Romans 14 emphasizes different dietary matters.
- Eating vegetables or meat (14:1-4).
- Eating or fasting on a particular day (verses 5-6).
- Eating meat offered to idols (verses 14-16).
The Greek translated “unclean” in verse 14 (koinos) means ritually unclean (for example, the meat of cows offered to idols that made its way to market), not biblically forbidden foods (pork, shellfish, etc.). Someone “weak in the faith” (verse 1) here “considers” (verse 14) it to be unclean. That’s why this was a matter of conscience.
Personal messages, greetings and blessing (15:14-16:27)
After sharing his experiences and plans, Paul extended a series of greetings before offering blessings, “according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26, King James Version).
This expression, “obedience of faith,” is only used twice in the Bible—both in the book of Romans. Paul uses this expression like bookends, opening and closing this incredible epistle.
“To God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen” (verse 27).
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.