Doctrine Article
Expanded Internet Edition - August 1, 2003 

The Principal Theology
of the Book of Romans

by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D, 1979
Edited by David Sielaff, August 2003

Read the accompanying Newsletter for August 2003

 

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It seems incredible to some Christians that anyone would proclaim the Law as no longer relevant. Since the Bible makes it clear that "sin" is defined as disobedience to Law, they cannot imagine that the Law (especially the Ten Commandments) is abolished. The truth is, however, the Ten Commandments are revoked. Just how the Law has been replaced is the principal subject of the book of Romans.

There is no theme that rankles the conscience of some well-meaning Christians than the insinuation that the Law of the Old Testament (especially the Ten Commandments) is no longer pertinent. Such a belief seems to smack of outright rebellion to the innermost concepts that govern the character of God Himself. There has never been a more spiritual or moral code of laws to measure the standard of righteousness for mankind than the Ten Commandments. This is correct as far as any collection of laws is concerned. How could anyone, especially a Christian, speak against a Law that the apostle Paul called "holy, just, and good" (Romans 7:12)? With this appraisal we at the Associates for Scriptural Knowledge concur absolutely! We hold the Law — all of it — in the highest esteem and reverence.

No one claiming a love for the biblical revelation could possibly evaluate the Law in any other regard than admiration and respect. Indeed, the Bible makes it plain that sin is defined as being a disobedience to law. "Sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4). Anyone with a superficial knowledge of biblical teaching understands this fact. The apostle Paul certainly did. "By the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). Actually, there could be no "sin" if there was not some law (or laws) that could be violated. "I had not known sin, but by the law" (Romans 7:7). Even to recognize "lust" or some "evil desire" is ascertained by means of law. "For I had not known lust, except the law had said, ‘Thou shalt not covet’" (Romans 7:7).

These statements seem to make the Law a proper yardstick for right living. This is true! Paul was well aware how spiritual and good the Law was, and how wretched he was (of himself) when compared to the Law. "We know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin" (Romans 7:14). Paul wrote to Timothy,

"We know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; knowing this, that the law is not made for the righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane."

  • 1 Timothy 1:8–9

Since it is quite evident that there are vast numbers of morally corrupt people on earth today, and that a definite need for law exists, all people need the law of God actively working in their lives.

The Theology of the Book of Romans

However, we now subscribe to what many people might consider a strange position indeed. It may strike some with utter disbelief and consternation — even indignation! Yet our assessment is correct and we have the full assurance of the New Testament to back us up. Here it is: The Law of the Old Testament (including the Ten Commandments) has been abolished for Christians today. It is gone disannulled and completely replaced!

This appraisal is not our own. It was that of the apostle Paul and it is the principal theology of the Book of Romans. Paul said,

Even the Ten Commandments (the holiest part of the Law) has come to be a "ministration of death" (2 Corinthians 3:7). Its "glory was to be done away" (2 Corinthians 3:7). Paul spoke of its conclusion as "that which is abolished" (2 Corinthians 3:13).

These statements of Paul seem to bring into conflict the many teachings of the Old Testament on the holiness of the law, its longevity as mentioned by Christ Himself, and with other statements of Paul in which he hailed the Law as holy, just, and good. The fact is, however, there is not the slightest conflict when one comprehends just what Paul had in mind. And truly, the Law has been abolished for Christians. In just a moment we will see how.

The Holiness of the Law

During the Old Testament period, and especially from the time of Abraham onwards, there was only one way to obtain righteousness and a salvation from God. That was by faith in God through the exercise of obedience to law. The two conditions were inseparable. Faith was essential, but it was to be buttressed by law-keeping. Though Paul admitted that Abraham obtained his actual righteousness through the evidence of faith (Romans 4:9–16), James made it equally clear that it was Abraham’s works of the law that brought his faith into an acceptability with God (James 2:18–22). The emphasis in the writings of Moses was on Abraham’s keeping of laws then in existence. "Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Genesis 26:5).

In the time of Moses, the keeping of the Law was absolutely mandatory. The only way to obtain life (temporary life or any kind of life) was by observing the Law.

"I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou [Israel] and your seed may live."

  • Deuteronomy 30:19

Even the apostle Paul recognized that the Law (the Ten Commandments) had been "ordained to life" (Romans 7:10). And so it was!

"You shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them."

  • Leviticus 18:5

The need to observe the Law was not abated even during the three and a half years of Christ’s ministry before the New Covenant had been ratified and brought into existence. The only way to obtain salvation was by keeping the commandments and expressing a faith in God. When a young man came to Christ and asked how a person could receive eternal life, Christ gave him the formula for life that had existed since the time of Abraham. Christ emphasized commandment keeping!

"Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he [Christ] said unto him ... ‘if thou will enter into life, keep the commandments.’"

  • Matthew 19:16–17

The way to eternal life — the only way to eternal life — was by exhibiting faith in God and by observing the commandments! The statement of Christ to the young ruler was clear and to the point. It was also in complete agreement with Old Testament teaching. Only by keeping the Law could one enjoy life — whether that life was a temporary human existence or one that would last for all eternity.

The Law during Christ’s Ministry

The theme of keeping the Law was the essential message of Christ while He preached during the time of His earthly ministry. He even insisted that no part of the Law would ever pass away (whether the Ten Commandments, circumcision, sacrifice, temple tax, or whatever) until all were keeping it in a precise fashion (Matthew 5:17–18). Christ expected every factor of the Law to be fulfilled with exactitude or no one would be granted salvation. In actual fact, Christ came to magnify the Law (Isaiah 42:21). He magnified it to such a point of strictness that even Moses would have gasped at Christ’s rigorous requirements. The disciples were certainly dismayed at His severe interpretations (Matthew 7:28–29; 19:3–12). To Christ even the least of the commandments had to be kept —and kept with absolute precision!

The demands of Christ during His ministry on earth involved the keeping of all Old Testament laws — including rituals! Some Christian expositors have imagined that He only magnified, or spiritualized, the Ten Commandments. Nonsense! Christ commanded,

All these points were looked on by Christ as the Law of God. They were as important to keep as the Ten Commandments. And why should Christ not demand that all the Law be kept very precisely during His ministry? It was what the Old Covenant legislation required.

The New Covenant

The salvation which came to be revealed under the New Covenant (and not based on written laws) had not been confirmed at that time. That confirmation did not occur until the night previous to Christ’s crucifixion (Matthew 26:27–28). During Christ’s earthly ministry the real church of Christ had not yet begun because the Holy Spirit was not yet given to man (John 14:17). Only people who have God’s Spirit are considered Christians (Romans 8:9). Christ admitted that the apostle Peter was not converted during the whole ministry of Christ (Luke 22:32).

All of this shows that there was no "Christianity," as we know it today, until Christ died on the cross (Romans 5:9–10). In fact, everyone was still "lost," including Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, and all the prophets. It did not make any difference how much faith or good works the patriarchs or prophets had to their credit, there was no salvation possible until the resurrection of Christ from the dead. "If Christ is not raised, your faith is vain [even the faiths of Abraham and David]; you are yet in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). The salvation in Christ (the only salvation that is obtainable for humans) is secured solely through the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Though faith and commandment keeping were absolutely essential for Old Testament obedience, there was a major difficulty with it. Even the statements of Christ during His earthly ministry that eternal life could only come by keeping the commandments were a problem. Why? It was very simple. No one on earth ever did, or ever could, keep the commandments — that is, no one except Jesus Christ! This fact meant that Abraham, Moses, David, etc., were all sinners, and there was no real assurance that they could have eternal life by their own works.

"All have sinned and come short of the glory of God."

  • Romans 3:23

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

  • 1 John 1:8

This puts all members of the human race into a very precarious position. In the Old Testament we are told that the Law must be kept or else! Throughout the earthly ministry of Christ (before the New Covenant was inaugurated), even Christ Himself said that all had to keep the commandments or else! There was no other way to salvation! Though the young ruler who came to Christ thought he had kept the commandments from his youth up, he had to go away sorrowful because it became very evident that he "coveted" his material wealth. He also broke the first commandment by not obeying the orders of Christ ["God With Us"] who told the young ruler to follow Him (Matthew 19:16–26).

The Dilemma

Poor humanity! Here we are wanting to be saved and to have eternal life, and being told that we must keep the commandments precisely to gain that eternal life. Yet every single one of us has in some way disobeyed them! Even to transgress on one tiny point (no matter how insignificant it may appear) means we have forfeited eternal life. The violation of one simple law is reckoned as breaking all (James 2:10).

Some of the Jewish theologians who lived in Paul’s day thought they had an answer to the dilemma of universal sin — at least for Israelites. Since the Day of Atonement rituals seemed to secure a forgiveness of sin for all Israelites each year [and it was an ‘‘everlasting statute" (Leviticus 16:34)], it was determined that Israelites could be reckoned as "blameless" (even though they were sinners) by the confessions of the High Priest on the heads of the two goats at Atonement. This, and other rituals, gave some people a security in calling themselves "blameless" (Luke 1:6). Even the apostle Paul, before his conversion, reckoned himself "blameless" (Philippians 3:6). And ritualistically he was! Such "blamelessness" came through adherence to the ordinances of the Law. Paul had to admit, however, that he was really "foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another" (Titus 3:3).

Ritualistic perfection was not enough because it was also recognized that the blood of bulls and goats cannot really take away sin (Hebrews 9:9–14). This truth placed all people (even so-called "blameless" people) right back into the sinful arena of common humanity. The Law was not the answer to salvation. It gave no satisfaction because it did nothing to save a person from sins — all it did was to point out that humans were sinners. And it did that very effectively!

This means that the Law (even the Ten Commandments) which were ordained to give life (Romans 7:10), bestowed something far different. Paul discovered that the Law led people directly to death — not life! "I found it to be unto death" (Romans 7:10). True enough, Paul knew quite well that the commandments were holy, just, and good, but that did not relieve the situation at all. They did not bring the life they were ordained to give. "When the commandment came ... I died" (Romans 7:9). Even the Ten Commandments became the "ministration of death" to Paul (2 Corinthians 3:7).

"For I was alive without the law once. but when the commandment came [the Ten Commandments], sin revived, and l died."

  • Romans 7:9

Paul was willing to admit that the commandments were spiritual and good (Romans 7:12), but their very goodness was Paul’s downfall. They were responsible for "killing" him. Why? Because they showed that Paul was a sinner, and the "wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). "For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me" (Romans 7:11). The commandments were not life to Paul. They only showed that he was a sinner.

"I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’"

  • Romans 7:7

However, it was not the breaking of a single law (such as coveting) that got Paul into trouble, he found he was breaking a whole battery of laws that made him a wholesale sinner. An abundance of sin was now the legacy of the Law to the apostle Paul. Because of the Law, sin abounded! "Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound" (Romans 5:20). Paul found himself a sinner of the highest order — even the chiefest of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). And the Law gave no relief. It only made his case hopeless.

"For I was alive without the law once [before he had a knowledge of it]: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died."

  • Romans 7:9

When the knowledge of the various commandments came to Paul’s consciousness, he was overwhelmed with a multitude of laws (civil, political, ritualistic, moral, social, and religious) that had to be kept in order to be saved. When he surveyed the great variety of them, and how they governed every action of his being 24 hours a day, he found it was an impossible task to observe them all — and do them perfectly. He could hardly "breathe" without sinning in some way— "the sin which does so easily beset us" (Hebrews 12:1).

The Law, then, which was supposed to give life, became an agency of death to Paul. In spite of this, the Jewish people placed all their confidence in the Law as the only means to salvation. "Behold, thou art called a Jew, and rest in the law, and make your boast of God" (Romans 2:17). Paul, however, found it impossible to place any confidence in the Law as a way to secure righteousness and salvation. It simply pointed out to Paul that he and all others were sinners (Romans 3:23) and that only death was awaiting them — not life. What a wretched position to be in. "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24).

A New Way to Salvation

The apostle Paul finally saw that in Christ a new procedure for obtaining righteousness and salvation had become available. Since it was God who had given the Law, the new method of salvation could not avoid the teachings of the Law, nor could it fail to meet the demands of the Law. But a way had to be provided. And one was given that solved all of the problems in one fell swoop. It was the way that the Father had ordained from the beginning but only revealed when Christ had been crucified and resurrected from the dead. It was a method of salvation centered solely in Christ. It satisfied all the demands of the Law perfectly and gave the assurance that every human could have a salvation that was secure and certain. It was a way that released a person from the Law, and yet all the requirements of the Law would be met. Let us look at this new way.

The Answer

There is one scripture that agrees with every aspect of the Law in its relationship to humanity. It is this: "The law has dominion over a man as long as he lives" (Romans 7:1). Only when a man dies is he free from the Law and from its demands. A person "is bound by the law ... so long as he lives" (Romans 7:2). But when a person dies, the satisfaction of the Law has been met. Since the wages of sin [the transgression of law] is death (Romans 6:23), one can be freed from the claims of the Law only by experiencing death. "He that is dead is freed from sin" (Romans 6:7).

To make it plain, once a man dies, the Law no longer has any hold on him. But only if he dies! This is where the new program of salvation comes on the scene. Christ Jesus was sent to do what mankind could not do of himself. Christ came to fulfill the Law perfectly and to die instead of mankind. He also came to work out a perfect righteousness for humans based upon His own works. He became in every way the substitute for man. This is what Paul came to realize. "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).

Christ died in Paul’s place — and for every other human being also! "We thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead" (2 Corinthians 5:14). "Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Romans 6:8). This means we are delivered from the Law.

"But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve [God] in newness of spirit, and not in oldness of the letter."

  • Romans 7:6

This shows that Christians are no longer under the requirements of the Law any more in respect to righteousness and salvation. "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested" (Romans 3:21). It was Christ who worked out a perfect righteousness for us, and He gives that righteousness to us as a gift — by grace. "We are not under the law, but under grace" (Romans 6:15).

This is why the Law has been abolished. It has become completely irrelevant as a means to attain righteousness and salvation. It could never provide those virtues anyway — it only revealed sin and death. Salvation is now centered solely on the grace of Christ. And Christians should be,

"For he hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the principal theology of the Book of Romans!

Thus, the Law is no longer the means to attain righteousness.

"But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon all them that believe."

  • Romans 3:21–22

Christians can now have a proper righteousness that is secure. Even though we are sinners by nature, Christ has nevertheless reconciled Christians to Himself "in the body of his flesh through death, to present you HOLY and UNBLAMEABLE and UNREPROVABLE in his sight" (Colossians 1:22). We are declared righteous because of what Christ has done for us, not by our own adherence to Law. In no way does the Law have any relevance in proclaiming a Christian’s righteousness or in determining his salvation. It has been abolished and annulled for all those who have "died to the Law in Christ" (Romans 6:8, 7:4–6; Galatians 2:19).

Does this irrelevance of the Law mean that Christians now have license to sin? Never! "What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid!" (Romans 6:15). It is not a matter of abandoning the essential factors of the Law now that righteousness and salvation are not dependent upon it. "Yea, we establish the law" (Romans 3:31). Paul said, "With the mind I myself serve the law of God" (Romans 7:25). He even recommends that the "righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us" (Romans 8:4). Christians are told that they have been created to perform good works (Ephesians 2:10). Certainly, the moral precepts of the law are perfectly proper to accomplish. Let us notice this point carefully!

Law is a means by which sin is defined. But what Law is it that Christians are presently expected to obey to show their good works before men? Is it the law of circumcision? Paul said no, Romans 4:10. Is it the offering of animal sacrifices? No, Hebrews 9:9–10. Is it showing an adherence to "days, and months, and times, and years" (Galatians 4:10)? No, because those ceremonies were for those under the Old Covenant ("the Jerusalem that now is") to observe (Galatians 4:22–26). The Gentiles were not required to keep the time periods ordained for Israel. "Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days" (Colossians 2:16). Did Paul mean that Christians had to observe the Old Covenant laws regarding temple services? No, because he said the middle wall of partition had been broken down and abolished (Ephesians 2:14–15). All of the physical requirements of the Old Testament rituals have been fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 9:9–11). This even includes keeping the seventh day sabbath in a physical way.

If the physical rituals and time periods were not necessary to observe any longer, what Law is it that Paul felt Christians ought to establish? The Book of Romans discussed this matter in detail. Paul mentioned two essential laws for Christians! They were the "law of faith" (Romans 3:27) and the "law of love." "Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law " (Romans 13:8). That is the simplicity of the whole matter.

Neither of these two laws has a thing to do with the observance of the seventh day sabbath or the other Old Covenant rituals. The apostle Paul had not the slightest reference to the weekly or annual sabbaths in the Book of Romans. In fact, he was very negative in the need to keep any days!

"One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind."

  • Romans 14:5

The sabbath is conspicuous in the Book of Romans by its absence. Or more to the point, the sabbath was of no importance in regard to the Romans. Paul said that even Gentiles (who had never heard of the laws of the Old Covenant — including the sabbath) could by nature keep the essential laws of God that he was talking about.

"For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law, are a law unto themselves; which show the work of the law written in their hearts."

  • Romans 2:14–15

No Gentile by nature would ever keep a weekly sabbath from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. No one by nature would ever think of such a thing. But could a Gentile — any Gentile — keep the Law? Why of course! "Love works no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10). Gentiles by nature could keep the law of love. This is what Paul was talking about to the Romans. At no time did Paul feel it was necessary to discuss the sabbath in the Book of Romans. It was not one of the laws Gentiles were expected to observe. Of course, if one feels he would still like to observe the weekly sabbath (or more accurately try to observe it), then that is one’s privilege. Yet it must be understood that there is not an ounce of salvation available in the attempt. The reason is because no one can keep it perfectly. Everyone will be breaking it from time to time. Even so-called Christian sabbath keepers today are looking for some supposed New Testament "excuse" so they can violate the rigorous sabbath requirements of the Old Testament. The truth is, there are no "excuses" available. One either breaks the sabbath, or keeps it! The disciples of Christ broke the weekly sabbath when they plucked the grain (with Christ’s approval) — they were not keeping it (Matthew 12:1–7).

There is no use saying that one’s "good attitude" in trying to keep the sabbath will suffice as far as God is concerned. In no way is this true! If anyone had a "good attitude" in trying to keep the Law of God, it was Paul. "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Romans 7:22), but he was still captivated by "the law of sin which is in my members" (Romans 7:23). "O wretched man that I am" (verse 24). There is not a person alive who can keep the sabbath, and "good attitudes" or "good intentions" are not acceptable in attaining a righteousness with God. Only in Christ is that possible — not in trying to keep the Law.

Conclusion

Though Christians are ordained to establish the essential Law of God (the exercise of faith and love), even the practice of these beautiful virtues is still not the means to obtain eternal life. Only when one shows perfect faith and love can one say he has fulfilled the Law perfectly. All of us have fallen short even on these points. That is why salvation is not dependent upon any works of the law (no matter how good and right they may be). Salvation comes solely by the grace of God, without any works whatever (Ephesians 2:8–10). There is presently no law (nor has there ever been) that can grant eternal life to humans. That is because no human has ever kept any laws perfectly — even the laws of faith and love.

This is why Paul came to see that Law (any law) is deficient of itself in granting life — eternal life! So, as a means for securing salvation, all law has been abolished as the way to attain it. To explain this point is one of the main reasons the Book of Romans was written. It was to show how the Law has been disannulled, set aside, and replaced. The requirements of the Law (any law) have now been fulfilled in Christ for us. We have died with Him. We have also died to the Law. We are delivered from it. It no more has dominion over us. And though Paul said we should strive to establish the law of faith and love in our lives, and to practice good works (Ephesians 2:10), these factors are no longer the means to attain salvation and an acceptable righteousness with God. One’s redemption is found only in Christ and what He has done for us. He has given us His salvation which He worked out, through grace. This is the principal theology of Romans.

Ernest L. Martin, 1979
Edited by David Sielaff, August 2003

Read the companion article: The Book of Galatians

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