“Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” (Rm 3:31)
Previously, Paul said that God’s righteousness can be only received by faith alone.
“[God] justifies those who have faith in Jesus… Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith” (Rm 3:27-28)
We also defined faith as coming to God with open hands. It means that we don’t have any merit to earn God’s righteousness. We can receive God’s righteousness only through faith, not by works.
When it comes to salvation, only faith matters, not works. That’s the most important premise of salvation. The law cannot save us. Only faith can because the righteousness of God has been revealed “apart from the law” (Rom 3:21).
Paul also said in Galatians,
“[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gl 2:16)
Then, what about the law? Is it useless? That’s what Paul talks about in Romans 3:31. He poses this question.
“Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?” (Rom 3:31a)
Provided what Paul has covered so far, it certainly seems that the answer is: “Yes. All that matters now is receiving by faith the righteousness offered at the cross, not observing the law. So, we don’t need it anymore”
In fact, there are many Christians who actually believe that. They think their actions don’t matter and they even think that they can still be saved despite their evil behaviors because they’re saved through faith alone.
So, what does Paul say about this? Paul’s answer is,“Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” (Rom 3:31b)
This short verse does a great job explaining the relationship between faith and the law, namely our works or obedience. We can’t make the law null and void because of our faith. Rather, we must uphold the law. That’s the proper way for us to live with faith in the Lord. We keep it because it’s what God enacted. We uphold it because that’s how God teaches us to live as His people in the world.
What Paul is saying here is that a believer who is saved apart from the law understands and loves the law more than someone who is seeking to be saved by it. We obey it not to be saved, but because we were already saved and belong to God.
Although keeping the law as a means to salvation is abolished, the law has not been set aside. The law of God is still there and must still be kept. It must be obeyed by those who profess, “I believe in God.” What we must know in regard to the law is that the gospel does not declare that the law doesn’t matter, but that it matters very much.
Observance of the law was a very serious issue at that time, especially between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Some extreme Gentile Christians insisted that they didn’t have to keep the Law any longer, while some extreme Jewish Christians maintained that believers had to keep the law in order to be saved in addition to having faith. They even taught the Gentile believers,
“Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Ac 15:1)
So, what’s the right answer? How can we reconcile the law with our faith?
Three Different Approaches to the Law
There were three different approaches to the law.
The first one was legalism. Legalists can be defined as those who tried to earn salvation by observing the law. They didn’t ignore faith. However, they thought one had to obey the law to be saved in addition to having faith.
This was especially common among Jewish Christians who converted from Judaism to Christianity. They believed in Jesus, but said they still had to keep certain Jewish traditions, such as circumcision, food laws, and special days. Their view of salvation was faith plus observing the law.
2. Abolitionists of the law
At the opposite extreme of these legalists were the abolitionists of the law.
They thought that salvation was only obtained by faith in Jesus Christ, and that they were now free from all responsibilities to keep the law. They thought that they gained freedom from the law.
But ultimately, their freedom ended up being indulgent. The meaning of self-indulgence is the act of allowing ourselves to have or do the things that we enjoy very much. It’s to behave as we please without self-control.
They said they had faith in Jesus, but they didn’t care much about the law. That perspective was popular among some Gentile Christians at that time. Their view of salvation was based on faith alone, which is right, but the problem was that their faith wasn't reflected in their actions.
These two extremes still exist in the church today. There are many legalists who try to base their salvation on their religious activities. They think, “I am 'sufficient' to be saved because I’ve been going to church for a long time, I’ve donated a lot, I’ve never skipped Sunday worship, I’ve read the Bible and prayed a lot," and so on.
These people boast of their religious acts because they see them as the foundation of their salvation. What they do in the church becomes a source of their pride. More seriously, these people judge and even condemn those who don’t do these religious acts.
Nowadays, many people go to church. However, it’s hard to find the ones who have true faith in Christ. Many people don't have a close relationship with God. There’s no transformation in their lives. They just go to church repeatedly, habitually, and mechanically. They go to church because they were uncertain about life after death. They might think going to church is like insurance for the afterlife.
However, this kind of faith can’t be the true faith that leads us to salvation. No matter what religious acts we do, we can’t be saved unless we have true faith in Jesus.
There are also abolitionists of the law in the church.
They disregard all the obligations of the law, claiming that they are saved only by faith. They don’t care what the Bible says about how believers should live. They don’t pay attention to God’s commands to love Him, to love one another, and to go and make disciples of all nations.
They don’t want to use their time and finances for the kingdom of God. They have extremely self-centered, and I would say selfish, faith. The Bible calls this kind of faith, “dead faith.” How can dead faith lead us to life? That can’t be the true faith that leads us to salvation either.
Neither of these extremes is biblical. Then, what’s the proper way to reconcile the law with faith? Paul suggested ‘the third way.’ I want to call it ‘faith that fulfills the law.’ That’s the way of faith that we must walk, taking up our crosses and following Christ.