‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! on the contrary, we establish the law.’
This important utterance respecting the law comes as a sequel to the apostle’s formal announcement of the great truth, that justification before God is attainable for fallen men, not through the works of the law, but only through faith in the propitiation of Christ. The law, he had said, so far from affording a valid ground of justification, or a plea of righteousness, brings the knowledge of sin. Then, turning from the quarter whence salvation could not be found, to the manifested grace of God, by which it had been freely provided and offered alike to Jew and Gentile through faith in Christ, the apostle sees himself met with the objection, coming as from the Jewish point of view, ‘Do we then make void (καταργοῦμεν, do away with, abolish) the law through faith?’ So it might naturally seem to one who had been wont to associate with the law all his peculiar privileges and hopes. But the apostle indignantly rejects the idea, and says: ‘God forbid! On the contrary (ἀλλὰ, a strong adversative), we establish the law’—that is, we confirm it, give effect to its authority and obligation.
But the question is how? In saying these words, does the apostle utter an independent sentence, and give a deliverance on the subject, without stopping to elucidate and prove it? Or is it rather the announcement of a general position, which he presently proceeds to make good from passages and examples out of Old Testament Scripture? The former view is implied in the present division of chapters, which places this weighty sentence at the close of chapter third, as if it formed a deliverance, provisional or ultimate, on the subject as already considered, not the announcement of a theme to be handled in what immediately follows. And such has been the prevailing view with a large class of commentators—with all, indeed, who have understood by law here, law in the stricter sense, and with reference more especially to the great moral obligations it imposed on men, whether they be Jew or Gentile. But several (Theodoret, Sender, Tholuck, etc.) would understand the term here of the Old Testament Scriptures generally; and some recent commentators, while holding it to refer to the distinctively Jewish law, with all its rites and ordinances, expound in a way not materially different from the others. So, for example, De Wette, Meyer, the latter of whom says, ‘This establishing is accomplished thus, that (See chap. 4.) the doctrine of Paul sets forth and proves how the justification of God’s grace through faith was already taught in the law, so that Paul and his companions did not come into conflict with the law, as if they sought by a new doctrine to do away with this and put it in abeyance, but, through their agreement with the law and proof of their doctrine out of it, they certify and confirm its validity.’ To the like effect, also, Alford, who thus presents the substance of the apostle’s statement, ‘That the law itself belonged to a covenant, whose original recipient was justified by faith, and whose main promise was the reception and blessing of the Gentiles.’ He adds, ‘Many commentators have taken this verse (being misled in some cases by its place at the end of the chapter) as standing by itself, and have gone into the abstract grounds why faith does not make void the law (or moral obedience); which, however true, have no place here; the design being to shew that the law itself contained this very doctrine, and was founded in the promise to Abraham on a covenant embracing Jews and Gentiles—and therefore was not degraded from its dignity by the doctrine, but rather established as a part of God’s dealings—consistent with, explaining, and explained by the Gospel. One does not, however, see how this can be said to establish the law—unless by the law were under stood the Old Testament Scriptures generally; and yet both Meyer and Alford repudiate that: they alike hold that law here must mean the Mosaic law. The fact that the law given by Moses was founded in the promise to Abraham, might well enough be said to accord with the apostle’s doctrine of justification by faith, and this doctrine might in consequence be affirmed not to invalidate the law, or not to interfere with the purpose for which it was given, but this does not come up to establishing the law. The apostle’s doctrine by itself no more established the law than God’s promise to Abraham did; and unless one takes into account the moral grounds on which the plan of God in this respect proceeds—namely, the provision it makes for the vindication of the law in the work of Christ and the experience of His people—neither the one nor the other could with any propriety be said to establish the law; they merely do not conflict with it, and provide what it was neither designed nor able to accomplish. It is a further objection to the same view, that the first verse of chap, iv., instead of being connected with the last verse of the preceding chapter by a γὰρ, for, as it naturally would have been if what follows had been a direct continuation of that verse, begins with a τί οὖν, what then?—a mode of commencement very unlike the introduction of a proof of what immediately precedes, or a consequence deduced from it—one rather that seems to point farther back, and to resume consideration of the leading topic in the third chapter—the subject of justification by faith. The deliverance, on the other hand, respecting the law given in Rom_3:31, has all the appearance of a passing declaration made to silence an obtrusive objection, but left over meanwhile for its fuller vindication, till the apostle had proceeded further in his course of argumentation.
Taking the passage, then, in what appears to be both its natural sense and its proper connection, we regard the apostle as giving here a brief but emphatic statement on the relation of his doctrine of justification to the law; but, having still a good deal to advance in proof and illustration of the doctrine itself, he again for the present resumes his general theme, and leaves it to be gathered from the subsequent tenor of his discourse how, or in what sense, the law is established by the doctrine in question. Referring to the portions which most distinctly bear upon the point (ch. Rom_5:12 -Rom_8:4), we find the law established by being viewed as the revelation of God’s unchangeable righteousness—the violation of which has involved all in guilt and ruin, the fulfilment of which in Christ has re-opened for the fallen the way to peace and blessing, and the perfect agreement of which, in its great principles of moral obligation, with men’s inmost convictions of the pure and good, must ever impel them to seek after conformity to its requirements—impel them always the more the nearer they stand to God, and the more deeply they are imbued with the Spirit of His grace and love. The law and the Gospel, therefore, are the proper complements of each other; and, if kept in their respective places, will be found to lend mutual support and confirmation. So, substantially, the passage is understood by the great body of evangelical expositors, of whom we may take Calvin as a specimen: ‘When recourse is had to Christ, first, there is found in Him the complete righteousness of the law, which, through imputation, becomes ours also; then sanctification, whereby our hearts are formed to the observance of the law, which, though imperfect, strives towards its aim.’