July 29: Romans 3:31

Romans 3:31

Today’s note is on Rom 3:31, which concludes the introductory section (3:21-31) of this main division (3:21-5:21) of the probatio of Romans (1:18-8:39). Rom 3:21-31 provides the main theme—an announcement of the justice/righteousness of God, apart from the Law. This is stated by way of a long opening declaration (vv. 21-26), followed by a re-affirmation of two key, related themes in vv. 27-30: (1) that human beings are made (or declared) just/right (“justified”) before God through faith/trust in Christ, and (2) that this applies equally to Jews and Gentiles. For more on verses 21-26, and the expression “the justice/righteousness of God”, see the two previous daily notes.

Paul adds, in verse 31, a pointed and significant rhetorical question, along with his response:

“Do we then make the Law inactive through th(is) trust? May it not come to be (so)! (but) rather, we make the Law stand!”

Up to this point in Romans (and all through Galatians) Paul has argued and asserted that human beings (believers) are made/declared just/right by God through trust (faith) in Christ, and not by observing the commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law (Torah). This teaching effectively undercuts the significance of the Law, from a traditional Israelite/Jewish religious (and cultural) point of view. It may have begun with the question of whether Gentile converts ought to be circumcised and observe the Torah, but Paul’s line of argument ultimately goes far beyond this, to the fundamental question of Christian identity (for Jews and Gentiles alike) in relation to the Law. Paul not only declares believers in Christ to be free from the Law (an especially important theme in Galatians, cf. Gal 2:4-5, 19-20; 3:13-14, 23-26; 4:1-2, 21-31; 5:1ff, 13; 6:15), but goes so far as to declare that the primary function and purpose of the Law is to put (all) people in bondage under sin (Gal 3:19, 22-23). This point is clarified and developed in Romans—Rom 3:20, and further in 5:12-21; 7:7ff and 11:32—and must be regarded as one of the most remarkable and extraordinary of early Christian teachings. It is a view of the Law (Torah) unlike anything in Jewish thought—I am not aware of any examples remotely similar prior to Paul, and few (if any) instances in later Judaism. Instead of the Law as a protective fence around Israel, preserving faith and ritual/moral purity, it functions more like a prison wall, holding people in bondage under sin.

It is understandable that devout Jews (and Jewish Christians) would object strongly to such a teaching. That many did oppose Paul’s view of the Law is clear enough from Galatians, as well as several key passages in the book of Acts (most notably, Acts 21:17-26); opposition continued in Jewish Christianity subsequently, as preserved in tradition and writings such as the (Pseudo-)Clementine literature. Paul anticipates the fundamental objection with the question (and answer) he gives in Rom 3:31 (and earlier in Gal 2:21, cf. also 1:17). The question is: “do we then, by this (teaching regarding) faith/trust in Christ, make the Law inactive/ineffective [katargou=men]?” His answer is definite, using the popular asseverative (negative) phrase “may it not come to be (so) [mh\ ge/noito]!”, sometimes rendered in English idiom as “God/heaven forbid!”, followed by the declaration: “but (rather) we make the Law stand [i(sta/nomen]!” It is important to examine the two relevant verbs used in this verse:

  • katarge/w—which means to make (or render) something inactive (or ineffective, useless, idle, etc), literally to make it cease working. As a technical legal term, it means to “invalidate, nullify, make void,” etc. Paul uses the verb frequently—25 of the 27 NT occurrences come from the Pauline letters, including 9 in Romans and Galatians. In Galatians, it serves an effective rhetorical purpose, with Paul’s claim that his opponents effectively would “make ineffective” Christ’s work (Gal 5:4, 11); earlier, he uses it in the technical legal sense, arguing that the Law (Torah) can not “invalidate” the promise God made to Abraham (cf. also in Rom 4:14). A similar legal usage is found in Rom 7:2, 6, which Paul connects with the idea of release from the Law through death, applied specifically to believers (in Christ) dying to the power of sin, and thus rendering it ineffective (Rom 6:6). In Rom 3:3, Paul uses the verb in a rhetorical question similar to that in v. 31: “if some did not trust, does their lack of trust make inactive/ineffective the trust(worthiness) of God? May it not come to be (so)! But God is true…”
  • i%sthmi—a fairly common verb (“stand [up]”); the transitive meaning (“make stand”) can be used in a technical legal sense, similar to that of katarge/w (above)—indeed, it indicates virtually the opposite, i.e., “uphold, establish, confirm, validate”, etc. It often applies to a (legal) agreement or “covenant”, either its establishment or confirmation, or both. Paul uses it somewhat less frequently than katarge/w, but it occurs six times in Romans (the same number as katarge/w). In Rom 14:4, it (twice) is used of an individual person’s status or fate; the meaning is somewhat similar in Rom 11:20, and also Rom 5:2, but there the perfect form relates to an abiding (permanent) condition, of believers standing in God’s favor (and in His presence). Rom 10:3 describes a dynamic virtually the opposite of what Paul asserts in 3:31—of human beings seeking to establish a justice/righteousness that is their own, and not God’s.

It is interesting to compare Romans 3:31 with Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:17:

“Do not regard (as proper/customary) that I came to loose down [i.e. dissolve] the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to loose (it) down, but (rather) to fill (it) up [i.e. fulfill it]!”

Jesus appears to be dealing with a similar sort of objection to his teaching as does Paul; more properly, the reference may be to a (possible) false version of his saying, i.e. “do not think it proper that (I said) ‘I came to dissolve the Law…'” In its context within the so-called Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), we have a number of relatively clear examples of how Jesus (and his early followers) would have interpreted and expounded this saying. Jesus, through his teaching and personal example, shows his followers the way to an understanding and realization of the true meaning and intent of the Torah. For more on this, see my previous notes on Matt 5:17-20 and the articles on the Antitheses (Matt 5:21-48).

Paul’s opponents and critics might well have said that his teaching nullified the Law in its traditional role as a way and path to life, and by removing its significance as a fulfillment of the (old) covenant God made with Israel (at Sinai, cf. Gal 4:21-31). Indeed, the verb katarge/w would seem very much to apply to Paul’s view of the Law if we compare his usage in Rom 7:1-3, for example, with the argument in Gal 3:19-29; 4:1-11 and 2 Cor 3:7-14. These passages clearly present the idea that the binding force of the Law terminates with the coming of Christ (cf. Rom 10:4). However, Paul may be using the verb in Rom 3:31 in the basic sense of “making ineffective”—i.e., the Law fulfills and accomplishes the purpose of God, though Paul’s understanding of this purpose (e.g. in Rom 11:32) is quite different from the traditional Jewish view. His claim that (the message of) trust in Christ “makes the Law stand”, i.e. confirms or establishes it, probably should be interpreted in a slightly different way—that Christ, in his person and work, fulfills (and completes) the Law. In this regard, Paul’s claim is indeed similar to Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:17 (above); what is unique in Paul’s teaching is the emphasis that Christ fulfills the Law on behalf of human beings (believers), and that those who trust in him share and participate—spiritually and symbolically—in the righteousness (of God) that Christ embodies.

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