Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law. (Romans 3:31)
This is one of those solitary verses that has been ripped out of context and has thereby tripped up many people for a long, long time. Is there anything wrong with this verse? Of course not. The Apostle Paul is telling the truth here! However, this verse, Rom
3:31, was not written all alone in a void. By the time we get to this verse, Paul has already spent a large part of three chapters explaining a very important contrast. "For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed
from faith to faith; as it is written, 'the just shall live by faith.'" (Rom 1:17) "But now the righteousness of God apart
from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets,
even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all
and on all who believe..." (Rom 3:21-22). Notice the contrast: "faith" and "apart from the law." This is huge when it comes to understanding Romans 3:31.
big point is that the gospel is all about God's righteousness
that we've received as a free gift. This is the "good news." This is the gospel - God's
righteousness, received by faith, apart from the law. In all the verses in between the ones I
mentioned above, from Rom 1:18 to Rom 3:20, Paul writes about the "bad news." "The
wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness
of men." He lists 20-30 things that represent man's unrighteousness. In Chapter 2 he then
shows the Jews that just because they have the law, that doesn't make
them righteous, because it's not the hearers of the law who are
justified in the sight of God, but the doers of the law. He's pointing out to the hearers
of the law (the Jews) that just because they have the law, they're not
justified unless they do the law. And he tells them that Gentiles can
be justified if they show the work of the law written on their hearts -
even though they had never even heard the law!
However, that's not the end of his point. As we move into Chapter 3, we see
that "we have previously charged both Jews and Gentiles alike that
they are all under sin." The reality is that neither Jews (who have the law) nor Gentiles
(who don't have the law) are actually doers of the law! (Otherwise,
according to Chapter 2, either of them could be justified by the
law). But no, "there is no one righteous, not even one... There is no
one who seeks after God... There is no one who does good, not even one..." (Rom 3:10-12).
says that the purpose of the law is to stop mouths and make people
guilty. That's all that the law can do, and therefore no flesh can be
justified by the deeds of the law. "But now," Paul says, "the
righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed." (See, we're not
"against" the law. Rather we believe in life and righteousness in Christ apart from
the law). This righteousness (God's very righteousness) is a gift we receive by grace through faith.
huge contrast in all of this is between a righteousness that is obtained by doing the law and a righteousness that is received by grace through
faith, apart from the law.
why all that Paul says leading up to Rom 3:31 is essential for understanding that verse. The reason
that through faith the law is "established" (or "upheld") is because when an unbeliever
turns to faith it means that they have realized the full weight of the
law, and that no one can actually keep it, and that all it does is stops mouths and
makes people guilty, and can therefore justify no one.
the entire context of Romans 1 through 3 and beyond, Paul isn't talking at all about law in the life of believers. He's talking about law
in the lives of unbelievers, and how the ungodly and unrighteous have
no hope in the good, just and holy law and must instead turn to the free gift of God's righteousness received by faith.
The word "establish" here means "to uphold or sustain the authority of something." Through faith, we don't make void the law. Rather, we uphold and sustain the true authority and purpose of the law. What is the purpose of the law? Again, according to Romans 3:19 its purpose is to stop mouths and make people guilty. In 1 Timothy 1:9 Paul said that the lawful use of the law is not for righteous people, but for the ungodly and for sinners. Galatians 3:19 says that the law was added "because of transgressions, till the Seed (Jesus) should come, and Galatians 3:24-25 says the law was a tutor to lead to Christ so that a person would be justified by faith. When a person turned to faith, the law's job was then done.
We see this great contrast of faith and law all throughout Paul's writings! By faith, we truly do uphold the reason the law was given. It was given to lead unbelievers (and specifically unbelieving Jews, not Gentiles - but that's for another day) to faith in Christ. That's it. The law's job is then done. Again, none of Paul's "law" talk in Romans has to do with the law being established or used in the lives of believers. It all has to do with leading unbelievers to faith, apart from the law.