The apostle Paul reasons in Romans that people don’t keep the Law, neither the one written in the Torah nor the one written on our hearts. We need to find our righteousness elsewhere, even in another person. The harshest part of the law is that it demands perfection of our hearts, not just our external behavior. The sins—transgressions of the law—that Paul speaks of in Romans aren’t limited to not keeping distinctively Jewish rituals. Love—not Jewish ritual—is the fulfillment of the law (13:8-10).
Paul said, “the law brings wrath” (4:15) and “the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…” (5:20) When fallen, unredeemed human beings come into contact with God’s commandments, they literally have within them aroused more sinful desires, and then incur more wrath.
The law awakens within us—whether Jewish or Gentile—a knowledge of how sinful we are. The humble heart looks into this mirror and is shocked by personal moral ugliness, not personal worthiness. This is one of the key reasons why no one is counted righteous by works of the law. In summary fashion Paul writes:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (3:19-20)
He elaborates in chapter 7:
For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (7:5-11)
So if you think obedience to an even harsher, more difficult law is required of us as a prerequisite to receive forgiveness of sins, then you’re sadly missing the point of Romans. There is no righteousness in you to be found, no basis upon which God can justify you (didn’t 3:9-18 make this point strong enough?). The righteousness of God, revealed in the law, isn’t reflected in the human heart. The law promises life for all who would keep its conditions, and condemns those who don’t. But there is good news!
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (3:21-26)
By faith alone, Christians receive the righteousness of another, Jesus Christ, as imputed to our account. If not for the propitiation wrought by his blood, God would be unrighteous in justifying unrighteous sinners. It would be unrighteous for God to “pass over former sins” without some sort of atoning sacrifice to satisfy his just wrath. But thanks be to God for the “but now” in verse 3:21.
Because of this justification by faith apart from works, authentic Christians know all of their sins are forgiven right now at this very moment. We can sing:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (4:7-8; quoted from Psalm 32)
With joy we shout to the world:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ! Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God!” (5:1-2)
As for those who refuse to freely receive this gift, who instead attempt to prove their personal righteousness and moral worthiness unto forgiveness and justification, we say with the apostle:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10)
Naturally, people object to Paul’s teaching by assuming it opens the door to licentiousness. Paul anticipates this objection which, from the mouths of those who reject justification by faith apart from works, sounds eerily the same today: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1) Paul goes on to reason that if we have been united in Christ’s death, we will most certainly be united with him in his resurrection-life. The same Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead is working in us to give us resurrection-life right now unto a new life of righteousness and sonship (we cry, “Abba, Father!”).
The Law is weak, not because it doesn’t sufficiently put forth a righteous requirement of internal perfection, but because our flesh is weak and because the Law has no power within itself to change the heart to which it speaks. The Law righteously demands condemnation of those who fail to keep it. Christians speak no nonsense about having to keep a harsher law as a prerequisite for receiving God’s forgiveness and favor. Instead we look to the Son of God who, “in the likeness of sinful flesh”, was condemned in our place. Having been united in his death, we are already experiencing the resurrection-life of Christ, and ironically begin keeping the righteous requirements of the law.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (8:3-4)
The law is meant to be a “tutor” (Galatians 3:24, NASB) or “guardian” (ESV) or “schoolmaster” (KJV), not leading us by the hand to an ever harsher prerequisite law, but rather to the cross of Christ at Calvary. The law was never meant to make us righteous or show what righteousness we might supposedly already have. Rather, it was meant to show us how sinful we are and how righteous God is in his judgment. Then it was meant to lead us in humility to the one who accomplished a righteousness we never could.
I plead with you to have faith in Christ. Authentic, genuine faith looks outside of its sinful self to the righteousness of Christ. Faith depends not on the worthiness of self, according with the law of God, but on the worthiness of Christ, accomplished on our behalf.
- The Deadly Team of Sin and Law, by John Piper