Author: Ron Graham


The Four Laws in Romans
—A study in Romans

The word "law" appears many times in the letter to Romans. Paul considers four different "laws" or systems of law — the law of sin, the law in the creation from ancient times, the covenant with Israel, and the gospel of Christ or new covenant.

Special men are figureheads and mediators of these laws: According to Paul, it was through Adam that sin and death came into the world (Romans 5:12ff), through Abraham that justification by faith in God's promise was established (Romans 4:13), through Moses that the world fully understood sin (Romans 3:10:5, 3:19-20), and through Jesus that the world was given the remedy for sin (Romans 3:23-25). The four laws are summarized in the following table...

 Law of sin  Adam  Condemnation
 Ancient law  Abraham  Promises
 Old covenant   Moses  Sin manifest
 New covenant   Christ   Sin remedied

1 Law of sin and death

When God created the world, and put Adam and Eve in it, he made law for them. However through the Devil's deception, they disobeyed God's law and thus sin entered into the world (Romans 5:12). Adam was the first, but not the only Patriarch to receive law from God. For example Noah found grace with God because he kept God's law (Genesis 6:8,22). The rest of mankind was condemned and drowned because they disobeyed the law that God's striving Spirit had given them.

After the flood the world continued to receive law. However in Romans 3:9-18 Paul strings together verses from the Old Testament that paint a dark picture. In general mankind is wicked, and in particular there is none righteous, no not one.

So this is the world's worst problem: "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23) and "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23) so "death spread to all men" (Romans 5:12). Paul calls this "the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2, cf Romans 7:23). It is a parasitic and opportunistic law which operates by "finding opportunity through the commandment" in God's good and holy law. God's law justly lays down that disobedience deserves the penalty of death. The law of sin and death exploits that fact and unjustly deceives people into incurring that penalty (Romans 7:9-12).

2 Ancient law

Since the law of sin and death was operating from ancient times, so must there always have been law from God. For if there were no law, there could have been no sin. Paul says, "Where there is no law, there is no sin imputed" (Romans 4:15, 5:13).

Mankind has never been without law, but has known it since the Creation. God has always made it evident in all creation (Romans 1:19-20). Even in times of great ignorance, men have been able to seek God, and groping in the darkness they have been able to find him (cf Acts 17:26-31). Paul understands that men can "do by nature" the things written in the law (Romans 2:14). They may not have the law like those who were under the law of Moses, or even like Adam and Eve to whom God spoke directly and personally. However God's revealed law is still among them and they have been able to acquire it in the natural course of their lives so that it forms a conscience in them or as Paul says, it is "written their hearts" (Romans 2:15).

When Paul speaks of "nature" or "creation" or "things that are made" (Romans 2:14, 1:20) he is not thinking of a world devoid of the supernatural and without the revealed word of God. On the contrary, he is saying that God has made himself known and has revealed his will to the world at large, and his word is not confined to the special revelations which from time to time he made to a chosen few.

Having established that people not under the law of Moses still nevertheless had a law, Paul goes on to show that they could be justified. He cites Abraham, a great Patriarch toward the end of the Patriarchal era. In Romans 4, Paul speaks at length of how "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness [or justification]" (Romans 4:3). Because this took place before the sign of circumcision and well before the Mosaical age began, Paul concludes that justification does not come through circumcision or the law of Moses. Paul does not teach that Abraham was justified without any law at all, because there was always law in ancient times, and in particular God had made a covenant with Abraham consisting of promises to believe and commandments to obey. There is more on this in Galatians (Galatians 3:6-29).

3 The Law of Moses

If God's law was already in the world from ancient times, why did God single out a special nation and bring in a special law for them? If the just could, and did, live by faith before the Mosaical law came in, why was Mosaic law necessary? Paul makes the following points in his letter to the Romans...

4 The Law of Christ

Finally in the unfolding of God's scheme, Christ came and brought in a new law which Paul variously calls...

Notice that it is proper to regard the gospel as a law and covenant — Paul so regards it. Here he calls it "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:2) In Galatians he calls it, more simply, "the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).

The difference between Christ's law and the other laws of God, is that Christ's law provides a remedy for sin through the sacrifice he made on the cross. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but now they can be "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23). This cannot happen without law, any more than it can happen without grace. It happens through the law of Christ, the gospel — "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2).