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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:

(1) the law of sin,
(2) the law from ancient times,
(3) the covenant with Israel, and
(4) the gospel (new covenant).

Special men are figureheads and mediators of these laws

According to Paul...

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 of course 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.

Under God’s fair and just law, 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 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 though 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). This is true even though they don't 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.

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...

To provide a human ancestry for Christ

God’s seed promise to Abraham made it necessary for God to choose and ordain through whom the seed should come. Thus: "In Isaac your seed shall be called" (Romans 9:7) and "Jacob have I loved" (Romans 9:13), and "God’s Son born of the seed of David" (Romans 1:3).

Christ’s human ancestry had to be traced from the establishment of the promise to its fulfillment. Israel served this purpose: "Theirs is the adoption as sons, theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ who is God over all" (Romans 9:4-5).

To raise the awareness of sin

The law of Moses was so holy, the Israelites sinned against it exceedingly. As the world saw that transgression which culminated in the crucifixion of the seed, the world's sin-awareness and accountability was heightened, and its need of grace became more apparent (Romans 5:20, Romans 3:19-20, Romans 7:7,13).

The Jews’ failure to keep Mosaic law, spurred the world to pursue Abramic faith through a better law (Romans 9:31-32, Ro 10:1-4, Romans 10:16).

To magnify God’s glory and grace

Lest the praise be on the chosen people, instead of the seed (who is God the Son), the law made the people "vessels of wrath" whom God by grace "endured with much patience" not destroying them completely but preserving a remnant.

Paul sees God’s plan and grace unfolding in all of this. (Romans 9:22 Romans 11:5). "Their transgression means riches for the world... their rejection is reconciliation for the world... a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in" (Romans 11:12,15,25).

To serve as a testimony of faith

From one point of view, the Mosaic law was hostile. "I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life, and I died" (Romans 7:9 cf Colossians 2:14).

Whilst this is generally true of all law from God (Romans 3:23), it is especially true of Mosaic law because of that law's complexity. Considered on its own, the Mosaical law created more problems than it solved.

However, there is another viewpoint equally as valid: Considered as a stage in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation, the old law served as a manifest and testimony to the need for faith.

These two points of view are contrasted in Romans 3:20-22. Standing alone, God’s law cannot justify anyone. But when you stand something else beside it, namely faith in Christ, then God’s law serves to manifest God’s righteousness (Romans 3:26). So God’s law is never nullified by faith, rather it is upheld as a testimony to faith (Romans 3:31).

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...

  • Gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16)
  • Form of doctrine (Romans 6:17)
  • Law of the Spirit (Romans 8:2)
  • Word of faith (Romans 10:8)
  • God’s covenant (Romans 11:27)
  • Perfect will of God (Romans 12:2)
  • Revelation of the mystery (Rom. 16:25)

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).


Webservant Ron Graham

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