WHAT DID PAUL MEAN BY 'WE ESTABLISH THE LAW?'
By Nana Yaw Aidoo
Romans 3:31 the apostle wrote: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God
forbid: yea, we establish the law.”
does the statement, we establish the law mean? Does it mean that those
of us living are amenable to the Old Testament law of Moses? While it is the
custom of Sabbatarians to use this text to teach that those of us living this
side of the cross are under the old law, essentially destroying the force of
the whole book of Romans and of books like Galatians and Hebrews, in fact most
of the New Testament, the statement does not in any way mean that we are under
the old law.
we look at what the statement means I believe that it is in order to quote some
passages from Paul on the relationship between Christians and the old law. The
following texts are self-explanatory.
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any
thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new
testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but
the spirit giveth life. But
if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so
that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for
the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather
glorious? For if the
ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of
righteousness exceed in glory. For
even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of
the glory that excelleth. For
if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not
hear the law? For it is
written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a
freewoman. But he who
was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by
Which things are an allegory: for these are the two
covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is
For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth
to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the
mother of us all. For
it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou
that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which
hath an husband. Now
we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh
persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the
bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the
son of the freewoman. So
then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.
friends, would Paul after making the foregoing statements, turn around and teach
that Christians are under the old law? What a great contradiction that would
be. Passages like Ephesians 2:11-22 and Colossians 2:11-17 teach us that the
reason we are not under the old law is because Christ in His death nailed it to
the cross. The Hebrews writer mentions that it was as a matter of fact the will
of God that Christ come in the flesh, take away the first covenant and
establish the second (Heb. 10:5-9).
indeed Christ finished the work His Father gave Him to do as He claimed in John
17:4, then what does the one who teaches that the old covenant is still in
force imply but that Christ is a liar? If Christ is not a liar, then He
finished the work His Father gave Him to do, which means that He took away the
first covenant and established the second. But if the old covenant is still in force,
then Christ did not finish the work His Father gave Him to do, which makes Him
a liar. We will not allow Sabbatarians to eat their cake and have it (cf. Gal.
2:5). If you believe like I do that Christ was sinless, then He indeed finished
His work, which follows then that Christians are not amenable to the old law.
since all Scripture including the Old Testament is inspired by God (2 Tim.
3:16-17), there is some form of relationship between the Christian and the old
law. This relationship is clearly stated by Paul in Romans 15:4: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were
written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the
scriptures might have hope.”
to the burden of this note. What does the statement we establish the law
in Romans 3:31 mean?
understand this statement, we need to begin at the first chapter of Romans. In
the apostle’s introduction, he wrote:
Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that
oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might
have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles. I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians;
both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the
gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it
is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew
first, and also to the Greek. For
therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is
written, The just shall live by faith. (Rom. 1:13-17).
if you would, the phrase, the righteousness of God. This phrase
evidently means God’s plan of salvation or as Roper put it, “God’s plan for
endowing humans with “right standing”” (108). Mind you. God’s righteousness
in the book of Romans doesn’t always mean His plan of salvation but here it
does. Therefore, when Paul says the righteousness of God is revealed in
the gospel, he means by this statement that God’s righteous plan for making the
unrighteous right with Him is revealed in the gospel.
if you were one of those to whom this letter was originally written and when reading
it for the first time you came to verse 17, what would be the question on your
mind? For most people it most certainly would be this: “now Paul, won’t you
tell us what this righteous plan is?” The truth is that Paul intended to do
just that. He intended to tell them what this righteous plan of God is.
However, before he did, this genius of a preacher took a little bit of a break
and told why the recipients of his message needed this righteous plan. He
impressed on their minds their need for this plan beginning at Romans 1:18 and
ending at Romans 3:20. His argument was that they needed it because they had
sinned. The gentiles had sinned and the Jews had sinned. Not only that but also
the old law was incapable of justifying anyone in God’s sight (Rom. 3:20). Therefore
they – both Jews and gentiles - needed God’s righteous plan that is revealed in
then gets to Romans 3:21-23 and writes:
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the
law and the prophets; Even
the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon
all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of
who know tell us that Romans 3:21-26 is one long sentence in the Greek (Roper
107). Therefore, all who read should keep that in mind. Our focus however is on
the highlighted words in the text. The apostle by beginning with, but now
the righteousness of God, is indicating that he’s returning to his
discussion on God’s righteousness or God’s righteous plan of salvation which he
began in the first chapter. However, now he is going to tell what that plan is.
When he does, he says it is by faith in Christ Jesus. Roper graphically
describes the apostle’s genius this way:
Our journey through the letter thus far might be
compared with following a guide who points to a beautiful city in the distance
and says, “There is where I will take you.” Then he leads us into a
jungle and through treacherous valleys, until we despair of reaching our
destination. After a time, we break through the thick foliage---and there,
before our eyes, is the city in all its glory! Even so, Paul has finally
brought us to the wondrous theme of the righteousness of God” (107 – 8).
this point you probably might be wondering what all of the discussion to this
point has to do with what Paul said in Romans 3:31. Don’t get tired just yet but
watch carefully now. In Romans 3:21, Paul says this righteousness of God
without the old law has the law and the prophets as witnesses. The law and the
prophets as you probably know refer to the Old Testament scriptures. Thus, what
the apostle is saying is that God’s righteous plan for justifying the
unrighteous, was not Paul’s own creation but is indeed of God. The proof being that
the Old Testament scriptures mention it or bear witness to it.
Paul has returned to the discussion he began in chapter one, the Old Testament scripture
he had in mind is evidently the same one in Romans 1:17: “the just shall live
by faith.” This is a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4 and proves Paul’s case that
this righteous plan was indeed of God. It is as if to say, “Now you Judaizing
teachers since you claim to be for the old law must admit that the plan I am
setting forth is indeed of God since the Old Testament scriptures bear
witness to it.” God had long ago through His prophets made known or revealed His
plan to justify men by faith in the old law. The witness of the Old Testament
proves that this plan is indeed the righteousness of God. Here lies the
background to Paul’s statement in Romans 3:31.
Judaizing teachers would evidently be objecting to Paul by saying that by his
teaching on justification by faith he was making void the old law. That is, he
was making it of “none effect” as the ASV puts it. The apostle anticipates this
objection to his teaching that God’s righteous plan to justify men in His sight
is on the basis of faith in His Son and not on the basis of circumcision or keeping
of the old law, and supplies the answer: Do we then make void the law
through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.
to Strong’s the word establish here means “to stand.” What Paul is therefore
saying is that far from voiding the old law he is rather establishing it or
making it stand. How? By establishing the truthfulness or the fulfillment of
the law in that it witnessed of a time when men would be made right with God on
the basis of faith. It is as if the apostle is saying, “You Judaizing teachers
are claiming I am voiding the law because of my teaching on justification by
faith. I am not. The law spoke of a time when God would justify men by faith.
If I am therefore teaching justification by faith, I am not voiding the law.
Rather I am establishing the law or making it stand since by my teaching I am
essentially saying that what the law said is true or is fulfilled.”
is clearly what the apostle had in mind. His words, we establish the law
does not mean that we are to keep the old law. Rather it was his way of telling
the Judaizing teachers that he by teaching what the law and prophets taught was
establishing the law or making it stand.
know that Sabbatarians are desperate when they run to this text for support. In
view of the fact that it is found in a context in which Paul is contending that
justification is not by the old law, if I were a Sabbatarian, I would be very much hesitant in quoting this text in support of Sabbatarianism. It simply does not teach
what Sabbatarians want it to teach. We are not under the law of Moses or the Old
Testament today but we are under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; 2 Pet. 3:2).
David. A Study of the Book of Romans Part 1. Truth for Today World
Mission School, 2021.