The main theme of Romans is the justification of sinners. Justification is the way in which God accepts a sinful human being and sets them in a place of right-standing through Yeshua. In Classical Greek, the word interpreted as “justification” meant punishment or condemnation, like that in a legal system. In Scripture, however, it is used to indicate an acquittal or freedom from such condemnation or punishment. The Scriptures do not speak of anyone who was able to justify himself by paying the penalty for his own sin (Psalm 49:7-9). Scripture makes it clear that God punishes sin through discipline as a channel toward purification, but it is not through this judgment that the subject of punishment is made just before God. In other words, just because you have suffered the consequences of your sinful actions does not mean that your record is clean. We are justified only because of the sacrifice of Yeshua and the repentance which accompanies our faith in Him.
In Hebrew, the word “sin” comes from the root word chata, which means “to miss,” mainly in regard to missing a goal. It is used in the context of an archer missing his target. The target which man aims at is the commandments of God, and sin is a failure to hit that target. Paul explains that although the Torah was given to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, God’s attributes were made known to the whole world so that no one has an excuse for having disobeyed Him: it is the duty of all mankind to obey God (Ecclesiastes 12:13). So how does the archer correct his sin? He examines himself to see where his form was incorrect, and adjusts accordingly so that he is able to hit the mark. This is the practice that is implied in Romans 2:13, “For not the hearers of the Torah are just before God, but the doers of the Torah shall be justified.”
The main criticism we see of the Pharisees in the Gospels is that they were guilty of hearing but not doing the Torah. They practiced many deeds, but these were according to their own standard of righteousness rather than the true heart of the commandments. Previously we have discussed some of the beliefs the Pharisees espoused and the fact that Christianity has continued in many of their interpretations of the Scriptures. While this is true, their position was not free of some glaring flaws. They had made their own target, and considered themselves righteous by being able to hit that mark, but in reality they had missed the true meaning and purpose of the Torah.
In Luke 10:25-29, a lawyer came to Yeshua. This is not so much a lawyer as we are accustomed to, but it was a person whose profession was to study Torah. He came to Yeshua, basically seeking to justify himself:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Torah? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
This commandment, to love the Lord and to love your neighbor, is found in Leviticus 19:18 and in Deuteronomy 6:5. Even before Yeshua came, these commands were already understood to be a summary of the whole Torah. The man talking to Yeshua was well-educated, and so he was aware of this fact. But knowledge does not always equal action, and sometimes we corrupt our knowledge to justify ourselves. Looking for a way to find a justification for himself, he asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Within Judaism, there has been some level of debate as to who exactly the neighbor of an Israelite was. Some have said it is all mankind, others have said that the command to love your neighbor only applies to fellow Jews. Perhaps the lawyer in this passage held a dislike for his Samaritan neighbors, and so Yeshua goes on to use an illustration to explain that loving our neighbor excludes no one.
The man’s question was about how to attain eternal life, or in other words, how to receive justification before God. Yeshua did not use this time to explain the death and resurrection that He would endure, or that belief in Him would merit the man eternal life. Rather, after the lawyer correctly asserts the motivation which should lie behind the keeping of the Torah, Yeshua tells the man, “Do this and you will live.” Does this mean we are saved by works?
In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul makes the argument that all have sinned, Jew and Gentile alike. Romans 3:10 tells us, “There is none righteous, not even one.” In the eyes of God, Gentiles and Jews are both under the same obligation, that being to walk rightly before Him:
For when Gentiles who do not have the Torah do instinctively the things of the Torah, these, not having the Torah, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Torah written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Messiah Yeshua. (Romans 2:14-16)
Because of this fact, Paul says that there is no room for relying on one’s lineage for salvation. As we talked about in regard to Acts 15, some among the believers held the opinion that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be grafted into Israel, and that was how they achieved salvation. But Paul says that not everyone who is circumcised outwardly has allowed God to change their heart through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Torah, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Torah, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Torah and circumcision are a transgressor of the Torah? (Romans 2:27).
So Paul is saying that God has a standard for behavior which He wants everyone to follow. Even though not everyone has ever read, or even heard of, the Torah, when they do the things which the Torah requires, they show that they have the Torah written on their hearts. Paul is explaining that Jewish lineage or external rituals such as circumcision do not effect any change within a person, and are insufficient for justification before God.
Does this mean that circumcision or Jewish lineage have no value? In Romans 3:1-2, Paul declares, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect! First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Paul reminds us once again that the Jew is first and the nations are second (Romans 1:16). Being a descendant of Abraham is not alone sufficient for justification, but the descendants of Jacob are still especially blessed and chosen on account of God’s grace and His unchanging promises. Because of this, circumcision does have great value, for it is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, which is an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:9-11, 19). Paul’s point is that even though the Jewish people are not justified before God by their lineage or by being circumcised, these things are nonetheless important and of value in God’s sight. The people of Israel have been specifically called from among the nations of the earth to serve Him in a special way (Deuteronomy 7:6, Amos 3:2).
Paul continues to say, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Romans 3:9). Despite the special calling of the Israelites and God’s faithfulness to them, this does not grant them any special privileges in regard to salvation. No person is able to walk in the requirements of the Torah perfectly, so we are all equal in our indebtedness to God. Jews and Greeks alike are in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy.
So what is this all saying about justification? In order to answer the question of salvation by the works of the Torah, it is helpful to remember the covenant God made with Abraham. Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6 tell us that Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. This was more than just belief of the mind, but was a living faith evidenced by a complete submission of his will to God, as we see throughout his life. This same type of faith enables us to enter into covenant with God as well:
But now apart from the Torah the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Torah and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Yeshua the Messiah, for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is Messiah Yeshua; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Yeshua.” (Romans 3:21-26)
Who is the righteousness of God? Yeshua! Yeshua atones for our transgressions through His death and resurrection when we believe in Him. This belief is not stagnant, but is shown to be genuine as we repent and become faithful to God in Yeshua. In what way is this righteousness of God “apart from the Torah?” It is apart from the Torah in the sense that it is a justification that cannot be achieved through obedience to the Torah. There is no one who can be righteous in the sight of God, for as Paul tells us, all have sinned. The fact that our salvation is not achieved through obedience to the Torah does not mean that it is no longer God’s righteous standard, or that somehow faith is in opposition to the Torah: “Do we then overthrow the Torah by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Torah” (verse 31).
So what is this all saying about faith and works? About now we start quoting from what is seen as the other side of the faith vs. works argument in James 2:14-26. Verse 18 says, “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works.’” Can we have it both ways?
God has provided a source of righteousness independent of Torah, but not contrary to it. As we saw in Romans 3:21, we can achieve justification only because of Yeshua, who is called “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). When we put our faith in the work of Yeshua and do not rely on anything we can do to achieve our own justification, He is faithful to forgive us of our sins and help us to grow in our faith. What we sometimes fail to remember is that this is the same standard of righteousness that has been established all along. As Scripture makes clear, the ancients were also justified by their faith rather than their works. Despite this, we see that they did not find any incompatibility between this faith and obedience toward God through keeping His commandments.
In other words, faith rests in belief but is proved by our actions. Even the demons believe in the authority of God and the power of His Son (Matthew 8:29, James 2:19). Clearly their belief is not the kind that saves, however. Scripture is clear that God will judge mankind and render to each one according to his deeds (Ecclesiastes 12:14, Matthew 16:27, Romans 2:5-8). He will judge based on our faithfulness to Yeshua (Matthew 25:34-40). Paul echoes the words of the prophet when he tells us that “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17). The ones who are considered righteous in the sight of God are those who rely on Yeshua for the forgiveness of sins, and then live and act in faithfulness, just as Yeshua walked in faithfulness to God, obeying His every command. Our hope in the Messiah is sure and forever secure, as He lives to make intercession for us before the Father. If we put our faith and trust in Him, then He will never forsake us as we seek to keep His commandments. “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
This part of justification, that of faithfulness, concerns all those who observe the Torah, the Jewish people. God will deliver them from the house of judgment because of their affliction and their faith in the true Teacher of Righteousness, the Messiah. Just as the patriarchs were justified by faith in the God of Israel, so too all those of the house of Israel who have kept faith, walking in the righteousness of God and yearning for the Messiah, will not be turned away.
An interesting perspective on faith arises when we closely examine Romans 3:22. Most often, this verse is translated to say that the righteousness of God is through “faith in Yeshua.” However, because of the ambiguity of the Greek word which is used, an alternative translation of the phrase is “faithfulness of Yeshua;” that is, the righteousness of God is through Yeshua’s faithfulness. Yeshua is the Lord our Righteousness, and it is He who showed complete faithfulness to the Father (John 5:30, Hebrews 3:6). It is Yeshua’s faithfulness to the Father which saves us. While it is still necessary for us to have faith in Yeshua, it was He who first walked in faithfulness, even giving up Himself as an atonement for our sins.
Verse 22 continues to say that this faithfulness is “for all who believe; there is no distinction.” After previously showing Yeshua’s role, Paul switches the focus back onto man. God’s faithfulness was revealed in the fulfillment of His promise to send the seed of Abraham, His Messiah, in whom all the nations will be blessed. Yeshua’s faithfulness to God establishes His righteousness, which God places upon all those who are faithful to Yeshua.
The opportunity to benefit from His faithfulness is “for all who believe,” yet it is to the Jew first and then to the nations. “There is no distinction,” for together we are of one flock:
For He is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by having put to death the enmity. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
How is it that we are now one people? What is this enmity, this law of commandments contained in ordinances? Ask most people, and they will tell you that it is the Law of Moses, the Torah. They will say that the Torah was a dividing wall between the Jews and the nations, and now since Yeshua fulfilled the Torah, it is finally out of the way for good. But is this the correct interpretation?
As we have previously discussed, there is a distinction between the written Torah and the oral Torah, also known as the “traditions.” In the written Torah, there is no commandment which would have created enmity between Jews and those from the nations who wished to worship the One True God. In fact, the Torah was supposed to be the opposite of a dividing wall:
So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:6)
The wisdom contained in God’s Torah was designed to attract the nations when they saw God’s people obeying them in true faith and love. If one of these people who recognized this wished to join Israel, the written Torah does not contain any instructions on how they are to be converted. Instead, there are rules set in place to ensure that a non-Jew who wishes to join Israel will be well-treated and take their place in the community. Those of the nations who saw the wisdom in God’s commandments and genuinely sought to obey them were encouraged to never feel as if there was a wall between them and Israel:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from His people…” The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath and holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. (Isaiah 56:3, 6)
Further evidence that this wall is not the Torah is the Greek which is used in the phrase “law of commandments in ordinances.” The Greek word for “ordinances” is dogmasin, which is used to indicate manmade decrees: never the commandments of God (Luke 2:1, Acts 16:4).
So if the wall was not the Torah, then what was it? As we spoke of earlier, some of the man-made commandments which had been established made things difficult for the Gentiles. They painted Gentiles as a lesser class of people, completely impure, unworthy of respect or inclusion. They said it was only by becoming a Jew through conversion that this miserable state could be remedied. Likewise, the Gentiles looked with scorn on the Jews, seeing them as elitist and snobby. In fact, in the temple at that time there existed a partition, a dividing wall, which forbade Gentiles from entering further into the temple on penalty of death. Paul explains that symbolically this wall is now torn down through Yeshua and the Gentiles who put their faith in Him are now also adopted as children of God in spite of the decrees of men and the enmity which was engendered between Jews and Gentiles.
After the Holy Spirit was given to the Gentiles in Acts 10, it was made clear that God had a much bigger plan than anyone had imagined. The walls of enmity that man had built up to separate between Jew and Gentile had now been torn down, and salvation was something which could be laid hold of by anyone who would choose to believe.
Amid the people of God, there is no distinction because all are sinners who rely on the sacrifice of Yeshua to receive justification. Does this mean that we are all exactly the same? Of course not, for we all have special gifts, abilities, and individual traits which separate us from others. In the same way, there are undeniable differences between Jews and Gentiles, and yet all who believe are justified by faith without distinction.
Just as man’s efforts had brought division between Jew and Gentile, so too man’s efforts were inadequate in obtaining justification: “No man can establish his steps, for their justification belongs to God, and from His hand comes the perfect way” (Qumran scrolls). Justification is a gift from God by His grace through the redemption which is in Messiah Yeshua (Romans 3:24).
So if justification is the act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin, thus making one right with God, then redemption is the price paid for purchasing that justification. The idea of redemption is best illustrated in the purchasing of a slave. Yeshua redeemed us from slavery to our evil inclinations, our sinful nature (Romans 6:1-4). His death and resurrection frees man from the realm of darkness and brings us into His Kingdom of Light. Now we are free people, but not free to continue to sin (Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 2:16, 1 John 3:9). Our liberty from slavery in Egypt (the kingdom of darkness) makes the way for us to become slaves in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 11:29, Romans 6:18).
What have we seen so far in regard to justification? It is not based on lineage, it is not based on anything we have done or can do, but it requires faith in Yeshua and His redemptive work. The fact that the Torah has been written on our hearts is made evident when we walk in faithfulness to Yeshua, just as He also walked in complete faithfulness to the Father. Because Yeshua has redeemed us from slavery to sin, we must submit ourselves to the yoke of the Kingdom, following in the footsteps of Yeshua.
As we continue into Romans 3:27-28, Paul tells it this way: “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Torah.” Paul is speaking to Jewish believers and saying plainly that neither they nor the Gentiles have to do the works of the Torah to receive justification. While it may be tempting to stop at this point and declare that the Torah is therefore completely unnecessary in the life of the believer, Paul himself refutes this argument as he goes on to say in verses 29-31:
Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. Do we then nullify the Torah through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Torah.
In verse 27 Paul mentions a law of faithfulness. What is the difference between the law of faithfulness and the law of works which Paul is contrasting against each other? We cannot immediately assume that the “law of works” is the Torah, for the Torah itself is a matter of faithfulness. Just when you thought you had the answer, Paul throws us a curve. Let’s analyze how verses 27-31 all fit together.
Israel is not able to boast in the fact that they have the Torah, although it gives them the election. According to God’s plan, their possession of it made the way for the nations to be accepted into the people of God. The law of faith is that through belief in Yeshua, we receive justification, which allows us to walk in faithfulness. This law does not nullify the Torah, but it does stand against seeking to be saved by works of the Torah. If Israel cannot boast because of their possession of the Torah, neither can the Gentiles claim that Yeshua’s faithfulness annuls the Torah, thus also annulling Israel’s election.
God’s faithfulness and righteousness are witnessed to by the Torah (verse 21), and are the grounds of Israel’s election. Paul describes this witness in Galatians 3:8, where he says that this good news of justification for the Gentiles was revealed to Abraham. Here, the Torah itself preaches the good news of God’s promise to Abraham: that through his seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. The sons of Abraham are not just his physical descendants, but are all of those who are faithful to God’s promise to Abraham, to whom God imputed righteousness because of his faithfulness to God (Romans 4:3). Thus the Torah establishes that the “Sons of Abraham” are those who walk parallel with Abraham in faithfulness to God’s promises. Paul assures his Jewish readers that this faithfulness to Yeshua does not annul the Torah, but makes it stand as the standard of living which God has given to His people, both to the Jews and to the nations (Ecclesiastes 12:13, Isaiah 2:3).
So we have seen that: 1. the church has not replaced Israel, and 2. Israel’s sin and rejection of the Messiah has not lead to their own rejection by God, because of His grace which has been given to those who believe in the promises. Although they did not receive Yeshua corporately (as a nation), one of the biggest foundations of the Jewish faith is the belief that the promised Messiah will come. God’s eternal covenant with them justifies those who walk in faithfulness to the Torah and an expectation and belief in the Messiah, just as their father Abraham did. For the Scriptures tell us that all Israel shall be saved: not because of any deeds they have done, but because of their faith and God’s mercy (Isaiah 45:17, Jeremiah 33:16, Romans 11:26-32).
So what is the verdict on justification? According to Paul, all men are unrighteous and unable to stand pure before God, and are thus worthy of eternal punishment. But Yeshua was faithful to God, even to the point of death on the cross, so that He may become righteousness to anyone who will believe. Even though justification cannot be achieved through obedience to the Torah or circumcision (that is, conversion to Judaism), these things are not abolished because of faith, but on the contrary, it is only in faith that the Torah can truly be lived out and that individuals remain members of Israel. The work of Yeshua has also allowed justification to be received by people of the nations by the same law of faith, apart from works of the law. This does not remove Israel from their place before God, and it does not mean that the Torah is done away with. It does mean that all of humankind is made righteous in the sight of God in the same way as they have from the beginning: through faith. When we believe in Yeshua and allow Him to circumcise our heart, our desire will be to live the way He has laid out for us in His word. This holds value for Israel, who shall be saved because of their faithfulness according to their knowledge of who the Messiah is supposed to be and what they expect Him to accomplish according to Scripture, and because of God’s faithfulness to redeem according to His promises revealed in the covenants He has made with them.