The discussion from the end of chapter 2 on circumcision continues as Paul elaborates on how to think about it under the new law. Where, under the old law, circumcision was a physical indicator of loyalty to God, now under the new law circumcision gives way to faith. The question is no longer “are you circumcised?”, but is rather, “Do you believe?” Faith, having rightly replaced circumcision in the new law, it is the path to God. For God alone is righteous in that He knows not sin.
In verses 1-20, Paul is contending with a frame of mind that would seem to think that man in some cases is justified to sin. Rather than being justified in sin, however, our sin in fact “demonstrates the righteousness of God” in that God punishes for sin. We do not have a “right” to sin. In fact, our rights as the created start and end in the arena of properly recognizing our God, heeding His statutes and commandments, and living for Him with grateful hearts. This theme establishes two incontrovertible facts about our Creator:
- Based on His identity and nature, God is justified to judge and punish
- Unbelief in God does not nullify His faithfulness to His people to both reward righteousness and punish sin
The passages that Paul quotes in verses 10-18 are taken from the books of Psalms and Ecclesiastes and are meant to underscore man’s tendency to sin and ignore the teachings of God. Under the law, man was forever corrupt and justification for sin was impossible.
But in verse 21, Paul turns a corner in addressing how the righteousness of God is made apparent apart from the law, namely through Jesus. Where there was no justification for sin in the old law, we have the forgiveness of our sins under the new. In fact, the passage elucidates how the sins under the old law were “passed over” so that the forgiveness in grace through Jesus Christ could be demonstrated with the new law. We are justified in our sins, those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ. This does not allow for the continuation of willing sin, but justifies us in our past sins, and the onus is on each of us to repent and live for righteousness’ sake in the eyes of our benevolent God.
It all boils down to the idea that “man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” This means that all of the works required by the old law (sacrifices and the like) did nothing to cleanse souls from the corruption of sin. Instead, it is the faith in God through Jesus Christ that absolves sin. And this is true for all men. In closing this chapter, Paul makes the point that the law is not forgotten or forsaken by virtue of the new law of faith in Jesus Christ; rather the law is established and made perfect under the new law.