“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law?” (Romans 3:31, KJV)
In our theological training we were encouraged to come with our own translation/reading. For me that would be: The law, then, is nullified through the faith? No way! Instead, the law is confirmed.
As usual in Paul’s writing, he uses a lot the dialogue, either with an imaginary interlocutor or with his readers. In this case, he just goes ahead of himself, trying to meet his reader’s first idea.
We all come with prejudices when reading the Bible text, and what we know, what we were taught comes to our mind more rapidly than a disposition to get a brand new reading for an insight or a fresh idea. For us, “making void the law” would mean to take away the law and live without a law by which our deeds would be sanctioned. The Christians would call it live by grace, not by law.
As for some Christians this is the Gospel – the Good News -, for the Jews the idea was all the way despicable and even frightful since doing away with God’s law was the opening way to law’s curse – the Bad News. For some SDAs (me included), the faith Paul spoke here as the reinforcement of the (same) law as it was understood by Jews was the unfortunate way we got it and preached to others. May I regretfully say that the Jews were bad without Jesus. While we, as Christians and Adventists, having Jesus, are worse when we emphasize the law without Christ…
For Paul, instead, it is a remembrance of his own history – and we can read it in between the lines. We know how he persecuted the Christians due to his perceiving that they were blaspheming the truth of God, law being included. Later he became one of them, unfortunately not rightly understood by his fellow Jews – read for example the cry against him „Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law…” (Acts 21:28).
The immediate thought following Paul’s reasoning of v. 21-30, introduced by „then” (as a conclusion) is that faith nullifies the law. So, being one step ahead, Paul already has thought about it. He dares to ask it before someone else does. Thus he not only shows he is not taken by surprise, but, again, courageously addresses what would be his opponents’ most impressive and logical argument.
The answer he gives in the first place is not the explanation, but just meeting the question. As he answers „no way” is obvious that, if anyone understood it as a positive assertion, it’s all the way wrong. His first answer ranges (may be translated) from „not at all” or „far from it”, to „no way” and „impossible”, to „God forbid” (or even „sorry, but you didn’t get it”).
The sequence of question and answer seems logical, although we are disturbed by the negative answer. And then comes the real question: how is that possible? How is it possible to be considered righteous without the law? How can we establish, confirm, stand by the law when we go by faith? Are they not fighting with each other, are they not something like “either or”?
The answer comes by the next paragraphs, when, quoting not the law, but instead the history of his people and the psalms, Paul finds and extracts the same meaning. Checking with their most appreciated ancestor’s experience, Abraham, Paul demonstrates he was considered righteous without (that is before) having a law. As for the Psalmist, he praises as blessed the one forgiven by God without the law, without having some kind of deeds to boast about.
The whole dilemma resides in the meaning of the law. The law was given to show you God’s character, to teach you how to live according to His will, to show you how you are. In other words the law was given to show you who God is and who you are, fortunately both in the same time. So, the law was given to bring you to your knees and admit your shortcomings, no matter the request.
Accordingly, a real confirming of the law would be done by two avenues: you either keep the law, all of it (and only Jesus did that), or you come to God with your faults, saying that you cannot do it, and thus you give God credit for His Jesus solution, for His plan of salvation . As Paul demonstrated that we are all sinners, coming short of God’s glory, and thus being under the law’s curse, then Jesus is the only solution, and faith is the only avenue to get righteous.
Understood as presented, Paul’s assumption that we confirm the law (no doubt, at this point the Jews would either cry for blasphemy or check for stones) is indeed more insightful than ever. A faith manifested as desired by God would mean to ask God for his forgiveness, as man admits he is not able to meet His standards. And that is the right moment when God can say „yes, you do keep the law”, or „yes, you understand my character” and so, „yes, you are declared righteous”.
The faith we are asked to express is the way God wants us to come to Him, without the law, to fulfill the law. This is both mind boggling and eye-opener. How is it possible to be considered righteous without the law? How can we establish, confirm, stand by the law when we go by faith? By coming to God as we really are, we discover God as He really is.