“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: Yea, we establish the law.” (Romans 3:31)
St. Paul, having laid down in the beginning of this epistle his general proposition that “the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (the powerful means, by which God makes every believer a partaker of salvation), goes on to show that there is no other way under heaven by which men can be saved. He speaks particularly of salvation from the guilt of sin, which he calls justification. That all men stood in need of this, he proves by various arguments addressed to the Jews as well as the heathens. And so he infers (in 3:13), “that every mouth be stopped” from excusing or justifying himself, “and all the world become guilty before God” (3:19). “Therefore, by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight.” “But now the righteousness of God without the law,” without our previous obedience to it, “is manifested;” “even the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon all that believe:” “For there is no difference,” as to their need of justification, or the way they attain it; “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” the glorious image of God in which they were created. And all (who attain this) “are justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood; that He might be just, and yet the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus;” that without compromising His justice, He might show mercy for the sake of that propitiation. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the works of the law” (3:20–28).
It is easy to foresee an objection which has been raised in every age; that to say we are justified without the works of the law is to abolish the law. The Apostle, without entering into this dispute, simply denies the charge. “Do we then,” he says, “make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.”
Strangely, some imagine that St. Paul, when he says, “A man is justified without the works of the law,” means only the ceremonial law. But that is refuted by these words. Did St. Paul establish the ceremonial law? It is evident he did not. He voided that law through faith, and openly said so. It was the moral law only of which he said, in effect, “We do not abolish it, but rather establish it through faith.”
But there are many who will not agree to this. Many throughout the history of the Church, even some who called themselves Christians, have argued that the new covenant was intended to abolish the whole law. They would not allow the moral or the ceremonial law, but say, “If you establish any law, Christ shall profit you nothing; Christ is become of no effect to you; ye are fallen from grace.”
But is there any wisdom in the zeal of these men? Do they realize that law and faith are connected and that to destroy one is to destroy both? To abolish the moral law is to leave no proper means of bringing us to faith, or of stirring up that gift of God in our soul.
Therefore, it is wise for all who desire either to come to Christ, or to walk in Him whom they have received, to be careful not to “make void the law through faith.” Therefore, let us ask, first, what are the ways in which men usually “void the law through faith?” And, second, how can we follow the Apostle, and “establish the law” by faith?
Common Ways of Making the Law Void through Faith
1. By Not Preaching the Law
What are the most common ways of making the law void through faith? The way for a preacher to make it void is not to preach it at all. This is the same as to erase it from God’s Word. This is especially true when it is done intentionally; when it is made a rule not to preach the law; and the very phrase, “a preacher of the law,” is used as a term of contempt, as though it meant nothing more than an enemy of the gospel.
All of this comes from the deepest ignorance of the nature, characteristics, and use of the law; and proves that those who act in this way either do not know Christ or are only babes in Christ, and “unskilled in the word of righteousness.”
Their grand idea is this: that preaching the gospel, which is, according to their opinion, speaking of nothing but the sufferings and merits of Christ, fulfills all the purposes of the law. We deny this completely. It does not fulfill even the first purpose of the law, which is to convict men of sin; awakening those who are still sleeping on the brink of hell. There may have been some who were awakened simply by hearing the gospel, but God’s ordinary method is to convict sinners by the law. The gospel is not the means which God has ordained, or which our Lord himself used, for this purpose. We have no authority in Scripture for applying it in this way, nor any reason to expect this, from the nature of the gospel itself. “They that be whole,” as our Lord observes, “need not a physician, but they that are sick.” It is absurd, therefore, to offer a physician to those who imagine themselves to be whole. You must first convince them that they are sick; otherwise they will not thank you for your efforts. It is equally absurd to offer Christ to those whose hearts have not yet been broken. It is “casting pearls before swine.” “They will trample them under foot,” and, more than likely, also “turn again and rend you.”
There is no command in Scripture to offer Christ to a careless sinner, nor are there any examples of it in Scripture. This does not appear to have been the practice of any of the Apostles, from any passage in their writings. And though Paul preached Christ as well as the greatest of the Apostles, who preached the law more than he did? It is clear, then, that he did not think that the gospel served the same purpose.
St. Paul’s first recorded sermon concludes with these words: “By Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you which is spoken of in the Prophets; Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: For I work a work in your days, a work which you will in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you” (Acts 13:39, etc.). He first reminds them that they could not be justified by the law of Moses, but only by faith in Christ; and then threatens them with the judgments of God, which is, in the strongest sense, preaching the law.
In his next discourse, to the heathens at Lystra (14:15, etc.), we do not find one mention of the name of Christ. Rather, the whole thrust of it is that they should “turn from those vain idols, unto the living God.”
To the jailer, when “he sprang in and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul immediately said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:29, etc.). In the case of one so deeply convicted of sin, who would not have said the same? But you find him speaking in a very different manner to the men of Athens; coming against their superstition, ignorance, and idolatry; and strongly urging them to repent, out of a consideration of future judgment, and the resurrection from the dead (17:24-31). Likewise, when Felix sent for Paul, to “hear him concerning the faith in Christ;” instead of preaching Christ in your sense, “he reasoned of righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come,” until Felix “trembled” (24:24, 25). Go follow his example. Preach Christ to the careless sinner by reasoning “of righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come!”
Paul’s epistles are directed, not to unbelievers, such as those of whom we are now speaking, but to the saints of God in various places. Unquestionably, he would speak more of Christ to these than to the ones who were without God, and he has done so. And yet, every epistle is full of the law, even the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians; in both of which he does what is called “preaching the law.”
From this it is clear what it means to preach Christ, in the sense of the Apostle. For it is certain that St. Paul considered himself to be preaching Christ to Felix, and also at Antioch, Lystra, and Athens. From his example every thinking man must conclude, that not only proclaiming the love of Christ to sinners, but also declaring that He will come from heaven in flaming fire, is, in the Apostle’s sense, preaching Christ in the full scriptural meaning of the word. To preach Christ is to preach what He has revealed, either in the Old or New Testament; so you are just as truly preaching Christ when you are saying, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God,” as when you are saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”
Consider this well; to preach Christ is to preach everything that Christ has spoken; all His promises; all His warnings and commands; all that is written in His book; then you will know how to preach Christ, without making the law void.
When we preach to a congregation of mourners, or of believers, those messages in which we emphasize the merits and sufferings of Christ will probably bring the greatest blessing, because these words fit well with their condition. At the very least, these will usually convey the most comfort. But comfort is not always the greatest blessing. I sometimes receive greater benefit from a discourse that cuts me to the heart, and humbles me to the dust.
2. By Teaching That Faith Makes Holiness Less Necessary
A second way of making the law void through faith is by teaching that faith supersedes the need for holiness. This way divides into a thousand smaller paths, and there are many that walk in them. There are so few who, once being convinced that we are saved by faith, do not sooner or later, to one degree or another, fall into this way of thinking.
Some do not believe that faith in Christ sets aside the necessity of keeping His law entirely; but they assume either that holiness is less necessary now than it was before Christ came or that a lesser degree of it is necessary. They think they can take more liberty in certain situations than they could have before they believed. If they could realize that they are using the term liberty to mean liberty from obedience or holiness, it would show at once that their judgment is perverted, and that they are guilty of making the law void through faith, by supposing that faith supersedes holiness.
The first argument of those who teach this is that we are now under the covenant of grace, not works; and therefore we are no longer required to perform the works of the law. But who was ever under the covenant of works? No one but Adam before the fall. He was under that covenant which required perfect obedience as the one condition of acceptance. But no other man was ever under this, neither Jew nor Gentile; neither before Christ nor since. All of Adam’s sons were and are under the covenant of grace. The manner of their acceptance is this: the free grace of God, through the merits of Christ, giving pardon to those who believe with that faith which, working by love, produces all obedience and holiness.
The case is not, therefore, that men were at one time more obliged to obey God, or to perform the works of His law, than they are now. All good works, though as necessary as ever, do not come before our acceptance, but result from it. Therefore the nature of the covenant of grace gives you no basis on which you may set aside obedience or holiness.
“But are we not justified by faith, without the works of the law?” Undoubtedly we are; without the works either of the ceremonial or the moral law. And if all men were convinced of this, it would prevent innumerable evils; antinomianism in particular. Usually it is the Pharisees who create the antinomians. Running in a path so obviously contrary to Scripture, they cause others to run in the totally opposite direction. And so, because some desire to be justified by works, others are afraid to allow any place for them.
But the truth lies between these two extremes. We are justified by faith. This is the cornerstone of the whole Christian building. We are justified without the works of the law, as a condition of justification; but rather they are the immediate fruit of justifying faith. So if good works do not follow our faith, both inward and outward holiness, it is clear that our faith is worthless; we are still in our sins. Therefore, that we are justified by faith without works is no basis for making the law void through faith or for imagining that faith is an exemption from holiness.
Some object, “But does St. Paul not say, ‘Unto him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness?’ Does that not prove that faith replaces righteousness? And if faith replaces righteousness or holiness, what need is there of this too?” This comes to the point, and is the main pillar of antinomianism. But it does not require a long answer. We agree, first, that God justifies him that, until that moment, is totally ungodly; full of evil, and void of good; second, that He justifies the ungodly that, until that moment, can do no good works; third, that He justifies him by faith alone, without any preceding goodness or righteousness; and, fourth, that faith is then credited to him as preceding righteousness; that is, God, through the merits of Christ, accepts him that believes as if he had already fulfilled all the conditions of righteousness. But the Apostle does not say, either here or elsewhere, that this faith is counted to him for subsequent righteousness. He teaches that there is no righteousness before faith; but where does he teach that there is none after it? He asserts that holiness cannot precede justification; but not that it must not follow it. St. Paul, therefore, gives no excuse for making the law void by teaching that faith supersedes the need for holiness.
3. By Living As Though Faith Excuses Us from Holiness
Another way of making the law void through faith is by doing it practically; living as though faith excuses us from holiness.
How earnestly the Apostle guards us against this with those well-known words: “What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid” (Romans 6:15). This caution is of the greatest importance.
Being “under the law,” could possibly mean, first, being required to observe the ceremonial law; second, being required to conform to the whole Mosaic system; third, being required to keep the whole moral law as the condition of our acceptance by God; and, fourth, being under God’s anger and curse; under the sentence of eternal death; under a sense of guilt and condemnation, full of horror and fear.
Although a believer is “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,” from the moment he believes, he is no longer “under the law” in any of the preceding senses. Because he is no longer under the ceremonial law, nor under the Mosaic system; because he is not required to keep even the moral law as the condition of his acceptance; he is delivered from God’s anger and curse, from that sense of guilt and condemnation, and from all that horror and fear of death and hell by which he was once enslaved. And he now obeys (which while “under the law” he could not do) willinglly and completely. He does not obey out of fear, but on a nobler principle; that is, the grace of God ruling in his heart, and causing all he does to be done in love.
What then? Will this evangelical principle of action be less powerful than the legal one? Will we be less obedient to God out of love than we were out of fear? Has this practical antinomianism infected you? Examine yourself carefully and honestly. Do you do now what you dared not do when you were “under the law,” or (as we commonly call it) under conviction? Do you allow yourself more flexibility now? Do you indulge yourself a little more than you did? Take care that you do not “sin because you are not under the law, but under grace!” Is your conscience as tender now as it was then? Have you gone back to the things you had once given up; the things you could not use at that time without wounding your conscience? And have you learned to say, “I am not so scrupulous now?” I wish to God you were! Then you would not sin in this way, “because you are not under the law, but under grace!” Do not let the mercy of God mean less to you now than His fiery indignation did before. Is love a less powerful motive than fear? If not, let it be your unchanging rule: “I will do nothing now that I am ‘under grace,’ which I dared not do when ‘under the law.’”
Examine yourself, likewise, concerning sins of omission. Are you as innocent of these, now that you “are under grace,” as you were when “under the law?” You were diligent then in hearing the word of God! What could have kept you away? A little business? A visitor? A slight illness? A soft bed? A dark or cold morning? Repent! See and feel your terrible loss! Remember how far you have fallen! Now be zealous and do the works that you did at first; or else, if you continue to “make void the law through faith,” God may cut you off, and reward you as one of the unbelievers!
This excerpt from John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century by Stephen Gibson.