Was Christ’s Coming the End of the Law? (Romans 10)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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4For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.5For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

The End?

“End” (Gk. telos) in this verse could mean some kind of termination, a goal, or both. Christ is the termination of the law in the sense that he ushers in a new age—both continuous with and different from the former age. Christ destroys the delusion (which OT writings also opposed; cf. comment on 10:8) that a sinner can be justified before God by his own merit. The gospel message rules out “law” so conceived. Jesus says as much in claiming that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The loftiest possible religious and moral achievement pales next to the eternal perfection of God in his holiness.

ESV Expository Commentary

Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.

Christ is the goal of the law in the sense that the law points and leads the way to Christ (Gal. 3:24). With all pretense of justifying oneself by law keeping aside, the way is open to be justified by faith. “Everyone who believes” confirms that all alike, Jew and Gentile, find salvation only through faith in Christ as offered in the gospel message.

Heart Change

Paul wishes to show that his critique of mistaken self-confidence based on law keeping is not original to him. In fact, it comes from Moses. Drawing on Leviticus 18:5, Paul describes an approach to the law that understands it as the road to life (“shall live by them,” with “live” understood as attaining God’s promised blessing). The problem with this, as Paul has already noted, is that it is only the “doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom. 2:13)—and no mere man has ever kept the law perfectly, either in Moses’ time or since.

The view Paul describes here is not true even to Moses, who understood that a heart change was necessary to be right with God (Deut. 10:16; 30:6). The law could convict of sin and direct those seeking God toward the love of God and neighbor. It guided Israel in myriad ways toward a personal and corporate life reflecting God’s holiness and expressing devotion to him. But keeping the law was never designed to be a paint-by-number exercise in constructing a mural showcasing one’s own righteousness. That would have been a misunderstanding of what “live by them” meant. It was a misunderstanding common in Paul’s own time, as it still is today—ask many people why they think they might go to heaven and they will say something like “I try to keep the Ten Commandments” or “I think I am a pretty good person.” Personal moral status or achievement are viewed as sufficient to garner God’s approval and ward off judgment, if there be any.

Why We Need Faith

But there is another approach to the law, one that points to the gospel message. Paul describes it first by quoting Moses to point to the “righteousness based on faith” rather than establishing personal righteousness through law keeping (which is and always has been an illusion).

Paul quotes (with slight variation) from Deuteronomy 30:11–14. In this passage Moses states that “this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off” (Deut. 30:11). People may go to great lengths imagining how to understand and comply with the law’s myriad demands—this is the point of “ascend into heaven” and “descend into the abyss.” This is overthinking what Moses says, which is not that big of a mystery—“not too hard for you, neither is it far off.”

The Israelites’ objection to Moses’ (God’s) commands that someone needed to “ascend into heaven” to obey them was tantamount to saying centuries before Christ’s incarnation, “We need to ‘bring Christ down.’” The objection that someone needed to plumb the depths of death’s “abyss” was tantamount to saying centuries before Christ’s burial and resurrection, “We need to ‘bring Christ up from the dead.’”

This is specious reasoning, according to both Moses and Paul: “Do not say in your heart” means to not think or talk like this. It is neither possible nor necessary for sinners under the law to justify themselves by the law. Only Christ can justify, and not by law but by his work and promise received by faith—as Paul will now point out.

Word of Faith

“But what does it say?” is Paul’s appeal to the reader to pay close attention to God’s Word. When Moses said to the Israelites, “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” he was proclaiming the gospel in advance. Salvation was by God’s promise, received through hearing (Deut. 4:10, 36; 5:1; 6:3–4; 9:1; 13:11; etc.). But Moses had to tell the people, “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:4). The wilderness generation to whom Moses preached had stonewalled Moses and God by not letting God’s Word tell them what they needed (but did not want) to hear and thereby be saved.

Paul seeks to avoid that situation among his hearers (or readers). He desires them to discern already in Moses the “word of faith that we proclaim.”

Christ is the goal of the law in the sense that the law points and leads the way to Christ.

Paul sees a correspondence, a foreshadowing, in Moses’ statement that God’s saving Word “is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Rom. 10:8). That Word has transforming potential, as Jesus recognized when he quoted Moses (“man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”; Deut. 8:3) at his temptation (Matt. 4:4).

What Moses foreshadowed by calling people to hear, the gospel announces as fulfilled. It calls people to a trust that compels them to “confess with [their] mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in [their] heart that God raised him from the dead.”

Jesus’ lordship and his resurrection (which implies and includes his crucifixion for our sins) are the pillars of saving Christian confession. “You will be saved” is not only eschatological (eternity in heaven). It speaks to a transformed current existence, just as Moses’ call to do what God commanded (Lev. 18:5; Deut. 4:1; 8:1), rightly received, had heart-changing potential.

The Heart

“The heart” is the core of the inner person, the full and real “I” convicted of sin by the law and Holy Spirit. This person hears the gospel message in some semblance of its fullness, “believes” that God raised Jesus who died for our sins, and as a result “is justified.”

Along with the heart touched and transformed, the mouth reflects an inner alteration (“out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”; Matt. 12:34) as shown by what it confesses—“Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9). This is not just lip service but brings “life to your mortal bodies” (8:11) as believers “put to death the deeds of the body” (8:13) and “bear fruit for God” (7:4). “Is saved,” as in 10:9, refers to life both presently and in the coming age.

This article is by Robert W. Yarborough and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10).

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