The end of the law?

What does Paul mean when he says in Romans 10:4 that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”?

Let me first tell you what it does not mean. It does not mean that we do not have to keep the commandments. There is this silly notion about that the grace of God frees us from the obligation to obey him. Not so. If anything, grace increases our obligation to obey.

Paul says in his letter to Titus that the grace of God teaches us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age” (Tit. 2:11-12).

In First Corinthians he says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).

In Hebrews we read that Christ has become the “source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9).

So when Paul says that Christ is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes,” he is not saying that the law itself has come to an end and therefore we no longer need to obey God’s commandments. Rather, he is countering a common misunderstanding the Jews had concerning the law. In the two previous verses he said,
I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God [that is, the righteousness that comes from God as a gift through Christ], and seeking to establish their own [righteousness], they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:2-3).
Paul is referring to the view of so many Jews at the time—and the view that he himself held before he came to know Christ—that it was possible to establish one’s own righteousness before God by a strict fulfillment of the law’s commands, especially in those things that set the Jews apart from other people, like the kosher and purity laws as they were explained and applied by the traditions of the elders. The law was viewed as a kind of ladder of merit by which one could climb into the favor of God.

This is what is behind a prayer in the Siddur, or Jewish prayer book.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who did not make me a gentile.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who did not make me a slave.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who did not make me a woman.
The rationale behind this prayer is that there are more commandments that apply to free men than to slaves, and more that apply to male slaves than to women. And if there are more commandmentss to obey, then there is a greater share of righteousness to be had by free men than by either slaves or women.

But Paul says, “No, no, no! That’s not how it works at all. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The word “end” in this passage is not to be taken in the sense of termination—as if the law is no more—but in the sense of goal. It’s the Greek word telos, from which we get the word teleology, which in philosophy is the study of purpose or design or in Aristotelian terms of final cause.

People will sometimes say, “I am working toward that end,” meaning, “I’m working toward that goal” or “for that purpose.”

So Paul says that Christ is the “end” of the law for righteousness. He means that Christ, and the righteousness to be had in him and through him, is the goal of the law. In other words, whatever one may have hoped to have achieved in the way of righteousness by the law is instead achieved in Christ.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul said, I would rather be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).

This is a righteousness that is freely available to everyone, and in equal measure. It is not the case that a free male may achieve a greater share of righteousness than a male slave, and a male slave more than a woman. It’s this thinking that led Paul to say in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

It is true that more commandments apply to men than to women; and more to free men than to slaves. But righteousness is not reckoned by the number of commandments one fulfills, but by whether or not one is joined to Christ by faith. Jews and Gentiles, men and women, free men and slaves may all have an equal share in the righteousness of Christ because he is the end or goal of the law for righteousness. When you have him you have everything you need in the way of righteousness.

I wish to stress that this doesn’t mean that obedience to God’s commandments is unnecessary. We are to obey his commandments. How could it be otherwise? And besides, obedience is the natural and inevitable result of faith. If you believe God, then when he says do this or that, you will do it. If he says don’t do this or that, you won’t do it. It’s absurd to say that you believe in God when you don’t obey him.


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