The Greek word for “grace” is charis, meaning a gift or favor. Paul makes it clear throughout his writings that God’s grace leading to salvation is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). But Paul’s overall perspective toward Christian works is generally ignored by opponents of obedience to God’s law.
Look at Paul’s perspective in the next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Those who ignore the reasons for our being God’s “workmanship,” who ignore why we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” and why we are to “walk in them,” miss a major part of Paul’s message.
Notice the correlation Paul draws between our obedient works related to salvation and God’s work within us to accomplish His purpose in us: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Certainly forgiveness and salvation are gifts from God. They cannot be earned. As human beings we possess nothing of sufficient value to pay for the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation. Yet Jesus bluntly tells us that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3-5). Through repentance we do not earn salvation, but repentance is a prerequisite for salvation.
Repentance is simply turning away from sin, forsaking lawless behavior (1 John 3:4). We can’t receive God’s Holy Spirit and be converted unless we are willing to repent and live as law-abiding people (Acts 2:38).
Faith is another prerequisite for salvation. We read that “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6). We must be “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). But simply because faith is required by God doesn’t mean we earn salvation by having faith.
Neither do we earn salvation through works. But, as the many scriptures cited in this study guide show, God clearly expects faith and obedience in those to whom He will extend the gift of eternal life. Those who oppose the need for obedience to God’s laws choose to emphasize certain statements Paul makes and totally ignore others that clarify his intent.
Paul’s discussion of faith and works in Romans 3 is one such passage. In Romans 3:28 we read, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Paul is here discussing initial justification—Christ’s death covering our previous transgressions and God accepting our repentant resolve to change. Paul is showing that we could never earn forgiveness.
But that is a different subject than the importance of God’s law as the guide to our behavior and how we are supposed to live. Paul is talking only about how “sins that were previously committed” can be “passed over” (Romans 3:25) so we can get on with our lives as obedient servants of God.
To make sure we understand this, Paul says in Romans 3:31: “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”
Paul wants us to understand that he is not even hinting that God’s law was voided or abolished. On the contrary, without the law we would have no way of understanding what sin is or is not because “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Remember, for sin to exist there has to be law because “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).
Therefore, on one level Paul is saying that the concept of God’s “grace” or forgiveness establishes that His law is still in effect and that sin is breaking that law. God’s grace through faith requires a law that defines the sins that are to be forgiven. On another level, we should recognize that faith is what makes proper obedience possible. So, repeating Paul, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” (Be sure to also read “Faith Puts the Law on ‘Firmer Footing’”.)
To learn more about this subject, request or download our free book The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God’s Law?