Israel Was Ignorant of the Provision of Christ
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness (10:4a)
Because of that arrogant self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, Jews were blind to the marvelous truth of the New Covenant, that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness. “They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense’ ” (Rom. 9:32–33; cf. Isa. 8:14–15; 28:16). Just as Jesus Christ, “the stumbling stone,” had declared early in His earthly ministry, the manmade self-righteousness characterized by the scribes and Pharisees was repugnant to God and would qualify no one to “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). To the Pharisees who criticized Him for eating with “tax gatherers and sinners,” Jesus said sarcastically, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:11–12). In other words, those who think they are already righteous and acceptable to God will be ignorant of God’s true provision for righteousness.
Paul explained to the church at Philippi that before his conversion he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; … as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Phil. 3:5–6). But he went on to say that he now counted “all those things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and that he no longer relied on “a righteousness of [his] own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 8–9).
Until a person acknowledges his own unrighteousness in light of divine and perfect righteousness, he will see no need for a Savior to liberate him from sin and provide him with God’s own righteousness. No preacher, teacher, or evangelist can faithfully or effectively present the gospel if he does not first convince his hearers of their damning unrighteousness apart from Christ.
Jews in New Testament times sought to fulfill the law by their own efforts and thereby attain a righteousness acceptable to God. But Paul declares that Christ is the only end, the only fulfillment, of perfect, divinely acceptable righteousness.
Some interpreters believe Paul is here referring to the fulfillment of the law of which Jesus spoke when He said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17–18). Others maintain that the apostle is speaking of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Covenant through the New Covenant of the gospel.
Paul cannot be speaking of Christ’s historical fulfillment of the law, as important as that truth is. Christ did indeed historically fulfill the law and the entire Old Covenant by His perfect, sinless life—whether anyone believed in Him or not. But that accomplishment does not provide anyone else with saving righteousness. Rather, as indicated at the end of verse 4, Paul is saying that belief in Christ as Savior and Lord brings to an end the sinner’s futile quest for righteousness through his own imperfect attempts to fulfill the law. When a sinner receives Christ, he also receives the gift of Christ’s own righteousness.
Paul here uses the term law in its most general sense, as representing the totality of God’s commands and requirements under the Old Covenant, including such things as observance of the temple sacrifices and the feasts.
Those who try to please God and thereby attain salvation through legalism or religious ritual—even behavior and forms commanded by Him—pursue an absolutely vain quest, because the best righteousness fallen man can hope to achieve on his own is worth no more than “a filthy garment” in God’s eyes (Isa. 64:6). Anticipating the provision by Christ, Isaiah declared that “only in the Lord are righteousness and strength” (45:24). The glorious truth of the gospel is that God “made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free,” Paul reminded the Galatian believers; “therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). In different words, he explained the same basic truth to the church at Colossae: “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, [God] made you alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–14). In his letter to Rome, Paul has already proclaimed that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom. 3:20–22).
Being willfully ignorant of Christ and His righteousness, the Jews cut themselves off from redemption.
Christ: The Fulfillment of the Law
Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
I have learned many lessons in more than twenty years of Bible study and preaching, and one of the lessons is that things that seem simple often are not. Our text is an example. Romans 10:4 seems to be a very simple verse. After all, what could be more straightforward than the words “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes”? The verse has only seventeen words, less in Greek (nine words), and all but three of the English words have only one syllable.
Yet Romans 10:4 is a difficult verse to interpret.
And here is the interesting thing: It is the simple words (not the polysyllabics) that are the problem.
The two most problematic words are “end” and “law.”
In his excellent commentary on Romans, the great Princeton Theological Seminary scholar Charles Hodge probably reduced the possible meanings of “end” as much as can reasonably be done, but he still speaks of three possible interpretations: (1) “the object to which any thing leads,” (2) the “completion or fulfillment” of something, or (3) an “end or termination.” In terms of our text, if the first meaning is the right one, the verse means that Jesus is that to which the law points so that, if it is properly used, the law will carry the one using it to him. If the second meaning is correct, the idea is that Jesus has himself perfectly fulfilled the law. If the third meaning is chosen, the verse means that Jesus has brought the dispensation of law to an end by dying for sin, rising again, and inaugurating the Christian Era. Obviously, something can be said for each interpretation.
Then, if you add to these difficulties the possible meanings of “law”—the law of Moses, a principle of conduct, the ceremonial law, or moral law—you can see how the difficulties of interpreting this verse proliferate.
How should we proceed?
I am convinced that in this case the most helpful procedure is not to argue the merits of the various possibilities, but to back off from the text itself and instead ask, “How does Jesus Christ fulfill the law?” He does it in a variety of ways. After we have explored those answers, we can then come back to the text, interpret it, and apply it practically.
To Fulfill All Righteousness
The first way in which Jesus fulfilled the law, and thus became the end of the law, is that he kept it perfectly himself. In books written about Jesus’ work, theologians usually distinguish between what they call Christ’s “active” and “passive” obedience. Jesus’ passive obedience refers to his willingness to accept death in conformity to his Father’s will, according to Philippians 2:8:
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Christ’s active obedience refers to the way he carefully and deliberately kept the law of Moses in all respects.
This has several dimensions. It is usually said that Jesus fulfilled the moral law by obeying it perfectly; he was a perfect man. He fulfilled the types and ceremonies of the law by being the reality to which they pointed and by accomplishing in his death what they symbolized; thus, he was himself the perfect sacrifice for sins to which the daily sacrifices and the great sacrifices on the Day of Atonement pointed. Jesus fulfilled the prophecies by living them out to the letter.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred explicitly to two of these areas (and probably the third) when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).
In the story of Jesus’ baptism, according to Matthew, there is a sentence that has bearing on Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. John the Baptist had been alerted by God as to who Jesus was. So, when Jesus came to John to be baptized, John demurred, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14). John had been teaching about the Messiah’s work in baptizing with the Holy Spirit in contrast to his own merely preparatory water baptism. So he meant that he needed to receive a baptism of the Holy Spirit from Jesus, rather than Jesus receiving any benefit from him.
But Jesus responded, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15).
This has been a puzzling statement to many people, since John’s was a baptism for repentance and Jesus had committed no sin for which he needed to repent. But the reason for it seems clear enough.
On the one hand, since baptism signifies identification, it was by his baptism that Jesus willingly identified himself with all the other Israelites who were responding to John’s preaching by turning from their sin to faith in the Messiah. That is, it was a symbol of the union of Jesus with the believer, a doctrine basic to Paul’s theology. We looked at this earlier in these studies.
On the other hand, since Jesus speaks of fulfilling “all righteousness,” it is clear that he also considered this act to be part of his conscious obedience to all that God required. Through John, God had commanded his believing people to be baptized. So Jesus was baptized.
However, the word that I think is most important in the exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist is “all.” For by it Jesus was declaring his intention to fulfill all that God had required. He did this so well that his enemies were unable to accuse him of any wrongdoing, as much as they would have liked to. And God himself affirmed Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law by declaring, just two verses later, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). This divine evaluation was repeated at the time of the transfiguration (see Matt. 17:5 and parallels).
It was because Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly that he was able to be our substitute in dying for us on the cross, truly “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).
This is the first part of the meaning of Paul’s statement in Romans 10:4. It teaches that Christ is “the end of the law” in the sense that he fulfilled or satisfied the demands of the law completely.
Christ Our Righteousness
The second way Jesus became the end of the law is that he fulfilled the law on our behalf, so that now he is not only the source but is himself the righteousness of all who are joined to him by faith. This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:21: “Christ Jesus … has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption,” and “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is what justification is about, and it is what Paul seems chiefly to be talking about in this section of Romans 9 and 10.
We know what Paul teaches about righteousness, of course. But if we can lay that knowledge aside for a moment and go back to look at the end of Romans 9 and the verses that come before our text in Romans 10, we can see at a glance that a major question is unanswered. Paul has contrasted a righteousness that is “by works” with a righteousness that is “by faith” (Rom. 9:32). He has defined the righteousness he is talking about as “God’s righteousness,” showing that it comes “from God” as opposed to righteousness that comes from ourselves (Rom. 10:3). But he has not said in so many words where this righteousness that is “by faith” can be found. Or, to put it in other terms, if righteousness is to be received “by faith” and faith has content, as it must if it is true faith, what is faith’s object?
Those questions are answered by verse 4, which introduces the name of Christ for the first time since the opening paragraph of Romans 9. Jesus is faith’s object. He is the one in whom is located the righteousness we need to be saved.
This justification, by which we stand or fall in the sight of the holy God, involves two corresponding transactions. On the one hand, if we are believers, our sin has been transferred to Jesus Christ and was punished in him when he died in our place on the cross. That is why we sing:
My sin—O the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
On the other hand, his righteousness was transferred to us, with the result that we are now counted as being righteous in him.
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Both belong to justification, and both are true for anyone who has turned from sin and committed his or her life to Jesus Christ. It is what Paul has been writing about in much of the earlier portion of Romans and is reiterating in this passage.
So justification is another meaning of our text: “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
Free at Last
Thus far we have been thinking of the word end as “fulfillment,” or the “culmination” to which something tends. But “end” also sometimes means “termination,” and this, too, is involved in Paul’s statement. It teaches that Christ has ended the law as a system by which we are supposed to attain to righteousness. Or, to put it in other language, he has freed us from the law’s bondage.
I have to be very careful how I say this, because nothing in this study is more apt to be misunderstood—and that from either of two perspectives.
First, I do not mean, as one commentator has written, that “Christ put a stop to the law as a means of salvation.” The reason it cannot mean this is that the law never was a means of salvation. Paul has spoken of the true purpose of the law in Romans 7, showing that the law was given to reveal the nature and extent of our sin and to point us to Jesus Christ as the only place salvation can be found. So, whatever “the end of the law” means, it clearly does not mean that Christ terminated it as a way of getting saved.
But neither does it mean the end of any continuing value for the law, for the law is part of Scripture, and “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). In fact, in Romans 3 Paul asked, “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?” and answered, “Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (v. 31). In Romans 7 he said, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (v. 12).
The best way of understanding this point is by something the apostle Peter said at the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15. Representatives of the expanding church had gathered in Jerusalem to decide the question of whether or not the Gentiles needed to submit to the law of Moses, which the Jewish church at that time upheld. It involved the ceremonial laws of Israel as well as the moral law, and the focal point of the debate was circumcision. Was it necessary for Gentile males to be circumcised to be Christians?
As you know, the council decided that it was not necessary. But the reason I refer to this debate is for something Peter said in the midst of it. He argued that God had saved the Gentiles without their becoming Jews, giving the Holy Spirit to them just as to Jewish converts. “Now then,” he said, “why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). The “yoke” was the law. So Peter was admitting that the law had been a burden for the Jews in the past and was arguing that it should not be imposed on the Gentiles, since even the Jews had been unable to sustain that harsh burden.
Does that mean that he was encouraging lawlessness, then? Not at all. He was encouraging righteousness, which is my next point. The council’s decree reiterated some of the law’s moral absolutes, but Peter was acknowledging that righteousness is not attained by legalism. That is, you do not become a better follower of Jesus Christ or a more holy person by adhering to a list of rules. The moral end of the law is attained by Christians, but it is attained by a different principle. It is by the life of Jesus Christ within the believer.
We need to remember that an entire book of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, was written to combat the notion that Christians are to make their lives better or advance their discipleship by legalism. The Galatians were not saved by keeping the law but through faith, as Paul repeatedly points out. Therefore, why should they fall back into legalism? They should continue as they had started out. The main point of Galatians is summarized at the start of chapter 5: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Righteousness in Us
This leads to my final point, because, whenever we speak of Jesus, the law, and righteousness, we need to say that Jesus has as his ultimate goal in saving us that we are to be a holy people. I need to add that I do not believe that is what this verse teaches. I think it is primarily teaching about justification—from the context and because Paul says that Jesus is the end of the law “so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” A righteousness for us is a righteousness imparted to us by God for Christ’s sake. That is what Paul says.
But Paul also could have said, “… so that there may be righteousness in [or practiced by] everyone who believes,” which would mean an actual righteousness to be attained by us.
How can I say this?
It is because Paul says it himself:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
Romans 8:1–4, emphasis added
We are neither justified nor sanctified by the law. But those who are justified will also be progressively sanctified by the Spirit of Christ who lives within them, and this means that they will inevitably and increasingly live righteous lives. If they do not, they are not Christians.
I said at the start of this study that I wanted to return to some practical applications of our text, and I do that now. There are many, but I want to mention three.
- Christ is everything. It is hard for us to imagine how important the law of Moses was for Jewish people living in Paul’s day. The law is important for Jews today, of course, even though tradition has tended to replace a thorough knowledge of it. But it was more so then. The law was the very essence of Jewish religion. Yet Paul, who was himself a Jew, is telling us that Christ is the culmination, fulfillment, and (in a sense) termination of the law. For he “is the end of the law.” It is a way of saying that everything that matters in salvation and religion is in him.
One commentator writes, “Instead of the temple it is to be Christ; instead of Moses, Christ; instead of Aaron, Christ; instead of the law, Christ; instead of ceremonies, Christ; instead of worship localized in a building, there is to be the eternal, omnipotent Christ.” It is impossible to exalt the nature and place of the Lord Jesus Christ too much.
- If I am in Christ, I will never be condemned for breaking the law or be rejected by God. How could I be, since Jesus has fulfilled the law on my behalf and has borne the punishment due to me for breaking it? He has become my righteousness.
- To be “in him” I must believe on him. For the verse also tells me, “Christ is the end of the law … for everyone who believes.” For everyone? Yes, but for everyone who believes. The promise is universal and specific.
In one of his books, Harry Ironside tells of a young woman he led to the Lord on one occasion. She had received a Christian upbringing, but she had thrown her heritage to the wind and had lived a worldly life. Now she was dying of tuberculosis and had sent for Ironside. She had been given three weeks to live. “Do you think there is any hope for a sinner like me?” she asked when she saw Ironside.
Ironside led her through the gospel, coming at last to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
“Are you included in that ‘whoever’?” he asked the woman.
By this point she was ready to commit herself to Christ and did so, and Ironside assured her that if she was truly in Christ there was no condemnation for her, even though she had lived a sinful life and was coming to Jesus at what was apparently the very end of it. John 3:18 said: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already. …”
A month or so later, after Ironside had finished his meetings in that area and had gone elsewhere, he was told of her passing. Her minister had been with her. “Can you hear me?” he had asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?” he continued.
“What does he say about you?”
“Not condemned,” she replied. And then, uttering her last words, “If you see Mr. Ironside, tell him it’s all right.”
It is all right, and will be. “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
4 Israel’s covenantal relation to God and reliance on law keeping do not add up to salvation, since only in and through God’s Messiah is salvation possible (cf. Jn 14:6; Ac 4:12). For this reason, Paul points away from the law and instead to Christ as the way to righteousness for Israel, just as for the Gentiles. The proof that Israel was out of line with respect to the will of God, to the extent of rebelling against him, lies in the fact that when he sent his Son as the bringer of a salvation in full accord with the divine righteousness, the nation rejected him. The same kind of revolution in thinking that was necessary for Paul is required for his people.
Considerable debate has focused on the interpretation of v. 4, especially on the intended meaning of the word the NIV translates as “end” (most translations use this word and thus preserve the ambiguity of Paul’s statement; contrast NJB, “the Law has found its fulfilment in Christ”). Just as in English we speak of “the end of the matter” and use the expression “to the end that”—the one expression meaning conclusion or termination, and the other, purpose or goal—the Greek word telos (GK 5465) allows the same dual possibility. Commentators have been seriously divided about which way to take telos in Paul’s statement, though the majority seem to favor the conclusion that Paul here speaks of the termination of the law (e.g., Käsemann, Dodd, Michel, Sanday and Headlam, Nygren, Stuhlmacher, Schreiner). The decisive factor that favors “termination” rather than “purpose” as the main idea is the contrast in 9:30–32 between the law and God’s righteousness (cf. 10:5–6). Though the law is righteous in its requirements, it fails as an instrument of justification (cf. 8:3–4). Paul’s contention regarding the Jews (v. 3) is not the incompleteness of their position, which needed the coming of Christ to perfect it, but the basic incorrectness of it, because it entailed an effort to establish righteousness by human effort rather than by acceptance of the divine gift. Also favorable to this understanding is the fact that the law had a certain course to run in God’s economy (see esp. Gal 3:19–25; cf. Lk 16:16), and now with the coming of Christ, the law, having fulfilled its job, has come to an end. The law has been terminated both in a salvation-historical sense and in a soteriological sense (cf. 3:21). Adolf Schlatter (Romans: The Righteousness of God [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995], 213) writes, “God’s righteousness has become manifest in that Christ is the end of the law and thus he also is the end of all of the individual’s own righteousness. For the believer righteousness is brought about precisely because Christ acts apart from the law and takes its place as the individual’s Lord.”
At the same time, the second meaning has some plausibility here, since there is also a sense in which (1) Christ is himself the goal of the law as its fulfillment, and (2) Christ has not brought the law to an end but rather to its goal (examples of those who favor this interpretation include Barth, Cranfield, Fitzmyer, Byrne, and Badenas [see note at 10:4]). If we think of the goal of the law as righteousness and the fact that Paul has argued that the gospel upholds the law because Christians will produce the righteousness of which the law spoke (e.g., 8:4), then we can see how the passage can easily be taken in this way. It also fits with Paul’s teaching about the law as the child-leader to bring human beings to Christ (Gal 3:24).
In fact, surprisingly, both concepts—termination and goal—seem to fit our passage rather well; it is, therefore, tempting to conclude that both ideas are true, namely, that in Christ the law has in one sense been brought to its termination, but in another sense the law has arrived at its intended purpose. A number of commentators who favor the idea of termination also see the possibility of truth in the fulfillment idea (e.g., Barrett, Bruce, Achtemeier, Dunn, Moo, Edwards).
Paul adds a certain qualification to the statement about Christ as “the end of the law so that there may be righteousness.” He is that “for everyone who believes.” This seems to imply that the law is still applicable to those who do not believe: “Those who have not yet passed from the being-in-the-Law to the being-in-Christ, and those who allow themselves to be misled into exchanging the being-in-Christ for the being-under-the-Law, are under the Law and are made to feel its power” (A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle [New York: Holt, 1931], 189).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 2, pp. 66–68). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: God and History (Vol. 3, pp. 1165–1172). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 159–160). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.