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Romans 10:5

Paul now sets forth from Moses’ writing a picture of the kind of righteousness Israel has sought, the kind that does not lead to true righteousness: righteousness based on law.

In the following verses, 5-9, Paul contrasts two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness of the law (like Israel sought) and the righteousness of faith (the kind the Gentiles discovered).

Earlier, in Romans 9:30-31, Paul demonstrates from what Moses writes the principle that true righteousness comes from faith. In this chapter, Paul quotes from Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 30 as evidence. So, in a great irony, Paul uses the words of the law (the Old Testament) to refute the competing Jewish “authorities” claim that righteousness comes from the law, rather than by faith.

In this passage, Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5, the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness, meaning, “You follow the law if you do the law.” But Paul expects his audience to understand the full context of the passage. In Leviticus 18, Moses lays out many rules about not imitating the Egyptian or Canaanite cultures; he lists many detailed rules concerning various sexual perversions to avoid.

One of Moses’s rules is don’t have sexual relations with close relatives. Moses adds to this rule by clarifying that no one should have sexual relations with your mother, or your father’s wife. Your father’s wife is not your full mother, so Moses has to close that loophole. Leviticus 18 continues: “Do not have sexual relations with your sister, or your mother’s daughter, or your father’s daughter, whether born at home or elsewhere.” Once again, Moses is closing loopholes. It should be enough to say “Don’t have sexual relations with a close relative,” but Moses goes on to describe what “close relative” means in considerable detail. Why? Because someone might say, “It’s ok, she is not my sister because she has a different mother,” or, “She is not my close relative; she is a sister born in a different town.”

What is the point? Just this: rules never change the heart. With any set of laws, you can always hire a lawyer to find a loophole and justify your behavior as being lawful. In Romans 2, Paul already chastised the competing Jewish “authorities” for claiming they were righteous because they followed the law, when in actuality they brought disgrace to the name of God because of their hypocrisy in breaking the law. Paul’s objectors are good at self-justification, but not obedience from the heart. One can say, “I am not breaking the law against having sexual relations with a close relative, because my sister was born in another city.” That is self-justification under the law, but it is not obedience to God. The important thing to do is to follow the spirit behind the law, what God was aiming at, and in order to truly follow God we need a changed heart. A changed heart comes by faith.

Righteousness through the law does not bring true righteousness, it brings self-justification. That is not the fault of the law; it is the fault of our hearts. Our hearts want to break the law, so we find loopholes in the law to justify our behavior. That is what Israel has zealously pursued, law rather than faith. They are not finding God, or true righteousness, because they are not starting with faith. Faith changes the heart.

Biblical Text

5 For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness.