Studies in the Epistles of Paul
Faith, not law
Paul now brings the word law back into the discussion: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (verse 13). The law of Moses wasn’t even around in the days of Abraham. Paul is saying that the promise wasn’t given by law at all.
God didn’t say, If you do this or that, I will bless you. No, he simply said he would bless him. It was an unconditional promise: “Abraham, you are going to have descendants enough to fill the earth, and the whole world is going to be blessed through you.” Abraham believed that promise, and that is why he was counted as righteous. It was not on the basis of a law.
Because, Paul reasons, “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null” (verse 14). It’s either faith or law — it cannot be both. If we are saved by our works, then we are looking to our works, not trusting in God. If Abraham had earned this blessing by keeping a law, then there would be no point in mentioning his faith.
But even more seriously, Paul says that if salvation is by law, then the promise would be “void. For the law brings wrath” (verses 14-15). The promise would do us no good because we all fall short of what the law requires. We are sinners, and all the law can do for us is bring wrath and punishment. It cannot deliver the promises, because by its criteria, we fall short.
If salvation is by the law, then we have no hope. The good news, however, is that “where there is no law, neither is there violation” (verse 15). If salvation is not on the basis of the law, then we cannot disqualify ourselves through our transgressions. Since the law is not part of the method by which we are saved, our sins are not part of the picture, either. They don’t take away what God has given to us by a promise (see 8:1).
“For this reason,” Paul says in Romans 4:16, “it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (verse 16). The promise given to Abraham was for uncountable descendants, and we can share in Abraham’s promise by being one of his descendants, through a spiritual union with Jesus, who descended from Abraham.
The promise of salvation comes to us by faith, by grace, not by works, and it is consequently guaranteed. We don’t have to be afraid that we will lose our salvation through some sin that we have trouble getting rid of. Grace doesn’t keep count of works, either good or bad. In this way, the promise goes not only to the Jews, but to all people. We just have to trust Jesus.
Abraham is “the father of all of us,” Paul concludes, and he follows it up with a confirming quote from the Torah: “As it is written: ‘I have made you the father of many nations’” (verse 17, quoting Genesis 17:5 and using the common word for Gentiles). Abraham is the father not just of the Jewish nation, but of many other nations. Gentiles are also his descendants, and they do not have to become Jewish in order to be counted.
Paul writes about “the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (verse 17). Why does Paul bring this up? Perhaps he is thinking of the spiritually dead — Gentiles and unbelieving Jews. God can rescue them, and he can take people who were alienated, and make them his people. He can take people who are wicked and call them righteous. He does not want them to remain wicked, but that is where they start.
Paul concludes with a summary of the story of Abraham. His audience knew the story well, but Paul emphasizes certain points to reinforce what he has been saying:
Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” [Genesis 15:5]. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (verses 18-21)
In his own flesh, Abraham didn’t have any reason to hope, but he had faith in what God had promised, and his faith was a witness to how great God is. Abraham knew that the promise was physically impossible, but he trusted in God’s power and faithfulness rather than in his own abilities.
In our salvation, too, we have no hope according to the flesh, no hope according to our works, but we can trust in the promise of God, given to Abraham and extended through Jesus Christ to all who believe in him. We should not be discouraged by our human inability to be righteous, but we should trust in the promise of God to count us righteous on the basis of faith. Paul reminds us that because Abraham trusted in God, “Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Genesis 15:5). We don’t even believe as well as we ought to, but Jesus takes care of that for us, too. He is our judge, and that changes everything.
As his final point, Paul reasons that “the words ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also” (verses 23-24). Those words were not written for Abraham at all, for they were written long after he died. They were written for us, so that we will also have faith. We are the ones to whom righteousness will be reckoned: “to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (verse 24).
No matter whether we are Gentile or Jewish, we will be counted as righteous, as God’s people, if we trust in God. What he did for Jesus, he will do for us: raise us from the dead. He has done it before, and he will do it again.
Paul concludes the chapter with a brief restatement of his gospel message: Jesus Christ “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (verse 25). The deed has been done; the promise has been given. He died for our sins, and he now lives to ensure that we are accepted by God. We need to accept his gift — the gift of righteousness — given to those who believe in Jesus Christ. If God can raise the dead, he can save anyone!
Things to think about
- If God saves the wicked (verse 5), does that allow me to be wicked? Why would I want to be wicked?
- What is the seal or evidence of my righteousness? (verse 11)
- Does the law have any role in my salvation? (verse 14)
- If salvation is guaranteed (verse 16), can I refuse it or lose it?
- Am I discouraged by my own weaknesses? (verse 19)
- What gives me evidence that God will save me? (verse 24)
Author: Michael Morrison, 2003, 2012