We begin this section of chapter 4 with a new word that the apostle introduces to us, the word promise. Thankfully, we are not left to wonder what this promise is; we are told that it is the promise that “Abraham should be the heir of the world” (13). The only problem is that nowhere in the OT is it explicitly stated that Abraham was promised to inherit the world. So what is Paul getting at here? What does he mean by this?
Well, there are a couple of clues in the text itself. When Paul does quote the OT in this regard, he quotes Gen. 15:6 (in verses 3 and 22) and 17:5 (in verse 17). In Genesis 15, remember that God promises Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. The Lord is so insistent that Abraham believe this that he backs up his promise with an oath. He is serious about this. In fact, he is so serious that he kept reminding Abraham of this fact again and again throughout his life. In chapter 17, at least 13 years after the events of chapter 15, God comes back to him and establishes the covenant of circumcision with him, changes his name from Abram [“exalted father”] to Abraham [“father of a multitude”], and says, “I have made you a father of many nations.” It is probably with reference to this latter promise that Paul is saying that Abraham was the heir of the world. If Abraham is the father of many nations, then it is a small interpretive jump to arrive at “heir of the world.”
This is in fact how the rest of the OT interprets this promise. For the Messiah, who would ultimately bring the Abrahamic blessing to the world, is addressed by God in Psalm 2 in the words, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (ver. 8). Or consider again the Messianic prophesy of Isa. 2:2-4. “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it, and many people shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The Abrahamic blessing was never intended to be confined merely to the nation of Israel; it was eventually to envelope all the world.
It comes back to that basic promise in Gen. 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Remember that Paul himself quotes this in Gal. 3:16 and refers it to Christ. Christ will bring the blessing of Abraham to all the world. That is what the apostle is referring to here in Rom. 4:13.
And this is what Paul is getting at when he comes back again and again to the fact that Abraham is the father of Jew and Gentile, of the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Paul is saying that the promises made to Abraham come to permeate the world by the means of faith.
Saved by faith, not by Law-Keeping
The apostle is of course continuing the argument begun at the beginning of chapter 4. He is arguing that we are justified and forgiven and made right with God on the basis of what Christ has done for us, and that this new status of forgiveness and acceptance with God is received, not on the basis of works, but on the basis of faith and grace. In verses 1-8, he argues, on the basis of the example of Abraham, that we are not justified by works but by faith. Salvation is not a matter of merit but of grace. Then, in verses 9-12, he argues that we are not justified by circumcision. Now, in the text we are looking at this morning (13-16), he is arguing that we are not justified on the basis of law keeping.
In some sense, this is very closely connected to what he has already said in verses 1-8. In both places the apostle is telling us that we cannot be justified by our works, by our doing. But there is a difference, and the difference is that the standard being referenced in verses 13 and following is specifically the Law of Moses. The apostle’s argument is along the lines of that in verses 9-12: just as Abraham was not justified by circumcision, since circumcision was given many years after Abraham was justified by faith, even so Abraham was not justified by the Law of Moses, since it was given (as Paul reminds us in Gal. 3:17) 430 years after the promise to Abraham was made. And that promise was ratified on the basis of faith, not works.
However, Paul’s argument goes further in the following verses. He explains why we cannot be justified on the basis of works. Now you might be thinking – “Wait a minute, I thought Paul already did that in chapters 1-3!” And you would be right. He has already made the case that sin is universal and that we cannot by our works undo the damage done. We must be saved through the atonement accomplished by Christ and receive this atonement on the basis of faith. However, the reality is that we need to be convinced of this fact over and over again.
But more than that, history teaches us that despite this fact of universal sin and total depravity, people tend to think that we can do something about it. And the Law of Moses was the perfect place that many of Paul contemporaries gravitated toward as God’s answer to our sin. They thought that here was something given to us by God that we could use to straighten ourselves out. If you kept the Law faithfully, you would be saved. That is what Paul is responding to here.
Now this is very relevant in our day as well. Because there are a lot of people who think of the NT in the same way that Paul’s contemporaries thought of the OT. They think that if we just obey God’s word in the Bible, then we will be saved. The focus is not one of trusting in what Christ has done for them, but of what they are doing for Christ, and that is the basis of their hope of salvation. You can turn the NT into law if you are not careful. The passage before us speaks to this mindset just as much as it does the mindset focused solely on the Law of Moses.
What then does the apostle say? He explains in verse 14 why it is that the promise cannot come by the Law of Moses: “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.” Hear what is being said: if inheriting the promise comes through law-keeping, then faith is useless and the promise is unattainable. In other words, Paul is saying that there is no salvation by works of the law. But that is not all he says: in the next verse he tells us why there is no salvation by law-keeping.
“For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (15). This verse is very important in understanding what the apostle is getting at here. There are two questions we should ask of the text at this point. The first is: Why can the law not save? Answer: because the law does not bring salvation, it brings wrath. The second question is: Why does the law bring wrath? Paul’s answer: because the law does not produce obedience, it produces sin. “Where there is no law there is no transgression.”
Now someone might disagree with me here and say that what the apostle is really saying in this last phrase is not that the law does produces sin, but rather that it defines it. Therefore, what the text says is that without the law there would be no sin (since it would not be defined and therefore would not exist), and without sin there would be no wrath, and that is why the law cannot save.
Well, there is truth in that, but I don’t think that’s the point here. Law does define sin. But remember that Paul is referring to the Law of Moses here. That’s important because in the next chapter he tells us that sin was already in the world before the law of Moses was given (5:13), so it can’t be that the function of the Mosaic Law here is that it defines sin. Sin did not necessarily become sin because of the Mosaic Law. It was already there.
Moreover, saying that the law defines sin doesn’t explain why the law brings wrath. The defining nature of the law by itself is not a reason that the law cannot save. In fact, some might argue that this is the reason the law can save: it tells us what not to do so that we can do the right thing and earn God’s favor. But that of course would be to turn Paul’s argument on its head.
What does it do then? Well, later in chapter 5, the apostle tells us: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass” (5:20). To say that the law increases the trespass is another way of saying that the law produces sin. This is the reason the law cannot save: when it meets rebel hearts – and apart from grace all our hearts are rebel hearts (that’s the point of chapters 1-3) – the law does not inspire obedience, it produces sin. Paul will elucidate this very point further in chapter 7. We’ve already touched on that, so I won’t linger on that point.
To summarize the apostle’s argument then, he is saying that we cannot inherit the Abrahamic blessing (be saved) by keeping the Law of Moses but only by the righteousness that comes through faith. This is another way of saying that we cannot be justified by our works or by our obedience, but only by faith alone. And the reason we cannot be justified by obedience to the Law is because the Law cannot save. And the reason the Law cannot save is because it produces sin, not obedience, and sin is always punished by God’s righteous and holy wrath.
Now at this point a couple of questions come to my mind. One is: what does this say about our hearts apart from grace? I ask this question because the way Paul connects God’s law and our sin implies that our hearts are hostile to God’s law apart from grace. And thinking through this is important because it shows us just how dependent upon God’s grace we really are. And we need to see that, because unless we do we will never depend upon God’s grace as we are meant to do.
The second question is: what does this say about the role of God’s law in the life of a believer? Because if the law produces sin, should it have any role in the life of someone who is saved? My answer is yes, but let’s look at each question in turn, starting with the first.
What this text says about our hearts apart from grace
What it says is that we cannot obey God’s law by nature apart from grace. This is because God’s law does not inspire obedience but sin. Now that doesn’t mean that unsaved people can’t be nice or do good things or tell the truth or abstain from sexual sin and so on. What I mean by this is that people who are unsaved will not and cannot submit themselves to the authority of God over their life. You can do a lot of the things God’s word tells you to do and abstain from a lot of the things God’s word tells you to abstain from, but if you retain the right to decide the direction of your life and your choices, then you are not submitted to God and you are not saved. And that is the problem with all of us apart from God’s grace.
Now some people get nervous here because they think that if we cannot obey God’s law then we are not obligated to obey God’s law. But this principle of “ought always implies can” is nowhere taught in the Bible. Let me give you an illustration of the opposite of that principle.
Do you remember the story of the slave who owed 10,000 talents? It is related for us in Matthew 18:21-35. Let me ask you this: was that slave able to pay his debt? The answer is obvious: he was not able to pay his debt. Saying that a slave could pay that kind of debt is like saying a person making minimum wage could pay off a multi-billion-dollar debt. It’s not going to happen. In fact, the text says that “he could not pay” (25). Did you hear that? Could not. He was not able to pay his debt. But here’s the point I want to make: did his inability to pay the debt release him from the obligation to pay the debt? It did not. Ought does not always imply can.
We are responsible to obey God’s law regardless of whether we are saved or not. But the Bible says that if we are not saved we can’t obey it. This is what the apostle is getting at when he says, “where there is no law there is no transgression.” Law produces transgression in sinful people, which we all are. The can’t doesn’t relieve us of the ought. But neither does the ought imply that we can.
Listen to what the apostle will say in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (2-3). Notice that Paul says that the law could not do something. What is that, and why is that? Well, the why is given to us at the beginning of verse 3: “weakened by the flesh.” There is something wrong with us, and Paul describes it by “flesh.” “Flesh” is what we are apart from the life-giving influence of the Spirit of God.
But what is it that the law could not do? Paul goes on to write: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (3-4). That is to say, the law could not create the fulfillment of its requirements in us; it could not create obedience in us. It was unable to do that because of sin and sinful flesh, what we are apart from grace and the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit of God. What Paul is getting at is that the law can order you around all day long, but its commands will never create the obedience they call for, and the reason is because we are in the flesh, we are dead in sin.
Paul goes on, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (5). If you are in the flesh, you are not going to set your mind on the things of the Spirit, but on the things of the flesh. How then could such a person be saved? Only be becoming a person “in the Spirit.” But this does not come by law. It comes totally in a gift of grace.
“For to set the mind of the flesh is death, but to set the mind of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (6-8). I want you to hear that word cannot in verses 7 and 8. This is not something that St. Augustine or John Calvin invented. This is the apostle Paul saying that an unsaved person is not able to submit to God’s law or please God. Why does the law not save? Because an unsaved person is not able to obey God’s law or please God through obedience.
Now again, does this release them from the obligation to obey God’s law? The answer is of course, no. And the reason is that this inability to obey God’s law comes from within the person. God does not hold us down and force us to disobey. We willingly disobey. We intentionally disobey. We knowingly disobey. But this does not take away from the fact that in the exercise of our will and mind and heart, we are hopelessly enslaved to our sin, and unless God rescues us by a sovereign act of grace, we will be forever lost.
And this means that we need to depend, not on our works, not on our obedience, but on the grace of God. There is no hope for any of us apart from the grace of God in the giving of his Son to die for us and in the giving of his Spirit to make us men and women of the Spirit. And we not only are to depend upon him for the initial giving of life and righteousness, but also for every step that we take toward heaven. You are not kept by your own efforts. Rather, you are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed” (1 Pet. 1:5, KJV).
And praise God for that, because this means that our salvation is secure. This is what the apostle goes on to say in verse 16: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring – not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the faith of us all.” The promise of salvation is guaranteed to all who believe, precisely because it is depends on faith and grace rather than law-keeping. If my obedience to God’s law were the standard by which I marked my path to heaven, I could have no confidence that I was going to make it there. But since I am saved only on the basis of grace because of what Christ has done for me, now I can rejoice in the hope of eternal life.
What this text says about the role of the Law in the life of a believer
The last issue we want to deal with is this: if it is true that the law provokes sin, not obedience, what role does it play in the lives of the saved? Now here is a crucial distinction. The law of God, whether that is found in the Law of Moses, or the commands of the New Testament gospels and epistles, is the rule by which we are to live. But we don’t obey the law to earn God’s favor to be saved (which is impossible, as we’ve been arguing); we obey the law to please God because we are already saved. We don’t obey the law to make God love us, we obey it because God already loves us.
Obedience is very important, and nothing we have said undermines that. Because the NT says that even though you are not saved by obedience to the law, yet when God saves us, he begins to make us holy people. Sanctification begins when we are born again and justified. Holiness is not the basis of our salvation, but it is the evidence of it. So if you have no desire to be holy, then you have no evidence that you are truly saved.
Moreover, when we are saved, we are given new desires and affections. We are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). To have no longing for heaven and Christ and holiness is just to show that you were never saved. If you are content with living in and loving the darkness, then you have never come to the light. Those who are born of God see the kingdom of God, they do not remain in darkness (Jn. 3:3-5). If your ears are not delighted to hear the gospel, and if your feet do not long to run in obedience to God’s commands, then you are yet dead in your sins.
All of us ought to want to be more and more holy. Because if we are saved, we will love Christ, and how can we love Christ and yet love what he hates? Listen, there is nothing freeing about staying in our sins. There is nothing really desirable about letting that vice remain in our lives. Let us be rid of our sins, let us crucify them and mortify them and turn from them with all the might of grace that God gives to us.
To conclude: don’t let the Law (whether NT or OT) turn you away from depending upon God’s grace to you in Christ. Trust in Christ and depend upon him for your life and salvation. And trusting in him, live for him – not to gain his favor, but because by grace we already have his favor.