Meditations in Romans : 3: Law or Promise
Rom 4:13 It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.
Paul has just dealt with circumcision as a possible form of ‘works’, something to be done which may make a Jew feel ‘justified’ or approved by God, by their actions, but then, thinks Paul to himself, if you are going to think of works by conforming to requirements as false causes for justification, the greatest example of that has got to be the Law. Again, a Jew might think that by keeping the rules of the Law that makes him righteous and right with God, not realising that there is still plenty of scope to be unrighteous in our thoughts.
So Paul thinks back to Abraham again, but this time to the original promise of blessing that Abraham had received: “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” Wow! The promise came to Abram (Gen 12:1-) that the world would be blessed through him and his future offspring, but to receive that offspring he had to respond positively in faith to God. As far as he was concerned his body was as good as dead when it came to having children – and the same was true of his wife – yet he responded to God’s word to him with belief, and that was the thing that justified him and enabled the Lord to declare him righteous. The Law hadn’t been given until over four hundred years later. He was declared righteous before the Law came. His faith-response hadn’t been in respect of the Law but in respect of the Promise.
No, look, says Paul, you’ve got to think about these things, “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.” (4:14). Abraham was promised future generations who would be heirs or receivers of that promise of God that they would be blessed. However, if doers of the Law given centuries later were the receivers of the blessing, the original promise was meaningless, for it was given to those who simply believed God. More than that, it is worthless “because law brings wrath.” (4:15a).
The promise of blessing given to Abram meant a good relationship with the Lord whereby He imparted this blessing, but all trying to keep rules does, is create a sense of guilt in the person who constantly fails, and anger in God who is displeased at their failure. The Law, was meant to be a help to guide people into a good way of living but, because of the presence of Sin in each of us, just means that we yet have something else that highlights our sin. The fact is, says Paul, “where there is no law there is no transgression.” (4:15b) i.e. if there were no rules to be kept we wouldn’t constantly be failing. As we just said, the Law simply highlights our propensity to get it wrong! Behind all this, don’t forget, is the point that Paul is trying to make to Jews who might be relying on Law-keeping for their status before God: it doesn’t work like that!
No, says Paul, this justification that comes via a promise is actually all-inclusive and covers Jews trying to keep the Law and Gentiles who don’t have the Law: “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.” (4:16) Yes, that promise given to Abraham covers everyone who turns to God, those who simply by faith believe without knowing about the Law, AND those in Israel who are seeking to keep the Law and whose hearts are turned to the Lord.
Paul summarises it: “As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (4:17) The Lord had promised Abram that he would be father of many nations (see Gen 17:5) but was actually referring to him being a father to all who had faith in God. You may think (possibly implied in the direction of Jewish believers) that Gentiles are dead to God and there’s no hope for them but Abraham’s experience of God bringing life from his apparently dead body, makes the point: God can bring life where we think there is only death.
There is a challenge here for us today: never look at anyone and write them off as too hard. It doesn’t matter how hard they appear, how evil they seem, how steeped in sin they seem; no one is impossible for God. There will be those who leave this planet to go to hell by their own choice, but they may be people who even appear good to us – ungodly but good. Goodness isn’t the criteria; it is response to God. I have looked back in my life and I have two examples of men who appeared utterly hard and hopeless. Never in a million years were they going to come to God – but they did! We don’t know why it is that some, however hard they appear, do turn and others who appear good, don’t. It is a mystery – but it is so. You and I cannot look at any man or woman and say they’ll never come to Christ. We just don’t know! So keep your heart open to all people. You never know what might happen!