Sunday Evening Bible Study — Romans 4:13-17, Abraham is Not Justified by the Law

20 Sep


Romans 4:13-17

Abraham is Not Justified by the Law


INTRODUCTION: My children are my children because they are my children, not because of how well they keep the rules of the house. My wife is my wife not because she wears a ring I gave her, but because she has entered into the covenant of marriage with me (I don’t know what she was thinking, but I’ll take it). I am not a child of God because of my rule keeping or my baptism or anything else but the fact that God has called me into relationship with Him and through faith I, who was once dead have been made alive.

            Last week we continued in Romans 4 by looking at Paul’s argument that Abraham was not justified by circumcision. This whole section is designed to uphold salvation by grace alone and to deny any other way of salvation apart from grace. Not works, not circumcision, not law.  If Paul could show that Abraham was justified by faith and none of these things, then no one else could possibly be justified apart from faith, because Abraham was the example par excellence of obedience to God, and was the recipient of the covenant of circumcision and the father of the nation of Israel. If the father of the Jews is justified by faith, so must all other Jews be justified by faith.  And because Abraham is justified by faith, he is right with God not on the basis of his being the father of the Israelites or the keeping of circumcision or by law-keeping. Therefore, he is the father of all, Jew and Gentile alike, who come to God by faith. So there is a sense in which Abraham is the father of the Jews but also the father of all who have faith. And isn’t it interesting even in God’s first promises to Abraham, it was clear that through Abraham all the world would be blessed? This has many facets of meaning, but at least one of them is that he would be a pioneer of justification by faith.

Once more now, in this chapter, Paul is going to show that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone by showing us that Abraham was not justified by the law. Abraham was not justified by his own works, nor by circumcision, nor by obeying the law. Paul will show us in verses 14-17 on the one hand that the law does not have a saving function. Then he will show us that the power to justify is found in faith in the God who can bring life from death. This leads into a discussion of Abraham’s faith from verses 18-25 which we will, Lord willing, look at next week. So chapter 4 is an Old Testament illustration using the life of Abraham to show that all are justified by grace through faith; not works, not circumcision, not law, but faith.


Romans 4:13  For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

What Paul has been driving us toward all through Romans is an inescapable conclusion; life and eternity will be an all or nothing proposition. You and I will either inherit the world or we will inherit God’s eternal wrath.

Abraham and his offspring would be heirs of the world. But they would not be heirs through the law, but through faith. Particularly through the righteousness of faith, the merits of Christ, counted on their behalf. As we saw last week, Abraham’s offspring are all those who are justified by faith, Jew and Gentile alike. Therefore, all of us who are trusting in Jesus for our salvation are, along with Abraham, heirs of the world. And by implication, all those who do not have faith like Abraham had are not heirs and are in fact recipients of God’s wrath instead.

The connection to the last section is clear. F. F. Bruce says, “If circumcision had nothing to do with Abraham’s justification by God, with all the promised blessings that accompanied it, the law had even less to do with it.” Why? Because circumcision was instituted only 14 years after Abraham was declared righteous, while the law came 430 years later.  So clearly Abraham was not justified by the law but by faith.

As I thought through this verse, what I began to ponder was this idea of being heir of the world. The overall idea of the verse is pretty easy to understand, that this inheritance comes not through law but by faith, but the precise nature of this inheritance and how it connects to Abraham puzzled me.

The reason I was puzzled at first is because the promise that Abraham would be heir of the world was never made to Abraham. There is not a verse where Abraham is told, “You will be heir of the world.” But I think what Paul is doing in this phrase is providing a kind of shorthand which encompasses all the promises God made to Abraham. When God tells Abraham that all the world would be blessed through him and that he would bless those who bless him and give make his descendants like the sand of the sea and make of him a great nation, all of these promises taken together bring us to a momentous idea like heir of the world. And just as we saw last time with circumcision, all those who walk in the same path as Abraham get to enjoy the same benefits.

The question then is, how can the promises to Abraham be fulfilled in such a way that their true magnitude is realized? Israel is only one nation. It must be something bigger than their history alone. I think the answer is found in Jesus. Because of Jesus, Abraham and all those who followed him who looked to God in faith for salvation will inherit the land, will rise in the last day and will enjoy an eternal inheritance with God.

What is the biblical basis for this idea that Jesus’ work on the cross and the empty tomb fulfills these promises to Abraham and all who follow in his way? It is strong. First, Jesus Himself is often spoken of as heir of the world. We all know Philippians 2, where every knee will bow. We know the Messianic Psalm, number 2, where we read in verse 8, “Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession.” Hebrews 1:2 “In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things.” And Paul will talk about this in the great chapter 8 in Romans, when he says we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” We find throughout the New Testament the great truth that Jesus in His coming and dying and rising has defeated death and sin and will finally obliterate them in the last day and bring about the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Now what we see here is that Jesus is the heir of the world. And Abraham is the heir of the world through his faith in God’s plan, which was to send Jesus. Abraham had a forward looking faith. We are heirs in the same stream as Abraham as we look back in faith to what Christ has done. Just as righteousness is counted for us in the death of Christ, and righteousness is imputed to us through the work of Christ, so the inheritance of eternal life with all its privileges rests firmly on the fulfilled promise of God in Christ. So again, salvation is all of grace; God gets the glory and we get the joy.

I was struck by this when I looked at Revelation 3:21 this week. In the words to the church of Laodicea, that lukewarm church, we see this promise, The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. I’m not sure I’ve ever begun to think through the depth of that as much as I have this week. What an incredible, stunning promise. We think, here I am struggling with health or bills or relationships. How could such a thing possibly be true? And all I can say is, Abraham must have felt the same way, with his broken down body and his barren wife. Yet he believed and God fulfilled His promises to Abraham and fulfills them still, as even we are part of the fulfillment of those promises. God is so loving and Jesus is so good that He allows us to share in His reign over the new heavens and the new earth. There is a word there in Revelation about overcoming as a condition to this salvation. This is another pointer to the necessity of perseverance in faith. A true saint will persevere to the end, but this too is rooted in faith in the grace of God, not in white-knuckled self-effort. Jesus showed us the way in His ministry, as He depended wholly on the Father and trusted the Father’s good plan to the end, even to the cross.

14   For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.

            The promise of inheritance comes through faith, not law, because if it comes through law, faith is nullified and the promise is void. The adherents of the law are not the heirs. This is important. We have to go back to Paul’s discussion in verses 1-8. Do you remember there how he described the one who works as receiving a wage, but the one who believes as receiving a gift? That is what is in view here. An inheritance is a gift based on relationship to the giver, not a wage based on work. To try to make it based on obedience to the law is to nullify the gift and turn it into a wage. This doesn’t work because we can’t keep the law perfectly and thus can’t earn a wage that compares in any way with the gift of the promise that comes through faith. The only wage we earn for our works is death, because we sin. But by faith, we need not be under wrath, we can instead be heirs of the world.

Now this brings us to a really big point, which we’ll really hammer home next week; faith is not a work. Faith is a gift. Faith is nothing in itself. What matters is the object of faith. If I have faith in the Easter Bunny, it helps me not at all, if I put all my hope in Jesus, I inherit the world. All my hope may be in the power of Positive Thinking, but it will not help me in the end, I will positively hell-bound, because the object of my faith is wrong. So that’s really important to remember.

John Stott explains verse 14 well when he says, “Law-language (‘you shall’) demands our obedience, but promise-language (‘I will’) demands our faith. What God said to Abraham was not ‘Obey this law and I will bless you’, but ‘I will bless you; believe my promise.’ ” The place of obedience is that it always follows faith and is fueled by faith.

If we try to live a law-based life then, if we try to find our life by keeping the law, we take ourselves away from the one thing that can really save us; the promise of God received by faith. If the people of God were defined by their obedience to the law, there wouldn’t be a people of God at all. The only way a people of God can be established and brought into eternity is if there is One who has perfectly fulfilled the law, whose righteousness God would count on behalf of those who trust in Him. This is what Christ has done. He has, as Tim Keller has said, “Lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died.”

Law-keeping won’t cut it. That’s what Paul is about to explain in verse 15.

15  For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

The law brings wrath. We’ve already seen this to some degree in Romans, when Paul says in 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. The law increases responsibility or accountability. It’s not that the person without the law is not accountable (chapter 1:18-32 dismisses that idea). It is rather that the person with the law is more accountable. The person without the law knows God’s power and nature by what He has made and their conscience may prick their hearts when they do something that’s not right. But having the law of God spelled out clearly is a next step of accountability. That’s what Paul is getting at when he says where there is no law there is no transgression. There is a difference in Paul’s writings between sin and transgression. Sin is the violation of God’s nature, the preferring of other things to God, the nature of rebellion in man that turns in to self and away from God. Transgression is the direct violation of God’s law. So when Paul describes it, all transgression is sin but not all sin is transgression.

One commentator says, “Ironically, the very thing the Jews were counting on to make them acceptable to God turned out to emphasize their sinfulness.” And James Dunn says that “rightly understood, the law does not mark off Jew from Gentile but rather puts Jew alongside Gentile in need of the grace of God.”

John Piper says, “In other words, before the Law came in (430 years after the promise to Abraham, Galatians 3:17), all kinds of sinful attitudes and actions might go unnoticed because there was no specific commandment that was violated. But when the Law comes in, the knowledge of sin explodes. What was lying dead, as it were, is brought to light as a specific violation or transgression of an explicit command. So, for example, before the Law was given, teenagers may have bad-mouthed their mothers and fathers when they got together. There may have been some vague uneasiness about this. But then came the Law in Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother.” Now every disrespectful word is a specific violation of an explicit commandment. And not only is sin exposed more clearly; it increases. Paul spells out this function of the Law in several places. For example in Romans 3:20 he says, “Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” In Romans 5:20 he says, “The Law came in so that the transgression [or violation] would increase.”

Now just as a side note, we might think that Paul has a negative view of the law, or that he advocates lawless living. Many of his critics thought that about him, and he is constantly, in Romans and elsewhere, fighting off the notion that living by grace means living any way you want and saying sorry later. And we will have to fight this same battle if we really stand for grace, because people and even our own flesh will be constantly trying to go back to law-keeping. But Paul does not view the law negatively, he says in Romans 8 that the problem with the law is that it is weakened by the flesh. Our flesh interacts with it in such a way that we always fall short of it and therefore it falls short of providing us with much more than a mirror of God’s perfection and our failure. So Paul is not against God’s law, He is just against it as a way to be made right with God and against pure human efforts to keep it, because he knows they are futile. And as a former proud Pharisee, he of all people should know.


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 father of us all,

The law brings wrath. We can’t keep it. It brings us further under God’s judgment. God
made promises to Abraham and his descendants. Those promises are not going to be kept if it’s based on Abraham’s ability or the ability of his descendants. So this is why it, the promise of blessing, depends of faith, because it is a gift of grace and not a wage that is earned. The only way Abraham’s name is going to be great, the only way all the promised blessings are going to come, to Abraham or anybody in his faith line, is if God gives them. And that is what He does. He gives by grace what we could never produce ourselves. God makes the promises and God keeps the promises. We trust in God the promise giver and the promise keeper. If the promise depended on human merit, there would be uncertainty as to its fulfillment. But the promise rests in the character and power of God. So we can take it to the bank. It is guaranteed. Whether one is under the law or not, all who believe receive the promise of grace and inherit the blessings of salvation and all its benefits. It is in this way that Abraham is the father of us all. This is not a verse about universalism, as if Abraham is the father of all people and so all people will be saved. It is saying instead that Abraham is the father of all who have faith, whether law abiding Jew or law-ignorant Gentile. Abraham is the father of all who trust in the promised grace of God revealed in Christ.

What then is the place of obedience? Again, obedience is the fruit of faith. Piper describes this so well I just have to let him take over, “The one and only foundation or basis of God’s commitment to give Abraham the inheritance of the world is God’s own righteousness provided for Abraham through Jesus Christ and credited to Abraham through faith alone. That is the basis of Abraham’s confidence that God will surely make him heir of the world. But the authenticity of Abraham’s faith must be demonstrated (or validated) by acts of obedience like the one in Genesis 22 so that it will be manifest that his faith is real and not dead faith (James 2:17, 26) or devil faith (James 2:19) or useless faith (James 2:20). This obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1:5) is not the basis of his confidence. They are the fruit of his confidence. And the fruit does not make the tree good. The tree makes the fruit good. So I conclude that the necessity of having the fruit of faith to show that our faith is real does not contradict the great gospel meaning of Romans 4:13 – that our future inheritance of the world is not through Law, but through the righteousness of faith. The foundation of our hope is not our righteousness performed even as the fruit of faith, but the righteousness of God alone credited to our account through faith in Christ – a faith that is so satisfied in God that it breaks the power of canceled sin, and gives new direction to our lives.”


17  as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”–in the

presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Paul reaffirms the truth that Abraham is father of Jew and Gentile alike who live by faith in Christ. And he affirms this through appeal to the Scriptures. Paul is consistent in tying his arguments to biblical truths. The reason is not only his respect for the Word of God, but his desire to show that his teaching is one of continuity with the rest of the Bible. This is another instance in which we are reminded to root our thinking in Scripture. And not just in one section, but taking into account the whole sweep of God’s redemptive activity in Scripture. People who say, “I’m a red-letter Christian, I just pay attention to the words of Jesus” are missing the boat.

The other picture of continuity Paul gives is when he describes the God in whom Abraham believed. He is the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. When Paul talks about God as the one who is able to bring the dead to life, he is almost certainly talking about God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son. The passage we will look at next week speaks specifically to this situation in talking about Abraham’s faith and says in verse 19 that his body was “as good as dead.” God gave life to Abraham’s and Sarah’s dead bodies. But of course, on a broader scale, God has brought life from death in the resurrection of Jesus and in our own salvation. We were dead and God made us alive, as Ephesians 2 tells us. But just in case we might get the idea, even in our deadness, that we had something to do with this great work of God, Paul then says that He is the God who calls into existence the things that do not exist. God speaks non-existence into existence, as he did in Sarah’s womb, as He did at creation. Hebrews 11:3 says, By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. God doesn’t create using pre-existing materials. He creates out of nothing, by the power of His word.  I wonder too if there is an allusion here to Hosea. I am thinking especially of Hosea 2:23, “and I will sow her for myself in the land. And I will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’ ” That verse, and a couple of others in Hosea, have the same flavor as Romans 4:17, God bringing something from nothing. So this truth about God has been there all along, He brings life from death He brings something from nothing.

So this picture of God accords with everything we’ve read in Romans so far. He is the author of salvation. We have nothing to offer Him. We are dead in our sins and transgressions. We need new life, but we can’t raise ourselves from the dead. We have no life in ourselves. God must create that life if we are to be saved. The creation and the new creation both work on the same principle; they are the work of God from start to finish.

Aren’t you thankful for a God who raises the dead and brings life where there was no life?

CONCLUSION: So far in Romans, we’ve seen three reasons why faith in God’s provision in Christ is the way we are made right with God. First, going back to chapter 3, faith takes away any boasting on our part. Second, our own efforts always fall short. Whether we rely on works, or circumcision or the law, we always fall short. These things show us to be sinners, but they do not deliver us. Third, we are saved by grace through faith because God’s actions on our behalf are sure on our behalf, as opposed to our own frailty. Grace guarantees the promise, because grace is God’s gift and not our faulty work. And there is one more reason God has saved us in this way, which we are going to look at next week as we look at Abraham’s saving faith.



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