"Justification is illustrated in the Old Testament." Page 4 of 6 (series: Lessons on Romans)
by John Lowe
14 For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect.
If those who seek God’s blessing, and particularly the blessing of justification, are able to inherit it on the basis of law-keeping, then faith is made void and the promise made of no effect. Faith is set aside because it is a principle that is completely opposite to law: faith is a matter of believing, while law is a matter of doing. The promise would be worthless, because it would be based on conditions that no one would be able to meet.
Because of this, it is impossible that Abraham’s inheritance was obtained by keeping the Law. No heir of Abraham, except Jesus Christ, has ever been able to entirely keep the law. If fulfillment of this promise depended on law-keeping, man’s inability to keep the law would insure that the promise would never be fulfilled, and therefore, the promise would be made of none effect. But because of his faith the promise was given to a man who was still a Gentile, and was the true forerunner of those who are Jews, and of those who are not. So the conclusion remains that if the Law is necessary, faith is irrelevant; but if faith is sufficient, the Law is superfluous. Both Law and faith are methods of dealing with the problem created by man’s sin. However, the Law doesn’t work since no one has yet been able to keep the Law, except the Lord Jesus.
15 Because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.
The law brings about (or produces) God’s wrath, not His blessing. It does this by setting forth God’s standard of conduct. Men, who disregard this standard, and act as they please, place themselves directly under God’s wrath. It condemns those who fail to keep its commandments perfectly and continuously. And since none can do that, all who are under the law are condemned to death. It is impossible to be under the law without being under the curse.
But where there is no law there is no transgression. Transgression means the violation of a known law. The role of law is to make clear what God demands of men. Paul does not say that where there is no law, there is no sin; he is saying there is no transgression. An act can be inherently wrong even if there is no law against it. But it becomes transgression when a sign goes up saying “Speed Limit 20 MPH.” One is not usually charged with speeding if the state has no speed limit, if there is no posted limits along the road, and if there appears to be nothing unreasonable or improper about one’s driving. The Jews thought they inherited blessing through having the law, but all they inherited was transgression. God gave the law so that sin might be seen as transgression, or to put it another way, so that sin might be seen in all its sinfulness. He never intended it to be the way of salvation for sinful transgressors! Paul appears to be drawing on a saying that was current at that time in the Roman Empire (“no penalty without law”). He is saying here the same thing he says in Romans 5:13, where he claims that sin is not imputed where there is no law—For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” The law simply declares what is right, and requires conformity to it. But the law does not give either power to obey it or atonement when it is not obeyed.
16 Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace. Since receiving the promise of salvation is dependent upon faith, the blessing of salvation is provided by the means of God’s grace. Because law produces God’s wrath and not His justification, God determined that He would save men by grace through faith. He would give eternal life as a free, undeserved gift to ungodly sinners who receive it by a simple act of faith. Two of the best known verses in the Bible are Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
So that the promise might be sure to all the seed—not just to the Jews, to whom the law was given, but also to Gentiles who put their trust in the Lord in the same way that Abraham did. It’s because God saves by faith, through grace, that the promise of life is sure to all the seed. We should mention two words here—sure and all. First, God wants the promise to be sure. If justification depended on man’s law (works), he could never be sure because he could not know if he had done enough good works or the right kind of works. No one who seeks to earn salvation enjoys the full assurance that they are saved. But when salvation is presented as a gift to be received by believing, then a man can be sure that he is saved on the authority of the word of God.
Abraham, who is the father of us all. Abraham is the father of us all—that is, of all believing Jews and Gentiles. Paul is insistent that only those who possess the faith of Abraham are the seed of Abraham and whether we be Jew or Gentile, if we have placed our faith in the salvation provided by Abraham’s God, then Abraham is the father of us all.
17 (as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.
A year before Isaac was born, God appeared to Abraham to reemphasize His covenant with him that he should be the father of many nations, and He changed his name from Abram to Abraham.
As it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations.” Again Paul quotes from the Old Testament, this time from Genesis 17:5: “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.” When God said, “I have made you a father of many nations,” Abraham was still childless. But it didn’t matter, the promises of God are better than money in the bank. They always come true. It was true before the battle of Jericho when the Lord appeared unto Joshua and said, “See! I have given Jericho into your hand, its king, and the mighty men of valor” (Josh 6:2). What was for Joshua yet to happen was for God an accomplished fact. The Lord confirmed Abraham’s fatherhood over all true believers when He said, “I have made you a father of many nations.” God’s choice of Israel as His chosen, earthly people did not mean that His grace and mercy would be confined to them. The apostle ingeniously quotes verse after verse from the Old Testament to show that it always was God’s intention to honor faith wherever He found it.
The phrase “In the presence of Him whom he believed” continues the thought from 4:16: Abraham, who is the father of us all. The connection is this: Abraham is the father of us all in the sight of Him (God) whom he (Abraham) believed, even God who gives life to the dead and speaks of things that do not yet exist as already existing. To understand this description of God, we have only to look at the verses that follow. God gives life to the dead—that is, to Abraham and Sarah, for although they were not dead physically, they were childless and beyond the age when they could have children (see 4:19).
God, who gives life to the dead. Although this is a general designation for God in Judaism, it is used here with reference to Abraham’s own body, now as good as dead, and to the deadness of Sarah’s womb. They had experienced new life first hand in their own bodies: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Heb. 11:11-12). Although Sarah laughed when first hearing that she was to have a child, her disbelief evidently turned to faith long before the birth of her son, Isaac (Gen. 18:12). God gave this outstanding patriarch, Abraham, a woman of faith as his wife. She, too, had to believe that the God who made promises would honor His Word despite how impossible it must have seemed to her as a woman long past childbearing years. That was a miracle, but when he said “God, who gives life to the dead,” Paul could also have been thinking about the Father as being the one who raised up Jesus.
God calls those things which do not exist as though they did—that is, a numberless posterity involving many nations (see 4:18). Bringing people and things into existence is done through the Lord’s power to create. This verse could also be translated: “God calls into being what does not exist as easily as He does that which does exist.” No one can comprehend that divine creative power. The bringing of animate and inanimate objects into existence, and their maintenance, is something that God does. The nature of the objects He creates may be discussed—but the why and how of their existence can be known accurately only to the extent that the Lord reveals them. Today, God declares believing sinners to be righteous, even though they are not, by imputing His righteousness to them, just as God made or declared Jesus to be “sin” and punished Him, even though He was not a sinner. Those whom He justifies, He will conform to the image of His son.