When the Law Doesn’t Work


Romans 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.”

We don’t receive God’s promises of grace and blessing by way of his law. No one ever has. Even Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, didn’t get these things from God’s law.

Just what are the promises Paul has in mind here? He speaks of the promise that Abraham would be heir of the world. Now, no individual promise given Abraham in the book of Genesis promises him the world in so many words. The Lord tells him he will make him into a great nation, that all nations on earth will be blessed through him, that he will have a son from his own body, that his descendants will outnumber the stars of the sky, that the land of Canaan will belong to him and his family. That’s all very interesting, we might feel, but what does that have to do with Abraham becoming heir of the world? More importantly, what does all that have to do with us? Why should we care?

A little context will help. In Romans chapter 4 Paul is using the life of Abraham to illustrate this point from the previous chapter: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” The main promise on Paul’s mind is that of justification–God’s not guilty verdict. How can God consider a sinner like me not guilty? How can I be considered righteous? How can we receive forgiveness? This was not a concern for any one generation. It wasn’t new with the teachings of Jesus. It goes thousands of years back to Abraham and beyond. How was it that God could treat a sinner like Abraham like a son? How could Abraham receive so many good things from God? The promise that all nations would be blessed through him was the key. This was only possible if Abraham had descendants. That God promised, too. And of all the nations of people descended from Abraham, his greatest single descendant was Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of the world. He was the one who would inherit the world for Abraham’s family. More than that, he was the one who would bring forgiveness and eternal life to the world by his perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection from the dead.

Was there something better about Abraham that led the Lord to single him out for such promises? Was he better at keeping God’s law? A re-read of Genesis 12 through 24 shows us that, on the contrary, Abraham was capable of some horrible lapses into sin. That is why Paul concludes, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise.” The Lord does not make his gospel promises–the ones that promise forgiveness and eternal life–dependent on human behavior, conditional on keeping his law.

In our church, we recite the Nicene Creed on communion Sundays. These words renew and review our faith in God as our heavenly Father, the divinity and saving work of his Son Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit. When we recite them, they don’t feel like a rallying cry in a great controversy anymore. They don’t stir our passions as though we were taking a stand in a battle between right and wrong. We live thousands of years after the debates and battles for the divinity of Christ that inspired the creed to be written. The issue still comes up, but it doesn’t strike us as so urgent.

Something similar can happen with the issues before us in these words of Paul to the Romans. A great struggle to understand the proper roles of faith and works in God’s saving work existed during the days of Jesus and his apostles. It arose again 500 years ago at the time of the Reformation. The intensity of the battle for a right understanding of this teaching has died down, though it never goes completely away. People turn their attention to other teachings. Some believe the really pressing issue is how people live their lives each day. Whether God’s saving promises come by faith or by works doesn’t seem so critical. What difference does it make?

Paul’s words reinforce that it makes all the difference in the world. It is not an overstatement when our spiritual forefathers spoke of this issue as the teaching on which the church rises or falls. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter–including how we live our lives each day. Only the righteousness that comes by faith makes Abraham and his spiritual descendants heirs of the world…and the world to come.

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