Romans 4:13–25 (ESV)✞: The Promise Realized Through Faith
In the last passage Paul introduced the topic of Abraham’s faith as the basis for his (Abraham’s) righteousness, as opposed to Abraham’s works. It’s what he believed, not what he did, that God “counted” to him as righteousness. (In the passage before that Paul articulated why that’s the case: because of the work of Jesus on our behalf.) In this passage Paul takes this one step further (and is maybe aimed more at his Jewish1 readers than his Gentile readers): given that Abraham’s righteousness is not based on his works, by definition that means it’s also not based on the Law.
So let’s dive into it…
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.
At first glance Paul seems to be saying the same thing here he’s been saying for the entirety of the last passage, except that he’s now focusing on God’s promise to Abraham instead of Abraham’s righteousness. But in the previous passage Paul was saying it was Abraham’s faith as opposed to his works; now Paul hones in specifically on one type of “work:” obeying the Law. If we don’t earn God’s favour through our actions—through our works—then that must include obedience to the Law!
This seems obvious, except that none of us think that way. Paul’s Jewish readers wouldn’t have felt that way, they’d have felt that God’s Law was important and special, and of course you’d earn favour with Him by obeying it. After all, hadn’t much of the Scriptures been taken up with His prophets chastising His people for not obeying it?
Side Note: If you read the prophets carefully the deeper message isn’t, “obey My commandments”—even if that phrasing is sometimes used—it’s, “come back to Me.” In the Old Testament, just as in the New, God wanted His people’s love, and obedience was supposed to be a result of that, not the main thing God was after. Just like Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15✞), not, “if you obey me I’ll love you.” It wasn’t wrong for Jews in the Old Testament to want to obey God’s Law, and it’s not wrong for Christians of today to want to obey His rules either, but it’s not the primary goal.
Ah, but that last point in the side note brings me back to my point that none of us think that way. It’s not just a Jewish thing, or an Old Testament thing. Present-day Christians struggle with this; there seems to be a natural tendency in our hearts to believe that it can’t be as simple as believing Him, we must have to obey His rules, too. After all, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” – He wants us to obey!
Again, I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to obey—much of the latter half of this letter will be taken up with advice Paul gives to the Roman Christians as to how to live a good life—but we have the same tendency that some of God’s people in Old Testament times had of missing the forest for the trees. We see specific passages talking about obedience and sometimes miss the larger context that that obedience comes as a result of our faith—which is more important—and focus instead on trying to parse out the rules and regulations we need to follow in order to be righteous. (And we love to sit in judgement of those who don’t meet our specific definition of what it means to be righteous – or have differing definitions of what they think it means!)
But going down that path of trying to justify ourselves through the Law (however we define “the Law” in the modern, Christian context) would nullify everything Paul said in the last couple of passages:
14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.
If you could justify yourself before God by obeying the Law then Jesus wouldn’t have needed to come, you wouldn’t need to have faith (except in yourself?), and God wouldn’t have had to make any kind of promise, he’d have simply given us what we’d earned.
And then Paul says something that blew my mind when I first read it:
15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
The “transgression” part I get, it’s more of a technical term (you can’t disobey a specific law if you haven’t been given that specific law), but how could the Law bring wrath?!? God gave His people the Law! God gave His people the Law! How could the Law, which was provided by God, bring wrath? Surely the Law isn’t the problem, the problem is with the people who fail to obey it!
And in a sense that’s right, but it’s also true that we’re sinful by nature, so a set of rules and regulations would just be yet more opportunities to make specific violations – transgressions. God’s people in the Old Testament were guilty of not wanting to submit to Him, just like everyone else, but were also guilty of any specific rules or regulations they disobeyed.
As the ESV Study Bible says:
Rom. 4:15 Paul explains why one cannot be an heir through the law: human beings cannot keep the law, and they therefore face God’s wrath. Paul uses the word transgression technically, so that it is distinguished from sin. Transgression is defined as the violation of a revealed command, which means that the Jews, who had the written law, had even greater responsibility for their sin and as great a need to be saved from God’s wrath and justified by faith. (Paul elsewhere argues that sin also exists where no written law specifies the malfeasance; see 2:12 …).
ESV Study Bible
Maybe I might prefer to phrase it that “the law brings more wrath,” if it wasn’t blasphemous to try to correct Scripture…
The point Paul is making is that we’re all sinful, but those who have the Law are responsible for being sinful and for any specific rules or regulations they break. Again, Paul is probably turning his Jewish readers’ beliefs on their heads: they believed they were somehow superior to other Christians, while Paul is saying here that, actually, they have even more sin to atone for!
Luckily, as Paul has already said (and reiterates here), it’s already atoned for:
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring … 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.
Romans 4:16–17 (ESV)✞, some text elided
3:21–31 gives details as to how that faith works, Paul’s point here is just to point out that even those who have the Law—maybe especially those who have the Law—need that faith. Though not them only, because I left out some of 16–17 above:
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, 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.
While Abraham might be considered the father of the Jews, Paul claims that Abraham is actually the father of all who hope in God, regardless of whether they have the Law or not:
18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”
I’m getting ahead of Paul by making the point above, however, about all of us who have hope in God being Abraham’s offspring. In this case Paul is specifically talking about Abraham’s hope in God to provide direct offspring:
19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”
If we remember the story, God promised Abraham a son and that nations of people would eventually come through that son. However, as Paul mentions, Abraham was 100 years old by the time he had Isaac, and his wife Sarah was 90 years old herself! Countless men throughout the ages have had children, a promise from God that a man would have children wouldn’t be such a big deal, but in the case of Abraham and Sarah those days were gone. It would take a literal miracle for it to happen. So it really did take faith on Abraham’s part to believe God about this promise.
What’s interesting about Paul’s text here, however, is that phrase, “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God,” which we know to be untrue! It went more like this:
- Genesis 15: God promises Abraham that he’ll have offspring as numerous as the stars.
- This includes a verse Paul quoted earlier in Romans: “And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6✞).
- Genesis 16: Ten years have gone by and Abraham and Sarah haven’t had any children yet so they decide to try to do it on God’s behalf by having Abraham produce a child via Sarah’s servant Hagar. Abraham is 86 at this point.
- Genesis 17: God comes to Abraham when he’s 99 and reiterates the promise.
- Genesis 20: Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister, instead of his wife, which almost ends with her married to Abimelech king of Gerar – which might not seem relevant, except that how is Sarah going to bear Abraham a child if she’s married to someone else? It kind of feels like Abraham is thinking Sarah probably won’t be the one to bear his child, despite God’s word on the matter.
- Genesis 21: Finally, when Abraham is 100, he and Sarah have Isaac.
So we already saw in Genesis 16 that Abraham did waver in his belief, and Genesis 20 is suspect too. He felt God was taking too long to deliver on His promise, he didn’t see how God could give him a son through Sarah in the first place, so he tried to “help” God by doing it on his own.
That being said, I’m not trying to argue that Paul is wrong! Paul, of all people, knew his Scriptures—better than I do2—so it’s not like he wrote Romans and then later on he was reading Genesis again and smacked his forehead and said, “Oh gosh, I forgot about Genesis 163! Abraham really did waver!” No, Paul definitely remembered the story of Hagar and Ishmael when he wrote that “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God.”
But I think there’s a difference between belief and perfect belief. Overall, Abraham believed that God would give him offspring too numerous to count. When Abraham wavered it was on the details, not on the overall belief. He believed God was going to give him offspring, that never changed, he just questioned the specific details as to how God would bring that about. And as Sarah entered her 70s, and her 80s, and even got close to her 90s, it seemed less and less likely that God—Whose promise Abraham still believed—would deliver His promise in that way.
And that’s important because we now bring it back to Abraham’s extended family – ourselves:
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
I am counted as righteous by God because of the work that Jesus did on the cross; all I had to do was have faith in that work. My faith, however, is not perfect, it’s more like Abraham’s faith. Yes, I believe that Jesus has saved me from my sins and made me perfect in the eyes of God – except when I don’t believe that. And my faith in Jesus leads to me obeying Him – except when it doesn’t.
As a Christian I should not read about the life of Abraham in Genesis and judge him for how bad his faith was; I should see in him an example of someone who believed in God, however imperfectly, and was counted as righteous, just like me.
It also means that when I stumble and fail my God—which I regularly do—I don’t have to panic that my own faith is suddenly nullified. My faith is in Him, not in myself. My faith, like Abraham’s, is imperfect, but God is faithful and just to forgive me of my sins (1 John 1:9✞). Not merciful; just. Jesus has paid for my sins – it would be unjust if God were to demand payment from me when He has already received payment! Regardless of how spotty my faith in God is, regardless of how poor or inconsistent I am at following Him, it has all been atoned for. I don’t have perfect faith but I don’t need perfect faith – I just need the one in Whom I have faith to be perfect. Which He is.
- Anyone who’s reading these post by post will be familiar with this comment, but for those who are coming fresh to this post: in Paul’s day, Christianity and Judaism weren’t completely separate things, as they’ve grown to be in the present day. This new belief system was seen to be growing out of Judaism, extending it, not replacing it. And those who were Jewish and converted to Christianity (which wasn’t even called Christianity at the time)—which was still the majority of Christians in Paul’s day—still considered themselves to be, and called themselves, Jews. ↩
- I had to scroll back and forth through Genesis a couple of times just to articulate the timeline I gave above, even though it’s pretty basic knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures! ↩
- Not that the Scriptures had chapters and verses in Paul’s day, that didn’t come until much later, but when I’m being sarcastic I try not to be overly pedantic… ↩