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. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
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, 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. 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.” 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. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Point 1. From v13 — Abraham: heir of the world.
“ 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”
Last week, although we took a break from Romans, we did look at how the spies spied out the promised land. The Jews believed that that promised land of Canaan was given to them by God. Much of the narrative of the Old Testament concerns the inheritance of the Jews and the land God had promised to them—the land of Canaan. Joshua is devoted to how the Jews entered and settled the land, how they fought and overcame their enemies.
They believed God promised this land to Abraham, Gen. 12:1 reads, “The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you”. “The land I will show you” being the promised land, Canaan. Actually, it is Canaan from which Jacob and his family emigrated to Egypt. Gen. 37:1 confirms Jacob settled in Canaan, and in Gen. 42:5, we read that it was from Canaan the Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt. My point here is that I sometimes hear people talk of the Jews coming out of Egypt and ruthlessly driving the indigenous inhabitants from Canaan to settle it. Not so, it is much more like the people of Israel fighting to settle again the land they lived in — BEFORE the Canaanites did.
Paul is still about talking Abraham here, The Jews looked back to Abraham and believed absolutely that the promised land of Israel was their inheritance. In fact, modern-day Jews still believe that — this is what the creation of Israel is all about. Paul doesn’t say that here—he says that Abraham and his offspring would inherit the whole world.
More than that, Paul says again that the inheritance doesn’t come through the law—but through faith. We have seen that the promises God gave to the Jews are appropriated by faith, not circumcision. So, we must understand this:
The Jews believed that they were Abraham’s descendants and that the inheritance was the promised land. They believed that there was a favoured ethnicity, that they were “it” and a favoured geolocation — the promised land of Canaan. But true descendants of Abraham, the inheritors of the promise are not ethnically connected to Abraham, they are connected by faith, AND the inheritance promised to them is not a specific geographical area, it is the WHOLE world!
So, as people of faith in Christ, we are heirs of the promise God made to Abraham every bit as much as the Jews are. There is no person on earth who is excluded from the offer of salvation, the promises of God are available through faith to everyone who believes (so, for example, Jn. 6:40 says, “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”). Every single person on earth. From every family, from every Tribe (refers to ethnicity) and from every Nation (Nation States) may respond to the offer of the gospel. What is more, the arena in which the promises of God are inherited is not just the promised land, but the whole earth.
Point 2. From v14,15 — no law, no transgression.
“Where there is no law there is no transgression”
We quite often come across Christians who would very vocally declare “I live under grace, not law!”. My experience is that this phrase far too frequently is appropriated and weaponised to mean “I am not going to come under any authority in the church”, which is not what it means at all. This attitude is contrary to the witness and teaching of Scripture, which clearly says the opposite!
There is also a worldview which declares, quite stridently, that every person is a ‘law unto themselves’. (This is a real echo of Judg. 21:25 “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”). This idea that morality, our sense of right and wrong, is subjective and internally determined is exceptionally common today. The reality is, though, that in effect it removes law, and thereby makes all things permissible. It is so easy to be moral if your morals are private and subjective, and even easier if they adjust to changing circumstances, or to changing attitudes in society.
This doesn’t just happen internally, it is what society is doing, our modern democracy declares that right and wrong is simply a matter of what the majority of people decide. I mentioned last week that democracy is a way of organising society such that the will of the majority is enacted (through the ballot box). As a consequence, power plays and not an objective sense of what is right and wrong are what determines morality. The result is that morality becomes malleable, it changes as society changes. Something which just a couple of generations ago deemed to be wrong can today not only be tolerated, but actively promoted. The action didn’t change, God’s attitude towards it didn’t change, society changed.
If we allow societal attitudes to drive and define our moral sense of right and wrong, if we say that something is right simply because society approves of it, then two things follow:
- We have no right to criticise ANY society from anywhere else, either geographically, or temporally (in time). Because they, like us, are/were acting in accordance with what their society defines as right and wrong. The very action of judging things that happen elsewhere or in another time shows us to be hypocrites. Making moral judgments about actions people take is only reasonable and rational if we believe that there are some things which are, universally, right and wrong. This is irrespective of where or when they happen. The very action of judging history is a declaration of belief in objective morality.
- We must accept that if attitudes have changed from the past, they almost certainly will change in the future. The implication here is that at some point in the future, society will judge the things we approve of today as wrong and immoral. Furthermore, It is likely that some things WE find abhorrent today will become commonplace and be approved of (or even celebrated) a couple of generations into the future. This has already happened with attitudes about marriage, abortion, and non-heterosexual relationships, there is pressure today to normalise euthanasia — all things which just a couple of generations ago would be unthinkable. It is very possible it will happen with attitudes towards other things—familial sexuality (incest), increasing imposed euthanasia beyond abortion to living breathing human beings, and much more. Don’t fall for the trap of believing “it’ll never happen in this area”—it is very possible it will. Because it already has!
In a sense that is an aside, what exactly DOES Paul mean here? He surely doesn’t mean that Law is irrelevant, or that we shouldn’t live by rules. Rules are important, and the Law, even the mosaic law has a purpose.
What does the law do?
It reflects the nature of God
Lev. 19:2 says, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy”, and 20:7,8 links God’s holiness with keeping the law: “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you”.
It shows us our sinfulness
Although the Law is good and holy (Rom. 7:12 “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good”), it did not provide salvation for the nation of Israel. “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Rom. 3:20).
C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, says, “a man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line”
As an aside, I cannot recommend Mere Christianity strongly enough. It is a brilliant book. Written from a series of lectures C.S. Lewis gave in 1942, 43 and 44, and as it was a talk, its style is conversational rather than academic, which makes it VERY readable. It is an excellent apologetic for Christianity, even now 60 years later.
If there is no law, Lewis claims, then any sense of justice is “nothing but a private idea of my own”. He says that any argument against God collapses if it relies on saying the world is “unjust and not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies”. Any attempt to prove God doesn’t exist by appealing to justice therefore proves the opposite. Because if, as atheism claims, the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning, just as if there is no light, we would not have eyes and therefore would no know there was no light.
In Acts 13 Paul says of the Law that Jesus frees us of the things the Law could never free us: “by him (Jesus) everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39).
This leads us right on to
It leads us to Christ
This is most clearly spelled out in Galatians, which as a letter describes in detail the relationship between the law and grace (read it!). Paul says clearly in 3:24 that the Law was our “guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith”. The word translated ‘guardian’ in ESV has a range of meaning which includes tutor, schoolmaster, and instructor (and is translated in those terms in various other translations). In other words, its purpose was to inform and lead people to Christ.
The image here is of a harsh taskmaster—more like a harsh NCO in the military or a disciplinarian. Often images of these people portrayed them holding a rod or cane which they used liberally. So, this law is a harsh disciplinarian, not a caring father. In fact, Paul uses the image of the tutor in 1 Cor. 4:15 when he says “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me”. In other words, we follow the father, not the law.
So, the law leads us to Christ. In Gal. 3:25, Paul says, “now that faith (in Christ) has come, we are no longer under a guardian”.
Once we have Christ, there is no longer any need for the Law. Rom. 10:4 also talks about the law, Paul tells us there that Christ “is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes” (“everyone who believes” again!).
Point 3 from v18 — The nature and importance of hope
In common usage, the word hope conveys doubt. For instance, “I hope it will not rain tomorrow”. Or, when asked if they will go to heaven when they die, people will often say, “I hope so.” However, that is not how the Bible sees “hope”.
In both the Old Testament and the New, hope means SO much more. It carries a meaning of confidence, security, and being without care. Doubt is not in view in Biblical hope. Biblical hope is a confident expectation or assurance based upon a sure foundation for which we wait with joy and full confidence.
One of the verses in which we find the word hope is Heb. 11:1. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”. This verse carries with it all of the confidence that we know, for sure, with no question, what we have been promised by God in His Word (Jesus is King and I will extol Him has a verse which declares — “we have a hope that is steadfast and certain”). Our faith is confident assurance. The reason for the certainty of this assurance is Jesus. It is founded upon the Rock of our salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ. All of the actions of the heroes of the faith recorded in Hebrews 11 were made possible because they had this faith based in their confident assurance or hope in God. As believers, we are also called to give an answer for the hope that is within us to any who would ask (1 Pe. 3:15).
Therefore, Biblical hope is a reality and not a feeling. Biblical hope carries no doubt. Biblical hope is a sure foundation upon which we base our lives, believing that God always keeps His promises. Hope or confident assurance can be ours when we trust the words, “He who believes on Me has everlasting life” (Jn. 6:47, NKJV). Accepting that gift of eternal life means our hope is no longer filled with doubt but, rather, has at its sure foundation the whole of God’s Word, the entirety of God’s character, and the finished work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
This hope is what provides for us the rock on which our faith rests, 1 Th. 1:3 declares that it is the foundation of their “work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Throughout the Bible, believers are called to anchor their hope in God himself, and for Christians, that also means we have sure and confident hope in Jesus. Jesus is the one who we hope for. He is the one through whom every believer will experience both the resurrection of the body and the full representation of eternal life. So for example, Heb. 10 says we are to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
And incidentally – the Hebrews verse suggests very strongly that hope is a choice we make not a feeling we have. In other words, WE can control whether or not we hope. We are not subject to it. We control hope – it doesn’t control us.
Another example of how Biblical hope bears no relation to the understanding of hope we see around us.
Warning: Again note that we may use the same words as people around us, but we don’t mean the same things by them. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you understand what you mean that someone else will.