Romans 4:13-17 Salvation Apart from Law


There is a sense that the apostle Paul is in a war and has been shooting down enemy soldiers. In Romans 4 his war is for the gospel, of course, and the champions that have been sent to do battle against him have been formidable. Thus far there have been two of them. The first was “Works.” This is the soldier almost everyone believes in, the people’s favorite. But Paul shot him down with an arrow from Genesis 15:6, which proved that Abraham was justified by faith in God’s promise, rather than by works. Since Abraham is the Old Testament pattern of a justified and godly man, his experience sets the pattern for those who follow him. The second soldier was “Circumcision.” This champion was peculiar to the Jews and seemed to have the blessing of God behind him, since after all, God had Himself established circumcision. Paul defeats this mighty foe by showing that Abraham was declared to be justified by God years before circumcision was imposed on him and his descendants. The last of the enemy’s heroes is “Law.” Paul will shoot this soldier down in the next two paragraphs of his letter (vv. 13-17).

It’s important to notice his change in strategy, however. When Paul was arguing against circumcision as a way of salvation, he used a temporal or historical argument, as we have seen. Instead he speaks of the results of trying to live by law, showing that by nature law is contrary to both faith and promise and that the inevitable result for those who choose this bad option is God’s wrath.

Why does Paul take this approach? Why does he not argue from a time sequence, as he does in Galatians? It may not be possible to assign a sure reason for this, but we have a clue in the fact that Paul does not use the direct article (“the”) before the occurrences of the word “law” in verses 13-15, by contrast the article does occur with “law” in Galatians. In Romans Paul is not thinking so much of the specific Jewish law, though nothing he says excludes it, but of law in general. It is the law principle, rather than a specific set of laws, that he is thinking about. It is what we commonly call morality.

Is that distinction important? Well, it is for Gentiles, which includes most of us, as well as the bulk of those to whom Paul was specifically writing. The Gentiles of Paul’s day generally did not have the advantage of the Old Testament law for moral guidance. But they did have some standards of behavior, just as we do today. And like us, they wanted to trust in their personal ability to keep that “law,” to measure up to those standards, as a way of salvation.

We see that all around us, don’t we? People will say that God ought to save them because they have done the best they can, “best” in that statement being defined by their partial attainment of whatever standard they perceive to be a just one. Or because they are good people, “good” being merely the sense that they have done better at living up to some moral code than others. This is the way we naturally think about salvation. Because we think we have measured up to some moral standard, we believe that God owes us something.

So what are the consequences if a person tries to achieve a saved status with God not by faith but by morality or, as Paul says, by the law principle? Paul says there are three consequences: (1) Faith has no value (v. 14). The reason faith has no value if one is living by the law principle is that faith and law are opposites, and if a person is choosing one, he or she is inevitably rejecting the other. (2) The promise is worthless (v. 14). The second consequence of living by the law principle is the nullification of God’s promise. Why is this so? Well, if the promise of salvation is linked to the law principle, this can only mean that it is necessary for a person to keep the law in order to receive the promise. If that were the case, the promise would never be fulfilled because, as Paul has already proved in the earlier chapters of Romans, there is nobody who has ever done what God’s law requires. (3) Law brings wrath (v. 15). The third consequence of trying to achieve a saved status by the law principle is that, instead of achieving salvation, all one actually achieves is wrath. This is an important point, for it goes beyond what has already been established as the first and second consequences. This is because the law can do nothing but condemn. That is its very essence. If you do not turn from the law as a way of salvation and trust the work of God in Jesus Christ, the very standard that you trust condemns you – because you have not kept it and never will.

The second paragraph (vv. 16-17), shows the fortunate consequences of seeking to be justified by God, not on the basis of morality or by the law principle, but by faith – which was the path pursued by Abraham. Again, as in the case of law, there are three consequences: (1) Faith establishes grace (v. 16). Why is this so? It’s because faith and grace belong together by their very natures, just as works and law belong together. Faith establishes grace. Therefore, we must have faith, since it is grace we need. (2) Faith makes salvation certain (v. 16). We can see the truth of this by contrast. Anyone who wants to be saved by works can never be certain that he or she has performed well enough – assuming (wrongly) for a moment, that the standard can be less than utter perfection. If, by contrast, salvation is not by morality but by the grace of God received through faith, then salvation is certain – because God is faithful and does not waver in His promises. He has done what is necessary through the death of Christ. That work is a perfect and all-sufficient work. Nothing can be added to it. Consequently, the person who rests on that work can be quietly content and confident. (3) Faith opens the door of salvation to all (vv. 16-17).The final benefit of faith as the way of salvation is that it opens the door of salvation to everyone, not just to the Jew, who possessed the Old Testament law, or to the few favored Gentiles who had been taught a particularly high standard of morality. It’s open to everyone. All may enter. This is the point Paul particularly emphasizes in Romans 4, not only in these verses but from verse 9 to the end of the chapter.

I don’t know of any human benefit or award or promise of which that can be said, because all human offers have conditions and thereby always exclude some people. But this is not true of the way of salvation offered by God through the work of Christ. Because of this, I can say the door is open for you, regardless of who you are or whatever you may have done or not done. None of that matters because we are all reduced to the same level. Salvation is by the grace of God through faith. If you are excluded, it’s only because you have refused to walk through the open door. It’s because you prefer your own sullied morality to God’s grace.

Don’t let that be true of you. Instead of refusing grace, accept it and enter into the full joy of God’s salvation. That salvation is for you, whoever you may be – if you will have it.

Romans 4:13-17 Reflection Questions:

According to Paul in verses 13-15, what is the purpose of the law?

How does the knowledge that Abraham is the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5) and that you are a child of Abraham affect the way you view your faith?

Romans 4:9-12 Salvation without Ceremony


We remember from our study of the first verses of Romans 4 that in this chapter Paul is attempting to prove the gospel from the Old Testament. His chief example and the basis of the proof is Abraham, patriarch of the Jewish people and the one to whom they looked as their spiritual model. If Paul can show that Abraham was saved by the grace of God in Christ, received by the channel of human faith, he has made his point and established the doctrine. Paul does show that Abraham was saved through faith and not by works by quoting Genesis 15:6. Having proved his point concerning Abraham, Paul then adds a second witness; David, and the words Paul cites in Romans 4:7-8 are drawn from Psalm 32:1-2. The case should be clear-cut: Abraham was saved by faith apart from human works; we must be saved by faith too.

If you are a Jew and are saved, it’s not because you are a Jew. It is because of the work of Jesus Christ. If you are a Gentile and are saved, it’s not because of anything you are or have done as a Gentile. It’s because of the work of Jesus Christ. No one is saved because he or she has been baptized or confirmed or gone to Mass or shared in the communion service. A person is saved through faith in the perfect and completed work of Jesus Christ. Either you have been saved by Him, or you have not been saved at all. It is by faith and not by works that one is justified.

There is a valid question still to be asked at this point: If Abraham was saved by faith apart from circumcision, which he must have been if he was declared to be justified fourteen years before circumcision was given to him, why was this rite given? If Abraham was not saved by circumcision, didn’t the giving of circumcision just muddy the waters? Or, to put the question in other terms: What’s the purpose of the sacraments anyway? This is a good Bible passage from which to ask these questions, because it contains in one verse (v.11) the two most important words in the Bible for understanding what the sacraments are about. The words are: “sign” and “seal.”

Let’s take the word “sign” first. Paul writes that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision” (v. 11). What does that mean? Well, in simple language a sign is a visible object that points to something different from and greater than itself. In the case of circumcision, it is a case of pointing to the covenant God established with Abraham based on the work of Christ. In the case of the New Testament sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it is the same. The Lord’s Supper in particular points back to Christ’s death (see Luke 22:19-20). But on another level, these sacraments also indicate ownership. They show that we belong to Christ and that we no longer belong to ourselves.

The second word Paul uses to discuss the nature of the sacraments, whether circumcision, baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, is “seal” (v. 11). In the case of Abraham, Paul says that circumcision was “a seal of righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” That is, after Abraham had believed God and God had imparted righteousness to him, God gave the seal of circumcision to validate what had happened. In the same way, baptism is a seal that the person being baptized has been identified with Jesus Christ as His disciple, and the elements of the Lord’s Supper, when received, indicate that the person has taken Jesus to himself as intimately and as inseparably as eating bread and drinking wine. Important? Yes, the sacraments are important as signs and seals of what has happened spiritually and invisibly, but not as a means of salvation.

The last portion of our text teaches that because Abraham was saved by faith before he was circumcised, he has become the father of all who are truly saved, both Jew and Gentile. This doesn’t mean that no one had been justified before Abraham. Adam, Enoch, Noah, and other early believers were also justified by faith. But is does mean that in Abraham’s case the way of salvation was made explicit in Scripture for the first time; therefore, all who have been saved trace their spiritual ancestry to him.

I don’t know who your ancestors have been, whether they have been worthy or quite undistinguished, or even whether you know who they are. But I know this: You can step into the long ranks of the greatest honor roll of ancestors any human being could ever have and it will not cost you a single cent – though it will cost you your pretensions. It is the ancestral line of Abraham. You need only believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and this great company of the faithful will become your family tree.

Romans 4:9-12 Reflection Questions:

In Romans 4:3 and again in 4:9 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6. In 4:9-12 what does Paul point out about when Abraham was circumcised?

This passage was very controversial in Paul’s day because in it Paul is redefining the family of Abraham. How has the family of Abraham been redefined both in regard to Gentiles and in regard to Jews in verses 9-12?

The church today, and in every generation, must make sure the door is wide enough open to let in people of every ethnic group, every type of family, every geographical region, every sort of moral (or immoral) background. But it must also make sure that the defining characteristic of the membership of this multiethnic family remains firmly stated and adhered to: the faith that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. How can the church keep this balance and do so in the right spirit?

Romans 4:1-8 Sola Fide (Faith Alone) was Credited as Righteousness


Paul had indicated that salvation through the gift of God’s righteousness apart from law had been announced beforehand in the Old Testament (Rom. 1:2; 3:21). Now he shows that it is not only something that had been previously announced, but was also the only way anyone either in the Old Testament period or the dawning New Testament era has been saved.

Paul begins with Abraham, and it’s clear why he does so; Abraham was the acknowledged father of the Jewish people and, with the exception of Jesus Himself, the most important person in the Bible. Abraham is a giant in Scripture. So where do we start in considering the case of Abraham? The place at which to begin – the same place we ourselves must begin, if we would be saved – is with the acknowledgment that there was nothing in Abraham that could ever have commended him to God. If Abraham had no natural good in him, it is certain that he was not saved by human goodness. How then was he saved? The answer, as we have seen several times already, is by God’s gift of righteousness to him, which he received by faith.

Paul refers to a specific Old Testament teaching concerning Abraham, and the text he refers to is Genesis 15:6. The context of the verse is the incident in which God took Abraham out under the night sky and promised him offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, even though at this time Abraham was 85 years old and had no children, and Abraham believed God. From the viewpoint of the doctrine of salvation this is the single most important verse in the entire Bible. This is because in Genesis 15:6 the doctrine of justification by faith is set forth for the first time. It is the first reference in the Bible to (1) faith, (2) righteousness, and (3) justification. This is the first time that any specific individual is said to have been justified.

How was this accomplished? Here we have to be extremely careful. First, we need to dismiss what are clearly two serious misunderstandings of the text. One is the liberal misunderstanding, though it is probably what the great majority of Jews would have thought in Paul’s day. It supposes that when the text says “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” it means that Abraham was just a good or pious man, and that he was justified in that basis. Obviously, if Abraham believed God when God promised him numerous children, Abraham was the kind of person who delighted in believing and obeying God, in doing what God told him to do. And, so this reasoning goes, it was because he was such a good man that God saved him. That is not justification by faith, of course. It is the opposite, justification by works. But it was what many people fervently believe and what liberal scholarship teaches.

The second misunderstanding is not a liberal but an evangelical one. It goes like this: Since Abraham did not have any righteousness in himself by which he could be justified before God – but since God wanted to save him – God looked for something He could accept in place of righteousness. Since Abraham had faith, at least a little bit, God said, “Even though this little bit of faith is not righteousness, it is something I can work with. I’ll treat it as righteousness and so save Abraham.” Even to put it like that shows the absurdity of this interpretation. For God is not a juggler of truth. God does not pretend a thing is something it is not. Consequently, if God counted Abraham as being righteous, it must have been on the basis of a true righteousness – either His or someone else’s – and not on the mere fiction of substituting apples for oranges.

There are several reasons why we should be warned against this second insidious but very common misunderstanding. First, when the text says that “it was credited to him as righteousness,” what does it refer to? The evangelical misunderstanding would have to maintain that the antecedent is the fact that Abraham believed God or the fact that he had faith. But this is hard to support grammatically. “It” demands a noun (or at least a verbal noun) as an antecedent, and the text supplies neither. This fact alone suggests that we should look further for what was actually reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. Second, there is the way faith is referred to in the rest of the Bible, specifically in the writings of Paul. It is never said that people are saved because of their faith or even on the basis of their faith. They are saved by faith. Third, faith cannot be a substitute for righteousness because the important word “credited” does not permit that interpretation.

When God saved Abraham He did two things, one negative and one positive. (1) He did what Paul quotes David as saying in verses 7-8 (a quotation of Ps. 32:1-2), namely, God did not reckon his sin against him. How So? It is not merely that God simply struck Abraham’s transgressions from the ledger book of his life and then forgot about them, as if they could simply be discounted. God does not play imaginary games. True, He did remove the list of Abraham’s sins from his ledger, but that was only because he had first transferred it to the ledger book of Jesus Christ. Jesus took the liability of those transgressions on Himself and paid their price by dying for them. Abraham’s sin was not reckoned to Abraham because it was reckoned to Jesus Christ instead. (2) In a parallel action, God then also reckoned the righteousness of Christ to Abraham, which is what Genesis 15:6 teaches. God took Christ’s righteousness and wrote it in Abraham’s ledger.

That is the only way anybody has ever been saved, and it is precisely what has happened for anybody who has been saved. It is true that there have been different degrees of understanding of what happened. The Old Testament saints understood less (although Abraham probably understood a great deal). New Testament saints understood more. But regardless of the degrees of understanding, the only way we or anybody else is saved is by the imputation of righteousness of Christ to our account.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior? That’s what God declares Him to be. Abraham believed what God had revealed to him concerning Jesus Christ, and the righteousness of Christ was credited to Abraham as if it were his own. Adam, Jacob, Moses, David, John the Baptist – all believed the same thing. No one has ever been saved in any other way. So I say, if you have not believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior, believe now. Today is always the day of salvation.

Romans 4:1-8 Reflection Questions:

On what basis do you expect to obtain salvation?

What do you believe concerning Jesus Christ?

Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior?

Romans 3:31 The Law Upheld by Faith


Two studies back, we saw that in the final paragraph of Romans 3 (vv. 27-31), it contains three conclusions from or implications of the gospel. They may be expressed by saying that the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ: (1) Excludes boasting (vv. 27-28), (2) Establishes one way of salvation for everybody (vv. 29-30), and (3) Upholds the law of God rather than subverting it, as some seem always to suppose it does (v. 31).

The last of these points (v. 31) is an answer to a false conclusion or erroneous implication that some people, particularly religious people, might draw from the gospel. Paul has spoken forcefully about salvation by grace apart from law. He has repeated the idea of salvation being apart from law twice, once in verse 21 (“apart from law”) and once in verse 28 (“apart from observing the law”). “Well then,” such a person might argue, “if salvation is apart from the law, as you say, doesn’t the doctrine of salvation by grace set God’s law aside and thus show it to be worthless? And if it does that, shouldn’t your gospel be rejected as being quite false? Aren’t we obliged to reject any doctrine that would nullify the revealed law of God?”

Paul’s reply is that the gospel of grace does not nullify God’s law. God forbid that it should! If it did that, it would be a false gospel, one rightly to be rejected. But it does not nullify the law of God. On the contrary, it establishes the law and is, in fact, the only thing that does or could establish it.

There are two ways in which this objection to the gospel may be raised. The first is: “If we don’t have to keep the law of God in order to be saved, why should any of us want to keep it? If we are saved by grace apart from obeying the law, we must be free to sin. So let’s all sin. Let’s indulge ourselves by doing any and every sinful thing we want to do – because, after all, we will get to heaven anyway.” It shouldn’t be too difficult to see what is wrong with this argument. It’s wrong psychologically, if for no other reason. It assumes that the only motivation for right moral conduct is fear of hell or of losing heaven, when actually those are the least significant motivations. The highest motivation for godly conduct comes not from fear of hell but from love of God. It’s because God has saved us by grace entirely apart from any merit in ourselves that we love and want to please Him. Moreover, we recognize the importance of what we have become a part of by God’s grace – the kingdom of God on earth – and we want to advance the goals of that kingdom.

The second error is theological. It’s the false assumption that when a person is justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, he or she is personally unchanged by that process. Or, to put it in other terms, it is to suppose that one can be justified without being regenerated or born again. Actually, the one effect never occurs without the other. So the one who is justified always shows it by striving for righteousness. If a person does not strive to live a moral life according to the law of God, the failure proves that he or she is neither regenerated nor justified.

The theme of Romans 3:21-31 is not sanctification (important as that is) but justification, which is achieved for us by the work of Christ. So it’s not that the law is upheld by “our faith” in the sense that we inevitably live moral lives if we are living by faith, true as that is, but that the “faith” Paul is describing – that is, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith – upholds the law. This is so important let me state it in a different way. The point is not that the law is somehow established by what we do as Christians by the power of the new life of God within. It is rather that the Lord Jesus Christ has established the law in the process of providing salvation for us by His death on the cross. Or, to put it in still other language, God has established the law by seeing that the demands of the law were met in the way He provided salvation for us.

We have now come to the end of the most important single passage in the Word of God. Romans 3:21-31 is the very heart of the Bible, the most important and critical passage in all Scripture. To review, there are four great doctrines: (1) God has provided a righteousness of His own for men and women, a righteousness we do not possess ourselves. This is the very heart or theme of the Word of God. (2) This righteousness is by grace. We don’t deserve it. In fact, we are incapable ever of deserving it. (3) It is the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in dying for His people, redeeming them from their sin, which has made this grace on God’s part possible. Redemption describes the work of Jesus Christ in relation to ourselves; propitiation describes the work of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father; justification describes the act by which God the Father declares us to have met the demands of the law on the basis of Christ’s work for us. It is because of Jesus’ death that there is a Christian gospel. (4) This righteousness, which God has graciously provided, becomes ours through simple faith. Believing and trusting God in regard to the work of Jesus is the only way anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, can be saved. Faith is essential. “And without faith it is impossible to please God…” (Heb. 11:6).

The important point is: Have you been saved by what is described in these doctrines? Have you been saved from your sin by Jesus Christ? Do you know that He died in your place to bear the punishment for your sin and offer you, in its place, His own perfect righteousness? Have you believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior?

We live in a day – perhaps every age has been like this – when people are trying their best to establish other “gospels,” other ways of salvation. Some are into good works, some into yoga or reincarnations or crystals or something else. But the Bible’s gospel is not a human gospel, as those all are. The Bible is God’s Word, and this is God’s gospel. It is the only true gospel. It is the only way in which a sinful man or woman can be saved. But, praise God, it is the way by which man or woman may be saved – yourself included. Believe it, and thank God for it!

Romans 3:31 Reflection Questions:

In verse 31 Paul says that the law is not abolished. Rather, he says that the law cannot be fulfilled by works. Instead it is fulfilled by faith. How does reliance on the law of faith instead of the law of works put Jews and Gentiles on the same footing before God?

This passage explains the very foundation of the Christian faith. How could you take these verses and restate them in a way that would communicate the message of Christ to people around you who do not know Him?

Spend several minutes thanking God for His act of mercy in fulfilling the law through Christ and providing a way for all those who have faith in Jesus to be members of the new covenant family. Then pray for one friend who does not know Jesus. Pray that God would give you opportunities to communicate the message of the gospel in relevant ways.