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?