Romans 4:13–15 (ESV)
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.
Paul is saying that God’s promise to Abraham can’t be about the law because it’s a promise. Here’s the reference.
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. — Genesis 15:5–6 (ESV)
As Paul has noted, this was before circumcision, and it was long before the law was given to Moses. There is nothing in what God said to Abraham that anticipates the law, much less obedience to it.
But Paul’s argument here isn’t about chronology. He says, “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.” Paul’s saying that if the “promise” is contingent on obeying the law, then it’s not a promise at all. It would be an agreement, or a deal, or something—Paul doesn’t say what—but not a promise.
In other words, God’s promise to Abraham doesn’t have any contingencies. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
His promise to Abraham can’t be transgressed because there’s nothing there to transgress.
All this is not to denigrate the law. The law is important, but its role is not to save us. In fact, at first glance, it looks like the role of the law is to “unsave” us.
But that’s not it. The law helps us see our unsaved nature. We’re plenty unsaved already. We’d still be in rebellion against God even if He hadn’t given us any specific laws to break.
But because He gave us laws, we can see our overwhelming tendency to violate them. Thus, our sinful nature is revealed. Thank God for the law! For the law brings wrath. It sets the stage for Christ.
If you’re wondering, “Why would God do it that way?” you’re thinking ahead. God sets things up so that He can jump in and save us, at enormous personal cost. He could have created any universe He wanted, and He created this one—this messed up, fallen universe. Then He jumped in.
And on top of all that, being forgiven for our rebellion depends, not on obeying laws or doing good deeds, but on faith in Him.
All this is for His glory.
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