A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 4:13-17a. c). Abraham was not justified by the law.
Paul begins this new paragraph with a sharp *not…but* antithesis, in which the negative is emphatic. There are no questions and answers now, as there have been in the continuing diatribe. There is just an uncompromising assertion that if justification is neither by works or by circumcision, it is not by law either. For how did God’s promise come to *Abraham and his offspring?* Answer: *not through law…but through the righteousness that comes by faith* (13). The promise in mind must still be Genesis 15:5, that Abraham’s posterity would be as numerous as the stars. It was a promise without any conditions or requirements attached to it. God’s word came to Abraham as gratuitous promise, not as law. He simply believed God and was justified.
To our initial astonishment, Paul portrays God’s promise as being that Abraham *would be heir of the world* (13). Yet in the Genesis text Abraham was promised Canaan, ‘north, south, east and west’ of where he was standing (Gn. 13:12, 14, 17), whose boundaries were later delineated. How then did ‘the land’ become the ‘world’? It is partly that, as a general principle, the fulfilment of biblical prophesy has always transcended the categories in which it was originally given. It is partly that God made the subsidiary promise that through Abraham’s innumerable posterity ‘all nations on earth’ would be blessed (E.g. Gn. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). This promised multiplication of Abraham’s descendants led the Rabbis to the conclusion that God would ‘cause them to inherit from sea to sea, and from the River unto the utmost part of the earth’. The third reason for Paul’s statement that Abraham would inherit ‘the world’ is surely messianic. As soon as Abraham’s seed was identified as the Messiah (Gal.3:16; cf. Jn.8:56), it was further acknowledged that he would exercise a universal dominion (E.g. Ps. 2:8; Is. 9:7). Further, his people are his fellow heirs, which is why the meek will inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5) and why in and through Christ ‘all things are ours’, including ‘the world’ (1 Cor. 3:21f.).
Having clarified what the promise is, why does Paul assert so strongly that it is received and inherited by faith, not law? He gives three reasons. The first is an argument from history. He has already stated it clearly in Galatians 3:17, namely that ‘the covenant previously established by God’ could not possibly be annulled by the law which was given 430 years later. The same truth is implicit in Romans 4, even though it is not developed. Secondly, there is the argument from language. In these verses the apostle uses a profusion of words – law, promise, faith, wrath, transgression and grace. These terms all have their own logic, and we must not be guilty of a confusion of categories. Thus, *if those who live by law are heirs*, that is, if the inheritance depends on our obedience, then *faith has no value (kekenotai*; literally, ‘has been emptied’, i.e. of its validity) *and the promise is worthless (katergetai*; literally, ‘has been destroyed’ or ‘rendered ineffective’; 14). Something can be given to us either by law or by promise, since God is the author of both, but they cannot be in operation simultaneously. As Paul has written in Galatians, ‘if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise’. (Gal.3:18). Law and promise belong to different categories of thought, which are incompatible. Law-language (‘you shall’) demands our obedience, but promise-language (‘I will’) demands our faith (cf. Gal. 3:12). What God said to Abraham was not ‘Obey this law and I will bless you’, but ‘I will bless you; believe my promise’.