A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 4:13-17a. c). Abraham was not justified by the law (continued).
Verse 15 develops this rationale, showing why law and promise exclude each other. It is *because law brings wrath*, and because *where there is no law there is no transgression*. The words ‘law’, ‘transgression’ and ‘wrath’ belong to the same category of thought and language. For the law turns sin into transgression (a deliberate trespass), and transgression provokes God’s wrath. Conversely, ‘where there is no law there can be no breach of the law’ (NEB), and so no wrath.
Verse 16 is a further example of the logic of language, as it brings together *grace* and *faith*. The Greek sentence is much more dramatic than the English, since in the original there are neither verbs nor the noun ‘promise’. It reads literally: ‘therefore by faith in order that according to grace’. The fixed point is that God is gracious, and that salvation originates in his sheer grace alone. But in order that this may be so, our human response can only be faith. For grace gives and faith takes. Faith’s exclusive function is humbly to receive what grace offers. Otherwise ‘grace would no longer be grace’ (11:6).
Paul’s antithesis in verses 13-16 is similar to his work-trust and wage-gift antithesis of verses 4-5. It may be summarized as follows: God’s law makes demands which we transgress, and so we incur wrath (15); God’s grace makes promises which we believe, and so we receive blessing (14, 16). Thus law, obedience, transgression and wrath belong to one category of thinking, while grace, promise, faith and blessing belong to another. This is the argument from language and logic.
In addition to his arguments from history and language, Paul now develops an argument from theology, especially the doctrine of Jewish-Gentile unity in the family of Abraham. The reason justification is by grace through faith, or by faith according to grace (16a), is not only to preserve linguistic and logical consistency, but also so that *the promise…may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law* (meaning Jews who trace their physical descent from Abraham) *but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham*, that is, all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, who belong to the spiritual lineage of faith (16b; cf. 11b-12). The law (not least its cultural and ceremonial provisions) divides. Only the gospel of grace and faith can unite, by opening the door to the Gentiles and levelling everybody at the foot of Christ’s cross (cf. 3:29f.). Hence the importance of faith. All believers belong to Abraham’s seed and so inherit Abraham’s promise. The fatherhood of Abraham is a theme which runs right through this chapter. In the first verse Paul calls him ‘our forefather according to the flesh’, that is, Israel’s national ancestor. But after this he makes three affirmations: ‘he is the father of all who believe’, whether circumcised or uncircumcised (11-12); *he is the father of us all* (16); and *he is our father in the sight of God* (17). Thus the Scripture has been fulfilled which says: ‘*I have made you a father of many nations*’ (17a). Only justification by faith could have secured this.
Much of Romans 4 has so far been negative. It has been necessary for Paul to demonstrate that Abraham was justified neither by works (since it is written that he believed God and was justified), nor by circumcision (since he was justified first and circumcised later), nor by the law (since the law was given centuries later, and in any case Abraham was responding to a promise, not a law). In each case, Paul has affirmed the priority of Abraham’s faith. His faith came first; works, circumcision and the law all came later. It has been a process of systematic elimination. But now at last the apostle reaches his positive conclusion.
Tomorrow: Romans 4:17b-22 d). Abraham was justified by faith.