Grace as old as Adam

A study of Romans 4:14-16

For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

One of the questions a pastor gets asked routinely has to do with the salvation, or the possible salvation, of those who may not believe exactly what the Bible says about being “born again.”  What about those who are just very good and moral people, they ask.  What about those who are engaged in exemplary works that benefit all kinds of people but who do not necessarily believe in we refer to as “salvation by grace?”  And of course, the favorite hypothetical case of all:  what about the pygmy on some desert island who has never heard the gospel?

As one who has been asked those things from time to time, let me say how grateful I am that God is the final arbiter is the salvation of all people, and that decisions of that magnitude do not rest any person or group.

However, there are certain principles in the Word of God that are inescapable; that show what one must do to be saved.  And these principles cannot be ignored, nor do they change from generation to generation. If we understand these principles, perhaps we won’t be so surprised when we stand before the Lord and look around at who didn’t make it.  Recall this stinging verse:

Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’  (Matthew 7:23)

Jesus was speaking, not to reprobates or scoundrels, but to the religious leaders of His day!  There will likely be folks in heaven who might have been considered pariahs or outcasts while they were alive.  Rahab the prostitute, for example, will be there, as will the thief that hung on the cross next to Jesus.  They were hardly the types of people you would bring home for Sunday dinner.

It goes without saying that those who defame the name of God and “trample the Son of God under foot” will most certainly not inherit the Kingdom of God (Hebrews 10:28-29).  Yet there is another group of people who will not share in heaven.  These are the ones who know all about God and Jesus.  Maybe they learned sound orthodox theology in Sunday School.  Perhaps they can sing the books of the Bible in order.  But they don’t have a living and vital relationship with Jesus.  They do good things and maybe were even baptized, but they believe their acceptance by God depends on what they do and how they behave.  To those, the Holy Spirit through Paul warns:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  (Galatians 5:2-4)

1.  A big net

The Church of Jesus Christ is, today, filled with many people who have a mental knowledge of God and who have adopted orthodox views of Jesus Christ, and have confessed Him.  However, their lives didn’t go beyond their “confession,” in other words, there may be “confession” of Christ, but no “consecration” to Him.

That is the essence of our Lord’s parable of the net in Matthew 13:47-48,

“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 4When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.”

That “gospel net” pulls in all kinds of fish, but not all are wanted.  Within the walls of the Church, there are all kinds of people, but not all true followers of Christ.

2.  Works vs. the Promise, verse 14

There exists in the mind of man two ideas of what salvation is.  The human idea is salvation by works; God’s idea is salvation by promise.  These two ideas are diametrically opposed to each other:  works or promise, the law or grace.  They cannot exist together in one person.  The law can be broken, but the promise cannot be.  To whom was the promise made?

When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.”  (Hebrews 6:13-14)

The promise was made by God to God, but it was for man.  God, being all perfect and all powerful, cannot break His promise.  But because there is no perfect human being, there has never been a complete fulfillment of the law by any human being.  In God’s mind, keeping the law is an all or nothing proposition.  One cannot keep some of it without keeping all of it.   If a good person make it into heaven by partially keeping the law, then, as Barnhouse observed:

[T]hat would mean a slip-shod God and dirty Heaven.

That is the implication of verse 14:

For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.

The Greek for “no value” and “promise” are in the perfect tense, suggesting a powerful meaning.  If it were at all possible for someone to enter heaven on the basis of being good and observing the law, then “faith” and “promise” mean nothing.  J.B. Philips translates this verse like this:

The ancient promise given to Abraham and his descendants, that they should eventually possess the world, was given not because of any achievements made through obedience to the Law, but because of the righteousness which had its roots in faith.  For if, after all, they who pin their faith to keeping the Law were to inherit God’s world, it would make nonsense of faith in God Himself, and destroy the whole point of the Promise.

3.  No Law=No Transgression, verse 15

[B]ecause law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Verses 14 and 15 work together to show why Abraham and those who came after him could not inherit God’s promise through the Law or a law.  Those who base their hope of receiving a blessing on what they do “eviscerates the very meaning of ‘faith’ and ‘promise.” (Moo)  The first part of verse 15 supports what Paul was saying in the previous verse.  He simply shows what the law does, not what it cannot do.

Paul says “the law brings wrath.”  Indeed, blind works never brings peace to anybody.  This thought is proven by the second phrase, “where there is no law there is no transgression.”  Barnhouse offers a simple, yet profound illustration of this.  Seventy five years ago there was no law against driving at any speed along the roads and highways of America.  If one had a car that could travel at speeds of 100 miles per  hour or more, that person could  do, if they could find a stretch of road that allowed it.  Of course, horses and pedestrians would have had to flee for their lives!  But no law was broken for no law existed.  The driver might have been guilty of stupidity, but nothing more.  As the years progressed, populations grew, more and more cars appeared on the road, law makers began to write laws against excessive speed.  With that law, it became a transgression to speed, and if caught, the speeder could be fined to the fullest extent of the law.

This is the very simple concept Paul is putting forth here.  There was a time before Moses and the Mosaic Law where God had never revealed His principles of holiness and righteousness.  For example:

  • Cain killed Abel, it was murder plain and simple.  However, the commandment had not been given, therefore there was no transgression.
  • Ham dishonored his father, but this was long  before the commandment “Honor your father and mother” was given.  Again, there was no transgression.

Sin was alive and well before Moses and the Law, but there was no transgression because there was no law.  Key to understanding this is the word “transgression,” from the Greek parabasis. The only time Paul uses this word is in reference to a person’s willful disobedience to a law or command that they have been made responsible for.  It should be noted, however, that this does not mean that Cain or Ham were saved.  Negatively, the coming of the Law made people conscious of their guilt in a definite way, and in a positive way, the coming of the Law made it possible for the Holy Spirit to convict people of their wrong doing, and plant within them the desire to be saved from their sins and transgressions.

Note these verses:

What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.  (Gal. 3:19)

And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.  (1 Tim. 2:14)

No doubt, transgression is a sin, but not every sin is a transgression.  Every time a human being falls short of what God expects of them, they sin.  But only when they purposefully disobey a commandment God has given them do they commit a transgression.  Therefore, a transgression is more serious than a sin and will result in greater judgment.

The fact that, as Paul has indicated, the Law produces wrath, and the corresponding fact that as believers we are not objects of the wrath but instead objects of God’s promise, has led some to conclude that believers are not under or subject to the Law.  In a general sense that is true, however to be free from the Law does not mean that we are free to be lawless.  God deals with His creation in different ways and different times.  In Romans, Paul is teaching that after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the human raced passed into yet another aspect of God’s dealing with them.  From that event until the next age, God deals with man through grace, not law.

What good was the Law?

Every human being is an incurable addict.  We are addicted to sin.  And like any addict, we will do anything to feed our addiction, even going so far as to justify it and make it seem right.  Simply put, that is the answer to the question, “What good was the Law?”

While the Law was never given to save anybody, it was invaluable in showing sinful people the true state of their lives in relation to God’s ideal for them.  It was necessary to convict them of wrong and show them the right.  With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Law’s work was over.  What the Law did, the Holy Spirit now does.

But even as far back as Adam, grace was still in operation.  If God determined to save Adam, then Adam would be saved.  If God determined to save Abel and condemn Cain, it was on the grounds of His sovereignty and love alone, for neither brother was righteous in God’s sight.  God has always been a God of grace, but He gave the Law to show sinful human beings the folly of their addiction and to point to them to the only cure:  a power outside of themselves.  In the OT, that “power” was the Promise of God.  In the NT, that “power” is a relationship with Jesus Christ.

4.  An inheritance by faith, verse 16

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

Lastly, this group of verses tells us that these two competing ideas of salvation are mutually exclusive.  If you are working for your salvation, then you won’t fully commit to the grace expressed in Christ.

Nobody wants nothing.  Even the most hardened of sinners wants good things, even eternal life.  A person would have to be insane to choose Hell over Heaven.  But Satan is the master of men’s minds and has successfully confused many people into thinking they may gain Heaven by working for it, rather than merely on the basis in faith in God’s grace.

Paul makes it crystal clear that the promise comes only by faith to all who exercise it, whether they are “of the law” or “of the faith of Abraham.”  In other words, faith in Jesus Christ is one true equalizer of all people, whether Jew, or Gentile.  At the moment of faith is birthed in one’s heart, that one becomes a “child of Abraham” because they are exercising the same kind of faith as Abraham did.

Eternal, life-changing concepts

(1)    Faith is distinct from the Law.  In other words, the Law is something you do, faith is more of an attitude of heart and mind.  Calvin compares faith to “open hands.”  Believing means that we stretch out our arms and open our hands to receive all that God wants to give us.  In our achievement-oriented society, it is difficult to practice this; we, in our misguided efforts to be obedient believers want to “earn” the blessings of God by our deeds and actions, thus placing God in our debt.  But that is not how God operates.  He gives.  He does not barter.

(2)    Faith’s power rests, not in itself, but in the One in whom we place our faith.  One of the most famous questions in sports history was posed by ABC commentator Al Michaels at the end of the 1980 Olympic hockey series between the United States and the USSR in response to the American’s astonishing victory.  “Do you believe in miracles?” he asked rhetorically.  As is evidenced by books, magazines, TV shows, and so on, Americans do indeed believe in miracles, angels, and the supernatural in general.  However, the Bible never, ever discusses belief in those things, it speaks of a belief in God, the One responsible for the miracles.

This was the kind of faith Abraham had.  This was the kind of faith that was credited to Him as righteousness.  Abraham believed in the One who could bring life a barren womb.  Abraham believed in the God in back of the promise.  But Abraham’s belief didn’t stop there.  Abraham had such strong belief in and faith in God, the he spoke of God’s promises as though they  had already been given.  The fact is, Abraham would not live to the majority of God’s promises come to fruition.

(3)    Faith is based on God’s Word, not on the evidence of what we see.  God’s Word was all Abraham had.  The key to living a Christian life that is full of hope and expectation is having faith in God that is consistent and never wavering.  The ultimate reality for the believer is not what they see and can experience in the physical realm, but rather what what they cannot see:  the spiritual realm.  That is why the Word of God must be ever before us.  As we remember the great promises in and as we meditate on it, it won’t be long before its spiritual realities become more real to us that the world around  us.

(c)  2008 WitzEnd
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