Inheriting the World Depends on Faith, Not Law
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.
Two Possibilities for the Future
These verses teach - and the whole Bible teaches - that you have two possible futures in front of you. One is to inherit the world, the other is to inherit wrath. You see in verse 13, "The promise to Abraham or to his descendants [is] that he would be heir of the world . . ." And we know from verses 11 and 12 that the "descendants" of Abraham are not just Jewish people, but all those who have the faith of Abraham. So you may or may not be among that number. It depends on your faith. And we see in verse 15, "The Law brings wrath." If you live under the Law you will inherit wrath. So there are two possible futures for us all: inheriting the world, or inheriting wrath.
Now you can say to yourself this morning, "I don't think that's true. I think we all just die and decompose in the ground and that's that: no heaven, no hell. No inheriting the world and no divine wrath. Paul simply doesn't know what he is talking about." Or you could say, "I don't believe that. I think God will take everybody to heaven and there is no such thing as wrath that lasts forever. And one way to get there is as good as another." You could say that.
In fact, I would almost rejoice if every unbeliever would say something like that. Do you know why? Because it would mean that the magnitude of the issue of eternity had at least begun to register in their minds. But, alas, a more common response would be, "Pastor John, you say that I have two possible futures in front of me: one to inherit the world, the other to inherit wrath. You know what I think? I think that tomorrow I will have some cheese curds at the State Fair. That's what I think."
Would that all my listeners and I could agree on one thing as I begin this message: eternity compares to this life the way the Rocky Mountains compare to the ripples of an orange peel. And being ready to meet God is the main business of life. O Lord, please grant that we would be wakened from the stupor of our oblivious preoccupation with trifles. Help us to feel the weight of God's Word this morning. Amen.
I want us to see from Romans 4:13-15 three things. 1) How and why will the Law of God not help us secure our inheritance of the world (verses 14-15)? 2) How can we say that the promise of inheriting the world comes to us through the imputed righteousness of God by faith, even though the Bible teaches that active, lived-out righteousness is required to obtain the inheritance? 3) How great is this inheritance of the world and why should we look forward to it and seek it with all our heart?
1. How and why will the Law of God not help us secure the inheritance of the world?
Let's read verses 14-15, "For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation." Notice several things about "the Law" as Paul uses it here. First, he is not talking about the whole Old Testament or even the five books of Moses, sometimes called the Law or the Torah or the Pentateuch. We know that, because he is contrasting Law with the promise of God in Genesis 15:6 which Abraham believed, and which is in that very Torah or Pentateuch or Law. Instead Paul is thinking of the Law in a more narrow way - exactly as he is in Galatians 3:17, "The Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise." So he has in mind the Mosaic Law given at Mount Sinai which came hundreds of years after the promise made to Abraham.
But I think his focus is even more narrow than this. The Mosaic Law itself, given at Mount Sinai, contains promises and provisions of forgiveness for those who break "the Law" (Exodus 34:6-7). So there is a "Law of commandments" (Ephesians 2:15) within the larger Mosaic Law (see the use of "commandment" in Romans 7:8-13). That is what Paul has in mind here. We can know this because of what he says in verse 15. First he says, "The Law brings about wrath." What does he mean by this? He means that when the Law commands a certain kind of behavior, disobedience brings wrath. And we are all disobedient - that was the point of Romans 1:18-3:20. Therefore if we try to secure our claim on God for eternal life by using the Law of commandments, what we will get is wrath. "The Law brings about wrath."
The second half of verse 15 underlines why this is. It says, "But where there is no law, there also is no violation." In other words, before the Law came in (430 years after the promise to Abraham, Galatians 3:17), all kinds of sinful attitudes and actions might go unnoticed because there was no specific commandment that was violated. But when the Law comes in, the knowledge of sin explodes. What was lying dead, as it were, is brought to light as a specific violation or transgression of an explicit command. So, for example, before the Law was given, teenagers may have bad-mouthed their mothers and fathers when they got together. There may have been some vague uneasiness about this. But then came the Law in Exodus 20:12, "Honor your father and your mother." Now every disrespectful word is a specific violation of an explicit commandment. And not only is sin exposed more clearly; it increases.
Paul spells out this function of the Law in several places. For example in Romans 3:20 he says, "Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." In Romans 5:20 he says, "The Law came in so that the transgression [or violation] would increase." In Romans 7:12-13 he says, "So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful." This is the point of our text, Romans 4:15—through the Law, that is the commandments, the dormant sin in our lives is not only exposed but stirred up and made exceedingly sinful. Commandments make us kick all the harder, and show how bad we really are.
So the point of verse 15 as it supports verses 13-14 is: the Law of commandments, far from helping us secure our inheritance of the world, works wrath and makes our sin all the more obvious. That's verse 15. And the inference from that in verse 14 is: If you try to base your right standing with God and your inheritance of the world on keeping the Law of commandments, you will make faith void and nullify the promise. So believe the gospel. Revel in the good news that the righteousness of faith (verse 13) is not the righteousness you perform in obedience to the Law of commandments, but the righteousness of God in Christ imputed to you by faith alone.
2. How can we say that the promise of inheriting the world comes to us through the imputed righteousness of faith, even though the Bible teaches that active, lived-out righteousness is required to obtain the inheritance?
First let me explain the question and then give a Biblical answer. Verse 13 is clear: the inheritance of the world comes to us not through the use of the Law of commandments, as we have seen, but through "the righteousness of faith." Verse 13: "The promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith." We know from verses 9 and 11 that "the righteousness of faith" referred to in Romans 4:13 is imputed righteousness - not a righteousness of the Law that we perform, but a righteousness of God that he credits to our account, even though it is his. Verse 9b: "Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness." Verse 11 says that this happened to Abraham while uncircumcised so that he might be the father of all who believe (see the last phrase of the verse) "that righteousness might be credited to them."
That is the "righteousness of faith" referred to at the end of Romans 4:13. It is the imputed righteousness of God credited to our account through faith alone (Romans 3:28; 4:5). So the meaning of verse 13 is that our future promise of inheriting the world is based on God's righteousness credited to us, not on the performance of our own.
But this raises the question of how to understand the many texts in the Bible that make our future inheritance of eternal life in some sense dependent on our behavior in this life. Not on our perfection, but on the direction of our lives. Let's take one example from the life of Abraham, since he is Paul's example of inheriting the promise "through the righteousness of faith" (Romans 4:13). When Abraham had offered up his son Isaac in Genesis 22, and God had intervened and spared the boy and substituted a ram in his place, he gives Abraham the promise all over again, but with a twist (Genesis 22:16-18). Two times he will say that Abraham will inherit the promise "because of his obedience." The Lord said,
By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.
So how can the inheritance of the promise come to Abraham "because you have obeyed my voice" (Genesis 22:16,18) and yet, as Paul says in Romans 4:13, come "through the righteousness of faith" which was credited to him freely by God according Genesis 15:6?
Here is my answer. It's the same one I gave a few weeks ago when we dealt with the relationship between James 2 and Romans 4. The one and only foundation or basis of God's commitment to give Abraham the inheritance of the world is God's own righteousness provided for Abraham through Jesus Christ and credited to Abraham through faith alone. That is the basis of Abraham's confidence that God will surely make him heir of the world. But the authenticity of Abraham's faith must be demonstrated (or validated) by acts of obedience like the one in Genesis 22 so that it will be manifest that his faith is real and not dead faith (James 2:17, 26) or devil faith (James 2:19) or useless faith (James 2:20). This obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1:5) is not the basis of his confidence. They are the fruit of his confidence. And the fruit does not make the tree good. The tree makes the fruit good.
So I conclude that the necessity of having the fruit of faith to show that our faith is real does not contradict the great gospel meaning of Romans 4:13 - that our future inheritance of the world is not through Law, but through the righteousness of faith. The foundation of our hope is not our righteousness performed even as the fruit of faith, but the righteousness of God alone credited to our account through faith in Christ - a faith that is so satisfied in God that it breaks the power of canceled sin, and gives new direction to our lives.
So make it your aim in all of life to maintain and strengthen your faith in Christ. Fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12). Let every failure in obedience send you to the cross for forgiveness and for new portions of hope in future grace so you can put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit and walk in newness of life. Make life a fight for faith.
3. Finally, how great is this inheritance of the world, and why should we look forward to it and seek it with all our heart?
Now this is so great and so big it deserves a sermon in itself. So what I plan to do is linger here one more week and give a whole message on what it means to inherit the world. One of my reasons for doing this (aside from the fact that I love to talk about future grace) is that next week is the Ministries Fair and the prelude to a great fall Sunday schedule and a great Wednesday Connection and untold possibilities for you to minister at Bethlehem. And there is a profound connection between the hope of this great inheritance and the freedom and joy and price of ministry. So I want to make that connection next week as we launch into the fall pattern of life at Bethlehem.
But I can't pass over it without at least one small and glorious word this morning. Paul says in Romans 4:13, "The promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith." Abraham and all his descendants will be heirs of the world. You are a descendant of Abraham if you trust God for righteousness as Abraham did, according to Romans 4:11. Therefore, you will "inherit the world" if you put your trust in God through Jesus Christ. You will not inherit wrath.
I want to end where I began: you have two possible futures in front of you. One is to inherit the world, the other is to inherit wrath. Whether you inherit the one or the other hangs on one fundamental thing: the righteousness of God. Has it been credited to your account or does it stand as a witness against you? What makes the difference? The difference is whether you trust Christ to cover your sins and to be God's righteousness for you. So trust him. Trust him. Do it right now. Trust him.