Faith-Yes! The Law-No!

Romans 4:13-17

May 17, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

This is my 15th and next-to-last sermon on Romans 1-4. In just two weeks we’ll begin a new series on the Ten Commandments. It’s appropriate to mention that now, because we’re talking about the law of God in this message. Paul’s great concern in our text is to show that no one is saved by keeping the law of God—not even by keeping the Ten Commandments. That’s really the chief problem we face whenever we talk about God’s law: People think they must keep the Ten Commandments in order to go to heaven.

Not so, says the Apostle Paul. He states his thesis very clearly in verse 13: “It is not through law … but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” We’re still talking about Abraham in these verses and how his example relates to the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith. Paul has already reached two preliminary conclusions:

—Abraham was saved by faith and not by works. 4:1-8

—Abraham was saved by faith and not by circumcision. 4:9-12

Now we move to the next logical step in the argument:

—Abraham was saved by faith and not by keeping the law. 4:13-17

Interestingly, he doesn’t make the same kind of argument he makes concerning circumcision. In the previous verses Paul argued that Abraham couldn’t have been saved by circumcision because his point of saving faith came 14 years before his circumcision. The identical argument could have been made about the law since Abraham lived 500 years before the giving of the law. It’s perfectly true that Abraham was saved before the law was given, but Paul chooses not to argue in that fashion. He instead argues from the inherent weakness of attempting salvation by the law (4:13-15). He then shows the absolute superiority of salvation by faith (4:16-17).

I. Why the Law can’t save you.

The key to understanding these verses is to know that Paul is thinking about the special promise God gave to Abraham, a promise that had three distinct parts—A land promise, a seed promise, and a blessing promise. God promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation, to give that nation a land of its own, and to bring great blessing to the world through that nation. That promise—given initially in Genesis 12:1-3—becomes the foundation for the sending of Christ to the world 2000 years later. So when Paul talks about “the promise” to Abraham, we can understand it in shorthand form as “the promise of salvation.”

Paul’s point in verse 13 is that when God gave the promise, it had nothing to do with the law given to Moses 500 years later. Those were two separate events. There is promise, and there is law, and the two must not be confused. The promise came to Abraham not by keeping the law but through the “righteousness that comes by faith.” God didn’t say, “Well, Abraham, you’ve been an obedient person so I’m going to give you this promise as a reward.” No! The promise came despite Abraham’s faults and frailties. It came through faith and not by works of any kind.

What would happen if the promise did come by keeping the law? What if God did say, “You’ve got to be good in order to receive the promise?” We can sketch Paul’s answer in three short statements.

1. It renders faith useless. 14a

“For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value.” What does this mean? Simply that faith and law are mutually exclusive. You can have salvation by faith or you can have salvation by keeping the law, but you can’t have both.

—Faith says, “I can’t do it myself.”

—The law says, “You can do it. Just try harder.”

Those two statements are forever unreconciled. No one can bring them together. If all you need to do is keep the law, then you don’t need faith. All you need is obedience. But if God saves people on the basis of faith, then it doesn’t matter whether they keep the law or not. If you want to go to heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments, go ahead and take a shot at it. But in that case, don’t talk about being saved by faith. You have nullified faith by your reliance on the law.

2. The promise becomes worthless. 14b

“Faith has no value and the promise is worthless.” Why does the promise become useless? Because if you earn salvation by keeping the Ten Commandments, then you don’t need God’s promise. God doesn’t have to promise you anything because you’re trying to get to heaven by your own efforts. So in that case, the promise is worthless. Unfortunately, your efforts are doomed to failure because no one can keep the law perfectly.

Let me illustrate. Suppose I offered $100 to the first person to jump from the balcony, flap their arms, fly around the sanctuary once, and return to their seat. Who would be the first one to try it? What? No takers? Perhaps I haven’t offered enough money. Let’s make it $1000. Now, who’ll be the first in line? Still no takers. Okay, let’s make it $10,000. Hmmmm. How about $50,000? Or $100,000?

Do you see the point? It doesn’t matter how much money I offer. If you can’t flap your arms and fly, then I could offer $5 million, and you still couldn’t do it. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it, and the money just doesn’t matter.

That’s the exact situation of the man who tries to get to heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments. The law says, “Do this and live” … But he can’t do it! The law says, “Keep these rules perfectly and I will reward you with eternal life.” But no one can do it. It’s impossible to keep the law of God 100% of the time. It doesn’t matter what you offer as a reward. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. The promise thus becomes worthless due to man’s inability to meet the conditions.

3. Our situation becomes hopeless. 15

“The law brings wrath.” That’s where you end up when you try to get to heaven by keeping the law. You don’t end up in heaven; you end up facing the wrath of God because you failed to keep the commandments perfectly.

Let me sum up the situation in three statements:

The more God demands, the more we fail.

The more we fail, the greater our guilt.

The greater our guilt, the greater God’s wrath.

That’s what I mean by saying that our situation is hopeless. That’s literally true. If you are trusting in your obedience to get you to heaven, not only are you terribly deceived, but you also face a hopeless situation.

“I Only Broke Part of It”

James 2:10 reminds us that to break any part of God’s law is the same as breaking all of it. In that sense, the Ten Commandments are like a 10-link chain that stretches from earth to heaven. If you break one of those links, it doesn’t matter how well you keep the other nine. To break one is the same as breaking them all.

This was driven home to me a few days ago when I was left home with Mark and Nicholas while Marlene went shopping with Joshua. They were goofing off in the backyard while I was watching television when I heard a loud crash. Before I could even get out of my chair, Nicholas ran inside and said, “Mark broke a glass in the screen door.” Then before I go outside to check it, Mark came running up and said, “Don’t worry, Dad. I only broke part of it.” “Which part was that?” “The part down by the corner.”

Sure enough, when I went outside to check, there was a hole about the size of my fist in the lower right hand corner of the Plexiglass. What happened? Well, the boys had gotten into my golf clubs and were practicing their swings. Evidently Mark’s aim is not much better than mine since he wound up and sent the ball right through the screen door. But, he assured me again, it’s okay since he only broke part of it. I patiently explained to him that it doesn’t work that way. If you break any part of the Plexiglass, it’s as if you broke it all since the whole thing has to be replaced.

It’s the same way with God’s law. There’s no such thing as being a “moderate” sinner. That’s like being a “little bit” pregnant. You’re either a sinner or you’re not. If you break any part of God’s law, it’s as if you’ve broken the whole thing. You can’t repair the situation by trying to make up for your sin in other areas. God won’t accept that solution. Which is why trying to go to heaven by keeping the law leaves you in a truly hopeless situation.

II. What faith does that the law could never do.

We now come to the other side of the issue. Having shown us clearly why the law can’t save us, Paul now shows us the superiority of salvation by faith. Faith does four things for us that the law could never do.

1. Faith confirms grace. 16a

“Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.” Faith is based on the grace of God because grace means “the unmerited favor of God.” Since grace by its very nature involves that which is undeserved, it completely excludes the idea of working to obtain salvation. A simple chart will make the matter clear:

Things That Belong Together

Grace Law

Faith Works

Gift of God Earned by Human Effort

Salvation Condemnation

Certainty No Certainty

Forgiveness Guilty

2. Faith makes salvation certain. 16a

“The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s descendants.” The point here is that if salvation is by works, no one can ever be sure if they are truly saved. Here is the question: “Do you know for certain, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that if you should die tonight, that you would go to heaven?” How would you answer that question?

Perhaps you think—as many do—that no one can know for certain. But the Bible says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (I John 5:13) The Bible says you can know beyond any shadow of a doubt that you are saved. You can know that right now. You can be so sure of heaven that if you should have a heart attack tonight, you would wake up in heaven tomorrow morning. You can know!

But the only way you can know is if salvation is by faith. If salvation comes by keeping the law, no one can ever be sure. After all, how would you ever know if you had been good enough? For example, let’s suppose that liars don’t go to heaven. How many lies would it take to disqualify you from heaven? If you take the strict view, you would say it would only take one lie. But what if it’s only a “little white lie,” nothing really serious. Would that keep you out of heaven? How about 2 lies? How about 10 lies? The same is true with any sin you could mention. How many times could you get angry and still go to heaven? How many swear words could you say? How much money could you steal? More than $5 and less than $50?

Turn the question over. How much good do you have to do? How many little old ladies do you have to help across the street? Is five enough? 10? 20? How about old ladies in wheelchairs? Do they count double? That’s the problem with trying to count up your sins and your good deeds. You can never be sure you’ve done enough good stuff and not done too much bad stuff. You can never be sure at all.

But Paul says that grace makes salvation certain. It is “guaranteed” because salvation rests not upon the weakness of human performance but upon the eternal strength of God himself.

3. Faith opens the door of salvation to everyone. 17a

“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. As it is written, ’I have made you a father of many nations.’” Here Paul quotes Genesis 17:5 to drive home his point. There are no restrictions on the gospel. The promise of salvation is not only for the Jew, but also for the Gentile.

Why is the gospel available for everyone? Because it is free.

—If salvation required baptism, then people in the desert would be excluded.

—If salvation required money, then poor people would be excluded.

—If salvation required reading the Bible, then illiterates would be excluded.

—If salvation required higher degrees, then high school dropouts would be excluded.

But since salvation requires faith and only faith, everyone is included!

I draw two conclusions from this fact:

Anyone can be saved.

We are right to spend so much money on world missions.

There is a direct connection between this text and our worldwide missionary outreach. We spend so much money and time in world missions because we believe anyone can be saved. Since the gospel is available to the whole world, we feel a sacred obligation to invest our money to help get the Good News out to as many people as possible. Therefore, our missions program is not merely an afterthought at Calvary; it’s at the very heart of what we are all about.

4. Faith saves because it rests on God’s unchanging character. 17b

“He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” It all comes back to the character of God. Abraham believed in a miracle-working God.

He gives life to the dead.

He speaks and things come into existence.

Abraham saw a miracle happen because he put his faith in a miracle-working God! The most delightful part of all this is that Abraham’s God is our God, too. We have the same God and he has the same miracle-working power today.

Ray Stedman put it well when he said, “If I have a God who can raise things from the dead and who can call into existence the things that do not exist, I am going to be a very exciting person to live with.”

The Well That Never Runs Dry

I saw a wonderful illustration of this truth last week when I spent a few days at Camp Nathanael in Emmalena, Kentucky. Most of you know that we’ve been supporting Eva Lodgaard in her work in eastern Kentucky since 1945. I had promised Eva several times that I would be glad to visit the camp, so I spent four days there last week speaking to the staff and to the missionaries.

The camp itself is something of a miracle. A man named Garland Franklin was the first director. Back in the early 30s he was driving along the dirt road next to Troublesome Creek when the Lord spoke to him and said, “I want you to build a camp there.” The land wasn’t for sale right then, but Mr. Franklin began praying about it. Several years later the land came up for sale and the mission raised the money to buy it. This of course was in the heart of the Great Depression when money was scarce everywhere, but nowhere more scarce than in the coal-mining country of eastern Kentucky.

Then in 1936 they decided to dig a well on the property. After saving up their money, they found that they only had $75 to pay for the well—the digging, the installation of equipment, and any other associated expenses. When the man came to dig the well, Mr. Franklin asked him where he would like to dig. The man said, “Mr. Franklin, I can see into the ground as far as you can.” So Garland Franklin pointed to a spot and said, “Dig right there.” So he started to dig and hit water after going down only 75 feet (most of the other wells in the area go down at least 200 feet). After putting in the pump and the permanent casing, enclosing the wellhead and attaching the pipes, the contractor totaled up his bill and presented it to Mr. Franklin. The exact amount was $74.99. They had one penny left over!

But that’s not the end of the story. Last week Larry Toner, the camp director, showed me where they had dug the well back in 1936. It’s still there and still pumping water. But get this. In 56 years the well has never run dry. Never. Not even for a moment. Miss Eva said, “It’s like there’s an ocean of water under there.” Two years ago when a severe drought hit the region, most of the local wells went dry, but not the one at Camp Nathanael. They had so much water that they let the local people come and fill their water barrels.

After 56 years the miracle well is still pumping water. And it shows no signs of ever running dry.

Is that a miracle? Yes, but behind the miracle well stands a miracle-working God who can speak a word and an ocean of water comes gushing up through the ground.

Two Final Thoughts

Let’s wrap up this study with two concluding words of application.

1. The law can never save anyone because it cannot change human nature. In the words of Detective Mike Stone, from the old TV series The Streets of San Francisco: “All the laws in the world won’t stop one man with a gun.” He’s right. You can pass all the laws you want, but you can’t legislate a change in human nature. Law by definition only deals with outward behavior. It cannot compel a change in the human heart. That’s why we have laws against murder and yet over a thousand people are murdered in Chicago every year. That’s why we have laws against theft and yet we still have to lock our doors at night. That’s why we have laws against rape and yet it happens all the time.

Does that mean the law is bad or useless? Not at all. It only points out the inherent weakness in the law. Since it cannot change human nature, it cannot save anyone. If we are going to be saved, we need something that will change our hearts.

2. Faith saves because it rests on God who has the power to change you from the inside out. Here is real hope for you! He can create the universe. He can raise the dead. He can radically change your life.

“Lamb Over Me”

How does God do it? Several weeks ago I shared with you the “Handkerchief” illustration. A few days later I received a letter in the mail that read as follows:

Dear Dr. Pritchard,

Yesterday I was in the 2nd Sunday morning service when you used the white handkerchief to illustrate how we could be righteous in God’s sight. I was reminded of the illustration which my mother had used. She used the Chinese character “righteous” to make the same point. (She was a missionary to the Chinese.)

The Chinese character “righteous” has two parts. The top part means “sheep” while the bottom part means “I” or “me.” So “righteous” in Chinese is literally “Sheep” over “Me.” When God looks down on me, He only sees the Lamb (Christ) and declares me righteous.

She also enclosed several photocopied pages from a Cantonese-English dictionary that back up what she is saying. She’s exactly right. What does it mean to be “righteous” in God’s sight? When God looks at me by myself, all he sees is my sin. And what I call righteousness, he calls filthy rags. I have nothing in myself that will pass for righteousness in his eyes.

But when I place my trust in Jesus Christ—the great Lamb of God—then when God looks down from heaven, he sees “the Lamb over me” and declares me righteous in his eyes.

That is the basis of the radical change in the life of the believer. Not only does God see the “lamb over me,” but he also imparts to me the very life of the Lamb of God so that I now share in the life of Jesus Christ himself.

What is the result? 1. I am declared righteous before God.

2. I am changed from the inside out.

How do these great blessings come to me? By faith! Not by works. Not by the law! Not by anything I could ever do, but simply and only by faith in the crucified Lamb of God. When I come to Jesus, he not only saves me, but he begins to change me in the one place that really matters—in my heart, so that my “want to” is radically-reoriented to do the things that please God.

All that I wanted but could never have, I find when I come to Jesus Christ. All that I wanted but could never achieve is provided for me by faith in the Son of God. What I lacked, he provided. What I wanted most, he supplied. What I needed, he freely gave.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?