Receiving Rewards Not Wrath

Romans 4:13-17

August 6, 2006 | Brian Bill

We had a great time on the other side of the cheddar curtain but it’s also good to be back.  We spent time with my family the first part of the week and with Beth’s family during the second part.  My parents have always lived in Wisconsin and now Beth’s parents have seen the light and reside in Lombardi Land during the summer months.  

There are many things that stand out from our time in the land of promise, but I was particularly struck by the caliber of our dads during this trip (our moms are great, too).  My dad took us fishing until we could fish no more and the next day he took us swimming off his boat until we were waterlogged.  He skipped a weekly commitment just so he could make us waffles one morning.  He then showed me how to set up his camping trailer and allowed us to take it up north.  On top of all that, he took care of our dog Charlie while we were gone, giving him a hair cut and lots of love, and maybe even some behavior modification.  I watched as my dad served each of us and then went along as he helped a neighbor move some furniture.  One afternoon I couldn’t find him and learned that he was fixing someone’s air conditioning.  When I think of my dad, I think of a servant, and those of you who went to Biloxi with him can attest to his work ethic.

When we arrived at Beth’s parents’ house, all of Beth’s sisters and their families joined us for a celebration of her dad’s 70th birthday.  There were 23 of us for the weekend (that’s why we needed the trailer).  Beth’s dad took everyone skiing and tubing and served each of us all weekend.  On Saturday night, we had a celebration for him at a restaurant, where his daughters and grandchildren gave tribute to him and to his faith.  On Sunday, he played his trumpet in church, giving all the glory to God.  On Sunday afternoon, I had the privilege, along with another brother-in-law who is a pastor, of baptizing two of our nephews.  It was a sacred moment.  As we stood in a circle I thanked my father-in-law for being faithful and told him that he reminded me of Abraham because he has passed his faith along to his family.  

When I asked permission from both of the patriarchs in our families to talk about them in this introduction, each of them told me that it was OK but they didn’t want any undue attention.  They are humble men who are just living out their responsibilities.  I recognize that not everyone has a good father figure in their life and perhaps some of you would give anything to have a different dad.  But this morning, I don’t want us to just think about our dads, I want us to learn from the faith of Father Abraham so that we fall more deeply in love with our heavenly Father.

The fourth chapter of Romans shows how Abraham is an example of faith in action.  Specifically, Paul points out that if the patriarch of the Jewish people was justified by faith, and not by works or by circumcision, then no one can be saved by just trying to be good.  This morning we’ll learn that Abraham was justified by faith and not by keeping the law.  

Please turn to Romans 4:13-17 and follow along as I read: “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 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.  As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’  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.”

Our passage today is not easy to comprehend because Paul’s presentation is complex.  But if we understand verse 13 we’ll see that Paul is utilizing an either/or argument.  The contrast is really between law and faith, and between inheriting the world and inheriting wrath: “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”  Paul is actually changing his strategy here.  When he argued against circumcision in verses 9-12 as the way to salvation, he used a chronological or historical argument to show that Abraham was justified 14 years before the rite of circumcision was given.  Paul could have continued this line of reasoning here in Romans when he turns to the Law, which is precisely what he does in Galatians 3:17 to show that Abraham was justified 430 years before the Law was given.  

But instead of arguing from history, in our text today he shows the holes in law living and the inevitable result, which is receiving God’s righteous wrath.  The promise did not come through performance for Abraham but through faith.  Let’s review briefly what it means to be “heir of the world.”  Abraham was to receive four parts to this promise

  • People (Genesis 13:16; 15:5)
  • Land (Genesis 15:18-21)
  • Blessing (Genesis 12:3)
  • Redeemer (Galatians 3:8,16)

It’s interesting to note that in the original there is no definite article before the word law.  It’s not “the” Law but law in general, which for many of us includes those things that we think we must do to earn God’s acceptance.  Our focus should not be on our performance for God but on our faith in the promises of God.  Once again Paul hammers home the truth that “righteousness comes by faith.”   Here’s the sermon in one sentence: When we focus on faith we will inherit the world, if we focus on performing we’ll inherit wrath.

Why Law Living Loses

Verses 14-15 show us why we lose if we try to live by the law.  Whenever we’re wrapped up in trying to work for God by keeping a set of standards, we will be wiped out in three ways.

1. Faith is forfeited (14a). 

Look at the first part of verse 14: “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value…”  Faith is neutralized or empty when we try to just get by with our performance.  The Amplified Bible uses the word “useless.”  Faith and law are opposites; when you choose one you are inevitably rejecting the other.  A right relationship with God is either a gift to be received or a prize to be earned.  I wonder, do you trust in your own abilities or in God’s accomplishments?  It can’t be both.

2. God’s promises are punctured (14b).

His argument continues in verse 14: “…and the promise is worthless.”  The word “worthless” means permanently idle.  A couple weeks ago one of the tires on my car developed a leak.  I went to fill it up with air but the next morning it was completely flat.  I later learned that it had a big puncture in it and I couldn’t go anywhere until I got it fixed.  Friends, God’s promises are punctured when we try to perform in our own strength.  And we won’t go anywhere until we trust in Him alone.  The only way the promises of God are fulfilled in our life is through faith.

3. Wrath is awakened (15). 

When we focus on faith we will inherit the world, if we focus on performing we’ll inherit wrath

Verse 15 adds that if we are determined to live by law, we will be in trouble because no one can keep God’s standards perfectly: “Because law brings wrath.” We’ve been introduced to the idea of God’s righteous wrath in each of the first three chapters of Romans (1:18; 2:5; 2:8; 3:5) and we see it again here.  The word actually means a “violent vengeance” and carries with it the idea of a swelling which eventually bursts.  It’s no small matter to think we can meet God’s standards on our own.  If we stay on that path, we will end up facing wrath.  John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” When we focus on faith we will inherit the world, if we focus on performing we’ll inherit wrath.

Why Faith Living Wins

We are not declared righteous by law living but by faith living.  Abraham’s trust was not in what he possessed but in what had been promised.  The word “faith” is used four times in our text and the word “believe” is used once.  One of the Greek words behind this concept is the word “drink.”  This is helpful because when we drink something we don’t just look at it or admire it or even just swirl it around.  We actually put it up to our lips and into our mouths and then down our throats so that it becomes part of us.  It’s like that Gatorade commercial that asks, “Is it in you?”   That’s exactly what Jesus meant in John 7:37-38 when He said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” 

If living by the law doesn’t work, what happens when we drink in God’s truth by faith?  I see at least five results from verses 16-17.

1. God’s promises are personalized (16). 

Look at the first part of verse 16: “Therefore the promise comes by faith…” When we claim them by faith, God’s promises become personally activated in our lives.  God is the ultimate promise-keeper as Psalm 145:13 says: “The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.”   I like how 2 Corinthians 1:20 puts it: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”

2. Grace is given (16). 

Let’s keep going in verse 16: “…so that it may be by grace…”

Living by the law leads to condemnation; living by grace leads to commendation.  

The story is told about an elderly woman who trusted Christ for salvation and was being teased and tormented by her friends.  They threw questions at her that she tried to answer to the best of her ability. When she was asked what being saved by grace meant, she thought for a minute and then replied: “Jesus stood in my shoes at Calvary, and now I’m standing in His.”  This simple chart, suggested by Ray Pritchard, helps us see the difference between grace and law.

Grace Law

Faith Works

Gift Earned 

Salvation Condemnation

Certainty Uncertainty

Forgiveness Guilt

Rewards Punishment

World Wrath

Here’s the recurring refrain from the Book of Romans: “Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.”  John MacArthur writes: “Were it not for God’s sovereign grace providing a way for salvation, even a person’s faith could not save him.”

3. Salvation is certain (16). 

Verse 16 continues by saying the promise is “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.” If you think salvation is by works you can never be sure that you are truly saved because you will never know if you’ve done enough.  Do you know for certain that grace is guaranteed to you and that because of your faith in Jesus Christ that you would go to heaven if you were to die tonight?  Friend, you can be sure!  It’s all been done for you.  I love the last words from David in 2 Samuel 23:5: “Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part?”  God has arranged it all and because He has, salvation is secure in every part.  God’s promises are personalized by faith and are guaranteed by grace.

4. God’s offer is for everyone (17a). 

God never intended for His people to keep the message to themselves.  He is a global God as evidenced by the first part of verse 17: “I have made you the father of many nations…”  Paul is quoting Genesis 17:5 to point out that salvation is for everyone.  God blessed Abraham so that he would bless the nations.  He was made a father so that he would be the spiritual father of all who believe in Christ. 

Friends, God’s offer of salvation is for everyone.  It’s for the Israeli and the Palestinian, for the Jew and the Arab, for the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael, for Iraqis and Iranians, for flatlanders from Illinois and cheeseheads from Wisconsin.  I like how John Piper puts it: “Gentiles become true Jews by faith in Jesus and Jews forfeit their final inheritance as Jews if they reject faith in Jesus as the Messiah.”

5. The impossible becomes possible (17b). 

With God there is no such thing as impossible.  We see this in the last half of verse 17: “…The God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” Abraham certainly experienced this when he was able to father Isaac at such an old age, when according to Hebrews 11:11-12, he considered his body as “good as dead.”  

There is no greater miracle in the world than the fact that God made us alive through Christ!  Jesus said in Luke 18:27: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”  God calls Abraham a father when he wasn’t and calls us righteous even when we aren’t.  

Implications and Application

When we focus on faith we will inherit the world, if we focus on performing we’ll inherit wrath.  If we are justified by faith and not by keeping the law, does that mean that we can just sit back and passively believe?  No. The act of believing is active and always involves an act of leaving.  We see this in Hebrews 11:8: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”  We must leave that which we’ve been trusting and then lean on the One who is fully trustworthy.  Here are some ways that we can put feet to our faith. 

1. Stop trying and start trusting.

In what one area do you need to trust God?  Is there something that you’ve given up on, that just seems dead?  It’s time to trust that God can bring life out that which is lifeless.  Maybe it’s your marriage.  Perhaps it’s a ruptured relationship or a financial situation or a health crisis.  If you’ve stopped praying for someone, it’s time to start trusting that God will do His work in His time and in His way.  Give it to God right now and let Him “give life to the dead and call things that are not as though they were.” Ray Stedman puts it well: “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.”

2. Start living as an heir right now. 

Too many of us are living like paupers and we forget that we are children of the King!  We ask God to bless us and He says in Ephesians 2:3 that He’s blessed us “in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” 

We live defeated lives and God says in 2 Peter 1:3 that He’s given us “everything we need for life and godliness.”  Ephesians 3:6 says: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

Friend, you have been given an inheritance that is literally out of this world.  It’s time to start living with some joy.  Claim what has been promised to you.  You are accepted by the Almighty, you are secure because of the Savior’s work and you are significant to the Holy Spirit who wants to use you.

A young man from a wealthy family was about to graduate from high school and as was the custom in his affluent neighborhood, he expected to receive a new car from his parents.  On the eve of his graduation, the father handed his son a gift-wrapped Bible.  The son was so angry that he threw the Bible down and stormed out of the house, never talking to his father again.  When his father eventually died, the son went through his dad’s possessions and came across the Bible he had been given.  Brushing away the dust he opened it to find a cashier’s check dated the day of his graduation in the exact amount of the car he had so desperately wanted.

Friend, have you tossed aside any of God’s promises?  Don’t overlook your inheritance and don’t wait until it’s too late to recognize what could have been yours.

3. Settle the assurance of salvation issue.

As verse 16 states, grace is “guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring.”  Friends, once you become a son or daughter of Abraham by faith, Jesus promises to never leave you or forsake you in Hebrews 13:5.  Listen to these words from 1 John 5:13: “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.”  If you have placed your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, God’s grace provides a guarantee that you have eternal life.  Just as you did nothing to earn it; God’s grace keeps you from losing it.

Related to this, if you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, then even as the world situation continues to unravel, you can have the confidence that you are ready for the return of Christ.  If your faith is in Jesus you don’t have to freak out.  I believe that we are either in the end-times or getting closer and closer each day.

4. Take a risk for Jesus. 

Someone once said, “Attempt something so great for God that if He is not in it, it will fail.”  Do you expect great things from God?  If so, then attempt great things for Him.  Are you living a boring and predictable Christian life?  It’s time to go a bit crazy for Christ.  In his book called “The Slumber of Christianity,” Tedd Decker argues that too many believers have settled for a bland spirituality when our expectation of receiving an inheritance that will not fade should awaken within us a passion for heaven while we live here on earth.  It was G.K. Chesterton who said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

When D.L. Moody made his first trip to Britain he heard some words that set him hungering and thirsting for a deeper Christian experience.  As he sat on a bench with Henry Varley, he was challenged with this statement: “The world has yet to see what God will do with, and for, and through, and in, and by, the man who is fully consecrated to Him.”  Moody thought to himself, “He said ‘a man,” not a great man, nor a learned man, nor a smart man, but simply ‘a man.’  I am a man…I will try my utmost to be that man.”  This transformed his life and his ministry and from this point on he pushed ahead, believing God for great things.  Later, someone asked Moody if he was “O and O,” which means, “Out and out for Christ.”  He was determined to be “O and O” for Christ until God called him home.

5. Become a child of Abraham right now. 

No matter if you have a good father or not, it’s time to make God your Father by becoming His child.  John Piper summarizes our situation well: “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?” 

Father Abraham has many sons and daughters and you can become one as well

Someone told me recently that the word “righteous” in Chinese has two parts.  The top part means “lamb” and the bottom part is “I” or “me.”  Friend, if you are a born-again believer the Lamb is over you.  When God looks at you he sees Jesus the Lamb and declares you righteous in His eyes.  As a result you will receive rewards, not wrath.  Are you under the Lamb?  Father Abraham has many sons and daughters and you can become one as well.  When we focus on faith we will inherit the world, if we focus on performing we’ll inherit wrath.


Many years ago an English evangelist had just concluded his service in the village square.  The crowd had dispersed and he was busily engaged in loading up his equipment.  Just then a young man came up to him and said, “What must I DO to be saved?”   Sensing that he was trusting in his performance, the preacher answered in a nonchalant way: “I’m sorry, it’s too late!”  The inquirer was startled and become frantic: “Please don’t say that.  I’ll do anything.”  But the evangelist insisted, “It’s too late!”  The man was dejected and started to walk away.  The preacher called out after him and said, “If you want to know what you need to do to be saved, it’s too late now or any other time.  The work of salvation is done, finished, and completed on the cross.  All you need to do is believe and receive the free gift of forgiveness.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?