NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XI)
Bible scholar Frederic Godet gives us his explanation on the promise to Abraham of possessing the whole world. To Godet, this had been promised to Abraham and his posterity in three forms: – “(1) From the prophetic and Messianic point of view, which dominated the history of the patriarchal family from the beginning, the land of Canaan was the emblem of the sanctified earth; it was the point of departure for the glorious realization of the latter. (2) Several other promises naturally led to the extension of the possession of the promised land to that of the whole world.1 (3) Above all these particular promises there always rested the general promise of the Messianic kingdom, the announcement of that descendant of David to whom God had said: “I have given you the uttermost parts of the earth for an inheritance.2”3
Charles Ellicott comments: “Abraham was the father of all who walk in his steps. For all this, is not limited by the Law any more than it is limited by circumcision. The promise of that worldwide inheritance was not given through the agency of the Law (which at that time did not exist) but as an effect of the righteousness which proceeds from faith. Heir of the world. – This promise was explained by the Jews as the universal sovereignty of the Messiah. Through the righteousness of faith, – As a further consequence of that (imputed) righteousness which proceeds from faith. Three stages are indicated: (1) faith, (2) imputed righteousness, (3) access [by everyone] to the Messianic kingdom with all its privileges.”4 In other words, that the Messiah would be Lord of all because without such sovereignty He would not be Lord at all. His Lordship would not be restricted to the Jews but would include all the nations of the earth.
Consequently, there is no doubt but that the promise of the Messiah is the key factor in how all of these promises made to Abraham were to be enjoyed by non-Jews around the world. It would have been impossible for all of them to convert to Judaism because making converts was not a Jewish priority, and to some, it was a disgrace. Therefore, it would take the coming of the Messiah for this to happen. This, then, establishes our spiritual relationship with Abraham through Jesus the Messiah.
Verses 14-15: If people could get God’s promise by following the Law, then faith is worthless. And God’s promise to Abraham is worthless because the Law can only bring God’s punishment for those who disobey it. But if there is no Law, then there is nothing to disobey.
Now Paul brings down the hammer, so to speak, on any forced inclusion of the Law as a necessary part of acquiring salvation.5 The Law was meant to show the need for redemption and freedom from the slavery of sin but had no intrinsic power to bring about that liberation.6 Paul made this crystal clear to the Judaizers in Galatia who were proposing such a doctrine. He wrote: “I am not the one destroying the meaning of God’s grace. If following the Law is how people are made right with God, then Christ’s death was pointless.”7 When we replace “the Law” with “Church law,” the principle against granting salvation and freedom from sin’s bondage is the same.
Paul had already shared the same point with the Galatian believers that he is sharing here with the Romans: “Does this mean that the Law works against God’s promises? Of course not. The Law was never God’s way of giving new life to people. If it were, then we could be made right with God by following the Law. But this is not possible. The Scriptures put the whole world in prison under the control of sin, so that the only way for people to get what God promised would be through faith in Jesus Christ. It is given to those who believe in Him.”8 In the same way, being part of a Church does not mitigate against receiving the promises of God. Where the error comes in is when an ecclesiastical organization is substituted and given the same power as the spiritual body of Christ.
Apparently, Paul had concerns about the Philippians following the same error, that’s why he wrote to them: “In Christ, I am right with God, but my being right does not come from following the Law. It comes from God through faith. God uses my faith in Christ to make me right with Him.”9 And the writer of Hebrews found cause to make the same point to his readers: “The Law of Moses could not make anything perfect. But now a better hope has been given to us. And with that hope we can come near to God.”10 He goes on then to say: “After the Law, God spoke the oath that made His Son high priest. And that Son, made perfect through suffering, will serve forever.”11
Early church scholar Origen sees a lesson in this aspect of faith’s role in obtaining the promise for Gentile believers as much as it was for the Jews. He writes: “Paul says that the promise given to Abraham that he should inherit the world did not come from the Law but by faith, which was reckoned to him as righteousness. It doubtless follows that everyone who hopes that God’s righteousness will be imputed to him hopes for this by faith and not by the Law.”12 In other words, all of our good deeds in the name of Christ will not buy us the promise of everlasting life that is already guaranteed by faith. Our works are done by faith to please God and do His will, not to earn a reward.
We see this expressed in Chrysostom’s preaching: “To prevent anyone from saying that it is possible to have faith and to keep the Law at the same time, Paul shows that this is impracticable. For one who clings to the Law as if it were of saving force dishonors the power of faith. This is why Paul says that faith is made void, i.e., that there is no need of salvation by grace.… And without faith, there is no promise of inheritance, which is what scared the Jews most of all, because that is what they really wanted. For the promise was that they should be heirs of the entire world.”13 Belonging to a church can bring a person many blessings, but it cannot guarantee salvation and everlasting life.
Then Paul adds, even more, weight to his argument about how foolish it was to expect the Law to do what it was not designed to do because that would make what God did through Christ of no value and without purpose. But this was not how God did things. He made that clear to the children of Israel: “When My words leave My mouth, they don’t come back without results. My words make the things happen that I want to happen. They succeed in doing what I send them to do.”14
Paul also wanted his Jewish readers to be reminded that God means what He says by establishing consequences if His laws are not followed. Back when the Law was given, Moses made it abundantly clear what would happen to those who said: I know what the Law says, but I’m satisfied with the way I live. Nothing bad will happen to me. Moses declared: “That attitude will bring total disaster. The Lord will not forgive them for that. No, the Lord will be angry and upset with them and punish them. The Lord will separate them from the tribes of Israel. He will completely destroy them. All the afflictions that are written in this book will happen to them.”15 This may sound harsh to some, but if there is no condemnation, then there is no need for salvation. Also, the same condemnation is in store for those who claim to be followers of Christ but avoid any involvement in His body the church. Otherwise, how can we claim to love one another, support each other, motivate and strengthen one another? We will become potted plants instead of fruit-bearing vines.
This warning against denying God and desecrating His Word and offer of salvation did not end with the Old Testament. It became part of the New Testament as well. The Apostle John made this clear in his Gospel where he said: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. But those who do not obey the Son will never have that life. They cannot get away from God’s punishment.”16 And Jesus Himself left no place for alibis or excuses: “If I had not come and spoken to the people of the world, they would not be guilty of sin. But now I have spoken to them. So they have no excuse for their sin.”17
When the Apostle Paul was in Athens, He spoke to the Areopagus Council concerning God’s patience and grace. He said: “In the past, people did not understand God, and He overlooked this. But now He is telling everyone in the world to change and turn to Him. He has decided on a day when He will judge all the people in the world in a way that is fair. To do this, He will use a man He chose long ago. And He has proved to everyone that this is the Man to do it. He proved it by raising Him from death!”18 In other words, God was not overlooking man’s disobedience in order to keep from destroying him but was looking over man’s disobedience in order to find a way to save him. Furthermore, in order for Him to judge the whole world, the whole world will need to hear the Gospel.
Therefore, the law was given so that mankind could not only become aware of their sins but also their need for a Savior to liberate them from the punishment for sin. Paul told the Corinthians: “Death’s power to hurt is sin, and the power of sin is the Law. But we thank God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”19 Then Paul goes on to write: “The old agreement that brought death, written with words on stone, came with God’s glory… So surely the new agreement that comes from the life-giving Spirit has even more glory. This is what I mean: That old agreement judged people guilty of sin, but it had glory. So surely the new agreement that makes people right with God has much greater glory.”20 That’s why Paul wanted the Messianic Jewish leaders in Rome to see what he was trying to get the Corinthians to see: “That old agreement had glory. But it really loses its glory when it is compared to the much greater glory of the new agreement.”21
1 See Genesis 12:3; 22:17,18; 26:3-4
2 Psalm 2:8
3 Frederic Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Ibid. 5:4
6 Cf. Ibid. 3:19
7 Ibid. 2:21
8 Ibid. 3:21-22
9 Philippians 3:9
10 Hebrews 7:19
11 Ibid. 7:28
12 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 8
14 Isaiah 55:11
15 Deuteronomy 29:19-21
16 John 3:36
17 Ibid. 15:22
18 Acts of the Apostles 17:30-31
19 1 Corinthians 15:56-57
20 2 Corinthians 3:7-9
21 Ibid. 3:10