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(Romans 4:13-16) Ruling Out the Law

(Romans 4:13-16) Ruling Out the Law

Ref: Romans 4:13–16

Have you ever walked up to a stranger and asked, 'If you were to die tonight, would God let you into Heaven?' If so, I bet that person responded with something like, 'Well I'm a good person; I've never murdered anyone or committed adultery or robbed a bank.' Many people today believe the misconception that being 'good enough' will get them into heaven. ' But in Romans 4:13-16, Paul silences that misconception in an emphatic way. As he points to his religious Jewish audience, full of people who believed that the Law of Moses would grant them entrance into Heaven, he reminds them (and us) that the standard for eternal life is not moral goodness . . . it's perfection.


Ruling Out The Law

Romans 4:13-16

I read about an event that occurred in New York city several years ago – in fact, nearly 60 years ago.  A man went into the Chase National Bank in New York in order to get a loan from their small loans department.  He filled out all the papers and forms . . . the teller at the window asked him to wait and he disappeared for nearly 10 minutes. 

About the time he was growing impatient, the president of the bank walked through the door, introduced himself and asked if he could have a picture taken with this bank customer.  Soon, cameras, news teams and staff were, with great excitement, crowding around this unsuspecting man.   Reporters from the newspapers were there and the amazed customer discovered his loan was going to be rather unusual.  The day before the bank records had indicated that sometime on the following day the total loans made by the small loans department would reach the sum of one billion dollars. 

The bank trustees and board members decided to make this a publicity event and agreed to give as a gift the amount of any loan requested by the customer who happened to apply at the moment when this billion dollar figure was reached.  This man was the fortunate customer.  He had filled out all the papers to borrow the sum of 600 dollars, but now, before the news cameras, he was given 600 dollars instead.

The bank, in effect, chose to reverse the laws of lending and made this fortunate man, the recipient of a gift.  He hadn’t earned it . . . he might not even have deserved it . . . but he got.  Chase national Bank said to that man, “We’ll take your debt and place it on our account, handling it out of our vast resources . . . you’ll never have to pay anything in return.”

Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans Vol. 2, (Eerdmans Publishing, 1982), p. 289

The gift of money didn’t have any strings attached . . . he didn’t have to promise to continue banking with them, although I am sure he would become a loyal, life-long customer; he didn’t have to promise to be nice to the president of the bank, although I’m convinced he had a copy of that picture of the two of them, tacked up on a wall somewhere;  he didn’t have to promise to bring more clients to do their banking with that bank, although I’m certain he told everybody there wasn’t a better bank anywhere;  no, he didn’t have to do anything . . . he just had to receive from the vast billion dollar resources of Chase National Bank, his gift of 600 dollars.

For some time now, we have been watching and listening, like curious customers and newspaper reporters, as the Apostle Paul defends and defines and illustrates the free gift of salvation. 

We have seen Abraham, in effect, step up to the counter of Heaven’s depository and discover that he is being offered the gift of eternal life.  All he has to do is receive the gift . . . no strings attached . . . no promises to make . . . no guarantees demanded.   

Is it any wonder that, to this day, God’s grace still catches people off guard?!

But I want you to remind you, Abraham wasn’t being given a measly 600 dollars.  He was being offered everlasting life and the inheritance of the universe!

How in the world do you get something like that for free . . . surely it isn’t really free?!  How do you win a free gift like that?!

If you’re like me, you can’t even win a free coke at McDonalds during their big give-away.  You get that little cardboard game piece and you scratch all the gray ink off all those little circles to reveal the prize underneath and every one of them says, “Sorry, play again.”  

My father-in-law is the only person I know who ever won anything worth talking about.  They were driving out to visit us in Detroit where we spent a few years in seminary.  They were coming from Atlanta.  They stopped at a McDonald’s in some little town on the way out – and he actually won a free Atari game system.  How many of you are old enough to know what an Atari was.  And he won a free game along with it – he became unbeatable in Pac Man  - he was unstoppable . . . our vacations would never be the same.  When he won it that day, even the McDonald’s staff got excited . . . on of them told Pop – I’ve never seen anybody win anything here before!

But, it isn’t too much of a stretch . . . I can see someone winning a free Atari, or a free coke, but not eternal life!

How do you receive a gift like that?

First of all, Paul has spent the majority of chapter 4 explaining how you can not receive the grace of God.

In all, he will expose three different ways that do not gain the gift of eternal life.

First of all, through the completion of righteous deeds (verses 1 - 8)

            He writes in Romans 4 verse 2,  “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”

Second, by conformity to religious rituals (verses 9-12)

            Such as baptism or circumcision or church membership

            The middle part of verse 9 is where Paul clearly states that, “Abraham is the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them.”

Now, Paul will expose the third error; the delusion of believing you can gain heaven by complying with religious rules and regulations (verses 13-16).

Paul will remove the last spiritual prop that people, around the world, naturally lean on in hopes of gaining the promise of eternal life.

And that prop is the belief that you get into heaven by keeping the right rules.

Romans 4:13.  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. 

The key phrase is the found in the words, “not through the Law.”

The article, “the” “…not through the law” is absent in the Greek text; thus Paul is speaking of Law in general terms. Not just theOld Testament law; not just the 10 Commandments, but law in any land that corresponds to the character of God.  This was important for the Gentile readers since they might not consider themselves accountable to the Jewish law.

Even without a copy of the law, everyone will consider themselves a “keeper of some sort of law” in one way or another.  Ask anybody on the street, “Do you keep the law perfectly?” and you’ll get the same answer every time.  “Pretty much, I do.”  No, I asked, “Do you keep the law perfectly?”  And they will hedge a bit and shuffle their feet but eventually say, “Okay, I’ve broken a few rules here and there.” 

They’re not thinking about the law, they’re thinking about law in general . . . some of their own rules for living.

In other words, the very people who believe they’ll get into heaven by keeping the rules, have to admit that somewhere along the way, they’ve broken some of them!

The good news is delivered by Paul in verse 13Abraham and everybody else has been given the inheritance of the world (the Greek word cosmos – the universe) not by keeping the law, but through, he says in the text, “the righteousness of faith.”  That is, the righteousness that is imputed to the account of a sinner who places their faith in God’s redemptive plan and person – Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on to say, if you’re gonna get into heaven by keeping the rules . . . then you need to know two very important things.

Number one: trusting in the law means you are refusing the free gift

Notice verse 14. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified

In other words, if God promises the inheritance to those apart from the works of the law, if it is given only to those who keep the law, then the promise of free salvation is null and void.

Even my father-in-laws free Atari wasn’t absolutely free – he had to buy his meal at McDonald’s in order to get a chance to play the game. 

If I told you that after the service you all could come to where I’m parked outside and I would pick somebody to give my pick-up truck to as a free gift.  If I picked you out of the thousands that would be standing around, it would be yours for free.  Suppose I picked you!  And I held out my keys to you and you reached for them and just before you got them, I pulled them back and said, “Hey, are you a member of this church?”  “No.”  “Have you been baptized?”  “No.”  “Are you supporting the needs of this ministry with your financial gifts?”  “No.”  “Are you involved in some ministry service here at the church?”  “No.”

Would I give you my truck? 

Well, if I said, “Listen, if you want my free truck you have to do all those things . . .”  Would it be free?

No.  My requirements of religious exercises would nullify the promise of a free gift.

That’s what Paul means here.

This is incredibly significant news.  You can’t receive the free gift of salvation and at the same time try to pay for it.

Listen to what the late pastor and Bible expositor, Donald Grey Barnhouse said about people who believe they are saved, but who, in fact have been deceived by mixing grace and the free gift of salvation with some form of work.

He wrote nearly 60 years ago these timeless words, “There is a category of people who will be absent from Heaven and who will be the angriest at their exclusion.  These are those who say that they believe that Jesus Christ is God, and that salvation is by His death upon the cross, who [believe] in miracles and in the inspiration of scripture, but who add some other condition to salvation that that of unmerited grace.  There are those who are orthodox as to the person and the work of Christ who add, for example, that in addition to such faith one must observe Saturday as the Sabbath; there are still others who are orthodox as to the person and work of Christ but who hold that the waters of baptism take away original sin.  I believe that the church is honeycombed with such false believers who have adopted a mental attitude of acceptance of the orthodox position about the person of Christ and the fact that He is the one and only Saviour, but who, in fact, refuse to turn away from everything that is of the flesh and of the law, in order to be saved by Christ alone.  These constitute perhaps the greatest number of the tares which resemble the true wheat of the real children of the Kingdom.

Ibid, p. 290

Could it be true?  Yes.  Consider how many people will stand before the Lord on the day of judgment and be cast into hell, but who first of all remind the holy judge that they prophecied and preached and served in the name of Jesus.

And He will say, “I never knew you . . . you never received the free gift of salvation.”

Notice verse 14 again,  For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified

Paul makes it clear that placing your faith in the law is to nullify any hope of having received the promise of salvation, offered through faith in Christ’s perfection alone.

Secondly, Paul continues, trusting in the law requires a penalty for law-breakers

Notice what he writes in verse 15.  for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

He doesn’t mean that without a record of the law, there is no such thing as sin. 

What he means is that violation only occurs where there is law.

In other words, as I traveled on the audobon several years ago in Europe with some missionaries, driving well over a 100 miles an hour, believing this was truly the way to travel, we weren’t breaking the law.  We were, in fact, passed by sports cars as if we  were barely moving . . . and they weren’t breaking the law either.

Because the law of a speed limit on the audobon didn’t exist.

To be on a Harley Davidson a few years ago in Africa, racing down that dirt airstrip used by the missionary pilots – nudging that bike up to 60, without a helmet on, was not against the law.  It was idiotic, but not unlawful – because there was no helmet law posted in that part of West Africa.

And the Jewish reader here is depending on getting into heaven because he happens to know the law!

Paul is simply saying, “Listen, that law which you are depending on for your salvation is actually going to condemn you because you’ve known the law and you’ve broken it!”  In other words, “you’ve seen the speed limit signs . . and you’ve knowingly broken them.” 

The Jew wasn’t supposed to hope in the law – they had broken the law. No!  The law had another purpose for existing.

Paul wrote to the early church, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.  (Galatians 3:24)

The word tutor paidagwgoV gives us our transliterated word, pedagogy – the laws of teaching.

It literally referred to a slave in Paul’s day who was entrusted with a boy between the ages of 6 and 16 – it was his duty to lead him correctly and guard him – making sure he ended up where he was supposed to be – whether school or some amusement.

What’s the actual purpose of the law then?  To lead us – to make sure we ended up where we were supposed to – at the foot of the cross.

The tutor can’t solve the problem, he can only take the person to the solution.

In fact, the law can’t cleanse guilt – it can only reveal guilt

The law can’t show mercy – it can only show us our need for mercy.

The law can’t save – it can only tutor us toward understanding our need for a Saviour!

The law is the hallway mirror, showing your unkempt hair and your dirty face – it has absolutely no ability to clean you up . . . it is designed to make you want soap and water and a comb – but it can’t comb or wash or straighten anything.

The law is the bathroom scales . . . it will never help you lose weight – it can only reveal what your weight is. 

The law is an x-ray machine, revealing the cancer – it cannot cure anything.

Paul says, “You want to trust in the Law to save you . . . it can do nothing more than reveal what a lawbreaker you’ve been.”

He now moves to the good news . . . v. 16 – “For this reason . . . in other words, because of everything I’ve just explained regarding righteous deeds and religious rituals and religious rules being unable to save . . . it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.


In other words, the law is overruled by those three wonderful words: circle them or underline them in your text

1) faith – this is trusting in what Christ has done for you;

2) by grace – this is receiving, though undeserving, that which Christ

    offers you;

3) by the promise – this is believing that which Christ guarantees for


Salvation is just that simple; it is by means of faith in the gracious guarantee of  God.

One of those three words you noted was the word “promise.”  It’s the same word found up in verse 13, “. . . the promise to Abraham . . .”

There are at least 2 different Greek words for the English word “promise”

One, is the Greek word, “huposchesis” – a promise with conditions “I promise to do this if you promise to do that.”

      William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Westminster Press, Philadelphia) 1975, p. 68

Paul didn’t use that word here.  God didn’t say to Abraham, “Abraham, I’ll promise you that I’ll do this for you if you promise me you’ll do something for me.”

That would have been “huposchesis.”

The other word for promise is the Greek word, epaggelia (pronounced epangelia).  This referred  to a promise without any strings attached; an unconditional promise emanating from the goodness of someone’s heart. 

This is the word Paul used in verses 13 and 16. 

In other words, the promise of salvation is unconditional.  It isn’t delivered to someone because they are good, it is given because the giver of the promise intends to keep his word.

Can God ever fail to keep His word?  No. Therefore the promise will never fail.

I usually have a little fun at wedding rehearsals that I conduct.  I have the couple practice the wedding vows, but slightly change the words in order to make a point.

“I Monica take you Tim” . . . I’ll ask them to repeat after me,  “for richer or for richer.”  I’ll get them to laugh at that subtle little change . . . later in life it might not be funny, because they may be as poor as dirt . . . but the promise means, “No matter how rich we are or how poor we get, I am equally committed to you in both lifestyles.

Repeat after me, I’ll say, “For better or for worse”  That’s a good one to remember.  All the women will say later, “Yea, but I didn’t know it could get this worse, right?”

Just remember the secret of one woman success.  Roderick McFarlane’s grandmother, on her 50th wedding anniversary revealed the secret of her long and happy marriage.  She said to the guests when asked for her secret, “Well, on my wedding day, I decided to choose ten of my husband’s faults which, for the sake of our marriage, I would overlook.”  One of the guests asked her to name the faults.  “To tell you the truth,” she replied, “I never did get around to writing them down.  But whenever my husband did something that made me hopping mad, I would say to myself, “Lucky for him that’s one of the ten.”

I believe every wife ought to do that.  Amen?!

Those vows made at the front of some church or chapel or in front of some justice of the peace were promises you intended to keep.

That’s why you rented your tuxedo, and those shiny black shoes, but you did not rent your wedding ring.  You do not rent wedding rings for the weekend.

Vows are promises without loopholes.

Still they are dependant upon the character of those making them, right?  Sometimes they’re broken.

But Abraham, and every one of you, were given a vow from God – whose word will never be broken!

For Paul, Abraham is the evidence, presented before the entire nation of Jews and Gentiles, that salvation is a matter of grace and faith in Christ alone.

It does not depend upon natural birth but spiritual birth.  It is not a matter of a national heritage, but of spiritual inheritance.  It is not something you are born into, but something you are born again into.  It is not the gospel of race . . . it is the gospel of grace.

Ralph Laurin, Romans: Where Life Begins (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI) 1988, p. 140

Imagine the grace of Chase National Bank who gave to that unsuspecting customer the money he expected to borrow.  That man didn’t deserve the gift, but he got it anyway.

But wait a second.  Do you think for a minute that Chase National Bank struggled over that 600 dollars they gave away?  Do you think their finance department strained one inch over the size of that gift?  Not a chance!  They could have quadrupled it without breaking a sweat!

Listen my friend, do you think that God put heaven’s reservoir at risk by paying off your spiritual debt?  Do you think you have so much to be forgiven that God strained and stretched His limits when He lavished His grace upon you?

Do you think that somehow you need to help reimburse the bank of heaven in order for God to keep his promise?  Are you afraid that His grace is not great enough to wipe away your sin?

His grace is great enough and deep enough to cover everything about you; His promise is strong enough stand the weakness of your flesh and the shallowness of your faith.

The promise does not depend on those who receive; it depends on the One who gave it.

And who is this one who promised us?

For those who have received this promise by faith alone; what could you ever give back to God, but praise and worship and obedience motivated by gratitude because by grace He handed you, someone deeply in debt to sin, the gift that erased the liability and freed your soul and poured into your bankrupted account the riches of His glory and His righteousness.

You want to get to heaven by trying to keep the law?  Go ahead and try . . . you’ll never be able to do it.

In fact, you’ll only nullify the free gift as well as stand condemned one day by the very law you tried to keep.

No, receive the promise instead.  The unconditional gift of grace through faith in Christ which overrules the law.   


When I began this series entitled Father Abraham, I read the words of a poem, written in the mid 1800’s.  Perhaps, now after several weeks in this great chapter, the words will mean even more to you:

The hymnwriter put it this way,

 Not what these hands have done

Can save this guilty soul;

Not what this toiling flesh has borne

Can make my spirit whole.

Not what I feel or do

Can give me peace with God,

Not all my prayers and sighs and tears,

Can bear my awful load,

Thy work alone, O Christ,

Can ease this weight of sin;

Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,

Can give me peace within,

Thy grace alone, O God,

To me can pardon speak,

Thy power alone, O Son of God,

Can this sore bondage break,

I bless the Anointed One of God;

I rest on love divine;

And, with faltering lip and heart,

I call this Savior mine.

Adapted from R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL) 1991, p. 95


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