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Overruling the Rules

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 4:13–16

To insist that we need to pay for God’s gracious gift to us is to reject the gift itself. It is supremely important that we grasp the message of Romans that salvation is a free gift given unconditionally by our gracious God.


I read about a man who went into a bank in New York City to take out a small loan. He filled out all the paperwork but then was asked to wait while the banker disappeared behind a set of double doors. Nearly ten minutes went by, and he was becoming impatient. 


Suddenly, the president of the bank and other people walked through those doors and asked this man if they could take his photograph for the newspapers. Soon, cameras and news teams were excitedly crowding around this somewhat bewildered man. It turned out that his loan was rather unusual. Bank records had indicated that sometime that day, the total loans made by this bank would reach the sum of one billion dollars.


So, the bank trustees decided to give—as a gift—the amount of the loan to the customer who happened to apply at the moment when this billion-dollar figure was reached. His loan would become a gift from the bank. This man was that fortunate customer.


The bank, in effect, was reversing the laws of lending. It made this customer the recipient of a gift. He had not earned it; he received it as a gift.[1]


In the fourth chapter of the book of Romans, Paul has already explained in verses 1-8 that the gift of salvation is not earned through righteous deeds. Then Paul showed in verses 9-12 that salvation is not earned by religious rituals—sacred observances, baptism, circumcision, church membership, and so on. Rather, a person is justified by faith alone in Christ alone.

Now, as we come to verse 13, the apostle begins to expose a third error—the misunderstanding that heaven can be earned by keeping rules and regulations:

The promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

The key phrase here is “not . . . through the law.” The word “the” before “law” is absent in the Greek text; Paul is speaking of law in general terms. This is not just the Old Testament law or the Ten Commandments but law in any land that corresponds to the character of God. And this was important for the Gentile readers, who might not consider themselves accountable to the Jewish law.

This is the law in general. In fact, this is the law written on everyone’s heart. Go out on the street, and ask people if they have kept the law, and they will say, “Well, I’ve broken a few rules here and there.”

So, most people who believe they will get into heaven by keeping the rules have to admit that somewhere along the way, they have broken some of the rules!

The good news is that Abraham and his spiritual descendants have been promised the inheritance of the “world” apart from keeping all the rules. Paul specifies that this promise does not come through keeping the law but through “the righteousness of faith.” He is speaking of the faith that makes you righteous, or right, with God—through Christ, who redeemed us.

Paul goes on to say that if you are trusting in your law-keeping efforts to get you into heaven, you are actually refusing God’s free gift. He writes in verse 14, “For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.” In other words, if God promises our eternal inheritance apart from the works of the law yet gives it only to people because they kept the law, His original promise of a free gift of salvation is null and void.

Imagine if I said I was going to give my pickup truck to you as a free gift. But as you reached out for the keys, suppose I asked you, “Now, do you go to church somewhere? Have you been baptized? Are you giving to the Lord your time and treasure? Are you helping the poor and staying out of trouble? Because you have to do all those things if you want my free truck.” Well obviously, my truck is no longer a free gift, is it? My rules and regulations—good as they are—nullify my earlier promise of a free truck.

That is what Paul is saying in verse 14. You cannot receive the free gift of salvation and at the same time try to pay for it.

Paul goes on to write that trusting in the law actually requires a penalty for lawbreakers. He writes, “The law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression” (verse 15).

He does not mean that without a record of the law there is no such thing as sin. He just means that violations of the law occur only where there is law. For example, if you are driving a hundred miles an hour on the Autobahn somewhere in Germany, you are not breaking the law. Why? Because there is no speed limit there. It is probably a good thing that the Autobahn does not run through my city, or I would probably test the limits of my pickup truck.

Here is Paul’s point. The Jewish readers he is addressing are depending on getting into heaven because they know the law. Paul is saying, “Listen, that law you are depending on for your salvation is going to condemn you because you have broken it!” The law will condemn you, not save you.

Beloved, the purpose of the law was never to provide the way of salvation but to reveal that we are all sinners, law breakers. There is only one solution: Jesus Christ, dying on the cross for all our crimes and sins.

Paul now moves to the good news in verse 16:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.

In other words, the promise to Abraham and his spiritual descendants—you and me—rests in the faith we have in God’s grace through Christ alone.

There are three powerful words in this verse that overrule any thought that rules and laws and even good works can give us salvation.

The first word is faith. Faith is trusting in what Christ has done for you.

The second word is grace. This is the undeserved gift of salvation that Jesus paid for and offers you freely.

The third word is promise. We have talked a lot about grace and faith already in the book of Romans. I want to note especially this word promise. God did not say to Abraham, “I promise to do this for you, if you promise to do something for Me.” That is not His promise.

God’s promise is like those unconditional promises made between the bride and groom at a wedding ceremony. Those wedding vows are only as good as the person making them—and frankly, we can fail, can’t we? But God’s vows to us—His promises to us—will never fail. He will always keep His word.

For Paul, Abraham is the evidence that salvation is a matter of grace and faith in Christ alone—for Jews and non-Jews alike. Abraham failed the Lord, but the Lord never failed him. Salvation today does not depend upon your keeping the rules; it depends on God keeping His word.

There is nothing left for you to do. You do not need to reimburse the Lord. The bank of heaven has given you the gift of salvation, and it is going to last forever.


[1] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans, Volume 2 (Eerdmans, 1982), 289.

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