Law or Faith? (Romans 4.13-17)


William Norman Ewer wrote a little couplet that said, “How odd of God/to choose the Jews.” And that brings up an important question: Why did God choose to bless Abraham, and through him and his Jewish descendants, the entire world? Was it because of law or because of faith?

Actually, it was neither law nor faith. God chose Abraham and his Jewish descendants out of sheer grace. According to Deuteronomy 7.7-8: “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you…” The question we need to ask is, “How did Abraham appropriate the benefits of this grace? Through faith or law?”

The answer is faith, not law. Consider what Paul writes in Romans 4.13-17:

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.

In these verses, Paul makes the rather obvious point that Abraham’s righteousness came by faith, not law. It is obvious because “law” refers to the law of Moses, which was given to Israel centuries after Abraham had died. Abraham’s righteousness could not have come by law simply because the law of Moses did not exist when he lived.

Second, Paul points out that the “law brings wrath.” In other words, the law shows us we are sinners who deserve judgment. It does not give us the hope that we can save ourselves by perfect obedience. Instead, it highlights our glaring imperfections. Even Abraham was not a perfect man, so his righteousness could not have come through the law.

Rather, it came through faith. Once again, Paul falls back on Genesis 15.6, which teaches that God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness. But if Abraham could be declared righteous through faith, so can anyone-Jew or Gentile-who believes in Jesus Christ. In that sense, as Paul writes, “[Abraham] is the father of us all.”

And that brings us back to William Norman Ewer’s little couplet. It may seem odd to us that God would choose the Jews. But it was through Abraham and his Jewish descendants that we received the Scriptures and the Messiah. So, we should never let our faith forget our debts to the Jewish predecessors on our spiritual journey. For as Cecil Browne put it: “But not so odd as those who choose/ a Jewish God, but spurn the Jews.”

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