Exposition of Romans 4:13-14, An unqualified promise requires no works

Some of us grew up around churches that had a set of rules which, if violated, meant we could be hell-bound — so they said. The list contained things like drinking, dancing, wearing makeup, swearing, immodest dress, and other such things. (Some of you may need comforting now!)

However, there were a few problems. First, the list seemed to vary a bit from church to church. Second, it was not quite clear whether we went to heaven by keeping the list or whether it only served as a signpost marking the way to hell. Questions about the list were not exactly solicited. (Smile)

Even more puzzling — what did all of that have to do with faith in Jesus?

(ESV) Romans 4:13-14 For 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. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

Since Christians hold ideas that are nowhere recorded in Scripture — such as the three Magi or purgatory — it is no surprise that the Jews of Paul’s day did as well. One such bogus idea was that Abraham had obeyed the Law of Moses perfectly before it had been given.[1] [In the following discussion the Hebrew word torah is sometimes used to refer to the Law of Moses.]

The Jews did not believe this idea on a whim; it allowed them to claim that one could be Abraham’s child only by taking on oneself the yoke of torah.[2] So, the claim about Abraham keeping the torah before there was one was a convenient way of tying together the patriarch who had received the promises from God and the law given through Moses over 430 years later. Yet, in Galatians, Paul argues: “The law that came four hundred thirty years later does not cancel a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to invalidate the promise” (Gal. 3:17, NET).

Of course, the idea that Abraham could obey the law before there was a law has always been ridiculous. For example, Lev. 17:4 requires that a sacrifice be brought to the Tent of Meeting and given to the priest for sacrifice on that spot. But in Abraham’s time there was no Tent of Meeting, and the Aaronic priesthood had not yet been established. So, how did that work? This simply shows that you should never be surprised at the creativity of theologians when they float free of the Bible; in that case they are like scientists speaking authoritatively about non-scientific matters such as the miracles of Jesus. (Smile)

In a way, Paul cuts through all these specious theological assumptions by returning to what God originally promised Abraham (Rom. 4:13). The Greek sentence throws the phrase “not through the law” near the beginning of the sentence to stress the incongruity of the idea that the law had anything to do with the promise. Instead, Paul says the promise came “through the righteousness of faith” (4:13b).

Now that Paul has expressed his thesis that faith was the basis of the promise to Abraham rather than the law (4:13), he next explains why this is so. Grant Osborne expands the logic of Romans 4:14 by saying: “If it were possible to be righteous and thus gain an eternal inheritance on the basis of personal achievement, then faith would be unnecessary. If works and obedience were sufficient, the need for God’s promise would be removed.”[3]

The final clause of 4:14 — “faith is null and the promise is void” (ESV) — has two Greek verbs in the perfect tense. This probably emphasizes the state of affairs that would exist if law-keeping were actually the way of attaining righteousness before God, the premise that Paul denies.[4] Basing righteousness on law-keeping simply throws faith and promise into the trash!

The final clause of 4:14 makes for an interesting study in English translations. NET probably has the most literal translation in relation to the meaning of the Greek verbs:

(NET) faith is empty and the promise is nullified (Rom. 4:14)

We can compare the NETs translation to two other important English translations:

(ESV) faith is null and the promise is void (Rom. 4:14)

(NLT) faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless (Rom. 4:14)

Since the ESV and NLT have strongly different translation philosophies, it is surprising to find them using a similar approach to this clause. “Null and . . . void” has a nice idiomatic ring in English, uncommon for ESV. NLTs “not necessary and . . . pointless” uses words that are very powerful from a pragmatic, American viewpoint. Both ESV and NLT run away from the semantic range of the Greek verbs, but they do a superb job of conveying the futility of basing righteousness on the law.

If the law does not bring righteousness, then what does it do? In 4:15 Paul explains what the law does:produces wrath — as opposed to what it cannot do:secure the inheritance.[5] He will develop these ideas more fully in Romans 5:12-14 and 7:7-13. C.K. Barrett captures the essence of Paul’s point when he says, “Law, though good in itself (7:12, 14) is so closely bound up with sin and wrath that it is unthinkable that it should be the basis of the promise.”[6] Faith carries no such baggage.

The clause “where there is no law there is no transgression” (4:15) does not mean “where there is no law there is no sin.” On the contrary, the law makes sin all the more grave. Thomas Schreiner says, “Transgression of the law involves greater responsibility since the infraction is conscious and therefore involves rebellion against a known standard.”[7]

Faith and the law

The primacy of faith in Jesus Christ does not mean that the rules mentioned in the introduction of this lesson are totally without value. In a way more approximate and less authoritative than the Law of Moses, those rules at the start of this lesson were meant to motivate godly behavior, however imperfectly. The confusion sewn about keeping the rules as a way of salvation is less forgivable.

1. There is more to being a good citizen of the U.S. than keeping the laws of your state and the United States. By analogy, what does it take to be a good Christian?

2. Read Ephesians 2:8-10. How do these verses help clarify the relationship between faith and works? In what way can Ephesians 2:8 be said to constitute a promise to those who put their faith in Jesus?

The tension between grace and law is ancient. What God promises in an unqualified way will come to pass without regard to what we do. What we do truly matters, but we cannot overturn the promises of God. That is cause for rejoicing!

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 227.

[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 273.

[3] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 114.

[4] Moo, Romans, 275, footnote 25.

[5] Moo, Romans, 276.

[6] C.K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, 1957) 95.

[7] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 230.

Exposition of Romans 4:4-5, Since God provides all, believe him!

A powerful image in late 20th century politics was the welfare-cheat, someone who was getting something for nothing. It was easy to say — and was sometimes true — that people on welfare were not willing to work. They were all cast in a negative light, even the ones working.

In America we have historically believed in self-reliance, hard work, and pulling ourselves up by sheer effort. Our media regularly praise such qualities.

Whatever the political value of these concepts, they present exactly the wrong idea with respect to attaining salvation. In attaining salvation, we are both helpless and ungodly. God’s way of solving our problem demands that we be counter-cultural and substitute his efforts for our own.

(ESV) Romans 4:4-5

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Paul continues his argument concerning Abraham by using common knowledge about the nature of work and wages (4:4). One word that is central to Paul’s analysis is the now-familiar verb logizomai which here (4:4) means “to determine by mathematical process, reckon, calculate.”[1] This verb is the very one used in Genesis 15:6 in the Greek version — called the LXX or Septuagint — that Paul is quoting in Romans 4:3.

We could translate Romans 4:3 by saying, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not calculated according to grace but according to obligation.” Grace is something freely given, but an obligation is a debt which is owed. Paul forces his Jewish opponents to face the fact that attaining salvation-righteousness by works has inescapable baggage: it means God owes that righteousness to the one who works. Since Paul knows Jewish theology fiercely rejects the idea of God as debtor, the logic forces his opponents to disavow works as playing any part when God credited (logizomai Gen. 15:6) Abraham with righteousness.

But if works were not pivotal to the reckoning of righteousness to Abraham, what was? The answer is found in Gen. 15:6 when Abraham “believed God.” C.E.B. Cranfield summarizes the message of Romans 4:4-5 when he says, “The best explanation of Paul’s exposition of Gen. 15:6 in these two verses would seem to be that which understands it to turn upon the fact that the Genesis verse makes no mention of any work of Abraham but simply refers to his faith.”[2]

(ESV) Romans 4:5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

If Romans 4:5 explicitly mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, it might be even more famous than John 3:16. The phrase him [i.e. God] who justifies the ungodly (4:5) is absolutely astounding! Grant Osborne expresses the natural reaction: “At first glance this does not seem right. It should be the godly, the pious who should be justified.”[3] That would work fine if anyone were pious enough.

Romans 4:5 first forces us to realize that no matter what we think of ourselves, we come to God as those who are ungodly. Second, we see that God can justify the ungodly, declaring them to be righteous. Later Paul will explain how God could possibly justify the ungodly: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6, NET). That leads us to ask: how can we receive such profound benefit?

Paul says that we the ungodly obtain God’s justification the same way Abraham did. We do not work for it, but believe in the gracious God who made our justification possible through Jesus Christ. Romans 4:5 uses both the Greek verb pisteuo (“believes in him”) and the noun pistis (“his faith is counted as righteousness”) to nail down the central importance of faith to our justification.

Remember who is reckoning

The church father Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD) said, “The root of righteousness does not spring from works; rather the fruit of works grows from the root of righteousness.”[4] So, it is God who provides the way for us to become righteousness, and then our works can honor the one who saved us.

1. How do you think the merciful character of God figures into his counting (or reckoning or crediting) our faith as righteousness?

2. Do you think that the faith God wants from us is merely mental assent to an idea (e.g. Jesus died for my sins), or is there more to it than that? Explain.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:23-24, HCSB)

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] BDAG-3, logizomai, reckon, q.v.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 231.

[3] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 109.

[4] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 112.

Exposition of Romans 4:1-3, Faith has always triumphed over works

Time and events have a way of knocking us off course. In 1848, San Francisco had a population of 1,000, and then gold was discovered and caused the population to increase 25-fold in 1849. The city was never the same again.

The same type of thing can happen for a people or an individual. Abraham was declared righteous by God because of his faith, but over the years his descendants forgot about that and began to work for Gods approval. Some even followed after other gods. What is the moral to this story? Do not get distracted from fundamental values; not all that glitters is gold.

(ESV) Romans 4:13

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.

When debating Jewish opponents, Paul could no more avoid Abraham than someone writing a history of the United States could ignore Abraham Lincoln. Douglas Moo explains, In keeping with the [law-observant] focus of first-century Judaism, Abraham was held up particularly as a model of obedience to God. . . . It [was] even being argued that he had obeyed the law perfectly before it had been given.[1]

So, Paul dives right into the application to Abrahams life of what he has said about justification by faith (4:1). If he can break Jewish resistance on that point, his argument is won. To do this he uses a critical verse: Genesis 15:6, which says, Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness (HCSB).

Romans 4:2 is a little tricky, but we happen to have a contemporary idiom in English that matches it. Paul first concedes for the sake of argument that if Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, then he would have a basis for boasting. Then Paul uses the final phrase — but not before God (4:2) — to negate the whole idea. In contemporary English we might playfully say, Yes, you actually are Superman. Not!!

Paul swiftly supports his denial of Abrahams basis for boasting (4:2) by quoting the pivotal passage Genesis 15:6, which says, Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (4:3b). Moo points out the power of this verse: Not only is this [i.e. Gen. 15:6] the first time believe occurs in Scripture, but it is connected with attaining righteousness — one of the very few times in the OT that this connection is made.[2] Mention of Abraham is the other key to its rhetorical power for Pauls immediate purpose.

What about us?

Grant Osborne says, People cannot seem to understand that no one can buy his or her way into heaven on the basis of being basically a good guy.[3] This case of wishful thinking is going to leave a lot of people in a state of shock and disbelief when it crumbles.

1. Define biblical faith in your own words. If I said faith is an acceptant response to what God has said and done -- which I consider accurate -- how do you see that definition as either fitting or deviating from the biblical usage of faith?

2. What does living by biblical faith have in common with the American idea of being basically a good guy? How are they different?

Jesus had something to say to the Pharisees who had lost sight of the fundamentals of the faith: Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others (Matt. 23:23, NET).

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 256.

[2] Moo, Romans, 261.

[3] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 107.