Romans 4:13-15 “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.”
In these verses there is found, quite incidentally, a wonderful promise that is made to every Christian concerning his status today and his eternal future. Don’t go to your horoscopes or your star signs hoping to read there that you are going to receive a marvelous inheritance! Don’t pay Mystic Meg when she turns up in her caravan during the autumn fairs and promises that for a small fee she will gaze into her crystal ball to tell you, “Soon you’re going to inherit a fortune.” Don’t go to spiritualist meetings and listen to the medium announcing that someone with your name is going to receive a wonderful inheritance. There is a promise in the Bible, breathed out by God, defined and sure, saying that as a disciple of Jesus Christ you are going to be an heir of an inheritance that can never be taken from you. It is here in the passage before us, and Paul is so confident about it that he just needs to refer to it in passing. The apostle can take it for granted choosing to emphasize rather the means by which the promise is received by the spiritual descendants of Abraham.
Here Paul is reminding the congregation of Christians in Rome that God once made a promise to Abraham (and also to his offspring) that they would become heirs of the world. That’s it. Abraham is the father of all who believe in Jesus Christ. We are his offspring and his heirs, and so we are looking forward to a wonderful inheritance which God has prepared for us. It is ours. No one can rob us of it. Let us examine this.
1. THE NATURE OF OUR INHERITANCE.
Here are the exact words, “Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world” (v.13). What was that promise? When and where did God say that to Abraham and his line? I have found John Piper to be the most helpful in explaining this.
Let’s start by saying that nowhere in the Old Testament are these exact words used – Abraham you are going to be “heir of the world.” So how is it that in Romans 4:13 Paul summed up the promise to Abraham that way, “that he would be heir of the world”? Because as you read the Old Testament promises and the way they are developed and explained and applied to us in the New Testament then we see that this is very plainly what God is saying.
i] There are three promises that God made to Abraham.
First, in Genesis 17:8 God says to Abraham, “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” He says, “Abraham, you are getting all this land. It will be your everlasting possession; ‘I will give [it]to you and to your descendants after you . . .” In the big picture this is a pointer to the Seed of the woman crushing the serpent’s head. The god of this world is not going to grab it all; our earth is not going to be the devil’s world. In the big picture this promise is a pointer to resurrection. It is a pointer to this creation in which we live, that Abraham and all his line are not going to be spirits hovering in heaven for ever. It is a pointer to the fact that the God who created the world is going to be Abraham’s everlasting God and also his descendants’ everlasting God. So it is telling us that Abraham and his seed are going to rise from the dead and they are all going to receive in this world their eternal inheritance that will be incorruptible and undefiled, not fading away. Abraham is going to be an heir of this world, because he will never die. He is going to be as alive as God is and so he can inherit it. That is where this promise begins.
Second, in Genesis 17:7 God makes this precious and powerful promise: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” See that God says to Abraham and his seed, “I will be God to you.” Now what does that mean? Well, Jesus said one great implication of that promise – maybe the greatest – was that Abraham and his seed could not be defeated by death. To have God as your God means that you will not be surrendered over and given up to the domination of our last enemy death. And death shall have no dominion over Abraham and his descendants – not for a moment! In Matthew chapter 22 and verse 32 Jesus took those Old Testament words that God spoke, “I am the God of Abraham” and he commented, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” He lives and they live also. We cannot imagine God saying, “I am the God of Spiderman, and Superman, and Batman, and Dr. Who” because these figures are mythical, comic, characters. They are pure fiction that have never existed nor will they ever exist. And to attach the living God to them is to denigrate God, pulling him down as a figure of fantasy. But to say that Jehovah is the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob is to lock them all into history – our history and our three-dimensional reality in space and time. God lives! Abraham and Isaac and Jacob live! In other words, to say that the living God is really your God and yet to doubt by thinking, “Maybe I’ll be defeated by death and annihilated,” is inconceivable. It was inconceivable to the Lord Christ, the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The promise that God would be Abraham’s God has to mean that Abraham will rise from the dead. This is why he can be an heir of the world: he is not a bundle of dust under the Syrian sky. He can never be defeated by death. Nor can you if you are his fellow heir by faith in the same living Lord.
Third, in Genesis 22:17 God promises Abraham, “I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.” What a promise of everlasting triumph! This means that in the future there will be extraordinary growth for the people of God. No man can number them! No enemies are going to gloat over the defeated descendants of Abraham. No principalities, no powers, no rulers of the darkness of this world, no prince of the power of the air, no seed of the serpent will have the victory. All our enemies are going to be subdued. So Abraham and his descendants will inherit the earth; Abraham will rise from the dead. He cannot be defeated by death. Abraham and his descendants will be triumphant over all their foes.
ii] The implications of these promises will be seen in the coming of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. The New Testament sees all of these promises fulfilled in our Saviour. The Messiah is the final and ultimate heir, the one who promises, “Because I live you shall live also.” John Piper says that that fact ‘supercharges’ the promises with greater fulfilment than Abraham ever dreamed of.
Jesus Christ is the Lord of all nations and all lands. Every knee will bow to him ( Philippians 2:10). The Father says to the Son, “Ask of me, and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as your possession” ( Psalm 2:8). But it is not only that Jesus the Messiah once and for all defeated death through raising men from the dead and through his own resurrection but that we too shall live through him. Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 and verse 57, “[God] gives us the victory [over death] through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verses 25 and 26 Paul says, “[Christ] must reign until He has put all his enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.”
So we discover that all the promises of God to Abraham are “Yes” in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. They are supercharged in him and transformed from promises about one little land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean to having world-wide and cosmic significance. The Son of God is heir of all the nations; all the world belongs to him. He is Lord of life and death. He is ruling now at the Father’s right hand, every enemy being put under his feet for the sake of his people.
What’s clear from all this is that the reason we are heirs of the world is because Jesus the Messiah because of his obedience to death, even the death of the cross, has been made the heir of the world, and we are in him, joined to him, loved as he is loved, blessed as richly as he is blessed, exalted in him, seated at the right hand of God in him. In other words, by the very same means that we become children of Abraham, namely, by believing in the Messiah, we also become heirs with Abraham of the world, because the Messiah is heir of the world. When we believe in Abraham’s God we are joined to him and his triumph for ever. The promises made to Abraham are yea and Amen in Christ, and we become fellow heirs with Abraham in him. In him we are Jews who trust in Jesus the Messiah, and in him we are heirs of God, and in him the nations of the earth are ours too.
Galatians chapter 3 and verse 29 is a wonderfully clear statement of these things: “And if you belong to Christ (that is, the Messiah), then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” In Christ we are Jews, the descendants of Abraham, and in Christ we are also an heir with him of a cosmic and heavenly inheritance. So if we are in Christ today, with no condemnation, then positively we are also heirs of the world. You see how powerfully that is affirmed in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 and verses 21 through 23, “So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.”
iii] All things are ours through Christ the Son of God.
Remember that there is only one reason that we have become with Abraham heirs of the world, and that is that we’ve been joined through faith to Jesus the promised Messiah, the Son of God, and Christ belongs to God. Christ is the heir of God, so then in him we are also fellow-heirs. Have you noticed that that’s the way Paul puts it in the mighty eighth chapter of Romans and verse17, “Heirs of God and joint heirs – fellow heirs – with Christ.” So it is in Christ alone and exclusively that all things are ours. There is no way that this inheritance can be ours except through him. That is what it means to be an heir of the world. Hebrews chapter 1 and verse 2 says, “In these last days [God] has spoken to us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things.” Christ owns everything that exists. The galaxies, the planets, the atmosphere, the sun and moon, the seagulls and robins and starlings, the rabbits and badgers and foxes and sheep and the cattle on the thousand hills, the fields and oceans, the dolphins and mackerel, they are all his for whatever use he pleases. And what pleases him is to share all things with the people for whom he died. The sunset or the morning star, the path of light over the silvery sea to the setting sun – that is ours as our inheritance from God. This is my Father’s world and he has bequeathed it to me.
But also the gifts of common grace in men and women, the skill of the surgeon, and the lyricism of the poet, the creativity of the architect, the music of the composer, the paintings of the artist – they are mine to enjoy. The love of family and friends, the peace and culture and language of a nation – they are all mine to receive, and strengthen, and develop, and enjoy. Shakespeare and Dafydd ap Gwilym, Dickens and Saunders Lewis are mine. The skill of the sportsman, the wisdom of the statesman, the enthusiasm of the teacher – they are all mine. They don’t belong to Satan! God is the great benefactor. They are God’s inheritance to me. He has given me all things richly to enjoy. “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phils. 4:8) because they are all mine through Jesus Christ. I am an heir of the world. All things are mine.
Practically speaking all things now are mine in trust, as it were, but they will become mine in actuality in the age to come. We do not yet see all things under Jesus’ feet, and so there is much we see that isn’t ours because it is not his. We see acts of horror and we say, “an evil one has done this.” We do not want those things because they are not his, and sometimes wisdom and discernment are needed to know the difference. But all things are under his determinate counsel and foreknowledge.
The Lord Jesus had several ways of assuring us about this. For example he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “The meek shall inherit the earth” ( Matthew 5:5). You understand and see how this is only possible by union with Christ? Who was the perfectly meek man – without ever being a weakling? Jesus Christ. Consider him never retaliating, never overcoming evil with evil, turning the other cheek, when he was reviled he did not turn on them and revile back but rather he prayed that they might be forgiven. In him we are meek; in him we love our enemies; in him we turn the other cheek. So in him we inherit the earth.
How can this be? How can it all be Christ’s but also be my inheritance? Consider Revelation chapter 3 and verse 21 as an analogy. Jesus says to the believers at Laodicea, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.” We will sit with Christ on his throne, in other words, we will share the kingly rule and ownership of the world. Christ will lose nothing by incorporating us into his rule, but we will gain everything.
But still we ask, how can this be. How can “all things” be mine and “all things” be yours too? Well, consider the analogy of marriage; that is the way it is, more or less, in marriage. A husband and a wife own a home together. They don’t own parts of it, but all of it. They co-own it. So too in the age to come there will be such union and such harmony among us that all God’s children will own all God’s inheritance since they are united to Christ, who is the heir of all things. We shall sit with him in the throne of judgment in the world to come and judge angels. There our great joy will be to increase the joy of others by giving and sharing and using all things for the greater joy of all the people. There will be perfect wisdom for how to do this, and a perfect world where there is no futility or frustration. All of us will remind one another, “All things are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” – just as it is the delight of angels to remind one another of the glorious holiness of God. And even believing in our inheritance and speaking of it will be overflowing joy. So Abraham and his offspring have received the promise that both he and ourselves are heirs of the world. So that is the glorious promise that Paul deals with virtually incidentally in our text.
2. HOW WE RECEIVE THIS INHERITANCE.
Now this is Paul’s concern in these verses. How does this glorious inheritance become ours, to have and to hold? It is not by our obeying the law. You see those three stark words in verse thirteen, “not through law.” A divine covenant promise has been made and the promise focuses on one people, on Abraham and his descendants. It is theirs; nothing will ever take it from them, but how is it theirs in particular, while many people never obtain this promise? Multitudes of men and women are absolutely unable to say, “All things are mine.” All things are not theirs. Does such a mighty promise come just to those who keep the law? In other words to those who have no gods but God; they worship no idols; they never take God’s name in vain; they keep one day each week and devote it to the living God’ they honour their parents constantly; the are not violent, or sexually permissive; they do not steal or lie and are absolutely content with all they have and never ache and groan to have what belongs to other people. They tick all ten boxes as law-keepers, and also in Old Testament times they kept the ceremonial law and went to the Temple, and three times a year to the Feasts in Jerusalem, and they tithed of all they had, and on the Sabbath went to synagogues and every seven years kept the land fallow. They kept the law and so God clapped and said, “Well done. So I will give you the world.”
In Paul’s day, and also today, there are many, many people who think that the way that you’re accepted by God is being good. The way you are to be accepted by God is to be moral people. The way that you are accepted by God is to keep his commandments. They believe that God gives prizes to those who do good, who live decent lives and always do their best. But in the opening chapters of the greatest letter ever written Paul is directly contradicting that. He knows it’s our natural tendency to think that if we clean ourselves up we will get accepted by God, and richly rewarded, but the apostle is emphatic that that’s not the way at all.
Now how does Paul argue that case? Well, you’ll see it in verse 14. He says that there cannot be an alternative way to obtain the promise of being an heir of all things, in other words, by living a moral life. No way! “If those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless” (v.14). The promise of God that he will give me this glorious inheritance is valueless because I have the inheritance already by keeping the law of God. I don’t need his promise; it is worthless. My grandfather wrote in his will that when I reached 21 I would receive 100,000 pounds. One day my father writes to me and he promises me that amount of money, but I don’t need his promise. I am 22 and so the money is mine. The law has given it to me already not my father’s promise.
But you believe that you can save yourself from hell by being good. You can be good by your own tastes and standards, of course, but can you love God with all your heart? Can you love your neighbour as yourself? Can you please God? Can you come to Jesus Christ all by yourself? You cannot. Let me illustrate it in this far-fetched way. Suppose I offered 100 pounds to the first person to jump from the balcony, flap their arms, fly around the sanctuary once, and return to their pew. Who would be the first one to try it? What? No takers? Perhaps I haven’t offered enough money. Let’s make it 1,000 pounds. Now, who’ll be the first in line? Still no takers. Okay, let’s make it 10,000 pounds. Hmmmm. How about 50,000? Or 100,000? Do you see the point? It doesn’t matter how much money I offer. If you can’t flap your arms and fly, then I could offer 5 million, and you still couldn’t do it. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it, and the money just doesn’t matter.
That’s the exact situation of the man who tries to get to heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments. The law says, “Do this and live” … But he can’t love God with all his heart and love his neighbour as he loves himself. His sin is too strong for him. The law says, “Keep these rules perfectly and I will reward you with eternal life.” But no one can do it. It’s impossible to keep the law of God 100% of the time. It doesn’t matter what you offer as a reward. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. The promise of inheriting the earth by being good is a worthless promise. All men are unable to meet the conditions.
Do you think the message of the Christian Union to their fellow 8,000 students at the University here is “Be good! Be good and go to heaven!” I tell you that that is not the Christian gospel at all. The apostle has already made it air-tightly clear in chapters 2 and 3 that nobody has ever kept the law, nobody obeys the law, nobody fits into the category of being a good person, being a nice person, being a person who keeps the commands, being a person who keeps the requirements of God. The Christian Union is itself full of students who are sinners. It is saying, “If salvation is by being good, if salvation is by keeping the commands, then our claim that we are trusting in God and believing in Jesus Christ is useless.” You cannot become a true Christian by being a good man or woman. We are not telling people, “Be good.” There is none ‘good’ no not one, except the God-man Christ Jesus. And so we hide in him, in his wounded side, on his heart, in his praying, under his blood, covered in his righteousness – only such people inherit the earth.
Nobody will receive any promises of salvation and mercy by a message that says to them “Well now, if you are good then the promise of eternal life will be yours.” No! Not at all! There is only one who is good, and that is God in Christ Jesus. So Paul says, “All those promises mean nothing if the way that you get them is through your own moral uprightness, through your own goodness, through your own law keeping, through your own obedience, through your own efforts,” the apostle has been insisting on this, because no one has actually kept the law blamelessly. The promise of inheriting the earth is made to those who are in Jesus Christ.
But if you suggest that God loves only those who’ve earned his love by pleasing him in everything they do, that God accepts only those who do enough to please him, that God bestows his promise only on those who first love him, that God loves us because we first loved him and obeyed him, then we have turned the scripture on its head because that’s not what God says. The Bible says we love him because he first loved us. Paul is saying “If you teach that salvation is by your goodness, if you teach it’s by your obedience, then you’re saying that God only saves those who’ve first screwed up extraordinary love and obedience. You think it’s because they’ve loved him and obeyed him that he has saved them.” In other words, they’ve save themselves by their good works. They’ve earned their salvation, they’ve merited God’s love by their obedience. And you know what? Doesn’t that make us more loving than God?
Paul tells us, “If you say that salvation is based on people being good, then you are saying that people have to save themselves, and God has to wait until they’re good in order to pronounce his blessing and promise on them.” That’s so different from the much more glorious story told in the word of God that is this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ became the Lamb of God, and he died for the ungodly. He reached out to us not because we were lovely, not because we were loving, not because we were good, but in spite of the fact that we weren’t any of those things he loved us. And in Jesus Christ he gave his beloved Son to die in our place. That’s a far more loving God than a God who accepts those who are good and rejects those who are not good enough. Now you see that salvation isn’t triggered by anything in us. In fact there’s nothing in us that draws God to love us. It’s his Son’s righteousness, his Son’s obedience, that’s the thing that saves. That what we need. And by faith we receive it. You see that is what Paul is opposing when you say that salvation is by being good, you’re making God less loving, not more. The essence of faith is that it receives; faith accepts; faith believes in someone else’s achievements and trusts that what he has done is all sufficient and super-abundant. Faith believe that God will freely pardon and forgive sinners because of the sacrifice that another, even Jesus the Son of God, has made in their place. Faith says, “We are not good, but Jesus is wonderfully loving and he gave himself that we might be pardoned.”
3. PRESENTING OUR WORKS TO GOD WILL BRING DOWN HIS WRATH.
Finally, Paul concludes this argument in verse 15 by pointing out that in our fallen condition, as sinners that we are, the defied and broken law can only bring down upon us God’s wrath. It can’t earn us God’s favour. Trying to earn God’s promises by being good will never, ever work. Your attempts at goodness all fail; they are all adulterated by self and pride. It was not only the Jews in Paul’s audience who believed that keeping their laws brought righteousness. Paul here boldly asserts, “Oh, no, in fact the law brings wrath.” Once you talk of the law you are talking about transgressions. Paul says, “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (v.15). People will say to you, “I’m not a sinner,” because they do not know the law of God. No law and so no transgression. What fearful ignorance! The law brings condemnation. It demonstrates God’s standards and shows us how we have violated them. So it brings wrath. It is very interesting to see how the tune of people changes when that reality of the law is laid on them. You know, when the law is on your side, it’s amazing how people nod their heads and speak about ‘the rule of law.’ You know how many people speak about immigrants in the country illegally, but when the law searches them and judges them, for example, for tax-dodging, then how insignificant the rule of law becomes. Those people will pay lip service to God’s standards and to being good, but apart from grace nobody likes the law. Apart from grace, when you really sit down and think about the law, you know that it condemns you. People can talk about God accepting them because they live a decent life, butt you begin to tell them what God’s standards of decency are and you know what they’ll think of the law? They’ll hate the law. The law won’t save them. The law condemns them.
“The law brings wrath.” That’s where you end up when you try to get to heaven by keeping the law. You don’t end up in heaven; you end up facing the wrath of a sin-hating God because you failed to keep his commandments. Do you understand your predicament, you who are under the law of God? The more God demands, the more you fail. The more you fail, the greater your guilt; the greater your guilt, the greater God’s wrath towards you. Our situation without a Saviour is literally hopeless. If you are trusting in your obedience to get you to heaven, not only are you terribly deceived, but you also face a hopeless future.
James the half brother of our Lord and pastor of the Jerusalem church reminds us that to break any part of God’s law is to become a law-breaker. There are many ways that that can be illustrated. For example, the Ten Commandments are like a 10-link chain that stretches from earth to heaven. If you break any one of those links, it doesn’t matter how well you keep the other nine. The chain is broken. If you cut one segment out of a ball like removing a segment from an orange, the ball has not value; it is worthless. If you have broken one law you are in God’s sight a law breaker. If a stone pierces one square inch of your windscreen then the whole windscreen is broken and the whole thing has to be replaced.
It’s the same way with God’s law. There’s no such thing as being a “moderate” sinner. That’s like being a “little bit” pregnant. You’re either a sinner or you’re not. If you break any part of God’s law, it’s as if you’ve broken the whole thing. You can’t repair the situation by trying to make up for your sin in other good works. God won’t accept that solution, which is why trying to go to heaven by keeping the law leaves you in a truly hopeless situation. You need forgiveness from a forgiving God, and pardon from a pardoning God.
Let me tell you the most wonderful new of all, that God so loved the world that he gave his Son, and his Son came into the world and he obeyed the law, that all those his Father had given him to save he saved and keeps. Those who trust in him receive his righteousness and are saved. They become the children of God and they inherit God’s world, not because of something that they did, not because of something in them, not because of their intrinsic goodness, but because of Jesus’ obedience to the law and his goodness. This is what Paul means when he says that we are justified by faith, not obedience. We’re saved by the promise of God, not by the law. We become heirs of the universe through being joined to Jesus Christ the Son of God by faith. So you put your trust in Jesus Christ today. You finish with your morality. It stinks in God’s nostrils. You move out of yourself and into the Lord Christ tonight, and you put your trust in him. You do that. You tell God that today. I’m trusting in you Lord.
31st August 2014 GEOFF THOMAS