What are you driven by? The last time I was sick, it was a Saturday and I flipped on the TV for an extraordinary long time. The whole day was exercise equipment, how to become real-estate rich with no money down, and Suze Orman gave me her steps to financial security. As much as we all make sport of this sort of thing, it attracts us. That’s because we are “wired” for law: tell me what to do and I’ll get it done. That is not just the American spirit, but it is human nature. God’s law is inborn, in our conscience, part of our moral makeup. The average person on the street will tell you that the role of churches and other religious institutions is to provide moral instruction-practical suggestions for successful living for the spirit, just as Suze Orman and Jake are there to help us out with our banking and bodies.
Even human imperatives can be enormously effective at laying out a course of action. If I am sufficiently motivated, a good diet-and-exercise plan can help. I’ve never even come close to being credited with any financial planning wisdom, but even I can recognize that if I follow half of what Suze says, I’ll be a much better steward. (I bought the video. Don’t ever leave your credit card within reach if you spend a Saturday watching TV. I nearly bought three separate gyms and a few things for my wife.) Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura don’t even have to be Christians to provide good, commonsense instruction in daily affairs. At least in terms of raw, general principles, non-Christians have law down. When Christians talk law (“How to … “), non-Christians know that we’re speaking their language. I guess that is why such preaching and teaching dominates in the church today, since “law” (however watered down) is perceived as relevant. However, it is only when we encounter God’s law in its full strength that we are knocked off our horse. Instead of being in charge, answering with Israel and Mount Sinai, “All this we will do!”, we find ourselves in the hot seat, the charade exposed, the spin unmasked. Church shouldn’t be a place where the old self is revived for another week, but where it is killed and buried and the new self is created in the likeness of Christ.
Even as Christians, the law (in its third use) can direct us, but it cannot drive us, except to either despair or self-righteousness. Christians are not purpose-driven, but promise-driven. Purposes are all about law. To be sure, at least in Christian discourse, some promises may be mentioned, but they are usually dangled as the carrot for fulfilling the conditions that have been laid out. If you did that with the real Ten Commandments-something like, “Do this and you shall live” (Lev. 25:18), people would catch on: “That’s legalism!” But the therapeutic version (easy-listening law) flies under the radar: “Hey, here are a few helpful principles based on God’s instruction manual that will help you get victory in your life.” Although Rick Warren’s phenomenal best-seller, The Purpose-Driven Life, for example, differs from the usual pattern of self-help books by insisting that we were created for God and his glory, it offers Fifteen Principles-all of which are imperatives (commands, or rather, suggestions) that promise a life of victory for those who follow them. That, I would suggest, confuses law and gospel. And that eventually leaves resentment of God, not delight, in its wake.
The fact that purposes are about law does not make them wrong. We need purposes! Nobody can live without goals. Yet purposes and goals are always something to be reached, to be achieved and be attained by us. They require tactics and strategies. All of this is fine as long as we realize that they are law, not gospel: commands and promises are both necessary, but they do different things.
Law tells us what we should do, whether we’re faced with the wrath of God (full-strength law) or by the fear of not reaching our full potential (the watered-down version). God’s promise, by contrast, creates true faith, which creates true works. The church father Augustine defined sin as being “curved in” on ourselves. While imperatives (including purposes) tend by themselves to make us more “curved in” on ourselves (either self-confidence or self-despair), only God’s promise can drive us out of ourselves and our own programs for acceptance before ourselves, other people, and God. While the Christian life according to scripture is purpose-directed, it is promise-driven. Both of our passages-Genesis 15 and Romans 4-bring this point home powerfully.
Even after his military victory and the remarkable event of being offered bread and wine with a blessing from Melchizedek, Abram’s greatest problem is that he has no heir, no one to carry on the calling that God has given him. His world, as he sees it anyway, is bleak. “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great'” (Gen. 15:1). Abram and Sarai had been called out of the barrenness of moon-worship in the city of Ur by God’s powerful Word, which created faith in the promise (12:1). There is the reward of the land of Canaan, but ultimately the whole earth (“father of many nations”), of which the land of Canaan will serve as a type. The New Testament even tells us that Abraham himself was looking through the earthly promise as a type to its heavenly reality (Heb. 11:10, 13-16).
Notice in this opening address, it is sheer promise. This covenant is not like the one that God made with Adam or with Israel, which made the promise conditional on their future obedience. It was a gift to be received, not a task to be undertaken. God simply declares, “I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” This is what ancient Near Eastern lawyers would have called a “royal grant.”
Yet Abram wonders, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezar of Damascus? … You have given me no son, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (vv. 2-3). The empirical facts of the case-what Abram sees, appear to be overwhelming evidence against the testimony of the promise. Nevertheless, God counters again with the promise, offering the innumerable stars as a sign of the teeming offspring who will come from his loins. “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vv. 5-6). Abram’s response is not one of blind optimism or positive thinking. Abram finds himself believing.
Faith does not create; it receives. It does not make the invisible visible or the future present or hope reality. It receives that which is already given. Grace precedes faith. It is not finally accepting the goodness of the world, or my own goodness, but receiving God’s goodness toward me in spite of the way things really are with me and with the world. Further, there is no way around the forensic or legal character of this Hebrew verb, “declared.” It is chashav, referring to a courtroom judgment, not a process. There Abram stood, wicked and helpless, and yet at the same time-by virtue solely of the promise declared to him, received by faith, was declared righteous. Commenting on this passage, Calvin reminds us, “In all ages, Satan has laboured at nothing more assiduously than to extinguish, or to smother, the gratuitous justification of faith, which is here expressly asserted.” Justification is at the core of the divine paradox: How can I have the assurance that I am accepted before God as righteous when I continue in sin? I see my life. Nevertheless, by pronouncing Abraham just, Abram is just. The promise makes it so. If we can get this right in our understanding of justification, it will radically alter every other aspect of our relationship with God.
Abram goes on to ask how he can know that God will give him the land and God responds in this vision by passing through the severed halves of animals (a treaty-making event of calling down judgment in case of violation) alone (vv. 12-21), foreshadowing the cross of Christ. As Paul would later attest in Galatians 3:19-20, specifically referring to this covenant with Abraham, no covenant could be more firmly anchored in God and his promise rather than in the faithfulness of the human partner than one that God swears by himself.
The preaching of the promise created justifying faith and this sign and seal now confirms and ratifies it. No wonder question 62 of the Heidelberg Catechism confesses, “The Holy Spirit creates it [faith] in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.” Out of his confession of faith, Abram now continues his pilgrimage not on the basis of his physical vigor or Sarai’s fertility, but on the sole basis of the Word (again, in anticipation of his greater Son in his temptation). We will either rely on the visible realities we see or the invisible realities we hear preached to us, but we cannot rely on both. Unbelief is unavoidable: either we will doubt the credibility of the divine word in the face of life’s realities or we will doubt the credibility of this world’s so-called “givens” in the face of the divine promise. Faith ignores statistics. The world says we have to save ourselves (and it), offering countless strategies of striving, while the Word slays us in our self-conceit and raises us up together with Christ. God’s promise creates a new world out of darkness and void, fertile pastures of fruit-bearing trees out of the infertile soil of unbelief and ungodliness. This covenant is not a call to claim a future he can control, but to receive a future that God has spoken into being. Sarai’s infertile womb is the canvas upon which God will paint a new creation. And they both get renamed. The promise gives them a new identity.
These passages from Genesis 15-17 form the backdrop for much of Paul’s teaching. Israel had confused the promise-covenant made with Abraham and the law-covenant that Israel made with Yahweh at Sinai. Nobody can be justified by means of a law-covenant, Paul insists, but only on the basis of a promise-covenant. So Paul brings Abraham to the witness stand as an example to us, not chiefly as someone whose holiness we can emulate (have you read the story?), but primarily as someone for whom the promise worked even though he didn’t. If Abraham could not be justified by his own righteousness, how can the rest of us who claim Abraham as our forefather?
Paul is contrasting law-logic with promise-logic. The law is not the problem, but we are, and the law simply points that out. We know the law by nature; nobody has to teach at least its rudimentary principles to us (Rom. 1 and 2). When we turn to our common sense, reason, experience, or what we see in order to determine our relationship to God, it is always the law that has the last word. Law-logic is entirely appropriate for those created in God’s image, designed and equipped to reflect God’s righteousness in every way, but it says nothing about how law-breakers can be saved from its judgment.
In Romans 3:21-26, Paul announces that law-logic can only announce the righteousness that God is and which therefore condemns us who have failed to conform to it. Then we arrive at chapter 4. The question that throws law and promise into a sharp contrast is this: How does one obtain the inheritance of the heavenly rest? The barrier between Jew and Gentile is broken down not merely because the laws of ethnic separation are set aside but because law as a principle was never intended to be the way of inheriting the Abrahamic promise. “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (vv. 5-6).
If we read Romans 4 in the light of Paul’s argument in Romans 10, the contrast is even clearer: law-logic ascends to bring Christ down or up from the grave, while gospel-logic receives Christ as he descends to us in the preaching of the gospel. Because the law is innate (in creation) and the gospel is a surprising announcement (after the fall), climbing, ascending, attaining, doing whatever “ten steps” or following whatever “fifteen principles” is natural to us. It is not natural for us, like Abraham, to simply receive a promise, the hearing of which creates faith (Rom. 10:17). But God is never closer to us, says Paul, than when Christ is being preached to us (v. 8). Law-logic strives for what it sees and can possess; promise-logic sits down and listens to the covenant attorney reading the last will and testament, legally enacting the bequest.
Back to chapter 4, then, where Paul uses the same phrase-“through the righteousness of faith” (v. 13) that he will use in chapter 10, where he contrasts the law-logic of our ascent (“go get it”) with the promise-logic of God’s descent (“God gave it to you”). So when it comes to how we are justified-that is, set right before God and made heirs of all the gifts that he has for us, Law and Promise represent antithetical means of inheritance. We know the difference between a contract (“I’ll do this if you do that”) and a bequest (“I hereby leave my estate to … “). That’s the difference here between employees and heirs (v. 4). Christ’s active obedience is the basis and his death is the legal event that distributes the royal estate to all of his beneficiaries. God doesn’t just give us more good advice and exhortation, but the most amazing news in the world: “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (v. 5).
The contrast is either/or again in verse 14: “For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect.” It’s not just that faith is also necessary, but that faith and obedience are absolutely antithetical as means of attaining that which the promise promises. The last part of the sentence (v. 15) reads, “because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.” It is the law that exposes our sin and makes it utterly sinful, counting our wrongs not as “mistakes,” “self-expression,” “foibles,” or even “not being all that we could be,” but as a wicked transgression of God’s explicit command. The law speaks and the old self dies. The law cannot create faith because it tells us what is to be done. It can only announce what we have not done. The promise, by contrast, tells us what has been done by someone else. That is why it brings life.
Then in verse 16 Paul says, “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, 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.” See the logic of the promise? Paul will add one more pearl to the string later.
It is important to recognize that God’s promises are not simply a pledge of a future reality, but bring about that reality in the present. We see this clearly in the way Paul talks about the law doing certain things and the promise doing certain things. In verse 14 of our passage he says, “For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.” The promise (or gospel) preached creates faith, just as the law actually brought about our condemnation. The law not only warns us of God’s coming wrath, it “brings about wrath,” just as the judge’s act of sentencing a criminal actually effects the criminal’s condemnation.
Throughout Scripture we are taught that God’s Word is effectual: it brings about whatever God speaks, whether in creation, providence, or redemption. God’s speech is “active and living,” Scripture says. The law is successful in condemning, driving us to despair of ourselves, to seek salvation outside ourselves. The gospel is successful in giving us faith to receive Christ and all his benefits. The gospel doesn’t just talk about a world that might come to be if we all just got our act together; it creates a new world where no capacity existed, and that is exactly the language that Paul uses in verses 17 to 22. God creates death and life by speaking.
This is why Paul returns again to the example of Abraham and Sarah as the construction site of a new creation, produced by the promise. Here is the logic: “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all of his descendants,” both Jew and Gentile (v 16). He adds, “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’-in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17). Just as God spoke the world into existence without any contribution from the creation itself, God speaks a new world of salvation into being. And just as Abraham is declared righteous by this proclamation then and there, Paul observes, he was declared then and there “father of many nations” despite all appearances to the contrary. “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be'” (v. 18). God’s saying makes it so. Salvation comes, then, not by doing certain things but by hearing certain things and embracing them by faith, which is itself created by the Spirit through the preaching of the promise. Not all parts of the Word give life, as Paul says later in chapter 7 (v. 10): “And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death.” If Paul were not a transgressor, the law would pronounce him just, but as it is, it can only bring death. The promise, by contrast, brings life-out of nothing.
This is the scandal of justification: How can God declare us righteous if we are not inherently righteous? Isn’t this a legal fiction? Doesn’t it make God a liar? But that’s like saying God cannot say, “Let there be light” unless there is a sun to give it. God himself creates the conditions necessary for the existence of his work. When he says, “Let there be light!”, the sun exists. When he says, “Let this ungodly person be righteous,” “this barren woman be pregnant,” “this faithless person embrace my Word,” it is so. When we really understand justification, we really understand how God works with us in every aspect of our lives before him. Christ lived the purpose-driven life so that we would inherit his righteousness through faith and be promise-driven people in a purpose-driven world. He did gain the everlasting inheritance by obedience to everything God commanded, driven by the purpose of fulfilling the law for us, in perfect love of God and neighbor.
Relinquishing hope in the ordinary powers of human nature, he was given genuine hope in God for the first time. The future was now God’s future, not his own. He didn’t have to work it all out, plot and plan, scheme to bring about the inheritance (as he had done before). Thus, because of the power of the promise, not his own goals or resolve, Abraham could turn his eyes away from “his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Rom. 4:19). “He did not waver,” again, not because of any inherent virtue of his faith, but because he “was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform” (v. 21). In other words, it was because of the object of faith, not the act of faith itself that Abraham could stand firm.
As anticipated above, Paul adds here another pearl in the chain of the promise-logic: If the inheritance comes by faith in the promise and not in the works of the law, then faith gives all “glory to God” (v. 20). Faith gives no glory to self, even to our act of faith. It is directed entirely to God and his promise. Faith is strong only to the extent that the promise is strong. Abraham knew that God could perform what he had promised. “And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness'” (v. 22).
In the concluding verses of this remarkable chapter (vv. 23-25, and the first verse of chapter 5), Paul writes,
Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not only for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
Faith is defiance. Abraham’s faith defied every possibility that he saw, in favor of the “impossible” word that he heard. This is why “faith comes by hearing … that is, the word of faith which we preach” (Rom. 10:17). To trust in God is to distrust every other promise-maker. The world makes a lot of promises: “Try this product and you’ll be ….” Constantly buying into new fads or makeovers as so many fig leaves to hide the seriousness of our condition, we hand ourselves over to marketers who persuade us that we can attain salvation, however we define that. Even the church can become a place where people get the idea that they exist merely to usher in the kingdom by serving on committees and being involved in a thousand programs. We have a lot of purposes, a lot of goals-some of them noble. Desperate to save ourselves and our kids from everything but the wrath of God, we fail to realize that, however watered down, these are all nothing but law rather than promise. Eventually, we will become burned out on good advice. What we need is good news.