Paul continues speaking on Abraham’s faith here. And this is vital; after having already noted that Abraham was considered righteous before God while 75, but not circumcised until 99 (Genesis 12:4, 17:24), he likewise continues this while speaking on the law. He uses this to explain that righteousness does not come through our genetic ancestry. Though the law requires one to become a Jew, the law itself offers no promise of salvation, but only wrath (v.15). St Paul then teaches us a very valuable lesson. Where there is no law, there is no transgression of law. And this almost seems to go without saying. If you are on a street with no speed limit, you can never be pulled for going either too fast or too slow. Therefore, if there is no law which states adultery to be sinful, there can be no transgression for committing adultery. Even if adultery is wrong in the eyes of God, if one doesn’t recognize that fact, then there is no sin for us to be held accountable. And this, according to the apostle, was the purpose for which the law was given. The whole purpose of the law was not to offer us salvation, but rather to make us aware of our sinfulness and thus our need for salvation.
Consider, if you will, the secular mindset. Consider that most, if not all, secular people consider man as nothing more than a mere animal. So, given that particular mindset, what would ever make murder wrong? If man is nothing more than an animal, and we slaughter animals daily, then what makes murder wrong? Even moreso, when so often we look to the animal kingdom and see animals murdering their own kind almost daily, then how can we declare murder wrong? It is because our civilization has a law concerning it, that it is wrong. Other animals freely kill others, there are even some that will sacrifice their own offspring or mates, because there is no law which tells them otherwise.
In like fashion, the “Law” was given to Israel so that they would understand that adultery was wrong. While polygamy and polyamory ran rampant in Pagan culture, the law made the Jews aware of the fact that such behaviors were an offense to God. And while obedience to these laws was never in and of itself able to offer salvation, they were given so that we would understand our own sinfulness and turn away from it. The law was given to Israel so that they would understand that they are not expected to behave like the animals, like the pagans, but rather, they were to be held to this higher standard of doing what was pleasing to the Lord our God.
And that brings us to the point here. Paul’s entire teaching here is that it is not through the external that we are saved. It is not merely through not coveting or murdering or lusting after another that we are saved. Rather, it is the righteous, those who are being saved, who receive God’s promise in faith. And this is not merely a superficial faith that externally states “I believe.” Rather, Paul evokes Abraham, the father of faith, to show that it is a faith which directly controls our lives. And, much to the dismay of the Pharisees, it is not a faith based solely on physical lineage. Abraham begot Ishmael through the flesh, and Isaac through the promise of God. This is important to remember, because it is not those who are descended from Ishmael who receive the promise, but rather those who, through Isaac, receive the promise of God through faith. It is not those who happen to be born of the right lineage, but those who are born of the promise…the faith. He here reveals that there is no one ethnicity, no one “elect” group, who receive the promise of God, but rather those who are born of the promise of God, those who receive His word in faith. The true descendants of Abraham are all who believe, for he is the father of all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.
Paul concludes here by saying that Jesus was delivered up because of our offenses. He died for the forgiveness of our sins. Had He been a sinner, the law would also have condemned Him. However, since He had perfect love and was without sin, He fulfilled not only the letter, but also the heart of the Law. It is His sacrifice which offers us this state of righteousness, that frees us from sin and death and unites us with righteousness and life. We need only accept this offering, accept this grace, and we also can be healed from the sins which lead us to death.
Christ is in our midst.