In this passage which essentially teaches the Gospel from the example of Abraham, who is the Father of all them who believe, the Apostle now identifies the importance of faith. He deals with faith in both the negative and the positive, therefore enabling us to observe this grace in its fullness.
1. The Alternative to Faith
Already in this 4th Chapter Paul has been dealing with arguments which threaten this precious doctrine of Justification by Faith. In v2-5 he examined the fallacy of a works based religion. V9-12 focused upon the dependency upon religious rituals (circumcision being the prime example here) for justification. In this study Paul critically considers the elevation of the law as a means of salvation. The law is a moral code, it contains a set of values which are necessary for our physical and mental well being and which provides good order in society. Throughout the religions and the peoples of the world there is a mindset which insists upon maintaining obedience to the law and to morality as a means of obtaining God’s approval. Paul is teaching here, however, that dependency upon law is an alternative to faith because it cannot co-exist alongside true faith:
a If law is the alternative then faith is made void, v14.
b If the law is an alternative the promise is worthless, v14.
c As an alternative the law brings wrath, v15.
This is the key point because there is nothing wrong with law and proper moral values. The problem is with us because we fall far short of keeping its principles. Therefore law is only useful insomuch as it teaches us that we are sinners, “…where no law is, there is no transgression.”
2: The Value of Faith
Having examined life without faith which rests upon law we shall now consider the true value of faith in the matter of justification.
(a) It is faith alone which establishes grace, v16.
Law claims what we deserve, or what we think we deserve. Faith on the other hand looks for the gift that comes from God, a gift that we have no right to.
(b) It is faith alone which makes salvation certain, v16.
Law based salvation is never certain because man is depending upon self. How can an individual be sure that they been honest enough, that their very thoughts have been morally pure and that their attitudes have been beyond all reproach. For example the Roman Catholic Church, a law based religion, offers no hope to its devotees but the burning flames of purgatory because even that system recognises that no-one can perfectly observe the law. Faith, however, simply supplies assurance because it looks upward to God, not inward to man.
(c) Faith alone makes salvation available to all, v16-17.
Law based efforts exclude people on the basis of religious affiliation, culture, language or past. Faith takes us beyond all of these obstacles and extends the Gospel freely to the whosoever who will call upon the name of the Lord.