In this passage, Paul takes on a very important issue. Is salvation from our sins and eternal life with God a gift from Him, or an obligation on his part to give us what we deserve?
Paul is very clear here. He says,
Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (4-5)
Paul couldn’t be clearer. When a person works under contract, the boss doesn’t at the end of the month walk up to him and say, “Here’s your paycheck. Aren’t I so generous?” And if he tried, the employee would probably be spluttering with indignation. “What do you mean you’re generous? You’re giving me what we agreed to. I did the work you required of me. Now you have to pay me.”
But with God, that’s not the case at all. We are not forgiven of our sins and given eternal life because we keep the law. We are not made God’s children because we kept the laws God set up.
On the contrary,
Law brings wrath. (15)
In other words, no matter how hard we try, we fail. We can say, “Okay, I failed this time, but from now on I’ll keep the law perfectly,” but in the end, we’ll find that we can’t keep our end of the bargain. No matter how hard we try, we keep breaking the law and incurring its wrath.
It’s what the Israelites learned throughout the Old Testament. And finally God had to say (although this was his plan all along), “This Old Covenant based on law is not working because you can’t keep your end of it. So I will make up a new Covenant, not based on what you do, but on what I alone do.”
We see this in Jeremiah 31:31-34,
“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the LORD.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
In short, “I will no longer require you to change yourselves. I myself will change you from the inside out so that you can do what is right. You won’t need priests to mediate between you and me. You yourself will have a relationship with me for I will completely forgive yours sins, and those sins will no longer be a barrier between you and me.”
On what basis would this new covenant be based? Jesus told his disciples during his last supper with them before his death.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. ” (Matthew 26:26-28, Luke 22:19-20)
So then, salvation from our sins and a relationship with God are based not on what we do. Based on what we do, we deserve wrath. Rather, salvation is a gift based on what Jesus did on the cross.
It was a gift that was first given to Abraham, long before the law was given. And now it is given to both Jew and Gentile who come to God on the same basis as Abraham did. By faith.
So Paul says in verse 16,
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.
More on this next time.