Without Law There is No Transgression – Romans 4:14-15

In verse 14 Paul makes a radical statement within the world of Second Temple period Judaism: if Abraham’s heirs are the ones who keep the Law, then Abraham’s faith is emptied and God’s promise to him is nullified.

Image result for no mosaic LawAccording to verse 15, the Law brings only wrath. This returns to the theme sounded in Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is being revealed. For the Gentiles, the wrath is revealed by creation, but for the Jews it is revealed in the Law. The Law demands God’s people be holy, as God himself is holy. Although there are provisions in the Law for dealing with uncleanliness or sin, ultimately the Law was designed to demonstrate the need for God’s grace and mercy.

The second part of verse 15 may be a problem for some readers. Without the Law, Paul says “there is no transgression.” Potentially this means from Adam until Abraham, there was no Law so people could live any way they chose. If that is the case, God’s judgment in Genesis 6 is not just and fair. There had to be some revealed standard to which people could be held accountable. Or maybe Paul means, “If there is no rule against it, then it is permitted.” But it is not difficult to imagine some sin that is not specifically covered in the Law. People are always finding loopholes in the rules which allow them to get away with bad behavior.

Is it true that “without Law there is no transgression”?

The problem here is taking transgression as equivalent to sin. The word “transgression” (παράβασις) is not the usual word for sin in New Testament, although Paul uses the word in 2:23 and 5:14. Far more common (48 times in Romans alone) is the word ἁμαρτία, usually translated as “sin.” The word Paul chooses in Romans 4:15 refers to “violation of the law given or sanctioned by God” (EDNT 3:14). Paul specifically has the Law in mind, so until the God defined some activity as unclean in the Law, it was not a “transgression of law.”

Abraham could not “transgress the Law” since there was no Law. There is a great deal in the Law that is a breach of ceremonial cleanliness. These things are not inherently evil or immoral. Until the Law said, “mold on your wall is a transgression,” it was not a transgression of Law. Until the Law said, “do not eat shellfish,” eating a lobster was not a transgression of Law.

Paul will pick up on this idea in Romans 7, stating he would not have known sin unless the Law had not defined sin. At this point in the argument of Romans, he is reinforcing the fact Abraham could not have broken or kept the Law because the time of the Law had not yet arrived.

Although this is more clear in Galatians 3, Paul argues the Law was given for a “time and a place” in the history of Salvation. It was a step in God’s plan to redeem humanity from sin, but it is a step that is now past. In the present age, people are able to be declared righteous by faith in Jesus, and they are unable to be declared righteous by keeping the Law.

This is an important observation for how we approach God in the present age. Does Christianity put too much emphasis on believing a set of facts or performing a series of rituals, rather than believing in God’s revelation through Jesus Christ? Is there a danger in emphasizing any practice over belief in Jesus?

8 thoughts on “Without Law There is No Transgression – Romans 4:14-15

  1. I think that Christianity has a problem with rituals just as the Jews did at the time of Christ’s death. They became so infatuated with the rules that they lost sight of what God’s intentions were for people. If we look at the church today we see that the mess of things called doctrines place such high standards on what is good and bad that we forget we are the ones that say what is right and wrong, it isn’t our place to judge that, God will judge correctly when the time comes. Our job now is to make sure that everyone receiving judgement knows the outcome of it before the time comes. Let people work out their problems themselves, but tell them about Jesus and why he died for us, because that is really what is important. I think that the danger in emphasizing practices over belief in Jesus is that some practices push people away. Those people that are being pushed away need Jesus too. Using a simple example, of drinking being ok or not in a church may push someone away from wanting to attend a church that would help show them who Christ is just because they enjoy a beer here or there. Our practices get in the way of our directive, which is to share the gospel.

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  2. There is definitely a danger in overemphasizing actions over faith. When we put any ritual or good works on a pedestal, it is like we are saying that there is something good coming from us. Some way to earn merit with God. Yet “our works are like filthy rags” (Is. 64:4). It can also lead us away from faith in Christ altogether. I think it is important to realize that we are made new in Christ, but this is not because of what we have done at all. We also need to remember that when we try to do good on our own, we simply cannot.

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  3. While I agree with my classmates about the dangers of putting practices above faith, I also think it is important that we understand when a person believes in the work of Christ and they are justified by their faith they receive the Holy spirit who enables them to do good works. Our good works in turn should always point directly back to Christ. Bringing God glory is why we live and our purpose in life. While I enjoy a good beer once a year like Anthony, I do think that choosing to abstain from drinking because of your faith can be a powerful testimony to others around you. The same can be said of what you believe the word of God says and convicts you to do or not do. Like Anthony commented “our practices get in the way of our directive, which is to share the Gospel.” I do think that sometimes anyone call fall into a pattern of “practicing faith” and forget to get outside of our comfort zones to reach out. we all attend church every Sunday do we not? Now I am not saying we should stop attending because God’s word obviously calls us to fellowship but once in a while we can stop going to church to find God and bring Him outside to others.
    to address: Is it true that “without Law there is no transgression”?
    It does connect what Paul is saying that without the law we would not know what God’s standards are and by failing to live up to those standards, the Jews were made aware of their need for a savior.

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  4. I think there definitely is a danger in emphasizing any practice over belief in Jesus Christ. Not that our behavior doesn’t matter, because it does. When our faith is based on what we are doing more than what has been done for us I think we will be inclined toward self-centeredness. Even if we are serving others and doing wonderful acts that demonstrate the fruit of the spirit, if those acts are what we are focusing on we will be missing the joy of Christ-centeredness. I have to be super conscious of making sure that the things I do are not just actions but responses to God’s grace toward me.
    We have the Holy Spirit within us which is guiding us to produce fruit and convicting us where we fall short (April for a well-worded point about conviction). This isn’t a ‘new law’ but I think that it is like the law in that, without the Spirit’s guiding, we wouldn’t know we are grieving him. Because a member of the Godhead is dwelling within us we have a whole new level of access to the heart of God that those under the law or before the law couldn’t have known. I’m not sure if I’m making sense… Before the law was given, exercising on Saturday wasn’t unlawful. Before the Spirit was given, not speaking up when he prompted you to wasn’t a sin you could commit. With great privilege comes great responsibility and greater capacity to sin.

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  5. I found it so interesting that in these verses, the need for the Law didn’t come down to the actual rules of the law itself, but rather what it provided. Not that the Laws were not important or not valid to know, because they are and that is clear in Romans 3:20- that it was given so we would have “knowledge of sin.” Moo supports this really well, “Paul concludes by reminding us of what the law does accomplish (Moo, 60). Without the Law we wouldn’t have the understanding of sin or how God created a solution for it through Christ. As it was stated above, it also “demonstrated the need for God’s grace and mercy.” Also reading through the questions at the end of the post, I feel like that the church might not intend to make practices more important than the belief in Jesus, but they just don’t make that clear enough. I think that some churches know that it isn’t more important, but it might not be expressed well enough to understand that we do that as a reminder rather than a requirement for salvation.

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  6. Professor Long, to answer your question directly – yes, I believe that the church often does put a set of rituals or traditions in front of actual belief in Jesus Christ. I see this first-hand at the handful of churches that I’ve visited around West Michigan. I’ve attended church services where half of the service is asking for donating money to the church (eerily prosperity gospel-essque). I have attended a service where the congregation was asked to all speak in tongues and bark like dogs (I was in the deep, deep south and was curious about a local “church” that had been getting some interesting reviews) This was actually before I had officially became a Christian. I’m glad that experience didn’t completely turn me off to Christianity. Along with these examples, there are likely countless more that show how small the church has made Jesus, and how big they have made adhering to weird conditioned rituals.
    Unfortunately there is definitely a real danger in emphasizing any one thing over the love of Jesus. Jesus is the only way to the father, the only way to inherit eternal salvation. So when a church or a christian coalition starts to emphasize a ritual or tradition over the basic acts of repentance for sins and asking of salvation, then the amount of people who actually become saved starts to decline. The number one goal of any Christian church should be to present the gospel in a way that is clear enough for the on-the-fence believer to grasp, and for the already rooted believer to continue evolve into a more Christ-like way of living.

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  7. “He might mean that any mixture between the works that the law calls for and faith would evacuate the word “faith” of its basic meaning. No longer would it be a humble reception of God’s gracious gift; it would involve the sinner in a relationship in which God is under obligation (Moo pg. 77-78).” God’s gift of salvation and forgiveness can not be achieved through human means. Because if it were possible for humans to earn their own salvation, that God would not have had to send his son, in our place for forgiveness of sins. Just as Paul said “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation (Romans 4:4).” The Law was meant to serve as something to evaluate one’s one life. A tool to be used to help him purge the sins out of his life. It was never meant to be a tool that is used to gain salvation from God. Because had that been the intended purpose of the law, then God would not be able to hand out the gift of salvation freely. Instead it would have been given to all who were able to follow every command of the law. Which from Scripture we know that even the Pharisee’s weren’t able to follow. But, rather by salvation obtainable through faith, we are to praise God for the gift he has given to us. How much more meaningful is it, that the God of the universe; creator of all freely chooses to forgive us of our sins? Just by believing that he sent his son to die on a cross so that we may be restored to the Father. If we were able to achieve salvation on our own. Then we wouldn’t be able to boast in God, who has freely forgiven those who in their faith are saved

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