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.
According 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?