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Precisely what does Romans 4:15b (bolded below) mean, and how does it relate to its immediate context?

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. 16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all

(Romans 4:13-16 NASB)

There's an article (translated "but" in the NASB) which seems to set two points about the law against each other: the law brings wrath; the absence of law means no violations of that law.

I also notice that there is a string of "for"s running through this section, and that each "for" clause builds on the prior content, supporting the immediately neighboring clauses.

Taking these observations together, it seems that the bit "the law brings about wrath" is the primary thrust of 4:15's "for" clause. And it makes some sense to me how the wrath-bringing nature of the law supports the idea that righteousness through faith is mutually exclusive with law keeping: the law brings condemnation not righteousness. So in order to have a righteousness of any kind we ought to be looking anywhere but in the law.

But then for some reason I'm totally thrown off by 4:15b. Perhaps these things contribute to my confusion:

  • There is law everywhere for both Jews and Gentiles. Romans 2:14 "Gentiles are a law to themselves". And of course Jews were under the law. So where can there be no law?
  • I understand how righteousness implies no violations, but does the absence of violations imply righteousness? It just seems like if there are no rules whatsoever then the best anyone can be is neutral—their bank account hasn't gone into the red but is still zero. Yet "righteous" is a step above neutral—a credited bank account.

I guess I'm asking this long-winded question because I can tell there's something behind the following verse that I'm missing. Why does 4:15 mean that faith is the necessary channel of righteousness?

  • It is the righteousness of God that is revealed in the true Gospel, Romans 1:17. 'Bank accounts' 'red and zero' 'step above neutral' is all about human works. – Nigel J Jan 13 at 4:57
  • @NigelJ You make a fascinating point. God's righteousness does have a direct bearing on human righteousness and human works. Namely, God's righteousness results in his wrath against human works done in unrighteousness (1:18-32), resulting in "all being under sin" (3:9) which can be thought of as a legal debt/negative bank account. But at the same time, 1:17 and 3:21-26 are at pains to emphasize God's righteousness. I'd like to study that more – Matt Thomas Jan 14 at 21:26
  • I don't believe there is any such thing as 'human righteousness'. God is righteous; humanity believeth. – Nigel J Jan 15 at 3:51
  • @NigelJ I agree in a sense. When I say it has a bearing on "human righteousness" I mean "the scale/axis/dimension/measurement of human works". One consequence of God's righteousness is that all are under condemnation--so in a sense human righteousness does measurably exist but it's "negative"/unrighteousness. And it exists in another sense, too: humans can have a "positive" righteousness in and from Christ--that's the "justification", or God's declaration of righteousness, of Romans 5:1. I hope I'm not being too pedantic. It sounds like we're talking about the same things :) – Matt Thomas Jan 15 at 14:10
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    I prefer not to, but thank you. Rather see my profile and my website and my email address. All is available. Regards. – Nigel J Jan 15 at 21:04
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There is nothing wrong with God's Law (or the Law of Moses, or the Law which was revealed to Moses and given to Israel), per se. In fact, Paul said,

Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good (Romans 7:12).

If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good (Romans 7:16).

The Law as a means of attaining righteousness before God, however, is totally inadequate. One transgression of the Law invites God's judgment. On the other hand, one instance of believing faith invites God's approval, His forgiveness, and His promise of eternal life. In other words, God's grace trumps law keeping every time, without exception.

Jesus said as much himself. All of God's image bearers, without exception, are sinners and are under God's condemnation, whether they have broken God's Law one time or a million times (James 2:10). The greatest sin, however, is not the breaking any particular law of the 513 laws which are contained in the Law of Moses. The greatest sin, according to Jesus, is the failure to believe in him.

He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God (John 3:18-21 KJV, my emphasis).

There are two ways through which God's image bearers can seek to become righteous before a holy God. The first way is by keeping the law, and the second is by believing in Jesus. Put another way, the first is works, and the second is faith. The former can never work, whereas the latter can never fail. Take the Law out of the equation of receiving God's righteousness and you are left with God's grace: the unmerited, undeserved favor he extends only to those who believe.

In conclusion, what Paul means when he says,

. . . but where there is no law, there also is no violation,

is simply this: Within the grace "system" there is no room for Law and there is therefore nothing to violate. In the classic American movies of the Western genre, the righteous sheriff would say to the unrighteous lawbreaker,

This town ain't big enough for the both of us.

In other words, one of them has to go, and it ain't gonna be the sheriff!

In like manner, in the duel between righteousness by law keeping on the one side, and righteousness by simply believing in Jesus on the other, only one will emerge the winner, and it ain't law keeping!

  • Am I understanding correctly that you're saying the "where" in "where there is no law" refers to the grace "system", and "there is no law" in said system? Could you provide some more verses to back this up? Romans 3:27 comes to mind which speaks of a law of faith; that kind of sounds like a law existing in the grace system. Thank you – Matt Thomas Jan 15 at 14:21
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The word translated by the NASB as "violation" is "παράβασις" which is not a synonym for "sin" (or at least not in most contexts). A "violation" only happens if there is a prevailing law.

Consider the case of smoking a cigarette in a restaurant. To my knowledge there is no explicit prohibition of that in the Torah so one might argue that it isn't a sin or not but it isn't a violation/transgression of the Torah. So it doesn't count. A sin may or may not have been committed but it was not a violation of Torah. However, in the USA there ARE laws against smoking in a restaurant so one who smokes in a restaurant is accountable.

Paul goes so far as to say that, for typological reasons that emphasize the prevalence of God's grace, the law was given to turn sins into transgressions:

KJV Romans 5:13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law.

KJV Romans 5:20 Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more,

[Gal 3:19 NIV] 19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator.

In the context of the verses I cite from Romans 5 Paul goes into great detail about this point.

By the way, I'm kind of liking the NASB rendering of "violation" more than "transgression" because to me it sounds like more modern, common English. "Crime" might be another way to go. There are many sins against which there is no law and one can be a violator of a law and yet not be sinning. People smoked in restaurants a long time before it became a crime.


I believe you also raised the question whether the absence of transgression makes one "righteous" or if one needs "positive credits". Many believe Jesus "fulfilled the law on our behalf" but as Charles Finney argues, that is as contemptible to the divine juris prudence as is the idea that one pay another's penalty:

[Eze 18:20-21 KJV] 20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. 21 But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

The idea of one person "fulfilling the law" for another, which is known as "supererogation" is not a scriptural idea. Nor is obeying for another.

What IS scriptural is that it is because of Jesus' obedience to God's command that he shed his blood to ratify the new covenant the Jews that the elect Jews were made righteous. The gentiles are saved by faith.

  • I'm beginning to prefer NASB for technical studies :) Thank you for the insights into violations in relation to the giving of the law. Where would you say "there is no law" like Romans 5:13b says? Also, can you expand on the last section? I see your argument against a particular relationship between the absence of transgression and righteousness, but there isn't much explaining for a particular relationship. Perhaps your last two sentences contain the core of what's missing? – Matt Thomas Jan 15 at 14:38
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    While the conscience is "a law" it is a law with no "teeth". IE: It has no sanctions, "the detriment, loss of reward, or coercive intervention annexed to a violation of a law as a means of enforcing the law". IE: people "sin" but they don't "transgress" under conscience. So while the gentiles have only one "violation", those under the law have many. Sins aren't "reckoned" ("counted"). But that one sin of Adam's was a violation so all mankind has transgressed once and are accountable for that. In that sense "there is no law" though they are "a law unto themselves". – Ruminator Jan 15 at 14:45
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    Thank you. (P.S. I meant Romans 4:15b, but I think you understood) – Matt Thomas Jan 15 at 14:47

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