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?