For if those who live by the Law are heirs, faith is useless and the promise is worthless,
1. The righteousness of faith without circumcision. In Gem 15. we have the record of Abraham's justification; the institution of circumcision is narrated in Genesis 17., fourteen years after. Abraham, therefore, was justified "in his Gentile-hood" (see Godet). Therefore, he is the father of Gentile believers; and in so far as he is the father of Jewish believers, it is because they are believers, not because they are Jews.
2. Circumcision a seal of the righteousness of faith. God strengthens man's faith by visible signs and seals of the faith and of its results. So to Abraham circumcision was an abiding pledge that God accepted his faith for righteousness. And likewise the existence of a separated nation was a testimony to the world. But it was the faith alone that was effectual; circumcision did but attest.
II. HERITAGE. The whole world is promised to the heirs of Abraham as a heritage; this of itself might suffice to show that the heirs are not merely descendants according to the flesh. But the condition of such inheritance shall show the meaning.
1. If the heritage were through Law, then faith and the promise fail.
(1) "Faith is made void;" for it cannot grasp an impossibility, nor can it rightly lay hold of that which must be worked for.
(2) "And the promise is made of none effect;" for an unfulfilled Law works God's wrath towards man, which is in utter contrariety to the fulfilment of a promise of love.
2. Therefore the heritage is of faith, that it may be according to grace, etc.
(1) Faith the sole condition of promise, that while God's grace gives freely, man may freely receive.
(2) Faith the sole characteristic of the heirs of the promise, that so the seed may be, not merely that which is of the Law (even combined with faith), but that which is of faith (apart from Law), comprising beth Jews and Gentiles who are the spiritual children of the great believer.
III. POSTERITY. But it might be objected that an Israel according to the flesh was necessary, in order that the spiritual Israel might be at last accomplished. Truly. But, to cut away the last ground of boasting, even the Israel according to the flesh was the gift of God through faith.
1. The obstacles to such faith. "His own body," etc. And this all full in view: "he considered."
2. The warrant of faith. While viewing the obstacles, he staggered not.
(1) God's promise "A father of many nations." "So shall thy seed be.
(2) God's power. "Able to perform;" "quickeneth the dead," etc. "Wherefore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness." As before, it was virtually the faith of his spiritual salvation; yes, the very faith which laid hold of the promise of posterity - a posterity that they deemed according to the flesh. Let us learn that by faith we may be righteous, by faith we may possess the earth, By faith we may impress for good the generations following. What an heirship is possible through the faith of one believer! - T.F.L.
For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not...through the law.I. THE PROMISE, "that he should be heir of the world," was made not entirely to Abraham, but to his seed also (ver. 16). This promise included —
1. Both the earthly and the heavenly Canaan, for —(1) Abraham and the other believing patriarchs so understood it (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16). But no promise of it is to be found unless it was couched under that of the earthly Canaan as a type. The whole of the gospel revelation was then, and for many ages afterwards, under the veil of figurative language, and of typical rites, objects, and events. But that the promise was given was manifest from the passages from Hebrews just quoted, and also from Hebrews 6:12.(2) Believers in all ages are called heirs according to the promise of inheritance given to Abraham (Galatians 3:18, 10; Hebrews 6:17-20).
2. But the word "world" means the whole inhabited earth that was to be the possession of Abraham's seed; and the possession of Canaan was but a small prelude to it. There is an obvious difference between a right and actual possession. The whole earth may be, by the gift or promise of God, the property of this seed, although they may not be for a good while invested with the actual possession of it. The view of "the promise," therefore, must be understood of the seed, collectively considered. Were we speaking of the wars in any former period of British history, we should say, without hesitation, "We were successful in such a battle." So we may, with perfect propriety, say that the promise spoken of is to us because it shall be verified to the seed of which we are a part. The following scriptures countenance this view of the promise (Psalm 2:8; Psalm 72:8; Daniel 7:27; Isaiah 54:3). When "the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea," and thus the declaration be fulfilled, "in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed"; then the promise, that Abraham should be "the heir of the world," shall be fully verified, the whole earth becoming the possession of his seed — the people of God.
II. In considering the extent of the promise, I have necessarily led you to anticipate my view of THE SEED HERE SPOKEN OF. Of this we have a plain infallible interpretation (Galatians 3:16). That the name "Christ" is sometimes used as inclusive of His people, the Head being intended to express the whole body connected with it is evident from 1 Corinthians 12:12. It is so used in Galatians. For while Christ is here said to be the Seed, to whom the promises were made, it is said that believers are "Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise." And the reason of their being so called is their being "all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28, 29). The passage before us likewise makes the same thing evident. The seed, in this verse, is that of which Abraham is the father, in the spiritual sense, even the seed spoken of in vers. 11, 12 consisting of "all them that believe." These passages show, then, that the promises contained in the Abrahamic covenant —
1. Were both made to the same seed: "To Abraham and his seed were the promises made." There is no hint of the distinction that the temporal promise was made to the fleshly seed as such, and the spiritual promise to the spiritual seed as such. But the promises of that covenant, without difference, are declared to have been made, "not to seeds as to many, but as of one, 'and to thy Seed' which is Christ."
2. And if this be a just view of the matter, it follows that these promises were made on the same footing. None of them were given on the ground of law or personal obedience, but all by grace (Galatians 3:16). Which leads us to consider —
III. THE GROUND ON WHICH THE PROMISE RESTS. The inheritance must certainly mean, in the first instance, the earthly inheritance; that which is literally specified in the promise. And it must have continued to be held not by law, but on the footing of the original grant made to Abraham and to the one seed here mentioned. The heavenly inheritance is admitted to be entirely a matter of free promise, and never can become, as to us, a matter or right on the ground of personal obedience or of law. Now, if it was otherwise with the earthly inheritance, the type fails in one of the most important and striking points of resemblance. But we are not left to inference. Recorded facts appear in perfect harmony with the apostle's statement.
1. What was the reason why the Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness till the rebellious generation was consumed? It was unbelief (Hebrews 3:18, 19; Hebrews 4:2) which amounted to a rejection of the Word of God and a rejection of God Himself, as the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
2. The Israelites are, indeed, spoken of as continuing to hold the land of Canaan in possession through obedience; but by this obedience we must understand "the obedience" of faith, that is, obedience springing from and evincing faith, for, "if the inheritance be of the law it is no more of promise"; and "if they who are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect." These expressions stand in perfect opposition to the idea of the land of Canaan being ever held as the reward of legal obedience. Many passages, accordingly, describe the obedience required of Israel as being inward and spiritual subjection, manifested by outward (Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Deuteronomy 6:1-19). And such subjection is the fruit and evidence of faith.
3. The reason why the Jews were, with such awful judgments, at length cast out from the Land of Promise, and now continue "a proverb, and a bye-word, and a hissing among all nations," corresponds with these ideas. It was unbelief — rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 11:20, etc.; Luke 19:41-44; Matthew 23:34-39; 1 Thessalonians 2:15, 16; Acts 3:23, etc.). The curses which Moses so many hundred years before had denounced against them, if they should prove disobedient, were verified on account of their unbelief. Thus it appears that the promise was originally "through faith" — that it was as professors of Abraham's faith that the Israelites entered on the possession of Canaan — that the possession was continued through "the obedience of faith" — and that, on account of the opposite disobedience, judgments were threatened and inflicted. By faith the inheritance was obtained; by faith it was held; and by unbelief it was lost.
(R. Wardlaw, D. D.)I. THE POSITION WHICH ABRAHAM ATTAINED.
1. He was made by God "the heir of the world." We must look upon the patriarch —(1) As the natural head of the nation.(2) As the federal head of a peculiar people, for all believers are styled the children of Abraham. "They which are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham." "If ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."
2. It is necessary to keep these distinct, otherwise we shall confound the blessings peculiar to Israel with blessings peculiar to Christians.(1) There are certain "blessings" of a substantial nature, every one of which became secured by charter to the house of Israel. Do we not find Scripture portraying the beauty, the glory, and the fertility of that land which God was to give to His people? Do we not find promises of temporal protection — all of which are bestowed upon the natural children of Abraham?(2) Now ask whether this presents to us the blessings peculiar to the spiritual people? Where have we in the Word of God assurances that prosperity and worldly distinction are to belong to them? That they may belong to their condition is possible, but that they are not a necessary part of their present condition is very certain. A man may be a Lazarus in rags, lying at the rich man's gate, and he may be a child of God. But the blessings that God has prepared for the spiritual progeny of Abraham are those that, like so many stars in the firmament, are found to be studded in the rich constellations of this Epistle.
3. Both these sets of blessings were dependent upon Jesus; for Abraham was not the heir of the world absolutely; he was the figurative heir, the representative and the type of a greater One, whom God appointed Head of all things. The truth is this, that the world in its bankruptcy is to be reinstated by Christ and Christ alone. He is not only the world's grand Trustee, He is the world's mighty Heir. Everything has come into His hands; all power is given unto Him in heaven and in earth; and, therefore, as we have seen these double blessings, so we say that there is a double touchstone with regard to them.(1) Christ was the Touchstone to Israel. Its fortunes hung trembling in the balance when the Lord Jesus Christ came, and who can question that if Israel had received the long-expected One with open arms Israel would have been the chief among the nations still? But it was a stumbling stone, and they stumbled at it and missed the pathway to happiness, to glory, and to continued national blessedness, simply by the rejection of Christ. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem...how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not;...your house is left unto you desolate."(2) The same touchstone tells upon a believer still. Everything turns upon this: will you or will you not have Christ?
II. HOW IT WAS HE BECAME POSSESSED OF IT.
1. It was impossible for him to attain it by law, for between Abraham and the giving of the law there was a long lapse of four hundred and thirty years. If the agency was not in existence the position could not be attributable to it. And even if the law had been in existence, Abraham by the law even then could not have become possessed of the position, because the condition of the law is faultless obedience, and Abraham was not faultless. Abraham could not have claimed his position by virtue of a law which he never could keep.
2. But there is another process by which men look for spiritual advantage, viz., through ordinances. You shall find men at the present day who will tell you that baptism is an ordinance of justification. Now circumcision is the correlative of baptism, and yet we find the apostle here laying particular stress on this, that Abraham's position was not dependent on his circumcision because the circumcision came subsequent to his gaining the position.
3. And then when we pass from the negative to the positive and ask ourselves how it was that he obtained it, the answer is, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." It is this that makes the simplicity of salvation! Whether in times patriarchal, Jewish, or Christian man has no other resort; and an appeal to the mercy of God through Christ Jesus is after all but putting into exercise that process whereby" being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
I. THE PROMISED INHERITANCE — "THE WORLD."
1. But in turning to the original covenant (Genesis 17), we find that only "the land of Canaan" was promised (Genesis 15:18). Along with that, however, are the assurances of Genesis 12:8; Genesis 22:15-18. On these rest all the predictions of the kingdom of the Messiah, even as these have their backward reference to Genesis 3:15. Which also had its implicit reference to the original place of dominion over all the earth from which man by transgression fell. Of the restoration of that dominion Psalm 8 is a triumphant anticipation; while on the promise made to Abraham (Genesis 22:17, 18) is founded the assurance, given to the King of Zion, that Jehovah would give to Him "the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession" (Psalm 2:8). On this also was made the similar announcements of (Psalm 72:8; Zechariah 9:10). And it is precisely upon this ground that St. Paul here assumes that the promise made to Abraham and his seed was a promise that they should inherit the world, of which Palestine was but a predictive type. The promise, therefore, clearly implied that so surely as the literal seed of Abraham were put in possession of the land of Canaan, so surely will the Christ Himself and His believing people, who are truly the Israel of God, be put into possession of the whole earth. For our Jesus, the seed of Abraham, shall "not fail nor be discouraged till He have set judgment in the earth," etc. (Isaiah 42:1-4). He is the Heir of the world, and He shall yet have His inheritance.
2. But even this does not fill up or complete the promise. For that was the promise of eternal inheritance (Genesis 17:7, 8). Such possession is not possible in this probationary state. To Abraham himself there was given "none inheritance," though God had "promised" it (Acts 7:5). He, and Isaac, and Jacob, who were "the heirs with him of the same promise," died without possession. Yet they lived and died in the confidence that the promise should be made good. And why? Because they looked for something better and more enduring, of which these earthly things were but the temporary types (Hebrews 11:10, 16). It was in recognition of this hope that the sublime predictions of Isaiah, concerning Messiah's kingdom, stretched out far away into the future, till they laid the foundations of and brought forth to perfection "the new heavens and the new earth" (Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 66:22; Daniel 7:22; Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 11:39, 40). In and with Christ, the Seed of Abraham and the Son of God, "whom He hath appointed heir of all things," we shall "inherit all things" (Revelation 21).
II. THE HEIRS OF THIS INHERITANCE — Abraham and his seed. We must notice —
1. Those who are not heirs, or are not included in this seed to which the promise was made. Abraham himself was not an heir nor the father of heirs, merely as a man, but only as a believing man. The promise was not made either to him or to his descendants through the law, which had no existence till some "four hundred and thirty years after," and even if it had the promise must have been made of no effect; for the law, being transgressed, works only wrath. It was not conditional upon circumcision; for the promise was made before circumcision had been enjoined. It was not conditional upon natural descent; for then Ishmael and the sons of Keturah, and Esau with their descendents, must all have been included in the seed of promise — which they most certainly were not. Therefore the right of heirship did not pertain to the Jew as a Jew. It was needful that the nation, as a nation, should be maintained in possession of the land till the Christ should come, who was the true Seed of Abraham, and the appointed Heir of all things. But the promise apart from this would have received a true fulfilment, though the whole multitude of the seed had been gathered from amongst Gentile nations. For —
2. The true heirs are the men who are made partakers of "precious faith," like that of Abraham. That promise was given to him and confirmed by an oath, as he was a believing and justified man. Had he fallen away the whole covenant must have been annulled so far as he was concerned, and his right to the inheritance cancelled. And the seed which was to share the promise and the inheritance with him was to be, not a natural, but a spiritual seed. If an Israelite attained to the righteousness of faith, then he became part of the seed of Abraham and an heir according to the promise. But the same thing might be truly affirmed of any and every Gentile who also became a believer. For "before God" Abraham is the father of all believers from amongst all nations, as it is written, "I have made thee a father of many nations." And, therefore, to whatever nation, tribe, or people they may pertain, those who have become one with Christ by faith have given to them this assurance (Galatians 3:29).
But through the righteousness of faith.1. There are two great streams of tendency at work on the ordering of human destinies. There is the current of things which makes for righteousness through the great universe, which is ultimately irresistible; and there lies in the mystery of human freedom the source of an effort and tendency which is ever striving against it, which brings men and human affairs into ceaseless collision with it, and which thereby fills the world with anguish and wreck. A new element is added to the anguish by the conflict which rages within man himself. The righteousness which reigns around has an awful witness within which cannot be silenced; and the inward protest is reinforced with terrible emphasis by all the misery with which unrighteousness never fails to chastise a people or a soul. Rest there cannot be while unrighteousness is regnant. The cry for righteousness is the strongest and most agonising cry of a man's awakened spirit. Till he has set himself with the stream, till he is borne up and on by the current, he cannot see even the beginning of peace.
2. There are mainly two methods in which the restoration seems feasible. There is the legal method which proceeds upon a strenuous effort of intellect and will to obey the commandment. "There stands the law against whose rigid breastwork you are constantly dashing; study, it, mark well its lines, keep within its borders, and live." This method is now in full vogue in our agnostic schools. Sin is mainly ignorance; throw fresh light on things, educate, and save. By all means, is the response of the gospel; still "one thing thou lackest" if thou wouldst be saved — faith, the principle of a living righteousness which satisfies God and satisfies the soul. The deepest principle of the Old Testament culture and discipline for man's spirit is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God," etc. Loving Him we shall love His righteousness. And that the love might be profound and mastering, God lived amongst us. Was light needed, His life flooded the world with it; was love needed, the love that endured the cross-bound man by its cords to the Sufferer's heart of hearts. Was sacrifice needed, He made His soul an offering for sin, and reconciled the Father and the sinner on the basis of the perfect Sacrifice, which presented the righteousness from which man had revolted and to which man must be restored, invested in the glorious beauty and splendour of ineffable and infinite love. To believe is to open the heart to this world of purifying, uplifting, saving influence. To believe is to establish a vital link by which warm currents of quickening energy pass between the living soul and the living Saviour; so that He lives in us by His Spirit, and we live in Him. The germ of His perfect righteousness by faith is within us; the full form of it will be developed as we grow into His likeness, behold His glory, and enter fully into the possession of His bliss.
(J. Baldwin Brown, B. A.)
For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void.
(C. Neil, M. A.)
Because the law worketh wrath.I. IT PREPARES THE WAY.
1. It exposes sin.
2. Convinces of sin.
3. Disposes the sinner to receive mercy.
II. IT CANNOT SAVE.
1. It gives no promise of mercy, and no power to obey.
2. But the more clearly it is revealed, the more powerfully it impels the sinner to Christ.
(J. Lyth, D. D.)
I. IN THE OBEDIENCE IT DEMANDS. If it were a mere outward system, and referred wholly to open transgressions, it would rather encourage men to endeavour to meet its claims, that they might hope for the life which they would thus deserve. But "the law is spiritual." Such is the exceeding breadth of its requisitions, the perfect obedience which it claims, the heart-reaching power of its demands, that it charges man with guilt not only in his transgressions, but in his obedience.
1. If he loves God the law asks, "Does love rise to the full measure of the precept? Is it with all the heart," etc. If not, there is sin even in this best attainment, and so condemnation.
2. So in regard to all efforts to fulfil the commands of God. The law cannot receive the disposition in place of the act, or the desire instead of the duty. It allows no deficiency. It presents as its standard perfection of character, and denounces death as the only alternative. To this man can never attain, and so stands condemned. In thus shutting us out, however, from all hope in itself, it shuts us up to the Saviour.
II. IN THE SENTENCE WHICH IT PASSES. In this, too, it urges man to flee from all attempts to obtain life by any personal satisfaction for his offences. The penalty of disobedience is death. But death is a state from which there is no return, but by the direct interposition of Divine power. Certainly God has provided a remedy but this is not in the law, or in man's obedience. It is in the perfect work and righteousness of Christ. In this man lives forever; but in works of his own the curse abides, and the law offers no mitigation or redress. Thus it worketh wrath and wrath forever.
(S. H. Tyng, D. D.)
(C. Simeon, M. A.)
For where no law is, there is no transgression.
I. THE GENERAL TRUTH OF THE ASSERTION. Where there is no law, there is —
1. No prescribed mode of action.(1) In the physical world. Suppose that no path had ever been marked out, let us say, for a planet, but that it had always travelled hither and thither in any direction. In such a case it could not transgress its law. To transgress is to pass over the boundaries, but with no boundaries determined that could not be. So it was when "the earth was without form and void"; before as yet out of chaos God had called the cosmos, with its light, its order, and its law.(2) In the social world. In certain low states of barbarism there is no such thing as government. No course of conduct is either prescribed or forbidden, but all actions are indifferent, so that whatever a man may do he does not transgress.(3) In the moral and spiritual world. There are in man moral distinctions, he knows what is good and what is evil. Because of this, those who have not the written law of God are, as the apostle teaches, a law unto themselves, for they have a conscience which approves or condemns. But suppose it otherwise; suppose man really did not know right from wrong; in such a case there would be neither law nor transgression.
2. No knowledge of sin. The law does not make man a transgressor, but it makes him know that he has transgressed. As Paul teaches: "I had not known sin but by the law"; "Without the law sin is dead"; "Sin is not imputed when there is no law." It prescribes righteousness, and in so doing proscribes sin. It is when the commandment comes sin revives, and is made to appear exceeding sinful. But as long as we are incapable of knowing, we are incapable of sinning. "We sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth."
3. No supreme authority to judge, to acquit or condemn. Transgression is disobedience, and this could not be except by reference to one who has authority to exact obedience.
II. THE ASSERTION IN THE LIGHT OF CHRISTIANITY. So far we have referred to law generally, but we are under the highest and best law ever laid down for the guidance of human conduct — the law of Christ's love. This law is —
1. Clearly stated. In earthly kingdoms it is often a very difficult thing to know what the law in a given case is; but we know the will of Christ, for we have His new commandment.
2. Widely known. Not yet universally, but wherever the gospel of Christ is preached.
3. Easily obeyed. It is not enough that a law be clearly stated and widely known. The behests of a tyrant might be that. But Christ said, "My yoke is easy." "His commandments are not grievous." The Psalmist said, "O how love I Thy law." "I love Thy commandments above gold, yea, above fine gold." And the law of Christ is better, holier, and more easily obeyed than that which the Psalmist thus esteemed.
4. Of beneficial tendency. In many earthly kingdoms there have been laws adverse to the prosperity of the subjects. But Christ's reign is both in righteousness, and for the highest benefit of His followers. They have liberty, life, peace, hope, etc. "Blessed are they that do His commandments." "In keeping of them there is great reward."
III. HOW THIS OUGHT TO AFFECT OUR LIFE AND CONDUCT. The character of a people may be known by their laws. What manner of persons thus ought they to be who have become Christ's subjects? This great truth should lead to —
1. Earnest solicitude.
2. Cheerful obedience.
3. Activity for the extension of Christ's rule.
(J. A. T. Skinner, B. A.)
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