Tonight at the Roman’s study there was a question regarding Romans 4:15—why is it there?
The questioner was confused about the nature of violation of Law since this entire chapter doesn’t seem to be dealing with Law at all. After all, asked the student, isn’t the nature of Law to (1) prescribe and punish; and hasn’t Paul already established the (2) equality of Jew and Gentile to enter in by faith: why go back and deal with condemnation that comes about from Law breaking?
Personally I think that the student was making a categorical mistake, that hasn’t been helped by the study defining Law only as prescription and punishment. The Law did not only prescribe and punish, but according to the Sinai Covenant (and the nature of God’s hope for Israel in Isaiah 5), the Law was to work as a hedge around the Covenantal community in the effort to make them Fruit Generators before the world. The Law codified the nation of king-priests under God (Exo 19:5-8).
In other words, the purpose of the Law was not only to prescribe—it was to define the Covenantal Community but perceived as defining The People of God.
The problem here is that Paul has already argued that Jews and Gentiles enter into the group People of God on the grounds of faith since they all stand condemned. That leaves the reader with a gaping hole: if the People of God Community is defined by the Law how is it that non-Jews can enter in without Law? The question is no longer that regarding the personal fault that results in equal condemnation of Jew and Gentile (so they all stand on the same ground of God’s wrath); the question is now actually how is it even allowable to have Jews enter in by faith and without all the other covenantal stipulations that would define them also as King-Priests.
Paul’s use of Abraham is on the basis of the already set precedent found in Case-Law. The Case Law does not only show that faith is the entrance into the Community (contra 2); it shows that this was made possible before the community markers were even established. It is extremely important that the point this occurred in Abraham’s life was when he was (according to Circumcision) a Gentile. It was after this that he worked, yes, but also that he took on the distinction that made him a Hebrew. Before that he already had the distinction of being the Father of many nations—later the Hebrews, but at that point all the Gentiles. This establishes that it was no future mistake that Gentiles would enter into the group labeled the People Of God.
Therefore, Paul is not referring to Law as the principle of precept and punishment (contra 1) but as the non-violated covenantal definer which came later. The People of God was always going to include Jew and Gentile; the Gentiles were not a surprise and now sudden violation of God’s Law since that came later at Sinai. In this way, Abraham, usually claimed only as the Father of Israel, is properly established as the Father of Many Nations (Rom 4:14). This even makes sense of Abraham becoming an heir of the world (Rom 4:13) while now bringing no wrath on account of Gentiles becoming part of it all.
Personally, I think this makes more sense than Paul taking a very strange tangent to raise a polemic against works or reargue the nature of merited wrath, already properly addressed in Romans 3.