AMP - 14 If it is the adherents of the Law who are to be the heirs, then faith is made futile and empty of all meaning and the promise [of God] is made void (is annulled and has no power).
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In this passage, Paul is contrasting the terms of the Old Covenant of works that God had made with the people of Israel through the giving of the Mosaic Law, and the New Covenant of grace (undeserved mercy and favor) that God has now instituted through faith in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. The promise of God made under the terms of the Old Covenant was that if a person perfectly kept the requirements of the Mosaic Law (as recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)(and also as summarized by Jesus (in Matthew 22:37-39 and Mark 12:29-31) in the two commandments, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength." and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."), that person would be allowed by God to live eternally in God's presence following physical death. This agreement was initially made specifically between God and the people of Israel. However, Israel subsequently demonstrated an inability on the part of any person to perfectly fulfill the requirements of the Law, as recorded in the rest of the Old Testament, and as summarized by the prophet Isaiah when he stated, "All our righteous acts are like filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:6) As a result of this failure, and to provide a continued hope for eternal life, God incarnated Himself in the person of Jesus, who was both fully God, and also fully human. As God, Jesus succeeded in living the sinless life of perfect obedience to the Law of which no human had proved capable. Then, although He had kept the Law perfectly, He willingly allowed Himself to be undeservedly punished and executed by crucifixion to pay the penalty for disobedience to the Law (temporal death and eternal separation from God) that God demanded. And, because Jesus was God, He could make this sacrifice not just on behalf of the people of Israel, but for all humanity. And God subsequently demonstrated that Jesus' perfect obedience and sacrificial death had been sufficient payment for humanity's sins by resurrecting Jesus from the dead. God had thus made eternal life no longer contingent upon a person's perfect obedience to a code of laws, but instead (since Jesus had kept the Law perfectly on behalf of all humanity) offered salvation by relying on faith in Jesus' obedience, atoning death, and resurrection as satisfying God's justice in full for each person's sin. As Paul says in Romans 4:14, if a person were then still to regard God's promise of eternal life as being made on the basis of a person's obedience to the Law rather than through faith, Jesus would have lived, died, and been resurrected for no purpose. And if that person were to continue trying to make himself acceptable to God through his own obedience and works, then faith in Jesus' sacrifice would (as Paul said) be "futile" and "empty of all meaning"; God's promise of salvation through faith in Jesus (rather than by works) would be "void" (nullified); and that person would still be condemned to eternal separation from God.
In my experience as a Messianic Jew (one who believes in Yeshua (Jesus) yet follows the Torah (Law) of Moses, I have found that many of the standard Christian answers to Paul’s teachings unfortunately characterize the 1st century Judaisms as legalists seeking to earn their way into heaven by keeping the commandments. This overly simplistic caricature is historically inaccurate; the Judaisms of Paul’s day did NOT believe mere commandment keeping saved them. Therefore, Paul would not have needed to write to anyone (Jews especially, but also including Gentiles) to stop striving to keep the Law for salvation purposes. Allow me to present what I believe is an answer that is closer to the socio-religious challenges that Apostle Paul faced as he was moving in and among Gentile Christians seeking legitimacy in an otherwise “Jewish-members only” social club. Paul uses the word Law in this verse but he may in fact be referring, not to the concept of Law proper in and of itself, but instead to a flawed theological policy long held in religious Isra'el, a policy that he once held to himself, a policy he now teaches against in many of his letters. Paul calls this policy “works of the Law” six times in his letters to Romans and Galatians combined (Rom. 3:20; Rom 3:28; Gal. 2:16; Gal 3:2; Gal. 3:5; Gal. 3:10). Sometimes he also uses the shorthand term “circumcision,” and other times he only uses the single word “Law.” I believe he is using “Law” in this particular technical sense in this verse. This flawed policy is that “all Jewish Isra'el and only Jewish Isra'el has a place in the World to Come (a.k.a., heaven) based on their ethnic status as Jews; if a Gentile wanted to get into the group, they had to undergo proselyte conversion and become a legally-recognized Jew. Based on this flawed theological policy, I would translate the verse using my own paraphrase thusly: “For if it is the adherents of the [Jewish-only membership policy] who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.” Unlocking Paul’s many uses of the word Law (Greek=nomos) will go a long way in developing one of the core hermeneutic keys to historically understanding Paul’s letters. Paul teaches in this passage (and this verse) that “…it is not the “adherents of the Law who are to be heirs…” On the one hand, mere mechanical Law-keeping will NEVER save anyone, nor will sincere Law-keeping for that matter. The Torah was not given of God to provide salvation of the soul. So on the theological level, it is true that keeping the Law does NOT save us. In fact, keeping the Torah has never saved anyone. But this is not Paul’s argument. Paul is arguing against Jewish-only membership into Isra'el—viz, only Jews can be saved. You see, in their segregated way of thinking, all of covenant Isra'el was comprised of Jewish people only, viz, every one in Isra'el was a Jew. If a non-Jew wanted to attain corporate salvation (both now and after they died), that person needed to legally convert to become a Jew first and thus join “Jewish Israel.” Once they were legally recognized as Jewish, their place in the physical covenant was ostensibly maintained by keeping the Torah. If we study the NT as an historical document alongside the other extant writings that have survived from the 1st Century Judaisms (the rabbinic commentaries, Talmud, etc.), as well as corroborate the theology of the OT in proper context, then we begin to get a more accurate picture of the pattern of theology of the 1st Century Jewish people and what we discover is that the Jewish concept of individual/group salvation cannot be easily caricatured by simplistic “merit theology” the way historic Christianity has traditionally characterized Jewish devotion to Torah.
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