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The principle of faith illustrated: Abraham
We have noted that the recipients of Paul’s letter to the Romans were a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles. When Paul now speaks of Abraham as “our forefather,” he is including himself among the Jewish readers. In doing so he is picking up on a point critical to the discussion on righteousness, namely, Abraham’s salvation. Note first of all that Abraham’s salvation and life in heaven was a given. This was the assumption in popular opinion, and it is also substantiated by Scripture (for example, John chapter 8, verse 56 and Luke chapter 16, verse 22). He is in heaven. The question simply is, How did he get there?
The question is important because many Jews looked to Abraham as the classic example of a man who pleased God with works. After all, he left his homeland and followed God’s leadership to the Promised Land. He obeyed God and would have sacrificed his son Isaac if God had not stopped him. This “friend of God,” as he came to be called (2nd Chronicles chapter 20, verse 7), looked to them like a prime candidate for salvation on the basis of works and personal performance.
Romans Chapter 4, verses 1-5
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
Paul has just finished saying that in the matter of having righteousness that avails before God, everyone has to receive it by grace, as a gift. Therefore, boasting in one’s own accomplishments is excluded (chapter 3, verse 27). But what about Abraham?
Paul begins with the following: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about.” Paul states the case in a hypothetical manner: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, . . .” Paul is not conceding that Abraham was justified by works. That may have been the popular opinion; it may look that way to people’s view of Abraham’s life and conduct, but that’s not the important thing. What is the verdict where it really counts—in the eyes of God?
Paul says that before God, Abraham has nothing to boast about. How can he know that? Because God in his Word has said so. The Scriptures say, “Abraham believed God, and it [his faith] was credited to him as righteousness.” Note that Paul considers the Old Testament to be God’s inspired Word. He quotes Genesis chapter 15, verse 6 and treats it as though God himself were speaking. In his book of Genesis, God says that he “credited” Abraham’s faith as righteousness.
The apostle draws an example from the workplace to illustrate what God means when he says that he “credits” righteousness to someone. If a person agrees to work for an employer at a stipulated rate of pay, then the wages at the end of the day are something the worker has earned. “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.” It would be an insult if the employer were to say after the worker had finished the agreed-upon job, “Here, let me give you a gift.” The money is not a gift; it’s an obligation owed to the person who did the work. However, if a person doesn’t work and still gets something at the end of the day, that’s a gift being credited to that person.
Paul now transfers this workplace scenario to the spiritual realm: “However, to the man who does not work [for salvation] but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” If a person hasn’t done anything to earn righteousness for himself, and God gives it to him as a gift, that’s crediting righteousness to someone—and that’s the way God dealt with Abraham. That’s the term God uses in his inspired record: Abraham believed, and it was “credited” to him as righteousness. Conclusion: Abraham received salvation as a gift by faith, not as a reward by works.
The principle of faith illustrated: David
For the Jewish nation, who were the descendants of Abraham, Abraham was Exhibit A in demonstrating how God deals with his people. If Abraham was Exhibit A, then King David would be Exhibit B. His reign was in many ways the glory era of Israel’s history. King David’s testimony regarding God’s dealing with his people, therefore, would also be very important. Paul calls on him next to provide insight into the matter of how righteousness comes to sinful people.
To believing Abraham, God “credited” righteousness as a gift. Works were not a factor in his case. Paul now adds the testimony of King David:
Romans chapter 4, verses 6-8
David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
The quotation is from Psalm 32. A repentant King David is speaking as he recalls his own sorry past. Initially stubborn and unrepentant, David tried to minimize and ignore his sin, but that didn’t work. He now admits:
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer. (verses 3 and 4)
Brought to his knees, David resorted to the only thing that works: looking in faith to the God who justifies the ungodly. David had no good works to bring, only ungodliness to confess. And he does just that:
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD”—
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin. (verse 5)
God forgave the guilt of David’s sin. This free forgiveness through faith without the addition of any works or merit is precisely the same pattern that Abraham had experienced. And it forms the basis for David’s cry of joy and relief, which Paul quotes almost word for word:
Blessed is he
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the LORD does not count
against him. (verses 1 and 2)
Righteousness without circumcision
Abraham and David were both richly blessed when God credited their faith as righteousness. This pattern of salvation by grace through faith worked in their cases. Both of them, however, were Jewish. The question might therefore arise as to whether this righteousness is something that works only for the Jewish nation, or whether it is applicable also to others. Recall the mixed readership of this epistle, sent to both Jews and Gentiles at Rome. Hence particularly for the benefit of his non-Jewish readers, Paul asks this question:
Romans chapter 4, verses 9-12
Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Again Abraham’s example becomes a very important test case as to how God deals with people in the matter of crediting righteousness. The question is, “Under what circumstances was it [righteousness] credited?” Or, to make the question a bit more specific, “Was it after he was circumcised, or before?” And Paul immediately gives the answer: “It was not after, but before!”
A glance at the sequence of events as they are recorded in Genesis will verify the correctness of Paul’s answer. In the 12th chapter of Genesis, we are told of God’s call to Abraham at age 75, promising him a special land where he would grow to become a great nation in whom all the world would be blessed. From time to time, God repeated this promise to Abraham. One such reassurance to Abraham is recorded for
us in Genesis chapter 15. It is this particular repetition of the promise that the Scriptures allude to when they testify, “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (verse 6).
As you know, God took his time, humanly speaking, to fulfill for Sarah and Abraham the promise of a son, who also was so essential for Abraham’s becoming a great nation. When Abraham was 99 years old, God again repeated his promise to Abraham in an incident recorded in Genesis chapter 17. At this time God confirmed his covenant with the patriarch by instituting the rite of circumcision. It was a rite God commanded Abraham to observe himself and to administer to all the male members of his household. It should be noted, however, that observing circumcision did not bring righteousness to Abraham. We have God’s testimony that he had credited righteousness to the patriarch already, more than two decades earlier. Circumcision was simply the sign and seal of the righteousness that Abraham already had by faith previous to the rite, “while he was still uncircumcised,” as Paul puts it.
Abraham received God’s righteousness without having to undergo circumcision. It follows then that circumcision can’t be considered a requirement for salvation or an action that earns any kind of merit or favor with God. Since that is the case, Paul can now take the next logical step. If circumcision isn’t essential—only faith is—then believing Gentiles, in their state of uncircumcision, are at no disadvantage before a God who credits faith as righteousness. Paul spells out the implications of this with his observation, “So then, he [Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised [Gentiles], in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” God shows no favoritism. Believing Gentiles are acceptable, even in their state of uncircumcision.
Consistent with that impartiality, God also accepts Jews who observe circumcision, providing that their observance of the rite is not viewed as something necessary for salvation or done to earn merit with God. They are true children of Abraham if they hold to the faith of their father. Of him, Paul says, “He is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
Righteousness without the law
Paul has clearly indicated that God credited righteousness to Abraham before the rite of circumcision became a requirement for the patriarch. Therefore, circumcision wasn’t something that Abraham did to gain favor with God. But did he perhaps do something else? Did he fulfill any obligation or keep any law? This too the apostle rules out.
Romans chapter 4, verses 13-15
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Becoming “heir of the world” is simply Paul’s way of saying that God would make Abraham into a great nation through whom all the world would be blessed. The benefit of using the term heir becomes evident when we see how Paul uses that everyday concept to illustrate the spiritual truth he is explaining. The point he’s making is that an heir doesn’t have to do anything for the stipulation of the will to go into effect. The promise of the one making the will is the determinative factor, not the action of the heir. It would be a travesty of justice for the courts to say to an heir, “Your uncle died and had stated in his will that you’re to have this piece of property, but you’re going to have to work for it before we let you have it.” In such a case, the will would really be of no value for putting into effect the wishes of the maker of the will who promised the property to his nephew.
So it also was with the understanding between God and Abraham. God repeatedly promised to make a great nation from Abraham. If Abraham would have had to work for his “inheritance,” then his faith would have been of no value, and God’s promise would have been worthless.
Many Jews, of course, felt that having and keeping God’s law were essential for them to be God’s people. Paul points out that the law doesn’t and can’t do that, because it brings wrath rather than blessing. In fact, where there is law, the sinner’s guilt can actually be said to become worse because he is consciously and intentionally overstepping a clearly drawn line. He is transgressing a known command.
In the previous section (verses 11 and 12), Paul drew the conclusion that Abraham is the “father of all who believe,” circumcised and uncircumcised alike. With his use of “therefore” to lead into the next section, he is drawing a similar conclusion. In the sight of God, Abraham is the father of all believers—regardless of their relationship to the Mosaic Law, or to any other law, for that matter.
Romans chapter 4, verses 16 and 17
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law [Jews] but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [Gentiles]. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.
Verses 16 and 17 are parallel to verses 11 and 12, in that both speak of Abraham as the father of all believers, both Jews and Gentiles. There is, however, an advance in thought in this latter section. The advance is that God is described as worthy of the trust that faith places in him. He can be trusted for every good blessing because he is a God who can even bring life from death. He clearly showed that ability in his dealing with Abraham and Sarah.
Romans chapter 4, verses 18-22
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Before turning to the content of these verses, a word needs to be said about the translation of the opening verse. The NIV translators have rendered the verse, “Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.” That could sound as though the desired outcome was achieved because Abraham hoped hard enough or earnestly enough. Such an understanding could make Abraham’s belief and hope look like a good work, something he did to accomplish the goal. Any such notion would obviously be in conflict with the whole line of thought Paul has been developing. A better translation of the sentence would be, “Abraham in hope believed that he would become the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him.” That translation is not only grammatically defensible but is also in line with Paul’s emphasis.
God had repeatedly promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son through whom they would become a great nation. Time moved on, however, as Abraham and Sarah waited for the realization of God’s promise. In fact, God waited so long that the fulfillment of the promise came to seem not only unlikely but physically impossible. What Abraham in faith hoped for was really “against all hope.”
At almost one hundred years old (actually 99 years old, Genesis chapter 17, verse 1), Abraham had to face the fact that as far as procreation was concerned, “his body was as good as dead.” Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham (Genesis chapter 17, verse 17), but regarding her situation too, both of them were aware “that Sarah’s womb was also dead,” as Paul puts it. Humanly speaking, the fulfillment of the promise of having many descendants had become impossible. And yet, Abraham “did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”
We have previously described saving faith as trust and confidence in God’s promises. Note how that definition is supported here. Abraham’s faith was essentially his “being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” Humanly speaking, the chance of Abraham having many descendants seemed impossible, but the more impossible it became from a human point of view, the more Abraham relied on God’s promise and his power to do what he had promised. Abraham reasoned that, if necessary, God could even bring life from the dead—which is, of course, what God in his good time did. Isaac was truly a miracle baby, born from “dead” parents. Abraham’s faith, with its disregard for human weakness and its unflinching confidence in God’s power, “gave glory to God” and as such “was credited to him as righteousness.”
Paul has called Abraham the father of all believers (chapter 4, verse 16), whether they are Jews or Gentiles. That includes everyone. But the apostle now personalizes it for his readers when he spells out the full implications of such a sweeping statement.
Romans chapter 4, verses 23-25
The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
Abraham received righteousness by faith, but that blessing was not restricted just to the patriarch. This method of receiving righteousness—and with it eternal salvation—works for every believer in Christ, including the Roman readers “to whom God will credit righteousness.”
Paul does not mean to say that the Romans were not righteous at the time they were reading his letter or that they were still awaiting the blessing of righteousness through Christ. The use of the future tense here is simply Paul’s logical extension of the promise made to the patriarch carried on to all believers subsequent to the time of Abraham. Every believer of all time is included and will be credited with righteousness.
The reason they can all have righteousness credited to them is because their faith rests on the proper object of faith, namely, the one “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” Note again how God’s power to raise the dead comes into sharp focus.
Christ “was delivered over to death for our sins.” Because we had sinned, we deserved to die. Instead of requiring our death, however, God sent his Son to earth to live the perfect life we could not live and die the death we should have died. By his life he earned righteousness for us, and by his death he paid for our sins. In Christ, God now views us as righteous; in him we have been justified.
The sinner’s justification is an accomplished fact, punctuated by Christ’s cry on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And to show that he had accepted his Son’s sacrificial death for the justification of all sinners, God raised his Son from death on Easter morning. In doing so, God made a statement to all the world. Paul summarizes this law/gospel statement into a neat, two-line couplet:
He was delivered over to death for our sins
and was raised to life for our justification.
We might paraphrase that in this way:
Christ had to die because we had sinned,
but he could be raised to life
because we had been justified by his death.
To the Romans, to us, and to people of all times, our Savior-God bids us look to his finished work and extends the invitation, “Accept what I have done for you; trust in it as your hope of righteousness before God.”