A scene in one of my favorite movies, Return to Snowy River, depicts Mr. Patton, a banker, talking with a British officer. Their discussion involves the ancestry of the movie’s Harrison family. According to Mr. Patton, the Harrison family certainly could not have come from such aristocratic stock as he; they were obviously inferior. After asking a few questions about his family line and listening politely, the officer silences the snobbish Mr.
A scene in one of my favorite movies, Return to Snowy River, depicts Mr. Patton, a banker, talking with a British officer. Their discussion involves the ancestry of the movie’s Harrison family. According to Mr. Patton, the Harrison family certainly could not have come from such aristocratic stock as he; they were obviously inferior. After asking a few questions about his family line and listening politely, the officer silences the snobbish Mr. Patton with one remark: “As I remember, Patton, my ancestors used to hunt down people from your family line and hang them as horse thieves!”
Is it not amazing how people remember only the noble side of their ancestry? If ever there were a people proud of their ancestry, it was the Jews. They took particular pride in being descendants of Abraham, believing that this physical descent made them better than others. They even believed their ancestry assured them of eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Many of the Jews even believed they possessed salvation solely on the basis of being Abraham’s descendant. Beyond this, they thought they determined who was eligible for salvation, because they owned it. Before the coming of Christ, they shared salvation only with those willing to become Jewish proselytes. When proselytes converted to Judaism, they must be circumcised and place themselves under the Law of Moses.
With the coming of Christ, Christianity was altogether rejected by many Jews. They did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, and they opposed the preaching of Jesus as the Messiah even to the Gentiles. Jews who converted to Christianity wanted to obtain ownership and control, just as they had done in Judaism. The Jews insisted that to be saved, Gentiles needed not only to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but they must be circumcised and keep the Law.
In virtually all the churches he founded or to which he wrote, Paul found it necessary to refute and correct the errors of the Judaisers. This included the church at Rome. Throughout the Book of Romans, Paul deals with the misconceptions and heresies of Judaism. He has already shown that “all,” Jews as well as Gentiles, fall short of the glory of God. In order to be saved from their sin and condemnation, all are in need of a righteousness not their own.
Some of Judaism’s principle errors stem from a false sense of pride and security, due to their physical descent from Abraham. To the Jews, Abraham was their father. They took great pride in looking upon themselves as the sons of Abraham. Paul must correct some of their views concerning Abraham. The entire fourth chapter of Romans is therefore devoted to Abraham. Paul does far more than show the Jews to be mistaken concerning the righteousness of Abraham; Paul shows that Abraham was justified by faith, apart from works, and that he is the “father” of all who believe, Jew or Gentile. Abraham’s righteousness is precisely the same righteousness which God has made available to men today, and on the same basis.
Paul begins in chapter 4 to answer the three questions he has raised at the end of chapter 3. These questions begin to interpret and apply Paul’s teaching in the first three chapters of Romans and serve as an introduction to what follows. Those three questions are:
The entire fourth chapter of Romans surrounds Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch. Abraham’s faith in God’s promise of His blessings through Abraham’s seed is the central issue. This promised “seed” would come about through a son, whom he and Sarai would have. His belief in God’s promise of this son was reckoned to him as righteousness. Chapter 4 can be divided into three major segments:
In the Old and New Testament, Abraham113 is named in 230 verses. References to Abraham (or Abram) in Genesis 11–25:10 disclose biographical incidents in the life of Abraham. From this point on, the 135 remaining references to Abraham point back to these historical events. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 assumes some grasp of the events of Abraham’s life. As a background to our study, we must consider a brief overview of the major events in the life of Abraham, the father of our faith.
Originally Abram114 came from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 11:28). Terah, Abram’s father, took Abram and Lot as far as Haran where they settled. God instructed Abraham to leave Haran and go to the place He would show him. There, God promised to bless Abraham by making of him a great nation, and by blessing the entire world though his seed (Genesis 12:1-3). Abram obeyed, taking along Lot, his nephew. When a famine occurred in Canaan, Abram went to Egypt. Fearing he might be killed and his still beautiful wife might be taken in marriage, Abram passed off his wife Sarai as his sister. This put at risk the promised “seed,” which would come through Abram and Sarai. Pharaoh took Sarai into his harem, but God prevented a consummation of this “marriage.” Pharaoh learned Sarai was Abram’s wife and rebuked him, escorting him back to the land of Canaan (12:10-20).
After Abram and Lot were separated (Genesis 13), Lot was taken captive, and Abram went to his rescue. After Lot’s successful recovery, Abram met Melchizedek, a mysterious king to whom Abram offered a tithe (Genesis 14). Reiterating His covenant with Abram and promising him a son, Abraham believed God’s promise, and his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:1-6). God further told Abram of the 400 years his descendants would be mistreated in a foreign land, after which they would possess the land of Canaan (15:12-21).
As the years passed, Abram and Sarai became concerned, since no son had yet been given them by God. They decided that it was only necessary for Abram to father the child and that Hagar could serve as the mother of the child, in Sarai’s place. At age 86, through Hagar, Abram and Sarah had a son, Ishmael. This son was not the “son of promise,” but God would care for the land as He had said (16:1-16).
At age 99, 24 years after God first promised a “seed” for Abraham, God reaffirmed His covenant with Abram and Sarai. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. The next year, God promised, they would have a son. God commanded Abraham to be circumcised and to circumcise all the males in his household. Circumcision was to be a sign of God’s (Abrahamic) covenant for all generations to come. Thus, years after he was declared to be righteous, on the basis of his faith (Genesis 17),115Abraham was circumcised.
God told Abraham, His friend, what He was about to do with the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19). Abraham pled with God to spare these cities, if but a handful of righteous were found. The cities were destroyed, with only Lot and his immediate family spared. Watching from afar, Abram’s spirit was very different from that of Jonah many years later (compare Genesis 19:27-29; Jonah 4:1-11). After repeating his sin of deception in Gerar before Abimelech (Genesis 20), Abraham and Sarah had Isaac (Genesis 21). Sacrificing this son of promise was the greatest test of Abraham’s life, but it revealed that Abraham had finally come to trust in God as the One able to give life to the dead. Abram no longer needed to lie or to be afraid (Genesis 22).
At the age of 127, Sarah died (Genesis 23). Abraham lived yet another 38 years, married again, and fathered more children (25:1-4). Sarah’s burial was a demonstration of Abraham’s faith, for it was necessary to purchase the piece of land which would serve as the family burial site, in Canaan. That land which God had promised to give to Abraham someday was not yet his. He nevertheless bought the parcel of land, on which Sarah, and he, and his descendants could be buried (chapter 23).
As Abraham’s days drew to a close, he became very concerned about finding the right kind of wife for his son, Isaac. Commissioning his most trusted servant to secure a wife for his son, she was not be from among the Canaanites nor was Isaac to be taken back to the land from which he had come. Guided by the hand of God, his trusted servant found Rebekah as a wife for Isaac, from Abraham’s relative, Bethuel (Genesis 24). After this, Abraham died at the ripe old age of 175 (Genesis 25). Chapters 11–25 of Genesis portray 100 years of Abraham’s walk with God, as a sojourner in the land his descendants would one day possess. One fourth of this century of Abraham’s walk was spent in waiting for the son God had promised.
Abraham’s name is mentioned many other times in the Old Testament. Most often in the books of Israel’s history God’s name is mentioned to demonstrate that God’s actions were in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. The consistency of God’s promises and program in history is clearly demonstrated. This same faithfulness is emphasized in the Psalms:
Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face continually. Remember His wonders which He has done, His marvels, and the judgments uttered by His mouth, O seed of Abraham, His servant, O sons of Jacob, His chosen ones! He is the LORD our God; His judgments are in all the earth. He has remembered His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations, The covenant which He made with Abraham, And His oath to Isaac. Then He confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, To Israel as an everlasting covenant, Saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan As the portion of your inheritance,” When they were only a few men in number, Very few, and strangers in it. And they wandered about from nation to nation, From one kingdom to another people. He permitted no man to oppress them, And He reproved kings for their sakes: “Do not touch My anointed ones, And do My prophets no harm” (Psalm 105:4-15).
When Isaiah spoke of the righteousness and salvation God was to provide, as He promised, He called upon His people to think back to their beginnings, in Abraham and Sarah:
“Listen to Me, you who pursue righteousness, Who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, And to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, And to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; When he was but one I called him, Then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Indeed, the LORD will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness He will make like Eden, And her desert like the garden of the LORD; Joy and gladness will be found in her, Thanksgiving and sound of a melody. “Pay attention to Me, O My people; And give ear to Me, O My nation; For a law will go forth from Me, And I will set My justice for a light of the peoples. My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth, And My arms will judge the peoples; The coastlands will wait for Me, And for My arm they will wait expectantly. Lift up your eyes to the sky, Then look to the earth beneath; For the sky will vanish like smoke, And the earth will wear out like a garment, And its inhabitants will die in like manner, But my salvation shall be forever, And My righteousness shall not wane. Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, A people in whose heart is My law; Do not fear the reproach of man, Neither be dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them like a garment, And the grub will eat them like wool. But My righteousness shall be forever, And My salvation to all generations” (Isaiah 51:1-8).
Jeremiah too spoke of Israel’s future deliverance and salvation in terms of the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham (see Jeremiah 23:19-26). Ezekiel likewise called upon Israel to trust in Him, by faith. They were to remember that Abraham, who was but one man, became a great nation because of God’s faithfulness to His promise (see Ezekiel 33:23-29). The final words of Micah’s prophecy remind God’s people of His faithfulness to His covenant promise to Abraham and to his descendants:
“Shepherd Thy people with Thy scepter, The flock of Thy possession Which dwells by itself in the woodland, In the midst of a fruitful field. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead As in the days of old. As in the days when you came out from the land of Egypt, I will show you miracles.” Nations will see and be ashamed Of all their might. They will put their hand on their mouth, Their ears will be deaf. They will lick the dust like a serpent, Like reptiles of the earth. They will come trembling out of their fortresses; To the LORD our God they will come in dread, And they will be afraid before Thee. Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in unchanging love. He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, Thou wilt cast all their sins Into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt give truth to Jacob And unchanging love to Abraham, Which Thou didst swear to our forefathers From the days of old (Micah 7:14-20).
These Old Testament prophets spoke of the righteousness and salvation God would provide in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. That righteousness, like the righteousness of Abraham, was not a righteousness which men earned by their law-keeping, but a righteousness which God Himself would provide through His Messiah, the coming Savior.
Abraham is also a very prominent person in the New Testament. Especially in the Gospels do we see the distorted thinking of the Jews concerning Abraham. The Jews took pride in their physical descent from Abraham, believing that being his seed was synonymous with salvation. John the Baptist immediately challenges this thinking as incorrect:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12).
Believing they had confirmed reservations in the kingdom of God, the Jews saw the Gentiles as those who would never enter into the blessings promised Abraham. They were wrong. Jesus’ teaching must have rocked the boat of Jewish exclusivism. Consider these instances of Jesus’ teaching which must have horrified the Jews. Note especially Jesus’ references to Abraham, the blessings of God, and the kingdom.
Jesus marveled at and commended the faith of the Gentile centurion:
Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:10-12).
Because of his faith, the centurion would be at the banquet table, along with Abraham, but many of the “sons of the kingdom” would be cast into hell. Here was a revolutionary thought to the Jews, but one completely consistent with the Old Testament and with the gospel.
A similar shock was in store for the Jews when Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). According to Jewish thinking, the rich man would surely go to heaven while the poor man was surely destined for hell. Jesus reversed the destinies of these two. The rich man was found in hell, and the poor man, Lazarus, went to heaven. Most shocking are the words of the rich man when appealing for mercy:
“Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘ Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:22-31, emphasis mine).
Imagine this scene and the Jews’ horror at these words from the lips of our Lord. Heaven was, not unexpectedly, “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). But the rich man, who called out from hell, called out, “Father Abraham” (see verses 24 and 30). Priding themselves that Abraham was their physical forefather, the Jews were self-assured that they would enter into the promised kingdom and the blessings promised Abraham. And now, from the depths of hell, they call out to “Father Abraham.” Surely Jesus was teaching precisely what John the Baptist before Him, and Paul after Him, were teaching: that physical descent from Abraham does not assure anyone of salvation. Salvation is attained through faith and not through the fatherhood of Abraham.
The great showdown between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders was over Jesus’ relationship to Abraham:
Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham’s offspring; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “ Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” The Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. But I do not seek My glory; there is One who seeks and judges. Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he shall never taste of death.’ Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him, and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” The Jews therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple (John 8:31-59, emphasis mine).
In this passage we see that the Jews emphatically boasted that Abraham was their father (verses 33 and 39). But clearly it was not Abraham who would save the Jews, but the Son (8:36). The Jews in reality, as evidenced by their unbelief, were sons of the devil (verse 44). Those who were truly Abraham’s seed would believe in Him and obey His words. In so doing, they would never see death (verse 51). Did Jesus think Himself better than Abraham, the Jews challenged? Jesus’ final response was, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM” (verse 58).
In preaching the gospel to the Jews, Jesus was presented as God’s only provision for entering into the kingdom and experiencing the blessings God promised to provide through Abraham’s seed (see Acts 7:2ff.). Paul adds a very significant note to this whole matter. He points out that the “seed” of Abraham, through whom the blessings were to be poured out on all who believe, Jew or Gentile, was singular. The “seed” was one Person—Jesus; it was not plural, the nation Israel:
Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).
No wonder Paul devotes an entire chapter to Abraham’s justification by faith! Not only does Abraham’s justification prove the Jews wrong for trusting and boasting in Abraham as their physical forefather, but it proves Abraham to be the father of all those who believe in God, by faith!
27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. 31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
Thus far, Paul has shown that all mankind fails to meet God’s standard of righteousness, all have fallen short of God’s promised blessings and have come under divine condemnation. Jews and Gentiles alike are under God’s wrath and the sentence of death. In His righteousness, God condemns the sin of men. In His righteousness, God has made a provision for man’s justification, by punishing Jesus Christ in our place on the cross of Calvary. All who believe in Jesus Christ and accept His provision of righteousness by faith, are justified, saved by grace.
What does all of this mean? Paul raises three questions at the end of chapter 3 in verses 27-31 which pursue the practical implications of his teaching. He asks and answers each question very briefly. He wants the answer to each question to be clear in the mind of his reader. He then follows up each answer, briefly provided in verses 27-31, with a more extensive explanation in his teaching which follows. Chapter 4 deals directly with the answer to the first two questions. Chapters 6-8 expand on the role of the Law in the life of the believer.
The first question, found in verse 27 is this: What basis does anyone have for boasting concerning salvation? There is no basis for boasting. Men cannot boast about receiving something which they did not earn. Men are saved by faith, on the basis of what God has done through His Son, Jesus Christ. Anyone who boasts in his salvation does not understand grace and may never have received salvation in the first place.
The second question is recorded in verse 29: Are God’s dealings with men universal, or are they restricted to Jews only? Paul’s question seems to extend beyond salvation alone to God’s interest and involvement in the lives of men. The Jews may have thought God’s only interest was in them and that He could care less about the Gentiles. The Gentiles would be like the outcast class in India,116 which neither receives the privileges of the upper class nor is even regarding as existing by those of a higher cast. Perhaps the Jews thought God looked upon the Gentiles in this same way. But Paul is quick to affirm that “God … is one.” God deals with both Jews and Gentiles on the same basis. This is because Jewishness and Gentileness is irrelevant to the issue of salvation. The only determining factor in salvation is the absence or presence of faith.
The third question is found in verse 31: Is the Law of no use or value, now that faith has come? Does entering into a relationship with God by faith set the Law aside? Not at all. Abraham’s faith was before the Law. The faith of men like David was evident in his love for and obedience to the Law. The Law was never meant to save. In one sense, the Law was as useless in Old Testament times as it is today. The Law could never save. The Law does have a positive role to play, however, and thus it is not to be rejected. Our Lord said He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Righteousness delights in the Law, but sin disdains it.
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Do we have any grounds for boasting? More particularly, do the Jews have grounds? Our study of Abraham, especially in the Gospels, revealed that the Jews believed they did have grounds for boasting: Abraham was their forefather. But what if Abraham himself could not boast? If Abraham could not boast, could his descendants boast? By going back to the “first father” of the Jews, at least in their minds, Paul caused the whole Jewish system of pride and boasting to collapse with one well-placed blow. By demonstrating that Abraham himself had no grounds for boasting, no Jew could boast in Abraham or in being his descendant.
Performance is the only basis for boasting in oneself. Had Abraham’s righteousness been rooted in his works, he would have grounds for boasting, though in comparison with God his accomplishments, no matter how great, would be insignificant. If Abraham was justified by faith, then he could take no credit at all for his righteousness, for it would be a gift from God.
The Word of God instructs us that such was the case. Paul turns our attention to Genesis 15:6 and the statement made by Moses, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Abraham’s works were not the basis for his justification; his faith was the basis. Abraham’s faith was in God and in His promise of a son. Therefore, the one person about whom Abraham could boast was God. Abraham’s faith, and his justification, were a favor from God and not a payment for services rendered on God’s behalf. Works and grace are two very distinct entities. Men can only boast when they receive payment for their works. Men cannot boast when they receive grace.
Abraham’s faith alone did not save him. God saved Abraham by means of faith. But more than this, Abraham’s faith was in God’s promise and in God’s provision. Abraham believed God. Specifically, Abraham believed God when He promised him a son. Abraham’s faith was faith in God, in God’s promise, and in God’s ability to provide that which He promised. For the Jews, Abraham was the star of the show. To Paul, God was the center of attention. The greatness of Abraham’s faith is not in view, but the greatness of the God in whom he trusted. Indeed, we need not look far to see how frail and fragile was Abraham’s faith. How often his faith lapsed! He believed God, and yet he lied about the identity of his wife to Abimelech (Genesis 20).117 He believed God, and yet he had a son by Hagar (Genesis 16).
The process or transaction by which God justified Abraham is known by theologians as imputation.118 In our text, the term used for this imputation is “reckoned”7 (verses 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24).119 In general, the term means to “reckon,” “consider,” “compute,” or “take into account.” The reckoning process is essential to man’s salvation. It enables God to deal with men in a way which saves them and which demonstrates His righteousness. In our text, Paul stresses that God’s imputation is a coin with two sides. The imputation by which God saves sinners is two-fold.
First,120 God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to men. Men cannot attain to God’s standard of righteousness. Men can never become righteous by their good works. Their righteousness must come from another source. Paul cites Genesis 15:6 to show that God reckoned Abraham to be righteous. He immediately follows this statement with another in verses 4 and 5 which stresses that this was not something which Abraham earned, but rather favor which God bestowed upon Abraham.
Second, the imputation which results in man’s salvation has another side: not only does God impute the righteousness of Christ to unrighteous men, He also does not impute men’s sins to them. God saves men by not imputing their sin to them and by imputing the righteousness of Christ to them. From what Paul has already said, and what he says elsewhere, we know that this is possible because Christ has taken our place. Our sins have been imputed to Christ, so that He was punished in our place. His righteousness has been imputed to us, so that we are regarded and treated as righteous by God, since we, by faith, are in Him.
The imputation of righteousness to men is illustrated by the justification of Abraham, who was reckoned righteous by God because of his faith. The non-imputation of sin to men is illustrated by the experience of David, as described by his own words in Psalm 32. This is his psalm of confession. His sin was that of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. The Law was in force, which pronounced sentence upon David. But the Law made no provision for David’s salvation. It could only pronounce him guilty and worthy of death. David knew the grace of God, and he pled for mercy and forgiveness. On the basis of his faith in the promise of salvation, and in the character of God, David pled for forgiveness and received it. God did not impute his sin to him, though he deserved to die. Men are saved because God imputes righteousness to them, but not their sin. God saves men through the process of imputation, on the basis of the work of Christ on Calvary, and in response to faith.121
Abraham’s righteousness then was not due to his Law-keeping or to his good works, but only to God’s grace. On the basis of faith alone, apart from works, God reckoned Abraham to be righteous. Abraham believed God’s promise and was saved. Abraham had nothing to boast about, other than God’s grace. His offspring could not boast either.
9 Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. 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, neither is there violation. 16 For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain 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, 17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
Paul’s first question and answer recorded in Romans 3:27 has been documented by the experience of Israel’s most revered patriarch, Abraham. Paul now moves to the second question (3:29-30): Is God only the God of the Jews, or is He the God of both the Jews and the Gentiles? Paul’s opponents might be willing to concede that God has always justified men on the basis of faith and not by works. But just who is eligible for justification? The Jews viewed themselves as a privileged group, with exclusive access to God’s blessings. If a Gentile wanted to be saved, he must first convert to Judaism. He must be circumcised, and then keep the Law of Moses (see Acts 15).
In verses 9-17 Paul will turn to events in the life of Abraham, the “Father of the Jews,” to show that he is even more so “the father of all believers.” Paul turns to the rite of circumcision, which was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant.122 He reminds his readers that Abraham was justified apart from works, without the Law, and years before he was circumcised. By Jewish definitions, Abraham was really a Gentile when he was saved.
The first recorded promise of a son in the Book of Genesis was given at the time of Abraham’s call (Genesis 12:1-3). At that time, Abram was 75 years old (12:4). In Genesis 15 we are told of a more specific promise of a son, of Abram’s belief, and of his justification by faith. It is almost as though we have been watching a motion picture. Suddenly, Paul shouts, “Stop the projector!,” right at Genesis 15:6. He now asks the question, “Was Abraham circumcised here, at the time he was reckoned as righteous by God, or was it later?” We all know it was years later. Abraham’s circumcision is recorded in Genesis 17, and we are told that he was then 99 years old. Abraham was justified by faith, apart from works, the Law, or circumcision. Let’s face it; Abraham was a Gentile when he was justified by faith. God is the God of all men, and not just of the Jews.
Circumcision did not contribute in any way to Abraham’s salvation. It could not have done so. It was merely a sign, a seal. Circumcision played much the same role in Abraham’s day as baptism does in our day. It is only a visible token or sign of an invisible change, of salvation. Abraham’s circumcision testified to his justification by faith, apart from works. His circumcision, like his salvation, meant something very different than what the Jews made of it. If Abraham could be saved without being circumcised, so the Gentiles could be saved, apart from circumcision, the Law of Moses, or Judaism.
Just as circumcision did not contribute to the salvation of Abraham, neither did the Law. The Law of Moses would not be given for more than 400 years. It did not exist at the time of Abraham’s justification by faith. And even if the Law were in existence at that time, it could not have saved Abraham. The Law cannot save. The Law cannot make any man righteous. The Law can only condemn men as sinners, worthy of God’s eternal wrath. If the Law could justify men, it would nullify faith. Faith, however, does not nullify the Law. Faith brings about the imputation of the righteousness which the Law defines and demands, but which it cannot produce. The Law required perfect obedience; God’s promise requires only faith.
Faith enables God to save men, because it enables God to deal with men in accordance with grace. The wrath which the Law demands has been suffered by our Lord on Calvary. Having satisfied God’s holy anger (propitiation, see 3:25), God can now deal with men in accordance with mercy and grace. God can prevent men from suffering the wrath they deserve and deal benevolently with men by giving them blessings they do not deserve.
Abraham is therefore shown to be much more than the “father of the Jews.” He is the “father of us all,” the father of all believers. This too is in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS” (verse 17, citing Genesis 17:5). Abraham’s faith was faith in God. He believed that God is able to “give life to the dead.” Abraham’s resurrection faith is the last topic of Paul’s teaching, as recorded in Genesis 4:17-25.
17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. 18 In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” 19 And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 23 Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
Verse 17 serves as a transition, linking Paul’s argument in verses 18-25 with his previous teaching in verses 9-16. This verse is therefore included in both sections. In this last section of chapter 4, Paul strikes a final blow against the errors of Judaism. Turning to the life of Abraham one final time, he shows that Abraham’s saving faith was a “resurrection faith.” His faith, like ours, was in a God who was able to raise the dead.
The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was a serious problem for the Sadducees. They did not believe in the resurrection, or in the afterlife, in heaven or hell, in angels or demons. They were anti-supernaturalists. The Pharisees had a different problem. They were supernaturalists. They did believe in heaven and hell, angels and demons, and the resurrection of the dead. Their problem was that while in principle they believed in the doctrine of the resurrection, they rejected it in the person of Jesus Christ. They refused to admit that Jesus had been raised from the dead. To do so would have meant they were wrong. This would prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that God had shown His divine approval of His earthly ministry.
Jesus staked His entire ministry on His ability to rise from the dead (see Matthew 12:38-41; John 10:15-18). The apostles preached the resurrection of Christ as a fundamental element of the gospel, which must be believed in order for men to be saved (Acts 2:22-42; 3:14-15; 4:2; 17:18; Romans 10:9). The writer to the Hebrews teaches that all the Old Testament saints believed in the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 11:13-40, especially verses 13-15, 19, 35, 39-40). Paul finds in Abraham’s life a dramatic demonstration of his “resurrection faith.”
Abraham “believed in God, who gives life to the dead, and calls into being that which does not exist” (verse 17). Abraham’s faith did not cause him to close his eyes to reality. He knew that so far as bearing children was concerned Sarah and he were “as good as dead” (verse 19). And yet he considered also that God’s promises are as certain as God’s power to fulfill them. And so he believed God’s promise of a son, even though this would take, as it were, a resurrection of the dead (he and Sarah, speaking in terms of their ability to reproduce). He knew that “what He promised, He was able to perform” (verse 21). It was because of this very faith, a resurrection faith, that righteousness was imputed to him (verse 22).
In verses 23-25, Paul links the “resurrection faith” of Abraham with the faith of every true believer today. Justification comes to all who, by faith, believe in God who raised His Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead. In the final verse of his argument (verse 25), Paul speaks of the work of Christ in such a way as to show the absolute necessity of the resurrection of Jesus, and in the sinner’s need to believe His resurrection, for salvation. The sacrificial death of our Lord, Paul writes, was required by our transgressions. Christ had to die, because “the wages of sin is death.” Our justification requires His resurrection, Paul writes:
If anything is clear in this chapter it is this: Abraham’s justification by faith is precisely the same as that which the gospel offers to all men, Jew or Gentile, today. It is justification based upon the person and work of God, believed by faith, accomplished by imputation. It is a free gift, available to those who are uncircumcised and who are not under the Law of Moses, like Abraham.
Justification by faith is God’s only way of saving men. It is also the same way in which men have been saved from the beginning of human history. Men were not saved by works in Old Testament times and are now saved by faith. Men have always been saved by faith, apart from works. Abraham is an excellent example of justification by faith because he lived in a day when neither the Law of Moses nor the rite of circumcision existed as a part of Israel’s religion. He was saved apart from any works, apart from circumcision, and apart from the Law. His justification, like ours, was based upon God’s faithfulness to His promise and not on human performance. It is a gift of God’s grace and not something earned.
Abraham’s life teaches us important lessons about faith. We learn from Abraham’s justification that faith is the only means by which men may obtain righteousness. We also see that while men have faith in God, it is not perfect faith. Abraham’s faith faltered when he lied about his wife and when he attempted to produce a child through Hagar. His faith continued to grow, throughout his life, as he came to appreciate more and more the faithfulness of God. His faith enabled him to see life as it really was (he was as good as dead with regard to having a child with Sarah), but he saw God as powerful and His promises as sure. His faith was a reasoning faith. He did not have to be told that God was able to produce life from death; he reasoned that God was able to do as He promised.124
The faith of Abraham and the birth of Isaac remind us that even when we have faith in God’s promise there is no assurance that God’s promise will be immediately fulfilled. Abraham believed God’s promise of a son, but he still waited 25 years for that son to be given. The story of Abraham’s life makes it very clear that God had a certain time for that son to be born. God’s “delay” was a time for Abraham’s faith to be tested and strengthened. Why is it that some tell us that if we have not immediately received the answers to our prayers, we do not have enough faith? Faith may not remove all doubts, and it certainly does not remove all delays.
As I have studied this text, I have been reminded of the importance of remembering our roots. We dare not forget how it was that God saved us, and for what purpose we were saved. Abraham was hopeless and helpless, and God, in His great mercy and grace, saved him, apart from any human merit or contribution. Abraham’s justification, like ours, should result in humility, gratitude, adoration and worship. Abraham’s response to God’s revelation (the Abrahamic Covenant, and specifically God’s promise of a son) was belief, growth in faith, and giving glory to God (verse 20).125
Because of their unbelief and rejection of God’s full and final revelation in Christ, the minds of the Jews were darkened (see 2 Corinthians 3:12-18), so that they distorted Abraham’s conversion to that which fit and which sanctioned their own unbelief and self-righteousness. The Israelites forgot that the blessings of God upon them were not due to their own righteousness or status, but due to God’s grace. They failed to recall that the righteousness which God requires is also that which He provides, by imputation. Thus, there can be no boasting. There is no basis for pride. There should only be humble gratitude and thanksgiving to God for His unspeakable gift.
I challenge you to think through the Scriptures, Old Testament and New, and to recall all of the times when God instructed His people to remember their roots, in order that they might be humbled and serve God in truth. How easy it is for us to forget that we are what we are by the grace of God, apart from anything we have done, or will do. To God be the glory!
113 This does not include references to “Abram,” prior to the time when God changed his name to “Abraham” in Genesis 17.
115 Abraham was first promised a “seed” in Genesis 12:2 at the age of 75 (12:4). A more specific promise was given in Genesis 15:4. Abram was between 75 and 86 (16:16) when he was reckoned to be righteous by God, as recorded in Genesis 15:6. Isaac, the son of promise, was born to Abraham and Sarah when Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah was 90 (17:17; 21:5).
116 I can well remember my first impression of this, while stranded at the airport in Bombay. One of the outcast class was sweeping the sidewalk with a primitive broom. This woman would not even look up at me, and those who passed her by would not even look at her, to acknowledge her as a person. She was not only looked down upon; she was not even looked at.
117 Abraham made it clear to Abimelech that this was not just the second time he had passed off Sarah as his sister. He explained that this was the agreement they had made long ago which they consistently practiced everywhere they went (see Genesis 20:13). It was Abraham’s foreign policy, based upon his fear of death. His resurrection faith would soon outrun his fear of death (see Genesis 22).
118 The verb rendered “reckon,” according to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 379, is used 31 times in the New Testament. Of these 31 instances, Paul employs the term in all but 4 occurrences. Eleven of the 27 uses by Paul are found in Romans 4. Imputation is a dominant theme in chapter 4.
121 Paul will elsewhere emphasize that even our faith is God’s gift and not some work of our own (see Ephesians 2:1-10).
122 The rainbow was the sign of the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:8-17). Circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:12-17).
123 There is a great deal of discussion in the commentaries about the exact meaning of the term twice rendered “because of” in Romans 4:25. Regardless of the meaning we give to this term, the point remains: both the death and the resurrection of our Lord were necessary for man’s salvation.
124 The “reasoning of Abraham’s faith” is even more clearly stated in Hebrews 11:17-19. In this case, it was Abraham’s reasoning in relationship to the command of God to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. I believe Abraham “reasoned” that God was able to “raise men even from the dead” (11:19) on the basis of Isaac’s birth. If Abraham and Sarah were “dead” with respect to child-bearing, then God gave life from death in the conception and birth of Isaac. If God could, as it were, raise Isaac into existence, from the dead, then Abraham reasoned that God could raise him back to life, after he was offered up to God as a sacrifice. How often men want God to tell them exactly what to do when God desires for men to reason it out by faith. I do not believe God is as pleased with unthinking obedience as He is with reasoned obedience, an obedience based upon the reasoning of faith. Faith not only has its reasons, it reasons.
125 I see here a deliberate contrast between Abraham’s “giving glory to God” (verse 20) and the unbelief of men as described in chapter 1: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor [literally, “glorify,” see marginal note in NASB] Him as God, or give thanks (1:21). While these unbelievers became increasingly darkened in their understanding of God and of reality (1:21-22), Abraham saw God and life ever more clearly (4:19-21).