James Montgomery Boice comments on a Bible tract prepared by some atheists: “Quite a few years ago a society for the spread of atheism prepared a tract containing half a dozen sketches of Old Testament characters combined with a lurid description of their misdeeds. No efforts were spared in describing their sin. One figure was Abraham. The leaflet pointed out that he was willing to sacrifice his wife's honor to save his own life. Yet he was called “the friend of God.” The atheists asked what kind of God this is who would have a friend like Abraham. Another figure was Jacob. He was described as a cheat and a liar. Yet God called himself “the God of Jacob.” Moses was portrayed as a murderer and a fugitive from justice, which he was. David was shown to be an adulterer who compounded the crime of adultery with the murder of the woman's husband. Yet David was called a man after God's own heart.” The atheists asked what kind of God he must be who could be pleased with David.
Remarkably this tract had hit on something which even God acknowledges. God calls himself just and holy. Yet for centuries he had been refusing to condemn and instead had actually been justifying men and women such as these. We might say that for these long centuries there had been a blot on God's name. As Paul says, he had indeed been passing over former sins. Is God unjust? No. In the death of Christ God's name and purposes are vindicated. It is now seen that on the basis of that death, God had justified and continues to justify the ungodly.”40
Boice has rightly noted that justification involves God's declaration of acquittal of the ungodly on the basis of Christ's death. At the core of justification is a new legal standing, wherein the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner's account and she/he has been permanently forgiven. This is, in miniature form, the theme of Romans 4:1-12.
4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter? 4:2 For if Abraham was declared righteous by the works of the law, he has something to boast about (but not before God). 4:3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4:4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. 4:5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness. 4:6 So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
4:7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 4:8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord does not count sin.”
4:9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 4:10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised! 4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 4:12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised.
Idea: The way in which God declared Abraham righteous (as an example to us) was by faith, apart from works and circumcision, in order that he might be the spiritual father of the Gentiles who believe as well as Jews who believe.
I. The way in which Abraham was declared righteous was by believing God, apart from works, as David also testifies (4:1-8).
A. Abraham was declared righteous by believing God, apart from works, just as Genesis 15:6 says (4:1-3).
1. If Abraham was declared righteous by works he has a boast, but not before God (4:1-2).
2. Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham was justified by believing God (4:3).
B. Righteousness is credited as a gift, apart from works, otherwise it would be as an obligation (4:4-5).
1. The one who works receives pay, does so not according to grace, but according to obligation (4:4).
2. The one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness (4:5).
C. David agrees that righteousness is a gift, apart from works, and that it includes complete and irreversible forgiveness (4:6-8).
1. David speaks about righteousness apart from works (4:6).
2. Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered (4:7).
3. Blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count sin (4:8).
II. Since Abraham was justified before he was circumcised he can stand as the father of both the uncircumcised (i.e., Gentiles) who have faith as well as the circumcised (i.e., Jews) who also have faith (4:9-12).
A. Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised (4:9-10).
B. Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness he already had by faith with the result that he became the father of everyone who has faith whether they are uncircumcised or circumcised (4:11-12).
1. Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he already had by faith (4:11a).
2. Abraham is the father of all those who have faith yet have never been circumcised (4:11b).
3. Abraham is the father of all the circumcised who also walk in the footsteps of his faith before he was circumcised (4:12).
Idea: Justification Is Apart from Works and Circumcision
I. Justification Is Apart from Works (4:1-8)
A. The Citation of Genesis 15:6 (4:1-3)
B. The Nature of “Crediting” (4:4-5)
C. The Citation of Psalm 31:1-2a LXX (4:6-8)
II. Justification Is Apart from Circumcision (4:9-12)
A. Abraham’s Circumcumcision after Genesis 15:6 (4:9-10)
B. Abraham, the Father of Gentile Believers (4:11)
C. Abraham, the Father of Jewish Believers (4:12)
Paul has just argued in 3:21-31 that justification is by faith and is available to all men. And, since it is apart from any works of the law, all boasting is excluded (cf. esp. 3:27-28). In 4:1-12 he will buttress this argument with proof from the OT and the experience of Abraham and David.
4:1 Paul now turns to the example of Abraham. He asks the question: “What did Abraham find with regard to the manner in which God justifies a person? Was it by faith or by works? Abraham found that it was by faith, not by works.
The use of the perfect tense verb has discovered (εὑρηκέναι, heurēkenai) points to the declaration of righteousness in Genesis 15:6 and the fact that such a declaration formed the lasting foundation of Abraham’s relationship with YHWH.
When Paul says our (ἡμων, hēmōn) father Abraham he is not just referring to the Jews, but is including the Gentiles as well—everyone in the church at Rome.
4:2 Paul says, “let’s see what Abraham found, because if he found that he was justified by works (ἐξ ἔργων ἐδικαιώθη, ex ergōn edikaiōthē), then he has a boast, but not before God.” If Abraham earned a legal declaration of righteousness—which itself involves acquittal from any and all sins, as well as the positive imputation of Christ's righteousness—on the basis of his own (meritorious) works, he can boast, but even then, not before God.
But Paul's argument here seems to put him in conflict with James in 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The obvious answer to this apparent dilemma is that Paul refers to the initial legal justification of a person while James refers to the final vindication of the same person who has claimed throughout his/her life to have faith. Thus the two are using the term "justify" in different, though related senses. In short, there is no real contradiction.
4:3 Picking up on the question of whether Abraham was justified by works (which some Jews held), Paul says: this is not what the scripture teaches. It teaches in Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (ἐπίστευσεν δὲ ᾿Αβραὰμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην, episteusen de Abraam tō theō elogisthē autō eis dikaiosunē). In other words, Abraham was declared righteous by believing God concerning the promise for many descendants (i.e., as numerous as the stars). He was not declared righteous on the basis of any works he had performed.
What Paul is saying here flies directly in the face of much of what his contemporaries believed about Abraham. Abraham was held in high esteem in Paul's day, and not necessarily needing God’s grace—that is, grace which was reserved for sinners. He was regarded as the father of the Jewish nation and one who obeyed God implicitly in absolutely everything (Ant 1. 225; Jub. 17:18). Indeed, it was because of his obedience that he received the promise of posterity, not because of his faith apart from works (cf. Gen 26:4-5).
In the Jewish intertestamental book of Sirach, the following is said of Abraham:
19Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory.20 He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he proved faithful.21 Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth (44:19-21; NRSV).
But Paul understands the OT traditions about Abraham to say something quite different regarding the particular question of his salvation and justification. The words it was credited (ἐλογίσθη, elogisthē) translate only one verb in the Greek text. The verb is functioning as a divine passive, meaning that God was the one who did the crediting, not Abraham. Abraham did not earn righteousness by works, rather Gdo credited righteousness to his account by faith. The Greek term elogisthe is used eleven times in 4:1-25 and may also be translated: “to impute,” “to reckon” or “to calculate.”
Now the fact that elogisthe is used eleven times in 4:1-25 (nine in 4:1-12) suggests that the rest of this section is a developed commentary on the meaning and application of the term as understood from Genesis 15:6. Paul also cites Ps 32:1-2 (in 4:7-8) which is related to Genesis 15:6 verbally through the use of the same term, i.e., logisētai. Some scholars, therefore, suggest that Paul’s exegesis is a fine example of Jewish midrash. But while it is quite likely that Paul is following similar Jewish exegetical practices (i.e., joining passages together on the basis of similar catchwords), his use of Genesis 15:6 and Ps 32:1-2 is much more in keeping with their canonical contexts and, therefore, distinct from much of the way texts were handled by the rabbis in their endless discussions. Further, to label Paul’s handling of these OT texts as midrash is really not helpful in the final analysis since the term “midrash” is ambiguous; some relate it to an interpretive method, some to a psychology or mindset involved in the interpretive process, and some to the end product of such methods.
4:4 In vv. 4-5 Paul will take a moment to explain further what he means by the phrase it was credited in 4:3. Then he will confirm his understanding of the term (elogisthe) by citing David’s words on the matter.
The point of v. 4 is that righteousness is not credited like the earnings a person receives when he/she works a job. In this case, the earnings are legally due to the worker as an obligation (ὀφείλημα, opheilēma). This means that they are not freely given according to grace (χάρις, charis), but rather they are earned through hard effort. Indeed, if they were credited according to works, the term “credited” would mean nothing and neither would the term “grace.”
4:5 In v. 5 Paul is not espousing laziness (cf. 1 Thess 4:11-12), but instead argues that righteousness is not credited to the person who trusts in his law-works to save himself, but [is credited to the person who] believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous (πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ, pisteuonti de epi ton dikaiounta ton asebē). This person’s faith is credited as righteousness (λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην, logizetai hē pistis autou eis dikaiosunēn). That is, it is through this kind of faith that God declares the person righteous and views them with the righteousness of Christ himself.
4:6-8 The truth about God justifying the ungodly apart from works—a state of blessing (μακαρισμός, makarismos) according to David—is found even in David’s own writings, namely, Psalm 32:1-2a in the MT and Ps 31:1-2a in LXX. The quotation functions at two very important levels: (1) it is another witness from scripture, but this time outside the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses); (2) the term logisētai in Ps 31:2a (in 4:8) connects the Psalm to elogisthē in Genesis 15:6 (cited in 4:3) and underscores the forensic or legal aspects of justification in terms of acquittal. Indeed, these verses serve to accentuate the close relationship in Paul’s mind between justification and forgiveness for lawless deeds (αἱ ἀνομίαι, hai anomiai) and sins (αἱ ἁμαρτίαι, hai hamartiai). This justification, about which Paul speaks, then, is available to those in 1:18-32 and those in 2:1-3:8; it means that God has declared them righteous and will never credit their sin to them so as to overturn his verdict of acquittal.
Now this idea of God justifying the ungodly seems at first glance to oppose explicit statements to the contrary in the OT—the very source from which Paul is trying to prove his doctrine. It would have also been quite repugnant to many strands of first century Judaism. Exodus 23:7 (NET) says: “Keep your distance from a false charge—do not kill the innocent and the righteous, for I do not justify the wicked.” Proverbs 17:15 (NET) says: “Justifying the wicked and condemning the righteous—both of them are an abomination to the LORD” (cf. Isa 5:23). The primary difference, however, between Paul's argument and these OT citations is the issue of justice. Justice has been satisfied in the case of the gospel (i.e., through the death of Christ), but it has not been met in the case of the OT examples cited.
4:9-10 There are those who argue that v. 9 begins a new paragraph, but this is unlikely since the themes of “blessing,” “crediting,” and “faith” are simply worked out in a little greater detail.
Now a Jew might respond to Paul’s argument by claiming that justification is possible, but only for the Jew as the texts cited from the OT were given to and applied to Jews only. After all, Abraham is their father, and David was their king; indeed most of David's enemies were Gentiles!
The argument of vv. 9-10 is that since Abraham was justified before he was circumcised (29 years by rabbinic calculations), circumcision and being a biological descendant of Abraham (or any manner of inclusion in the nation of Israel) is not the issue as far as receiving the blessing of justification is concerned. What is at issue is expressed in vv. 11-12.
4:11 Abraham received (ἔλαβεν, elaben)—he did not “earn”—the sign of circumcision (σημεῖον…περιτομῆς, sēmeion…peritomēs), that is, the sign which is circumcision. In contrast to rabbinic thinking, Paul argues that circumcision functioned as a sign which pointed toward the superior reality of a righteousness received through faith. It functioned as a seal (σφραγῖδα, sphragida), that is, it was an external confirmation of the righteous standing Abraham had already received by faith (τῆς πίστεως, tēs pisteōs) almost thirty years earlier. Abraham did not receive circumcision as a result of his obedience to the Torah, nor is genuine membership in the people of God based on works, religious rites, or inclusion in the nation of Israel.
Abraham was declared righteous by faith before he was circumcised. The result is that he can be, and indeed is, the spiritual father of every Gentile who believes but has never been circumcised. Note also that Paul mentions the fact that Abraham was the spiritual father of the Gentiles (v. 11) before he mentions that the Patriarch was the spiritual father of those of the circumcision. That Abraham was the spiritual father of the Gentiles, before he was the spiritual father of the Jews, would have fallen on hard times among Paul’s Jewish contemporaries, but it opens up the reality of the universality of God’s offer of righteousness to all men (cf. Acts 13:34, 47).
4:12 Abraham is not only the father of Gentile believers (in a spiritual sense), but also the father of the Jewish nation (physical and spiritual). In this final verse Paul has only one group in mind—Jews who believe. His argument is that Abraham is not the spiritual father of any Jew who is circumcised, and yet has no faith. Rather, he is the spiritual father of every Jew who has faith—the kind of faith, that is, that Abraham had while he was still uncircumcised.
This final comment about “the faith our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised” emphasizes a faith that has no desire to rest on the rite of circumcision or any other foundation (e.g., works) other than God’s grace and mercy.
Idea: Accept God’s Gift of Righteousness by Faith Alone
I. By Trusting in God and not Your Works (4:1-8)
A. God Doesn’t Justify People by Works (4:1-3)
B. God Justifies the Ungodly by Faith (4:4-8)
II. By Trusting in God and not Religious Rites (4:9-12)
Romans 4:1-12 teaches us several things. First, the use of Genesis 15:6 to demonstrate an essential NT doctrine, i.e., justification by faith apart from works demonstrates the essential, salvific unity between the testaments. While the content of the revelation is in many respects different in the NT, the object of faith, namely, God, and the primacy of faith over works, has not changed. In Romans 4:1-12, the presupposition is that the essential prophetic continuity of scripture is affected through promise—the promise to Abraham. Thus the OT can be read with profit by any Christian—a fact Paul appeals to later in Romans 15:4.
Second, and in keeping with the overarching theme of promise, is that justification is by grace through faith involving no merit of our own. This passage affirms that we are unable to save ourselves and that grace is our only hope. This being the case, the observance of religious rites, such as circumcision—or baptism, for that matter—is of no value in securing a relationship with God.
Third, this passage, through the use of Abrahamic traditions, affirms the offer of salvation beyond the confines of Israel. Those who become Christians by faith participate in the Abrahamic promise and are children of Abraham.
Fourth, this passage teaches that an essential element of justification involves the forgiveness of sins.
This passage is another reminder in Romans that the gospel is for all men, not just the Jews, nor solely for those who are religious or upright. It is for all men and it is the responsibility of the church to proclaim it to all men. It is by this gospel alone that men enter into a permanent relationship with God in which they can know the complete and eternal forgiveness of sins.
“The wonder of forgiveness has become a banality. It can be the death of our faith if we forget that it is literally a miracle”—Helmut Thielicke
“What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me”—Marghanita Laski, secular humanist and novelist, before her death in 1988.
40 James Montgomery Boice, Awakening to God, Foundations for Christian Faith, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 76-77.