R. Kent Hughes relays a story he once heard from Dr. Bruce Waltke: Apparently, some time ago, there was a man who wanted to cross the frozen St. Lawrence River in Canada. Now the man had his doubts about whether the ice could hold him, so he decided to first test it by placing his hand firmly upon it. Afterwards, having mustered up a modicum of faith, he got down on his knees and began to shuffle—albeit gingerly—across the ice. When he got to the middle of the frozen river, where he was trembling with fear, he heard a certain, familiar noise behind him. When he turned around he saw a team of horses pulling a carriage and making their way down to the river. And upon reaching the river, the horses, with carriage in tow, didn’t stop, but bolted right onto the ice, and past him, while he remained there on all fours, turning a deep crimson.41
So is the faith of many Christians; it is weak and timid. But the problem is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it has never been tried. Where is the man or woman of faith who will take God at his word, trusting in his promises of strength, guidance, wisdom, and provision? Who will cross the ice, so to speak, not on their hands and knees in fear of the bottom falling out underneath them—that is, with little apparent faith in God’s holy faithfulness—but rather with humble confidence, taking a team of horses, a carriage, and passengers as well?
Abraham was such a person and we may be too, by following his example. There was little, if anything, in Abraham’s experience that might lead him to believe that he would be the father of many nations. Yet the aged patriarch trusted in God and committed himself to the promises YHWH had made (Gen 12:1-3; 15; 17). Here is real faith responding to the revealed will of God. The result was his justification and the fulfillment of God’s wonderful promises through him.
The same can be said of you. If you have not trusted Christ as your Lord and Savior, know for certain that attaining salvation by your own merits and energies is futile. It is just as futile as Abraham trying to become a great nation when he could no longer father a child and Sarah his wife was barren. You must not trust in yourself for salvation, but rather look to the Lord who promises to save all those who call upon him (Rom 10:13).
If, on the other hand, you have already realized your spiritual bankruptcy and have not sought to manufacture idols to make your life work, but rather have trusted personally in Christ, you need to know that the “faith” through which you were saved is the same faith through which you will be sanctified. There are not two kinds of genuine faith, only different degrees of genuine faith. By following the example of Abraham, and drawing near to God through his promises (cf. 2 Peter 1:3-4) you can experience deliverance from sin, strength in the Christian life, and by the grace of God carry out great exploits for his name. May God make it so. Let us now listen and learn from the example of Abraham in Romans 4:13-22. “He who has hears to hear, let him hear!”
4:13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 4:14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 4:15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 4:16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants—not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 4:17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed—the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do. 4:18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 4:19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 4:20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 4:21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 4:22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness.
Idea: The reason the promise to Abraham (or all his descendents)—that he would inherit the world—was fulfilled not through the law, but through Abraham’s sheer faith, in spite of the fact that both he and Sarah were unable to produce children, is because the law works wrath, empties faith, and nullifies the promise, whereas faith is in keeping with grace which alone makes the promise certain to all Abraham’s descendents.
I. The reason the promise to Abraham (or to all his descendents)—that he would inherit the world—was fulfilled not through the law, but through faith, is because the law works wrath, empties faith, nullifies the promise, but faith is in keeping with grace and makes the promise certain to all his descendants (4:13-18).
A. The reason the promise to Abraham (or to all his descendents)—that he would inherit the world—was fulfilled not through the law, but through faith, is because the law works wrath, empties faith, and nullifies the promise (4:13-15).
1. The promise to Abraham and all his descendents was not fulfilled through the law, but rather through the righteousness that comes by faith (4:13).
2. If Abraham’s descendents become heirs by law, faith is empty and the promise nullified (4:14).
3. Law brings wrath and where there is no law, there is no wrath (4:15).
B. The reason the promise to Abraham, our father before God, was fulfilled not through the law, but through faith, is because faith is in keeping with grace, which itself makes the promise certain to all his descendants (4:16-18).
1. Faith is in keeping with grace, which itself makes the promise certain to all Abraham’s descendents (4:16a).
2. Abraham is the father of us all in the sight of God in whom he believed (4:16b-17a)
3. God summons things that do not yet exist as if they already do (4:17b).
II. The nature of Abraham’s faith in the promise of God regarding many nations, despite the hopelessness of both he and Sarah’s barrenness, was such that God credited it to him as righteousness (4:18-22).
A. Abraham believed against hope with the result that he became the father of many nations (4:18).
B. Abraham’s faith did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God but was actually strengthened and gave glory to God (4:19-21).
C. God credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness (4:22).
Idea: The Promise Comes not through the Law, But through Faith, as Abraham’s Experience Demonstrates
I. The Promise: Comes not through the Law, but through Faith (4:13-17)
A. The Law Empties Faith, Nullifies the Promise, and Brings Wrath (4:13-15)
1. The Law Empties Faith (4:13-14)
2. The Law Nullifies the Promise (4:14)
3. The Law Brings Wrath (4:15)
B. The Promise Is according to Grace and Therefore by Faith (4:16-17)
1. The Promise Rests on Grace and Is Certain to All the Seed of Abraham (4:16a)
2. The Promise Involves the Fatherhood of Abraham (4:16b-17a)
3. The Promise Requires God’s Creative Power (4:17b)
II. The Example: Abraham’s Faith (4:18-22)
A. He Believed against Hope (4:18)
B. He Did not Waver through Unbelief (4:19-21)
1. The Circumstance: Barrenness (4:19)
2. The Response: Faith (4:20-21)
a. No Wavering (4:20)
b. Strengthened in Faith (4:20)
c. Giving Glory to God (4:20)
d. Fully Convinced (4:21)
C. He Was Credited with Righteousness (4:22)
Paul has argued in 1:18-3:20 that all men are sinners and that no man will be justified before God on the basis of his own works. He carries on in 3:21-31 to argue that the only way a man can be justified before God is through faith in Christ whom God presented publicly as a “satisfaction” for sin (3:21-31). In 4:1-12 Paul argues that the truth of “justification by faith apart from works,” is evident even in the experience of Abraham, whom most of Jewry held to be justified by works. Yet the justification of Abraham came apart from works and before he was circumcised. In 4:13-22 Paul develops the theme of the promise made to Abraham and argues that the realization of the promise comes about by the righteousness that comes by faith, not through the law.
4:13 Paul begins 4:13 with the term For (γάρ, gar). The reason Abraham can be the father of the uncircumcised as well as the circumcised is because the promise was not given through the law and, therefore, it is not restricted to those who had the law, i.e., the Jews.
The law (νόμος, nomos) in 4:13 refers to obedience to the Mosaic law, that is, attempting to secure the fulfillment of the promise by carrying out works prescribed in the law.
Paul says that the promise to Abraham was that he would inherit the world (τὸ κληρονόμον αὐτὸν εἶναι κόσμου, to klēronomon auton einai kosmou). Though the promise is never spoken as such in the OT, it is clear that this is Paul’s way of summarizing all the aspects of the promise including the land, seed, Abraham’s great name, and universal blessing (cf. Gen 12:1-3; 15). The covenant established with Abraham had far reaching consequences and became the controlling covenant throughout history. The Davidic (2 Sam 7:8-16; Ps 89) and the New covenants (Jer 31:31-33; Luke 22:15-20) are organically related to the Abrahamic as developments of the seed and blessing aspects, respectively. The establishment of the millennial kingdom at Christ’s second advent is the final great fulfillment of this covenant in human history. At that time (and indeed on into the eternal state), one will be able to say that our father Abraham has become the heir of the world.
At the end of v. 13 Paul says emphatically, so as to once again remind his readers, that this will come about not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith (ἀλλὰ διὰ δικαιοσύνης πίστεως, dia dikaiosunēs pisteōs).
This paragraph, namely, 4:13-22, may be broken down into two parts. The first part, 4:13-17, gives an explanation of “not through the law. The second part, 4:18-22, gives an explanation of “but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” The concluding paragraph in 4:23-25 applies these truths to the readers.
4:14 In verse 14 Paul explains why Abraham and his descendents will become heirs through faith and not through obedience to the law. It is because if they become heirs by obedience to the law, then faith is empty and the promise is nullified (κεκένωται ἡ πίστις καὶ κατήργηται ἡ ἐπαγγελία, kekenōtai hē pistis kai katērgētai hē epaggelia). What does Paul mean by this expression? Some argue that if obedience to the law is necessary for the realization of the promise then there is no room for faith, since faith and works of the law are mutually exclusive as the controlling or most basic orientation in religion. Further, an emphasis on works nullifies or renders inoperative the promise because faith and promise are correlative; they work together.
This interpretation certainly has much to commend it and as a theological comment it is certainly accurate, but it may not be exactly what the apostle means here. There is, however, another solution.
The focus in this text is on the method or means for the realization of the promise. This colors the passage with a forward looking hue. Given that this is true, it seems better to understand the phrase “faith is empty” and “the promise is nullified” to mean that both faith and the promise do not accomplish their goal of making us heirs of the Abrahamic promise, that is, so long as we make works the method of achieving the blessing we will not inherit the blessings outlined in the promise.
4:15 In 4:15 Paul gives another reason why Abraham and his descendents will not become heirs by obedience to the law. It is because the law brings wrath (ὁ γὰρ νόμος ὀργὴν κατεργάζεται, ho gar nomos orgēn katergazetai). The only thing the law can do is to reveal sin. It cannot help a person overcome sin and thus avoid the wrath of God.
Paul makes it clear that the law of God incites the wrath of God. But he continues on in this verse to say that where there is no law, there is no transgression (παράβασις, parabasis). The best way to understand this comment is in light of 5:13. There he says: “for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law.” What Paul means then, in 4:15, is that the explicit commands of the Mosaic law reveal sin to a much greater degree than is otherwise known and understood by men. When sin is exposed as such, the wrath of God is aroused. But, where the Mosaic law is not in force or is not known, there is no knowledge of specific sin among people, at least not to the same degree (cf. Rom 1:19-21, 32).
But why does Paul make this point here? Because he is trying to show why it is futile to attempt through the law to obtain God’s blessing. It only winds up in wrath. The law only reveals what great sinners we really are and obliges the wrath of God to flare up against us.
So then, Abraham and his descendents become heirs of the world, not through obedience to the law, for the law empties faith, nullifies the promise, and brings wrath. Instead, Abraham and his descendents become heirs through the righteousness that comes by faith.
4:16 The expression for this reason (Διὰ τοῦτο, dia touto) does not look back to the previous verse and the law, but ahead to the purpose clause “so that it may be by grace.” Although many refer it backwards, the following “so that” clause reads quite awkwardly on this interpretation and it is difficult to say what the term “it” in “it is by faith” refers to. In short, we may paraphrase the logic of this verse: God has determined that man’s response shall be by faith (ἐκ πίστεως, ek pisteōs)…so that his response can be according to grace. God’s grace (χάρις, charis) is his undeserved, unmerited favor by which He secures a righteous standing through Christ for the sinner who believes (5:1-2).
The result of the promise being according to grace and not works is that it is certain (βεβαίαν, bebaion) to all the descendents (παντὶ τῷ σπέρματι, panti tō spermati), whether Jew or Gentile. The term “certain” means “firm,” “dependable,” “unmovable,” and is used in connection with the function of an anchor in Hebrews 6:19. If the promise were according to the law, a person could only be certain of one thing, its non-fulfillment.
4:17 The citation of Genesis 17:5 serves to underscore the previous comment in v. 16 about Abraham being the father of us all. God had sovereignly placed the patriarch in this role—a role which includes fatherhood over the Jewish nation, but also fatherhood over Gentile nations as well.
The sense of the term “father,” however, may not be exactly what was meant in Genesis 17:5 where biological fathering is foremost. Here, in Romans 4:17, Abraham is the father of us all in the presence of God (κατέναντι οὗ, katenanti hou) which indicates that he is the spiritual father of all people who believe, Jew and Gentile.
Now we said that the emphasis in Genesis 17:5 is primarily physical (cf. kings will come from you” in Gen 17:6), but this does not mean that in Genesis 17 or within the Abrahamic covenant as a whole, the idea of spiritual fatherhood is not at least implied. It is. It is said that through Abraham “all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). This implies some spiritual connection between Abraham and the people who are so blessed.
Abraham believed God’s promise for many nations even though he could not as yet see them and even though he and Sarah were unable to have children. He nonetheless believed in a God who makes dead things alive, i.e., Sarah’s womb and the bringing back of Isaac if need be (Gen 22). Paul, as he reflects on Abraham’s experience here, may also have in mind the resurrection—the calling to life of the one who had died.
For Abraham, God could summon those promised nations into existence for he speaks to them as if they already do exist.
4:18 Verse 18 begins the second part of this paragraph in which Paul will lay great stress on the nature of Abraham’s faith. There was no hope—i.e., it was against [all] hope (παρ᾿ ἐλπίδα, par elpida) on a human level—of the fulfillment of the promise God gave to Abraham. But the patriarch’s hope was not in himself or his wife or anything human; it was in God and his power. Abraham believed in hope (ἐπ ᾿ ἐλπίδι ἐπίστευσεν, ep elpidi episteusen) with the result that the promise was fulfilled and he became the father of many nations.
The words “so will your descendents be” are from Genesis 15:5. You will recall that Paul has spent the earlier part of this chapter explaining Genesis 15:6 (4:3ff). The effect of citing Genesis 15:5 here in 4:18, then, is to link the promise for many nations with “justification by faith” from Genesis 15:6. In this way the point is clear: Abraham was justified and the promised fulfilled by faith and not works of the law. This will be clear in 4:22 as well.
4:19 In vv. 19-21 Paul explains what he meant when he said that Abraham, against hope, believed in hope. The fact that Abraham was about 100 years old and that Sarah’s womb was dead indicates that against hope really was against all human hope of any kind. There was no way this couple was going to have one child, let alone that many nations would come from them. It was not going to happen without God’s intervention, without hope from God via a promise only he could fulfill.
The mention of Abraham’s body as dead (νενεκρωμένον, nenekrōmenon) and the deadness (νέκρωσιν, nekrōsin) of Sarah’s womb recalls the use of the same word, dead (νεκροὺς, nekrous), in v. 17. Thus, the idea that this hope is totally from God is strongly emphasized, for he alone is the one who “makes the dead alive;” he alone is the one who can bring life from the deadness of Abraham’s body and Sarah’s womb.
4:20-21 Paul says that Abraham did not doubt or waver in unbelief (τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ, apistia) about the promise of God, but in contrast, was strengthened in faith (τῇ πίστει, tē pistei). This comment seems to be at odds, however, with the scene depicted in Genesis 17:17:
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed; and he said in his heart, “Can a son be born to one who is a hundred years old? or Sarah, can she bear a child at the age of ninety?” 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live before you.”
This OT passage indicates that Abraham did doubt and did waver in unbelief, or so it would seem. The question arises, then, since Paul was obviously cognizant of this OT passage, how do we reconcile his statement with this account in Genesis. Calvin argued that Abraham’s reaction was simply an expression of wonder which later contemplated the power of God. But there does seem to be some doubt—not just wonder—in Abraham’s words, for in the next verse, he says, “O that Ishmael might live before you.”
Others argue that Paul is simply focusing on the time from the initial giving of the promise in Genesis 12 to the point that Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 15:6. At that time, when God appeared to him and reiterated the promise, Abraham did not waver in unbelief. This suggestion has more to commend it, for in Genesis 15 Abraham genuinely believes that God is able to do what he promised and God declares him righteous for his faith. Further, Romans 4:22 focuses again on Genesis 15:6, a fact which makes this suggestion all the more likely.
We may also note that given the positive picture of Abraham in first century Judaism, Paul probably intends in these words an overall appraisal of his life as well. Abraham was faithful and trusted God all his life, even though there were episodes of struggle. Struggle is not exclusive of faith. Indeed, it was the very promise itself that gave rise to certain tensions within the patriarch (cf. Gen 15:1-3).
Abraham gave glory to God, that is, he praised God for his power and faithfulness. He reached a point where he had become fully convinced (πληροφορηθεὶς, plērophorētheis) that God was capable of doing that which he had promised. Abraham realized by faith—since his circumstances afforded no visible confirmation—that God does not make promises he cannot live up to.
4:22 In v. 22, with another citation from Genesis 15:6 (albeit partial) Paul brings to a conclusion both this section regarding the nature of Abraham’s faith (vv. 18-22) as well as the entire paragraph (4:13-22). But, in broader perspective, it is likely that v. 22 is also intended to bring a conclusion to all that has been said up to this point beginning in 1:18: Man is a sinner and he will not be justified by works of the law, but by faith. Abraham is the classic example of this truth and he stands as the father of all those who so believe. In 4:23-25 Paul will apply this truth to his readers.
Idea: A Right Relationship with God…
I. Comes about not by Works, But by Faith (4:13-17)
A. The Peril of Works (4:13-15)
B. The Primacy of Faith (4:16-17)
II. The Kind of Faith We Need Is One That…(4:18-22)
A. Holds Up against All Odds and Is Characterized by…
1. Understanding the Circumstances (4:18-19)
2. Not Wavering (4:20)
3. Being Strengthened (4:20)
4. Giving Glory to God (4:20)
5. Full Confidence in God’s Power (4:21)
B. Leads to the Crediting of Righteousness (4:22)
This passage contributes greatly to our bibliology or doctrine of the bible and in particular the relationship of the testaments, Old and New. Since Paul uses the example of Abraham, the means through which they were saved in the OT has not changed in the new; it is by faith apart from works. This demonstrates that the demand for righteousness is the same in both eras and that man has always been unable on his own to meet that demand. He must rely on God and His provision. There is, then, an essential soteriological connection between the Old and New Testament. People were not saved in the OT by obeying the Mosaic law any more than we are saved in the New Testament era by our good deeds.
This passage implies that the promise to Abraham is fulfilled (4:13) and that it is fulfilled in Abraham’s spiritual seed, both Jew and Gentile in the church. But the nature of this fulfillment, according to Romans 11:25-32; 15:12, must in the nature of the case be inaugural. There is more to come en route to becoming heirs of the world.
There are many principles that could be gleaned from this passage for discipleship and church mission. We will mention only one: the idea of a deep, abiding faith in God. The kind of faith that pleases God is a faith that takes him at his word and trusts in his promises without question (Heb 11:6). Abraham did not have any human assurance that what God promised was actually going to happen. He didn’t have the assurance of an inscripturated revelation—a record of saints from bygone eras and how they walked with God (cf. Heb 11). He didn’t have the assurance of knowing his wife could conceive either, or that he was able to father a child for that matter. He had no earthly hope whatsoever, and yet he trusted in God. Indeed, as Paul says, he was strengthened in faith and gave glory to God. Here, indeed, is an example for us to follow. Often times there is little in this world that directly helps us perceive the ways of God and trust in him more completely. But, we must trust the promises of God whether there is any visual cue as to their means of fulfillment or not. Habakkuk said it best:
3:17 When the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, when the olive trees do not produce, and the fields yield no crops, when the sheep disappear from the pen, and there are no cattle in the stalls, 3:18 I will rejoice because of the LORD, I will be happy because of the God who delivers me. 3:19 The sovereign LORD is my source of strength. He gives me the agility of a deer, he enables me to negotiate the rugged terrain. (NET)
41 R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories and Quotes (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1988), 155.