- The Illustration from the Life of Abraham, Israel’s Racial Father (4:1–5, 9–25)
- Abraham and his salvation (4:1–5, 9–15)
- What Abraham received (4:1–5): God himself canceled Abraham’s sins and declared him righteous.
- How Abraham received it (4:1–5)
- It did not come about by his works (4:1–2, 4).
- It did come about by his faith (4:3, 5).
- When Abraham received it (4:9–15)
- He received it before he was circumcised (4:9–12).
- He received it before the giving of the law (4:13–15).
- Abraham and his seed (4:16–25): Paul shows the results of Abraham’s faith following his salvation.
- Abraham’s physical seed (4:18–22)
- The promise (4:18) : God told Abraham he would bear a son through Sarah.
- The problem (4:19) : Abraham and his barren wife were too old for this.
- The perseverance (4:20–22): Abraham continued to believe God for the impossible, and Isaac was born!
- Abraham’s spiritual seed (4:16–17, 23–25): All Jews and Gentiles who exercise the kind of faith Abraham had are, spiritually speaking, related to Abraham, who is called the “father of all who believe.”
- Abraham’s physical seed (4:18–22)
- Abraham and his salvation (4:1–5, 9–15)
- The Illustration from the Life of David, Israel’s Royal Father (4:6–8)
- The transgressions of David (4:6) : He was guilty of adultery and murder (see 2 Sam. 11:1–24).
- The testimony of David (4:7–8): The repentant king was forgiven, cleansed, and justified by faith.1
Faith: Romans 4
What is this “faith” that Paul proposed as the key to experiencing that salvation Christ has won for us?
Faith and justification (Rom. 4:1–8). “Faith” is what justified Abraham and David, representative Old Testament saints. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (cf. Gen. 15:6).
It’s not a question of what Abraham and David did or did not do to please God. The question is to whom does God credit righteousness?
In this argument Paul again asked us to be clear on the character of those involved in the transaction. Abraham and David, like you and me, were sinners. But God is the God “who justifies the wicked” (Rom. 4:5).
The term justification is central here, and its meaning is summed up well by Article 21 of the Augsburg Confession: it is “as when my friend pays the debt for a friend, the debtor is freed by the merit of another, as though it were his own. Thus the merits of Christ are bestowed upon us.”
Paul’s return to the Old Testament to demonstrate justification by faith is important. God is One, and Scripture is in full harmony with Scripture. The whole Word of God testifies to God’s willingness to justify the ungodly, and in every context that justification is by faith.
Justification for all (Rom. 4:9–12). The Jewish reader was likely to object that this justification was for God’s covenant people alone. Paul pointed out, however, that Abraham was counted righteous before he was circumcised! Thus he is the “father” of all those who believe, circumcised and uncircumcised alike. Faith is a universal principle that applies to all humanity’s relationship with God.
Abraham’s offspring (Rom. 4:13–17). The term “father” here is used as “founder of a line or family.” That which makes a person one of Abraham’s offspring is not physical descent, but rather faith in God. Those who are physically Abraham’s descendants and those who are not must alike become members of his spiritual family. This is possible only by believing in the God in whom Abraham believed.
Resurrection (Rom. 4:18–24). Abraham’s faith, portrayed so powerfully in the Old Testament, has a distinct New Testament flavor. When God told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, it was a promise that life would spring from the bodies of those who were “dead” as far as childbearing was concerned. Abraham faced this fact—“that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.” But Abraham did not “waver through unbelief.” He believed the promise God had given. And this faith was “credited to him” as that righteousness his actions showed he did not possess.
We too believe the message of life springing from death—the message of a resurrected Lord,
who died for our sins and was raised for our justification. And for all of us who, like Abraham, commit ourselves to the God we are “fully persuaded … had power to do what He had promised” (v. 21), there is a righteousness we do not possess credited to our account.2
4:1–25 ‘By faith alone’: the faith of Abraham. Paul now elaborates the points he has briefly made in 3:27–31 by referring to the history of Abraham. It was important for Paul to cite Abraham at this juncture for two reasons. First, Judaism made much of Abraham but tended to view him as a great pioneer of ‘torah piety’, a man who pleased God above all by his obedience to the law. Secondly Abraham, the recipient of God’s promise and ancestor of the Jewish people, occupies a crucial place in OT salvation-history. Particularly was this so in Paul’s understanding, for he saw that one of the central errors of his Jewish contemporaries was to emphasize the Mosaic covenant at the expense of God’s prior arrangement with Abraham (see Gal. 3:15–18). Paul thus needs to cite Abraham to show that his emphasis on justification by faith is no new, revolutionary, doctrine, but the teaching of Scripture from the beginning. And, further, Paul uses Abraham to make absolutely clear just what faith is. He does so in a series of contrasts that anticipate the great Reformation principle of sola fide (‘by faith alone’).3
Ro 4:1–25. The Foregoing Doctrine of Justification by Faith Illustrated from the Old Testament.
First: Abraham was justified by faith.
1–3. What shall we say then that Abraham, our father as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?—that is, (as the order in the original shows), “hath found, as pertaining to (‘according to,’ or ‘through’) the flesh”; meaning, “by all his natural efforts or legal obedience.”?
2. For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God—“If works were the ground of Abraham’s justification, he would have matter for boasting; but as it is perfectly certain that he hath none in the sight of God, it follows that Abraham could not have been justified by works.” And to this agree the words of Scripture.?
3. For what saith the, Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it—his faith was counted to him for righteousness—(Ge 15:6). Romish expositors and Arminian Protestants make this to mean that God accepted Abraham’s act of believing as a substitute for complete obedience. But this is at variance with the whole spirit and letter of the apostle’s teaching. Throughout this whole argument, faith is set in direct opposition to works, in the matter of justification—and even in Ro 4:4, 5. The meaning, therefore, cannot possibly be that the mere act of believing—which is as much a work as any other piece of commanded duty (Jn 6:29; 1Jn 3:23)—was counted to Abraham for all obedience. The meaning plainly is that Abraham believed in the promises which embraced Christ (Ge 12:3; 15:5, &c.), as we believe in Christ Himself; and in both cases, faith is merely the instrument that puts us in possession of the blessing gratuitously bestowed.?
4, 5. Now to him that worketh—as a servant for wages.
is the reward not reckoned of grace—as a matter of favor.
but of debt—as a matter of right.?
5. But to him that worketh not—who, despairing of acceptance with God by “working” for it the work of obedience, does not attempt it.
but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly—casts himself upon the mercy of Him that justifieth those who deserve only condemnation.
his faith, &c.—(See on Ro 4:3).?
Second: David sings of the same justification.
6–8. David also describeth—“speaketh,” “pronounceth.”
the blessedness of the man unto whom the Lord imputeth righteousness without works—whom, though void of all good works, He, nevertheless, regards and treats as righteous.?
7, 8. Saying, Blessed, &c.—(Ps 32:1, 2). David here sings in express terms only of “transgression forgiven, sin covered, iniquity not imputed”; but as the negative blessing necessarily includes the positive, the passage is strictly in point.??
9–12. Cometh this blessedness then, &c.—that is, “Say not, All this is spoken of the circumcised, and is therefore no evidence of God’s general way of justifying men; for Abraham’s justification took place long before he was circumcised, and so could have no dependence upon that rite: nay, ‘the sign of circumcision’ was given to Abraham as ‘a seal’ (or token) of the (justifying) righteousness which he had before he was circumcised; in order that he might stand forth to every age as the parent believer—the model man of justification by faith—after whose type, as the first public example of it, all were to be moulded, whether Jew or Gentile, who should thereafter believe to life everlasting.”????
13–15. For the promise, &c.—This is merely an enlargement of the foregoing reasoning, applying to the law what had just been said of circumcision.
that he should be the heir of the world—or, that “all the families of the earth should be blessed in him.”
was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law—in virtue of obedience to the law.
but through the righteousness of faith—in virtue of his simple faith in the divine promises.?
14. For if they which are of the law be heirs—If the blessing is to be earned by obedience to the law.
faith is made void—the whole divine method is subverted.?
15. Because the law worketh wrath—has nothing to give to those who break is but condemnation and vengeance.
for where there is no law, there is no transgression—It is just the law that makes transgression, in the case of those who break it; nor can the one exist without the other.?
16, 17. Therefore, &c.—A general summary: “Thus justification is by faith, in order that its purely gracious character may be seen, and that all who follow in the steps of Abraham’s faith—whether of his natural seed or no—may be assured of the like justification with the parent believer.”?
17. As it is written, &c.—(Ge 17:5). This is quoted to justify his calling Abraham the “father of us all,” and is to be viewed as a parenthesis.
before—that is, “in the reckoning of.”
him whom he believed—that is, “Thus Abraham, in the reckoning of Him whom he believed, is the father of us all, in order that all may be assured, that doing as he did, they shall be treated as he was.”
even God, quickeneth the dead—The nature and greatness of that faith of Abraham which we are to copy is here strikingly described. What he was required to believe being above nature, his faith had to fasten upon God’s power to surmount physical incapacity, and call into being what did not then exist. But God having made the promise, Abraham believed Him in spite of those obstacles. This is still further illustrated in what follows.?
18–22. Who against hope—when no ground for hope appeared.
believed in hope—that is, cherished the believing expectation.
that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be—that is, Such “as the stars of heaven,” Ge 15:5.?
19. he considered not, &c.—paid no attention to those physical obstacles, both in himself and in Sarah, which might seem to render the fulfilment hopeless.?
20. He staggered—hesitated
not … but was strong in faith, giving glory to God—as able to make good His own word in spite of all obstacles.?
21. And being fully persuaded, &c.—that is, the glory which Abraham’s faith gave to God consisted in this, that, firm in the persuasion of God’s ability to fulfil his promise, no difficulties shook him.?
22. And therefore it was imputed, &c.—“Let all then take notice that this was not because of anything meritorious in Abraham, but merely because he so believed.”?
23–25. Now, &c.—Here is the application of this whole argument about Abraham: These things were not recorded as mere historical facts, but as illustrations for all time of God’s method of justification by faith.?
24. to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe in him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead—in Him that hath done this, even as Abraham believed that God would raise up a seed in whom all nations should be blessed.?
25. Who was delivered for—“on account of.”
our offences—that is, in order to expiate them by His blood.
and raised again for—“on account of,” that is, in order to.
our justification—As His resurrection was the divine assurance that He had “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself,” and the crowning of His whole work, our justification is fitly connected with that glorious act.
Note, (1) The doctrine of justification by works, as it generates self-exaltation, is contrary to the first principles of all true religion (Ro 4:2; and see on Ro 3:21–26, Note 1). (2) The way of a sinner’s justification has been the same in all time, and the testimony of the Old Testament on this subject is one with that of the New (Ro 4:3, &c., and see on Ro 3:27–31, Note 1). (3) Faith and works, in the matter of justification, are opposite and irreconcilable, even as grace and debt (Ro 4:4, 5; and see on Ro 11:6). If God “justifies the ungodly,” works cannot be, in any sense or to any degree, the ground of justification. For the same reason, the first requisite, in order to justification, must be (under the conviction that we are “ungodly”) to despair of it by works; and the next, to “believe in Him that justifieth the ungodly”—that hath a justifying righteousness to bestow, and is ready to bestow it upon those who deserve none, and to embrace it accordingly. (4) The sacraments of the Church were never intended, and are not adapted, to confer grace, or the blessings of salvation, upon men. Their proper use is to set a divine seal upon a state already existing, and so, they presuppose, and do not create it (Ro 4:8–12). As circumcision merely “sealed” Abraham’s already existing acceptance with God, so with the sacraments of the New Testament. (5) As Abraham is “the heir of the world,” all nations being blessed in him, through his Seed Christ Jesus, and justified solely according to the pattern of his faith, so the transmission of the true religion and all the salvation which the world will ever experience shall yet be traced back with wonder, gratitude, and joy, to that morning dawn when “the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran,” Ac 7:2 (Ro 4:13). (6) Nothing gives more glory to God than simple faith in His word, especially when all things seem to render the fulfilment of it hopeless (Ro 4:18–21). (7) All the Scripture examples of faith were recorded on purpose to beget and encourage the like faith in every succeeding age (Ro 4:23, 24; and compare Ro 15:4). (8) Justification, in this argument, cannot be taken—as Romanists and other errorists insist—to mean a change upon men’s character; for besides that this is to confound it with Sanctification, which has its appropriate place in this Epistle, the whole argument of the present chapter—and nearly all its more important clauses, expressions, and words—would in that case be unsuitable, and fitted only to mislead. Beyond all doubt it means exclusively a change upon men’s state or relation to God; or, in scientific language, it is an objective, not a subjective change—a change from guilt and condemnation to acquittal and acceptance. And the best evidence that this is the key to the whole argument is, that it opens all the wards of the many-chambered lock with which the apostle has enriched us in this Epistle.4