Paul's Epistle to the Romans

 (14) Justification is illustrated in the Old Testament.
Romans 4:1-25


1 What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?
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? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
6 just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered;
8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”
9 Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.
10 How then was it accounted? 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 still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also,
12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
13 For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed 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 made of no effect,
15 because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, 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, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did;
18 who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.”
19 And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.
20 He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God,
21 and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.
22 And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him,
24 but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead,
25 who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.

 

Paul has just firmly established that the righteousness of God is apart from the law (3:21) and that man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law (3:28). He is aware, however, that the Jew will offer the case of Abraham as rebuttal to this teaching. Paul’s own people were still engrossed with the idea that being Jewish ought to give them certain privileges in the eyes of God. Thus, in this chapter, Paul analyzes the principle by which God saved Abraham. The father of Israel is an illustration of God’s message of salvation in the Old Testament.

1 What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?

Paul opens up this chapter by connecting this argument with what he had been talking about back in the third chapter. The gospel excludes boasting and establishes the Law, as we have seen. Abraham and David confirm Paul’s line of reasoning.

Paul used the example of Abraham to emphasize the significance of faith. Abraham responded in faith to God’s call (Gen. 12:1–3) and "it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). Accounted is a bookkeeping term. Abraham’s faith resulted in “balanced books” with God.

Abraham our father reveals that the nation Israel began with Abraham. Paul had encountered Jews who claimed they did not need to have faith in Christ for salvation, because they were descendants of Abraham. Paul countered that argument by showing that Abraham himself was made right with God by faith.

Found according to the flesh. What has he found according to the flesh? Abraham has found that Abraham’s works according to the flesh did not produce boasting, but only shame and confusion. He had nothing to boast about. Don’t get the Idea that I think Abraham wasn’t a great man, because I don’t— he did some great things. But he also did some shameful things, like when he didn’t believe God, and he ran down to Egypt, where he told Pharaoh that Sarah was not his wife. That’s something Abraham could not boast about.

How was Abraham saved? Not by works, but by faith: “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Salvation is not like wages that you earn or works that you can boast about. Abraham was not saved by keeping the law because the law had not been given, nor was he saved by obeying a religious ritual. It was all by God’s grace!

2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

The Rabbis taught that Abraham had a surplus of merit from his works that was available to his descendents. Paul built on that idea, and agreed that, assuming that Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about. But he could only boast to men and not to God. If a person could establish his righteousness by works—although that is impossible—he could never boast of it in God’s presence.

How, then, was Abraham justified? There are only two alternatives: he might have been justified by his good works—a possibility which Paul has previously attacked—or he might have been justified because of his faith.—the only way, according to Paul in which a man can find peace with God. Logic insists that “since all have sinned” (Rom. 3:32), that Abraham had sinned, and since “no human being will be justified in His sight by the works of the Law” (Rom 3:20), Abraham cannot be an exception. He was justified by faith.

3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

As a Hebrew, a rabbi, a member of the Sanhedrin and a Pharisee, Paul knew exactly how to settle a Jewish argument. He could have debated the point, but instead he says, For what does the Scripture say? Paul appeals to the scripture as the final authority. He even personifies it—the scripture is God speaking. In reality, there is no other authority to which he can appeal. This is a lesson we all should learn well. Whenever we are asked for a moral, ethical, or eternal answer, we should always ask ourselves, “What does the Scriptures say?” Abraham was known as the “father of the faithful.” He had great faith, even though his faith failed him at various times, like when he told Egypt’s Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. However, God stayed faithful to Abraham even when Abraham was unfaithful to Him. He promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. The promise was given to Abraham at a time when he raised a question with God: “… Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless…” (Gen. 15:2). God gave him no assurance other than a confirmation of the promise that his seed would be like the stars. In other words, Abraham simply believed God. He took the naked word of God at face value, and he accepted it. “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” as if it were actually his.

The apostle asked the question “What does the Scriptures say?”, and then he answers his own question by quoting what Moses records in Genesis 15:6. “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” What do we mean when we say that faith was counted unto Abraham for righteousness? The word translated accounted is an accounting term which is used with regard to credits or debits. It means to set to one’s credit or lay to one’s charge. If you authorize your lawyer to write checks on your bank account, and he does so, although the check is written by him and money received by him, nevertheless the amount of the check is charged to you. The Greek word for "accounted", occurs eleven times in this chapter and is translated by various words such as “count,” “reckon,” and “impute.” Abraham was not righteous. Justification never means to make a man righteous. It only means that God reckons and treats a man as if he were righteous.

4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

This is one of the greatest statements in the Bible concerning the contrast between works and faith in reference to the plan of salvation. Think of it this way: when a man works for a living and gets his paycheck at the end of the week, he is entitled to his wages. He has earned them. He does not bow and scrape before his employer, thanking him for such a display of kindness and protesting that he doesn’t deserve the money. Not at all! He puts the money in his pocket and goes home with the feeling that he has only been reimbursed for his time and labor. But that’s not the way it is in the matter of justification. Paul explains that justification by works rests on the principle that men may earn their salvation by doing good. If this principle were true, good men would be saved by their good works and salvation would not be a gift at all. But justification by faith rests on the principle that God imputes righteousness to the ungodly as a free gift. Salvation is not, therefore, earned by the sinner, but is freely given to him when he puts his faith in the blood of Jesus Christ.  If it could be earned like a wage paid for doing good deeds, then it would be, to God, a debt that He owed.  But we are told in Romans 6:23 that the “wages of sin is death.”  Paul said in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned.”  By putting the two verses together, it’s clear that all we have coming to us is death (spiritual death). Therefore, there are no amount of good things that will make a person justified in God’s sight.

5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,

Shocking as it may seem, the justified man is the one who, first of all, does not work. He renounces any possibility of earning his salvation. He disavows any personal merit or goodness. He acknowledges that all his best labors could never fulfill God’s righteous demands. Instead, he believes on Him who justifies the ungodly. He puts his faith and trust in the Lord. He takes God at His word. As we have seen, this is not a meritorious action. The merit is not in his faith, but in the Object of his faith.

Notice that he believes on Him who justifies the ungodly. He doesn’t come with the plea that he has tried his best, that he has lived by the Golden Rule, that he has not been as bad as others. No, he comes as an ungodly, guilty sinner and throws himself on the mercy of God. And what is the result? His faith is accounted to him for righteousness. Because he has come believing instead of working, God puts righteousness to his account. Through the merits of the risen Savior, God clothes him with righteousness, and in that way makes him fit for heaven. From then on, God sees him in Christ and accepts him on that basis.

To summarize, then, justification is for the ungodly—not for good people. It is a matter of grace—not of debt. And it is received by faith—not by works. By the way, can you name a good person, I can’t. Our righteousness is “like filthy rags”—“there are none righteous, no not one.”

6 Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.

Paul next turned to David, Israel’s celebrated king, as another example of an individual who received God’s free pardon (see 2 Sam. 11:1–12:23; Ps. 32:1, 2).  Paul has made a case for Abraham’s justification apart from works; now he strengthens that case with the case for David’s righteousness. The purpose of introducing David’s situation is twofold:
1. The Jews’ law regarding two witnesses (Deut 19:15; referred to by Jesus in Mt 18:16 and by Paul in II Cor 13:1 and I Tim 5:19). David corroborated what is said about Abraham and further illustrates salvation apart from works.
2. David gives witness that the same principle of justification was operative even for those living under the Mosaic Law.

David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. Even King David knew the truth of the words he penned in Psalm 32:1–2, which Paul quotes in verses 7 and 8. “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:24-25). As believers, our iniquities are forgiven and our sins are covered. The reason the believer’s sins are not charged to him is that they have been imputed to Christ Jesus (cf. Isa 53; I Pet 2:24–25).

David said that the happy man (blessed man) is the sinner whom God reckons righteous apart from works. Although David never said this in so many words, the Apostle derives it from Psalm 32:1, 2, which he quotes in the next two verses. No sacrifice for such grave offenses as David had committed was prescribed in the Law. David could only cast himself on the mercy of God. “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). No amount of good works can compensate for lack of faith. After all is said and done, when a man refuses to believe God, he is calling Him a liar. “He who does not believe God has made Him a liar” (1 Jn. 5:10), and how can God be pleased by people who call Him a liar?

7 Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.

As Paul penned verse 7, it is almost certain he was thinking of an incident in Judges 7. There it is recorded that Gideon equipped his army with trumpets, empty pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers. At the appointed signal, his men were to blow their trumpets and break the pitchers. When the pitchers were broken, the lamps shone out in brilliance. This terrified the enemy. They thought there was a vast host after them, instead of just three hundred men. The lesson is that, just as in Gideon’s case, the light only shone forth when the pitchers were broken, and that’s the way it is with the gospel. Only when human instruments are broken and yielded to the Lord can the gospel shine forth through us in all its magnificence.

Verse 7 is a direct quote from Psalm 32, verses 1 and 2. David wrote Psalm 32 after his great sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). Can God forgive a man who commits adultery, deceit, and murder? Yes! When David repented and turned to God, he was forgiven, even though the Lord allowed David to feel the bitter consequences of his sins (2 Sam. 12). God justifies the ungodly, not the righteous (Matt. 9:9–13).

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven. Are you one of the blessed ones today? Well, I am glad to be in that company, in that number. Blessed expresses that wonderful joy that comes when you know your sins are forgiven. David experienced this type of joy.

Iniquities are lawlessness. David deliberately broke the law. He didn’t do it ignorantly. He knew what he was doing, and he was forgiven.

Whose sins are covered refers to a definite and complete act of forgiveness. A hard-boiled judge may under certain conditions forgive sins. But this speaks of the tenderness of God by taking the sinner into His arms of love and receiving him with affection. His sins are covered. How? Because Jesus died and shed His blood.

8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”

Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin. What did Paul see in these verses? First of all, he noticed that David said nothing about works; forgiveness is a matter of God’s grace, not of man’s efforts. Second, he saw that if God doesn’t impute sin to a person, then that person must have a righteous standing before Him. Finally, he saw that God justifies the ungodly; David had been guilty of adultery and murder, yet in these verses he tastes the sweetness of full and free pardon.

9 Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.

Circumcision was a physical sign or seal of the covenant between God and His chosen nation (Gen. 17). But God did not give Abraham this sign of the covenant until Abraham was 99 years old. Many years prior to this time, Abraham had responded to God in faith and received right standing before God.

Paul has made the case that justification is by faith alone. He has illustrated the argument, with the lives of Abraham and David, that God has never worked on a principle of justification by works. Yet it is difficult for the Jews, the sons of Abraham, to accept that they may be justified in exactly the same way as the heathen Gentiles. Therefore, these verses introduce another potential argument against justification by faith.

It is true that both Abraham (who lived before the Law), and David (who lived under the Law) received righteousness. But, so the Jew would argue, both of them were also circumcised. Since circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and His chosen people (Gen 17:9–14), isn’t it possible that this was the grounds for their justification? The question that Paul anticipates is this: Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? Paul answer is, faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. This immediately triggers another question concerning the reckoning (accounting) of righteousness.

10 How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.

Here Paul seizes on a historical fact that most of us would never have noticed. He uses the chronology of Genesis to show that Abraham was justified before he was ever circumcised.  Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born. “Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram” (Gen. 16:16). “Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin” (Gen. 17:24). But God declared him righteous before Ishmael had even been conceived—at least 14 years before Abraham’s circumcision. If the father of the nation of Israel could be justified while he was still uncircumcised, then the question arises, “Why can’t other uncircumcised people be justified?” In a very real sense, Abraham was justified while he was a Gentile, and this leaves the door wide open for other Gentiles to be justified, entirely apart from circumcision.

 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also.

Circumcision, then, was not the cause of Abraham’s justification. It was merely an outward sign in his flesh that he had been justified by faith. Basically, circumcision was the external sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel; but here its meaning is expanded to indicate the righteousness which God imputed to Abraham through faith.

In addition to being a sign, circumcision was a seal— a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised. A sign points to the existence of that which it signifies. A seal authenticates, confirms, certifies, or guarantees the genuineness of that which is signified. Circumcision confirmed to Abraham that he was regarded and treated by God as righteous through faith.

Circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of Abraham’s faith. This may mean that his faith was righteous or it may mean that he obtained righteousness through faith. The latter is almost certainly the correct meaning; circumcision was a seal of the righteousness which belonged to his faith or which he obtained on the basis of faith.

Because Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, he can be the father of other uncircumcised people—that is, of believing Gentiles. They can be justified the same way he was—by faith.

When it says that Abraham is the father of believing Gentiles, there is no thought of his being the father physically, of course. It simply means that these believers are his children because they imitate his faith. They are not his children by birth, but by following him as their pattern and example. Neither does this passage teach that believing Gentiles become the Israel of God. The Israel of God is composed of those Jews who accept Jesus, the Messiah, as their Lord and Savior.

12 And the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

Abraham received the sign of circumcision for another reason also—namely, that he might be the father of those Jews who are not only circumcised but who also follow his footsteps in a path of faith, the kind of faith which he had while still uncircumcised.

There is a difference between being Abraham’s descendants and Abraham’s children. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants” (John 8:37). But then He went on to say, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). So here Paul insists that physical circumcision is not what counts. There must be faith in the living God. Those of the circumcision who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are the true Israel of God.

To summarize, then, there was a time in Abraham’s life when he had faith and was still uncircumcised, and another time when he had faith and was circumcised. Paul’s eagle eye sees in this fact that both believing Gentiles and believing Jews can claim Abraham as their father and can identify with him as his children.

The facts are these:
1. Genesis 15:6 records the event of Abraham receiving righteousness from God.
2. Sometime after that, Abraham had a son by Hagar when he was eighty-six years old (Gen 16:16).
3. At least one year had to elapse between the two events so that at the outside Abraham was eighty-five years old when righteousness was imputed to him.
4. Ishmael was thirteen years old when both he and Abraham were circumcised (Gen 17:25–26).
5. Abraham had righteousness imputed to him at least fourteen years before he was circumcised. Paul concludes that circumcision had nothing whatever to do with the imputation of righteousness to Abraham. This does not mean circumcision was unimportant. Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of the faith he had in Jehovah.

Circumcision did not bring righteousness, but it was the visible sign to Abraham’s descendants of the righteousness that was imputed to him by faith. Also, circumcision was God’s seal of righteousness. Once righteousness has been imputed to the individual, it is sealed there forever. This is true also of Christian baptism. It does not bring about salvation but is an outward sign declaring salvation and is God’s seal of approval on the finished work of Christ in behalf of the believer. Abraham received righteousness before he was circumcised so that he might be the father of all them that believe, whether circumcised or not, who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham—the faith he had before he had any external sign. They were to walk in the foot prints of Abraham, not in the steps of a man who legalistically carried out a right that God demanded of him. Abraham, therefore, not only bears a physical relationship with the nation Israel, but also bears a spiritual relationship with all who believe by faith, whether Jew or Gentile.

13 For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

The argument continues relentlessly on as Paul chases every possible objection down every possible alleyway of logic and Scripture. The apostle now must deal with the objection that blessing came through the Law, and that therefore, the Gentiles who did not know the law were cursed—“But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:49).

When God promised Abraham and his seed that he would be heir of the world, He did not make the promise conditional on adherence to some legal code. The law itself wasn’t given until 430 years later—“And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect” (Gal. 3:17). It was an unconditional promise of grace, to be received by faith—the same kind of faith by which we obtain God’s righteousness today.

The expression heir of the world means that he would be the father of believing Gentiles as well as of Jews, that he would be the father of many nations, and not just of the Jewish nation. In its fullest sense the promise will be fulfilled when the Lord Jesus, Abraham’s seed, takes the scepter of universal empire and reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Each of Abraham’s descendants expected to receive the inheritance of Abraham. Although not directly stated, this promise is drawn from Genesis 12:3—“I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abraham’s heritage was limited in geographical terms to the land between Egypt and the Euphrates (Gen 15:18; 13:14). But the promise was made to Abraham and to his seed. In Galatians 3:16 the “seed,” is obviously Jesus Christ. The promise of inheriting the world must be understood then in relationship to the Messiah’s future domination of this earth as “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev 19:16). This promise will come to reality when the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, sits on the throne of David during the Millennium and rules the entire world with a rod of iron.

This verse clearly teaches that justification in the Old Testament, as well as in the New Testament, is totally independent of the Law that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Abraham never had the Law—and without the Law, Abraham was justified. The Law did not do away with the promise that God gave to Abraham. The promise came 430 years before the Law. The two covenants cannot be mingled together—they are both fundamental principals.

14 For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect.

If those who seek God’s blessing, and particularly the blessing of justification, are able to inherit it on the basis of law-keeping, then faith is made void and the promise made of no effect. Faith is set aside because it is a principle that is completely opposite to law: faith is a matter of believing, while law is a matter of doing. The promise would be worthless, because it would be based on conditions that no one would be able to meet.
Because of this, it is impossible that Abraham’s inheritance was obtained by keeping the Law. No heir of Abraham, except Jesus Christ, has ever been able to entirely keep the law. If fulfillment of this promise depended on law-keeping, man’s inability to keep the law would insure that the promise would never be fulfilled, and therefore, the promise would be made of none effect.  But because of his faith the promise was given to a man who was still a Gentile, and was the true forerunner of those who are Jews, and of those who are not. So the conclusion remains that if the Law is necessary, faith is irrelevant; but if faith is sufficient, the Law is superfluous. Both Law and faith are methods of dealing with the problem created by man’s sin. However, the Law doesn’t work since no one has yet been able to keep the Law, except the Lord Jesus.

15 Because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.

The law brings about (or produces) God’s wrath, not His blessing. It does this by setting forth God’s standard of conduct. Men, who disregard this standard, and act as they please, place themselves directly under God’s wrath. It condemns those who fail to keep its commandments perfectly and continuously. And since none can do that, all who are under the law are condemned to death. It is impossible to be under the law without being under the curse.

But where there is no law there is no transgression. Transgression means the violation of a known law. The role of law is to make clear what God demands of men. Paul does not say that where there is no law, there is no sin; he is saying there is no transgression. An act can be inherently wrong even if there is no law against it. But it becomes transgression when a sign goes up saying “Speed Limit 20 MPH.” One is not usually charged with speeding if the state has no speed limit, if there is no posted limits along the road, and if there appears to be nothing unreasonable or improper about one’s driving. The Jews thought they inherited blessing through having the law, but all they inherited was transgression. God gave the law so that sin might be seen as transgression, or to put it another way, so that sin might be seen in all its sinfulness. He never intended it to be the way of salvation for sinful transgressors! Paul appears to be drawing on a saying that was current at that time in the Roman Empire (“no penalty without law”). He is saying here the same thing he says in Romans 5:13, where he claims that sin is not imputed where there is no law—For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.”  The law simply declares what is right, and requires conformity to it. But the law does not give either power to obey it or atonement when it is not obeyed.

16 Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, 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.
 
Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace.  Since receiving the promise of salvation is dependent upon faith, the blessing of salvation is provided by the means of God’s grace. Because law produces God’s wrath and not His justification, God determined that He would save men by grace through faith. He would give eternal life as a free, undeserved gift to ungodly sinners who receive it by a simple act of faith. Two of the best known verses in the Bible are Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

So that the promise might be sure to all the seed—not just to the Jews, to whom the law was given, but also to Gentiles who put their trust in the Lord in the same way that Abraham did. It’s because God saves by faith, through grace, that the promise of life is sure to all the seed. We should mention two words here—sure and all. First, God wants the promise to be sure. If justification depended on man’s law (works), he could never be sure because he could not know if he had done enough good works or the right kind of works. No one who seeks to earn salvation enjoys the full assurance that they are saved. But when salvation is presented as a gift to be received by believing, then a man can be sure that he is saved on the authority of the word of God.

Abraham, who is the father of us all. Abraham is the father of us all—that is, of all believing Jews and Gentiles. Paul is insistent that only those who possess the faith of Abraham are the seed of Abraham and whether we be Jew or Gentile, if we have placed our faith in the salvation provided by Abraham’s God, then Abraham is the father of us all.

17 (as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.

A year before Isaac was born, God appeared to Abraham to reemphasize His covenant with him that he should be the father of many nations, and He changed his name from Abram to Abraham.

As it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations.” Again Paul quotes from the Old Testament, this time from Genesis 17:5: “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.”  When God said, “I have made you a father of many nations,” Abraham was still childless. But it didn’t matter, the promises of God are better than money in the bank. They always come true. It was true before the battle of Jericho when the Lord appeared unto Joshua and said, “See! I have given Jericho into your hand, its king, and the mighty men of valor” (Josh 6:2). What was for Joshua yet to happen was for God an accomplished fact. The Lord confirmed Abraham’s fatherhood over all true believers when He said, “I have made you a father of many nations.” God’s choice of Israel as His chosen, earthly people did not mean that His grace and mercy would be confined to them. The apostle ingeniously quotes verse after verse from the Old Testament to show that it always was God’s intention to honor faith wherever He found it.

The phrase “In the presence of Him whom he believed” continues the thought from 4:16: Abraham, who is the father of us all. The connection is this: Abraham is the father of us all in the sight of Him (God) whom he (Abraham) believed, even God who gives life to the dead and speaks of things that do not yet exist as already existing. To understand this description of God, we have only to look at the verses that follow. God gives life to the dead—that is, to Abraham and Sarah, for although they were not dead physically, they were childless and beyond the age when they could have children (see 4:19).

God, who gives life to the dead.  Although this is a general designation for God in Judaism, it is used here with reference to Abraham’s own body, now as good as dead, and to the deadness of Sarah’s womb. They had experienced new life first hand in their own bodies: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Heb. 11:11-12). Although Sarah laughed when first hearing that she was to have a child, her disbelief evidently turned to faith long before the birth of her son, Isaac (Gen. 18:12). God gave this outstanding patriarch, Abraham, a woman of faith as his wife. She, too, had to believe that the God who made promises would honor His Word despite how impossible it must have seemed to her as a woman long past childbearing years. That was a miracle, but when he said “God, who gives life to the dead,” Paul could also have been thinking about the Father as being the one who raised up Jesus.

God calls those things which do not exist as though they did—that is, a numberless posterity involving many nations (see 4:18). Bringing people and things into existence is done through the Lord’s power to create. This verse could also be translated: “God calls into being what does not exist as easily as He does that which does exist.” No one can comprehend that divine creative power.  The bringing of animate and inanimate objects into existence, and their maintenance, is something that God does. The nature of the objects He creates may be discussed—but the why and how of their existence can be known accurately only to the extent that the Lord reveals them. Today, God declares believing sinners to be righteous, even though they are not, by imputing His righteousness to them, just as God made or declared Jesus to be “sin” and punished Him, even though He was not a sinner. Those whom He justifies, He will conform to the image of His son.

18 Who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.”

In the preceding verses, Paul has emphasized that the promise came to Abraham by faith and not by law, so that it might be by grace and that it might be sure to all of his seed.

Who, contrary to hope, in hope believed. Grammatically this is known as an oxymoron, a figure of speech in which contradictory ideas are combined (e.g., thunderous silence, sweet sorrow, etc.). Abraham was beyond hope, nevertheless, he believed, in hope. When the promise was given, that Abraham would become the father of many nations, there was no human ground for hope with regard to Abraham’s wife Sarah bearing a child. Although beyond hope, Abraham believed God anyway and his faith generated hope.

19 And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.

Verses 19-21 restate in specific details the first part of verse 18, about Abraham’s hope. When the promise of a great posterity was first made to Abraham, he was seventy-five years old (Gen. 12:2–4). At that time he was still physically able to become a father, because after that he fathered Ishmael (Gen. 16:1–11). But in this verse Paul is speaking of the time when Abraham was about 100 years old and Sarah was only ten years younger, when the promise was renewed (Gen. 17:15–21). By now the possibility of creating new life apart from the miraculous power of God had vanished. However, God had promised him a son, and Abraham believed God’s promise.

And not being weak in faith. Abraham faced the fact that his body was as good as dead, due to his advanced age, as far as his ability to father a child. He also carefully considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb. She was unable to conceive a child through out their life together. Weak faith occurs when doubt erodes one’s confidence in God’s word. Abraham believed God in spite of the circumstances. He did not consider his lack of virility at one hundred years old. Neither did he consider the inability of his ninety-year-old wife to conceive and withstand the pain of childbirth. Adverse circumstances did not stand in the way of Abraham’s faith.

He did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old. Humanly speaking, it was utterly hopeless, but Abraham had faith. There is no merit in faith itself. You see, there was nothing around Abraham that he could put his trust in—nothing that he could see, nothing that he could feel, nothing. But his faith in the promises of God did not waver or falter. All he did was believe God. That’s important.

20 He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God,

The apparent impossibility that the promise would ever be fulfilled didn’t stagger him. God had said it; Abraham believed it; that settled it. As far as the patriarch was concerned there was only one impossibility, and that was for God to lie. Abraham’s faith was strong and vibrant. He gave glory to God, honoring Him as the One who could be depended on to fulfill His promise in defiance of all the laws of chance or probability. Above all, Abraham gave God the glory, for the great things He had done.

He did not waver at the promise of God. In regard to faith in God, Abraham was known as the father of the faithful, because he possessed great faith. But how can we reconcile this with Abraham’s laughter in Genesis 17:17?—“And Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear?” We need to understand that Abraham’s laughter wasn’t meant to mock God.  Jerome translated laughter as “marveled.” Calvin and Augustine both translated it as “laughed for joy.” Abraham’s questioning how a child could be born of him at one hundred years of age was more an exclamation of holy wonder, it was also an expression of his faith. Therefore, he was strengthened in his faith, as opposed to being weak in faith (vs. 19). But, I believe there were times when Abraham’s faith was weaker, like the time he went to Egypt to escape famine. There he lied and told Pharaohs that Sarah was his sister, because he wasn’t convinced that God would take care of him and protect him. Even the best Christians have doubts, sometimes. The truest faith is not the kind which never has a question. The man who feels a tinge of disbelief, but maintains his confidence in God, has discovered for himself the meaning of the prayer, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). This is the kind of faith which grows strong.

21 And being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.

Abraham did not know how God would fulfill His word, but that was incidental. He knew God and he had every confidence that God was fully able to do what He had promised. In one way his was wonderful faith, but in another way it was the most reasonable thing to do, because God’s word is the surest thing in the universe, and for Abraham there was no risk in believing it! History teaches us that what God promises, He also performs.

It is told that one day Saint Theresa set out to build a convent having only twelve pence. Someone said to her, “Not even Saint Theresa can accomplish much with twelve pence.” “True,” she answered, “but Saint Theresa and twelve pence and God can do anything.”

22 And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

This verse begins with and therefore which means that what is to be said is linked closely with what has just been said. Because Abraham had faith, because he believed God in the face of adverse circumstances, therefore, that faith was "accounted to him for righteousness.” All that Abraham had, his righteousness, his inheritance, and his posterity, he gained not by works, but by faith. God was pleased to find a man who took Him at His word; He always is. And so He credited righteousness to Abraham’s account. Where once there had been sin and guilt, now there was nothing but a righteous standing before God. His faith in the resurrection—life from the dead—is what God accepted from Abraham in lieu of his own righteousness, which he didn’t have. God declared Abraham righteous for his faith in the promise of God to raise up a son out of the tomb of death, that is, the womb of Sarah. Abraham had been delivered from condemnation and was justified by a holy God through faith. God promises eternal life to those who believe that He raised up His own Son from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea.

23 Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him,

The scriptures pertaining to Abraham’s justification by faith was not written for his sake alone. Scripture has universal application, and Abraham’s experience is no exception. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Bible was written for all of us (v. 24), and it is beneficial for us to read and study what it says. Because the Bible is the word of God, it is profitable for four reasons:
1. The Bible is profitable for doctrine, or teaching. It sets forth the mind of God with regard to such themes as the Trinity, angels, man, sin, salvation, sanctification, the church, and future events.
2. Again, it is profitable for reproof. As we read the Bible, it speaks to us pointedly concerning those things in our lives which are displeasing to God. Also, it is profitable for refuting error and for answering the tempter.
3. Again, the word is profitable for correction. It not only points out what is wrong but sets forth the way in which it can be made right. For instance, the Scriptures not only say, “Let him who stole steal no longer,” but they add, “Rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need.”
4. Finally, the Bible is profitable for instruction in righteousness. The grace of God teaches us to live godly lives, but the word of God traces out in detail the things which go to make up a godly life.

24 But also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.

But the Holy Scriptures were also written for us. Our faith is reckoned for righteousness as well when we believe in God, who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. The only difference is this: Abraham believed that God would give life to the dead (that is, to his weak body and Sarah’s barren womb). We believe that God has given life to the dead by raising the Lord Jesus Christ. C. H. Mackintosh explains: “Abraham was called to believe in a promise, whereas we are privileged to believe in an accomplished fact. He was called to look forward to something which was to be done; we look back on something that is done, even an accomplished redemption, attested to by the fact of a risen and glorified Savior at the right hand of the majesty in the heavens.”

25 Who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.

The Lord Jesus was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification. He was delivered up (to the cross of Calvary) not only because of our offenses, but in order to put them away. He was raised up for our justification—so that believing sinners might be justified. In the first instance, our offenses were the problem that needed to be dealt with. In the second instance, our justification is the result that is assured by Christ’s resurrection. The meaning of the resurrection for us today is that Christ Jesus died on account of our sins, and was raised from the dead in order to render us righteous in the eyes of God. The righteousness that Abraham had, and David had, and which we enjoy, is the righteousness of the risen Lord. There could have been no justification if Christ had remained in the tomb. But the fact that He rose tells us that the work is finished, the price has been paid, and God is infinitely satisfied with the sin-atoning work of the Savior.

What can we learn from this chapter? The application of Romans 4 is simple: faith imputes righteousness. There isn’t a thing anyone can do to become clothed with God’s righteousness, except have faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior from sin.

 

 

 

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