It is always useful to recall from where we have come for present context, so a short review is always in order. In chapter 1, after Paul introduces himself, his credentials, and his audience, he begins to speak about the subject that we have now termed in our understanding, RADICAL DEPRAVITY, detailing it in 1:18-32, giving both reasons and examples regarding the terrible and approaching wrath of God.
Chapter 2 becomes a little more specific, addressing a specific target audience – the Jew in their midst – that perhaps had come because of some kind of agreement that Jesus was a man to follow, but still relying on their own Jewish ritual, rite, sign, or even membership of the specific group for their salvation. Paul went on to explain that there is no ritual, rite, sign, place, set of words or actions, or membership of any specific earthly group that has salvific effect. That salvation [soteria] only comes from one source for everyone – from Christ alone, by grace alone through faith alone, as the theologians of the Reformation put it. Romans 3 talks about the straight up gospel, and tells us not only why we need to be saved from that coming wrath, but the hows and the whens and all of that.
Now we’re in chapter 4.
I summarized the chapter like this:
KV24: Abraham, the Old Testament example
1-8: God credits righteousness apart from works
9-17: The promise was not through Law, but through faith
18-25: The promise is fulfilled in Christ
KV24: Abraham, the Old Testament example
Using the events recorded in Genesis 15, the Apostle Paul is about to show us how the Lord reckoned faith in Himself as righteousness that He could attribute to a human being, specifically Abraham. This is over 400 years before Moses spoke the Law to Israel, and even before there was a tradition for circumcision. Abraham is not even a Jew, those don’t come along until the sons of Israel begin to call themselves this centuries later. But how can this be? There are a few questions that arise here. How is this done? What is the nature of this imputed righteousness? When does it occur in the life of Abraham? Let’s find out.
1-8: God credits righteousness apart from works
The first thing we see is that God credits the people He saves with righteousness apart from works. No deeds can be done here, no Law-keeping will suffice, because the Law was only the standard, meant to show what is right from what is not. This makes it definitionally, a STANDARD, and no standard can convey righteousness, it can only be a measure of the right done (or lack of same). Think of a meter stick. The stick itself can only measure the meter travelled, it cannot do the travelling. Let’s get into the text.
1: What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?
- Abraham, the great Patriarch, has indeed found something. Paul is about to answer this rhetorical question himself.
2: For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
- Here, Paul has used a sort of negative statement. If Abraham was justified, that is made right before God, by his own deeds, he would have something to brag about – but not before God, according to Paul.
3: For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
- I love Paul’s question here, by the way. When we are investigating things like this, it is always best to ask the question, “What does the Scripture say?” Paul is quoting the Old Testament story itself, that is Genesis 15:6 which says, “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul explains that when Abraham believed the Lord, that is what the Lord had just promised in verse 5, which reads, “And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”” And friends, what was Abraham believing? He was believing God, who spoke His word to him.
- It is worth mentioning that Abraham did nothing to gain this favour. He did not “get himself ready” or “prepare himself” in any way. This was over 400 years before the Law was given as a righteous standard. It is before the sign of circumcision was given to set Abraham apart from the rest of the world. It was even before his name was Abraham – he was called Abram. He did nothing but trust the character of the God who promised, and God was pleased enough with that to count it as righteousness, and enough to make Abraham right with God through His then-coming Son, Jesus Christ.
4: Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.
- You see, if Abraham had WORKED for this, it would have been what was due his behaviour, and then it could be seen as a wage, or what was owed to Abraham.
5: But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,
- There is the key! It is profoundly simple on one end, but on the other end, it is simply profound. The one who does not work, but instead believes that God will save him will be saved. It is by means of faith that God credits our own accounts as righteous!
- Why doesn’t everyone believe then? I don’t know, it doesn’t make any sense to me either, but I see guys trying to behave their way to salvation every day. And it is so unnecessary – just trust what God said, that His word is enough, because His power is enough.
6: just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
- Paul is now going to quote a second Old Testament source for this righteousness apart from works. It is important to see this, because there are many that would try to tell us that the Old Testament was all wrath and evil, but this idea of grace (the Hebrew word is lovingkindness) through faith in the Messiah is as least as old as the Levitical Priesthood, and with the mention of Abraham, perhaps even older. Let’s look at the Old Testament Quote:
7: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered.
- The quote is from Psalm 32:1 and reads, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered!” There is the concept of the forgiveness of sins, right there, from the man after God’s own heart, King David, the shepherd. David here is giving specific thanks for the forgiveness of transgressions, and the covering of sins (think finances, covering the cost of something). David of course, most of us are aware, committed both adultery and murder, neither of which have forgiveness under the law, and both of which were death penalty crimes. Yet, he is here, praising God for the forgiveness of those very sins, and they payment that covers them. Better, David continues, and so does Paul:
8: “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
- Another word for “blessed” is “happy” – and David here is happy that the lord is not counting his sins against God, and David knew what those were. He had to have known. Even if this Psalm was written before that time, David was conscious of his other sins as well. He understood he was not innocent.
What we can see very clearly by multiple examples in this first paragraph of the chapter is that God justifies humans apart from the law, and apart from works, and apart from ritual. He forgives transgression, and covers the cost of those sins Himself, and after that, he does not count those sins to the account of the one He forgives. His character is such that Abraham himself could hear what God had to say about his descendants and believe that God would bring it to pass – and have God count that faith or trust or belief in Himself to Abraham as righteousness. Paul is building a case through Abraham and David for the idea of Messiah, the one that would come in history that would actually bear the terrible cost of our sins so that we would not have to. I have a sincere question to those who would kill themselves with works to earn this salvation – why would you do this? God Himself offers it for free! Why not just take Him at His word? Let’s move on, because Paul has more to say.
9-17: The promise was not through Law, but through faith
There were those that would extoll the Law here, telling us that because Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Law, He is able to make this kind of atonement, but this, according to Paul here, misses the mark just a little. Why is that? Because this next thought unit tells us that this promise was NOT through the law, but instead through faith and trust in God as well.
9: Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.”
- Paul here is now dealing with a Judaistic assault on Gentile believers. Is this blessing only for those who have been circumcised? Or does it include those who are not? After all, faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness. And Abraham was given the covenant of circumcision, said the Judaizers. Those involved with the argument have actually made an error in regarding circumcision as a covenant by itself. It wasn’t a covenant all on its own, as we will see.
10: How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised;
- Abraham was granted this covenant before the institution of circumcision. People make this out to be WAY more important than it really is. Everyone thinks that it was a part of the covenant, but it was NOT. The covenant was cut one-sided by God without any requirement on Abraham’s part. Let’s look at the Genesis 15 text for a minute. [Read Gen. 15] Where in the Abrahamic Covenant was there a requirement for circumcision? It isn’t here. The first reference to circumcision doesn’t occur until Genesis 17:10. At the key moment of the cutting of the covenant, there was no requirement laid on Abraham. Circumcision was given at the reiteration of the covenant when Sarah was actually with child. It was said to be a “sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham who was already a believer in Genesis 17:11 which reads, “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Here still it is not a stand-alone covenant, it is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, but not an initial requirement.
- Please note that this is similar (though obviously not the same) to baptism in the New Testament. Baptism in the New Testament is a sign of the New Covenant in an earthly sense, but it has no actual power to save, just like circumcision had no power to save people then. Mostly, it is what Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:21 which reads, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” One of the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists is seen in this as well. Presbyterians feel that we should baptize the children of believers as what they call “children of the covenant,” whereas Baptists believe that one should only be baptized after a more adult choice on the part of the participant is had. I’ve heard both angles, and although I prefer the Baptist version better, the Presbyterian version was presented to me by none other than Dr. R. C. Sproul, and I will not reject it out of hand for that reason, and I need to do more thinking on that subject, clearly. I probably will still be a Baptist though, so don’t get your hopes up, people.
11: and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them,
- Paul explains further. That seal, like baptism, was a seal. Who here has seen a seal? I’m not talking about aquatic marine life, I’m talking about how a monarch secured his communications so that they knew it was from him. This practice is still in use today! We use a paper punch of sorts to imprint the paper and alter its texture. It is a sign that the document has been legally accepted. What does it seal, that is what does it signify? It validates the righteousness that Abraham had by faith, that belief or trust in God that he had WHILE UNCIRCUMCISED! You see? It wasn’t a requirement of salvation, it was rather a legal symbol that Abraham’s faith was real and that he had it before he was sealed. This means that everything that followed, that God would make him the father of “all who believe without being circumcised – that righteousness might be credited to THEM! Who is THEM? We went over that last time – it refers to those who believe God through all time, the Israel of God – US!
12: and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
- See? The father of circumcision to those that are not only of the circumcision, but also those who follow in the steps of faith that Abraham took before he was circumcised. The more we read about this, the more I can see why people say that baptism is a sign of the New Covenant the way circumcision was of the Old Covenant. In our New Covenant times, baptism is not required for our salvation – but if you want to follow Christ, you should obey and be baptized. Faith is accepted without it as well, even though it is the answer of a good conscience as Peter says in 1 Pet 3:21, which we just looked at.
13: For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.
- Paul is finishing up the statement here. The promise to Abraham or to his descendants, that Abraham would be heir of the world did not come through the Law. Remember, that comes over 400 years later. Rather it came before the law, and before circumcision was even heard or referred to. How did it come? Through the righteousness of faith! I know, that’s such a “religious” term to my ear. We have a language of our own at times, and Paul was speaking it here. What he has said is that our belief in or trust in God and what He said He would do for us is that righteousness of faith. The very word Paul uses for “faith” is such a word. The Greek pistis means “a firm persuasion or opinion held on a subject matter.” that subject matter is God, and ouor opinion is that He will do for US what He said because of His Son.
14: For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified;
- You see, if we can accomplish the same thing by following the Law of Moses, then faith is of no value, and this particular promise is null and void. Think about what Jesus taught versus the Pharisees of His day. They were all, “follow the Law, follow the traditions,” while Jesus was all, “No, do the works of God.” And just to make it clear when they asked the question, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:28), He replied (v.29), “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” This has never been about keeping a set of rules. This has ALWAYS been about doing the right thing in the Spirit – which none of us are capable of doing without our Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ.
15: for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.
- What does the Law get you for trying to keep it? Nothing but trouble. Does this mean we are without Law? No, it does not, but it means that there is no violation if there is no comparative standard. After we are saved, we keep the Law because God wrote it on our hearts, and it begins to become harder and harder to do those former things that Jesus delivered us from. When the Law is taken away as a comparative standard, there can be no breaking of a law.
16: For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,
- Now rather than have everyone keep an impossible standard, God makes a different way – the way of faith – the way of being persuaded that He will do for us what He says. And faith, we know comes through the gift of God by His grace to us. Because of THIS, “whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life!” To ALL the descendants of Abraham – not only those who are “of the Law,” but also those who “are of the faith of Abraham,” who is the father of us all. And beloved – father Abraham had MANY sons. MANY sons had father Abraham – I am one of them, and so are you – so let us praise the Lord. Who is Paul referring to? Jews who believed and Gentiles who believed. All believers in Jesus through all of time. And Paul is not finished his statement here!
17: (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
- The first part of this verse is actually a parenthetical comment. I find that can break up a thought, so I try to read it first without the parentheses and see if that changes my understanding. It turns out that it sort of does. I admit that I can be easily distracted at times. Abraham who is the father of us all in the presence of Him whom he believed. As it is written, “A father of many nations I have made you,” as it says in Gen.17:5. Who is this Him whom he believed? God! And here Paul says two specific and important things. First, He can give life to the dead, and second, he can call something out of nothing. He is the resurrection, and He is the life. Interesting.
I find it fascinating that this paragraph ends with those two particular characteristics – giving life to the dead, and creating everything out of nothing. There is nothing so hotly contested by our education system here in Canada today. They would have us all believe that Jesus was a nice man, and that Muslims worship the same Jesus (they don’t). Jesus flipped tables over in the temple when he saw the crooked practices that the priests were allowing. He took the cords from curtains and drove out the livestock and people that were participating in the needless sale of the wrong sacrificial animals and the corrupt exchange of money into temple gold. He was more than a man, and He did all these things in perfect knowledge of what He was doing. He was God. The God. The ONLY God. And He came to seek and save that which was lost, true – but also to draw attention to the corrupt practices of the ruling priests and merchants. No, friends, God is the resurrection and the life. And He can create stuff from no stuff. Don’t mess with him.
18-25: The promise is fulfilled in Christ
Paul is about to turn a corner of sorts here. He is about to make a direct connection to the righteousness that comes by faith, or believing in, or trusting on something, and the Lord’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. It might be difficult to understand – until you really hear it for the first time. Let’s see.
18: In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “SO shall your descendants be.”
- Remember, the one who is believing against his own hope, that is his own expectations of the future (as opposed to our wish for certain events or outcomes to events), is Abraham. In what was he believing? In the promise God made – that God would do what He said.
19: Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb;
- Here was the situation Abraham was looking at. He’s about 100 years old, and has problems with arousal I would suspect, and he is likely unable to produce sperm. Sarah is into her 80s or 90s as well, and her womb is non-functional past menopause (likely about 50 years into the rear-view mirror at this point. It seems impossible for both of them! Plus these two senior citizens becoming parents? Where are they going to get the energy? And will they leave a toddler in charge? What could happen? This could go wrong in SO many ways.
20: yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God,
- You see his response to God? Abraham BELIEVED!!! And his faith grew stronger as he glorified God, who he knew would do what He had said.
21: and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.
- There was no doubt for Abraham! God could do it, He said He was going to, and that settles it! It was going to happen! Done deal!
22: Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.
- THIS kind of faith is what God credits to accounts as righteousness. God said it, He will do it, the matter is settled. Now should we be like that for everything? Probably not, because our faith is not a blind faith that leads to brainless naivety. It is an informed faith that grows the more it understands God and sees Him work and keep His promises.
23: Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him,
- Wait – there is more – Genesis 15 did not record just good fortune for Abraham. It was not just for him.
24: but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,
- And there is the other shoe. It was also recorded for our sake. You know, us, upon whom the end of the ages has seemed to come. Us, in our own hopeless situations, in our own sin and despair. It will also be credited to US! All we have to do – are you getting this? All we have to do is “believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead!” What? That’s all there is to it? I don’t have to genuflect, or even be baptized to be saved, or to clean up my own side of the street to be saved from the wrath of God, which should be our most important concern? NO! All you must do is believe in Him who raised Jesus from the dead. Why?
25: He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
- Speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul here is identifying who Christ is and what he has done on our behalf with this phrase. He was delivered over (to pay the penalty for sins) because of OUR sins, and was raised to justify us before God as a substitute, or as a proxy if you will. He took our place – so that we could join Him in His place, seated in the Heavenly realms, at the right hand of God.
So Paul has made the connection between Abraham believing God would do what He said and made a direct connection to us, if we will believe what God said He would do for us. And what did He say He would do for us? He said that He would send His Son, His very best for us, born of a virgin, born in Bethlehem, born under a star that signified His coming, recognized by the kingmakers from the east set up by Daniel the prophet. That baby in that manger would one day grow into a man, who became a carpenter, who became a rabbi, who became the Lamb of God that would redeem all those that would believe on Him. If you have been following, this Lamb of God took away the sins of the world by dying on a cross for sins that WE have committed after living a perfect life under the Law, His location having been betrayed by his friend. All this, it says in a number of places in the Word of God, was foreknown and foreordained before the world began, and God has brought it to pass marvelously, without doing any violence to the will of us as creatures He has made. Amazing.
Beloved, this is the gospel. That Jesus died to pay for our sins and redeem us to God if we will but believe God, that He raised Him from the dead to prove it. This is all according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1, 2). “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” And all a person has to do is believe the truth of God raising Jesus to life from His death on the cross. Oh beloved, come to Christ – he has His arms stretched out reaching for you – will you not come to Him? Come to Him. Come to the Lamb. Come to the Risen Lord who loves you so much that HE died for YOUR sins. Come to Him. Come.
And that’s what it says in Romans chapter 4. POWERFUL stuff.