ROMANS CHAPTER 4
What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 What did the scripture say: And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. 4 Now to him that works, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. 5 But to him that works not, but believes in Him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. 6 Even as David pronounces blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works, saying: 7 Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not count sin. 9 Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? For we say, to Abraham his faith was counted as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted? When he was in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision but in uncircumcision. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be counted to them also. 12 And the father of circumcision to those who are not only of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had whilst he was uncircumcised.
13 For the promise to Abraham and his seed, that he should be heir of the world, did not come through the law- but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if they that are of the law are heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of no power. 15 For the law works anger; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression. 16 Therefore it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed. Not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, A father of many nations have I made you) before Him whom he believed, God, who gives life to the dead, and called things that are not, as though they were. 18 Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to what had been spoken: So shall your seed be. 19 And without being weakened in faith when he considered his own body, now as good as dead (he being about one hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb; 20 but instead, looking to the promise of God, he did not waver through unbelief, but grew strong through faith, giving glory to God, 21 and became fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore also it was counted to him for righteousness.
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was counted to him; 24 but for our sake also, to whom it shall be counted, who believe in Him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 Who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification.
4:1 What shall we say - Paul’s frequent “What then shall we say to this?” occurs at least 5 times in Romans alone (Rom. 4:1; 6:1; 7:7; 9:14,30)- and this is the classic phrase used by Jewish teachers at the end of presenting their argument to their students. Seeing then that Paul writes in a rabbinic way, as if He is giving a stream of Midrash on earlier, familiar writings [e.g. the words of Jesus or the Old Testament], we should be looking for how he may quote or allude to just a word or two from the Lord, and weave an interpretation around them.
Abraham our father- Paul was writing to Jewish and Gentile believers. Yet he speaks of “our” father as if he’s writing mainly to Jews here- but see on Rom. 4:11. Alternatively, it could be that Paul in wishing to be as personal as possible in addressing his readers is referring to Abraham as “our father” in the sense that he personally was Jewish. Paul in this section is now exemplifying what he has taught so far in Romans from the example of Abraham. This whole ‘Abraham’ section is written in the style of Rabbinic Midrash, with Gen. 15:6 as the verse being expounded. Paul’s point is that Jewish and Gentile believers can trace themselves back to Abraham because the family likeness is in faith not circumcision. Jewish proselytes were forbidden to call Abraham “our father” (1).
As pertaining to the flesh- the same Greek phrase is used five times in Romans 8 in the negative sense of “according to the flesh”. The suggestion may be that walking according to the flesh rather than the Spirit was related to placing meaning on the fact that Abraham was a fleshly ancestor. Being or emphasizing ones’ Jewishness was therefore related to unspirituality, whereas the Jews thought that being Jewish was a sign of spirituality. Paul’s style was so radical, but then so are the demands of the grace which has saved us.
Has found- in the context of Rom. 3:27,28, what has he found to boast / glory about? The answer is- nothing, according to his works.
4:2 If Abraham were justified by works- as the Jews said he was. Jubilees 23:10: “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well pleasing in righteousness”. Indeed some of the Jewish writings claimed Abraham never sinned.
Whereof to glory- alluding to Sirach 44:19, which says about Abraham in the context of his good works: “None has been found like him in glory”. This allusion to and deconstruction of other writings is something which Paul does quite often- and probably even more frequently, if we had access to more first century texts from which to perceive his allusions. Significantly, Sirach is in the Apocrypha, but Paul evidently disagrees with the book and shows it teaches wrongly about Abraham. This would possibly confirm the Protestant tradition of rejecting the Apocryphal books as inspired, although the recorded words of men in the canonical books are also of course quoted and deconstructed. But the quotation from Sirach is from the actual words of Ben Sira, which are claimed to be directly inspired.
But not before God- Before the judgment throne of God, of which Paul has been speaking in chapter 3, especially 3:19. He demonstrated there that all humanity, Abraham included, stand shamed and speechless before God. The idea that Abraham was sinless is therefore disputed strongly by Paul. The Greek phrase “before God” occurs several times in Romans. Because we are justified by faith, we have peace “before God” [AV “with God”, Rom. 5:1]. The practical section of Romans brings out what we ought to do, therefore, with that position- Paul prayed for Israel “before God” (AV “to God”, Rom. 10:1), and he urges the believers to likewise pray “before God” (AV “to God”, Rom. 15:30). If we are justified, declared right before God by grace, then as we stand there in His presence with His gracious acceptance, we ought to from that place beg His mercy for others. This is the practical outcome of the courtroom parable. We stand there accepted, with the judge lovingly smiling at us in gracious acceptance, with nothing now laid to our charge, declared right with God; and what should we then do? We who have peace before God should whilst before God, beg Him for mercy upon others. Job is really a working model for us in all this. He said the wrong things about God, as Elihu points out on God’s behalf; and yet before God’s awesome throne he was declared right, as if he had spoken what was right; and then he prays for his friends.
4:3 What says..?- the Bible as a living word continues to speak with us, in part of an ongoing dialogue between God and man.
Counted- the Greek word occurs very often in this section. Significantly, Rom. 3:28 says that we are to conclude [s.w. “count”] that we are justified by faith rather than works. We are to view ourselves, impute to ourselves, as God does. His view of us is to be our view of ourselves. The Septuagint uses this word with regard to sacrifices [symbolic of Christ’s death on the cross] being “reckoned” to a person (Lev. 7:18; Num. 18:27,30); and of Shimei asking David not to “reckon” his guilt to him, to judge him not according to the obvious facts of the case (2 Sam. 19:20). The Old Testament is at pains to stress that Yahweh will not justify the guilty (Ex. 23:7; Is. 5:23; Prov. 17:15). This is where the unique significance of Jesus comes in. Because of Him, His death and our faith in it, our being in Him, God can justify the wicked in that they have died with Christ in baptism (Rom. 6:3-5), they are no longer, they are only “in Christ”, for them “to live is Christ”. They are counted as in Him, and in this way sinners end up justified.
4:3-5 Abraham's weakness at the time of the Genesis 15 promises is perhaps behind how Paul interprets the star-gazing incident in Rom. 4:3-5. He is answering the Jewish idea that Abraham never sinned (see on Rom. 4:2). He quotes the incident, and God's counting of righteousness to Abraham, as proof that a man with no "works", nothing to glory before God with, can believe in God to "justify the ungodly", and thereby be counted righteous. Understanding Abraham's mood as revealed in Gen. 15:1-4 certainly helps us see the relevance of all this to Abraham. And it helps us see Abraham more realistically as the father of us all... and not some Sunday School hero, well beyond our realistic emulation. No longer need we think "Abraham? Oh, yeah, Abraham... faith... wow. But me... nah. I'm not Abraham...". He's for real, truly our example, a realistic hero whom we can cheer and pledge to follow. For Abraham is an example to us of God's grace to man, and a man in all his weakness and struggle with God accepting it and believing it, even when he is "ungodly", rather than a picture of a white-faced placid saint with unswerving faith:
"What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, hath found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God. For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness" (Rom. 4:1-5).
It is in the very struggle for faith that we have that we show ourselves to have the family characteristic of Abraham. That moment when the "ungodly", doubting, bitter Abraham believed God's promise is to be as it were our icon, the picture we rise up to: "Even as Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Know therefore that they that are of faith, the same are sons of Abraham" (Gal. 3:6,7).
The struggle within Abraham at the time is brought out by Paul in Rom. 4:18-24, which seems to be a kind of psychological commentary upon the state of Abraham's mind as he stood there looking at the stars in the presence of God / an Angel ("before him [God] whom he believed", Rom. 4:17): "Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be. And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was able also to perform. Wherefore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was reckoned unto him; but for our sake also, unto whom it shall be reckoned, who believe on him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead".
It may be that Abraham realised his own spiritual weakness at this time, if we follow Paul's argument in Rom. 4:3,5: "If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory... (but) Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness... to him (alluding to Abraham) that worketh not, but believeth (as did Abraham) on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith (like Abraham's) is counted for righteousness". Surely this suggests that Abraham felt ungodly at the time, unworthy of this great promise, recognizing he only had moments of faith, and yet he believed that although he was ungodly, God would justify him and give him the promise, and therefore he was counted as righteous and worthy of the promise. There is certainly the implication of some kind of forgiveness being granted Abraham at the time of his belief in Gen. 15:6; righteousness was imputed to him, which is tantamount to saying that his ungodliness was covered. In this context, Paul goes straight on to say that the same principles operated in the forgiveness of David for his sin with Bathsheba. It would actually appear that Paul is writing here, as he often does, with his eye on deconstructing popular Jewish views at the time. Their view of Abraham was that he was perfect, "Godly" in the extreme- and Paul's point is that actually he was not, he was "ungodly", but counted righteous not by his acts but by his faith.
4:4 He that works- the same word for “works” is used in Mt. 25:16, where we are to trade or ‘work’ with our talents and will be judged for the quality of that working. The point surely is that we will be saved by grace, not works; and yet our works in response to that grace will be judged, and will determine the nature of the eternity, the salvation, which we enjoy- reigning over 10 or five or two cities etc. By a sublime paradox, the “work” we are to do is to believe in Jesus (Jn. 6:28-30). So here in Rom. 4:4 we have to again read in an ellipsis: “He that [trusts in] works [for his justification]”.
Of debt- The only other time the word occurs in the New Testament is in the request for our debts [i.e. sins] to be forgiven (Mt. 6:12). We are in debt to God, to suggest He is in debt to us is bizarre- as bizarre as thinking that we can be justified by our works rather than His grace.
4:5 But believes- the content of Abraham’s faith was in the promise just given him that he would have a great descendant, the Lord Jesus, who would become many. The content of our faith in Christ which results in justification is the same. Note that Abraham wasn’t presented with a complex theology of Christ which he had to say “yes” to. He was presented with very simple facts concerning Jesus- that He would be the future descendant of Abraham, and through connection with Him, blessing would be received and eternal inheritance of the earth. This is the same basic content of the faith in Christ which we are asked to have.
The ungodly- Abraham, whom the Jews argued was sinless and Godly because of his works (see on 4:2). The word is used about gross sinners (e.g. Rom. 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 4:18). Again, Paul is using extreme language to demonstrate how serious is sin; a man like Abraham whom we would consider a Godly man was in fact ungodly- because he was a sinner.
Counted for righteousness- Paul comments that he persecuted the Christian church "zealously" (Phil. 3:6). He was alluding to the way that Phinehas is described as 'zealous' for the way in which he murdered an apostate Jew together with a Gentile who was leading him to sin (Num. 25). Note that the Jews in Palestine had no power to give anyone the death sentence, as witnessed not only by the record of the trial of Jesus but Josephus too (Antiquities 20.202; BJ 2.117; 6.302). Paul was a criminal murderer; and he had justified it by saying that he was the 1st Century Phinehas. Ps. 106:30 had commented upon the murder performed by Phinehas, that his zeal "was accounted to him for righteousness". This sets the background for the converted Paul's huge emphasis upon the fact that faith in Jesus is what is "reckoned for righteousness", and it is in this way that God "justifies the unGodly" (Rom. 4:3-5; 5:6; Gal. 3:6). Paul is inviting us to see ourselves as him- passionately obsessed with going about our justification the wrong way, and having to come to the huge realization that righteousness is imputed to us by our faith in the work of Jesus.
4:6 Blessedness of the man- the Greek idea is of ‘beatification’, making a man into a saint. This exalted language, the kind of thing the Rabbis did only for stellar examples of spirituality like Abraham and David, is actually the process which happens to every man who believes in Christ.
I’ve often asked myself how exactly the Mosaic Law led people to Christ. Was it not that they were convicted by it of guilt, and cried out for a Saviour? “The law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: that… grace might reign… unto eternal life by Jesus” (Rom. 5:20,21). This was the purpose of the Law. And thus Paul quotes David’s rejoicing in the righteousness imputed to him when he had sinned and had no works left to do- and changes the pronoun from “he” to “they” (Rom. 4:6-8). David’s personal experience became typical of that of each of us. It was through the experience of that wretched and hopeless position that David and all believers come to know the true ‘blessedness’ of imputed righteousness and sin forgiven by grace. "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven" (Ps. 32:1), David wrote, after experiencing God's mercy in the matter of Bathsheba. But Paul sees this verse as David describing "the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works" (Rom. 4:6). Each of us are in need of a like justification; therefore we find ourselves in David's position. The Spirit changes Ps. 32:1 ("Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven") to "Blessed are they" (Rom. 4:7) to make the same point.
Without works- in that there was no defined sacrifice for David to offer to atone for the murder of Uriah and adultery. We stand speechless and defenceless before the judgment seat of God in the same way. Again we see Paul urging us to accept the depth of our sinfulness- the position of a man guilty of adultery and murder is that of each of us.
4:7 Blessed- this is perhaps the thread of connection between the examples of Abraham and David. Abraham believed God’s promise of blessing (which the New Testament interprets as forgiveness and salvation, e.g. Acts 3:25,26); he received the blessing for no works he had done, but simply because he believed. David likewise received a similar blessing- just because he believed.
4:8 Blessed is the man- connects with “blessed are they” (4:7). David becomes representative of us all.
Will not- a double negative in the Greek, He absolutely will not count us as sinners!
4:9 This blessedness- is paralleled with “righteousness” in the second half of the verse. Paul’s reasoning is that Abraham was uncircumcised when he received this blessing of righteousness, therefore circumcision is irrelevant. But the implication is that Abraham received the blessing, the righteous standing, immediately upon his belief, right there and then. Because the crux of the argument is that he received these things whilst uncircumcised. We therefore should be able to rejoice here and now that we right now are counted righteous before God’s judgment throne.
4:10 How…? – not ‘When?’. How, in what manner was righteousness reckoned- obviously not thanks to circumcision.
4:11 Circumcision was a sign given as a testament or seal to the faith Abraham had before he was circumcised, the faith which justified and saved him. Circumcision itself, therefore, was nothing to do with his justification. Paul appears to be laboring his points somewhat, but he was up against a colossally strong Jewish mindset that considered circumcision itself to be what saves and defines a person as God’s. The “seal” which we now have is in our foreheads, Rev. 9:4, a mental attitude, a seal stamped within our hearts by God’s Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30); as such it is invisible, an internal condition rather than an external mark in the flesh. But what exactly is it? Surely if we believe the good news which Paul has been explaining, that we stand ashamed and condemned before God’s judgment seat but are then declared righteous, justified and saved, standing there in the very presence of God clean and justified- this will make an indelible psychological mark upon the person who believes this. ‘Once saved always saved’ is too primitive a teaching- we can fall from grace. But all the same, if we have really and truly experienced this great salvation, we have the mark of it, the seal of it in our hearts, and it will become evident in our thinking and speaking and behavior in this world. Whatever we do subsequently with this grace, our experience of standing justified before God will leave as I put it, an indelible psychological mark upon us. This is what I suggest is the sealing of which the New Testament speaks. And it has to be inevitably observed that many who bear the name of Christ would appear by the way they reason and act to simply not have that indelible psychological mark upon them. Which is the value of Romans, working through the mechanics of salvation in this dense, intense manner, to bring us to the point where we too are convicted, converted and can stand rejoicing “before God”, declared right.
Another angle on this is that the circumcision which we receive is to be connected with baptism (Col. 2:11-15). The cutting off of the flesh is therefore achieved by Christ operating directly on our hearts, rather than by the midwife’s knife. In this case, baptism likewise would be a “seal” upon our faith in God’s righteousness being counted to us in Christ; and it is this faith which is the essence of our salvation. However, Romans 6 seems to place baptism as more than a mere piece of physical symbolism of the same value as circumcision; it is the means by which a believer believes into Christ and thus becomes “in Christ”, thereby having His righteousness counted to them. 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermes and other early Christian writings likewise speak of baptism as the “seal” upon Christian faith.
That righteousness might be imputed to them- because Abraham is their spiritual father. Here we see the power of example. Abraham inspires our faith, and so the amazing grace of righteousness being counted to us happens, in one sense, because of him- because he opened the paradigm, of being declared right before God just because he believed. The crucial family likeness in the Abraham family is therefore faith, not marks in the flesh placed on the male members of the tribe. This of course was blasphemy for the Jews to hear… In this sense therefore, Abraham was father of “all” the believers in Rome, both Jew and Gentile. Connection to him should therefore create unity between ethnic groups rather than exclusivity.
Walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham- see on 4:1. Walking in the steps of Abraham suggests that his journey of faith from Ur to Haran to Canaan becomes typical of the walk of every single believer towards salvation in the Kingdom, a journey only motivated by our faith that we will be there, that we are declared right before God in Christ. Abraham walked by faith- but the content of that faith, Paul is arguing, was faith in justification by God. Likewise we will not get very far in our walk to the Kingdom if we fail to believe that we are already right now justified and right with God; we aren’t walking to judgment day in the vague hope that we will inherit the Kingdom, walking to the Kingdom to see if we shall enter into it. We walk [Gk. ‘march’] in faith, faith that we are already declared right before God, that ours is the Kingdom, and we are walking there to obtain it, just as Abraham took his steps toward Canaan not to just have a look at it and see if he would obtain it, but rather believing that it already was his. The Greek word “steps” is in fact a form of the word ‘arrival’; we are walking to the Kingdom and yet we have in a sense arrived there.
Lk. 19:9 = Rom. 4:11,12. If you have real faith, you'll be like Zacchaeus. You'll have his determination, his unashamedness to come out in the open for Christ your Lord.
4:13 Promise- the Greek really means an announcement. It’s not a vague possibility, the ‘promises’ to Abraham were an announcement that he would inherit the Kingdom. The promise Paul refers to was given to Abraham because of, dia, on account of, his being declared right with God by faith in Gen. 15:6. Perhaps Paul specifically has in mind the promise of Gen. 22:17,18. Having been declared right with God, Abraham was then promised that he personally would be heir of the world- the implications of being right with God, counted righteous, were thereby fleshed out and given some more tangible, material, concrete form. He would therefore live for ever, because he was right with God; and the arena of that eternity would be “the world”.
Heir of the world- Abraham was only explicitly promised the land of Canaan, not the entire planet. Perhaps Paul is interpreting the promises that his seed would comprise “many nations” and that he would bring blessing on “all the peoples of the earth” (Gen. 12:2,3 etc.). In this sense, they would become his, and he would thereby inherit them. Thus Is. 55:3-5 likewise implies that Abraham’s promised inheritance was therefore not only the land of Canaan but by implication, the whole planet.
God promised Abraham a very specific inheritance in Canaan. And yet this promise seems to be interpreted in later Scripture as referring to the world-wide Kingdom which will be established at the second coming (e.g. Rom. 4:13 speaks of how Abraham was promised that he would inherit the world; Ps. 72 and other familiar prophecies speak of a world-wide Messianic Kingdom, based on the promises to Abraham). One possible explanation is found in Psalm 2, where the Father seems to encourage the Son to ask of Him "the heathen [i.e., not just the Jews] for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth [not just the land of promise] for thy possession" (Ps. 2:8). Could it be that due to the Lord's spiritual ambition, the inheritance was extended from the Jewish people to all nations, and from literal Canaan to all the earth? This is not to say, of course, that fundamentally the promises to Abraham have been changed. No. The promise of eternal inheritance of Canaan still stands as the basis of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Gal. 3:8), but that promise has been considerably extended, thanks to the Lord's spiritual ambition.
Abraham believed God in Gen. 15, but the works of Gen. 22 [offering Isaac] made that faith “perfect”. Through his correct response to the early promises given him, Abraham was imputed “the righteousness of faith”. But on account of that faith inspired by the earlier promises, he was given “the promises that he should be heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). That promise in turn inspired yet more faith. In this same context, Paul had spoken of how the Gospel preached to Abraham in the promises leads men “from faith to faith”, up the upward spiral (Rom. 1:17).
Through his correct response to the early promises given him, Abraham was imputed “the righteousness of faith”. But on account of that faith inspired by the earlier promises, he was given “the promise that he should be heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). That promise in turn inspired yet more faith. In this same context, Paul had spoken of how the Gospel preached to Abraham in the promises leads men “from faith to faith”, up the upward spiral (Rom. 1:17).
4:14 The huge importance attached to faith in Gen. 15:6 would be pointless if obedience to the Law was what guaranteed the promise of inheritance the world- as Jewish theology taught about Abraham. The promise of the Kingdom would become irrelevant because Paul has demonstrated in Romans 1-3 that all men, Abraham included, are sinners, law breakers, and condemned before the judgment seat of God. Nobody would therefore inherit the promised Kingdom, and so the promise of it would have been pointless- see on 4:15.
4:15 wrath- the wrath of Divine condemnation. Because nobody keeps God’s law fully, therefore the law brings those under it to condemnation. Another way has to be found if we wish to be declared right and not condemned. To say that the law creates [AV “works”] Divine wrath upon men is another example of Paul using purposefully radical and controversial language to demonstrate the seriousness of sin and the utter folly of hiding behind legal righteousness. Law creates the possibility of “transgression”, a conscious crossing over the line. Sin is one thing; but transgression is what brings liability to receiving the wrath of God, because if we know His law and cross over it, then we are the more culpable. This difference between sin and transgression is at the root of a great Biblical theme- that knowledge brings responsibility. And this was particularly relevant and concerning, or it ought to have been, to a Jewish audience so keen to attain rightness with God through obedience to law.
4:16 To the end the promise might be sure- God’s promises are sure from His end, in that He will not break them. But the promised inheritance of the Kingdom would never be a very sure promise if it depended upon human acts of obedience to come true. But because salvation is by our faith in God’s grace, declaring us right quite apart from our works- therefore we are sure of entering that Kingdom, and in this sense it is grace which makes the promise sure. The certainty of our future hope and present salvation is therefore precisely in the fact that it doesn’t depend upon our works. All the time we think it does, the promise of salvation will not appear to us to be at all “sure”.
To all the seed- the fact salvation is by pure grace to sinners means that any person of whatever ethnic background may believe in it and accept it. The result of that is that there should be no spiritual difference between ethnic groups such as Jew and Gentile in Rome. And today, our common experience of utter grace, each of us accessing it by faith, should be the basis for a powerful unity.
Faith of Abraham- There is an intended ambiguity in the phrase “the faith of Abraham" (Rom. 4:16); this 'ambiguous genitive' can mean those who share "the (doctrinal) faith" , which Abraham also believed; or those who have the kind of belief which Abraham had. Like Abraham, we are justified by the faith in Christ; not faith in Christ, but more specifically the faith in Christ (Gal. 2:16). The use of the definite article surely suggests that it is our possession of the same doctrinal truths (the Faith) which Abraham had, which is what leads to faith in Christ and thereby our justification. The life Paul lived was by the Faith of Christ; not simply by faith, as a verb, which is how grammatically it should be expressed if this is what was meant; but by the Faith (Gal. 2:20).
Father of us all- see on Rom. 4:1.
4:17 Before him [God] whom he believed- continues the language of our standing “before God” in 3:19,20 and being condemned there for our sins, and yet also being declared righteous there by His grace and our faith in that grace. The first part of v. 17 is in brackets, correctly in my opinion. Abraham was declared the “father of us all” (4:16) before God, as he stood as it were in God’s judgment presence and was justified, declared right- God then considered him as the father of us all, naming things [AV “calling”] which didn’t exist as if they did. Abraham the ungodly was counted as Godly; we who were sinners, disobedient to the law, were counted as obedient; and thus God as it were saw Abraham before His presence not merely as Abraham, but as representative of so many others who would likewise believe in God’s grace and be thereby justified.
Calls those things which be not as though they were- is exactly what Paul has been arguing all through his letter so far. God calls the unrighteous righteous, counting righteousness to those who believe, who are themselves not righteous. “Calls” strictly means ‘to name’, and the reference would initially be to the way God called Abram as Abraham, as if he already was the father of the people of many nations whom God foresaw would believe in His promised grace just as Abraham had done. God saw us then as if we existed, in the same way as He sees us as righteous even though we are not. The idea of calling things which don’t exist into existence also has suggestions of creation (Is. 41:4; 48:13). The new, spiritual creation is indeed a creation ex nihilo, an act of grace. Incomprehensible to the modern mind, the natural creation involved the creation of matter from out of God, and not out of any visible, concrete matter which already existed. The physical creation therefore looked forward to the grace of the new creation- creating people spiritually out of nothing, counting righteousness to them which they didn’t have, treating them as persons whom they were not.
Because God is not limited by time, He speaks of things which do not now exist as if they do, because He knows that ultimately they will exist (Rom. 4:17). This explains why the Bible speaks as if Abraham is still alive although he is now dead; as if the believers are now saved in God’s kingdom, although “he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Mt. 10:22); as if Israel were obedient to God’s word (Ps. 132:4 cp. Ex. 19:5-6), when they will only be so in the future; as if Christ existed before His birth, although he evidently only existed physically after his birth of Mary.
Our comprising the Kingdom to some degree is understandable seeing that God speaks of "those things which be not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17). Thus Abraham and those believers who have died are described as 'living unto God' in prospect, because He can foresee their resurrection (Lk. 20:38). It is to this that Rom. 6:11 refers: "Reckon yourselves (i.e. in prospect)... alive unto God through (having been resurrected with) Jesus" in baptism. In the same way as in prospect we should reckon ourselves resurrected to eternal life, unable to give service to sin any longer, so in the same way we are now in the Kingdom. Careful attention to the tenses in 1 Cor. 15:20 indicates the same logic; by His resurrection Christ has "become the firstfruits of them that slept"- not those 'who are sleeping', but "that slept", seeing that because of their Lord's resurrection they also are alive in prospect. Similarly if Christ had not risen "they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished" (1 Cor.15:18), implying that now they are not perished. The practical meaning of all this is that we should live now in the same joy and righteousness as if we were in the Kingdom. "The day (of the Kingdom) is at hand: let us therefore... walk honestly, as in the day" (Rom.13:12,13), i.e. as if we are now living in the Kingdom which is soon to come.
4:18 Who against hope believed in hope – see on Rom. 4:19. The first “hope” may be human hope- and Abraham as a sinner was in a hopeless situation. Yet he believed and thereby shared in God’s hopefulness for us, seeing himself as God saw him- as declared right. “Against” could equally be translated “beyond”. Beyond human hope, Abraham had hope. This is the essence of the Gospel- having no hope in our own strength, standing condemned and speechless before God, but believing in His hopefulness for us. His faith in this instance was that he would indeed become a father of many nations. He didn’t just believe that he was declared right with God, but that really and truly there would be people world-wide who would likewise believe and become his seed. In this sense he believed in God’s hope. We likewise need to share in the hopefulness of God for people rather than being negative, cynical and defeatist about people just because so many chose not to respond.
Father of many nations- Because of Sarah’s faith, “therefore sprang there... so many as the stars of the sky in multitude” (Heb. 11:11,12). Those promises to Abraham had their fulfillment, but conditional on Abraham and Sarah’s faith. Gen. 18:18-20 says that the fulfillment of the promises was conditional on Abraham teaching his children / seed the ways of God. Those promises / prophesies were “sure” in the sense that God’s side of it was. Rom. 4:18 likewise comments that Abraham became “the father of many nations” precisely because he believed in this hope. Yet the promise / prophecy that he would be a father of many nations could sound as if it would have happened anyway, whatever. But it was actually conditional upon Abraham’s faith. And he is our great example exactly because he had the possibility and option of not believing in the hope he had been offered.
4:19 Not weak in faith- s.w. “impotent”, Jn. 5:7; the word is usually used with the sense of sickness or weak health. Abraham was physically impotent, perhaps even seriously ill and weak at the time the promise was given- but not impotent or weak in faith. The idea of the Greek is that Abraham didn’t weaken in faith as he observed / considered his body. We showed in our introductory comments that the theological first half of Romans has many connections with the practical second half. Thus we meet this very same phrase “weak in faith” in Rom. 14:1,2- where we are told to accept those who are “weak in faith”. This connection would seem to be a tacit admission that not all in the ecclesia are going to rise up to the faith of Abraham, even though he is to be the father of us all, in that we share that same family characteristic of faith. Thus on one hand Paul sets Abraham before us as a vital, crucial pattern- not an option, a nice idea, but a role model whose faith must be followed, in whose faithful steps we are to walk. And yet he accepts that not all in Christ will rise up to his level of faith- and we are to accept them. The same word for “weak” is used in Rom. 5:6- whilst we were weak [AV “without strength”], Christ died for us. We therefore are to accept the weak, even as Christ died for us in our weakness. We share something of His cross in accepting those who are spiritually weaker than ourselves. Yet so many refuse to carry His cross in this matter, because their own pride stops them accepting those weaker in the faith than themselves.
Considered not- He didn't fix his mind upon (Gk.) the fact his body was dead (i.e. impotent) and unable to produce seed (Rom. 4:19). He wasn't obsessed with his state, yet he lived a life of faith that ultimately God's Kingdom would come, he rejoiced at the contemplation of Christ his Lord; and he filled his life with practical service. He wasn't obsessed with the fact that in his marital position he personally couldn't have children when it seemed this was what God wanted him to do; and this was very pleasing to God.
Neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb- so often we allow the apparent weakness of others to become a barrier to our faith. ‘She’ll never change… she just isn’t capable of that’. But Abraham not only believed that he could do it, but that the apparent obstacle of another’s weakness was also surmountable by the word of promise.
An hundred years old- Gen. 17:1 says he was 99, so he was in his 100th year.
4:19,20 There are some implied gaps within the record in Gen. 15:5,6: God brings Abraham outside, and asks him to number the stars [gap]; then He tells Abraham "So shall thy seed be" [gap]; and then, maybe 10 seconds or 10 hours afterwards, "Abraham believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness". Those 10 seconds or 10 hours or whatever the period was, are summarized by Paul as how Abraham "in hope believed against hope" (4:18). His no-hope struggled against his hope / faith, but in the end his faith in God's word of promise won out. "According to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be" implies to me that he kept reflecting on those words: "So shall thy seed be" (three words in Hebrew, ko zehrah hawya). And we too can too easily say that we believe the Bible is God's word, without realizing that to just believe three inspired words can be enough to radically change our lives and lead us to eternity. I'm not sure that Abraham's ultimate belief of those three words ko zehrah hawya just took a few seconds. According to Paul, he "considered... his body"- he reflected on the fact he was impotent (see Gk. and RV). Katanoeo, "consider", means to "observe fully" (Rom. 4:19). He took full account of his impotent state, knowing it as only a man can know it about himself. And he likewise considered fully the deadness of his elderly wife's womb, recalling how her menstruation had stopped years ago... but all that deeply personal self-knowledge didn't weaken his faith; he didn't "waver", but in fact- the very opposite occurred. He "waxed strong through faith... being fully assured that what [God] had promised, He was able also to perform". As he considered his own physical weakness, and that of his wife, his faith "waxed" stronger (RV), he went through a process of becoming "fully assured", his faith was progressively built up ("waxed strong" is in the passive voice)... leading up to the moment of total faith that so thrilled the heart of God. And so it can happen with us- the very obstacles to faith, impotence in Abraham's case, are what actually leads to faith getting into that upward spiral that leads towards total certainty. Abraham's physical impotence did not make him "weak" [s.w. translated "impotent" in Jn. 5:3,7] in faith- it all worked out the opposite. For his physical impotence made him not-impotent in faith; the very height of the challenge led him to conclude that God would be true to His word, and he would indeed have a child. For when we are "weak" [s.w. "impotent"], then we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10). Thus the internal struggle of Abraham's mind led his faith to develop in those seconds or minutes or hours as he reflected upon the words "So shall your seed be". He "staggered not at the promise" (Rom. 4:20), he didn't separate himself away from (Gk.) those three Hebrew words translated "So shall your seed be", he didn't let his mind balk at them... and therefore and thereby he was made strong in faith ("waxed strong in faith" Rom. 4:20 RV). This process of his faith strengthening is picked up in the next verse: Abraham was "fully persuaded that what [God] had promised, he was able also to perform" (Rom. 4:21). There was a process of internal persuasion going on- leading to the moment of faith, which so thrilled God and was imputed to Abraham for righteousness. And of course Paul drives the point home- that we are to have the faith of Abraham. As he believed that life could come out of his dead body ("dead" in Rom. 4:19, with a passive participle, implies 'slain'), so we are to believe in the resurrection of the slain body of the Lord Jesus, and the real power of His new life to transform our dead lives (Rom. 4:23,24). Gal. 3:5,14 puts it another way in saying that if we share the faith of Abraham at that time, we will receive "the promise of the spirit through faith", the enlivening of our sterile lives. And this takes quite some faith for us to take seriously on board; for as Abraham carefully considered the impotence of his physical body, so we can get a grim picture of the deadness of our fleshly lives. These ideas help us understand more clearly why the Lord chose to be baptized. He understood baptism as a symbol of his death (Lk. 12:50). Rom. 6:3-5 likewise makes the connection between baptism and crucifixion. The Lord knew that He would be crucified, and yet He lived out the essence of it in His own baptism.
4:20 Staggered not- Gk. diakrino, to judge. Abraham didn't judge God by doubting, analyzing, forensically investigating, the promise made- finding all the possible reasons why it might not be true for him. This continues the idea of Rom. 3:4- that man effectively puts God in the dock and prosecutes Him for false witness and unreal promises, the accusers being the doubts of God’s grace deep within the human mind. Abraham didn't do this. The word occurs only one other time in Romans, in the practical section, in Rom. 14:23: "He that doubts [s.w. 'stagger'] is damned if he eat". If we are truly Abraham's children and don't doubt God's promises, we will have a strong conscience, not worrying that eating this or that or failing to keep some ritual will result in our losing God's grace.
Was strong- Gk. ‘was / became strengthened’- by whom? By God? In this case we would see God’s grace yet more apparent, in that Abraham was justified by his faith in God’s grace, but God Himself partially empowered that faith. This would be an example of how faith is part of an upward spiritual spiral, the dynamic in which is God Himself- a theme with which Romans begins, when Paul talks about going “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17). Exactly the same term is used about Paul after his conversion- he "increased the more in strength" and confounded Jewish opposition to the Gospel (Acts 9:22). As so often, Paul provides himself as a parade example of what he's preaching. Significantly, Paul elsewhere comments that it is Christ who strengthens him within his mind (Phil. 4:13 and context; other examples of the same word applied to Christ’s strengthening of Paul are in 1 Tim. 1:12; 2 Tim. 4:17; and Heb. 11:37 says that the faithful of old were “made strong” in their faith, by God). We are thrown up yet again against God’s grace. We can be saved by grace if we believe in that grace, but the Lord is willing to even strengthen us in that necessary faith. See on 4:21 “fully persuaded”, where again God is the persuader of human faith. Abraham therefore gave the glory to God, because it was God who had strengthened his faith and the whole thing comes down to God’s grace in every way, for which we can only glorify Him. Paul uses the same phrase for ‘giving glory to God’ as in Lk. 17:18, where it is a Gentile rather than the Jews who give glory to God for what He has done for them- and surely this is another of Paul’s many allusions to the Gospel records.
Mt. 21:21 = Rom. 4:20. Paul saw Abraham as being like the man in the parable who had the faith to throw mountains into the sea.
4:21 Fully persuaded- by whom? Surely by God. This continues the theme of ‘was strengthened’ in 4:20 [see note there], that although God’s saving grace is accessible to us by faith, He also plays a part in developing that faith. This of course lays the basis for Paul’s later comment in Romans upon predestination as being an indicator of God’s pure grace. For He doesn’t just start talking about predestination without a context- he cites it as an example, or another window onto, God’s grace.
We have earlier commented that the doctrinal section of Romans [chapters 1-8] has many connections with the latter, practical part of Romans; and we’ve demonstrated that several verses in Romans 4 contain phrases which recur in Romans 14. “Fully persuaded” occurs elsewhere in Romans only in Rom. 14:5, where Paul urges that each of us, like Abraham, should be “fully persuaded in [our] own mind” about the matter of Sabbath keeping. The implication isn’t so much that each of us should just be certain that we are fully persuaded of our position- that would be to state an axiom needlessly- but surely the point of the allusion to Abraham’s full persuasion in Rom. 4:21 is that if we have been fully persuaded of God’s salvation being by pure grace and not works, then we will not be concerned about keeping days or indeed any other ritual in order to gain His acceptance. That same principle can be applied in our church lives, in forming our approach to matters of external ritual [e.g. head coverings for sisters, or dress codes at church meetings] which in our generation may be a live issue, as Sabbath keeping was for the Rome ecclesia of the first century.
Able to perform- it may seem obvious that anyone who believes in the God of the Bible will believe that God Almighty is truly almighty, and is capable of doing what He has promised. And yet when it comes to believing that He is able to save me despite my sins and regardless of my works- we all baulk. Abraham believed, that God was able to do what He had said. To save him, without works. The only other time the Greek phrase translated “able to perform” occurs is in Lk. 1:49, where young Mary exalts that the God who is able has performed great things for her. Perhaps Paul is setting her up as our example. That barefoot and pregnant, illiterate young woman (a teenager, probably), who took God at His word. Paul maybe has the same sense in mind when he comments that the God who cannot lie has promised us eternal life (Tit. 1:2). John in characteristic bluntness puts it so clearly: “This is the promise that He has promised us: eternal life” (1 Jn. 2:25). To doubt that we shall receive it is effectively calling Him a liar. We are between a rock and a hard place. We must either face up to the wonder of our salvation, or do the unthinkable- call God a liar, one incapable of doing what He has said. Sarah likewise “judged Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11). There again we meet the idea of putting God in the dock. We judge Him- as either faithful, or unfaithful; able or unable; almighty or impotent, a god of nice ideas and fair words which have no cash value in the weakness and desperation of our human, earthly lives. The Greek translated “promise” can be used in the context of a legal assertion about oneself (although it isn’t used within the NT in this way). God is in the dock, making the promise, the assertion about Himself, His very own self, that He will give us eternal life. And we judge Him- as speaking the Truth, the most ultimate truth of the cosmos, of history- or as lying under oath to us. Faced with a choice like that, we have no real choice but with Abraham and Sarah “judge Him faithful who has promised” (Heb. 11:11).
4:22 Imputed- this word occurs so many times in Romans 4. Abraham’s faith that God would give him the promised blessing and salvation was counted to him as righteousness, with no reference to Abraham’s works or sins. The word recurs in the practical section of Romans just once- in Rom. 14:14: “To him that counts anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean”- although there is nothing “unclean in itself”. God counts us as clean, not unclean. The person who is always paranoid about this that or the other being unclean, the need to separate from this brother or that sister for their uncleanness, hasn’t been filled with the positive spirit of our Father, who rejoices to count unclean persons as clean. This isn’t in any way to blur the boundary between clean and unclean, sin and righteousness. Rather is it the logical connection between Rom. 4:21, speaking of God calling sinners as righteous; and Rom. 14:14, which warns that men have a tendency to count / impute things as unclean rather than clean. Cleanness or uncleanness is a matter of perception, seems to be Paul’s message. For “there is nothing unclean in itself”. Likewise sin and righteousness are matters of God’s perception; for sometimes a man can do something which is counted a sin, other times the same act can be counted as righteousness. Yet God is eager to count us as clean; and we should have that same positive, seeking, saving spirit.
4:23Not written for his sake alone- Where was it written? In some unrecorded Scripture? In God’s heavenly record book? Or is the allusion to the finality of the legal case now concluded, that ‘it was written’ in the sense of legally concluded, under the hammer, so to speak? The suggestion is that right now in this life, if we really believe God’s offered salvation, or perhaps, for so long as we believe it- we are written down as declared right before His judgment. In this case, Paul is interpreting the comment in Gen. 15:6 “And it was imputed unto him for righteousness” as a writing in Heaven, the court secretary writing down the outcome of the case. The Jews taught that justification would only be at the future day of judgment (see D. Moo Romans 1-8, Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1991) p. 293). Paul is teaching that in fact we can be justified, declared right with God, here and now; and we ought to be able to know and feel that.
That it was imputed- this appears to be a pointless repetition of the same phrase in the preceding 4:22. Paul keeps on and on repeating it to try to impress upon us the sheer wonder of it all- that we are counted righteous when we are not.
4:24 But for us also- in that Abraham was being consciously set up as our example; and the record of Abraham’s justification by faith is purposefully designed, Paul seems to be inferring, to inspire us to a similar faith.
Believe on Him that raised up Jesus- our faith is that God will justify us by His grace. But as Paul will now go on to show (see on 5:1), that position of being declared right with God will be articulated in our being given eternal life. This means in practice that we will be resurrected as Jesus was, and given eternal life. So our belief in God is a belief in the God of resurrection, who resurrected Jesus our representative, in whom, through faith and baptism into His death and resurrection, we shall also be resurrected to eternal life.
4:25 Handed over because of our trespasses is an allusion to the LXX of Is. 53:12: “He was handed over because of their sins”. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion give special emphasis to the moment of the Lord being handed over to those who would crucify Him. Paul is going on to show the mechanics, as it were, of how God has chosen to operate. His scheme of justifying us isn’t merely a case of Him saying ‘So you are declared right by Me’. He can do as He wishes, but He prefers to work through some kind of mechanism. We are declared right by God although we are sinners; which raises the obvious question: So what becomes of our sins? And so Paul explains that by talking about the crucial role of the death of Christ. Because He was of our nature, He is our representative. Although He never sinned, He died, yet He rose again to eternal life. Through connection with Him, we therefore can be counted as in Him, and thereby be given that eternal life through resurrection, regardless of our sins. In this sense, Jesus had to die and resurrect because of our sins.
Raised for our justification is also an allusion to the LXX of Isaiah 53, this time to Is. 53:11, which speaks of “the righteous servant” (Jesus) “justifying the righteous”. The repetition of the word “righteous” suggests that on account of the Lord’s death, and resurrection, His righteousness becomes ours, through this process of justification. But how and why, exactly, does Christ’s death and resurrection enable our justification? Paul has explained that faith in God brings justification before Him. Now Paul is explaining how and why this process operates. Jesus died and rose again to eternal life as our representative. If we believe into Him (which chapter 6 will define as involving our identification with His death and resurrection by baptism), then we too will live for ever as He does, as we will participate in His resurrection to eternal life. Our final justification, being declared in the right, will be at the day of judgment. We will be resurrected, judged, and declared righteous- and given eternal life, never again to sin and die. This is the end result of the status of ‘justified’ which we have now, as we stand in the dock facing God’s judgment.
(1) C.K. Barrett, From First Adam to Last (New York: Scribner’s, 1962) p. 31.
The Case For Grace: A Commentary On Romans 1-8
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