We have now come to the last part of the first teaching quarter of Paul’s letter to the Roman church. We have now well and truly established that all of us are “unrighteous” in the eyes and are, therefore, subject to his wrath. But thankfully that is not the end of the story because God has provided a way for us overcome our “unrighteousness” through the work of Christ on the cross. In other words our “unrighteousness” is overcome through putting our faith in saving and atoning work of Christ on the cross. And now Paul is going to proof to us that salvation by faith, not good works (keeping the Law), is not only a New Testament teaching; it is also characteristic of the Old Testament. Paul uses Abraham (the founding father and original ancestor of the Hebrew people) as the example of faith. Abraham had faith in God, meaning that he was loyal and devoted to the Lord, believed in his promises and responded in obedience to God’s commands and instructions.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”—4:1-3
Paul introduces Abraham as his first witness to the importance of the Old Testament. Abraham is not just any old witness but the key one. Paul knew that, given Abraham’s foundational status in the Old Testament, the Christian Gospel must be able to make sense of him. Speaking as Jew, Paul introduces Abraham in verse 1 as his forefather according to the flesh, his biological ancestor. Paul then asks the hypothetical question of whether Abraham might have been justified by works—that is, counted righteous by God on the basis of his obedience to God. Let’s imagine, Paul says, that Abraham was justified by works; he would then have a claim to boast in his eternal security. In fact, however, he does not—not before God. Scripture teaches that Abraham’s believing was the means by which he received God’s righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Abraham believed, trusting the promise God made to him.
Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.—4:4-5
Paul sets up a contrast between the way his Jewish contemporaries viewed Abraham and justification and the way God really acts when he justifies. We have already seen in Romans 3:24 that justification is free in the sense that it is an act of God that is not prompted by us, and Paul contrasts this in Romans 4:4 when he says that one possible (but wrong) way of thinking about justification is that it is not a gift but a payment that fits the work done. Counting someone righteous would then be an appropriate description of what they were based on their past behavior. What justification really is, however, is evident in verse 5. The recipients of justification are the ungodly, and justification is not a description of how things already are but God’s miraculous declaration that brings a new status for a person: a person is transferred to God’s side in the legal dispute and viewed by God as having fulfilled his will.
To clarify what we mean by justification let me say this: “To be justified” means to be “righteous in God’s sight” (Romans 2:13), to be “made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19), to “establish as right” or to “set or put something right.” In a judicial sense, it means to be acquitted or declared “not guilty.” In this respect, it is directly related to God’s forgiveness made available through Christ’s sacrifice. All people are sinners in rebellion and opposition against God and according to his perfect law, we are pronounced guilty and condemned to eternal death. But those who truly repent enter a right relationship with God. From God’s perspective, when a person accepts Christ’s atoning sacrifice for himself or herself, in that moment it is as if that individual had never sinned. That is what justification is and that is what Paul is trying to get across to his original readers and to us today in these two short verses.
David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”—4:6-8
Paul takes another Old Testament figure, one who is similar in stature to Abraham, as further witness to justification through faith. God also justified David through faith and not through works. God does not credit or count sin, whereas he does credit righteousness. And Paul does this be using a quotation from Psalm 32:1-2 showing that both David and Paul understood that one’s faith being credited as righteousness includes their sins being forgiven and their relationship with God being restored. And this is a gift based on God’s mercy and is made possible through Christ’s death on the cross.
Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.—4:9-12
A correct understanding of the sequence of events depicted in Genesis shows that justification is through faith and not through works. Abraham is an important paradigm for justification because he is justified by faith (Genesis 15) before he is circumcised (Genesis 17). Circumcision is merely the seal on a righteousness that Abraham had already received through faith. Because Abraham was justified in uncircumcised state, justification through faith is available to those who are not circumcised—to Gentiles. God’s plan for salvation of the Gentiles is already portrayed in Abraham’s life, as well in the promise that all nations on earth will be blessed through him (Genesis 18:18). Similarly, for the Jews, Abraham is the father of the circumcised as long they also share in the faith he exercised. The faith of Abraham was a true faith that endured, believed, trusted, obeyed, grew strong and honored God. This is the type of faith that makes us children of God. And that is where we will pick up as we see Paul put the finishing touches on this case study on justification by faith.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Isaiah 12-14, 2 Corinthians 13:1-13, Psalm 57:1-11 and Proverbs 23:9-11
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