As Paul concludes his case study on justification by faith he introduces us to the “promise.” And in doing so he makes clear that the promise does not travel through the law to Abraham and his descendants, because if this were the case then Abraham would have become a role model of circumcision, thus forcing all Christians to be circumcised and adhere to the Old Testament Law. What Paul is laying out with evidence from the Old Testament is that the promise came through justification by faith.
It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.—4:13-15
Paul introduces here the first reference to the “promise,” making clear that the promise does not travel through the law to Abraham and his descendants. Abraham is not to inherit the whole world by becoming a role model of circumcision—if inheritance required circumcision, then all Christians would have to be circumcised. The promise comes, rather, through justification by faith. Paul explains the alternative in verses 14-15a: if what God had promised came only through the law and was received only through obeying the law, then the whole system would collapse because the law brings wrath. As Paul has already said in Romans 3:20, God’s ultimate purpose in the law was not to lead to righteousness but to shine a light on sin. The penalties attached to disobedience in the law mean that, with human weakness and rebellion being what they are, the law only leads to God’s judgement. If the law is removed from the picture, however, people’s transgressions are not counted, and people are justified through faith; Paul has already said this using the word of Psalm 32 in Romans 4:6-8.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.—4:16-17
There are two key implications of God’s promised blessing being received through faith. First, this ensures that it is purely a gift freely given by God, and because it is a gift not dependent on us but on God, it is guaranteed. Second, faith means that the Gospel is available to all nations of the world, guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring. Romans 4:17 quoting Genesis 17:5; goes on to show that this is not a novel reinterpretation of the Old Testament but something that was there all along (Romans 1:2; 1:17 and 3:21). Genesis is very clear that, right from the beginning, God intended Abraham to be not just the father of the Jews but God’s instrument of blessing for all nations (Genesis 12:3; 13:14-16 and 17:5). This fatherhood was impossible, humanly speaking, but Abraham’s trust was in the God who can resurrect the dead and create reality out of nothing.
What does all that mean: Believers are spiritually saved and receive God’s promise to live and reign with him forever through faith alone because of God’s grace. But there are two Biblical principles related to the nature of saving faith that must be understood.
- While one is saved through faith alone, the faith that saves is not the end of the expression of faith. James states that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:14-16); Paul calls these deeds “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). Saving faith is an active faith that expresses itself through love and obedience to Christ and kindness and service to others. Faith that chooses to trust God to forgive our sins but does not include turning from our own way and making a commitment to follow Christ as Lord falls short of being true saving faith.
- A focus on faith and how it is expressed should always include the broader picture of what it means to be spiritually saved. Salvation by faith does include being saved from spiritual death, eternal punishment and separation from God. But it also means being saved for companionship with God, for worship to him, for spiritual purity and for good works.
If spiritual salvation and a right relationship with God came by perfect obedience to God’s law, no one would be saved. But since it comes through faith by God’s grace, then all who turn to God for mercy can be saved. Mercy could be described as God keeping us from consequences and judgment we deserve. Grace could be described as God granting us favor and benefits we do not deserve. God provided his grace through his Son, Jesus, who gave his life to pay the penalty for our offenses against God. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, God mercifully forgives sin and extends his grace through his Holy Spirit, whose power transforms believers’ lives and makes them God’s children. Christ’s followers continue to experience God’s grace through the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who give them the desire and power to fulfill God’s purposes for their lives.
While Abraham is the father of the Jews in a physical sense, he is the father of Christ’s followers in a spiritual sense as they follow his example and have the same kind of faith in God. Abraham’s faith in God was complete. He had full confidence in God’s unmatched ability (“who gives life to the dead”) as well as God’s promise (“who calls things that are not as though they were”). In Abraham’s specific situation, his faith was shown in how trusted God to fulfill his promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. Abraham was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21), and he acted on this confidence even though he and his wife were childless and too old in human terms to start a family. In his own perfect time and way, God fulfilled this promise to Abraham and his descendants, and we as people of faith, still benefit from this promise today.
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead —since he was about a hundred years old —and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.—4:18-21
Using Abraham as testimony, Paul gives a worked-out definition of faith.
- Faith is in the impossible (v. 18a). Faith is not escapism but faces the reality of how things are without God’s intervention: Abraham faced the fact that both he and Sarah, if left to themselves, had no chance of becoming parents (v. 19).
- Faith is not just a general dependence on God but belief in God’s Word (v. 18b). Abraham believed just as it had been said to him.
- Being strengthened in faith glorifies God (v. 20). Coming to faith and preserving faith reverse the gruesome situation detailed in Romans 1:18-32 and Romans 3:23, where humans had traded the glory of God for a lie. Abraham did not distrust God’s promise and so deceive himself. He gave glory to God (4:20).
- The basis of faith is God’s awesome power: he does not just make promises; he fulfills them, because there is nothing in the world that could possibly be strong enough to stop him (v. 21). “Faith” means being fully persuaded of that fact. This truth should inspire us to pray to the Lord: “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).
This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.—4:23-25
The faith described in verses 18-21 is the means of Abraham’s righteousness (v. 22). But Abraham has been described as the father and the prototype for all believers everywhere. Genesis 15:6 is therefore not just about him but also about us (Romans 4:23-24a). Just as Abraham believed in the God who brings life out of death (v. 17)—a family tree out of a hundred-year old man and an infertile woman (v. 19)—so Christians believe that a corpse was brought back to life by God and that the death and resurrection of Jesus is our only hope for salvation. Jesus was delivered to death for our sins and raised for our justification. In other words, justification by faith is for all who believe in Jesus’ death for sin and in his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). Romans 4:25, Paul is not specifying that only Christ’s death dealt with our sins and that only his resurrection brought justification (for 5:9 he says justification came through Christ’s blood). Rather, Christ’s death and resurrection brought forgiveness and justification. The cross and resurrection are both of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). In Romans 6 and 8, Paul is going to expand the role of resurrection in salvation. We have now reached the end of the first major section of Paul’s letter to the Roman church and tomorrow we will begin the second major section that focuses on our having righteousness in Christ, which is a shift from what we have been discussing which is justification through Christ.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Isaiah 15-18, Galatians 1, Psalm 58:1-11 and Proverbs 23:12
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