JUSTIFICTION BY FAITH APART FROM WORKS HAS ALWAYS BEEN GOD’S UNIVERSAL PLAN OF SALVATION — THE OT EXAMPLE OF ABRAHAM
Thomas Schreiner: In chapter 4 Paul introduces Abraham as an example to confirm the first two themes of 3:27–31: that righteousness is by faith and not works (4:1–8 and 3:27–28) and that all people receive righteousness in the same manner (4:9–16 and 3:29–30). Both of these arguments serve to defend the thesis that gentiles can join Jews in the new people of God as the children of Abraham. God always intended that the salvation pledged to Abraham would embrace the entire world, and this point is clarified when one considers the case of Abraham. Thus any notion that the people of God should be confined to the Jews is rejected.
Frank Thielman: Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people, proves Paul’s point that the gospel of justification by faith excludes boasting, whether in one’s works or in one’s ethnic origins. God counted Abraham righteous not because of his works but because he trusted God to be gracious to him. Moreover, God graciously gave Abraham the blessing of forgiveness as a response to Abraham’s faith, not as a response to his circumcision, which occurred after God had already counted Abraham righteous. Abraham, therefore, is the father of all who believe, not merely the father of those who have received physical circumcision. . .
This passage seeks to show that the principle of God’s free and gracious forgiveness of sin apart from any human effort is not something newly revealed in the gospel but also sits at the theological center of the Old Testament. Paul has already made his basic point that God justifies people by faith apart from works of the law in 3:21–31, and now he makes that same point over again but does so out of the Old Testament narrative of God’s dealings with Abraham.
Douglas Moo: In 3:27–31, Paul briefly mentions two implications of the truth that we are justified by faith and not by “observing the law” (v. 28):
- We cannot boast in our own religious accomplishments ( 27), and
- Jews and Gentiles have equal access to justification ( 29–30).
In chapter 4 he develops both these points with reference to Abraham
Thomas Constable: Paul’s readers could have understood faith as being a new method of salvation, since he contrasted faith with the Mosaic Law. The apostle began this epistle by saying that the gospel reveals a righteousness from God, implying something new (1:17). Was justification by faith a uniquely Christian revelation contrasted with Jewish doctrine? No. In this chapter the apostle showed that God has always justified people by faith alone. In particular, he emphasized that God declared Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, righteous because of his faith. One of the present values of the Old Testament is that it shows that God justified people by faith in the past. If Paul could show from the Old Testament that Abraham received justification by faith, he could convince his Jewish readers that there is only one method of salvation (3:29-30).
David Thompson: BEING IN A RIGHT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD IS BY HAVING THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD, WHICH COMES BY JUDICIAL CALCULATION AND THAT HAS NEVER BEEN BY RELIGIOUS RITES OR RITUALS, BUT IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN BY FAITH.
I. (:1-5) JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE IS ROOTED IN THE OT EXAMPLE OF ABRAHAM –
ONLY NAKED FAITH LEADS TO RIGHTEOUSNESS SINCE ANY RELIANCE ON HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT MAKES GRACE IMPOSSIBL
A. (:1) Abraham Makes a Good Proof Case
“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?”
R. Kent Hughes: Paul acknowledges that Abraham was righteous, but he denies that the Jews had any right to present him as an example of righteousness by the works of the Law. Here in Romans 4 Paul takes Abraham away from the proponents of works-righteousness and brilliantly sets him forth as an example of those who are saved, not by works, but by faith alone—sola fide.
Michael Gorman: Abraham, especially as portrayed in this chapter and in Galatians 3, is highly significant for any interpretation of justification. What Paul does with Abraham here is quite fascinating.
For Jews in Paul’s day, Abraham filled a variety of roles:
- founder of monotheism who abandoned polytheism/idolatry
- paradigmatic convert to Judaism
- exemplar of virtue, righteousness, fidelity, and meritorious obedience, especially in his offering of Isaac (Gen 22, known to Jews today as the Akedah [“binding”] but not discussed by Paul here)
- biological father (forefather/ancestor) of all Jews: the first to be circumcised and thus the first member of the covenant people
Ancient Jews embraced Abraham and especially stressed their father’s obedience. Some believed he obeyed the law even before Moses gave it. And clearly some saw him not only as the father of the Jewish people but also as the model proselyte (convert), a former gentile/pagan. A Jewish argument about who and what a Jew actually is (recall 2:28–29) needs Abraham to be convincing. . .
We can summarize the role of Abraham in Rom 4 with two words: proof and paradigm. Abraham is not only the proof but also the paradigm of justifying faith.
B. (:2) Human Achievement Would Leave Room for Boasting
“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about;
but not before God.”
Grant Osborne: If God could be put in debt to any person, he would not be God. The idea of earning one’s salvation is based on the erroneous assumption that people can somehow cause God to owe them something because of something they have done. The picture of a person standing before God and asking to be given “only what I deserve” is wrong in two ways:
- (1) It fails or refuses to recognize the depth of human sinfulness, and
- (2) it displays a disregard for the holiness and majesty of God.
Being given only what we deserve would result in our worst nightmare. Trying to earn God’s favor may come from pride or misunderstanding, but it is neither effective nor right.
If Abraham was accepted by God because of what he did, then he would have something to boast about. This was the traditional rationale for religious pride that Paul expects from his Jewish questioner. Many Jews saw Abraham as justified by his works, especially in his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. They believed that he had every reason to boast in his relationship with God. As Abraham’s descendants, they believed that they also had reasons for pride. But Paul knocks down that argument by saying . . .
But not before God. There can be no boasting about anything when it comes to God. The pride of the Jews in their special status before God and in all their laws had made them unable to see that the only way to be justified before God is by humble faith.
C. (:3) The Testimony of the OT Regarding Abraham is Clear
“For what does the Scripture say?
‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”
John Murray: The condensation of the apostle’s expression here is liable to obscure for us his argument. It is to the effect of the following syllogism.
- (1) If a man is justified by works he has ground for glorying.
- (2) Abraham was justified by works.
- (3) Therefore Abraham had ground for glorying.
Paul emphatically challenges and denies the conclusion. He is saying in effect: though the syllogism is formally correct, it does not apply to Abraham. How does he disprove the conclusion? By showing that the minor premise is not true. He proves that Abraham was not justified by works and, by proving this, he refutes the conclusion. This is the import of the statement, “But not toward God”. And how does he disprove the minor premise? Simply by appeal to Scripture; he quotes Genesis 15:6 which must on all accounts be regarded as the most relevant to the case in hand. Genesis 15:6 says nothing of works. “For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness” (vs. 3).
Thomas Constable: Exactly what Abraham believed is not clear in Genesis 15. The Hebrew conjunction waw used with a perfect tense verb, as in Genesis 15:6, indicates a break in the action. A good translation is: Now he [Abram] had believed in the LORD.” Abraham had obviously believed God previously (cf. Gen. 12:1- 4, 7; 14:22-24; Heb. 11:8). However when Abraham was promised that he would receive an heir from his own body, plus innumerable descendants (Gen. 15:4), He believed this promise as well. Later, in Romans 4:13, Paul revealed that Abraham believed God’s promise that “he would be heir of the world.” That is, he believed that God would bless the whole world through him. Exactly what Abraham believed is incidental to Paul’s point, which was that he trusted God and, specifically, believed God’s promise.
David Thompson: Now the context of Genesis 15:6 is crucial to understanding Paul’s point.
- 1) Abraham was in the Promised Land (Genesis 13:14-18).
- 2) He was somewhere around 85 years old (Genesis 12:4; 16:16).
- 3) He had no physical heir even though God had promised him one (Genesis 15:2a).
- 4) He thought his slave Eliezer of Damascus would inherit all his promised blessings (Genesis 15:2b).
- 5) God came to Abraham and told him that he would father a son and produce a lineage as vast as the stars (Genesis 15:4-5).
Now here is the main point – Abraham believed what God told him and God counted or calculated that faith for righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
Bob Deffinbaugh: If justification were on the basis of our works we would face several problems.
- First, man would have a basis for boasting. Surely this is wrong for we are created and saved in order to praise and bring glory to God, not to boast concerning ourselves.
- Second, we would then operate under a system of obligation, rather than under grace. Under grace God is free to give us what we do not, in and of ourselves, deserve, while under obligation, God must give us exactly what we deserve—and, who wants that?
- Third, it is contrary to both Old and New Testament Scripture.
D. (:4-5) Application of Accounting Analogy from Employment:
Justification is By Grace Through Faith Apart from Works
- (:4) Grace Cannot Co-Exist with Obligation
“Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor,
but as what is due.”
Frank Thielman: An employee’s pay is not a gift but the discharge of a financial obligation. With Abraham in Genesis 15:6, however, there is no mention of work, only of reliance on the generosity of God and of God’s willingness, surprisingly, to count that reliance as righteousness.
John Murray: God isn’t praising laziness here. “The antithesis is not simply between the worker and the non-worker but between the worker and person who does not work but believes.”
- (:5) Justification Must Be By Faith Alone Apart from Works –
God Imputing Righteousness to the Undeserving
“But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness,”
John Murray: The description given in verse 5, “him who justifies the ungodly” is intended to set off the munificence of the gospel of grace. The word “ungodly” is a strong one and shows the magnitude and extent of God’s grace; his justifying judgment is exercised not simply upon the unrighteous but upon the ungodly. Verse 5 is a general statement of the method of grace and is not intended to describe Abraham specifically. We have here, rather, the governing principle of grace; it is exemplified in the case of Abraham because he believed in accordance with that principle.
John Schultz: Ungodliness is the prerequisite for justification. Only the ungodly will be justified. This means that when a person considers himself to be good, or even half-good, he does not qualify for God’s justification in Jesus Christ. Salvation is for those who know themselves to be lost. In order to be saved, we have to declare our own bankruptcy. The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary puts it more bluntly: “The apostle in this verse expresses himself in language the most naked and emphatic, as if to preclude the possibility of either misapprehending or perverting his meaning. The faith, he says, which is counted for righteousness is the faith of ‘him who worketh not.’ But as if even this would not make it sufficiently evident that God, in justifying the believer, has no respect to any personal merit of his, he explains further what he means, by adding the words, ‘but believeth on Him who justifieth the ungodly;’ those who have no personal merit on which the eye of God, if it required such, could fasten as a recommendation to His favor. This, says the apostle, is the faith which is counted for righteousness.” Geneva Notes adds: “That makes him who is wicked in himself to be just in Christ.”
II. (:6-8) JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE IS SUPPORTED BY THE OT TESTIMONY OF DAVID –
FORGIVENESS OF SINS BRINGS TRUE HAPPINESS SINCE RIGHTEOUSNESS IS RECKONED APART FROM WORKS
Steven Cole: The greatest blessing of all is to have God forgive all your sins.
WE MUST FEEL THE HEAVY BURDEN OF OUR GUILT.
So a guilty conscience is a good thing. It’s like the pain sensors in our body, which alert us to a problem. A person with leprosy can’t feel pain, and so he can burn his finger off without knowing it. If we suppress our guilt, it often leads to other emotional, physical, and relational problems. But guilt should get our attention by shouting, “You’re not right with God!” David suppressed his guilt over his sin with Bathsheba for about a year until the prophet Nathan cornered him with a story and then directly said, “You are the man!” You’re guilty!
FORGIVENESS IS THE GREATEST OF ALL BLESSINGS.
A. (:6) David Makes for a Good Supporting Witness
“just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man
to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:”
Frank Thielman: The translation “happiness” (cf. REB, TOB [“bonheur”]) is an effort to communicate the idea of “inner contentment” that is present in Paul’s use of the term but is obscured by the usual translations “blessed” and “blessedness.” The term is rare in the Greek Bible, occurring only here, in 4:9, and in Galatians 4:15. Its use in Galatians 4:15, however, is particularly instructive. The wider context of that occurrence shows that we should understand it as the contentment and well-being people feel about their relationships with each other when those relationships are peaceful. That would also be a fair description of what the psalmist felt, according to Psalm 32:1–5, about his relationship with God now that he has confessed his sins and God has forgiven them. Here, then, Paul probably used the term to interpret Psalm 32:1–2a as the psalmist’s expression of happiness that God has counted him righteous despite his sin and apart from any good works, and so his relationship with God is now peaceful.
B. (:7-8) True Happiness Depends on Removing the Shame and Guilt of Sin
- (:7a) Forgiveness of Sins
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,”
- Sin is Inevitable
- Works are Inadequate
- (:7b) Covering of Sins
“And whose sins have been covered.”
- (:8) Removal of Accountability for Sin
“Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Thomas Schreiner: To be counted as righteous apart from works is to have one’s lawless deeds forgiven, one’s sins covered, and one’s sin not taken into account. The close relationship between justification and forgiveness supports the forensic and relational meaning of righteousness.
R. Kent Hughes: Paul calls David blessed, and David twice calls himself “blessed” because when there was no work that could possibly atone for his sins he was forgiven on sola fide! So the principle of faith alone was mightily established and illustrated in the life of Israel’s greatest king—a “man after [God’s] own heart” (l Samuel 13:14). Nothing you and I can ever do can atone for our sins. Our only hope is “the righteousness of God [that] has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21, 22).
III. (:9-12) JUSTIFICATION CANNOT DEPEND ON RELIGIOUS RITES (CIRCUMCISION) OR ETHNIC IDENTITY (JEWS) SINCE FAITH IS GOD’S UNIVERSAL PLAN DOWN THROUGH THE AGES
Michael Gorman: (4:9–15) establishes Abraham’s justification prior to his circumcision (vv. 9–12) and apart from the law of Moses (vv. 13–15). Abraham’s circumcision is narrated in Gen 17:9–14, which is obviously an event that postdates his justification by faith recounted in Gen 15:6. Circumcision, then, was not a prerequisite for Abraham’s justification but a sequel to it, serving as a seal (4:10–11). The implication, of course, is that still in Paul’s day, circumcision is not necessary for the blessings of forgiveness, justification, and membership in God’s family (cf. 3:30), and, in fact, circumcision is insufficient to make one a descendant of Abraham. He is the “ancestor” (lit. “father”) of the uncircumcised who believe (4:11b) and of the circumcised who believe in the way Abraham did before his circumcision (4:12a).
A. (:9-10) Circumcision Not Essential for Justification
- (:9) Justification by Faith Applies to All Apart from Circumcision
“Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also?
For we say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’”
Grant Osborne: Ceremonies and rituals serve as reminders of our faith, and they instruct new and younger believers. But we should not think that they give us any special merit before God. They are outward signs and seals that demonstrate inward belief and trust. The focus of our faith should be on Christ and his saving actions, not on our own actions.
- (:10) Circumcision Not a Factor in Abraham’s Justification
“How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised?
Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised;”
Frank Thielman: The biblical story of Abraham describes his justification by faith (Gen 15:6) well before his circumcision (Gen 17:24), and so Abraham’s circumcision could have played no role in his justification. God justified Abraham by faith as a gentile, not as a Jew, and this makes the literal rite of circumcision or one’s membership in the Jewish people irrelevant to the question of one’s standing with God (cf. 1 Cor 7:18–20; Gal 5:6; 6:15).
B. (:11-12) Circumcision Still Significant in the Case of Abraham
- (:11a) Relation of Circumcision to Abraham’s Faith:
a. A Sign
“and he received the sign of circumcision,”
b. A Seal
“a seal of the righteousness of the faith
which he had while uncircumcised,”
John Murray: At verse 11 Paul does define for us, however, the relation of circumcision to Abraham’s faith. Although circumcision contributed in no way to the exercise of faith nor to the justification through faith, for the simple reason that it did not yet exist, yet circumcision did sustain a relationship to faith. Circumcision, he insists, was not a purely secular rite nor merely a mark of racial identity. The meaning it possessed was one related to faith. Paul did not make the capital mistake of thinking that, because it had no efficiency in creating faith or the blessedness attendant upon faith, it had therefore no religious significance or value. Its significance, he shows, was derived from its relation to faith and the righteousness of faith. “And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had in uncircumcision” (vs. 11). In a word, it signified and sealed his faith. . .
It is usual to discover a distinction between a sign and a seal; a sign points to the existence of that which it signifies, whereas a seal authenticates, confirms, and guarantees the genuineness of that which is signified. This distinction was no doubt intended by the apostle. The seal is more than definitive of that in which the sign consisted; it adds the thought of authentication. And the seal is that which God himself appended to assure Abraham that the faith he exercised in God’s promise was accepted by God to the end of fulfilling to Abraham the promise which he believed.
Bob Deffinbaugh: The mere presence of an inspection sticker on your car does not make that car road-worthy, but it does represent in a visible fashion its road-worthiness. On the other hand, putting an inspection sticker on a car with bald tires, a faulty muffler, and no brakes will be of little help in hazardous driving conditions. Circumcision was a seal which attested to the faith of Abraham. It signified that he was righteous in the eyes of God.
Steven Cole: What then is the benefit of religious “rituals,” such as baptism and communion? Should we do them at all? Yes, because Scripture commands us to do them. But they should only be done after you have put your trust in Christ as your righteousness. They then become a sign pointing to that reality and a seal that attests to your faith in Christ.
- (:11b-12) Relation of Abraham to All True Believers
a. (:11b) Father of True Uncircumcised Believers
“that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them,”
David Guzik: “Our father Abraham” is an important phrase, one that the ancient Jews jealously guarded. They did not allow a circumcised Gentile convert to Judaism refer to Abraham as “our father” in the synagogue. A Gentile convert had to call Abraham “your father” and only natural born Jews could call Abraham “our father.” Paul throws out that distinction, and says that through faith, all can say, “our father Abraham.”
b. (:12) Father of True Circumcised Believers
“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.”
IV. (:13-17a) JUSTIFICATION CANNOT DEPEND ON OBEDIENCE TO LAW SINCE GOD OPERATES VIA GRACIOUS PROMISE
A. (:13) Principle: God’s Gracious Promises Are Appropriated by Faith Not by Obedience to the Law
“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.”
B. (:14) Disconnect between Obedience to Law and Faith in God’s Promise
“For if those who are of the Law are heirs,
faith is made void and the promise is nullified;”
C. (:15) Purpose of the Law
“for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation.”
R. Kent Hughes: the Law promotes transgression and wrath (cf. 5:20; 6:7, 8). No one can keep the Law; so the Law enhances one’s sense of transgression and failure and the sense of being under God’s wrath. The Law promotes defeat and pessimism, but faith brings joy, assurance of the promise, and thus a life of optimism.
“Don’t be fooled,” says Paul in effect, “the principle of faith transcends the Law.” Abraham was counted as righteous because of his faith. So was David. Sola fide preceded the Jews; it preceded the Law; it is for everyone!
D. (:16-17) Only Faith Is Consistent with Grace and Brings Assurance of Promise
“For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain 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, 17 (as it is written, ‘A father of many nations have I made you’)”
David Guzik: To speak technically, we are not saved by faith. We are saved by God’s grace, and grace is appropriated by faith.
Spurgeon: Grace and faith are congruous, and will draw together in the same chariot, but grace and merit are contrary the one to the other and pull opposite ways, and therefore God has not chosen to yoke them together.