RECEIVING GOD’S PROMISED BLESSING HAS ALWAYS REQUIRED REAL FAITH—THE KIND OF FAITH THAT LOOKS BEYOND NATURAL OBSTACLES TO FIND ASSURANCE IN GOD’S POWER AND FAITHFULNESS
Frank Thielman: Paul, then, describes Abraham’s faith in God’s willingness and ability to bring life to the dead despite the human improbability that this could happen (4:18–22). Paul and the Roman Christians similarly trust that God raised from the dead the same Lord Jesus who died for their trespasses. This faith provides the context in which God accounts them righteous, just as he did with Abraham (4:23–25).
A. Berkeley Mickelson: In this section the reader sees the God in whom Abraham believed. He also learns what obstacles and difficulties Abraham overcame because of his firm trust. Both Abraham and the Christian share the same conviction: God gives life to the dead.
Warren Wiersbe: These verses are an expansion of one phrase in Romans 4:17: “who quickeneth the dead.” Paul saw he rejuvenation of Abraham’s body as a picture of resurrection from the dead, and then he related it to the resurrection of Christ.
One reason why God delayed in sending Abraham and Sarah a son was to permit all their natural strength to decline and then disappear. It was unthinkable that a man ninety-nine years old could beget a child in the womb of his wife who was eighty-nine years old! From a reproductive point of view, both of them were dead.
But Abraham did not walk by sight; he walked by faith. What God promises, He performs. All we need do is believe.
Charles Hodge: The object of this section is the illustration of the faith of Abraham, and the application of his case to our instruction.
- With regard to Abraham’s faith, the apostle states, first, its object, viz. the divine promise, 18.
- He then illustrates its strength, by a reference to the apparent impossibility of the thing promised, 19, 20.
- The ground of Abraham’s confidence was the power and veracity of God, 21.
- The consequence was, that he was justified by his faith, 22.
- Hence it is to be inferred that this is the true method of justification; for the record was made to teach us this truth. We are situated as Abraham was; we are called upon to believe in the Almighty God, who, by raising up Christ from the dead, has accepted him as the propitiation for our sins, 23-25.
I. (:17b) REAL FAITH MAKES SENSE BECAUSE OF WHO GOD IS = HIS POWER AND FAITHFULNESS
“in the sight of Him whom he believed,”
Frank Thielman: The words translated here “in the sight of God, whom he believed” (κατέναντι οὗ ἐπίστευσεν θεοῦ) are difficult and have been understood to mean “in light of which [promise] he believed” or “in the presence of the God whom he believed.” The proper translation hangs on the meaning one gives to the preposition (κατέναντι), whether “in the sight of,” “in light of,” or “in the presence of.” It also depends on the antecedent one chooses for the relative pronoun (οὗ), whether the promise of Genesis 17:5 in the previous clause or “God” in the following clause. It is very difficult to find a use of the preposition with the meaning “in light of,” and the attraction of an antecedent (θεοῦ) into the case of the relative pronoun (οὗ) is reasonably common in Greek. The most obvious reading of the phrase, then, according to the standard meaning of the terms and the rules of Greek grammar is that in the sight of God Abraham was the father of many nations, Jews as well as gentiles.
The God in whose sight Abraham was the father of believers from many people groups (4:16c–17a), and the God in whom Abraham believed (4:17c), is the God who makes the dead alive. The broader context of this statement shows that Paul was thinking both of God giving life to Abraham and Sarah’s “dead” child-bearing abilities (4:19c–e) and of God raising Jesus from the dead (4:24–25). Without both these life-giving miracles, God’s promise to Abraham would have remained unfulfilled.
John Murray: The clauses which follow . . . are descriptive of the aspects of God’s character which are peculiarly appropriate to the faith exercised; they point to those attributes of God which are the specific bases of Abraham’s faith or, at least, to the attributes which were in the forefront of Abraham’s apprehension when he believed the promises and put his trust in the Lord.
A. He is the God of Resurrection Power
“even God, who gives life to the dead”
Thomas Schreiner: Abraham believed in the God who could infuse life where there was none by his resurrecting power. The bodies of Sarah and Abraham, which were dead in terms of childbearing, were renewed so that they could beget and conceive a child in fulfillment of God’s promise.
James Stifler: Old Testament faith rests on resurrection. Acceptable faith is not merely the conviction that there is a God and that He is benevolent and a just rewarder of the good and evil; this is the world’s faith. Abraham’s was more; he became the father of many nations by believing in God as one “who quickeneth the dead.” He not only believed in God’s existence and that he could bless; this is not sufficient; he believed that that blessing could only come from God as now active in nature for spiritual ends – a spiritual creator just as once he was a creator of nature. Faith gets its character from that character in which it accepts God. Abraham looked on Him as one who in spite of nature is making alive the dead. This is the leading thought in this section. God calls the things that are not, not in the possibilities of nature, as if they already were; He calls them into existence.
B. He is the God of Sovereign Faithfulness
“and calls into being that which does not exist.”
Frank Thielman: Paul, then, describes God as one whose purposes and promises are so certain to happen that God speaks of them as if they already exist. This understanding of the phrase fits neatly into the context of Genesis 17:5 where God names Abraham the “father of a multitude” when he and Sarah remain childless, and also speaks definitively in the perfect tense of having made (τέθεικα) Abraham the father of many nations.
John Murray: These things do not yet exist, but since determined by God they are “called” by him as having existence. The certainty of their futurition is just as secure as if they had come to pass. And the word “call” is used of God’s effectual word and determination. The promises given to Abraham were in that category; the things promised had not yet come into being, they were non-existent as respects realization. But, because God had promised them and therefore determined that they should come to pass, the certainty of their realization was secure. . . God’s promise was for Abraham as good as fulfilment. The things that were not yet did not belong to the category of the possible but to that of determinate certainty, and Abraham possessed the promises in God (cf. Heb. 11:1).
Application to Us Today:
- God’s character has not changed
- God’s power has not waned
II. (:18-19) REAL FAITH LOOKS BEYOND NATURAL OBSTACLE
A. (:18) God’s Promise Seemed Unattainable
“In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken,’”So shall your descendants be.’”
Frank Thielman: Abraham could not reasonably hope for children from the human perspective, but he nevertheless based his faith on a hope that was grounded in the character of the God Paul has just described—the God who gives life to the dead and speaks of his future plans as if they have already happened.
Michael Gorman: Faith, therefore, is forward-looking—centered on resurrection and new creation—and therefore virtually synonymous with hope: “Hoping against hope, he [Abraham] believed” (4:18a), meaning he demonstrated unwavering trust and fidelity. Hope, then, is future-oriented, even eschatological (focused on the age to come)—but also focused on the realization of God’s promises in this age, especially the promise of life out of death. Such was Abraham’s focus.
Alva McClain: “believed against hope” – That looks like a contradiction. But it means simply that there was no human ground for any hope, but he believed God anyway, and his faith gave him a hope. That is the way we do today. Sometimes when things are going wrong, if we can just believe God, then we have hope. Out of our faith comes hope.
B. (:19) Natural Obstacles Seemed Insurmountable
- Abraham’s Old Age
“And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body,
now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old,”
- Deadness of Sarah’s Womb
“and the deadness of Sarah’s womb;”
Michael Gorman: In 4:19–22, Paul describes the bleak situation in which Abraham and Sarah found themselves: a state of death. English translations often fail to convey the severe stench of death arising from Paul’s words. Abraham did not consider his body to be “as good as dead” (NRSV, NIV, CEB); it was, to him, literally “already dead” (4:19 MJG). Furthermore, he recognized the “deadness” (NET; cf. NIV, CEB) of Sarah’s womb; Paul uses a Greek word indicating the condition of a corpse (nekrōsis), obviously a much stronger image than simply “barrenness” (NRSV). For Jews of Paul’s day, a barren womb and the lack of children were a living death. Abraham and Sarah needed a resurrection from the dead.
Application to Us Today:
- How unattainable do God’s promises seem to us today?
- What are the obstacles facing us today = a test of our faith?
III. (:20-21) REAL FAITH FINDS ASSURANCE IN GOD’S POWER AND FAITHFULNESS
A. (:20a) Confident Faith Does Not Waver But Strengthens
“yet, with respect to the promise of God,
he did not waver in unbelief,
but grew strong in faith,”
Frank Thielman: In the face of his difficult physical circumstances Abraham responded with a divinely strengthened faith and trusted God’s word. This, it turns out, was an act of worship—the sort of worship that God desires. . . Abraham’s trust in God’s promise, against all humanly conceived odds, was the appropriate act of worship for someone whose relationship with God was what it should be.
Grant Osborne: Wavering is vacillating between choices, fluctuating in our resolve, and faltering in our commitment. Here are some warnings for the wavering:
- Do you waver in your opinion?
Seek counsel from God’s Word.
- Do you falter in your allegiance?
Place your will under God’s control.
- Do you hesitate in your decision making?
Trust God and follow him.
Strengthened in his faith. When we act upon trust, it becomes stronger. Exercised faith develops persistence. As Abraham encountered obstacles, his faith saw him through, and his confidence in God grew. When we meet and overcome opposition, we strengthen our spiritual muscles. Victories over temptation urge us on to new resolutions. Faced with the facts that would lead Abraham to doubt, he still maintained his trust. He may have hesitated or questioned his own ability, but he maintained his trust in God. When God’s promises conflict with the hard facts, our stronger faith will enable us to obey him.
B. (:20b) Confident Faith Focuses on Giving Glory to God
“giving glory to God,”
Thomas Schreiner: Here the God-centered character of faith emerges again. The secret of Abraham’s faith is that he acknowledged God’s glory (here his power; cf. also 6:4) by trusting God’s ability to carry out his promises as the resurrecting and sovereign God. We have seen that the fundamental sin of human beings is the failure to give glory to God (Rom. 1:21–23), the worship of the creature rather than the Creator (1:25; cf. Byrne 1996: 154–55). By contrast, faith glorifies God because it acknowledges that life must be lived in complete dependence on him (Nygren 1949: 182; Keck 2005: 130). The supreme way to worship God is not to work for him (4:4–5) but to trust that he will fulfill his promises. As Schlatter (1995: 116) says, “To disavow the credibility of God is to refuse him the honor that the individual owes him.”
John Murray: “Giving glory to God” and “being fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to perform” are coordinate and describe the exercises or states of mind which were involved in Abraham’s faith. To give glory to God is to reckon God to be what he is and rely upon his power and faithfulness. To be fully persuaded denotes the full assurance and efflorescence of conviction (cf. 14:5; Col. 4:12). The object of this conviction is stated to be “that what he [God] has promised he is able also to perform”. Both causes in coordination mark a fullness of expression indicative of the strength and vigour of Abraham’s faith.
C. (:21) Confident Faith Expects God to Deliver on His Promises
“and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform.”
Frank Thielman: Here Paul refers to Abraham being completely filled with the conviction that God was powerful enough to make Abraham the father of many nations despite his human limitations (cf. 14:5). The idea of completeness and integrity contained in the term forms a neat contrast with the divided mind pictured in 4:20.
Application to Us Today:
- What type of attacks threaten to weaken our faith?
- How is our faith strengthened?
IV. (:22-25) REAL FAITH WILL ALWAYS RECEIVE GOD’S PROMISED BLESSING
A. (:22) Connection Between Faith and Justification
“Therefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Frank Thielman: The repetition of this climactic statement from Genesis 15:6 brings Paul’s description of Abraham’s justification by faith full circle. He has now carefully defined what he means by faith. It is reliance on God’s promise that he is able to bring life to the dead, despite appearances to the contrary. Faith of this quality brings glory to God, and God graciously puts it down in the heavenly books as righteousness. Although this faith is not a work, it is nevertheless the right approach to God. God accepts it and withholds his wrath from all whose lives are characterized by it.
Douglas Moo: What Paul is claiming is that Abraham, overall, maintained a firm conviction in God’s promise and acted on it. He had his momentary doubts, it is true, but they were momentary and always overcome by his faith in the God who had promised. By doing so, Abraham glorified God, because he took him at his word (4:20b–21). This is why, Paul concludes, “it [faith] was credited to him as righteousness.” Here, at the end of Paul’s exposition of Abraham’s faith and its consequences, he cites again the key verse with which he began (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:3).
B. (:23-24) Connection between Abraham’s Justification and Future Believers
“Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him,
24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned,
as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,”
Frank Thielman: Paul says in this section that the description of the object and quality of Abraham’s faith in the scriptural narrative provides instruction to believers in the present about the object and quality of their faith in God.
Thomas Schreiner: The application of Abraham’s experience to the Romans doesn’t constitute an unreflective transfer of an OT text to Christian believers. In this chapter Paul has labored to show that the OT itself anticipated that Abraham would function as the father of many peoples, and he has explained that the universal blessing promised to Abraham involves the inclusion of the gentiles. Thus that his life would become the exemplar for future generations is hardly surprising. We would expect that Abraham’s children would be counted righteous in the same way that he was counted righteous. This explains why the nature of Abraham’s faith is depicted for us in verses 17–21. . .
Although the continuity between Abraham and Christian believers is emphasized, we should not overlook the implicit discontinuity. Nowhere does Paul say that Abraham believed in the resurrection of Jesus. The element of continuity is that both Abraham and Christians believed in the God who resurrects the dead and in a God who fulfills his promises. For Christians such faith necessarily involves belief in the resurrection of Jesus in history, while Abraham could not have such a specific faith because he lived before the time of fulfillment.
C. (:25) Christ’s Death and Resurrection = the Key to the Gospel
- Significance of Sacrificial Death of Christ
“He who was delivered up because of our transgressions,”
Douglas Moo: In verse 25, Paul adds a description of this Jesus whom God raised from the dead. The description falls into two parallel lines:
- Who was delivered over to death for our sins
- And was raised to life for our justification
In the first line of this confession, the preposition “for” (Gk. dia followed by accusative) probably means “because of.” In the second line, however, it is difficult to give the same word this meaning. For Christ’s resurrection was not based on, or caused by, our justification. Probably, then, the word “for” in the second line has the sense “in order to accomplish.” The parallelism between the two lines is rhetorical and does not extend to the meaning of the word.
[Alternate interpretation has the advantage of treating the two uses of dia as parallel:]
Everett Harrison: So “delivered over to death for our sins” can mean “because our sins were committed” and it was on account of them that Jesus had to die if salvation were to be procured. Similarly, “raised to life for our justification” can mean that Jesus was resurrected because our justification was accomplished in his death (cf. “justified by his blood,” 5:9).
- Significance of Powerful Resurrection of Christ
“and was raised because of our justification.”
Steven Cole: Perhaps the simplest way to understand it is that Jesus was delivered up to death as a consequence (“because”) of our sin; He was raised as a consequence (“because”) of our justification, which He achieved by His death (Rom. 5:9). In other words, when God raised Jesus, He put His seal of approval on Christ’s death as obtaining our justification (Murray J. Harris, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 3:1184). So the resurrection confirms that our justification was valid and acceptable to the Father.
Michael Bird: In this verse there are strong echoes of Isaiah 53:5, 11-12, where Jesus appears as the Suffering Servant who was handed over to death, bore the sins of many, was vindicated by seeing the light of life, and resultantly makes many righteous. Importantly, the main verbs are divine passives, so that Jesus was handed over by God (paredothē) and raised up by God (ēgerthē), which indicates we are dealing with a theocentric act of God in the cross and resurrection. Furthermore, the two prepositional phrases, though both beginning with the preposition dia, are inexact in their parallelism. The first phrase is retrospective in that Jesus was delivered over to death because of our transgressions (dia ta paraptōmata hēmōn), while the second phrase is prospective in that Jesus was raised up to life for the purpose of securing our justification (dia tēn dikaiōsin hēmōn). Taken together, Jesus’ death has dealt with sins, while Jesus’ resurrection establishes the justification of believers.
The link between resurrection and justification has struck some commentators as odd. While Paul often ties justification to the cross and blood of Christ (see Rom 3:24-25; 5:9), he can also put salvation in relation to Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Cor 15:17). We must remember that the resurrection constitutes Jesus’ own justification since the resurrection is God’s cosmic verdict that Jesus is the Messiah, Lord, and Son of God (see Acts 2:36; Rom 1:3-4; 1 Tim 3:16). So, on the cross Jesus undergoes our condemnation for sin (Rom 8:1), and in his resurrection he becomes the source of our justification (1 Cor 1:30). The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is an apocalyptic event within which the justification of believers takes place. Thus, by a Spirit-forming faith, we have union with Christ, and what is true of him becomes true of us. In other words, we are justified because our transgressions have been forgiven at the cross and because we are incorporated into the justification of Jesus the Messiah in his resurrection.
Frank Thielman: Bruce A. Lowe, in an important article on Romans 4:25, has provided the most likely explanation of the link between Christ’s resurrection and the believer’s justification. Lowe ties the sentence closely to what Paul has just said about Abraham’s faith in the God “who makes the dead alive” (4:17–22). The context of Abraham’s justifying faith was a situation in which, against all human hope, Abraham trusted that God could enliven his and Sarah’s ability to bear a child so that Abraham would become the father of many nations. In the same way, Paul and the Roman Christians have placed their trust, against all human hope, in the gospel’s affirmation that God raised Christ from the dead and in the further conviction that Christ’s resurrection is the first instance of the general resurrection of believers from the dead (8:11, 18–25; cf. 1 Cor 15:12–20; 2 Cor 4:13–14). The resurrection of Christ, then, provided the basis for the justification of believers because it gave a concrete, if unseen, object for their hope and for their trust in God. Christ’s resurrection provided an opportunity analogous to the opportunity that God gave to Abraham in Genesis 15:1–6 for his people to put their faith in him and for him to count this trust as righteousness.
Application to Us Today:
- In what ways do you see yourself as following in the footsteps of OT saints like Abraham?
- How can we keep our faith focused on the implications for us of Christ’s death and resurrection?