ABRAHAM, FATHER OF THE FAITHFUL
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? Romans 4:1
The theme of chapter four concerns a great “discovery” made by our Father Abraham. Of course, in the spiritual realm we really do not make discoveries. Instead, God reveals himself and his plan to us. The same is probably true even regarding many “discoveries” made in the secular world.
As we open this interesting chapter we realize that the “discovery” Abraham made has a lot to do with us. For instance, the word “discover” (eurekenai) is in the Greek perfect tense, thus indicating it has value for future generations.1 So, to sum up, Abraham, the father of all faith people everywhere, has made a great spiritual discovery which will greatly benefit us.
Paul hastens to make clear that this discovery had nothing to do with Abraham’s works: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God” (4:2). Here Paul clashes head on with the opinion of Jewish rabbis of his day. The rabbis believed that Abraham’s faith was a work in itself and thus a ground for his justification. 2 But Paul insists that if this were the case, then Abraham would have had something to boast about. Such a thing can never be possible in God’s holy presence.
ABRAHAM’S CREDITED RIGHTEOUSNESS
What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Romans 4:3
This is precisely the great “discovery” that our Father Abraham made. Here Paul is referring back to Genesis 15:6. Because Abraham believed God, the Lord credited him with righteousness. This term for “credited,” hashab in the Hebrew and logizomai in the Greek, conveys several other related ideas, such as “to think,” “to intend,” “to purpose,” “to reckon,” “to impute” or “to account.” In the ancient world the term was often used in bookkeeping and had to do with money being transferred from one account to another.3
The concept of “credited righteousness” not only implies that a person’s sins are forgiven but that the person now has the status of “righteousness.”4 We would surely have to say that the concept of “credited righteousness” is one of the greatest theological breakthroughs of all times.
We must hasten to add that the belief which brought about this crediting or imputing was not just a belief or faith in general. As Brown states: “The meaning plainly is that Abraham believed in the promises which embraced Christ (Gen. 12:3; 15:5), as we believe in Christ himself; and in both cases, faith is merely the instrument that puts us in possession of the blessing gratuitously bestowed.” 5 Brown also sees the expression “credited” as a divine passive, indicating that God has acted and has done it.
In John 8:56 Jesus replied to the Jewish leaders with these amazing words: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” Somehow Father Abraham got a glimpse of the Messiah (cf. Gen. 18:16-33; 22:1-18). It seems that true righteousness in the Bible is always connected with the “Righteous One,” Jesus the Messiah. So Abraham’s faith was essentially the same as New Testament believers today, regardless of the time differential. Abraham was looking forward to the future work of Christ and believers today are looking back upon that work. The object of faith is the same. It was implicit in the promise given to Abraham and it is explicit in our
Paul goes on in his discussion of credited righteousness. He says: “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation” (4:4). When a man labors in the heat of the day, from sunup to sundown, he feels like his salary is owed him. It would be a silly insult for the owner to try to pass it off as a gift. “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5). We must realize that Paul’s use of “work” here has nothing to do with manual labor but labor towards righteousness. This crediting of righteousness to those who do not work for it can only be seen as a miracle of God.
DAVID’S CREDITED RIGHTEOUSNESS
David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: Romans 4:6
It was not just Abraham but also David, another hero of scripture, who experienced “credited righteousness.” He experienced this blessedness in connection with his awful sin toward Bathsheba.
Here Paul begins to use a rabbinical exegetical principle known as gezerah shawa (equal category). According to this principle, if the same word or expression is seen in two different scriptures, each could be used to help interpret the other. Thus Genesis 15:6 could be compared to David’s Psalm 32:2. The “crediting” of righteousness in Abraham’s case could be compared with the “not crediting” of sin in David’s case. 7 With this, Paul feels free to use Psalm 32:1-2 in his argument: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (4:7-8).
We realize that even if there could be some doubt about Abraham’s sin, there could certainly be none about David’s. 8 For him not to be credited with sin in his awful situation was purely an act of divine grace.
Once again in David’s case we see that the crediting did not happen by his faith in some general sense. David makes plain in several of his Psalms that he had a great deal of understanding about the coming Messiah. After all, the Messiah was promised to come through David’s own line (Jer. 33:15; Lk. 1:27). In several of his Messianic Psalms David reveals his deep knowledge of the one that was coming. In Psalm 22:1, David writes the very words Jesus would later use on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (cf. Mt. 27:46). He accurately describes the Lord’s suffering during his crucifixion: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’” (cf. Matt. 27:43). He also accurately describes the piercing of nails in Jesus’ hands and feet: “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet” (Psa. 22:16; cf. Jn. 20:25).
In Psalm 40:6-8, David very well describes the saving work of the Messiah in these words: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’” David foresaw Jesus as the “talking Lamb” who would willingly lay his life down for the sins of all humankind.
So, just as in the case of Abraham, credited righteousness comes by faith. But specifically it is by faith in the coming Messiah who would once for all pay the price for sin. The prophet Jeremiah pictures the Messiah as actually becoming our righteousness: “This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).
FOR THE CIRCUMCISED OR THE UNCIRCUMCISED?
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. Romans 4:9
Does the blessedness of credited righteousness have anything at all to do with the act of circumcision? Paul will show that it has absolutely nothing to do with it. Paul in speaking of Abraham says: “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!” (4:10). It is an odd fact of history that Abraham was circumcised long after he was declared righteous by God. According to the Jewish rabbis the events of his receiving a righteous status and his circumcision were twenty-nine years apart.9 On the more conservative side, as we compare Genesis 15:6 with other scriptures like Genesis 16:16; 17:1, 24, and 25, the time differential may have been more like fourteen or fifteen years. 10 In either case a considerable amount of time had elapsed between the two events.
“And he received the sign of circumcision, 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” (4:11). We see here that circumcision is merely a sign of something deeper in one’s life. We might compare circumcision with Christian baptism. Both are outward signs or testimonies of a change of life that has already happened internally. Thus, a sign is not the reality itself but it only testifies to the reality.
What a glorious door is opened here for Gentiles who are strangers to the rite of circumcision. Bruce remarks: “Here is the hope for the Gentiles: the case of Abraham shows that circumcision or un-circumcision is now irrelevant to a man’s status before God.” 11 If we can believe in the Messiah as Abraham believed, we too will receive credited or imputed righteousness. “The logic of grace may be offensive but it is irrefutable; the same logic will prompt Paul to exclaim, ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’” 12 Thus Abraham becomes the father of all faith people.
“And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (4:12). Note that the Jewish people are not left out here just because multitudes of Gentiles receive the promise. “For, like Gentile Christians, Abraham was justified without being circumcised (v. 11b) and, like Jewish Christians, he was both circumcised and justified by faith. 13 We note here that for both Jew and Gentile it is important that we walk in the footsteps of our Father Abraham’s faith.
IS IT BY LAW OR BY FAITH?
It was not through 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.
Previously in this chapter Paul has shown that righteousness does not come by works, or even by circumcision. Now he shows that righteousness does not come by the law. Just as Abraham’s righteousness preceded circumcision by fourteen to fifteen years, we will now learn that it also preceded the law. In fact, Galatians 3:17 tells us that it preceded the law by 430 years and that this law cannot set aside the faith promise made to Abraham.
Here Abraham receives the word that he would be “heir of the world.” While there is no specific promise concerning this given to Abraham in scripture, it is possible that this statement has reference to Genesis 18:18, where it is said of him, “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” It is also possible that this statement has reference to Genesis 12:3 or Genesis 22:18. 14 Since “earth” is missing the article, it may not be intended to represent the physical world at all but all the multitude of those who faithfully walk after Father Abraham in the future generations. 15
Regarding the promise that Father Abraham and his offspring inherit, the Greek scholar William Barclay remarks here: “There are two Greek words which mean promise. Huposchesis means a promise which is entered into upon conditions. ‘I promise to do this if you promise to do that.’ Epaggelia means a promise made out of the goodness of someone’s heart quite unconditionally. It is epaggelia (v. 13) that Paul uses of the promise of God.” 16 We thus see that the promise made to Abraham was unconditional and not based upon his keeping the law.
“For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression” (4:14-15). There is a sense in which faith excludes law and law excludes faith (cf. Gal. 3:18-19). When law arrives on the scene the glorious faith promise seems to fade into thin air.
Regarding the relationship of law and transgression Moo offers a good explanation: “He does not mean that there is no ‘sin’ apart from the law, but that the definite form of sin called ‘transgression’ (Gk. parabasis) can exist only in the face of definite, clear, commandments of God for which one is responsible.” 17
BY FAITH AND BY GRACE
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 are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. Romans 4:16
This verse reminds us of Ephesians 2:8-9 once again which reads: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Truly Abraham is the faith father of all believers who would come after him and throughout the whole world; all those who have been, and all those who will be in succeeding generations. This includes both Jew and Gentile believers. We see that this promise is guaranteed and therefore it is not based on man’s feeble and failing attempt to keep the law.
Paul adds: “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 things that are not as though they were” (4:17). God not only gives life but he brings things into existence that did not exist before. God gave life to the dead womb of Abraham’s wife Sarah who was at the time 90 years of age. God let life once more flow through the one-hundred-year-old loins of Father Abraham. As a result they had a son, and at last an heir. All this was based on the promise of God and it was realized by faith and grace.
“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’” (4:18). Barrett remarks here: “It is when human hope is exhausted that God-given hope (cf. Rom. 8:24f.) comes into effect; in the midst of human death and non-existence it looks to God, who quickens
“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” (4:19). As children of Abraham we faith people sometimes have to take a stand against the so-called “facts” that surround us. We sometimes have to take a stand even against medical “facts.” After all, it would have been a medical fact that Sarah could no longer bring forth children. We must remember that our God can quicken the dead and speak things into existence that do not exist. We remember how he spoke the whole world into existence when there was absolutely nothing there previously.
Paul goes on to say of Abraham: “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. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’”(4:20-22). We should not suppose that Abraham was some kind of Superman in his faith. He was thoroughly human like all of us and no doubt had his ups and downs. “Paul’s point, however, is not that Abraham was a perfect person, or never had any doubts at all, but that his heart attitude was consistently one of faith and hope in the promise of God.”19 Abraham was fully persuaded and his soul was full of confidence. He was looking forward to the coming Savior and therefore righteousness was
credited to him. 20
What a hopeful passage this is for people in our day who have lost their hope. What a hopeful passage it is for those who are facing impossible circumstances; for those who feel totally burdened down with sin and failure. God can make the impossible possible for you. He can credit you with righteousness through Jesus Christ. We see in the next verse that the promise was not just for Abraham but for all of us.
Paul adds: “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” (4:23-24). For a saving principle to be true it must be true for everyone, in every time and in every place. The great truth of credited righteousness is therefore true for us even in our day. “Like Abraham, we too believe in the God who gives life to the dead; specifically, in the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” 21
“He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (4:25). We see how the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection must go together (cf. 1 Cor. 15:17; 1 Pet. 1:3). “His resurrection was a proof that his work was accepted by the Father… His resurrection is the main-spring of all our hopes, and of all our
efforts to be saved.”22
Now the same God who credited righteousness to Abraham by faith can credit righteousness to us by faith. The same God who quickened Sarah’s body that she might bear a son can also quicken our mortal bodies and even raise us from the dead. Truly, as we look backward to the historical watershed events of the cross and the resurrection, and believe in the One who was crucified for our sins and raised from the dead for our justification we too can be credited with righteousness, his very own righteousness.