ROMANS 4:13-15. THROUGH THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF FAITH
13For the promise to Abraham and to his seed that he should be heir of the world wasn’t through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of no effect. 15For the law works wrath, for where there is no law, neither is there disobedience (Greek: parabasis—transgression).
“For the promise to Abraham and to his seed that he should be heir of the world wasn’t through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” (v. 13). When God called Abram, he promised, “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:3). That promise could not be fulfilled through Abram’s obedience to the law, because it would be four centuries in the future when God would give the law at Sinai. Abram’s virtue was faith rather than observance of the law.
The only fulfillment of the promise that Abraham was allowed to witness was the birth of Isaac—his son and heir. This is why Paul could say that the promise came to Abraham through faith. He lived and died without seeing God’s promise fulfilled, but believing that it would be.
“For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of no effect” (v. 14). To receive the promise via the law would be to earn it, thus making faith unnecessary and the promise irrelevant (see vv. 4-5).
“For the law works wrath” (v. 15a). The law brings wrath, because it holds us to an impossible standard. It brings to light, not our worthiness, but our unworthiness.
“for where there is no law, neither is there disobedience” (parabasis—transgression) (v. 15b). It is self-evident that, when there is no law, there can be no transgression of the law. However, this does not mean that, in the absence of the law, there is no sin or accountability for sin. Even a cursory reading of the OT will show that, prior to the giving of the law at Sinai, there was a good deal of sin. God held people accountable for those sins.
ROMANS 4:16-17. THAT IT MAY BE ACCORDING TO GRACE
16For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace (Greek: charin—from charis), to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed (Greek: to spermati—the seed), not to that (Greek: to the seed) only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham (Greek: to the seed of the faith of Abraham), who is the father of us all. 17As it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations.” (Greek: ethnon—nations or Gentiles) This is in the presence of him whom he believed: God, who gives life to the dead, and calls the things that are not, as though they were.
“For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace” (Greek: charin—from charis) (v. 16a). Is faith simply another form of works-righteousness? The word “grace” makes it clear that it is not. Grace is “God’s unmerited favor toward humanity and especially his people, realized through the covenant and fulfilled through Jesus Christ” (Myers, 437). We are “justified freely by his (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). God justifies even the ungodly (Romans 4:5). Grace is a “free gift” (Romans 5:15). Grace abounds so that it “might reign” over abundant trespasses (Romans 5:21). Our faith, then, does not save us but simply permits us access to the gift of saving grace.
“who (Abraham) is the father of us all” (v. 16b). Paul is writing to a church that includes both Jews and Gentiles. For him to say that Abraham is “the father of us all” is quite radical. Jewish Christians could claim to be the seed of Abraham by bloodline, but Paul tells us that all Christians can claim to be Abraham’s spiritual descendants.
“As it is written, ‘I have made you a father of many nations'” (ethnon—can be translated “nations” or “Gentiles”) (v. 17a).
“This is in the presence of him whom he believed: God, who gives life to the dead, and calls the things that are not, as though they were” (v. 17b). Paul draws attention to two attributes of God:
• First, God “gives life to the dead.” This recalls Abraham and Sarah, who were as good as dead, but who, by the grace of God, gave birth to descendants “as many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as innumerable as the sand which is by the sea shore” (Hebrews 11:12. See also Genesis 17:15-21; 18:11-14). It also recalls the dry bones that came alive at the word of God (Ezekiel 37). Paul’s point is that Gentiles were spiritually dead, but the God who gives life to the dead has breathed life even into the Gentiles.
• Second, God “calls the things that are not, as though they were.” “The verb calls can signify to name or to summon. But it can also signify to call into existence, and this is the meaning we find here…. Paul is speaking of God as creating something out of nothing by his call” (Morris, 208-209). Just as God created a people of God out of Abraham’s physical descendants who had become slaves in Egypt, so also God also created a people of God out of lowly Gentiles.
ROMANS 4:18-21. WHO BELIEVED AGAINST HOPE
18Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, “So will your seed be.” 19Without being weakened in faith, he didn’t consider his own body, already having been worn out, (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20Yet, looking to the promise of God, he didn’t waver through unbelief, but grew strong through faith, giving glory to God, 21and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was also able to perform.
“Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, ‘So will your seed be'” (v. 18). For Abram, a promise was pitted against a problem. The problem was that he and his wife, Sarai, were old—long past their childbearing years. But God had shown Abram the stars, saying, “So will your seed be” (Romans 4:18). Some years later, when Abraham and Sarah (their new names under God’s covenant) were even less likely candidates for childbearing, God reaffirmed the promise in these words:
“As for me, behold, my covenant is with you.
You will be the father of a multitude of nations.
Neither will your name any more be called Abram, but your name will be Abraham;
For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
I will make you exceedingly fruitful,
And I will make nations of you. Kings will come out of you.
I will establish my covenant between me and you
And your seed after you throughout their generations
for an everlasting covenant,
to be a God to you and to your seed after you.
I will give to you, and to your seed after you,
The land where you are traveling,
all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.
I will be their God” (Genesis 17:4-8).
Abraham, “without being weakened in faith, he didn’t consider his own body, already having been worn out” (v. 19a). Abraham continued to believe even when, humanly speaking , there was no longer any basis for hope. His hope, however, was not based on human strength, but on the one who made the promise—God, the creator of life—the one who brought light from darkness and life from nothing at all (Genesis 1). If God could do that, God could bring life from Abraham’s dead loins and Sarah’s dead womb.
“Yet, looking to the promise of God, he didn’t waver through unbelief” (v. 20a). Paul glosses over part of Abram’s story. After God promised Abram descendants like the stars of the sky (Genesis 15:5) and Abram believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6), Sarai said to Abram: “See now, Yahweh has restrained me from bearing. Please go in to my handmaid. It may be that I will obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2). Abram did so, and Hagar bore him a son, Ishmael, who grew up to be a “wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone” (Genesis 16:12).
In other words, both Sarai and Abram were guilty of failing to trust God to perform on his promise. They took matters into their own hands,—choosing to solve the problem their own way instead of trusting God to solve it in God’s good time. Nevertheless, “the unbelief was momentary, the faith constant” (Morris, 213). Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16). When Abram was ninety-nine years old, God appeared to Abram and reaffirmed the earlier promise (Genesis 17).
Abram “grew strong through faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was also able to perform” (vv. 20b-21). This contrasts with Paul’s description of sinful humans in chapter 1: “Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened” (1:21).
ROMANS 4:22-25. HIS FAITH WAS RECKONED TO HIM FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS
22Therefore it also was “reckoned to him for righteousness.” 23Now it was not written that it was accounted to him for his sake alone, 24but for our sake also, to whom it will be accounted, who believe in him who raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead, 25who was delivered up (Greek: paredothe—fromparadidomi) for (Greek: dia—because of) our trespasses, and was raised for (Greek: dia—because of) our justification.
“Therefore it also was ‘reckoned to him for righteousness'” (v. 22). Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, which says, “He (Abram) believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness.” This does not mean that Abram earned righteous standing by believing. It means that God, honoring Abram’s belief, granted him righteous standing by grace—as a gift. It could not be otherwise without undermining everything that Paul has to say in this epistle about faith and grace.
Of interest here is that God reckoned Abram as righteous in Genesis 15, but did not introduce circumcision until Genesis 17. Therefore, God reckoned Abram as righteous, not only centuries prior to the giving of the law, but also prior to the institution of circumcision.
“Now it was not written that it was accounted to him for his sake alone, but for our sake also, to whom it will be accounted, who believe in him who raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead” (vv. 23-24). Abram believed that God would bring life out of his dead body, and God honored that faith by granting Abram righteous standing. When we believe that God brought life to the dead Jesus, God will honor our faith by granting us (and all who believe) righteous standing too.
“Jesus our Lord…, who was delivered up (paredothe—from paradidomi) for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification“ (vv. 24b-25). Paul captures in a few words the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection:
• “who was delivered up for our trespasses” This phrase, “delivered up” (paradidomi) is used frequently in the New Testament to speak of Jesus being handed over to the authorities (Matthew 20:18)—or to Gentiles (Mark 10:33)—or to sinners (Luke 24:7)—to be crucified (Matthew 26:2)—in accord with “the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The phrase, “delivered up for our trespasses,” has its roots in Isaiah 53:5—”But he was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities” (see also Isaiah 53:12). It also has its roots in the Jewish sacrificial system where the lives of animals were sacrificed to atone for human sins. Paul clearly means that Jesus died as a once-for-all-time sacrifice to atone for human sins.
• “and was raised for our justification” This phrase, too, has its roots in Isaiah 53:5—”The punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed.”
Paul intends us to understand that we are justified by Jesus’ death. “This is another way of saying that the life-giving God, in whom Abraham believed and was justified, gave life to Jesus, in whom we believe and are justified” (Wright, 503).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Copyright 2007, 2011, Richard Niell Donovan