Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
ROMANS 4:1-5. IT WAS ACCOUNTED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS
1What then will we say that Abraham, our forefather, has found according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not toward God. 3For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted (Greek: elogisthe—from logizomai) to him as righteousness.” 4Now to him who works, the reward is not counted as grace, but as something owed. 5But to him who doesn’t work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.
“What then will we say that Abraham” (v. 1a). Paul’s “what then” links chapter 4 to what Paul has been saying in the first three chapters where Paul established:
• the reality of human guilt (1:18-32);
• the righteous judgment of God (2:1-16);
• the relationship of Jews to the law (2:17 – 3-8);
• the fact that none is righteous (3:9-20);
• and the fact that righteousness is possible only through faith (3:21-31).
Now, to demonstrate that what he is saying is no innovation, Paul uses Abraham, the great forefather of Judaism, as an example of what he is saying.
What Paul says about sin and grace in Romans flies in the face of the traditional Jewish belief about Abraham, in part because of Genesis 26:4-5, where God promised Isaac a blessing “because Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my requirements, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” In Romans 4, Paul seeks to show that it was not Abraham’s works that made him righteous before God, but his faith. In doing so, Paul was challenging the Judaism’s central premise—that obedience to the law determined one’s relationship to God (MacArthur).
“our forefather, has found according to the flesh” (v. 1b). Jewish people are descended from Abraham according to the flesh. However, Paul has already stated that God is the God of Gentiles also, since he “will justify the circumcised by faith, and the uncircumcised through faith ” (3:29-30). In chapter 4, he says that Abraham is “the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had in uncircumcision” (4:12). He also refers to Genesis 17:5, where God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations (4:17), and concludes that descent from Abraham includes all “of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (4:16). He thus reveals the broad scope of God’s relationship with humans.
“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about” (v. 2a). As noted above, Jews considered Abraham to be justified by works. These works included his obedience when God called him to leave his homeland to go to a land that God would show him (Gen. 12:10). Especially noteworthy was his obedience of the command to sacrifice Isaac, his only son (Genesis 22:1-14).
These faithful acts seem to give Abraham cause for boasting, but Abraham’s deeds were not always faithful. He misrepresented Sarah as his sister (Genesis 12:10-20). Even though God had promised him heirs like the stars of the sky in number (Genesis 15:1-6), Abraham took matters in his own hands by taking Hagar as his mistress so that he might have a son (Genesis 16). If Abraham had room for boasting, he also had occasion for apology.
“but not toward God” (v. 2). Who can boast of personal accomplishment in the presence of the creator of the universe? Who can boast of personal holiness in the presence of God’s holiness?
“Abraham believed God, and it was accounted (Greek: elogisthe—it was credited) to him for righteousness“ (v. 3). Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6. The verb, elogisthe, is an accountant’s word. It says that the Lord credited Abraham’s account to give him the status of righteousness just as a generous father might cross out a wayward son’s debt to give him the status of solvency. Neither Abraham nor the son could claim credit for their status. Both are beneficiaries of a generous gift.
If it is true that Abraham did not earn his righteousness by his deeds, it is also true that he did not earn it by his belief. His righteous status cannot be earned, but is a gift of God. Just as the believer cannot storm the gates of heaven demanding admittance on the basis of righteous deeds, neither can he/she demand admittance on the basis of belief. He/she has no currency to purchase salvation, but is wholly dependent on God to provide it as a gift.
An analogy: No citizen has the right to demand an audience with the president. No hero can require that the president pin on his medal. No political volunteer can demand to visit the Oval Office. If the president decides to recognize a citizen’s contribution, the initiative is the president’s and the audience with the president is a gift. So also we have no right to demand anything from God based on our achievement, righteousness, or faith. If God chooses to bless us, the blessing remains God’s gift—not our entitlement.
“Now to him who works, the reward is not counted as grace, but as something owed” (v. 4). Paul illustrates his point. On payday, a worker need not beg for a paycheck, but can demand payment for services rendered. The employer has enjoyed the benefit of the employee’s service, and is under obligation to compensate the employee. The employee can seek legal recourse if the employer refuses payment, and can expect courts to enforce payment (assuming that the employer is solvent). It would be accurate, therefore, to say that the employee enjoys a certain power over the employer at this point.
No person, however, enjoys that kind of power over God. No person can stand in God’s presence claiming to have rendered satisfactory service, so God has no moral obligation to provide compensation for services rendered. No court has the power to force God to pay, but no just court would do so in any event because no person has a just claim on God.
“But to him who doesn’t work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (v. 5). Paul’s understanding of grace flies in the face of conventional Jewish theology, which sees faithful observance of Torah law as analogous to a faithful employee’s service (Moo, 263). Paul’s statement that God “justifies the ungodly” flies in the face of Old Testament passages that say: “Keep far from a false charge, and don’t kill the innocent and righteous: for I will not justify the wicked” (Exodus 23:7)—and “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to Yahweh” (Proverbs 17:15).
We might imagine that verse 5 reverses verse 4—that we can earn righteousness by faith if not by works—that our faith imposes an obligation on God that our works failed to achieve. That, however, is not what Paul says. He does not say that God justifies the godly (those who are righteous by their own merit), but that God justifies the ungodly. Paul does not say that our faith makes us righteous, but that “faith is accounted for righteousness”—which is to say that God, seeing our faith, credits our account to wipe out our insolvency—freeing us of debt—God’s grace undoing our unrighteousness.
The idea is that of “necessary but not sufficient.” Our faith is necessary for salvation, but not sufficient to effect it. We can be saved only if God chooses to save us. God saves those who come acknowledging their need and trusting “him who justifies the ungodly.”
If this were not so, why would God have sent Jesus to die on the cross? If we could effect our own salvation by adherence to the law or by faith, why would we need a savior? If we could earn salvation, the cross would be unnecessary.
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 12:2). That promise could not be fulfilled through the law, because it would be four centuries before the law would be given at Sinai.
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“ (Greek: 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 Old Testament will show that, prior to the giving of the law at Sinai, there was a good deal of sin—and that 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 (Greek: to the seed)that 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.”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.
“(Abraham) who 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. The Jewish Christians could claim to be the seed of Abraham by bloodline, but all Christians can claim to be Abraham’s spiritual descendants.
“As it is written, ‘I have made you a father of many nations‘” (Greek: 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. 17). Paul draws attention to two attributes of God.
• First, God “who 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 valley of 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.” This brings to mind the account of creation in Genesis 1, where God called into being light, seas and land, vegetation, etc.—things that didn’t exist until God called them into being. It also brings to mind God’s promise to Abram that he would be the father of a great nation (Genesis 12:2)—at a time when Abram had no children. 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.
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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Copyright 2005, 2011, Richard Niell Donovan