Like Abraham, We Are Justified by Faith (preaching resource for Lent 2: February 25, 2024)

This post exegetes Romans chapter 4, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 2/25/2024 (Lent 2). This exegesis draws on "The Message of Romans" by John Stott.

"Sacrifice of Isaac" by Caravaggio (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


In Romans chapter 3, Paul proclaims the good news that ‘a righteousness from God’ (21) is a gift of grace through justification given to those who place their faith in God to save them (28). Paul grounds this gift in Christ's cross (21-26) and addresses objections to this astonishing truth which is the heart and core of the gospel (27-31).  

Now in Romans 4:1-25 Paul uses the Old Testament accounts about Abraham and David to demonstrate how justification by faith is God's one and only way of salvation—both in the Old Testament and the New. Paul uses Abraham as his main example for two reasons. First, he was the founding father of Israel, 'the rock from which (they) were cut' (Is. 51:1f.), the favored recipient of God's covenant and promises (Gen. 12:1.; 15:1; 17:1). Second, Abraham was held by the Jews of Paul’s day to be the epitome of righteousness, and they assumed he had been justified by his works. For instance, the Rabbis wrote that 'Abraham was perfect in all his dealings with the Lord and gained favor by his righteousness throughout his life' (Jubilees 23:10). Moreover, they quoted Scriptures in which God promised to bless Abraham *because* he had obeyed him (Gen. 22:15; 26:2.), without observing that these verses referred to Abraham's life of obedience *after* his justification. They even quoted Gen. 15:6 (Paul's main text in this chapter), in such a way as to misrepresent Abraham's faith as meaning ‘faithfulness’, which was therefore meritorious. Paul’s view of Abraham was quite different.

Romans 4 presupposes familiarity with the basics of Abraham’s story, which are as follows: 

  • God called Abraham to leave his home and people in Ur, and promised to show him another land, to give him a large posterity, and through him to bless all peoples on earth (Gen. 11:27; 12:1). 
  • God made his promises more specific, identifying the land as Canaan (Gen. 13:14) and declaring that his posterity, though he was still childless, would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and the stars in the sky (Gen. 14:16; 15:5). It was by believing this latter promise that Abraham was justified (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). 
  • When Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 90 (Gen. 17:1, 17), God confirmed his promise of a son, changed his name from Abram to Abraham to signify that he would be 'the father of many nations', and gave him circumcision as the sign of his covenant (Gen. 17:1ff.). 
  • Although Paul only hints at this indirectly, God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, the subject of the promise, and, when he showed his willingness to obey, spared Isaac and re-confirmed his covenant with Abraham and his progeny (Gen. 22:1).

With these facts about Abraham’s life in mind, Paul makes four assertions about Abraham's justification: It did not come through works, it did not come through circumcision, it did not come through the law, but it did come (only and entirely) through faith.

Abraham was not justified by works 

Romans 4:1-8

Paul begins with this question: 'What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather discovered in this matter?' (1). Abraham, 'the father of us all' (16) and 'our father' (17) if we share his faith, illustrates in his experience Paul’s point about justification. Paul notes that Abraham was not *justified by works* (2) but rather *believed God, and it [his belief] was credited to him as righteousness* (3). Paul reasons that Abraham could not have been justified by his own works, because that would have given Abraham *something to boast about* (3b). But Paul will not allow this and adds indignantly: *but not before God* (2). Paul rejects any possibility of human boasting before God, either creatures before their Creator or sinners before their Savior. Whether the subject of boasting is national privilege or personal piety makes no difference. Both forms of boasting are expressions of self-righteousness, and to suppose that the unrighteous can establish their own righteousness before God is to think the unthinkable.

Paul then adds, *What does the Scripture say?* (3). In answer, Paul quotes Gen. 15:6: '*Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness*' (3). He then proceeds in verses 4-5 to draw out the significance of the verb 'credited', which he uses five times in verses 3-8. It means to 'credit' or 'reckon', and when used in a financial or commercial context, it signifies to put something to somebody's account. There are, however, two different ways in which money can be credited to our account, namely as wages (which are earned) or as a gift (which is free and unearned), and the two are necessarily incompatible. *Now when a man works his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation* (4) (literally, 'not according to grace but according to debt '). This is emphatically not so with our justification, however. In this case, talk of 'work', 'wages', 'debt' or 'obligation' is entirely inappropriate. Instead, *to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness* (5).

The contrast between these two kinds of 'crediting' is crucial in Paul’s thought. In the context of business, those who work have their wages credited to them as a right, a debt, an obligation, for they have earned them. In the context of justification, however, to those who do not work, and therefore have no right to payment, but who instead put their trust in God who justifies the ungodly, their *faith is credited* to them *as righteousness*, that is, they are given righteousness as a free and unearned gift of grace by faith. 

We should note, however, that Paul is not teaching that faith earns us righteousness as though faith itself was a meritorious work of ours. To think that would be to play into the hands of the Rabbis, who thought of Abraham's 'faith' as his 'faithfulness'. If anything is clear in the antithesis between verses 4 and 5, it is that the crediting of faith as righteousness is a free gift, not an earned wage, and that it happens not to those who work but to those who trust, and indeed who trust the God who, far from justifying people because they are godly, actually justifies them when they are ungodly. This emphasis on faith (*Abraham believed God*) plainly shows, then, that God's crediting faith as righteousness is not a rewarding of merit but a free and unmerited decision of divine grace. Faith is not an alternative to righteousness nor the cause of our righteousness. Rather it is the means by which we are declared by God to be righteous. God is both the author and the giver of our righteousness which is Christ’s righteousness credited (imputed) to us by grace.

Paul then moves from Abraham to David, and so from Gen. 15:6 to Psa. 32:1-2 where he finds agreement between the two texts. *David says the same thing* when he describes *the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works* (6). We notice at once how the language of 'crediting' has changed. God is still the person who in sheer grace does the crediting, but now what he puts to our account is not 'faith as righteousness' but 'righteousness' itself. Three times, in Hebrew parallelism, David refers to evil deeds, once as *transgressions* ('lawlessness') and twice as *sins* ('failures'—literally ‘missing the mark’), for sin is both the stepping over a known boundary and the falling short of a known standard. And three times he tells us what God has done with these evil deeds. Our *transgressions are forgiven, our sins are covered*, and our *sin the Lord will never count against us* (7-8). Instead of putting our sins into account against us, God pardons and covers them. He thus clears the sin account.

We can now bring Paul’s rich imagery concerning our justification together. In Romans chapter 3 he tells us that the righteousness of (or from) God (22), which is revealed in the gospel is his just ‘justification’ of the unjust. In chapter 4 he then dismisses the possibility that Abraham could have been *justified by works* (2). But when he affirms positively how God *justifies the wicked* (5) he uses new expressions. First, God credits to us faith as righteousness (3, 5, 9, 22f.). Secondly, he credits to us righteousness apart from works (6, 11, 13, 24). And thirdly, he refuses to credit our sins against us, but pardons and covers them instead (7-8). Justification thus involves a double counting or crediting. On the one hand, negatively, God will never count our sins against us. On the other hand, positively, God credits our account with righteousness, as a free gift, by faith, altogether apart from our works. That is the gospel!

Abraham was not justified by circumcision 

Romans 4:9-12

Paul's first question has been whether Abraham was justified by works or by faith (1-3). His second is whether *this blessedness* of justification is available *only for the circumcised* (the Jews) or is *also for the uncircumcised* (9a). This question prompts a supplementary one, concerning the *circumstances* in which Abraham was justified. Was he justified *after he was circumcised, or before?* (10a). In other words, did he submit to circumcision first, and so achieve righteousness, as the Rabbis taught? Or was he already justified when he was circumcised? What was the order of events? In particular, did his justification come before or after his circumcision? Paul's answer to his own question is brief and blunt: *It was not after, but before!* (10b). In point of fact, it happened long before. For his justification is recorded in Genesis 15 and his circumcision in Genesis 17, and at least 14 years separated the two events.

Although they were separated, they were not unrelated. Abraham's circumcision, though not the ground of his justification, was its sign and seal. For Abraham *received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised* (11a). God himself had called circumcision 'the sign of the covenant' which he had established with Abraham (Gen. 17:11). Similarly, Paul now calls it a sign of his justification. As a 'sign' it was a distinguishing mark, setting Abraham and his descendants apart as God's covenant people. Indeed, it was not only a *sign* to identify them; it was also a *seal* to authenticate them as the justified people of God.

Thus Abraham received two distinct gifts of God: justification and circumcision, and in that order. First he received justification by faith while he was still uncircumcised. Secondly, he received circumcision as a visible sign and seal of the justification which was already his. *So then*, Paul continues, there was a purpose in the fact that Abraham was justified by faith, and circumcised only later. Indeed, there was a double purpose: It was first that Abraham might be (as he is) *the father of all who believe*, and so have been justified, *but have not been circumcised* (11b). In other words, Abraham is the father of Gentile believers. Circumcision is no more necessary to their justification than it was to his. The second purpose of this combination of faith, justification and circumcision was that Abraham might *also* be (as he is) *the father of the circumcised who* in addition to their circumcision *also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised* (12). Thus he is the father of all believers, irrespective of whether they are circumcised or not. In fact circumcision, which was of supreme importance to the Jews, must not be allowed to undermine or disrupt the unity of believers in Christ. Although according to the Jews, Abraham’s life was the great dividing point in history, according to Paul, Abraham through his faith became the great rallying point for all who believe, whether circumcised or uncircumcised. For where circumcision divides, faith unites.

Abraham was not justified by the law 

Romans 4:13-17a

Paul begins this new paragraph with a sharp *not...but* antithesis, in which the negative is emphatic. Paul makes the uncompromising assertion that if justification is neither by works nor by circumcision, it is not by law either. For how did God's promise come to *Abraham and his offspring?* Answer: *Not through law...but through the righteousness that comes by faith* (13). The promise in mind must still be Gen. 15:5, that Abraham's posterity would be as numerous as the stars. It was a promise without any conditions or requirements attached to it. God's word came to Abraham as promise, not as law. He simply believed God and was justified. Paul strongly asserts that the promise was received by Abraham and now by us by faith, not by obedience to the law. He makes this point using three arguments: 

1. The argument from history

Paul has already stated it clearly in Gal. 3:17, namely that 'the covenant previously established by God' could not possibly be annulled by the law which was given 430 years later. The same truth is implicit in Romans 4, even though it is not developed. Abraham did not have the law (the Old Covenant; the Law of Moses), thus he could not keep it, let alone ‘earn’ the promise through keeping it.

2. The argument from language

Paul uses multiple words (such as law, promise, faith, wrath, transgression and grace) and places these words in certain categories. It is essential not to confuse his categories. In particular, the words ‘law’ and ‘promise’ belong to different categories, which are incompatible. Thus, *if those who live by law are heirs*, that is, if the inheritance depends on our obedience, then *faith has no value (literally, 'has been emptied' of its validity) *and the promise is worthless (literally, 'has been destroyed' or 'rendered ineffective'* (14). Something can be given to us either by law or by promise, since God is the author of both, but they cannot be in operation simultaneously. As Paul has written in Galatians, 'if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise' (Gal. 3:18). Law-language ('you shall') demands our obedience, but promise-language ('I will') demands our faith (cf. Gal. 3:12). What God said to Abraham was not 'obey this law and I will bless you', but 'I will bless you; believe my promise'.

Verse 15 develops this rationale, showing why law and promise exclude each other. It is *because law brings wrath*, and because *where there is no law there is no transgression*. The words 'law', 'transgression' and 'wrath' belong to the same category, for the law turns sin into transgression (a deliberate trespass), and transgression provokes God's wrath. Conversely, 'where there is no law there can be no breach of the law' (NEB), and so no wrath.

Verse 16 then brings *grace* and *faith* together in one category. The Greek sentence is much more dramatic than the English, since in the original there are neither verbs nor the noun 'promise'. It reads literally: 'therefore by faith in order that according to grace'. The fixed point is that God is gracious, and that salvation originates in his sheer grace alone. But in order that this may be so, our human response can only be faith. For grace gives and faith receives. Faith's exclusive function is humbly to receive what grace offers. Otherwise 'grace would no longer be grace' (Rom. 11:6).

Paul's antithesis in verses 13-16 is similar to his work-trust and wage-gift antithesis of verses 4-5. It may be summarized as follows: God's law makes demands which we transgress, and so we incur wrath (15); God's grace makes promises which we believe, and so we receive blessing (14, 16). Thus law, obedience, transgression and wrath belong to one category of thinking, while grace, promise, faith and blessing belong to another. 

3. The argument from theology

One of the reasons that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, is so that *the promise...may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring - not only to those who are of the law* (meaning Jews who trace their physical descent from Abraham) *but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham*, that is, all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, who belong to the spiritual lineage of faith (16b; cf. 11b-12). The law (not least its cultural and ceremonial provisions) divides. Only the gospel of grace and faith can unite, by opening the door to the Gentiles and leveling everybody at the foot of Christ's cross (cf. 3:29f.). Hence the importance of faith. All believers belong to Abraham's seed and so inherit Abraham's promise. 

The fatherhood of Abraham is a theme which runs right through this chapter. In the first verse Paul calls him 'our forefather according to the flesh', that is, Israel's national ancestor. But after this he makes three affirmations: 'he is the father of all who believe', whether circumcised or uncircumcised (11-12); *he is the father of us all* (16); and *he is our father in the sight of God* (17). Thus the Scripture has been fulfilled which says: '*I have made you a father of many nations*' (17a). Only justification by faith could have secured this.

Much of Romans 4 has so far been negative. It has been necessary for Paul to demonstrate that Abraham was justified neither by works (since it is written that he believed God and was justified), nor by circumcision (since he was justified first and circumcised later), nor by the law (since the law was given centuries later, and in any case Abraham was responding to a promise, not a law). In each case, Paul has affirmed the priority of Abraham's faith. His faith came first; works, circumcision and the law all came later. It has been a process of systematic elimination. But now at last the apostle reaches his positive conclusion:

Abraham was justified (entirely and only) by faith 

Romans 4:17b-22

In this section Paul analyzes Abraham’s faith and presents it as a fully reasonable response to God. To describe faith as 'reasonable', would, to some, sound odd. Isn’t faith and reason incompatible? Isn’t faith ‘blind’ and even a bit superstitious? Not for Abraham—and  not for Christians who, like Abraham, are justified by a faith that is fully reasonable. 

Now, to be sure, faith goes beyond reason—but it always has a firmly rational basis. In particular, faith is believing or trusting a person, and its reasonableness depends on the reliability of the person being trusted. It is always reasonable to trust the trustworthy. And there is nobody more trustworthy than God, as Abraham knew, and as we are privileged to know, even more confidently than Abraham, because we live after the death and resurrection of Jesus through which God has fully disclosed himself and his dependability. In particular, we believe God's promises because we know of his power (his ability to keep his promises) and of his faithfulness (that he can be relied on to keep his promises). It is these two attributes of God which were the foundations of Abraham's faith.

1. Faith in God's power 

We start with God’s power—two evidences of which are brought together at the end of verse 17, where God, the object of Abraham's (and our) faith, is called *The God who gives life to the dead*, which is resurrection power; *and calls things that are not as though they were*, or, perhaps better, 'calls into being things that are not' (REB), which is creation power.  Nothing baffles us human beings more than nothingness and death. But nothingness and death are no problem to God. On the contrary, it is out of nothing that he created the universe, and out of death that he raised Jesus. The creation and the resurrection were and remain the two major manifestations of the power of God. It was a prayer to the sovereign Creator, who had made the world by his 'great power and outstretched arm', that Jeremiah added, 'Nothing is too hard for you.' (Jer. 32:17). It was also in prayer that Paul asked that the Ephesians might know God's 'incomparably great power' which he had displayed in Christ 'when he raised him from the dead' (Eph. 1:17ff.).

This firm conviction about the power of God was what enabled Abraham to believe, both *against all hope* and *in hope* (18a) at the same time, when God promised him that his descendants would be as many as the stars, although at that time he and Sarah did not have even a single child (Gen. 15:4f.). He *became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'So shall your offspring be'* (18b). It is not that he ran away from the realities of his situation into a world of fantasy. On the contrary, *without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact*, indeed the two painful, stubborn facts, that he could not beget a child and that Sarah could not conceive one. For the facts were *that his body was as good as dead - since he was about a hundred years old - and that Sarah's womb was also dead* (19) (see Gen. 17:17; 18:11). 

Yet out of that double death God brought a new life. It was at one and the same time an act of creation and of resurrection. For this is the kind of God Abraham believed in. Indeed later, when facing the supreme test of his faith, whether to sacrifice his one and only son Isaac, through whom God had said his promises would be fulfilled, Abraham even 'reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death' (Heb. 11:17ff,). Hence Abraham *did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in (or, better, 'by') his faith and gave glory to God* (20). The alternative responses to God's promise are here contrasted: *unbelief (apistia)* and *faith (pistis)*. If Abraham had given in to unbelief, he would have 'wavered' or been 'at odds with himself'. Instead, he strengthened himself by means of his faith. In this way *he gave glory to God* (20). That is to say, he glorified God by letting God be God, and by trusting him to be true to himself as the God of creation and resurrection.

2. Faith in God’s faithfulness

It is this concept of 'letting God be God' which forms a natural transition from his power to his faithfulness. There is a fundamental correspondence between our faith and God's faithfulness, so much so that Jesus' command, 'Have faith in God,' (Mk. 11:22) has sometimes been roughly but justly paraphrased, 'Reckon on the faithfulness of God'. For whether people keep their promises or not depends not only on their power, but also on their will to do so. Put differently, behind all promises lies the character of the person who makes them. Abraham knew this. As he contemplated his and Sarah's inability to bear a child, he neither turned a blind eye to these problems, nor underestimated them. But he reminded himself of God's power and faithfulness. Faith always looks at the problems in the light of the promises. 'By faith Abraham, even though he was past age - and Sarah herself was barren - was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise' (Heb. 11:11). He knew that God could keep his promises (because of his power) and he knew that he would do so (because of his faithfulness). He was *fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised* (21). *This is why*, Paul adds, namely because he believed God's promise, 'it (his faith) *was credited to him as righteousness*' (22).

Conclusion: Abraham's faith and ours 

Romans 4:23-25

Paul concludes by applying lessons from Abraham's faith to us, his readers. He writes that the biblical words '*it was credited to him' were written not for him alone (23), but also for us* today. For the whole Abraham story, like the rest of Scripture, was written for our instruction (Romans 15:4). So the same God, who credited faith to Abraham as righteousness, *will credit righteousness* to us also if we *believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead* (24). Abraham was not unique in his experience of being justified by faith. For this is God's way of salvation for everybody. But the God we are to trust in is not only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; he is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who *was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification* (25). This one verse is a comprehensive statement of the gospel. Its parallelism is so well honed that some think it was part of an early Christian creed. The verb *delivered over*, evidently refers to the Father who 'did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all' (Rom. 8:32). Thus both the death and the resurrection of Jesus are well attributed to the Father's initiative: he 'delivered him over to death', and he 'raised him up to life'. His death secures our forgiveness and his resurrection secures our justification (Cf. 1 Cor. 15:17).

In this chapter Paul has given us important instruction about the nature of faith. He indicates that there are degrees in faith. For faith can be weak (19) or strong (20). How then does it grow? Above all through the use of our minds. Faith is not burying our heads in the sand, or screwing ourselves up to believe what we know is not true, or whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. On the contrary, faith is a reasoning trust. There can be no believing without thinking.

On the one hand we have to think about the problems which face us. Faith is not closing our eyes to them. On the one hand Abraham *faced the fact* that he and Sarah were both infertile. But on the other hand Abraham reflected on the promises of God, and on the character of the God who had made them' especially that he is *the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were* (17). And as his mind played on the promises, the problems shrank accordingly, for he was *fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised* (21). As children of Abraham we are called upon to place our reasoned trust (faith) fully in the God of creation and resurrection—the God who has justified us, crediting to us his own righteousness. This is the gospel.