Romans 4—Faith Credit in the OT
In order to prove up Paul’s doctrine of salvation by faith in God’s grace, Paul used the true O.T. standards of righteousness—Abraham and David. Abraham was the first human standard of a genuine, chosen by God righteous person. Hypothetically, if he was justified by works as many suppose, he could boast, but since he was not justified by works or keeping the law, there was no boasting. Paul chose Abraham because all would agree he was the great Patriarch of the Jewish religion and therefore of Christianity also. Abraham lived about 2000 years before Paul’s audience and over 600 years before Moses gave the Law. Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised and way before the Law of Moses was given. Therefore his salvation by faith was not by works or obedience to the law, and salvation by faith is not a new concept, but has been true from the beginning. All non-biblical Jewish writings taught that Abraham was justified by keeping the law, so Paul was assaulting the religious institution of first century Judaism. Paul doesn’t bring up all the unsavory episodes of disobedience and sin that we find in Abraham’s life as written in Genesis 12-17, but pursues his righteousness through the positive approach of God’s grace and Abraham’s faith. Racially he is the father of all Jews, but spiritually he is the father of all saved believers. In Romans 4, Paul wrote about a new concept of God’s grace—that God “credited” or counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness.
O.T. Illustration of Righteousness
In Romans 3, Paul had concluded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Therefore, out of love, God had sent Jesus Christ into the world as a gift to redeem and justify all who would believe. By faith in Jesus, the righteousness of God becomes ours. Now in Romans 4, Paul continues that line of reasoning by giving the perfect Old Testament example that reveals that salvation has always been appropriated by faith. What did Abraham find out about his relationship with God? Quoting Genesis 15:6 as proof, Abraham found out that it was because he believed God that God declared him righteous. In Rom.4:5, we read that the one who believes that God justifies the ungodly by faith receives the righteousness of God. Therefore the one who depends on his own works for his salvation, will get exactly what he deserves and nothing more. If you review Abraham’s life in Genesis 12-17, you will see that he often lied, deceived, and was disobedient. Without God’s grace and Abraham’s faith, he would have been done for, or as kids say SOL (I don’t know what that means but it is bad). In verse 5, Paul used the term “reckoned” as the means righteousness was transferred to Abraham. It is referring to God’s act of imputing Christ’s righteousness to the sinner who believes. This act of God is clearly hard for limited humans to understand as the authors of the N.T. use so many different terms to try and explain. Here in Romans 4 Paul uses reckoned and credited or counted, but we also say it was declared by God or imputed, transferred, and given to the believer such that in God’s eyes we are justified as righteous. In verses 6-8 Paul backed up Abraham’s example with that of the greatest king in Israel—David. He quoted David from Psalm 32. David understood his own personal sinfulness and his need for God’s grace. David’s bottom line was that without God’s merciful forgiveness, there is no blessing of eternal life.
What about Circumcision and the Law?
Clearly Paul was sensitive to these issues since he had been brought up Jewish, and he had been indoctrinated in Jerusalem by the most famous Rabbi of the time, Gamaliel. All of the first century Jewish teaching was that circumcision and keeping the law were a big part of earning your salvation and approval from God. Paul’s eyes had been opened on the road to Damascus by a personal encounter with the risen Christ which had radically changed his view of righteousness and salvation (Acts 9:1-20). Now in Romans 4:9-15, Paul teaches that Abraham was saved about 15 years before he was circumcised, and the Law of Moses did not come until over 600 years later. Therefore the chronology of Scripture proves that Abraham was not approved by God based on either circumcision or the law, since they came well after he was saved.
Romans 4:11 is a powerful commentary on the purpose of circumcision, but most importantly that Abraham was saved by faith and became “the father of all who believe”. In the same way that God credited righteousness to Abraham, we also believe, and God credits it to our account and we are saved. The phrase “the father of all who believe” is significant because he was seen as the father or patriarch of the Jewish race and the patriarch of the chosen people of God. Now, Paul refers to him as the father of all who believe, including the many Gentiles in the church who were not circumcised. God’s original purpose for commanding Abraham to be circumcised was that it be a “sign” and a “seal” of God’s blessing and promises that Abraham had believed in. What were those promises? God promised that he would be the father of a very numerous people, even though he had no children at an elderly age. God promised that he would be a blessing to the entire world (Gen.12:3), and God promised that through a specific descendant (singular), all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen.22:18). In Galatians 3:8,16, we learn that God was talking about the Christ who would bless all who would believe with salvation.
Hope Against Hope
Paul makes it clear in Rom.4:16-22 that keeping the faith and his hopes alive for a son was not easy for Abraham. It was against all appearances, feelings, and all odds. In v.17 we read that “God gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” Apparently Paul was referring to Abraham’s sexual prowess at the age of 100 as being dead or non existent, yet “he believed in hope against hope”. Nevertheless Paul says in verse 20 that he did not waver but became strong in faith by giving all the glory to God. I think Paul was using a humorous play on words using “grew strong” and “able to perform” to describe his miraculous ability to get together with Sarah who had previously had “the deadness of womb”. What is clear is that all this happened by the grace of God, and Abraham fully believed God’s Word in spite of how impossible it seemed. Abraham didn’t know how, but he believed God had the power to fulfill what seemed impossible, and this gave all the glory to God. Isaac was God’s gift instead of just Abraham’s son.
Did Abraham Know about Christ?
When you consider that he was saved by belief in God’s promises, you may wonder just how much detail did Abraham know? Jesus clued us in when He had a spirited discussion with the religious leaders in John 8. Jesus told them in John 8:31-58 they needed to believe the Word of God He was teaching and become disciples of His in order to become free of sin. They took offense to that, and said they were not slaves but free because they were Abraham’s offspring. Jesus said that if they were, they would do the deeds (have the faith of) Abraham. Because they did not believe in Jesus as Abraham did, it proved they were actually the children of the devil. You can imagine their response, “You are a Samaritan and have a demon” (Jn. 8:48). Then in Jn.8:57-59, Jesus told them that “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw and was glad”. The Jews remarked that it was impossible because Abraham lived way before Jesus, and then Jesus blew their mind by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM.” With this statement Jesus was telling them that He preexisted the creation as God Himself. His audience knew exactly what He meant as they picked up stones to kill Him for claiming to be God. We can see that Abraham had a good idea of who the Messiah was and what He would do as did Moses, David, Isaiah, and many of the other prophets.
Not for Abraham’s Sake Only
The great thing about Romans 4 is that the same divine principle applies to every person today who trusts in Christ as their Savior. We are saved on exactly the same basis as Abraham—faith in God. We have much more information than Abraham, but the key phrase in Rom.4:24 still applies as “those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead”. Faith is still the necessary condition for salvation. If in spite of his limited knowledge (without the New Testament), Abraham could anticipate the Christ and believe God could raise the dead, how much more are we today responsible to believe and entrust our lives to Him?