1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:1-8; ESV)
The apostle Paul is going to bring the story of Abraham into the picture. Paul has not left the theme of Romans nor has he gone away from the emphatic points he has made in chapters 2 and 3. Paul wrapped up chapter 3 with some powerful and amazing points concerning justification. In chapter 3 we learned that we cannot be justified (declared not guilty, acquitted, righteous) by the law of Moses. The law of Moses had a purpose, but its purpose was not to justify but to show us sin (3:20). Paul will explore this point further in chapter 7. Further, the works of the law (possession of the law of Moses, circumcision, Sabbath keeping, defilement laws, all the things that made Israel distinct from the Gentiles) also cannot justified. If the works of the law was the means for justification, then God would be a God of the Jews only (3:29). But the promise was to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed, not just one nation. So Paul has not overthrown the law, but upheld the law. Rather than think that we are justified by works of the law, Paul teaches that we are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ (3:24). The faithfulness of Jesus and his life offered as a sacrifice for sins paid the price to redeem us from slavery to sin. Therefore, God can still be righteous and just in showing mercy and grace and declare righteous those who have faith in Jesus. This is where we are as enter the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I believe the NKJV punctuates verse 1 properly: “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?” Most translations make the statement read that Abraham was the father of the Jewish nation according to the flesh. However, this is a statement of the obvious and is stated unnecessarily. However, the NKJV correctly reveals the road where Paul is going. What did our father Abraham gain according to the flesh? Or what did our father Abraham find according to the flesh? Notice that the phrase “according to the flesh” is to be paralleled with “justified by works” in verse 2. Paul is setting up his next point by using Abraham as a key witness. We know that “according to the flesh” is speaking about the works of the law (and circumcision more exactly) because once Paul deals with the example of Abraham, Paul speaks in great detail about circumcision in verses 9-12. To simplify, Paul is asking if Abraham gained anything or found justification through the flesh.
Verse 2 continues that if Abraham had gained something through the flesh, or the works of the law, then he would have had something to boast about, but of course not before God. Bringing verse 2 into the picture, Paul is asking his audience to consider how Abraham found justification. What was the basis upon which Abraham was declared righteous before God? Verse 3 contains the quotation to prove his point that Abraham was not declared righteous by the flesh or by the works of the law. Abraham has justified by faith. Turn to Genesis 15:1-6 to read the story about Abraham. God tells Abram (before his name is changed by God to Abraham) that God is his shield and Abram’s reward will be very great. Abram responds that he has no children and one of his servants will be heir of his inheritance if that situation does not change. God tells Abram that he is going to have his very own son. God goes further to tell Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. The scripture says in verse 6, from where Paul quotes, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Two points come from this statement. First, Abraham believed in what God told him. Abraham did not simply believe that there is a God. That is not biblical faith. Rather, Abraham trusted his life to God that God what do what he promised. Abraham believed that God will do what he says, even though it did not look like it was possible since Abraham did not have a child. Second, based upon that faith, God credited Abraham as righteous. The scriptures do not teach that Abraham was morally righteous. He wasn’t, for no one is righteous and all have sinned (Romans 3:10, 23). Abraham is an example of the point the apostle Paul has been making. People are not justified by works of the law, but through deep faith in God. Even Abraham was not justified by works, otherwise righteousness would have been earned to him (see verse 5). If justification is based upon being a Jew, then it is due to the Jews. Further, the works of the law have never been the basis of justification. Faith has always been the basis of justification.
Consider verse 5. “And to the one who does not work” cannot mean that there is absolutely nothing a person can do for God or toward God. If that is what Paul means, then he contradicts himself in this very verse because he is demanding people to put their faith in God to be justified. Paul is telling them to do something. Paul has previously told us that the heart needs to circumcised (2:29) and that keeping the precepts of God’s law marks us as God’s people (2:26). Paul is not giving license to break God’s law or to be disobedient. Such an interpretation is completely outside of the context of Paul’s writing. Paul is answering the natural question: Who is part of God’s family? Who receives the pronouncement of justified? Not the one working, but the one believing. Relying on my works or relying upon the works of the law is not the answer for justification. The one who is believing like Abraham believed is the one who is justified.
I really like verse 5, especially because of the statement about God, “who justifies the ungodly.” We are not righteous. We are ungodly! But God is justifying the ungodly. God can justify the ungodly through the faithful life and sacrifice of Jesus (3:25). The blood of Jesus does not magically cause us to be morally righteous people. Nor has the righteousness of Jesus transferred to us. We are still ungodly. Paul is telling us that God is crediting it to us as righteousness, that is, declaring us justified/acquitted, through faith in Jesus. We are not righteous, but God is declaring us righteous through the blood of Jesus. This all goes back to God and what he has done for us. It is not us earning our wages. This is God’s gift to us. This is the best present that you can have: rather than being condemned for our sins, as we rightly deserve in our ungodliness, God has declared us righteous, justified, not guilty, and acquitted. We did not deserve that. There is no amount of working that gets us out of our ungodly condition. It is the working of God, as Paul wrote to the Colossians in Colossians 2:12. So there is no boasting. Abraham had nothing to boast about (4:2) and we have nothing to boast about. The ungodly have been justified! What a gift!
Too often we think that we need to get our lives right first before coming to God. “I can’t come to God because my life is a mess.” This is why you need to come to God! You cannot get your life right without God. We are all ungodly. We are all in sin. We are all deserving of God’s wrath. You can’t fix your life first. You cannot earn your way into God’s favor. Now here is the twist to the story: God is already showing you favor and you don’t even know it! God should be executing wrath upon us for our sins because that is what is just. Rather, God is showing us favor and grace, hoping that we will see his love and come to Jesus. Come to Jesus first and he will change your life. Don’t try to change your life first. That is not going to work and you are not impressing God. God knows you need him. He wants you to recognize you need him and need his sacrifice for sins. Come to Jesus with your sins and he will make you white as snow. You cannot clean yourself up. You need the blood of Jesus to make you clean, set you on the right path, and guide you in the paths of right living.
This is exactly what David speaks about, as we move to verse 6. David speaks about the great blessing of the one that God credits as righteous. Look at the quotation: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven. Blessed are those whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one who the Lord does not count sin against. This is what justification looks like: sins are not counted against us. We are acquitted rather than found guilty. We are given the status of righteous, rather than the status of condemned. We are found not guilty on the basis of Jesus’ faithfulness.
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:9-12; ESV)
Who Receives This Blessing?
Paul returns to the implied question answered in verse 5 by explicitly penning the question. “Is this blessing then only for the circumcised?” Notice that “works” continue to refer to doing external things that set Israel apart from the nations. Is the blessing of justification only to those who are circumcised (works of the law) or also to the uncircumcised? Paul now sets us his audience with a great flow of logic.
The scriptures say that faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness. Was Abraham credited this righteousness based on the works of the law? No. In fact, the promise was given to Abraham before he was circumcised. The promise was given in Genesis 15 but the seal of circumcision was not given until Genesis 17. Circumcision came after Abraham was credited as righteous. Here is the key: Abraham was uncircumcised when he was declared righteous by faith. Abraham was uncircumcised when he received circumcision as the seal of the righteousness. God could have told Abraham to be circumcised first and then give him the promise and then credit him as righteous. But circumcision is not the mechanism for justification. One is not declared righteous through circumcision. This is Paul’s subtle point.
Why didn’t God have Abraham circumcised before declaring him righteous? The reason, given in verse 11, is that Abraham was to be the father of all who believe without being circumcised. This was all part of God’s plan. God had a reason for Genesis 15 to come before Genesis 17. The point was to show that even the uncircumcised could be declared righteous by faith. The point was to show that one did not have to become circumcised to be Abraham’s offspring and recipients of the promise of justification. Circumcision is not what puts one in God’s family or shows one to be in God’s family. Faith and faithfulness show us to be in God’s family. Before we leave verse 11 notice one other point that shows we are on the right track. Paul calls the sign of circumcision “a seal of the righteousness he had by faith.” In Genesis 17:11 God calls circumcision the sign of the covenant. I want us to see that the righteousness that Paul is talking about is the fulfillment of the covenant made to Abraham.
Looking at verse 12, this makes Abraham not only the father of the circumcised, but also the uncircumcised. Notice that Abraham is a father to the circumcised only is they “also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” Notice the great reversal. Paul is instructing the Jews to become like the Gentiles! Jews had called the Gentiles to become Jews. Now the Jews need to be like Abraham was before he was circumcised. If they believe they can be part of the covenant promises. This is a call to walking in a life of faith.
- God justifies the ungodly. We are the ungodly but God justifies in spite of our sins.
- God grants us the status of righteous on the basis of faith in Jesus. Walking in the footsteps of faith is required to receive that acquittal sentence.
- What a blessing to not have our sins counted against us!