The apostle Paul has introduced the example of Abraham in chapter 4 of this letter to the Romans. Abraham and David are used as examples of justification by faith, rather than justification by works of the law. Abraham was justified by faith. Abraham trusted in God and God’s covenant promises and God declared Abraham righteous because of that faith. Similarly, David understood that we do not earn our justification because he said, “Blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count sin.” Verses 9-12 of Romans 4 drove the point home, noting that Abraham was declared righteous before circumcision, not after. Justification is not through the flesh but through the blood of Jesus, the righteousness of God, and our faith in him.
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. (Romans 4:13-15; ESV)
Verse 13 clarifies for us that the covenant promise given to Abraham in Genesis 15 (quoted by Paul in Romans 4:3) is the promise for the justification of the world. Notice that the promise to Abraham is not to own a little strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The promise is to inherit the world through the Messiah who will establish his kingdom and rule over the earth. The whole world is the “holy land” and all the creation is under the rule of Christ. Paul writes the Corinthians and explains that they are heirs of the world through Jesus because everything is his.
So don’t boast about following a particular human leader. For everything belongs to you — whether Paul or Apollos or Peter, or the world, or life and death, or the present and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23; NLT)
This promise of the justification of the world did not come through the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses came after the promise. Paul expands upon that discussion in Galatians 3:17-18. The promise came first and the law came second. Paul is teaching his audience that based upon when God gave this promise, it ought to be clear that God would not fulfill the promise of justifying all people through the law because the promise was not given through the law. The Law of Moses does not contain this promise of justifying the world. So it cannot be through the Law of Moses that God fulfills the promise. The promise came to Abraham because of faith. Faith and faithfulness were the marks on Abraham’s life that God then declared him righteous. Therefore, God will fulfill his covenant promise of justifying the world to those who walk in the same footsteps of faith as Abraham (4:12).
There are two reasons why God cannot fulfill his promise of justification to the world through the Law of Moses. First, the Law of Moses brings wrath (4:15). Paul taught earlier in Romans that the purpose of the Law of Moses was to bring a knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20) not to pronounce people righteous. Paul also taught in a previously written letter (the letter to the Galatians) that the Law of Moses was to act as a guardian to bring us to revealing of Jesus’ faithfulness. The law shows us our sins and reveals that we deserve God’s wrath for our sins. The law does not save. Our failure to keep the stipulations of the law is what prevents those who rely upon the law from obtaining the promise. The law brings wrath because people fail to keep it.
The second reason Paul gives for why God cannot fulfill his promise of justification to the world through the Law of Moses is because doing so would restrict Abraham’s covenant promises to the Jews only. If the Law of Moses is the way people receive justification, then only the Jews receive the fulfillment because the Law of Moses was only given to Israel. Only Israel performed the works of the law (circumcision, Sabbaths, defilement laws) which showed them to be Israel. If that is how God would justify, then only the Jews could be saved. But the promise was that all the nations would be blessed and justification would come to the world.
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (Romans 4:16-17; ESV)
Paul continues to hammer the point about the universal availability of Abraham’s promise. The promise is guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring. But Paul clarifies who are Abraham’s offspring. It is not merely those who are “under the law” (NET) or “of the law” (NASB), that is, the Jews, but to those who share the faith of Abraham. So read the sentence again. The fulfillment of the promise to justify the world depends on faith. This way, it is all about the grace of God and not about us earning or deserving justification. Further, it depends on faith so that all of Abraham’s offspring, Jews and Gentiles, are able to access it by sharing the faith of father Abraham. Paul proves this point by quoting Genesis 17:5 where it says that Abraham is the father of many nations, not just the nation of Israel. Abraham is the father of all.
The rest of verse 17 is an interesting declaration that needs some explanation. I do not believe that Paul is simply describing the power of God in general terms, that God gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist. We need to ask why Paul mentions this power of God at this moment. In verses 18-22 the apostle Paul is going to talk about the miracle birth of Isaac and Abraham’s dead body. I believe this is the first and most immediate picture. Abraham’s body was dead in the sense of being able to produce children. Abraham’s body could not bring life. But God has the power to bring life to the dead (make Abraham’s body able to have children) and call into existence things that do not exist (the miraculous birth of Isaac).
But there is more to the picture because Paul has been talking about how both groups, Jews and Gentiles, are able to be justified by faith. Consider that when Paul says that God brings life to the dead he is referring the Jews. They are dead by the law of Moses because the law of Moses brings wrath. The nation is dead after 586 BC when God leaves the temple and allows Israel to be taken into Babylonian slavery. The nation is dead and it seems that God’s promise to justify are lost. But God gives life to the dead nation. The covenant is restored and the nation is restored by sharing in the faith of Abraham. Paul also says that God calls into existence the things that do not exist. God is bringing into a covenant relationship people who had no covenant membership of any sort: the Gentiles.
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:12-13; ESV)
God has given life to the dead (the Jews) and called into a relationship people who did not formerly have a relationship (the Gentiles). Thus, Abraham is able to be the father of many nations, calling all people to him through faith.
18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:18-22; ESV)
I love the words of verse 18. Abraham trusted in the specific promises of God. These were impossible promises. Abraham believed against all hope. Abraham believed against logic and reason that he would become the father of many nations, though he had no children and was too old to bear a child. Abraham shows us God centered and God honoring faith. Notice the three characteristics of Abraham’s faith.
(1) Abraham did not become weak in faith. Talking about hoping against hope. Abraham hears the words that he will be the father of many nations and through him the justification of the world is going to take place. Abraham considers his own body. He can’t have children. He is about 100 years old. His body cannot physically have children. Not only this, Abraham thought about Sarah. She is also too old to have children. This promise is simply impossible in physical terms. Did these impossibilities weaken Abraham’s faith? NO! Abraham trusted in the words of God.
(2) Abraham did not doubt (or distrust) because of unbelief. Abraham did not give up on these promises as time went forward. A great example of this is when Abraham is told to offer his only son Isaac on the altar. We do not read Abraham questioning God. We do not read about Abraham dragging his feet before obeying. We see a life of faithfulness because he did not doubt that God was going to keep his word. Somehow, some way, God was going to justify the world through him and he would be the father of many nations.
(3) Abraham not only did not exhibit a lack of trust in regards to this promise, but he grew strong in his faith. We see the strength of that faith again in the command to offer Isaac. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham’s faith grew stronger. Abraham moves in his faith from looking at himself and his inability to have children and believing that God would justify the world through his offspring to thinking that he could kill Isaac and God would raise him from the dead. Amazing, deep faith in God. This is the kind of faith that marks those who are in a covenant relationship. After reading these words, now think about Paul’s statement that we are to walk in the footsteps of faith that our father Abraham walked. God is not calling for mere belief. God is not calling for weak, timid faith. God is calling for bold, strong faith. How can we have this kind of faith?
The Secret to Abraham’s Faith
Abraham acknowledged God’s glory (4:20). We can build this kind of faith by giving glory to God. I know that my faith has grown in this study of Romans when simply contemplating the teachings that God justifies the ungodly and how blessed are those that the Lord does not count their sins. How can we not glory in God knowing what he has done? How can we not be emboldened and empowered to worship and praise God when we hear such good news?
Go back to Romans 1:23-25 and recall that sin is when we are not glorifying or worshiping God. Faith and faithfulness is the life that is glorifying and worshiping God.
Abraham acknowledged that God has the ability to carry out his promises (4:21). God can do anything. There is nothing impossible with God. There is no task or promise that God cannot or will not carry out. God can save, even me. God has the power to save you, and will save you. This led to Abraham trusting God to fulfill his promise, relying on God’s power. We need to rely on the power of God and not our own power. When we look at our power, then there is not much that we can do. But when we rely on God’s power, the possibilities are endless. Nothing is impossible with God. God can do great things and small things for his people.
“That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham had bold faith. Let us have God centered and God honoring faith. Let us grow our faith responding to the great grace that has been shown to us.