This post is part of a series of essays based on my study of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. They are simply drafts and not intended to be well-polished essays. I would appreciate any constructive feedback.
Click here to read the passage.
To further his point that no one is justified by works of the law, Paul goes on to use Abraham as an example of someone who was justified by faith. He asks the following question: “what then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?” In other words, what did Abraham gain from keeping the law? If we have followed Paul’s argumentation, we know that the answer is nothing. If Abraham had truly followed all of God’s law perfectly, he would have something to boast about—he would have earned his righteousness. However, the Scriptures teach that Abraham sinned just like everyone else (See Genesis 12:13,16:1–4), but was justified by his faith in that he obeyed God in sacrificing his son Isaac in spite of God’s promise to make him a father of many nations by way of that very same son (Gen. 15:6; 22:1–18). He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Here we see the biblical definition of justification, that is, to be made righteous on the basis of faith in God apart from works.
Clearly, Abraham was justified by his faith, that is, by his obedience. The question then is does obedience nullify the grace of God. Paul says in verses 4–5 that to him who works, the wages are counted to him as a debt, not as grace (i.e., a gift). However, to him who believes—the one who has obedient faith—his faith is reckoned as righteousness. That is to say, God’s justifying people based on their obedience does not invalidate the free gift of justification. In fact, God requires obedience in order for one to be justified. Paul affirms in verse 6 that God imputes righteousness apart from works. If justification is defined as faith being credited as righteousness apart from works—and faith is obedience—we must conclude that obedience is not a work, and therefore, does not nullify the grace of God.
The word “work” is being used in these verses to mean a deed of the law—in this case, the Mosaic Law. Paul cites David, who said, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven.” A blessed man is one who is forgiven for committing deeds that are not of the law; his transgressions are forgiven. This quote further supports the argument that obedience is not a work and is a requirement for justification.
If the blessedness of justification by faith were only for the circumcised, it would not align with the facts concerning Abraham, which is that his faith was credited to him as righteousness while he was still uncircumcised. Once again: he was justified apart from works of the law. His circumcision was a seal of his justification. Justification before circumcision is important because it makes Abraham the father of all who have faith regardless of their being circumcised or not. Justification is a result of faith, not of circumcision. Although some would use verses 11–12 to refute the essentiality of baptism, Paul’s intention is not to speak against this act of obedience, as the spiritual circumcision is much more significant than the physical circumcision mentioned in this text (See Romans 6 and listen to my episode titled Baptism of No Avail).
Paul says in verse 15 that where there is no law there is no transgression. The inverse is also true: where there is a law, there is transgression. The law brings wrath to those who are under it, because no one can be made righteous through it (Rom. 3:10ff). If God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the heir to many nations were through the Mosaic Law, the only ones who would receive the promise would be the adherents to the Law—the Jews. In that case, faith would be useless and the covenant of promise would be annulled (Gal. 3:15–18). There would be no justification by faith, and all humankind would perish.
Notice that the promise was made to the seed of Abraham, that is, to Christ (Gal. 3:16). In order for the covenant of promise to be ratified, Christ—the testator—had to come and die (Heb. 9:16–17). During the time between the promise and the death of Christ, the law was put in place as a tutor to expose sin and to bring sinners to faith in order to be justified (Gal. 3:24). The covenant of promise ensures that all are justified if they have faith like Abraham’s, not if they adhere to the Law. For this reason, Abraham is the father of us all who believe (Rom. 4:16–18).
The reason why Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness was because he was not weak in faith. Abraham’s loins were dead, and his wife Sarah was barren. These conditions made it impossible for any couple to have a child. Yet God promised him that he would make him the heir of the world. Genesis 17 and 18 records Abraham’s reaction when he conversed with God concerning this promise.
We should not think that Abraham was not apprehensive of God’s plan. Genesis 17:17 says that Abraham fell on his face and laughed when God told him that he would have a son. He said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man that is one hundred years old?” And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17) Even Sarah laughed when she heard the promise (Gen. 18:13). However, observe Paul’s statement in Romans 4:20. He says, “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.” The Young’s Literal Translation renders these verses as follows: “and at the promise of God [Abraham] did not stagger in unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, having given glory to God, and having been fully persuaded that what He hath promised He is able also to do.” Abraham did not allow his unbelief—his doubting—to take him away from doing the will of God. After his conversation with the Lord, and despite his apprehension, he took Ishmael and all the other males in his house and circumcised them according to what the Lord had commanded him. He gave glory to God in his obedience, and he was fully convinced that God was able to perform what he had promised. As a result, he was strengthened in his faith, so much so, that he was willing to sacrifice his son of the promise—Isaac—because he knew that God would be able to raise him from the dead (Heb. 11:17–19).
We see here that faith is a process in which there is growth as a result of following God’s word; hence, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17). His word provides the evidence that fully convinces us that he is able to perform what he has promised both in salvation and after it. Just as Abraham was justified by faith, we also have the opportunity to be justified when we have faith in God, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.