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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Romans 4


C. The proof of justification by faith from the law ch. 4

Paul’s readers could have understood faith as being a new method of salvation since he contrasted faith with the law. The apostle began this epistle by saying that the gospel reveals a righteousness from God, implying something new (Romans 1:17). Was justification by faith a uniquely Christian revelation contrasted with Jewish doctrine? No. In this chapter the apostle showed that God has always justified people by faith alone. In particular, he emphasized that God declared Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, righteous because of his faith. One of the present values of the Old Testament is that it shows that God justified people by faith in the past. If Paul could show from the Old Testament that Abraham received justification by faith, he could convince his Jewish readers that there is only one method of salvation (Romans 3:29-30).

". . . as in Romans 3:27-31, Paul’s purpose is not only to establish the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but also, indeed especially, to draw out the implications of this sola fide [faith alone]. To accomplish these purposes, Paul ’exposits’ Genesis 15:6 . . . This text is quoted in Romans 4:3 after Paul sets up his problem in terms of Abraham’s ’right’ to boast (Romans 4:1-2). Thereafter, Paul quotes or alludes to this text in every paragraph of the chapter, using a series of antitheses to draw out its meaning and implications." [Note: Ibid., p. 255.]

Verse 1

He started with a rhetorical question that he used often in Romans (cf. Romans 6:1; Romans 7:7; Romans 8:31; Romans 9:14; Romans 9:30): "What then shall we say?" By referring to Abraham as "our forefather after the flesh" (Romans 4:1) Paul revealed that he was aiming these comments at his Jewish readers primarily. Abraham’s case is significant for Gentiles as well, however, because in another sense, as the father of the faithful, he is the father of "us all" (Romans 4:16). "All" refers to all believers, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Verses 1-5

1. Abraham’s justification by faith 4:1-5

Paul began this chapter by showing that God declared Abraham righteous because of the patriarch’s faith.

Verse 2

This verse applies Paul’s earlier statement about boasting (Romans 3:27) to Abraham’s case for the sake of contrast. Abraham had no ground for boasting before God because he received justification by faith, not by works.

Verse 3

In Paul’s day many of the rabbis taught that Abraham experienced justification because of his obedience rather than because of his faith. [Note: Harrison, p. 47. Cf. 1 Maccabees 2:51.] They also taught that Abraham had a surplus of merit that was available to his descendants, the Jews. [Note: Robertson, 4:350; Witmer, p. 453. Cf. Luke 3:8.] Consequently the apostle went back to Genesis 15:6 for his authority.

Exactly what Abraham believed is not clear in Genesis 15. The Hebrew conjunction waw used with a perfect tense verb, as in Genesis 15:6, indicates a break in the action. A good translation is, "Now he [Abram] had believed . . ." Abraham had obviously believed God previously (cf. Genesis 12:1-4; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 14:22-24). However now Abraham learned that he would receive an heir from his own body and innumerable descendants (Genesis 15:4). He believed this too. Exactly what Abraham believed is incidental to Paul’s point, which was that he trusted God and, specifically, believed God’s promise.

". . . Abraham just believed God: gave Him the honor of being a God of truth." [Note: Newell, p. 139.]

Trust in God’s promise is what constitutes faith and results in justification. The promises of God vary. These promises constitute the content of faith. The object of faith does not vary, however. It is always the person of God. For us God’s promise is that Jesus Christ died as our substitute and satisfied all of God’s demands against sinners (Romans 3:24-25).

Note that God credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3). Faith itself is not righteousness. Faith is not meritorious in itself. It is only the vehicle by which God’s righteousness reaches us. However, it is the only vehicle by which it reaches us.

Verses 4-5

Romans 4:4-5 contrast faith and works. Work yields wages that the person working deserves. Faith receives a gift (Romans 4:4; lit. grace, Gr. charin) that the person believing does not deserve. Incredibly, God justifies those who not only fail to deserve justification but deserve condemnation because they are "ungodly" (NASB) or "wicked" (NIV; Romans 4:5; cf. Romans 3:24). This is how far God’s grace goes (cf. Deuteronomy 25:1)!

"Here in a nutshell is the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith." [Note: Mickelsen, p. 1193.]

In our day there are many subtle as well as obvious perversions of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Advocates of lordship salvation effectively add works to faith when they make commitment to Jesus Christ necessary for salvation. One astute writer has observed that this "front loading" of the gospel with works is "paving the road back to Rome." [Note: Earl Radmacher, "First Response to ’Faith According to the Apostle James’ by John F. MacArthur Jr.," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33:1 (March 1990):40.] Some lordship salvation advocates believe that an unbeliever only has to be willing to submit to Christ’s lordship. However this is only changing the human work from submitting to being willing to submit. One lordship salvation advocate wrote that to exclude submission to Christ’s lordship from the gospel message amounts to antinomianism. [Note: John MacArthur, Faith Works, p. 94.] Later he defined antinomianism as follows.

"antinomianism: the idea that behavior is unrelated to faith, or that Christians are not bound by any moral law. Antinomianism radically separates justification and sanctification, making practical holiness elective." [Note: Ibid., p. 259. Cf. pp. 94-98.]

Clearly this is not the position of most Christians who believe that faith alone is what God requires instead of faith plus commitment. [Note: For a response to the Reformed claim that dispensationalists are antinomian (i.e., against law as a standard for Christian living), see Robert A. Pyne, "Antinomianism and Dispensationalism," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:610 (April-June 1996):141-54.]

Another subtle modern form of works salvation often accompanies an incorrect interpretation of the biblical doctrine of perseverance. This view says that if a professing Christian does not continue in the faith and in holiness all his or her life, allowing for occasional lapses, he or she was not a true believer. This view "back loads" the gospel with works. Faithfulness to the Lord thus becomes a condition for salvation. This incorrect interpretation of perseverance often goes hand in hand with lordship salvation.

Some who hold these views try to get away from their connection with works by saying that it is God who produces submission and or sanctification in the believer, not the believer himself. [Note: E.g., MacArthur, pp. 100-101.] Nonetheless it is the professing Christian whom God holds responsible for his or her choices, not Himself.

"Indeed, every command to the believer implies the necessity of his involvement as part of the process [of sanctification]." [Note: Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation, p. 152.]

Another answer that some who hold these views give is that what the Bible affirms is that man cannot merit eternal life. [Note: MacArthur, pp. 69, 105-21.] This is not the same, they say, as doing something necessary to obtain it, such as submitting or remaining faithful. Yet the Bible uses the word "works," not just merit (Romans 4:2; Romans 4:4-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). [Note: Three excellent books on salvation by faith alone, all of which respond to lordship salvation, are Ryrie, So Great Salvation; Joseph Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings; and Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free!]

Verses 6-8

2. David’s testimony to justification by faith 4:6-8

Paul cited another eminent man in Jewish history whose words harmonized with the apostle’s. Whereas Abraham lived before the Mosaic Law, David lived under it. Abraham’s story is in the law section of the Hebrew Bible, and David’s is in the prophets section. Here is the second witness Paul referred to in Romans 3:21. Abraham represents the patriarchal period of Israel’s history and David the monarchy period. As Israel’s greatest king, one would assume that David would have been a strong advocate of the Mosaic Law. He was, but he did not view it as the key to justification.

The passage Paul quoted from David’s writings (Psalms 32:1-2) does not state directly that David himself received justification by faith, though he did. It stresses that those to whom God "reckons" righteousness (i.e., the justified) are "blessed." Paul was carrying the sense of one passage (Romans 4:6) over to explain the meaning of another (Romans 4:7-8). The second passage contained the same word (logizesthai, translated "reckons" or "credits" in Romans 4:6, and translated "taken into account" or "count" in Romans 4:8).

"One of the reasons why Paul quotes these verses is the presence in them of the key word ’reckon.’ The practice of associating verses from the OT on the basis of verbal parallels was a common Jewish exegetical technique." [Note: Moo, p. 266.]

Psalms 32 is one of David’s penitential psalms that he wrote after he had sinned greatly. Paul not only proved that David believed in imputed rather than earned righteousness with this quotation, but he also showed that when a believer sins his sin does not cancel his justification.

"Forgiveness is more than mere remitting of penalty. Even a hard-hearted judge might remit a man’s fine if it were paid by someone else, but forgiveness involves the heart of the forgiver. God’s forgiveness is the going forth of God’s infinite tenderness toward the object of His mercy. It is God folding the sinner, as the returning prodigal was folded, to His bosom. Such a one is blessed indeed!" [Note: Newell, p. 136.]

". . . it is not the ’reckoning’ of people’s good works but God’s act in not reckoning their sins against them that constitutes forgiveness." [Note: Moo, p. 266.]

"God does keep a record of our works, so that He might reward us when Jesus comes; but He is not keeping a record of our sins." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:525.]

Since God is omniscient, He knows everything that has ever happened. By saying that God forgets our sins, the writers of Scripture meant that He will never bring us into judgment for our sins or condemn us for them (cf. Romans 8:1). The idea of forgetting sins is anthropomorphic: the writer ascribes an action of man (forgetting) to God to help us understand that God behaves as though He forgets our sins.

Verses 9-12

3. The priority of faith to circumcision 4:9-12

The examples of Abraham and David, both Jews, led to the question Paul voiced in the next verse (Romans 4:9). The apostle pointed out that when God declared Abraham righteous the patriarch was uncircumcised. He was a virtual Gentile. Fourteen years later Abraham underwent circumcision (Genesis 17:24-26). His circumcision was a sign (label) of what he already possessed. This point would have encouraged Paul’s Jewish readers, who made so much of circumcision, to keep it in its proper place as secondary to faith. Paul used Abraham as more than an example of faith.

"As the recipient and mediator of the promise, his experience becomes paradigmatic for his spiritual progeny." [Note: Moo, p. 267.]

Verse 13

God gave His promise to bless the Gentiles through Abraham long before He gave the Mosaic Law. Consequently it was wrong for the Jews to think that the blessing of the Gentiles depended on their obedience to the Law. It depended on God’s faithfulness to His promise. God gave that promise to Abraham not because of his obedience but because of his faith. The giving of that promise even antedated Abraham’s circumcision.

Verses 13-17

4. The priority of faith to the promise concerning headship of many nations 4:13-17

The Jews believed that they had a claim on Abraham that Gentiles did not have. Obviously he was the father of their nation, and this did place him in a unique relationship to his physical descendants. However, they incorrectly concluded that all the blessings that God had promised Abraham would come to them alone. Paul reminded his readers that part of God’s promised blessing to Abraham was that he would be the father of many nations (Romans 4:17). God had given him this promise after his justification (Genesis 17:4-6), and God repeated it to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 22:17-18). These nations included the Edomites, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and many others including Gentile nations. Therefore the Israelites were not the only people God had promised to bless. They did not have a corner on God’s blessings.

Verse 14

To introduce law-keeping as a condition for the fulfillment of this promise would have two effects. First, it would make faith irrelevant. It would subject this simple unconditional promise to the condition of human obedience. If, for example, a father promised his son a new bicycle, the boy would look forward to receiving it as a gift. However if the father added the condition that to get the bike the boy had to be obedient, he would destroy his son’s confidence that he would get the bike. Now obtaining the bicycle depended on obedience. It was no longer a matter of faith. The second effect, which is also evident in this illustration, is that the promise would be nullified (i.e., made worthless).

Verse 15

Rather than bringing blessing, which God promised Abraham, the Law brings wrath because no one can keep the Law perfectly. Whenever there is failure, wrath follows. However without law there can be no violation and therefore no wrath. Moo explained Paul’s logic as follows.

"Violation of law turns ’sin’ into the more serious offense of ’transgression,’ meriting God’s wrath

God gave the law to the Jews

The Jews have transgressed the law (cf. Romans 2:1-29; Romans 3:9-19)

The law brought wrath to the Jews . . .

"Paul, then, is not claiming that there is no ’sin’ where there is no law, but, in almost a ’truism,’ that there is no deliberate disobedience of positive commands where there is no positive command to disobey." [Note: Ibid., pp. 276, 277.]

Verse 16

This verse summarizes the thought of Romans 4:13-15. God gave His promise to make Abraham the father of many nations (Romans 4:13) unconditionally ("in accordance with grace") after the patriarch stood justified. Abraham obtained the promise simply by believing it (i.e., by faith), not by keeping the law. This is the only way that the realization of what God had promised could be certain. This part of Paul’s argument therefore further exalts faith as the only method of justification. [Note: See Robert A. Pyne, "The ’Seed,’ the Spirit, and the Blessing of Abraham," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (April-June 1995):216-17.]

"Faith is helplessness reaching out in total dependence upon God." [Note: Mounce, p. 127.]

Verse 17

Paul described God as he did here in harmony with the promise he cited. God gave the ability to father many nations to Abraham when his reproductive powers were dead. God summoned yet uncreated nations as He had summoned the yet uncreated cosmos, namely, with a word, in this case a promise (cf. Hebrews 11:3; 2 Peter 3:5). [Note: Cranfield, 1:246.] Another view is that God named or addressed these uncreated nations even though they did not yet exist. The interpretation hinges on the meaning of "calls," which is not clear.

Verse 18

Abraham’s hope rested solely on God’s promise. He had no hope of obtaining descendants naturally. His faith was not a condition for the reception of the promise, but he believed with the intention of receiving it. [Note: Godet, p. 181.]

Verses 18-22

5. The exemplary value of Abraham’s faith 4:18-22

Paul concluded his proof that faith was the only method of justification before the Cross by showing that what Abraham did in trusting God is essentially what everyone must do.

Verses 19-21

Even though Abraham’s faith was stronger at some times than it was at others (cf. Genesis 17:17; Genesis 17:23-27), Paul could say he was not weak in faith (Romans 4:19).

"When Paul says that Abraham did not ’doubt . . . because of unbelief,’ he means not that Abraham never had momentary hesitations, but that he avoided a deep-seated and permanent attitude of distrust and inconsistency in relationship to God and his promises." [Note: Moo, pp. 284-85. Cf. James 1:6-8.]

The patriarch believed God in the face of discouraging facts that he contemplated courageously. He believed despite the knowledge that what God had promised could not happen naturally. Abraham grew stronger in faith as time passed. The record of his life in Genesis shows this (Romans 4:20). He gave glory to God by believing Him.

Verse 22

This verse brings Paul’s argument concerning Abraham’s justification to a climax. The apostle had proved the point he set out to demonstrate, and he restated Genesis 15:6 as a conclusion (cf. Romans 4:4).

"The spiritual attitude of a man, who is conscious that in himself he has no strength, and no hope of a future, and who nevertheless casts himself upon, and lives by, the word of God which assures him of a future, is the necessarily and eternally right attitude of all souls to God. He whose attitude it is, is at bottom right with God." [Note: James Denney, "St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans," in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 2:621.]

Verses 23-24

Paul applied God’s dealings with Abraham to his readers in this pericope’s final verses. God will credit His righteousness to all who believe Him. As in Romans 4:3, the content of faith is not specific (Romans 4:24). The more important point is that we trust God as Abraham did. Our confidence must be in Him.

Paul was not saying here that we need to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is important, as he says elsewhere (1 Corinthians 15), not as a condition for salvation but because it is a fact of history. The resurrection was not part of the saving work of Christ but was the consequence of it. Having paid the debt of man’s sin, death had no claim on Him because He had not sinned Himself (cf. Romans 6:23).

Paul intended his mention of God raising Jesus here to help the reader remember that He is the same God who brings life out of death as the God whom Abraham believed. It may be easier for us to believe than it was for Abraham because we look back on a resurrection completed whereas Abraham looked forward to one anticipated.

Verses 23-25

6. Conclusions from Abraham’s example 4:23-25

Verse 25

What did Paul mean when he spoke of the death and resurrection of Jesus? The NIV interprets the Greek proposition dia, which occurs twice in this verse, as "for," implying a prospective sense. The NASB translates it as having a retrospective sense: "because of." The retrospective sense is its usual significance rather than the rarer prospective sense, which we could render "with a view to." "Because of" is probably a clearer translation in view of the normal retrospective use of dia, its use in parallel statements here, and since it makes good sense here. Paul evidently meant Jesus underwent crucifixion because of our transgressions of God’s law (cf. Isaiah 53:11-12), and He experienced resurrection with a view to our justification. In other words, it seems best to understand the preposition in a retrospective sense in the first line and in a prospective sense in the second line. [Note: See Moo, pp. 288-89; Cranfield, 1:252; and Robertson, 4:354.] God is the implied agent of the action (cf. Romans 3:25; Isaiah 53:12).

"Christ being raised up, God announces to me, ’Not only were your sins put away by Christ’s blood, so that you are justified from all things; but I have also raised up Christ; and you shall have your standing in Him. I have given you this faith in a Risen Christ, and announce to you that in Him alone now is your place and standing. Judgment is forever past for you, both as concerns your sin, and as concerns My demand that you have a standing of holiness and righteousness of your own before Me. All this is past. Christ is now your standing! He is your life and your righteousness; and you need nothing of your own forever. I made Christ to become sin on your behalf, identified Him with all that you were, in order that you might become the righteousness of God in Him.’" [Note: Newell, pp. 157-58. His review of what justification is and is not on pages 159-61 is also helpful.]

"God’s entire redemptive plan is summarized in this final verse of chap. 4." [Note: Mounce, p. 131.]

Chapter 4 is a unit within Paul’s exposition of how God imputes His righteousness to sinners (Romans 3:21 to Romans 5:21). It serves to show that justification has always come because of faith toward God and not because the sinner obeyed God’s law. This was true before Jesus Christ died as well as after. Faith is the only way by which anyone has ever received justification from God. Paul’s emphasis was on faith as the method of obtaining righteousness, not on the content of faith.

"In chapter 4, Paul presented several irrefutable reasons why justification is by faith: (1) Since justification is a gift, it cannot be earned by works (Romans 4:1-8). (2) Since Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, circumcision has no relationship to justification (Romans 4:9-12). (3) Since Abraham was justified centuries before the Law, justification is not based on the Law (Romans 4:13-17). (4) Abraham was justified because of his faith in God, not because of his works (Romans 4:18-25)." [Note: Witmer, p. 455.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Romans 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.