A Concise Commentary From The Grace New Testament Commentary (Revised Edition)
By Zane Hodges
God’s Righteousness Is Attested in the OT (4:1-25)
4:1. Now that Paul has made clear that righteousness comes “through faith in Jesus Christ” (cf. 3:21ff), he returns to the idea of OT authentication.
The words what…Abraham our father has obtained state the issue broadly. What advantage or effect did the physical side of Abraham’s relationship to God have? The phrase with reference to the flesh alludes to circumcision, which the typical Jew would take as the necessary mark of God’s acceptance of Abraham.
4:2. From Paul’s perspective, if Abraham was justified by works, then he has something to boast about. But as Paul has just insisted, justification before God is by faith alone and excludes boasting (3:27-28). It follows therefore that if it can be said that Abraham was in some sense justified by works, it cannot be said that this experience grants him boasting toward God.
Before God none can boast. But before men, Abraham was justified (or vindicated) and that gave him a ground for boasting (cf. James 2:21-23, which also deals with Abraham’s justification/vindication before men). Paul does not wish to deny this to the great patriarch whom all his physical kinsmen revered. But with regard to God, this great man was on the same level as all other men, as Paul will now go on to show.
4:3. The initial call of Abraham in Gen 12:1-3 contained a salvific promise in the words, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Compare Gal 3:8 (“that God would justify the Gentiles by faith,” so that in fact God had “preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand”). God told Abraham that Messianic salvation would come through his family line. Apparently Abraham had not believed this specific guarantee, even though he had acted on God’s call (cf. Gen 15:2, “…the heir of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?”).
This time, however, when God reaffirms His promise in terms of a guarantee of physical seed, “Abraham believed God” (cf. Gen 15:6). In the light of Gal 3:6-9, we can discern the fact that Messianic salvation was part and parcel of what Abraham believed on this occasion. But that is not Paul’s point here in Romans 4. Rather Paul is concerned with validating justification by faith in terms of Abraham’s experience as revealed in Scripture. Thus, as his quoted text declares, when Abraham believed on the occasion in question, it was then that “it [Abraham’s belief in Messianic salvation] was imputed to him as righteousness” (cf. 4:9, “faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness”).
Frequently we are told that “Christ’s personal righteousness in fulfilling the law” is imputed to the believer. But that idea is not found in Paul. God does not credit us with an obedience to “the works of the law” which we have in fact signally failed to perform. “God’s righteousness” is “apart from the law” (3:21). This righteousness in no sense represents a non-existent “fulfillment” of the law’s works. To say so is to degrade it.
God accepts “faith in Jesus” as a fully adequate substitute for any and all works of whatever kind they may be. For Paul, when “Abraham believed God,” the transaction called justification before God occurred in the absence of works of any kind. For this event, only faith mattered.
Thus the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 3:24-26) has completely removed the demands of God’s law from consideration, as well as removing all other forms of working as well.
It follows that there can be no “trial” where there are no charges. Those who have a “faith-righteousness” will not experience final judgment (cf. John 5:24, “does not come into judgment”).
4:4-5. From Abraham’s personal experience of justification by faith, one must conclude that the bestowal of righteousness was an act of divine grace. If works had been involved, then this righteousness would have been a form of compensation [ho misthos: pay, wages] and not on the basis of grace at all. Rather it would have been on the basis of what is owed. The reference to grace here picks up the idea already expressed in 3:23 where Paul speaks of being “justified freely by His grace.” Clearly it was on the basis of grace that Abraham was justified, since it was his faith, not his works, which was imputed to him as righteousness.
The Greek phrase ou logizetai (from logizomai) is typically rendered are not counted (NKJV, ESV), is not reckoned (KJV, RSV), or is not credited (NASB, NET, NIV, LEB). Logizomai is Paul’s standard word in Romans for “imputing” righteousness (as in 4:3, 5, etc.). Its use here of both an earned payment (compensation), in v 4, and an unearned righteousness, in v 5, is comprehensible in the light of this word’s commercial sense. We might see the connection in English better by translating this way: “compensation is not put to his account on the basis of grace” (v 4), and, “his faith is put to his account as righteousness” (v 5).
One might paraphrase Paul’s concept as follows: “In God’s books, a works-righteousness belongs in the ‘earned pay’ column, while a faith-righteousness belongs in the ‘unearned gift’ column.”
Thus, the person who works gets whatever he earns. This is the principle that governs the works-relationship to God. On the other hand, the person who does not work and instead believes, obtains a graciously bestowed righteousness that is attributed to his faith. There is no such thing in Pauline theology as a man who is justified because as he works he believes. Instead, this righteousness comes to one who does not work. All work is excluded from this faith-righteousness and is thus completely irrelevant to it.
4:6. This verse is best understood as beginning a new sentence (so KJV, NIV, NACE, and JB). The point Paul is making is that David’s words testify to the same truth stated by Gen 15:6 in reference to Abraham. The Biblical testimony is twofold here in accord with the OT law of witness (see Deut 17:6; 19:15; John 8:17).
David, we are told, describes the blessedness of the [justified] man. The term blessedness is chosen here in light of the following quotation from Psalm 32, which commences with the word blessed, and which highlights the state of well-being enjoyed by the justified person.
4:7-8. Psalm 32:1-2 speaks of two blessings. In v 7, Paul says that the first is the blessing of forgiveness by which sins are put out of sight (are covered). This is not the same as the “blessedness” of v 8. In fact, v 7 is the only reference to forgiveness in Romans. Its occurrence here is because it is preparatory to v 8.
As wonderful as forgiveness is, it is less than the blessing of justification. As the Psalm indicates, forgiveness signals that sins are covered, and they no longer interfere in the forgiven person’s relationship to God. But though covered, the sins are there. They were properly imputed to the person who did them as wicked deeds, but then they are put out of sight. This is not what justification means, however.
Justification is the second blessedness described in the Psalm and is quoted in v 8. The justified person is “the man to whom the Lord does not impute sin.” In terms of justification, God charges the justified man with nothing at all (see 8:33). That man’s faith, as Paul has already shown, is “imputed as righteousness.” Since this is a righteousness totally “apart from works” (v 6), no works of any kind—good or evil—can be factored into it. It stands totally complete based on faith alone. From this perspective, the presence or absence of forgiveness is irrelevant.
4:9. Paul now wraps together his double testimony from Scripture about justification.
This blessedness (alluding to David’s words) is what has already been mentioned regarding Abraham. The question now is no longer whether such righteousness can be bestowed since that is proved by Paul’s two proof texts. The question rather is whether such a blessing can come only upon the circumcised or whether it can come also upon the uncircumcised.
From Paul’s perspective the answer is already obvious from what he has been talking about. For what we are saying, states Paul, is that faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness. This carries with it the manifest implication that justification is for all who believe, whether circumcised or uncircumcised.
4:10. Paul now delivers the coup de grâce to any idea that one must be circumcised in order to receive justification. The father of the Jewish race was himself uncircumcised when his faith was credited to him as righteousness. Thus, circumcision can be no factor at all in the reception of “this blessedness.”
4:11-12. What then was the role of circumcision if it made no contribution to the righteousness that Abraham received by faith? Paul’s answer is that circumcision was a sign, that is, it was a seal of the righteousness by faith which Abraham had received while he was uncircumcised.
Paul is referring to Gen 17:1-14 where God entered into a covenantal relationship with Abraham. The distinguishing mark of this covenantal relationship was circumcision. The fact that God chose this point in time (after Gen 15:6) is important for Paul here. God’s willingness to execute a covenant with this justified man was a clear indication that God fully accepted him on the basis of his previous justification. If Abraham were still unrighteous in God’s sight, such a covenant would have been unthinkable. Thus the sign of the covenant was also a sign and seal of the righteousness by faith that Abraham now had.
The reason Abraham received this righteousness by faith…while he was uncircumcised is that thereby he became the father of all those who believe while uncircumcised. All believing Gentiles can look back to him as their spiritual progenitor.
Even more than that, as is indicated by the words in order that righteousness might be imputed to them also, the case of Abraham was actually designed to encourage Gentile belief and justification.
But in addition to becoming the spiritual father of uncircumcised believers, Abraham’s subsequent circumcision made him the father of circumcision both to his physical descendants (those of the circumcision) and also to those who follow his believing footsteps. The words follow in the footsteps of the faith of our father Abraham are most naturally taken to refer to believing Jews who, like Abraham, receive righteousness by means of faith. They stand so to speak in the footprints of Abraham when, like him, they believe and are justified.
The point of v 12 is that Abraham is not simply the father of circumcision to all Jews. He is likewise the father of circumcision to his circumcised descendants (Jews) who also believe as he did. Thus, they would become Abraham’s children in this second, superior sense.
4:13. Paul’s argument from Scripture here takes a step back historically speaking, and he now refers to the promise that Abraham would be heir of the world. This can hardly refer to anything other than the original promise made to him at the time of his call and recorded in Gen 12:1-4 (see esp. “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” Gen 12:3).
Paul understood Gen 12:3 as a prophecy about the gospel and justification by faith (cf. Gal 3:8-9). The universality of this part of the promise to Abraham is obvious. In addition, since the world to come will be composed exclusively of those who receive the Abrahamic blessing of justification, Abraham thereby becomes the heir of the world. Just as he will “inherit” the physical land of Israel through his physical descendants, so also he will inherit the world to come through his spiritual descendants.
Obviously the promise Paul is referring to came over five hundred years before the giving of the law and thus was not made to Abraham or to his seed through the law. Instead, since the promise pertained to the blessing of justification, it can be said to have been made to him through the righteousness of faith. The eternal world to come will therefore be populated and possessed by Abraham’s spiritual descendants, both Jewish and Gentile, all of whom will be recipients of the Abrahamic blessing of the righteousness of faith.
4:14-15. Paul affirms that it is not possible that those who are of the law could be heirs of this Abrahamic promise of blessing (i.e., justification). In that case, faith could not be the means by which the blessing is received but would be made void (or, ineffectual). Equally, the promise could not be realized and thus would be annulled. As Paul has already established, “by the works of the law no flesh will be justified” (3:20), thus the law would render the promise unattainable.
So far from making the Abrahamic blessing attainable, the law actually produces the opposite of blessing, namely, wrath (see 1:18ff) But where there is no law there is no transgression. Of course, Paul does not say that in the absence of law there is no sin. Sin is a violation of God’s righteous standards whether this is realized by the sinner or not. But the presence of law confronts the sinner with the fact that his behavior is a transgression of God’s known will and therefore subject to His retributive wrath (anger).
4:16-17a. Therefore, since the law would have made the promise unattainable to both Jews and Gentiles, God ordained that the promise would be bestowed by faith, so that it might be by grace. Faith, not works, became the means through which it was received.
The result is that the Abrahamic promise of blessing is confirmed, that is, made sure and certain, to believing Jews and Gentiles alike. Thus the entire seed of believers, both those who are of the law and also those who are simply of the faith of Abraham, are recipients of the promised blessing. From this standpoint, Abraham can be seen as the father of us all, that is, of all believers.
This kind of fatherhood fulfills the Scripture where it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations” (Gen 17:5-6). The entire seed is made up of many believers from many nations.
4:17b. The God in whom Abraham believed on the occasion of his justification is the One who brings the dead to life and speaks about things that do not exist as though they did.
The words rendered speaks about things that do not exist as though they did are a reference back to the preceding statement, made by God, that “I have made you [not “I will make you”] a father of many nations” (v 17a). This declaration represents a fait accompli. Yet it was made long before the fulfillment that Paul has specified in terms of the many believing Gentiles who have now become Abraham’s spiritual children (cf. “father of us all,” v 16). But the non-existence of these children at the time God spoke was no impediment to Him. Since He would fulfill His word, He could speak of Abraham’s future children, who did not yet exist, as though they did.
But of the two statements about God (that is, that He brings the dead to life and that He speaks about things that do not exist as though they did), it is the first one which will now be elaborated in the verses that follow.
4:18. Abraham, Paul states, was a man who beyond hope believed in hope. Abraham was well past the point at which he could, humanly speaking, have hope for a physical child. The reference is to Gen 15:6, as is clear from the phrase “so will your seed be,” taken from Gen 15:5.
In the Genesis context, Abraham had despaired of having a physical son (cf. 15:3-4). But God offers him an heir “who will come from [his] own body” (Gen 15:4) and innumerable descendants like the stars (Gen 15:5). Although there were great physical obstacles to this promise (see v 19), Abraham’s faith rose above those obstacles so that what was out of reach as a physical hope was achieved. He thereby became “a father of many nations.”
4:19-21. This impressive description of Abraham’s justifying faith is highly instructive. In order to believe the promise God made to him (Gen 15:4-5), it was necessary for Abraham to ignore his own body, which had lost all potential for communicating life by physical means. Thus, his body, in this sense, was dead since he was about one hundred years old. But there was also the problem of the corresponding deadness of Sarah’s womb, since she had always been unable to conceive life. This too Abraham had to look beyond (refuse to take notice of).
Thus Abraham demonstrated that he was not weak in faith. Implicitly he believed in God’s resurrection power since his faith was not hindered by “death” either in himself or in Sarah. In fact, he did not doubt the promise of God in unbelief. That is to say, his heart did not call God’s promise into question because of an inability to believe it (in unbelief). On the contrary, he became strong in faith.
In exercising this faith, Abraham was giving glory to God. This does not mean that he expressed praise on this occasion. Rather the sense is that by taking God at His word, he was, in so doing, giving God glory. In what way precisely he rendered this glory to God is now clarified by the words that follow, stating that he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was able also to do. In other words, Abraham glorified God by his strong conviction that God could perform what He had promised, however difficult it might seem. He ascribed to God the power to fulfill His word.
4:22. Abraham’s belief in God’s promise to him resulted in his justification. The pronoun it, the subject of the verb “was imputed,” is a reference to faith (cf. 4:5, “his faith is counted for righteousness”).
As earlier noted, for Paul justification is by no means a matter of imputing some form of obedience to the law to believers. Justification by faith is exactly what its name says. The believer is justified by his faith because that faith—totally apart from works—is what is accounted “to him for righteousness.”
4:23-24. Genesis 15:6 concerns not only Abraham, but also those who would believe in the One who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. That is, the record about Abraham’s faith was intended to offer Scriptural support to the proclamation about Jesus.
Here again the subject word it most naturally refers to faith. Just as faith was imputed to Abraham “as righteousness,” so faith would be imputed “as righteousness” to those who would believe in the same God in whom Abraham believed.
As Paul has just shown in vv 19-22, the faith by which Abraham was justified was implicitly a confidence in God’s resurrecting power. The God in whom he believed could overcome his own “dead” body as well as the “deadness of Sarah’s womb.” Paul of course preached the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15:3-8) and he could say that “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). So it is in every way probable that, since the cross, justifying faith has never occurred in any heart that thinks Jesus is still dead. Indeed His very offer of eternal life is inseparable from the promise of future resurrection (John 11:25-26).
However, on the other hand, all of the first disciples believed in Jesus for eternal life without realizing that He must die and rise again. This is quite plain from John 20:8-9 (see also John 2:22) and from the fact that the announcement of His resurrection by the women was received in unbelief by the disciples (Mark 16:9-13; Luke 24:11). But despite this lack of understanding on the part of the first disciples, when they believed Jesus’ word as the word of the One who sent Him (see John 5:24), they were in fact believing in the One who would raise Jesus our Lord from the dead. In short, faith in the God who set Jesus forth as a Mercy Seat (3:25) is faith in a God of resurrection, whether consciously realized or not.
4:25. The word translated was delivered refers to our Lord’s betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. He was delivered for our offenses. Our Lord died as a substitute for us so that those offenses might not remain as an impediment to God’s justifying grace to us. His death was necessitated by these offenses if He was to become a Mercy Seat (see discussion under 3:25) where man and God could meet in peace.
The words raised for our justification are the first direct reference to the resurrection of Jesus since 1:4. The risen life of Christ is a major concern of the material that follows in chaps. 5–8. Here, too, the language of Paul suggests strongly that 4:25 is a “hinge” verse, concluding the unit begun at 3:21, but anticipating what will follow.
Just as our sins necessitated the death of Christ, so also our justification (dikaiōsis, “righteous living,” only here and in 5:18 in the NT) required His resurrection. This was not because there was anything incomplete or inadequate about the atoning death of our Lord. Instead, as a demonstration of God’s satisfaction with His Son’s atoning death, the resurrection provides a valid proof that God is righteous in deciding to “justify the person who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). A dead Savior would provide no such validation of God’s act when He grants justification to sinners who believe in Jesus.
Paul is now ready to move on to the implications that this truth has for Christian experience.
Zane Hodges was a Bible teacher and Professor of Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was promoted in 2008.