Studies in the Epistles of Paul
The example of Abraham
In the last section of Romans 3, Paul declares that the gospel of salvation announces a righteousness from God, a righteousness that is given “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). Believers are justified or saved by faith, not by observing the law (3:28).
But some people object: Paul, are you saying that the law is wrong? Paul answers: “By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:31). Paul began this section by saying the Law and the Prophets testify to this gift of righteousness (3:21). He began the entire letter by saying that his gospel had been promised in the Scriptures (1:2).
The law was designed to lead people to the gospel, and the gospel does not nullify the law in the same way that the Messiah does not nullify the prophecies that predicted his coming. Rather, he fulfills them. Similarly, the gospel fulfills the law, brings it to completion, and accomplishes what the law could only point at.
Paul illustrates this with an example from the Old Testament. The patriarch Abraham is a great example of what Paul is saying — that salvation is given on the basis of faith, not through the law. In Romans 4, Paul elaborates on the meaning of both justification and faith. He asks in verse 1, “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?”
He sharpens the focus of the question by saying, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (verse 2). If Abraham was considered righteous because of his works, he would have something he could brag about, even though it would not put him anywhere near to God.
Paul has already said that boasting is excluded (3:27). He is contrasting two approaches to righteousness — one based on what people do and can take credit for, as opposed to one that depends on faith, which they cannot brag about but merely accept with thanks. What kind of righteousness did Abraham have?
Paul finds an answer in the Law: “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (4:3, quoting from Genesis 15:6). Abraham’s belief was counted as righteousness. The patriarch, representing the entire nation (and even the world), was declared to be righteous not on the basis of what he did, but on the basis of believing God’s promise.
Justifying the wicked
Paul then begins to reason what this means. He builds the contrast between works and faith: “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due” (verse 4). Abraham was given his status — if he had earned it through good works, then God would not have to credit his faith as righteousness. Some Jews thought that Abraham was perfect in his behavior, and God was obligated to count him righteous, but Paul is saying that, according to the Scriptures, Abraham had to be counted righteous on the basis of faith.
Paul then says, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (verse 5). Paul is increasing the contrast — he is not talking about someone who has both works and faith, but someone who believes but does not have good works. Of course, works normally follow faith. But at this point in the story, Abraham had only faith, and no works. He trusted God, and his faith was credited as righteousness.
Paul increases the contrast again by saying that God justifies the wicked. He is using a strong word, one not normally associated with Abraham. But Jews had only two categories of people: the righteous and the wicked. And if God had to intervene in order for Abraham to be counted as righteous, then that meant that he was not righteous beforehand, and he had been in the category of the wicked.
God does not need to rescue the righteous. He saves the wicked; there is no point in saving people who aren’t in any danger. Abraham was a sinner, but because of his faith, he is now counted as righteous.
Evidence from the Psalms
Paul will return to the example of Abraham in a few verses. But at this point he gives more evidence from the Old Testament that God can count the wicked as righteous. Paul uses Psalm 32, written by David, another highly respected patriarch of the Jewish people: “So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin’” (4:6-8).
David talks about someone who had sins, who would have to be counted wicked if judged by works, but who had all their sins forgiven. David didn’t mention faith here, but he is talking about a person to whom God credits righteousness apart from works. There is a way to be right with God that doesn’t depend on behavior. The sins are not counted against us.
For Jews only?
Paul then returns to the example of Abraham, asking, “Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised?” (verse 9). Is the blessing of forgiveness available only to Jews, or also to Gentiles? Can Gentiles be counted among the righteous? “We say,” he reminds them, “‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised” (verses 9-10).
Abraham was circumcised in Genesis 17. So in Genesis 15 (which is 14 years earlier), when his faith was counted as righteousness, he was not circumcised. Not only was Abraham credited with being righteous apart from works in general, he was counted as righteous apart from Jewish works in particular.
Therefore, a person doesn’t have to become Jewish in order to be saved. They don’t have to become circumcised, or keep the laws that distinguished Jews from Gentiles, because Abraham was a Gentile when he was counted as righteous. Abraham shows that God doesn’t mind calling sinners righteous, and he doesn’t require circumcision, or the laws of Moses.
Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (verse 11). Abraham became circumcised 14 years later, but that doesn’t prove that we also need to become circumcised after we come to faith. Circumcision was simply a sign of the righteousness that he already had. That didn’t add anything to his righteousness and didn’t change his category.
Paul concludes, “The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them.” Abraham is the father of all the Gentiles who believe. He set the precedent for an uncircumcised person being counted as righteous.
“And likewise [he is] the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised” (verse 12). As Paul has already argued, a person is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly (2:28). To truly belong to the people of God, a person must be changed in the heart, not necessarily in the flesh. If Jewish people want to be counted among the people of God, they need faith — the same kind of faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised.
The basis of salvation is faith, not flesh. Gentiles don’t need to copy Jews in order to be saved. Instead, Jews need to copy a Gentile — that is, Abraham, before he was circumcised. We all need to copy the Gentile named Abraham.
Faith, not law
Paul now brings the word law back into the discussion: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (verse 13). The law of Moses wasn’t even around in the days of Abraham. Paul is saying that the promise wasn’t given by law at all.
God didn’t say, If you do this or that, I will bless you. No, he simply said he would bless him. It was an unconditional promise: “Abraham, you are going to have descendants enough to fill the earth, and the whole world is going to be blessed through you.” Abraham believed that promise, and that is why he was counted as righteous. It was not on the basis of a law.
Because, Paul reasons, “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null” (verse 14). It’s either faith or law — it cannot be both. If we are saved by our works, then we are looking to our works, not trusting in God. If Abraham had earned this blessing by keeping a law, then there would be no point in mentioning his faith.
But even more seriously, Paul says that if salvation is by law, then the promise would be “void. For the law brings wrath” (verses 14-15). The promise would do us no good because we all fall short of what the law requires. We are sinners, and all the law can do for us is bring wrath and punishment. It cannot deliver the promises, because by its criteria, we fall short.
If salvation is by the law, then we have no hope. The good news, however, is that “where there is no law, neither is there violation” (verse 15). If salvation is not on the basis of the law, then we cannot disqualify ourselves through our transgressions. Since the law is not part of the method by which we are saved, our sins are not part of the picture, either. They don’t take away what God has given to us by a promise (see 8:1).
“For this reason,” Paul says in Romans 4:16, “it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (verse 16). The promise given to Abraham was for uncountable descendants, and we can share in Abraham’s promise by being one of his descendants, through a spiritual union with Jesus, who descended from Abraham.
The promise of salvation comes to us by faith, by grace, not by works, and it is consequently guaranteed. We don’t have to be afraid that we will lose our salvation through some sin that we have trouble getting rid of. Grace doesn’t keep count of works, either good or bad. In this way, the promise goes not only to the Jews, but to all people. We just have to trust Jesus.
Abraham is “the father of all of us,” Paul concludes, and he follows it up with a confirming quote from the Torah: “As it is written: ‘I have made you the father of many nations’” (verse 17, quoting Genesis 17:5 and using the common word for Gentiles). Abraham is the father not just of the Jewish nation, but of many other nations. Gentiles are also his descendants, and they do not have to become Jewish in order to be counted.
Paul writes about “the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (verse 17). Why does Paul bring this up? Perhaps he is thinking of the spiritually dead — Gentiles and unbelieving Jews. God can rescue them, and he can take people who were alienated, and make them his people. He can take people who are wicked and call them righteous. He does not want them to remain wicked, but that is where they start.