1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” 9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 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. 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. 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 unbelief 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.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
— Romans 4:1-25, ESV
The Apostle Paul is the primary preacher of New Testament Christianity. This is due to fact, among others, that He wrote roughly half of the New Testament, including this jewel that is the epistle to the Romans. After explaining the doctrine of justification, he now wants to give us an example of justification, in flesh and bone.
Think of the possibilities of the persons he could have pointed out with his pen. He could have turned autobiographical, for who has a clearer testimony of conversion and commitment to Christ than the Pharisee Saul turned Apostle Paul. He could have picked one of the first followers of Jesus, like the first among equals, Simon Peter. But in order to illustrate the New Testament doctrine of justification, he picked an Old Testament figure, Abram Bar-Terah, whom you probably know better as “Father Abraham.”
Abraham’s story is brought into Paul’s story in vs. 1, while Abraham’s whole life story plays out in the Bible book one. Genesis 1-11 essentially answers the question, “Where did Abraham come from?” Genesis 12-25 answers the question, “Who is Abraham, and how did he become the father of faith?” Afterwards, the rest of Genesis, and the whole Bible for that matter, answers the question, “Who will follow Abraham, by grace through faith, in a covenant relationship with the one, true, and living God?”
The gist of Abraham’s story goes something like this. He wasn’t exactly looking for God, abiding with a nomadic band of pagans somewhere in the Middle East. By grace, God chose Abram, set His affection upon Abram, then called Abram, as he was originally known, to repentance. Such repentance is a change of mind which leads to a change of direction and a change of heart. In Abram’s case, it led to a change of name, too, Abraham. So Abraham followed God to the place on the planet we now call Israel. It was there, in the process of making him a promise that his heretofore barren wife, Sarai, would conceive and bear an heir, that Abraham was saved, converted, changed, justified by God. “And [Abraham] believed the Lord, and [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (ref. Genesis 15:6).
A truer testimony of justification by faith there cannot be, and this is from the dawning days of the Old Testament. New Testament doctrine does not differ, as the Apostle Paul explains using this example of Abraham. Let’s look at Abraham’s (and also Paul’s) theology, and how it became Abraham’s legacy.
Abraham exemplifies justification by faith. He was not, as no one can be, saved by works (vs. 2-8). He was not saved by faithfulness (as erroneously stated in 2 Maccabees 2:51), for no one is faithful until they are granted faith. The gift of God’s grace gave Abraham repentance and faith so that he could be forgiven of his sin and granted the righteousness of God, as referenced by fellow grace recipient, King David (ref. Psalm 32:1-2; see also 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Abraham exemplifies justification in covenant theology (vs. 9-12). Deep in the Old Testament is the same plan of salvation elaborated upon in the New Testament. Old Testament Jews and New Testament Christians, everyone ever chosen and accepted and committed to God, are saved by grace alone through faith alone in God alone. There has never been, according to Scripture, different plans of salvation for different dispensations.
Abraham exemplifies justification through the gospel (vs. 13-15). Contrary to some forms of dispensationalism, no one has ever been saved by keeping the law, because no one has ever kept the law, save the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. The law reveals the moral character and commandments of God, and how we fall short of them, every one of us. The gospel is the only remedy, the only grounds, for justification.
Abraham exemplifies justification’s foundation of grace (vs. 16-17). In God’s word there are flashes of miracles, Moses’ day, Elijah’s day, Jesus’ day. But the greatest miracle occurs on almost every page and every age, in every person in a covenant, saving relationship with God. This is the miracle of grace, by which the infinite, holy God accepts the finite, sinful human and makes him or her a child of God for eternity.
Grace begets faith, faith begets justification. The faith that justifies, however, is not merely head knowledge, nor momentary human decision. It is like Abraham’s faith. Justifying faith is a transformational, deep, abiding trust in and obedience to God. Abraham had it, and passed it on to others.
Romans chapter four is the story of Abraham, the theology of Abraham, and concludes with the legacy of Abraham (vs. 18-25). He becomes the spiritual father of every Israelite enjoined to a covenant relationship with God, justified by faith. And he is also the paterfamilias of every New Testament Christian, justified by faith.
Because Abraham trusted and obeyed God, others came into the world who would trust and obey God. Not every member of his physical family believed, most were pagans. Not every member of his national family, the nation of Israel, believed, most were nominals and hypocrites. Not every member of every church believes, either, but those who prove faithful have been justified, like Abraham, by faith.
Because Abraham trusted and obeyed God, God came into the world to justify sinners. David, quoted in this chapter by Paul, is a spiritual descendent of Abraham. According to a promise God gave to David, one of his descendants would ascend to his throne and be seated there forever. It was not Solomon, it is and always will be the Lord Jesus Christ, who came from the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, and the Spirit of God according to the gospel.
Abraham’s example teaches us that justification cannot be earned. It is God’s gift. It does not make you perfect on earth, but it makes you right with God. It makes you justified, and you are also sanctified, then when you cross over you will finally be perfected, glorified.
Paul has much more to say about all of this, but for now let us appreciate Abraham for this beautiful illustration of the beginning of salvation, justification. Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in God alone, now found in the person and work of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, “Who,” as Paul writes in the closing of the chapter, “was delivered up for our trespasses and raise for our justification” (vs. 25).