‘What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?’ These are the opening words of Romans chapter 4, which is devoted to establishing very firmly that Paul was giving a true account of the spiritual experience of the revered patriarch Abraham. We should keep in mind that the apostle was developing a case which he was particularly anxious to make convincing to a Jewish audience. To them, Abraham, their spiritual father as they regarded him, was the sheet anchor of all their religious convictions. But their perspective about him had gone far awry, and it was essential that Paul should take time to correct it. They had to be brought into line with what God actually said about Abraham, and what his experience of God really meant.
In going to some pains now to do this, Paul was reinforcing the very point he had already been making: that the righteousness God is graciously prepared to attribute to men and women comes to them solely on the basis of their faith. This faith is in the Word of God and the saving work of God in Christ, although the latter was only revealed in shadow form in Old Testament times. So the evident fact is first stated that when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligatory reward. ‘However, Paul goes on, to the man who does not work [that is, does not rely on his works] but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.’ (Romans 4:5) And, for confirmation David, another illustrious hero of the Jewish people, is quoted from Psalm 32, the penitent’s psalm, where the pure joy of unmerited forgiveness is expressed in heartfelt language. ‘Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.’
Romans chapter 4 verses 7-12 touches a very delicate matter as far as Jews were concerned. That is the question of circumcision. The traditional Jewish circumcision prayer runs as follows: ‘Blessed is he who sanctified his beloved from the womb, and put his ordinance upon his flesh, and sealed his offspring with the sign of the holy covenant.’ This shows how central circumcision was to Jewish religious thinking. So, when Paul now asks, ‘Is this blessedness [that of forgiveness and justification] only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?’ he again immediately risked outraging the devout Jew. So he proceeds carefully to demonstrate that, important as circumcision was as the seal of God’s covenant, Abraham was actually justified by faith before he was circumcised. ‘Under what circumstances was it [that is, God’s righteousness] credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! … So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.’ No more radical challenge could be offered to orthodox Jewish religious thought.
But it was no-one less than the great Abraham who provided the confirmation of Paul’s gospel of grace and faith. The whole thing was a matter of divine promise. No, it was not through the law, says Paul, that Abraham and his offspring received the promise; the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace. We are dealing with ‘the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were’ (Romans 4:17). It was trust in that kind of a God which sustained Abraham’s faith in the promise of a son even though ‘his body was as good as dead.’ This is why it was credited to him as righteousness, and these words were not given for him alone, but also for us to whom God will credit righteousness, to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.
Could the glory of the doctrine of justification by faith be more conclusively demonstrated? No, the Christian rests in total security on the redeeming work of Him who, to quote the last verse of this fourth chapter of Romans, ‘was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.’
‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 5:1)