In chapter 4, Paul uses the Old Testament example of Abraham to illustrate justification by grace through faith. In the passage before us Paul argues that Abraham stood approved before God, righteous before God, on the basis of God's faithfulness, appropriated through faith, without any reference whatsoever to his obedience before God. In fact, God reckoned Abraham righteous before he was even circumcised, making him the spiritual father of all children of faith, whether circumcised, or uncircumcised.
v1-3. Paul, having outlined the way of right-standing before God by faith, now seeks to illustrate this truth in the life of the patriarch Abraham. He opens with a question and then goes on to answer it in v2-5. What did Abraham discover about standing right with God? If his own efforts played a part in his standing before God then he would have ground for boasting. Yet, like all humans, he had no such ground for boasting, for he was sinful and without personal righteousness. Scripture proves this to be the case. The scripture says of Abraham that he believed God, and it was this act which was credited (reckoned) to him as righteousness.
v4-5. Abraham's righteousness, which was accounted to him, rested on God's faithfulness, not his own; it was a gift of God's covenant mercy, not a due to be paid. Right-standing by works is earned; it is not something given, rather it is earned by obedience to the law. On the other hand, right-standing by faith is received as a gift; it rests on the principle that God reckons righteousness to the sinner who rests on the faithfulness of Christ. Under this method, justification (being set right with God) is certainly not something earned, rather it is something given.
v6-8. Paul now supports his argument from Psalm 32:1-2; "the blessed man is not the sinless man, but the one whose sins God does not count, the man whose sins he forgives", A.M. Hunter.
v9-12. Paul goes on to identify those who are the rightful recipiants of God's "reckoned" right-standing. He points out that Abraham's standing before God, Gen.15:6, was secured before he was circumcised, Gen.17:11. Abraham found God's acceptance when he was as uncircumcised as any Gentile. Thus Abraham now stands as the spiritual father of all for whom "faith is credited as righteousness", to both Jewish and Gentile believers. In this is God's divine purpose exposed, namely, that it has always been his intention to gather an inclusive people to himself.
Charles Wesley sums up the teaching of this passage from Paul's letter to the Romans when he says: "Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees, And looks to that alone". The Reformers made a similar point when they proclaimed, "by grace alone, through faith alone." Simple!
In our passage for study, Paul establishes a simple truth that is very easily forgotten by believers. Our approval before God does not depend on our faithfulness to his commands, but rather, it depends on our willingness to trust his faithfulness. Abraham stood right before God, righteous before God, on the basis of faith and not works of the law.
If we follow the example of Abraham and put our trust in God's faithfulness, we will find that our faith is accounted to us as righteousness. God "reckons" us, on the basis of the righteousness of Christ, eternally right and worthy in his sight. As worthy sons, we inherit the kingdom promised long ago to Abraham - we inherit eternity, as a gift of grace appropriated through faith.
Faith alone is the instrument through which we appropriate the grace of God. No other instrument assists it. Holy living, or denominational faithfulness (baptism, confirmation, etc.), ...., all worthy in themselves and an important part of our Christian walk, play no part in appropriating God's grace. Our eternal standing in the kingdom of God is gained through faith in the faithfulness of Christ on our behalf, and this apart from how well we obey God's law.
So, like Abraham, let us be children of faith. Let us rest wholly on God's kindness toward us in Christ.
1. A good person may have something to boast about, but not before God. Why?
2. In a popular chorus we sing "trust and obey, for there's no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." Discuss how this chorus does not sit well with the quotation above from Charles Wesley.