The Illustration of Justification, 1-25

Paul’s overall argument in this chapter is that the gospel that he has just outlined (in chapter 3) is no innovation.  There is no ‘replacement theology’ here!  Abraham was reckoned as righteous before God not by his keeping the Mosaic law (which had not yet been given, and, in any case, Abraham was not yet circumcised, which in Judaism was a sign of subjection to God’s law) but by faith.  Because of this, he may be regarded as the father of all who have faith, both circumcised (Jews) and uncircumcised (Gentiles).  In this way, as Moo remarks, Abraham is much more than merely an example, or illustration, of justification by faith.  He is the prototype.

Paul’s choice of Abraham and David is most apposite: ‘Abraham was a patriarch eminently holy, the head of the nation of Israel, the friend of God, the father of all who believe, in whose seed all the nations of the world were to be blessed. David was a man according to God’s own heart, the progenitor of the Messiah, His great personal type, and a chosen and anointed king of Israel. If, then, Abraham had not been justified by his works, but by the righteousness of God imputed to him through faith, and David, speaking by the Spirit of God, had declared that the only way in which a man can receive justification is by his sin being covered by the imputation of that righteousness, who could  suppose that it was to be obtained by any other means?’ (Haldane)

Notice how Paul in this chapter develops in the same order the themes that he has introduced at the end of chapter 3 – (a) boasting (Rom 3:27f/4:1-18); (b) circumcision (Rom 3:29f/4:9-12); (c) law (Rom 3:31/4:13-17).

Paul has stated, at the very beginning of this letter, that the law and the prophets bear witness to the gospel.  He now brings forward two important witnesses: Abraham (from Genesis, the first book of the Law), and David (from the part of the Scriptures that the Jews referred to as the former prophets).

Verses 1–8 affirm that boasting is excluded (cf. 3:27f.), verses 9–12 that circumcision makes no difference (cf. 3:29f.), and verses 13–17 that the law has its proper, God-assigned place (cf. 3:31).

4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter? 4:2 For if Abraham was declared righteous by the works of the law, he has something to boast about—but not before God. 4:3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4:4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. 4:5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Paul is developing the thesis of Rom 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”  ‘In other words, if we have come to be part of the family of God, as in the radical revision of election in 3:27–31, does this mean (as the Galatian converts had supposed) that one had to become part of the physical, ‘fleshly’ family of Abraham?’ (Paul and the faithfulness of God).  Having given an account of the gospel of the righteousness of God, and having asserted that it is taught in the OT Scriptures, Rom 1:2; 3:21,31, Paul now further supports his argument by reference to the examples of Abraham, the first and most famous of the patriarchs, and David, the first and most famous of the kings of Israel. Cf. Mt 1:1, where Jesus is identified as ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ Part of Paul’s purpose in doing so is to demonstrate that justification by faith is no novelty, and is God’s only way of salvation, both for Jews and Gentiles, both in the OT and in the NT.

The NIV unhelpfully omits the words kata sarka, ‘according to the flesh’.  However, commentators disagree about whether these should be attached to ‘our forefather’ or ‘discovered’.  The former would appear to be the most likely, yielding: ‘Abraham, our ancestor by natural descent’ (REB).  This prepares the way for Paul to demonstrate that Abraham is the father of all who have faith (v16f).  Brown is among those who favour the latter: ‘shall we say that he obtained [justification] “as pertaining to the flesh?” Did he derive it from anything external? Did he obtain it through circumcision, or through animal sacrifice, or through any outward privilege or service? In other words, shall we say that he was “justified by works?”’

Wright prefers: ‘What shall we say, then?  Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?’  Paul will then argue against this, asserting rather that we are related to Abraham in some other way.  This chapter is ‘not about Abraham as an example of justification, or as a proof from scripture, or anything so trivial (sic!).  It is an exposition of God’s intention in establishing the covenant with Abraham in the first place, and hence of the nature of Abraham’s family.’  In Wright’s view, the climax of the chapter comes in v17, where the point is that Abraham’s family is not merely a single ethnic nation, but people drawn from ‘many nations’.

Richard Hays (cited by Kruse) understands this verse similarly: ‘What shall we say? Have we found [on the basis of Scripture] that Abraham is our forefather according to the flesh?’  On this interpretation, Paul gives answers in the negative: ‘Abraham cannot be claimed by Jews to be their true forefather simply on the basis of physical descent (according to the flesh), but only on the basis that they have faith in the promises of God as Abraham did.’ (Kruse)

Abraham was not only renowned in Judaism for his piety, but also has a crucial place in salvation history on account of God’s covenant with him (cf Isa 51:1f).  Paul is, as it were, appealing ‘over the head’ of Moses, the lawgiver, to Abraham, the patriarch (Harper’s Bible Commentary).  But Abraham was not only a central figure in Judaism: he was also (in Paul’s view) a misunderstood figure.  So Paul wants to correct this misunderstanding and present Abraham in a true light.

Hendriksen notes that Paul does not try to make things easy for himself: ‘He attacks the proponents of the opposite view—salvation on the basis of human merit—at the very fortress in which they deem themselves to be the strongest, namely, the story of Abraham, that great patriarch who, according to the thinking of the Jews, had earned his way into God’s good pleasure.’

Paul’s argument is, in fact, quite daring, because his Jewish contemporaries would have regarded him as having been saved by his works.  They would not have denied that he was a man of faith, but even that would have been viewed as a kind of ‘work’.

Commentators present a range of quotations that reflect this prevailing view of Abraham:-

The Mishnah’s third division Kiddushin (4.14) interprets Genesis 26:5 such that ‘we find that Abraham our father had performed the whole law before it was given, for it is written, “Because that Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statues, and my laws.”‘

The Book of Jubilees (circa B.C. 100): ‘For Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.’

The Prayer of Manasses: ‘Thou, therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the righteous, hast not appointed repentance unto the righteous, unto Abraham.…Abraham … did not sin against you.

1 Maccabees 2:52: ‘Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?’ Here Gen 15:6 is linked with Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac (Gn 22).

As Hughes notes: ‘What claims! 1) Abraham performed the whole Law before it was written, 2) he was perfect in all his deeds, and 3) he had no need of repentance. Conclusion: Abraham was justified by his works and therefore is an example to follow. Case closed!’

Moo agrees that Paul’s use of Gen 15:6 stands in stark contrast to the prevailing Jewish interpretation.  In that interpretation, Abraham’s faith was viewed as obedience, and thus as a ‘work’ for which God rewarded him.  Paul’s understanding, says Moo, is ‘a more faithful interpretation of the original.’  He adds: ‘Through Paul’s interpretation of Gen 15:6, Abraham is wrested from the Jews as an exemplar of torah-obedience and made into an exemplar of faith.  As a result, Abraham ceases to be for Paul the father of Jews exclusively but the faster of all who believe.’

Again, Moo comments: ‘What strikes Paul is that God credits righteousness to Abraham immediately after Abraham believes God with reference to the promise that he would have a multitude of descendants (see Gn 15:5).’ (Encountering…)

As Matthew Henry remarks, ‘Now this is an argument, not only à pari—from an equal case, as they say, but à fortiori—from a stronger case. If Abraham, a man so famous for works, so eminent in holiness and obedience, was nevertheless justified by faith only, and not by those works, how much less can any other, especially any of those that spring from him, and come so far short of him in works, set up for a justification by their own works?’

(Ash says that ‘when we read in Gen. 26:5 that Abraham kept the law, this means he did what the law fundamentally wanted him to do, which was to believe the God of promise. His obedience was ‘the obedience of faith’.’  This interpretation would not appear to do justice to what that text actually says).

Edwards says of Abraham’s stature in Judaism: ‘A hero who worshipped the one true God in the midst of idolatrous peoples, Abraham’s legacy had been polished with a rich patina of miracle and legend. Indeed, in the nearly two millennia since his death he had been elevated to a quasi-divine status. His grave (actually a cenotaph) in Hebron was honored as a holy place. He was believed to have obeyed perfectly God’s commandments before they were given, and he was extolled as the embodiment of Psalm 1. Rabbis spoke of God’s having ordained the Torah before the foundation of the world “for Abraham’s sake,” and, along with Isaac and Jacob, he was regarded as “one who has not sinned against Thee.”’

In this matter – of boasting and justification.

Even though ‘Amazing Grace’ may be our favourite hymn, most people think that if you do your best, God will accept you.  Kent Hughes illustrates:

A preacher, long-departed from the truth of the gospel, told the following story to summarize the faith he taught. It seems that a frog one day fell into a pail of milk, and though he tried every conceivable way to jump out, he always failed. The sides were too high, and because he was floating in the milk he could not get enough leverage for the needed leap. So he did the only thing he could do. He paddled and paddled and paddled some more. And oila!—his paddling had churned a pad of butter from which he was able to launch himself to freedom. The preacher’s message was: “Just keep paddling, keep on working, keep on doing your best, and you will make it.”

If…Abraham was justified by works… – ‘Paul found no room in his theology for an elitist righteousness. Special privileges were not administered by God in direct proportion to blood (nationality), brawn (strength), or brains (intellect). No justification within the law would allow anyone (Jew or not) to sidestep faith in Jesus Christ. Paul eliminated all doubt when he argued that being a Jew is neither a prerequisite (Rom 4:1-25) nor a prerogative (Rom 9:1-33) for justification. The only stipulation, accessible to all, is faith.’ (Holman)

Something to boast about – If Abraham had something to boast about, as many Jews would have thought, this would have undermined Paul’s claim in Rom 3:27f that boasting was excluded.

Paul is not saying that Abraham did have something to boast about before men (but not before God).  He is saying that if Abraham had been justified by works he would have had something to boast about before men (but not before God).  And the reason he would never have something to boast about before God is that God requires belief, not works.

For someone today, the question might be, ‘Is it that I am well thought of in the church, that I know my Bible better than others (and perhaps have a role teaching them), that I come from a Christian family, that I am respectable, that I am baptized and take the Lord’s Supper?…Boasting is the religion of Cain (Gen. 4) who was angry when his sacrifice wasn’t accepted, because (like Mrs Y) he reckoned he had done a lot for God and God owed him one. It is the religion of the older brother in Luke 15.’ (Ash)

What might we be tempted to boast about?  Ash suggests: ‘Bible knowledge, outward moral success, association with Christian people, church membership.’

But not before God – Any boasting might have impressed other people, but it would have carried no weight with God.

‘All claim of personal merit or desert of good before God on the part of us sinners is monstrous—monstrous error, monstrous arrogance, monstrous folly, monstrous wickedness.’ (Plumer)

‘Compared with many other men how bright was the character of Abraham! Compared with the perfect law of God, he needed absolutely pardoning grace and justifying righteousness, just like every other sinful man.’ (Plumer)

Few of us would engage in crass boasting, overtly claiming to be ‘holier than thou’.  But boasting can be much more subtle than that.

v3 This verse introduces what Simon Ponsonby calls Abraham’s ‘three steps to heaven’.  In fact, the whole chapter revolves around the cluster of three words that we meet here: pistis (belief, faith, occuring 17 times), logizomai (to count, credit, or reckon, occurring 11 times) and dikaios (righteous, just, also occurring 11 times).

What does the Scripture say? – NIV omits the argumentative ‘for’ (which translates ‘gar‘).  The Scripture in question is Gen 15:6.

Following Stott, we find four implication of this question:-

  1. Paul appeals to Scripture in the singular, showing that he recognises this as an unified body of inspired writings, not just as a library of disparate texts.
  2. It is clear that for Paul, ‘what Scripture says, God says.’
  3. The present tense indicates that God’s living voice is heard today through his written word.
  4. For Paul, just like for Jesus, in controversy Scripture was always the final and ultimate court of appeal.

‘Paul’s proof is drawn from the historical records of the Old Testament, and thus he sets his seal to its complete verbal inspiration, quoting what is there recorded as the decision of God.’ (Haldane)

Jews and Christians shared a conviction that Scripture is a reliable source of divine truth.  It was on this basis that he was able to appeal to Scripture to settle his point.

The quote is from Gen 15:6, and Paul also refers to it in Gal 3.  It happens to be the first text in which the word ‘belief’ is used in the Bible, and one of very few in the OT where ‘belief’ and ‘righteousness’ are linked.  In context, we find that Abraham, despite his successes, was in a negative frame of mind because he had no son and heir.  It was God’s promise of countless offspring that Abraham ‘believed’.  The promise, and Abraham’s belief, was all the more remarkable given his and Sarah’s advanced age.

“Abraham believed God” – His faith was not some abstract quality (as it is commonly understood to be in our own day).  Scriptural faith has an object, and that object is God and his promises.  In Abraham’s case, he believed and trusted in God’s covenant, and in the promise that God would bless the world through him.

Credited – an important word in this chapter, occurring eleven times.  It is, of course, an accounting metaphor, indicating that something that we have not earned is credited to our account.  The same word is used in Phile 18, where Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus: ‘If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.’

Calvin: ‘The question is not, what men are in themselves, but how God regards them? Not that purity of conscience and integrity of life are to be separated from the gratuitous favour of God; but that when the reason is asked, why God loves us and owns us as just, it is necessary that Christ should come forth as the one who clothes us with his own righteousness.’

Credited…as righteousness – ‘When the verse says that Abraham’s faith ‘was counted to him for righteousness’ this does not mean that Abraham and God did a swap: Abraham generously offered God his faith and in return for his faith God gave Abraham righteousness! That would turn ‘faith’ into a human ‘work’. No, it means that faith is the channel by which the undeserved righteousness of God is credited to a sinner.’ (Ash)

‘When men shall succeed in excluding imputation from the terms of theology, it will not be long till they will be found disusing or even opposing the word righteousness. The two must stand or fall together. And what will the preaching of the gospel be, when no righteousness remains to be offered to the penitent?’ (Plumer)

In Wright’s view, ‘Paul is not saying, “God will justify sinners by faith so that they can go to heaven, and Abraham is an advance example of this.” He is saying, “God covenanted with Abraham to give him a worldwide family of forgiven sinners turned faithful worshippers, and the death of Jesus is the means by which this happens.”’ (The Day the Revolution Began)

Wages – Paul will indicate what happens when we get paid what we deserve, Rom 6:23.

Not credited…as a gift – lit. ‘not according to grace’.

Paul is using ‘the picture of someone doing a job of work, and so simply earning wages as of right.’ (Wright)

Credited – Money can be credited in either of two ways: as wages, or as a gift.  Paul’s point is that we have no claim on God’s grace; he owes us nothing.  It is a free gift.

The man who does not work – There is a place for ‘work’, but that place is emphatically not here.  Paul is not ‘canonizing laziness’ (Morris).  ‘He does not want believers to be indolent, but merely forbids their being mercenary-minded by demanding something from God as their due’ (Calvin).  See Phil 2:12f.

Whoever has faith in God receives righteousness as a free and unearned gift.

God who justifies the wicked – Far from God justifying people because they are good, he justifies them when they are wicked.

This is shocking!  For God to justify those who do their best, those whose good deeds outweigh their sins, those who are at least better than average, would make better sense to us.  But Paul assures us that Abraham was accepted, not because of his vaunted goodness, but despite his sinfulness.

‘To acquit, much less justify, the ungodly was abhorrent to the morally conscientious (Exod. 23:7; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23). Paul, however, understood wickedness or “ungodliness,” as the Greek asebēs could also be rendered, far more radically than did normative Judaism, for, as he argued in 3:9–20, not just the morally reprobate, not just Gentiles, but all humanity stood “under sin.” Ungodliness was a description of the human condition—a condition, indeed, which included Abraham! This was assuredly an incendiary statement in a milieu in which, at least in some circles, Abraham was accepted as sinless.’ (Edwards, UBCS)

Comparing Paul’s teaching here with that of the OT texts just cited, Moo remarks that what is involved ‘is a new application of the word “justify”.  the OT texts refer to the declaration of recognition of an existing situation.  But Paul has in mind a creative act, whereby the believer is freely given a new “status”.’

As Kruse remarks, ‘God’s acquittal of the wicked and repentant is based upon the fact that he has provided an atoning sacrifice so that he can be both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (3:26).’

‘The man is taken as ungody, “just as he is”, and is forgiven.  He is not first made perfectly holy, and then pronounced just.  Neither is he first made imperfectly holy or partially sanctified, and then pardoned.  Pardon and justification is the very first act (after election, Rom 8:30) which God performs in reference to the “ungodly”.’ (Shedd)

His faith is credited as righteousness – Elsewhere in Paul, this imputed righteousness is linked with Christ, so that we may be said to have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21; Php 3:9.

‘For many of us, accustomed to four centuries of Protestant theology to the Pauline “faith vs. works” contrast, [Paul’s point] might appear to be mundane.  But it flew in the face of the dominant Jewish theology of the day, which joined faith and works closely together, resulting in a kind of synergism with respect to salvation.’ (Moo)

Chrysostom finely says: ‘For a person who had no works, to be justified by faith was nothing unlikely.  But for a person richly adorned with good deeds, not to be made just from these, but from faith, this is the thing to cause wonder, and to set the power of faith in a strong light.’ (Cited by Moo)

N.T. Wright, it should be noted, rejects the notion of ‘imputed righteousness’: ‘If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom’ (What St. Paul Really Said).

Wright’s objection is not new.  Plumer notes: ‘The great objection, flippantly urged, is that imputation involves a transfer of moral character. But who has ever taught that absurdity? What respectable man has ever held such an opinion? Surely the Christian world never taught it.’  And Hodge writes: ‘It never was the doctrine of the Reformation, or of the Lutheran or Calvinistic divines, that the imputation of righteousness affected the moral character of those concerned. It is true, whom God justifies he also sanctifies, but justification is not sanctification, and the imputation of righteousness is not the infusion of righteousness.’

‘The Church of Rome has always maintained that God’s act of justifying is primarily, if not wholly, one of making righteous, by inner spiritual renewal, but there is no biblical or linguistic ground for this view, though it goes back at least as far as Augustine. Paul’s synonyms for “justify” are “reckon (impute) righteousness,” “forgive (more correctly, remit) sins,” “not reckon sin” (see Rom 4:5-8) – all phrases which express the idea, not of inner transformation, but of conferring a legal status and cancelling a legal liability. Justification is a judgment passed on man, not a work wrought within man: God’s gift of a status and a relationship to himself, not of a new heart. Certainly, God does regenerate those whom he justifies, but the two things are not the same.’ (Packer, God’s Words, 140)

Luther: ‘God does not accept a person on account of his works, but the works on account of the person, and the person before the works.’

Wilson says: ‘In the gospel it is God’s prerogative to justify the “ungodly” and that without injustice, as Rom 3:26 makes clear.  But once the sinner is justified he neither remains ungodly (1 Cor 6:11), nor is barren of the “works” by which he is later “justified” (James 2:20ff).  As such deeds are the consequences of God’s transforming verdict it is obvious they can add nothing to it, but they do afford the visible proof of the reality of the saving change that has taken place.’ (Wilson)

4:6 So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
4:7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
4:8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count sin.”

It was common, in Rabbinic argumentation, to support a text from the Torah with another from the writings, especially if they had some verbal overlap (in this case, they have the word translated ‘credit’ in common).  This also follows the Jewish principle of establishing a truth from two witnesses.  ‘But unlike the extremely artificial connections between verses often established through this method by Jewish exegetes, Paul’s association of Psa 31:1f with Gen 15:6 and his exposition of it is very much to the point’ (Moo).  The quote is from Ps 32:1-2.

The quote from David teaches that God’s ‘crediting of righteousness’ to Abraham applies not only to David himself, but to anyone (‘the man’) who believes.

Credits – In this verse and v8, the AV translates the verb logizomai as ‘impute’.  In the words of Hodge, ‘ To impute sin is to lay sin to the charge of anyone, and to treat him accordingly,’ and ‘to impute righteousness is to set righteousness to one’s account, and to treat him accordingly’.

May we say that it is Christ’s righteousness that is imputed to us?  Texts such as 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Cor 1:30 and Phil 3:9 certainly seem so to teach.  Stott finds support in these texts for Zinzendorf’s lines (translated by Wesley):-

Jesu, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

(For the idea of being ‘clothed’ with the righteousness of Christ, see also the quote from Calvin on v3).

As Kent Hughes reminds us, ‘David had broken three of the ten Commandments outright as he coveted Bathsheba, committed adultery, and murdered Uriah.’  And, as F.F. Bruce says, an examination of the rest of Psa 32 reveals that  the only action that David took was to confess his sin, cast himself on the mercy of God.

‘Among the many glorious things about being a Christian, this will always come near the top of the list: that one’s sins have been forgiven, covered over, not calculated.  David celebrated that a thousand years before the events of Calvary, and Easter placed it for all time on a secure foundation.  How much more should we celebrate it today.’ (Wright)

Blessed – ‘Justification transcends forgiveness. It includes but also goes beyond pardoning, as the very exclamation “Blessed” (“O the blessedness of”) hints. The truly “blessed” person is not only conscious of having been pardoned. He rejoices with “joy unspeakable and full of glory” because he is able to say, “God has accepted me as his son, his daughter. He loves me.”’ (Hendriksen)

‘Pardoned people are the only blessed people. The sentiments of the world are, Those are happy that have a clear estate, and are out of debt to man; but the sentence of the word is, Those are happy that have their debts to God discharged.’ (MHC)

As Brown says, David ‘does not describe [the one who is blessed] as a man who has never sinned; nor, as a man who has made atonement for his sin; nor, as a man who, as a reward of his obedience, or on consideration of his repentance, has obtained forgiveness. He describes him as a sinner—a freely forgiven sinner—a sinner who is justified merely because God has imputed or reckoned righteousness to him, without his working.’

Here is the other side of the coin in justification: God on the one hand credits our account with righteousness, and on the other hand refuses to count our sins against us.

Psa 32, says Kruse, ‘portrays a person weighed down by a sense of sin, but who receives forgiveness from God and is assured that his sin will ‘never’ be counted against him again, and this without any ‘works’ on the part of the person that might enable him to boast. Paul implies by this quotation that when God credits righteousness to people, it presupposes the forgiveness of their transgressions, the covering of their sins, and the decision on God’s part never to count their sins against them.’

Stott summarises: ‘Justification involves a double counting, crediting, or reckoning. On the one hand, negatively, God will never count our sins against us. On the other hand, positively, God credits our account with righteousness, as a free gift, by faith, altogether apart from our works.’

4:9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 4:10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised!

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? – As Moo (Encountering…) says, ‘In Galatians, where Paul also discusses the significance of Abraham’s role in justification, the argument about the law is strongly historical. The law could have played no role in the promise that God gave to Abraham, because it came “430 years after” the promise (Gal 3:17).’  Here, however is argument is more from principle.

Paul is dealing here with a counterargument, according to which it might be said, ‘Well, of course Abraham and David received God’s grace, because they were Jews.’  Edwards quotes a Midrash on Psa 32 – “On the day of atonement God cleanses Israel and atones for her guilt, as it says, ‘For on this day atonement will be made for you.…’ And if you would ask, ‘Does [God] cleanse any other nation?’ Know this, ‘No, only Israel.… Only Israel does he forgive.’ ”

Paul’s response is to declare that Abraham was justified while he was still an uncircumcised Gentile.  In Jewish thinking, Abraham was reckoned righteous by faith (Gen 15:6) twenty-nine years before being circumcised (Gen 17).

It was not before but after! – This reminds us of the importance of the historical development of God’s dealings with humankind.  The Bible is not a repository of random ‘texts’, but rather a coherent narrative of how God has acted in space and time.

The blessing is received by those who believe.  Any other qualification is, in fact, a disqualification.  ‘By nationality they may be Jews, or Gentiles; in manners they may be rude or refined; in education they may be learned or uncultivated; in man’s esteem they may be base or honorable; but if they accept from the heart the mercy offered in Christ, they shall be saved.’ (Plumer)

Plumer: ‘Let every man beware lest he become enamored of rites and ceremonies, of forms and ordinances rather than in love with Christ, v. 10. It is quite as easy to put gospel ordinances in the place the Saviour should occupy, as it was to put the Jewish ritual in the place of justifying righteousness.’

4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them.

Abraham is the father of all who have faith – both the circumcised (Jews) and the uncircumcised (Gentiles).

People are fascinated by their ancestry.  TV programmes with titles such as ‘Who do you think you are?’ explore the roots – sometimes noble, sometimes ignoble – of celebrities.  Web sites such as ‘Genes Reunited’ flourish.  But all who are ‘in Christ’ have an ancestry that goes right back to Abraham.

As Ponsonby reminds us, Genesis devotes eleven chapters to the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve, and the prehistory of humankind up until Abraham.  Then it dwells for fourteen chapters on the story of Abraham.  That gives some indication of his pivotal importance in the biblical story.

So then, he is the father of all who believe – Ash says that the NIV obscures the language of purpose here (‘The purpose was to make him…’).

Dunn: ‘Paul expresses his point very deliberately. Judaism could readily embrace the thought of Abraham as the father of Gentiles, by virtue of their becoming proselytes. But Paul argues that Gen. 15:6 shows Abraham to be father of the uncircumcised in their uncircumcision, so long as they share his faith.’

Hughes: ‘Abraham was declared a righteous man while a Gentile—and remained so for some fourteen to twenty-nine years before he was a Jew! Therefore, sola fide was a Gentile principle long before it was Jewish reality. Sola fide is for everyone—Jew and Gentile! Abraham is the father of uncircumcised believers and the father of circumcised believers—not on the ground of circumcision but of faith.’

4:12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised.

And he is also – Once again, as Ash says, Paul’s language is purposive (‘And the purpose was also to make him…’).

‘Of course, Paul has more than historical interest in what happened to Abraham. Abraham’s experience of being justified first and circumcised afterward qualifies him to have a unique position in salvation history. Abraham unites all believers. He is the father of believing Gentiles (v. 11b) and of believing Jews (v. 12). From a strictly human standpoint, Abraham is the father of the Jewish people (cf. v. 1), but from the spiritual standpoint, Abraham is the father of all believers. So, again, it is Abraham’s faith, not his works of obedience or his circumcision, that Paul thinks is vital in understanding Abraham’s salvation-historical significance.’ (Moo, Encountering….)

Ash suggests that a preaching implication from vv9-12 is that justification by faith alone is more important that all external markers of being a Christian.

4:13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 4:14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 4:15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either.

The NIV omits ‘for’ at the beginning of this verse, and thus ‘obscures the connection Paul makes between 4:11–12 and 4:13ff., that is, that Abraham can be the father of both believing Gentiles and believing Jews because the promise was not received ‘through the law’.’ (Kruse)

Abraham and his offspring – lit. ‘and his seed’.  In Gal 3:16 Paul clarifies that this is singular, meaning Christ (and those who are in Christ, considered as a corporate entity).  As Ash remarks, Rom 5:12-21 will make clear just how important is this corporate identity in Christ.

He would inherit the world – κόσμος is used here, whereas in Mt 5:5 γή is used.

The initial promise (Gen 13:12, 14, 17) had been for Abraham to inherit the land of Canaan.  But that promise was enhanced by that of the blessing of ‘all the nations of the earth’ (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; cf. Isa 55:3-5).

Fitzmyer says that although this expansive promise was not made to Abraham in this form, later Jewish tradition found it implicit in the universality of Gen 12:3 – “All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.”  ‘At first, it meant an inheritance of “the land” as a permanent possession (Exod 32:13; Num 26:52–56; cf. Deut 6:10). In time, Abraham’s inheritance was expressed as “the earth” or “the whole world,” as in later rabbinic tradition.’

Barrett adds the OT antecedents of Gen 22:17f (‘all the nations’).

‘For Paul, the “children of Abraham” are those Jews and Gentiles who through faith in Christ have been made righteous.  The “land” becomes the “world” (kosmos), which is the inheritance of the righteous.’ (Kenneth Bailey)

‘Scripture promised Abraham “the land” (haaretz), but in Hebrew this could mean either a specific land or the earth, and by Paul’s day Jewish thinkers often applied the promise to the world as a whole, or even to inheriting the world to come.’ (Keener)

Edwards notes that Paul’s point can also be illustrated from the life of Christ: ‘The call of Levi the tax collector manifestly illustrates the offense of grace (Mark 2:13–17). Had Levi been a former tax collector who had washed his hands of a dirty profession, his call might have been understandable. True, Jesus called him from tax collecting, but the call came while he was at his tax table, during business hours. The outcry was immediate: “Why does [Jesus] eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”’

‘The Zionist movement of the last hundred years and the formation of the state of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust have focused intense interest (not least among Christians) on the promise of land (e.g., Gen 17:8). Nowhere in Paul, however, or in the NT as a whole, is the theme of the land again taken up. In Romans 4 Paul understands the promise to Abraham to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ (v. 24; see also 2 Cor 1:20). It would be instructive for the church to consider the implications of the promise of land in Genesis 17 in the light of Christ, as does the NT.’ (Edwards)

Paul expresses the same idea in a different way in 1 Cor 3:22 – ‘All things are yours.’

Ash summarises: ‘This is what it means to be ‘father of many nations’ (vv. 17, 18). This sums up all the promise verses in Genesis from Genesis 12:1–3 onwards, including the promise Abraham believed in Genesis 15:5, 6 (c.f. Gen. 17:5, 6; 22:17 etc). Abraham’s offspring will rule the world, and therefore do what humankind was originally meant to do (Gen. 1:26–28) before our first ancestors rebelled. Paul alludes to this in 1 Corinthians 3:21, 22; 6:2. Jesus speaks of it in Matthew 5:3–10, where receiving the kingdom of heaven (v. 3, 10) is the same as inheriting the earth (v. 5); his followers will rule the new heavens and new earth, the new creation. So it’s a big promise and the future of the universe depends upon it!’

Not fulfilled through the law – Paul asserts the priority and superiority of Abrahamic covenant compared with the Mosaic covenant.  He has, as it were, gone over Moses’ head in order to appeal to Abraham.  This shows that it was God’s plan all along to reach out to all nations, and to bring them to fellowship with himself on the basis of faith alone.  It is the Abrahamic (which is based on faith and is inclusive), rather than the Mosaic covenant (which is based on law and is exclusive), that foreshadows the new covenant.

Those who live by law – lit. ‘those who are of the law.’  According to Ash, the NIV is misleading: Paul means the Jews.  But Moo follows the NIV in understanding Paul as referring here any who rely on law-keeping.  Kruse thinks that it is best to take a both/and approach.

‘If faith is to secure God’s promised blessing, it cannot have anything to do with the law, for the law demands works, and human beings are forever unable to produce sufficient works to gain God’s favor.’ (Moo, Encountering…)

If verse 14 tells us what the law cannot do (bring God’s promised inheritance), the present verse tells us what it does do (bring wrath).

Law brings wrath – Far from bringing blessing, the law brings wrath.  Cf. Rom 1:18.  Paul will develop this thought in Rom 7:7ff.

Where there is no law there is no transgression – This last word, says Moo (Encountering…) ‘refers to the violation of a known law or commandment (see Rom 2:23; 5:14; Gal 3:19; 1 Tm 2:14).’  In a country where there is no law prescribing speed limits, there are no speeding violations.  Or, as as Edwards says, ‘a society which does not regard stealing as a crime, of course, has no thieves.’

The law ‘does not solve the problem of human sin. Indeed, by turning “sin” into “transgression,” it makes the problem even worse.’ (Moo, Encountering…)

Pate says, ‘The law of Moses was given by God to convict humankind of its sin and thereby drive people to the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. The Reformer Martin Luther recognized this long ago.’

4:16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants—not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 4:17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”).

Those who are of the law – According to Moo (Encountering…) this probably refers to Jewish believers (rather than all Jews).

Keener notes: ‘Paul’s wording in 4:16 may allow for God’s continuing plan for ethnic Israel, anticipating his later argument in Rom 11.’

Abraham…is the father of us all – Jewish and Gentile believers constitute a single unit.  Their common faith make them members of the same family, with Abraham as their father.  See Gal 3:9.

Hughes comments: ‘Today it is fashionable to derive our preaching agendas from the “felt needs” of men and women on the street— the homiletics of consensus. But I am convinced that the average person on the street does not know what he needs. What today’s person really needs is a clear understanding of the opening chapters of Romans…We need to understand just how radically sinful we are—how sin so effects every part of us that we are totally unable to live up to God’s standards and effect our own salvation—that we are lost in ourselves.  We need to understand that we are in need of a radical righteousness which comes “from God” alone (Rom 1:17) and that “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom 3:22). We need to understand that we must “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9), so that we can say, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy” (Tit 3:5a).

Keener tabulates the contrasts that some have seen between fallen humanity in Rom 1:20-27 and the faith of Abraham in Rom 4:17-21:-

Capture 1

Wright regards the first part of this verse as the crux of the chapter, and the answer to the question posed in v1 (which, for Wright, was, ‘Have we found Abraham to be our father according to the flesh?’).

He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed—the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do.

Pate sees in 17b-25 four ‘impossible’ things performed by God: creation, procreation, and resurrection, and justification.

The God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were – Here Paul ‘appeals to the highest characteristics of God in the Hebrew tradition’ (Edwards).

God who gives life to the dead – This would seem to be a reference to ‘the One who revived Abraham’s power to beget, and Sarah’s ability to bear’ (Hendriksen).

God who…calls things that are not as though they were – Paul may be thinking here of creation ex nihilo (so Cranfield, Hendriksen and others – cf. Isa 48:13).  Moo, however, thinks that the context ‘suggests that the referent is the “many nations” that were to come from Abraham. They did not exist yet, but still God could speak as though there were already present.’

The quality of faith depends very much on the object of faith.  ‘In 4:5 it was ‘the God who justifies the ungodly’; here it is also ‘the God who gives life to the dead and calls the non-existent into existence’. In 4:24–25 it will be ‘the one who raised from the dead Jesus our lord, who was handed over because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification’.’ (Wright, Paul and the faithfulness of God).

God’s ‘call’ here would be what reformed theologians refer to as his ‘effectual call’.  ‘God’s decree gives a certain future to those things which are without present existence’ (Wilson).

Mention is made here of the two major events which express God’s power: the creation of the universe and the resurrection of Jesus. Both are historical and objective displays of power. They have not been directly observed, and yet their effects are apparent for all to see.

‘This is the power of the voice that was heard on earth saying to a dead 12-year-old girl, ‘It’s time to get up’ (Mark 5:41), to a widow’s son at his funeral, ‘Young man, get up’ (Luke 7:14) and to a man dead for four days, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (John 11:43).’ (Ash)

We are, as Ash remarks, spiritual corpses until God’s resurrection power is operative in our lives.

‘He, who can raise the dead, can do any thing. Well may the challenge be given, Is any thing too hard for the Lord? Gen. 18:14. He, who is able of the stones to raise up children unto Abraham, can never be straitened in his resources, Matt. 3:9. When the prophet was asked if the dry bones in the valley of vision could live, he replied to the Lord, Thou knowest. Whether a thing is to be or not to be, to be vile or honorable, useful or hurtful, turns altogether on the relations of God to it.’ (Plumer)

It is possible, as Hughes points out, to die by faith as well as to live by faith.  ‘Some have had strong faith in thin ice but did not live to tell about it.’  Faith, must have the right object.  Saving faith must have God and his promises as its object.

4:18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 4:19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 4:20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 4:21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do.

‘This passage [Rom 4:18-25]…includes, as…is commonly noted, the explicit reversal of the description of human degeneration in Rom 1:18–25, and the consequent fruitfulness (despite earlier barrenness) of the primal couple in God’s family.’ (Wright, Paul and the faithfulness of God)

Against all hope – ‘It was both contrary to hope (as far as nature could give hope), and rested on hope (that God could do what nature could not).’ (Denney)

Abraham in hope believed – ‘Let us not therefore dwell so much on our circumstances as on our covenant relations, not so much on the means of support and deliverance as on God the promiser.’ (Plumer)

And so became the father of many nations – For Wright, this repetition ‘says it all: this is what the chapter is all about’: ‘We do not have to regard Abraham as ‘our forefather according to the flesh’, Paul is concluding, because he is the father of us all, Jew and Gentile alike, in accordance with the promise of Genesis 17:5 which made him ‘the father of many nations’.’ (Paul and the faithfulness of God)

“So shall your offspring be” – Paul quotes only the first part of Gen 15:5, but ‘his readers would mentally continue it’ (Lightfoot).

Abraham believed in the God of the impossible.  As Hughes points out, there were two challenges to his faith.  There was, firstly, the biological impossibility of being given a child.  Just think of all those birthdays, each one a reminder that the possibility of ever having a child was becoming more and more remote.  Then there was, secondly, the colossal scope of the promise.  His offspring were to be innumerable.  He was to become ‘the father of many nations’.  It was too good to be true!

‘Here Paul explains the importance of our faith including an understanding of God’s omnipotence. We are to believe in a God who makes and keeps promises and whose power is awesome. That power was nowhere more clearly demonstrated than when God raised up Jesus … from the dead. That same power is applied to our forgiveness, our salvation. We turn to him against all hope (4:18), knowing that our only hope is in his power to do what we cannot possibly do—make ourselves acceptable to God. Do you believe in the infinite power of God to save you?’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

His body was as good as dead – Some manuscripts insert the word ‘not’ (‘He considered that his body was not as good as dead’).  But this is generally thought to be a scribal addition, mistakenly intended to make better sense of the passage.

‘Though Abraham was not blind to the empirical facts of the situation, he did not allow them to have an adverse effect upon his faith in the promise.  He faced up to his own and his wife’s “deadness” without doubting God’s word.’ (Wilson)

Ponsonby notes that the oldest recorded woman to conceive naturally was aged fifty-nine, and the oldest couple to bear a child by IVF (Rajo and Bala Ram) were aged seventy and seventy-two respectively.  Both Abraham and Sarah were around 100 when she conceived for the first time.  The prospect seemed absurd. Nevertheless, Abraham believed God.

‘The God who brings non-existent things into being spoke to an old man married to a barren woman (v. 19) and called into existence a son. When Abraham and Sarah asked for the maternity unit, the hospital reception would have redirected them to the geriatric ward (or the psychiatric ward when they insisted on maternity!). What happened to them was like a resurrection or a creation ex nihilo.’ (Ash)

Strong faith still needed today

‘If any should think that the days are past when a strong faith is necessary, he is wholly mistaken. Here is one, who has always led a life of ungodliness. At last his soul is awaked from its sleep of death. He sees that there is a God, who governs the world by a law that is holy, just and good; that against that law he himself has transgressed in times and ways innumerable. His iniquities take hold of him like armed men and are dragging him to the prison of despair. Go to him, and attempt to persuade him to exercise faith in the promises of God to those, who have sinned as he has done, and what a task you have on hand! Tell him of God’s spotless rectitude, and he says I know it; I have sinned against it; I am sadly contrary to it. Point him to the divine veracity, the great pillar of hope, and he rejoins, That is even so, but the same unfailing truth has said, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Exhort him to fix his steadfast eye on the divine compassion expressed in the cross of Christ, and he says, God is merciful, but I have long slighted and abused his grace and been cold to his loving kindness. Tell him of the penitent thief, converted on the cross, and he reminds you that his case was extraordinary, and that inspiration alike tells us of his companion in crime dying in his sins. Hold up before him that great pattern of mercy, Paul; and he says, Yea, but his great sins were committed ignorantly in unbelief, but I have sinned against light, vows and convictions. To him it looks as if everything in God were against him; for the saving view of divine truth has not yet been revealed to him. All within him is dark. His history is black with offences. His prospects are dismal. He is sinking into sadness bordering on despair. To him it looks as if everything was against him. Everything in God is to his mind tremendous. He cannot persuade himself that Jehovah looks or ever can look on him but as an enemy, an outcast from the hopes of the righteous. He sees not how he, who is accustomed to do evil, shall ever learn to do well. He is fearfully holden with the cords of his sins. Of the renewal of his fallen nature he has no experience and no hope. So far is he gone in the downward road of rebellion and remorse, that it is clear as day that if he shall ever have peace in believing, it must be by a faith, which shall be the gift of God. No human persuasion can ever fetch him up from the depths, to which he has fallen. It must be given him from above to believe in the great sacrifice of Calvary, and there in the cross of Christ see all the divine attributes harmonizing in his salvation. Even then his faith may be weak, compared with that of others, compared with what it shall be, but it is yet. precious faith and a mighty principle that can change his entire relations to God and all things.’ (Plumer)

He did not waver – That is to say, the general tenor of his life was to trust God and believe the promise.  Paul well knew that Abraham ‘had his moments’ (as we might say), as when he laughed at God promise, when he lied about Sarah his wife, and tried to ‘force’ the promise by fathering a child through his concubine.  We sense here something of the struggle of faith.  ‘The hardest thing in life is to believe God above circumstances’ (Edwards).

‘We glorify God by believing’

‘Abraham was strong in faith, giving glory to God.’ Unbelief affronts God, it gives him the lie; ‘he that believeth not, maketh God a liar.’ 1 Jn 5:10. But faith brings glory to God; it sets to its seal that God is true. Jn 3:33. He that believes flies to God’s mercy and truth, as to an altar of refuge; he engarrisons himself in the promises, and trusts all he has with God. Ps 31:5. ‘Into thy hands I commit my spirit.’ This is a great way of bringing glory to God, and God honours faith, because faith honours him. It is a great honour we do to a man when we trust him with all we have, when we put our lives and estates into his hand; it is a sign we have a good opinion of him. The three children glorified God by believing. ‘The God whom we serve is able to deliver us, and will deliver us.’ Dan 3:17. Faith knows there are no impossibilities with God, and will trust him where it cannot trace him.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)

He…gave glory to God – As Ash notes, the emphasis is not on Abraham’s heroic faith but on God’s mighty power.  We too glorify God when we take him at his word.

‘Believing God always gives glory to God.  It honours his promises by taking him at this word, and it honours his power by acknowledging his ability to do the impossible (Mk 10:27).’ (Wilson)

Calvin says: ‘All things around us are in opposition to the promises of God: He promises immortality; we are surrounded with mortality and corruption; He declares that he counts us just; we are covered with sins: He testifies that he is propitious and kind to us; outward judgments threaten his wrath.’

‘[Abraham] believed what God had said because God said it, and not because he might have found in what had been said good reasons for adherence. His faith neither made a calculation of the probabilities of accomplishment nor a quick estimate of the advantages to be gained. Abraham thought only of that Being who had spoken.’ (Leenhardt, cited by Edwards)

Faith is not, as popularly maintained, belief that is irrational or without evidence.  Christian considers what God has done – created the world from nothing, raised Jesus from the death, gifts eternal life to countless numbers of people – and judges that he is able and willing to keep his promises.

‘The attentive Bible student might wonder about Paul’s emphasis on Abraham’s unwavering faith, because, according to Genesis 17:17, Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” when God told him he would have a son through Sarah. A few Jewish and Christian interpreters have tried to avoid the problem by suggesting that Abraham’s laughter was the product of intense joy in God’s promise. But that certainly is not the natural sense of the Old Testament passage. A better approach is simply to recognize that Paul is generalizing. He is not claiming that Abraham’s faith was perfect or that he never had any doubts whatsoever. Rather, his point is that Abraham, despite some very human doubts, always came back in the end to faith in the promise of God. He therefore is an outstanding biblical example of a person who walked by faith rather than “by sight.”’ (Moo, Encountering…)

‘Genuine and strong faith begets undoubting persuasion of all that God promises, however new and difficult may be our circumstances. Abraham could look back to no example, where God had done such wonders as were promised to him. He looked at himself and he was as good as dead. He looked at Sarah and she seemed far too old to be a mother, and besides had always been barren; and yet he was fully persuaded, that what God had promised, he would perform. God knows and governs all causes and all hindrances, and so is never defeated, never nonplused.’ (Plumer)

4:22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness.
4:23 But the statement it was credited to him was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 4:24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 4:25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification.

Not for him alone, but also for us – ‘Paul had no intention of treating Abraham as a museum piece; neither is his review of righteousness in this chapter undertaken from purely historical interests.’ (Edwards)

Pate identifies as the ‘big idea’ of the present section: ‘Abraham and the Christian experience justification before God in the same way: faith in God’s promise, apart from works. For Abraham, it was faith in God and the promise that he would be the father of many nations. For the Christian, it is faith in God and in the promise that Jesus’ death and resurrection atone for our sins, reckoning us righteous before God.’

Ponsonby writes: ‘The one reckoned righteous by faith will do good works for God.  The one reckoned righteous by faith will take the signs and seals of the covenant (now baptism).  The one reckoned righteous by faith will seek to obey the law of God.  But the one reckoned righteous by faith knows that these are the right responses of the righteous, never the routes to righteousness.’

Keener says: ‘Events in biblical history may have happened for the sake of those involved in them, but they were written for subsequent generations to learn from their example (cf. Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11).’

The parallelism suggests that Paul is quoting an early Christian confession.  Paul’s language is also redolent of Isa 53:5-12.

He was given over – ‘he was handed over’.  A divine passive.  The text does not mentioned Christ’s death, although it was of course the immediate consequence of his being handed over.  It does not say here who ‘handed him over’, but Rom 8:32 says that the Father did this.  See also Isa 53:6, 12, which probably lie behind Paul’s statement here.

Calvin: ‘Paul says that he was delivered, rather than that he died, because expiation depends on the eternal goodwill of God, who chose this way of reconciliation.’  And again: ‘He was first struck by the hand of God, so that in the person of a sinner he might sustain the misery of sin, and afterwards was exalted into the kingdom of life, so that he might freely give his people righteousness and life.  Paul, therefore, is still speaking of imputed justification.’

Haldane: ‘Here we must look to a higher tribunal than that of Pilate, who delivered Him into the hands of the Jews. He was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. When Herod, Pilate, and the Gentiles, with the people of Israel, were gathered together against Him, it was to do whatsoever God’s word and counsel had determined before to be done Acts 4:28.’

Paul seems to have Isa 53:12 in his mind in this verse.  Given that he has already identified Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, Rom 1:3f, We may conclude that Paul identifies him as the suffering Messiah.  Since it seems likely that pre-Christian Judaism identified Israel herself with the Suffering Servant, we may see Paul’s current line of reasoning as leading to the conclusion that Jesus is the ‘new Israel’, along with all those (Jewish and Gentiles believers) who are ‘in him’.

Edwards notes: ‘God called forth Isaac from the “dead” body of Abraham, he called forth Jesus from a sealed tomb, and he calls forth believers from the death of sin and endows them with new life (Rom 6:13). Wherever God’s sovereign purpose prevails over mortal circumstances, there “is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).’

Wiersbe: ‘This means that the resurrection of Christ is the proof that God accepted His Son’s sacrifice, and that now sinners can be justified without God violating His own Law or contradicting His own nature.’

Plumer: ‘The same word is used to express the treacherous act of Judas, the malignant conduct of the chief priests in bringing him before Pilate, the cowardly act of Pilate in giving him over to crucifixion, the act of God in subjecting him to the curse for us and his own act in giving up the ghost, Matt. 20:18, 19; John 19:16; Rom. 8:32; John 21:20. In this place it chiefly refers to the act of his Father in laying on him the iniquity of us all, in bruising him, in putting him to grief, in making his soul an offering for sin, Isa. 53:6, 10. But this was not done without his voluntary act of giving himself up to suffering, Gal. 2:20; where the same word is used.’

For our sins

'For our sins...for our justification'
There is a slight difficulty in determining how to understand the preposition dia (‘for’) in the two clauses of this verse:-

Some argue that the preposition must have the same meaning in each clause, either causal, or prospective:

Causal: ‘He suffered because we sinned; he rose because we were justified’ (Moule, NEB, and, with some qualification, Morris).  The difficulty here is with the second clause, since it would imply that Christ’s resurrection was somehow a consequence of our justification.

Prospective: ‘He was delivered up in order to atone for our sins and was raised in order that we might be justified’ (Murray).  ‘He was delivered up on account of our offences – to make atonement for them; and he was raised on account of our justification – that it might become an accomplished fact’ (Denney).  The difficulty here is with the first clause, which now becomes rather more than Paul actually says.

Others abandon the need for consistency between the two uses of dia, allowing the first to be causal, and the second prospective: ‘He was delivered over to death on account of our sins, and was raised to life with a view to our justification’.  This seems to be the option favoured by Stott.  It is also supported by Cranfield, Edwards and others.

EBC explains: ‘It may be helpful to recognize that justification, considered objectively and from the standpoint of God’s provision, was indeed accomplished in the death of Christ (Rom 5:9) and therefore did not require the resurrection to complete it. Subjectively, however, the resurrection of Christ was essential for the exercise of faith, since his continuance under the power of death would create serious doubts about the efficacy of his sacrifice on the cross. To believe in a Christ who died for our sins is only half the Gospel (cf. Rom 6:3–4). Furthermore, justification is not simply a forensic transaction, important as that aspect is, but involves also a living relationship with God through the living Jesus Christ (Rom 5:18).’

Raised for the sake of our justification – This is the only text which explicitly links Christ’s resurrection with our justification.

But what is the link between Jesus’ resurrection and our justification?  Marshall (Aspects of the Atonement) notes that a number of leading commentators (including Cranfield, Moo, Dunn, and Osborne) give this question scant attention.  Marshall notes the following possibilities:-

  1. The resurrection is the event whereby the new age is ushered in;
  2. The resurrection raised Jesus to the right hand of the Father, where he lives to make intercession for us (cf. Rom 8:34);
  3. The resurrection raised Jesus to the place where he could offer forgiveness to sinners (cf. Acts 5:31);
  4. The resurrection is the evidence that God accepted his Son’s atoning sacrifice (on the basis of which justification becomes available);
  5. The resurrection marks the end of Christ’s suffering and therefore the completeness of his atoning sacrifice.  His suffering ended, Christ is raised to a curse-free relationship with his Father, and includes those who are in him in that relationship.  Marshall quotes Hooker: ‘was raised in order that we might share his acquittal (pronounced at his resurrection).’  Cf. 1 Cor 15:17.  Marshall notes in the light of this that ‘the traditional understanding of justification may be too inclined to the negative element, namely cancellation of sins, and has not done justice to the positive element, namely creating a new, living relationship with God.’

Calvin: ‘This is as if he had said: “Sin was taken away by his death; righteousness was revived and restored by his resurrection.” For how could he by dying have freed us from death if he had himself succumbed to death? How could he have acquired victory for us if he had failed in the struggle? Therefore, we divide the substance of our salvation between Christ’s death and resurrection as follows: through his death, sin was wiped out and death extinguished; through his resurrection, righteousness was restored and life raised up, so that—thanks to his resurrection—his death manifested its power and efficacy in us.’ (Institutes II, xvi, 13)

Horatius Bonar: ‘The manifold blessings flowing from resurrection and ascension are not to be overlooked, but nowhere does Scripture teach justification by these. The one passage sometimes quoted to prove this declares the opposite (Romans 4:25), for the words truly translated run thus: “He was delivered because we had sinned, and raised again because of our justification.” It was because the justifying work was finished that resurrection was possible. Had it not been so, he must have remained under the power of the grave. But the cross had completed the justification of his church. He was raised from the dead. Death could no longer have dominion over him. The work was finished, the debt paid, and the surety went forth free. He rose not in order to justify us, but because we were justified. In raising him from the dead, God the Father cleared him from the imputed guilt which had nailed him to the cross and borne him down to the tomb. That resurrection in which we are one with him does not justify us, but proclaims that we were justified–justified by his blood and death.’

Grudem (Systematic Theology, p615) explains:-

‘By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father was in effect saying that he approved of Christ’s work of suffering and dying for our sins, that his work was completed, and that Christ no longer had any need to remain dead. There was no penalty left to pay for sin, no more wrath of God to bear, no more guilt or liability to punishment—all had been completely paid for, and no guilt remained. In the resurrection, God was saying to Christ, “I approve of what you have done, and you find favor in my sight.”

‘This explains how Paul can say that Christ was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). If God “raised us up with him” (Eph. 2:6), then, by virtue of our union with Christ, God’s declaration of approval of Christ is also his declaration of approval of us. When the Father in essence said to Christ, “All the penalty for sins has been paid and I find you not guilty but righteous in my sight,” he was thereby making the declaration that would also apply to us once we trusted in Christ for salvation. In this way Christ’s resurrection also gave final proof that he had earned our justification.’

‘The Messiah’s faithful death and resurrection is basic (4:24–25), and its result is the calling into being, as a kind of resurrection from the dead on the one hand and a creation out of nothing on the other (4:17), of a single Jew-plus-Gentile family marked out by the pistis which reflects Abraham’s own.’ (Wright, Paul and the faithfulness of God)

Why do the Epistles emphasise the cross, while Acts emphasises the resurrection?

Grant Osborne explains: ‘The cross as the basis of atonement is the principal emphasis in the epistles (see Eph 2:16; Col 1:20; 2:14), whereas in the Book of Acts the resurrection seems more central (see Acts 2:33–36; 3:19–26; 13:37–39). The reason for the different emphasis is found in the different purposes of those writings: the cross tends to be used in didactic (instructional) sections, the resurrection in apologetic (persuasive) or kerygmatic sections, when the basis for salvation is being presented. In actuality they were a single event in salvation history. Jesus “was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25).’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. ‘Crucifixion’)