Romans 4:1-5, 13-17


Paul had said at Romans 3:21 "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets."

Peter spoke the same thought at Acts 10:43 "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name every one who believes in Him has received the forgiveness of sins."

And think of Jesus' Word at Luke 24:27 "And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures."

The righteousness of God, the forgiveness of sins, the things concerning Christ, all of these are synonymous expressions.

In Romans 4 Paul uses two examples from the Old Testament to prove his point concerning the imputed righteousness of God in Christ. The first comes from Psalm 32 where it is called the forgiveness of sins. The second is the lengthier and more detailed example, Abraham, the Father of all believers. It is time well spent to read John 8:33-59, a verbal battle between Jesus and His Jewish rejecters. They claimed that Abraham was their father. Jesus proves this is not so but that the devil is their father. They were not of the one true faith. They rejected Jesus' person, Word, and work. Instead of loving Jesus, they hated Him and wanted to stone Him to death.

Romans 4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?

Translations of this passage: NASB "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?" AAT: "What should we say Abraham our natural ancestor found?" These translations say Abraham was a "physical ancestor." NKJV has: "What then shall we say that Abraham, our father, has found according to the flesh?"

The phrase "according to the flesh" is not translated "our forefather" in the NIV above. What is meant by "according to the flesh?"

Stoeckhardt: 'According to the flesh' means 'by works.' Flesh is not the human nature corrupted by sin, but human nature in general. If one receives something by works, he receives it according to the flesh, in a human way, through his own deeds and efforts. The apostle also thinks of the good works that Abraham did after he was converted, after he became a servant of the living God, of all his glorious virtues for which Scriptures praise father Abraham. The works of the converted, though done in the power of God, are still the deeds of man. . . The question, therefore, is whether Abraham received righteousness as a result of his good works.

If one accepts the translation of the NKJV and Stoeckhardt, the answer to the question of this verse is: "Nothing at all, as is made clear in verse 2."

Romans 4:2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about -- but not before God.

Some feel that the readers had misunderstood James 2:20-26 where the writer is saying "Faith without works is dead, vain, empty." This supposedly left the impression with these readers that Abraham (according to James 2:21) was justified by faith AND works. There may have been a misunderstanding. But, on the other hand, it is clear that James is speaking about a fruitless faith, which is not faith at all.

Assuming that "according to the flesh" in verse 1 denotes a basis of works, then verse 2 means: "You see, if Abraham (really) was justified on the basis of his works he has something to boast of, but (as matters stand) not before God." In other words, his boasting would all be on a human level only, like that of Jesus' enemies in John 8:33-59. But Abraham was not of that sort.

Arndt: People may praise Abraham, but he has nothing to boast of in the judgment of God.
Lenski: When Abraham thought or spoke of his good works, he had every reason for being elated in regard to himself, because by the grace of God it had been granted to him to do such works; at this point, however, his elation had to stop, for in regard to God he had no cause for being elated, only cause for being most humble and thankful, since only by God's grace had he been able to do these works.

Romans 4:3 What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."

Where shall we go to settle this matter? To Scripture. Genesis 15:6 is quoted also in Galatians 3:6 and James 2:23. Read Genesis 15:1-15. At a time when Abraham was yet childless God promises him that his descendants would be as countless as the stars of heaven. To believe that is an astounding thing. "Abraham believed God" means "Abraham believe what God said."

By believing Abraham was regarded, reckoned, counted, considered righteous. Left to himself Abraham was godless. Look at verse 5. So was David. But, by believing what God said, Abraham was regarded as righteous.

Lenski: God's accounting did not make him righteous, it did not change Abraham, it changed his status with God. Though he was not righteous, God counted him as righteous nevertheless. . . . The believer really and in himself is never righteous; he is righteous only in God's accounting. . . . Christ's merit and righteousness is His own; God counts it as if it were the believer's.

And Stoeckhardt warns us not to consider faith such a good work or virtue that it justifies in and of itself as a human work.

Stoeckhardt: Faith does not justify man before God because of its subjective character, but faith justifies only on account of its object and content: Christ or God's sin-forgiving grace in Christ . . . . The content of this promise made to Abraham was Christ. Through the one Seed, Christ, Abraham should obtain that countless posterity from all people; through the one Seed, Christ, the blessing should come to all people.

Romans 4:4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.

Paul introduces an axiom from everyday living. We translate freely: "For the laborer the wage is not reckoned on the basis of favor but on the basis of what is owed." This is the principle which always applies in the kingdom of power. Even a pastor gets his salary not by favor but on the basis of what is owed to him: "The laborer is worthy of his hire."

Stoeckhardt: The employer grants no favor when he pays the laborer his wages for he only pays what he owes. . . . It is no demonstration of free favor and grace but simply an act of divine righteousness when God regards as righteous a man who has fulfilled all the righteousness of the law. But that is a case which does not occur in reality.
Lenski: Verse 4 is a general proposition, and no more . . . With God as regards men no such reckoning is made.

Stoeckhardt is saying that even if a person could keep the moral law perfectly, salvation would still be entirely by grace. Lenski is saying that the verse speaks only of an earthly principle.

Apology (Tappert 120): Therefore he excludes even the merit of works according to the moral law; for if by these we earned justification before God, faith would not be accounted for righteousness without works. See Romans 4:4-5.

Romans 4:5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Compare the construction of this sentence with that in verse 4. The indirect object, in each case a substantival participle, is placed first. Then follows the subject and verb. The verb in both cases is "reckoned." The subjects are antonyms: "the wage", and "the gift." In verse 4 we had the one who labored but in verse 5 we have the one who does not labor, which means "the one who believes" which practically means "the one who receives," for faith is here pictured as the receiving means.

Our text is not speaking about a person who is trying to earn his salvation, but about the believer. All people are "godless, sinful, creatures of death." So were David and Abraham. But they did not work for their salvation. Salvation, in Christ Jesus, is always by a declaration from God Himself. It is the most amazing thing in history. Nothing but God's mercy and grace for Jesus' sake moved Him to do this.

Stoeckhardt: Man according to nature is a godless person . . . Nothing in man motivates or causes God to declare the godless righteous. Not even man's faith . . . Faith is reckoned for righteousness not because it is a good work but only because of its object. . . Justification is a lifelong matter for the Christian. Not by works but by faith alone is the daily food for the Christian's soul. . . A believing Christian does not make the 'feeling' of his life of faith a criterion for his state of grace . . . Faith says: 'I am still a poor, unworthy sinner. My sins are ever before me.' But God's Word tells me that God justifies these very sinners, the ungodly.

Read Galatians 2:16 and all the parallel passages listed for that verse.

[The following verses are omitted] Romans 4:6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him." 9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Romans 4:13 It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.

Verses 13, 14, and 15 begin in Greek with the word "you see." These verses are explanatory. Verse 13 sums up all that has been said in verses 1-12.

"Not through law" means "not based on human works or worthiness."

"Abraham and his offspring" means "to Abraham and all believers throughout history."

Bengel: 'That he should be heir of the world.' Christ is heir of the world, and of all things, Hebrews 1:2 and 2:5, and so also are they who believe in Him according to the example of Abraham.
Arndt: Here Paul introduces a new argument for justification by faith . . . What promise is meant here? Genesis 13:14f. God says to Abraham that he would give him the land of Cana, likewise in Genesis 15:18 and 17:8. This was to remind him of a still better inheritance waiting for him in the heavens. Abraham and the other fathers waited and looked forward to that inheritance, Hebrews 11:9-10. Paul gives a typical interpretation to Genesis 13:14, making the promise give there foreshadow heaven, the eternal peace.

What kind of righteousness? Faith-righteousness, unearned, accepted righteousness. The promise [of the Gospel] and the principle of law [human works and merit] are opposed to each other in this verse.

Luther: Where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation.
Stoeckhardt: Paul speaks of the final goal and purpose of the righteousness which avails before God. He who is justified before God through faith will also inherit the world, which God has prepared for mankind, the world of God, the glorified world, wherein dwells only righteousness.

Romans 4:14 For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless,

This verse explains the previous verse.

"Those of law" means "those who base their relationship on works." The best example is that found at John 8:39 where the Jews claim Abraham as father but Jesus immediately denies it. They were not children of Abraham because they based everything on physical descent and on human works and worthiness.

Now what would happen if such people were God's eternal heirs? Paul says: "Faith would permanently be made void and the promise would permanently be made of no effect." In that case the promises, such as Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 12:3, would be hollow sham, and so would the hundreds of passage of Gospel in the Old Testament.

Arndt:Faith here is not to be regarded as having the function of a splendid work, but that it is simply trust, and that it justifies because it lays hold of the promise of God, in others words, that it justifies on account of it's contents.

Romans 4:15 because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Another explanation. Lest people get the idea at the Mosaic Law serves no purpose, as in Galatians 3:19 Paul states the purpose of the giving of the Law: "You see, the Law produces wrath" not because the Law is evil, but because the nature of man is fallen.

Apology (Tappert 112): Paul does not say that by the law men merit the forgiveness of sin. For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences. It does not justify, because a conscience terrified by the law flees before God's judgment. . . . (Tappert 147) But without Christ this law is not kept. It always accuses the conscience, which does not satisfy the law and therefore flees in terror before the judgment and punishment of the law. . . The law will always accuse us because we never satisfy the law of God.

Over and over the Lutheran Confessions say:  Lex semper accusat,  "The Law always accuses" because I am totally sinful and the Law reveals that sin to me.

The verse goes on to say: "Where there is no law neither is there transgression."

Arndt: What has this to do with the case of Abraham? God dealt with Abraham not through law, not on the basis of the law, but on the basis of a promise. Abraham, of course, was sinful. But that did not destroy God's promise. The promise was not conditioned by fulfillment of the law, it was altogether independent of the law.

Verse 15a speaks of the purpose of the Mosaic Law. Verse 15b is nothing but beautiful Gospel.

Romans 4:16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring -- not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

"Therefore" summaries verses 13-15 but looks back on verse 15 in particular. Paul reaches a logical conclusion. It can't be by law, human achievement, because the law does nothing but accuse, convict, charge with sin. "Therefore it must be by faith" which means believing in what Christ did, rather than in what I do.

Lenski:With law an impossible means, with faith the only means and source, the norm had to be grace, and God intended it to be so. Grace was his part of it, a part glorious for him and blessed for us beyond anything language is able to express.

The grace of God is the efficient cause. Faith is the receiving cause. Why this method? "So that FIRM might be the promise to ALL the seed." It was firm and sure already for God. Grace and faith make it firm and sure for the believer. Read Romans 8:38-39.

Where the grace of God and faith are rightly preached and taught, there you'll have certainty, absolute certainty of forgiveness and everlasting life. The word "all" allows no exceptions either as to individual persons or as pertains to ethnic groups. "Not only to him who is of the law but also to him who is of the faith of Abraham" is another way of saying "not only to the believing Jew but also to the believing Gentile."

And then Abraham is identified as the one "who is father of us all." Abraham is the father of all believers. That is proved in the next verse.

Romans 4:17 As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed -- the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.

"As it is written" means "that's what Scripture means when it said," and the reference is Genesis 17:5. Read on in verses 6-8. God was speaking about all believers from Abraham's time until the end of time.

Here are some English translations:

RSV, AAT and NKJV takes if of Abraham in God's presence; TEV and NEB take it of the validity of the promise; and NIV and LB take it to mean what sense Abraham is the father of many nations.

Arndt: In the eyes of God Abraham is the father of all believers. It is a spiritual relationship that is spoken of.
Bengel: Before God since those nations did not yet exist before men, in other words, God saw them as already existing.
Lenski: In God's eyes Abraham had long ago been father of many nations although Isaac had not been born at this time and Abraham and Sarah has lost all procreative power.

"Before Whom (God) he (Abraham) believed, the God who quickens the dead and calls the things which are not as things that are." These words are a description of the God whom Abraham believed. At the moment Abraham and Sarah had no son. Furthermore their procreative powers were dead. But Abraham knew the God who had just spoken to him. He believed that this God could raise the dead. Look at Hebrews 11:19. And he knew the God would could call the spiritually dead into spiritual life.

The latter part of verse 17 is not speaking about God's creative powers but His ability to convert the spiritually dead.

The God who is spoken of in verse 17 is the same God, the incarnate God, who is spoken of in John 5:24-29. There, in verse 25, we are told that Christ, also according to His human nature, has the power to convert the spiritually dead and, in verse 28, we are told that Christ, also according to His human nature, will raise all the dead on the final day. No wonder Jesus said what He said in John 8:56!

What a wonderful text for the preacher to preach! He sees his own many sins. He sees that his own deeds are so tainted by sin. The members of his congregation are laden with guilt. They cannot justify themselves before God. But the preacher must remind himself and his people that works dare never be brought into the article of grace and faith. Christ has atoned for the sins of all human beings. He was raised again for our justification. He has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light. He conquered him who had the power of death, namely, the devil. All of this is a matter of faith and trust in the God who promised and fulfilled. We are children of Abraham. We are his spiritual heirs.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Festival Season Sundays, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1983, pp. 81-85. Used with permission.

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