Justification – Part 2
Is justification owed? (Romans 4:1-8)
Abraham is offered as an example to illustrate the points Paul made at the end of chapter 3. Abraham is seen as the father of Judaism, so his example would be particularly meaningful to Christians from a Jewish background.
The phrase “according to the flesh” is debated as to what it is modifying. Some believe it modifies “father;” thus Paul is referring to the physical forefather of those he is addressing. Others believe it is modifying “found;” thus Paul is referring to circumcision – introducing the idea that he then addresses directly starting in verse 9 and indicates a return to the question asked in Romans 3:1. The former would be a redundancy. The later makes the examination more specific and I believe to be the better reading.
If Abraham’s justification came solely by the things he did, there might be occasion to boast in his personal accomplishments. In other words, was Abraham’s justification come because he was circumcised? It was, after all, what the Jews took pride in (II Corinthians 11:18; Philippians 3:3-4; Galatians 6:13). But such a boast cannot be made before God since all, including Abraham, sin. Circumcision was a part of God’s law, but it didn’t make a person righteous according to the law because the law wasn’t just about circumcision.
Nor was the fact that Abraham was circumcised the cause for God to credit him with righteousness. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 which plainly states that it was because of Abraham’s act of believing that God credited him with righteousness. This same passage is quoted in James 2:23 to show the importance of works in belief. You will find commentators arguing that faith and works are opposites, such as “Throughout this whole argument, faith is set in direct opposition to works, in the matter of justification” [Jameison-Fausset-Brown Commentary], yet this cannot be when the same verse is used to prove both faith and works are necessary. Rather both Paul and James are arguing against the idea that faith and works can be separated: Paul dealing with works without faith and James faith without works.
We should also note that when Abraham was told this, it wasn’t because he had been an alien sinner who never obeyed God in the past. Melchizedek had previously called Abram a follower of the Most High God (Genesis 14:19). And Abram has been following God for years. What Paul is proving is that it wasn’t because Abram kept a work of the Law, such as circumcision, that made him righteous. It was because of his faith that God declared him righteous, even though he had sinned.
To further prove his point that it is faith that makes a difference, Paul cites David in Psalms 32. A man who has been forgiven of his sins is in a happy state. It doesn’t mean that he did not do wrong. Instead they are buried and not charged against the man. Matthew Poole notes:
“The same thing is expressed three several ways; there are three things in sin to be considered:
1. There is an offence against God, which is said to be forgiven.
2. There is a filthiness in sin, which is said to be covered.
3. There is guilt in it, which is said not to be imputed.”
It is God who chooses not to hold accountable, not man who earned God’s favor or put God into his debt. But once again we note that we are not talking about the initial forgiveness of an alien sinner. David has been following God most of his life. David’s quote is in the context of a man who has been obedient to God, but has failed to be perfectly obedient.
1. In regards to what did Abraham believe God? (Genesis 15:1-5)
2. Sometimes there are debates as to how the Hebrew word YHWH should be translated. How Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, translate the word in Genesis 15:6?
3. Some will say that people are made righteous because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the person. Can that be true in what is said of Abraham?
4. In Romans 4:4-5 is Paul talking about any works, or flawless works?
Gentiles can also be justified (Romans 4:9-12)
The Jews considered themselves blessed because they descended from Abraham, but Paul asks if Abraham’s justification only affected the Jews. He notes that it was Abraham’s faith that caused him to be justified by God, but that justification came while Abraham was still uncircumcised. Abraham was justified in Genesis 15, but he wasn’t circumcised until Genesis 17, about 15 years later. Therefore Abraham received justification while a Gentile.
Circumcision was the sign or witness that Abraham had entered into a covenant with God. However, he received that sign that showed his already existing faith while a Gentile. This was purposely done to demonstrate that Abraham was the father of all who believe, not just the Jews. Circumcision did not contribute to Abraham’s justification or to the promises made to Abraham. It only marked him, after the fact, that he was following God.
All of this means that the same justification can be imputed on any who believe, Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:7,29; Romans 2:29).
The Law could not bring justification (Romans 4:13-15)
Abraham was promised that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4-5). But that promise was not given to Abraham because he was special or to his descendants because they had the law. At the time, the law had not yet been given. The promise was given because of Abraham’s faith.
If keeping the law made people heirs, then it sets aside the need for faith. Abraham’s justification by faith would not be just. Those seeking justification by works of the law without faith are cut off from the promises given before the law as a result of faith. If it was by law, it would be earned; but the inheritance comes by promise and not by obligation (Galatians 3:18).
All the law brings is God’s wrath because all men sin. The very existence of law results in sin because sin is the breaking of law (I John 3:4; Romans 3:20; 5:13; 7:8-11; I Corinthians 15:56; Galatians 3:10). Man is unable to keep the law perfectly, so by law he can only be under wrath. Law cannot justify a man.
Justification had to be by faith to be available to all (Romans 4:16-25)
Since justification cannot be by the law, it must require faith. God designed it in this way that it might be a gift from Him. Since it depends on God and not man’s perfect obedience, the delivery of the promises are solid and will be delivered to everyone (Galatians 3:22). Paul proves his point by again quoting Genesis 17:5 and noting that God said “I have made you ...” (Hebrews 6:17-18).
God is able to give life to the dead, as in the case of Abraham restoring his ability to have children. But it also has a spiritual application (Ephesians 2:1-5). God is also able to make things happen that never happened before, such as a couple past child bearing age have a a child, which God promised to Abraham. Notice that in God’s promise to Abraham God used the past tense about future events as if they had already happened (I Corinthians 1:28). Again, there is spiritual application as well (I Peter 2:10).
Even though there was no reason to hope, Abraham believed God and hoped anyway. Quoting from Genesis 15:5, it was this belief that lead to the belief that was accounted to Abraham as righteousness. Abraham might have been weak in body, but he wasn’t weak in faith. He didn’t consider his age or Sarah’s age, but instead chose to believe God (Hebrews 11:11-12). Instead wavering in doubt, he grew stronger in his faith. He honored God by the firmness of his belief in God. Abraham was certain God was able to do just as He had promised.
The fact that Abraham believed and gained righteousness from God was not just a record to praise Abraham. It was recorded so that we can learn to imitate the faith of Abraham (Romans 15:4).
We are called to believe that God makes alive what is dead and saying what will be that never happened before – Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the promise of eternal life (I Thessalonians 4:14; I Peter 1:3,21). It calls for a faith similar to Abraham’s.