Romans 4 – The faith that leads to salvation
In last month’s issue of The Hillside Messenger, I wrote about St. Paul’s exposition of the Gospel in Romans 3, in which he shows how Scripture testifies to God’s diagnosis of all people as guilty of sin, and subject to God’s judgment, the great salvation that God has provided in and through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and how this means of salvation is God’s demonstration of both his own justice and the fact that he justifies the repentant sinner who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he expounds the nature of Abraham’s faith, and how it contrasts to good deeds that merit a reward. St. Paul begins with the question (Romans 4:1) what our natural forefather Abraham found. What did he experience in terms of how God justified him, or counted him righteous?
He concedes that Abraham would have grounds for pride if he had been justified, or set right with God on the basis of his good deeds (v.2), but not in God’s presence. The reason for this is that God has judged all people to be sinful and liable to judgment and to eternal death in an everlasting hell. How, then, was Abraham set right with God? It was by his faith in God, as St. Paul records through his quotation of Genesis 15:6 (KJV): “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Now a worker’s wages are not counted as a favor, but as a debt (Romans 4:4). By contrast, the one who does not work, but trusts in God who justifies the ungodly, receives God’s righteousness by believing in God, and this righteousness is given by God in answer to his faith. In a nutshell, the faith of the ungodly person who believes is counted by God as his righteousness (Romans 4:5).
A second example from Scripture is now added: Psalm 32:1, in which the people are counted blessed to whom the Lord imputes no sin, but whom he counts righteous (Romans 4:8), and forgives. King David in this psalm bore witness to God’s forgiveness of his sin when he had confessed it to God. He had no grounds for pride before God on account of his deeds, since his sins made him guilty before God. In confessing his sins to God, David showed his faith in God that God would forgive him all his sins. That faith in God resulted in God’s forgiveness of all his sins, and the blessedness (Romans 4:6) of being accounted righteous by God.
St. Paul’s affirmation that God counted Abraham’s faith as righteous before he was circumcised (Romans 4:9-12) he uses to show that Abraham is the father of all who have faith, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, since he received this righteousness from God before he was circumcised, and his circumcision was the seal of the righteousness of the faith in God he had before he was circumcised (Romans 4:11). God’s promise to Abraham or his descendants that he would inherit the world did not come through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13). Otherwise, if only those who kept the Law could be saved, then faith and God’s promises are emptied of their meaning. God’s forgiveness is revealed supremely as an act of grace, since it is God’s answer to the one who confesses his sin and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins (Romans 4:16). The fact that God’s promises of eternal salvation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, are given by God to everyone in answer to his faith, makes the promise sure and certain to all of Abraham’s descendants who believe, whether they are Jews or not. By means of his faith in God that God imputed to him as righteousness, Abraham became the father of us all, whether we be Jews or people of any other nation.
Two further matters merit our attention here. The first is the nature of God in whom Abraham believed, since all who follow in his footsteps by believing in God must be sure of the power of the God in whom they trust. God “quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were” (Romans 4:17b, KJV). When one exercises one’s faith in God, one trusts in the true and living God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things which do not yet exist. The second matter is the strength of Abraham’s faith in God to fulfill the promises He had made. This strength of faith is described in Romans 4:18-22. Firstly, Abraham’s faith was such that beyond, or contrary to, hope, he yet believed that he would become the father of many nations according to God’s promise (Romans 4:17-18; Genesis 15:5). In circumstances that seemed to make a mockery of hope and faith – the fact that both he and his wife, Sarah, were too old to have children – Abraham did not weaken in faith, nor did he consider the death of his own body, nor the barrenness of his wife’s womb (Romans 4:19). These facts did not cause him to doubt God’s promises, but he was rather strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully convinced God would do what he had promised (Romans 4:20-21). Therefore his faith was counted as righteousness (v.22).
St. Paul concludes this exploration of Abraham’s faith with the insight that the words “it was imputed to him” were not written for Abraham’s sake only, but also on account of us Christians, all who believe in God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:22-25).
All of this proves the point that the Gospel promises are through faith, and received by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are not based on human achievements of any kind, for God judges the sinfulness of man, but forgives all who turn to him in repentance, confessing their sins, and believing in him for forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. This chapter teaches us that it is through faith that we receive God’s free gift of righteousness and all his promises. The example of Abraham’s faith shows us not only the unity of all believers of all nations in Christ as spiritual descendants of Abraham, but also the power of the God in whom we trust and the strength of faith that we ought to have. As we share our faith with others, let us be sure to exemplify and teach such a faith that leads to salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.