Paul started his argument by asserting that all men, both the Jew and Gentile, are under the same condition before God: He is angry at them for their sin, and they are given over to a depraved heart and mind. After taking time to explain that point, he presented the positive side of the picture, the fact that God has also provided salvation for all men, both Jew and Gentile alike. This universal salvation was provided apart from the law, through faith in the blood of Christ which was poured out to appease God’s wrath. Where will the argument go from here?
As Paul set forth the gospel promise of justification through faith in the blood of Christ, he asserted also that this was witnessed to by the Old Testament Scriptures. He turns now again specifically to elaborate upon and defend that claim. It is very important to him to demonstrate how the Scriptures themselves support what he is saying. When he was asserting the guilt of all men, he showed that the law itself declares it to be so. Now that he has claimed also that the righteousness of God that comes through faith provides justification for all men, he is eager to show that this, too, is born witness by the law and the prophets.
Why is it so important to show this? Apart from the fact that Paul believes every part of the Old Testament Scriptures to be the very word of God, he is also very interested in showing specifically to the Jews that this message is part of their very own Jewish heritage, contained in their own Scriptures themselves.
There are two main points of focus in the coming chapter. First, Paul will focus upon the fact that the Old Testament Scriptures teach the concept of forgiveness and grace, through faith, as the means of justification. He wants us to see, then, that his basic theology is Biblical. But as important as this is, it won’t be long before we find him once more reverting to the main point he desires to make throughout: That this promise was given from the start not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles. In fact, this is the main focus of the chapter, the point to which more attention is given. The first portion of the chapter (defending the doctrine of justification by faith from the Scriptures) serves the larger purpose of proving the universality of salvation by faith to both Jews and Gentiles. Let us see how Paul’s reasoning works.
Paul first identifies Abraham as the subject of his initial proof. We see that he is still thinking of giving proof specifically to the Jew concerning the whole argument of the gospel thus far because he identifies Abraham as “our forefather according to the flesh” (4:1). Obviously, this is applicable language only as a Jew. The language of forefather is important in this chapter and will come to mean more than what many would initially think, but when Paul specifically qualifies the term with the phrase “according to the flesh,” we know he is speaking strictly of a literal descent from Abraham.
That the purpose of this section is centered upon proving to the Jew concerning their own Scriptures is clear from the preceding context at the end of chapter 3. All of the argument of chapter 4 is flowing out of the statements at the very conclusion of the previous chapter that the gospel of grace through faith does not nullify the law but rather upholds it. Paul wishes to show the Jews that if they take their own law seriously, they will have to admit that their salvation cannot be the result of their receiving of the law. To take away this key argument of the Jew would be to leave him without pretext or excuse for rejecting the gospel.
What, then, does the Jewish Scripture say and teach about this first Jewish father, Abraham? This is Paul’s focusing question itself:
What does the Scripture say? “But Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him unto righteousness.” (4:3)
In this key statement from the history of the life of Abraham, Paul sees that the doctrine of justification by faith is established and the false doctrine of justification by works is overthrown. One of the points of evidence is the use of the word “reckoned.” Paul sees in this an admission that the righteousness that Abraham received was not something due to him by obligation. Rather, the righteousness was granted to him according to grace:
For if Abraham was justified from works , he has a boast. But not towards God. For what does the Scripture say? But Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him unto righteousness. But to the one working, the wage is not reckoned according to grace, but rather according to debt. But to the one not working but believing upon the One who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned unto righteousness. (4:2-5)
Paul sees that the language itself implies not an earning of righteousness, but a gracious giving of something that is not necessarily due to Abraham by credit. God reckoned it to Abraham, but Abraham had no claim upon it by anything he had done.
And this is the clearer point that Paul makes, which is that there is no working here at all mentioned but only a simple believing upon God. That believing is set in contrast with working as the two possible means under consideration of obtaining righteousness. Did Abraham work and thus receive what was due him? No, but rather he simply believed, and this was counted for righteousness. Thus, the Jewish law itself teaches that the father of the Jews received his righteous standing from God on the basis of his faith in the promise that God gave him.
This fact of God’s reckoning righteousness to Abraham on the basis of faith is then supported by another statement from the experience of another of the greatest of Jewish heroes, David:
Just as also David speaks of the blessing of the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless acts are forgiven
And whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will certainly not reckon.” (4:6-8)
What is the connection between these words of David and the life of Abraham? Paul says that David speaks of “the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works,” and this is true but in an implied way rather than explicit. David never here speaks of “righteousness” explicitly (see, however, the full content of Psalm 32, from which this citation comes), but he does speak of “reckoning” again. It is in the negative, this time, though, that David rejoices in the thought that some men will be so blessed as to find that their lawlessness and sin will not be counted by God. He will not consider it and count it against them when the day of reckoning comes. Just as Abraham was positively granted a reckoning of righteousness because of his faith, so David testifies to the reckoning that makes sin to be covered and out of God’s register. Thus we have a second witness to a salvation by grace.
Having used David’s testimony to support his argument from the experience of Abraham, Paul now returns again to argue more fully from the life of Abraham. He asks again his persistent question about what this has to do with Jew and Gentile so far as the gospel is concerned. Over and over again this focus will return to Paul’s thought and argument. This theme is not apparent from the context of the citations that he has given. The only explanation for why he turns to this question again is that it is at the heart of what he desires to discuss:
Is this blessing, then, upon the circumcised or also upon the uncircumcised? For we say, “The faith was reckoned to Abraham unto righteousness.” How, then, was it reckoned? Being in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision but rather in uncircumcision. (4:9-10)
Paul’s answer draws out an important but likely overlooked point: Abraham was counted righteous by faith before he had received or even heard of circumcision. The obvious point is to show that circumcision, which represents the covenant with the Jewish people and the sign of that covenant that was given to them to distinguish them from the Gentiles, was not the basis of Abraham’s righteousness before God. How, then, could such be the case for the children of Abraham, the Jews? Paul explains that circumcision was not the basis of any righteousness Abraham had with God, but actually was a seal of the righteousness he already had on the basis of his faith.
The order of the events is very important, Paul demonstrates. If righteousness belonged to Abraham before circumcision and the law came, then circumcision and the law cannot be the basis of his righteousness. But Paul goes a step further still and turns the argument around on those who would hold the opposite position. Not only does this prove that righteousness is not based on law, but more still, if anyone should try to base righteousness on the law, it would actually be to contradict the promise of God and nullify His word spoken to Abraham. If God had declared Abraham to be righteous on the basis of faith and then someone were to require a further submission to circumcision and the keeping of the law as the basis for his righteousness, then God’s initial declaration of righteousness would be null and void, for it would no longer hold true as the basis of his righteousness:
For if those who are of law are the heirs, faith has been made empty, and the promise has been made void. (4:14)
Other than the simple time element, which makes this fact plain, Paul also again asserts the already established fact that the effort to base righteousness on the law would be a futile effort. It would guarantee the failure of the promise. If that move were made, then God’s word which He had promised to Abraham would certainly prove void. If the promise were only to be received by those who kept the law, then none would receive the promise, for none keep the law.
There is in the end only one way to make certain the promise and make it true for all the seed of Abraham as God has promised. That way is faith. This is the wisdom of God in how He chose to fulfill His word of promise:
For the law accomplishes wrath. But where there is no law, neither is there transgression. Because of this, it is from faith, so that it should be according to grace, in order for the promise to be firm to all the seed, not to the one who is of law only, but rather also to the one who is of the faith of Abraham, who is father of us all. Just as it has been written, “I have set you the father of many nations.” (4:15-17)
So, then, whereas basing righteousness on the law would do nothing more than guarantee the failure of the promise to all men, basing it on faith, as the Scriptures do, makes the promise certain to all who are Abraham’s true seed (those who have faith), whether they have the law or not. The affirmation that all those who share in Abraham’s faith are his seed was previously given by Paul just above and was made the basis of the fact that not only Jews but also Gentiles can look to Abraham as their father and thus claim a part in the inheritance due to his children:
And he received a sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith which was in the uncircumcision in order for him to be the father of all those who believe through uncircumcision, in order for righteousness to be reckoned to them, and the father of circumcision to those who are not of circumcision only but rather also who adhere to the steps of the faith of our father Abraham in uncircumcision. (4:11-12)
Once again, Paul has drastically challenged the fallacious Jewish mindset by opening the door for the Gentile to be on equal footing with the Jew in the matter of inheriting the blessing of Abraham. And once again this is supported by the Jew’s very own Scriptures, for they are those which record that God made Abraham a father of many nations, not only of one. Paul explains that this is so because of the fact that to be a true son of Abraham means to share in the heart of who Abraham was, which centered upon the faith that he had in God. Once more, the apostle brings before us the spiritual nature of religious truth and of the gospel. Faith is a living principle, and to share in the promises given to Abraham is to share in his faith in the word of God.
And what a faith it was, indeed. The rest of the chapter is a rich celebration of that faith that Abraham had. He “hoped against hope”; he was a hundred years old and yet believed that God would still grant him the fulfillment of the promise of a son in his old age; he believed that God could give life to the dead and call into existence that which did not exist. God rewarded that faith by reckoning righteousness to Abraham. And this was recorded not only for his sake, Paul tells us, but also to teach us that the same is true for the believer today. We also are called to believe upon one who raises the dead, Him who raised Jesus Christ up from the grave:
But it was not written because of him only that it was reckoned to him, but rather, also because of us, to whom it is going to be reckoned, who believe upon the one who raised Jesus from the dead, who was given over because of our transgressions and was raised because of our justification. (4:23-25)
This final reminding word of the death and resurrection of Christ ties the believer once again to the faith of Abraham. It also concludes the argument that Paul has so long been making and defending in these chapters. We now see as plainly as we will that righteousness is based upon faith and not upon the keeping the law. Paul is now ready to move on to another major focus of the gospel truth.