A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 4:1-25. God’s righteousness illustrated in Abraham.
Paul has both expounded his gospel of God’s righteousness, that is, of justification by faith (3:21-26), and defended it against its critics (3:27-31). In doing so, he has also insisted that it is attested by Old Testament Scripture (1:2; 3:21, 31). So the next step in his argument is to supply an Old Testament precedent and example. He chooses Abraham, Israel’s most illustrious patriarch, supplemented by David, Israel’s most illustrious king. Similarly, when Matthew introduced his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy, he named him ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Mt. 1:1).
Some modern commentators make no attempt to disguise their impatience. They find both the substance and the form of Paul’s reasoning equally irrelevant. His rebuttal of Jewish objections was doubtless necessary at the time, they concede, reflecting the debates going on in the rabbinical schools. But these things ‘have little interest and no weight for us’, wrote C.H.Dodd, and Paul’s ‘scholastic and rabbinic’ argumentation ‘makes the whole exposition seem remote and unenlightening’. But on the contrary, Romans 4 occupies a very important place in the letter for at least two reasons.
First, Paul further clarifies the meaning of justification by faith. He uses what Scripture says about Abraham and David to elaborate the significance of both words ‘justification’ in terms of the reckoning of righteousness to the unrighteous and ‘faith’ in terms of trusting the God of creation and resurrection.
Secondly, Paul wants Jewish Christians to grasp that his gospel of justification by faith is no novelty, having been proclaimed before-hand in the Old Testament (Gal. 3:8), and he wants Gentile Christians to appreciate the rich spiritual heritage they have entered by faith in Jesus, in continuity with the Old Testament people of God. Abraham and David show that justification by faith is God’s one and only way of salvation, first in the Old Testament as well as in the New, and, secondly for the Jews as well as for the Gentiles. It is therefore a mistake to suppose either that in the Old Testament people were saved by works and in the New Testament by faith, or that today the Christian mission should be limited to Gentiles on the ground that Jews have their own distinctive way of salvation. I shall have more to say about the evangelization of Jewish people in chapter 14.
There seem to have been two reasons for Paul’s choosing Abraham as his main example. The first is that he was the founding father of Israel, ‘the rock from which (they) were cut’ (Is. 51:1f.), the favoured recipient of God’s covenant and promises (E.g. Gn. 12:1ff.; 15:1ff.; 17:1ff.). The second reason is doubtless that Abraham was held in the highest esteem by the Rabbis as the epitome of righteousness and even the special ‘friend’ of God. (2. Cor. 20:7; Is. 41:8; Jas. 2:23). They took it for granted that they had been justified by works of righteousness. For instance, ‘Abraham was perfect in all his dealings with the Lord and gained favour by his righteousness throughout his life’ (Jubilees 23:10). They quoted the Scriptures in which God promised to bless Abraham *because* he had obeyed him (Gn. 22:15ff.; 26:2ff.), without observing that these verses referred to Abraham’s life of obedience *after* his justification. They even quoted Genesis 15:6 (Paul’s text in this chapter, verse 3), in such a way as to represent Abraham’s faith as meaning his fidelity or faithfulness, which was therefore meritorious. For example, ‘was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness?’
Moreover, an echo of the Jewish belief that Abraham was justified by works is heard in the letter of James (Jas. 2:21ff.). True, what James is asserting is not that we can be justified by works, any more than Abraham was, but rather that the authenticity of justifying faith is seen in the good works to which they give rise. ‘I will show you my faith by my works’, says the genuine believer (Jas. 2:18), because without resulting good works faith is dead (Jas. 2:17, 21). Nevertheless, behind James’ argument lies the Jewish tradition (which he rejects) that Abraham was justified by works.
Romans 4 presupposes familiarity with the biblical story of Abraham, and in particular with four of its chief episodes. First, God called Abraham to leave his home and people in Ur, and promised to show him another land, to give him a large posterity, and through him to bless all peoples on earth (Gn. 11:27ff.; 12:1ff.). Secondly, God made his promises more specific, identifying the land of Canaan (Gn. 13:14f.) and declaring that his posterity, though he was still childless, would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and the stars in the sky (Gn. 14:16; 15:5). It was by believing this latter promise that Abraham was justified (Gn. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). Thirdly, when Abraham was ninety-nine and Sarah ninety (Gn. 17:1, 17), God confirmed his promise of a son, changed his name from Abram to Abraham to signify that he would be ‘the father of many nations’, and gave him circumcision as the sign of his covenant (Gn. 17:1ff.). Fourthly, although Paul only hints at this indirectly, God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, the subject of the promise, and, when he showed his willingness to obey, re-confirmed his covenant (Gn. 22:1ff.).
Moreover, these four episodes correspond to the four occasions on which Hebrews 11 says that Abraham took action ‘by faith’ (verses 8, 9, 11,and 17-18). He obeyed God because he trusted God.
We now consider four assertions which Paul makes about Abraham’s justification, the first three of which develop the three questions and answers of his diatribe at the end of chapter 3. 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).
Tomorrow: Romans 4:1-8. a). Abraham was not justified by works.