If you were to list the top 3 doctrines you believe first of all in terms of what is necessary to salvation, what would you list look like? Now how would you draw up your list a second time, this time with the focus on how doctrine affects the Christian life and the nature of church. I want to suggest here as we look at Romans 4 that we are going to discover a crucial doctrine which should appear in both lists.
Declared Right with God (1-8)
V1. Paul is continuing to develop his argument by looking further at the question of circumcision. He has argued in 3:28-29 that God justifies by faith and that this means the Gospel is for both Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised alike. To develop the argument further he asks what it is that Abraham, our human ancestor, discovered.  Notice that the question here is not whether or not Abraham has been found to be “our” ancestor, that is not at this stage a matter of dispute, rather, it is about the nature of his faith and therefore, in what way we are part of his family.
As the physical ancestor of the Jews and the primary recipient of God’s covenant and the seal of circumcision, Abraham provides a crucial piece of evidence in the puzzle, because if he was blessed (and therefore justified) because of his own deeds, and particularly through keeping aspects of ceremonial law then that would suggest that those things were the primary basis for others to be included in the covenant.
The passage therefore will build around a series of questions concerning circumcision as follows:
- Therefore, what shall we say that our human ancestor Abraham found? (v1)
- Therefore who are blessed? The circumcised or the uncircumcised? (v9)
- Therefore, how was [faith] reckoned, in the context/realm of uncircumcision or of circumcision? (v10)
Notice that each question is prefaced with the structural marker “therefore” indicating that a logical argument is building in stages so that each further question builds on what we have already discovered.
(v2) If Abraham had been justified by his works then that would mean that he had reason to boast (v3) and that would be problematic for Paul’s argument because Paul insists that boasting is only in the Gospel, that the Cross removes our entitlement to boast and that true righteousness is based on faith in God, contrasting with pride and self-righteousness resulting from faith/trust in one’s self.
However, if Abraham was justified by his works, then this means that the covenant promises to his descendants were based on what he did so that they too would have reason to boast in something and someone other than Christ. Ethnic pride would be legitimate.
(v3). So, Paul introduces us to what Scripture has to say on the matter. At this stage, his question is “What was the basis of Abraham’s righteousness/justification?” There are two options. First of all, Abraham could have been justified by his works, what he did, secondly he could be justified through faith. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6
“Abram/Abraham believed God and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Note that the context of Abraham’s belief was the giving of the covenant but specifically that the covenant involved the promise of children, of seed. I want to suggest that this is significant in Paul’s thinking because for Paul. The promise to Abraham was not just about a plurality of descendents but of one specific descendant, Christ. The faith Abraham exercises here is belief that God will keep his covenant promise to him in the way promised by means of Abraham’s offspring.
The implication of this is important. Paul uses accounting language to describe something being registered to or reckoned to Abraham’s account. Instead of it being about money, it is about righteousness. Is Abraham in credit with God? Is he right with God. Now, we could look at this as some have done and see this as a transaction, after all, there is accounting/transactional language used. So, does that mean that Abraham’s faith/belief/faithfulness is taken as acceptable payment by God and exchanged for righteousness. In other words, although Abraham could not do enough good works, God looks at how much faith he has and says “that will do”?
(v4-5) Well that is ruled out here because Paul says that you receive wages/payment for work but that is not what happens with Abraham. Abraham’s righteousness is a gift. So faith is not the good which is exchanged in consideration for righteousness, it is rather the willingness to accept and to receive the gift of justification. For Abraham, and therefore for all with him, righteousness is credited because he trusts in God. It is trust in the one who justifies (declares righteous) the ungodly that leads to him declared right. In other words, Abraham went to the one who is able and willing to declare him righteous, he went to the one who offers justification. This also reminds us that faith is not in a thing or a concept but in a person.
(v6-8) Paul now backs up his evidence concerning Abraham by referring to another example from Israel’s history, King David. Why does David’s testimony matter? Well, I think there are two reasons here. First of all because he provides us with another example of someone who might be looked to as righteous. David was the archetypal King who was seen as having a heart after God. All the other kings are compared, often unfavourably to him. Secondly though, David was also a recipient of convent promises. God makes a covenant with him to establish his kingdom, we might see this as a specific fulfilment of the promise to Abraham of a people and a land.
Yet what was it that David relied upon when it came to knowing God’s blessing, when it came to claiming, as he so often does in the Psalms to be “righteous”? Well, it cannot be blamelessness on his part. The sin against Bathsheba and Uriah rules that out. David himself tells us in Psalm 34. Blessedness, or God’s favour is about being forgiven for your lawlessness, your failure to keep Torah and that forgiveness involves having your sin covered over so that shame is removed. Indeed, I want to suggest here that these words from the Psalm bring together two consequences of sin, guilt and shame and show that through forgiveness and covering, both are removed.
Welcomed into a family
(v9) The next therefore, asks us to think through the implications of what we have just seen about Abraham and David. Abraham’s righteousness is based on faith not on works and David’s was based on forgiveness not on perfect blamelessness. So, what does that tell us about the implications for the uncircumcised and their inclusion in the covenant or otherwise?
Well, Paul tells us that there’s a little bit more detail that we need to know. We know how Abraham was justified but we also know when. It was when he still was uncircumcised (v10). The circumcision came later and was a sign of his faith, the action that sealed and confirmed the covenant but on the basis of pre-existing faith (v11). Furthermore, this has consequences, it means that Abraham is both the ancestor or forefather of all believers. Abraham is now declared to be the (spiritual father) of all those who believe and have not been circumcised. This means that they can be counted as righteous.
(v12) At the same time, Abraham also continues to be the father/ancestor of the circumcised too. However, note that a further conditional clause is added. Abraham is not just “father to the circumcised” but specifically to those who are circumcised and who follow in his footsteps, who have the same faith that he did prior to circumcision.
Implications for us today
I want to highlight three vital implications for today’s church from the Bible passage. Romans 4 is of particular relevance to three areas of belief and practice as follows:
- The crucial and central doctrine of justification
- The practice of paedobaptism or credobaptism
- Multicultural and multi-ethnic unity in the church of Christ.
The crucial and central doctrine of justification
This has been the subject of much recent debate. The recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone was one of the central events of the Reformation. In fact, it was Martin Luther’s reflections on the righteousness of God that was a primary cause. Not only that but consider the further role that Luther’s thinking played here in the conversion of John Wesley and we must also recognise the central role that the doctrine played as a catalyst for the Great Evangelical Awakening of the 18th Century too.
The reformers were challenging a belief that our works and the sacraments could play a part in our justification. They saw a significant comparison therefore between the medieval church’s use of penance, indulgences, confession and sacraments with the view of circumcision that Paul opposes here.
In recent years the question has been asked as to whether Luther and other protestants have properly understood Paul’s teaching on justification. This is particularly associated with something called The New Perspective on Paul. The argument is that we’ve misunderstood Paul because we have understood his interlocuters. We assume that the Jews thought they were saved and made right with God through their good works. Therefore, Paul offers justification by faith as an alternative. However much of 2nd Temple Judaism thought saw the election and inclusion in the covenant of ethnic Jews as based on their lineage from Abraham so that in effect they were recipients of Grace. God had chosen them beforehand and so they had right standing with him. God’s righteousness was specifically about his faithfulness to that covenant. However, they also believed that you continued to remain in the covenant by keeping the Law. This is known as covenant nomism.
If this is right, then the focus in Romans 4 is less on how to get into the covenant and more about who is included. It’s less about justification by faith and more about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. The focus then is on the question of circumcision and whether you needed it to be treated equally as part of the covenant. It is worth noting that this question is certainly up front and central in Romans 4 and at times has been overlooked by evangelical treatments of the passage.
However, Paul is also very clear in the preceding chapters that Jews had been trusting both in their ethnic heritage and in their law observance. In the end, whether or not they thought that they had got in through Abraham and stayed in through works is not so significantly different from works based righteousness because the problem remains one of reliance on pride and boasting in something other than the Gospel and furthermore that practically there isn’t such a great distinction between getting in and staying in. If the whole story is not one of saved and kept by grace then the message isn’t truly one of grace after all.
Paul’s application of justification may be focused more on issues of church unity in Romans 4 than on evangelism. That is understandable because he is writing to believers. However, this does not take away from the Gospel foundation that his application is based on. Indeed, this reminds us that the thing we need to do if we are to grow into godliness and unity is to keep reminding each other of the Gospel.
Paul’s concern is that his readers will know that they are justified by faith not by works. To be justified is to be made right with God. It’s a word we use to describe a legal standing. A person in court charged with a crime may sometimes give an excuse such as diminished responsibility or provocation. In such a case, they will be found guilty but their sentence may be reduced. However if they use the defence of justification, it means that their actions were justified, that they were acting as law keepers not law breakers for example by acting in self-defence. It is not just that they were excused their wrong behaviour, it is that what they did was 100% right and exactly what the Law would require of them. They were in the right.
Now, in Romans 4, Paul takes that kind of concept and says “we are right in God’s eyes against the objective standard of his law.” Yet how are we able to say that? Is it that we have done just enough to satisfy God? Well, that cannot be so because Abraham was declared righteous (justified) before he had even the chance to act in obedience towards God’s covenant requirements. But furthermore, we cannot of ourselves claim to be justified. The truth is that we did break God’s law. We are not righteous, that is the point in Romans 3. Therefore righteousness requires forgiveness and the wiping away/covering over of our sin.
Yet, really justification goes further than that, we are not just forgiven sinners but rather we are treated “just as if I’d kept God’s law perfectly.” Now, this isn’t all fleshed out at this stage, we need Romans 5 and 6 as well as Philippians 3 to see that this justification, this kind of righteousness is received because we are united with Christ so that it is his righteousness and obedience that we have as our own.
At this stage it is enough to know that we are justified and that we are therefore blessed, part of the covenant because of faith leading to the forgiveness of sins.
The practice of paedobaptism or credobaptism
This is more of an incidental point here but it is relevant because the debate between paedobaptists (those who believe baptism should be given to the children of believers) and credobaptists (those who argue that baptism is administered upon profession of faith) centres to some extent on two questions:
- How does the New Covenant relate to the covenants with Abraham and Moses -is there continuity or discontinuity?
- How does baptism relate to circumcision.
Paedobaptists argue that there is continuity between old and new covenant so that we are all beneficiaries of the covenant with Abraham. Therefore, if the promise was to Abraham’s offspring, then our children too should be included in the covenant and there should be a sign or seal of that with baptism for babies replacing circumcision.
Now, I want to acknowledge that there is significant continuity between the covenants at times overlooked by some baptistic arguments. However, Romans 4 shows how that continuity works and unfortunately it does not support the paedobaptist argument.
First of all, the continuity is in terms of objectives. Just as the New Covenant is concerned with the blessing of being declared right with God and having our sins forgiven, so too, the covenant with Abraham was concerned with the blessing of righteousness, of sins forgiven. This is important because it is sometimes suggested that baptised children may not yet have saving faith but still benefit from the privileges of covenant membership. Yet, the whole point is that the privileges of covenant membership are that your lawlessness is forgiven and your sin covered over. We cannot separate covenant membership out from salvation. Your child is either forgiven through faith and justified or they are not. There is no intermediate half-way house, associate membership.
Secondly, we note that the benefits of covenant membership go back to Abraham for both circumcised and uncircumcised so that our relationship to the covenant and to one another is not through the sign in the way that is being suggested by some paedobaptists. It is through faith. The way into the covenant is not through receiving the sign whether circumcision or baptism but through faith. Circumcised people are only in the covenant if they have faith. This means that a baptised child who has not yet exercised faith is no more part of the covenant than a man who goes through the waters of baptism as an external rite without saving faith.
Multicultural and multi-ethnic unity
Finally, we are getting a clearer picture of how, as promised, Paul’s Gospel or Pauline Theology is a gift to the church to encourage greater unity and togetherness. Paul has removed all pretence of ethnic pride. Instead, we have true unity and fellowship because we are united by the two things we have in common, the presence of faith in lour lives and the status of being righteous. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, all have that same status of having right standing before God. If we are right with God, then we should be right with one another.
This is so important as we think about issues of class and race in our urban churches. It is worth noting that whilst overt racism and classism can exist that it is rare for such prejudices to be explicitly stated. Rather we create other ways of putting up the barriers by developing insider cultures that assume that you have to have been around for a ling term to earn your right to membership. Furthermore, whilst we would never suggest that you have to earn your salvation, in effect we expect people to earn their membership of the family which is meant to be one of the accompanying benefits. We deny people full and equal access to and membership of the covenant people of God.
An outworking of the Gospel should be unity in the church and that must include the breaking down of ethnic, cultural and class barriers. Can people trace back from how we treat one another convincing evidence that we believe in the doctrine of justification.
The doctrine of Justification is at the centre of Paul’s gospel. It is not just about how we come into the family of God but it has vital implications for how we live and how we treat one another once we are part of the family.
 Contra Hays, Abraham, 22. See Moo, Romans, 259. n 13.
 Romans 1:!6.
 Romans 3:27, c.f. Ephesians 2:8-10.
 Romans 1:17, c.f. Habakkuk 2:4.