Lesson 4: Saving Righteousness of God (3:21-4:25)


At this point in reading the letter, we should be in despair.  Paul has made it abundantly clear we are sinners, separated from God (see particularly 3:10-11).  However, this is not the worst because there is nothing we can do about it. We will have to wait until 5:12-21 before Paul explains why we cannot do anything about it. At this point, Paul tells us that no good work is sufficient to pay for our sins and make us so that we can stand in righteousness before God.  Jesus himself said we “must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  And many times, in the Old Testament and the New we are told to “be holy for I [God] am holy” (1 Peter 1:6; also, Ephesians 1:4).

Now then, in 3:21, Paul writes the most significant adversative conjunction in Scripture, “but now” – and everything changes. In those five verses, 3:21-26, Paul gives us possibly the most important theological passages in all of Scripture.[1]  Paul describes how God has solved the problem of sin so we can be perfectly justified before him. These verses should cause us to be amazed at the miracle of righteousness God gave us as a gift. 

Paul follows this by highlighting the implications of this miracle in 3:27-31.  And in the following chapter 4, Paul uses Abraham as the key biblical test case. God’s dealing with Abraham is proof of the truthfulness of the gospel of grace which finds its fulfillment in Christ. 

The Saving Righteousness of God (3:21-31)

God’s promises to Israel have not been fulfilled because Israel failed to keep the Mosaic law. Jew and Gentile “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Instead, God has fulfilled the promises through his Son. Salvation is now available through all who put their faith in Jesus. This salvation reveals both God’s judging ethical righteousness – his wrath– and the saving redemptive righteousness – his grace.  The effect of this righteousness of God is then given in 3:27-31.

Righteousness of God through Christ’s redemption (3:21-26)

v. 21

Possibly even more important than the opening conjunction, “but” is the following word, “now.”  There was a “then” before Christ and a “now” after Christ. The advent of the Son of God coming to earth as one of us changed everything.  There is no event in all of creation–including creation of the universe itself–having more importance and significance than the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  “But now” is not just the next step in salvation history but what divides salvation into two; between the old covenant of the law and the new covenant of grace.[2] And what comes after the words “But now” is the most glorious centre of the entire Gospel.  God’s wrath has been revealed from heaven against all sin, whether Jews or Gentiles (1:18-3:20), but now God’s saving righteousness is revealed through Jesus Christ; not by obedience to the law but by faith.  The promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the atoning sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. The gifts of both God’s righteousness and redemption are given to Jew and Gentile – there is no distinction (3:22).

Throughout his writing, Paul uses the phrase, “but now” to mean this transition from the old dispensation of sin’s dominance to the new dispensation of salvation.  In this letter, he uses it again in 6:22 and 7:6, as well as other letters (1 Corinthians 15:20; Ephesians 2:13; Colossians 1:22).[3]

The dominant phrase, however, is the “righteousness of God.”  It is used four times in the passage; its verb “justify” is used twice, and the adjective “just” once. Here in verse 21, the righteousness of God means the same as it did in 1:17.  That is, the atoning work of Christ in taking upon himself the punishment for our sins and imputing to us his righteousness so we can be declared just before him. This is done so that the justice of God prevails in redeeming sinners. God’s mercy is always greater than his justice (Exodus 34:6-7). As well, the way Paul uses the phrase, however, is different. In 1:17, the righteousness of God is revealed through the proclamation of the gospel, while here in 3:21, it is the justifying activity or method of God in redeeming his people.

Paul now states how the righteousness of God relates to the Old Testament. First, it is “manifested apart from the law.” The reference to “law” is the Mosaic law. However, it is unlikely, although true, that Paul has in mind that the righteousness of God is now received without doing the law. Instead, it focuses on the new dispensation begun through Christ’s death and resurrection to deliver and redeem his people “apart from the law.” The Mosaic law has nothing to do with being righteous before God (Galatians 2:16). The Mosaic law was a temporary administration that is now “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). It was a covenant between God and Israel for their benefit in ordering their lives but also to reveal their sin until the time of Christ (4:13-15; 5:20; Galatians 3:15-4:7).  Therefore, the emphasis is on the discontinuity between the old era and the new. There is an aspect of the gospel–that both Jews and Gentiles are justified through faith–which could not be predicted based on the Jewish Old Testament Scriptures (16:25-26; 2 Corinthians 3:14; Ephesians 3:4-6).[4] Paul has clearly stated in 2:12-29, because of the power of sin, Jews have been unable to keep or do the law perfectly.  Still, we must keep in mind verse 31.  It is not that the law can be forgotten but has been fulfilled.

There is also continuity, for Paul immediately states, “although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it”; that is, to the saving righteousness of God.  Again, this echoes Jesus's words when he spoke with Cleopas and his partner to explain, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).  This would include Genesis 3:15 with the promised seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent.  Certainly, Abraham understood this since Jesus himself said:

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”  So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”  Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56-58)

And there are many other prophecies in the Psalms (2, 22, and others), in Daniel (Daniel 9), in Isaiah (Isaiah 7, 9, 11), and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:6). This is so important because any explanation of salvation, not showing its fulfillment in the Old Testament’s foreshadowing in types and prophecies, is defective. Unfortunately, this is the case today.[5] The Old Testament pointed forward to the “but now.” Only “now” has the “righteousness of God” “been manifested”; that is, made fully evident or revealed (made public) and continues to be made clear.

v. 22a

Paul again uses the phrase “righteousness of God,” but this time the emphasis is on the second half of the Great Exchange: that “through faith in Christ[6] all those who believe receive the righteousness of God – that is, Christ’s righteousness. All those whose belief is a saving faith now stand justified (righteous) in (union with) Christ Jesus before God. Moreover, “faith” is the means or instrument (not because of faith; i.e., faith is not the righteousness) by which we receive Christ’s righteousness.  As well, this faith is not simply a belief in doctrines or the Bible, but trust “in Christ.” Christ is the object of our faith. A person may believe all kinds of true things about salvation, but unless their faith is in Christ, receiving him as Lord and Saviour who loves us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20; John 8:24; 1:12; 3:15-16), he does not have the faith Paul is speaking about (3:25; 9:33; Galatians 2:16, 20; 3:24).[7] Only faith in Christ is saving faith.

This righteousness is so much more than just forgiveness of our sins.  We are given the free gift of Christ’s righteousness through faith in him. Because of his Son, the Father can adopt us as his sons (8:23).

vv. 22b-23

This righteousness is available equally “for all,” both Jew and Gentile, since in the new age there is “no distinction.”  Both Jew and Gentile need this righteousness in Paul’s summary of all of 1:18 to 3:20: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is clear from this statement that humans, all of us, are in a hopeless position. Because we are all sinners – from the time of Adam until now – we are all under the wrath of God. To say “all have sinned” is the same as saying “all are human.” Paul has spent a great deal of time bringing us to this understanding (1:18-3:20). Our greatest need is not better health or more wealth. Therefore, the only reason to ‘come to Christ’ is to be justified in his presence. We must begin with the conviction of our own sin.  This is the work of the law. The more we see the holiness of God, the more we recognize our own sinfulness.

The phrase “glory of God” means God’s revealed holiness – his infinite worth – in the image of Jesus Christ as the Son of Man and Son of God.  Humans were first created in the “image of God” and were to reflect his glory (Genesis 1:26-27). To “fall short” then means that humanity, from Adam and Eve's fall, has failed to glorify him.  As faithful followers of Jesus, we are to conform to the “image of his Son” (8:29-30; Philippians 3:21).  But note the present tense of the verb.  We “fall short.”  This means even as faithful followers we continue to fall short.  It is not until the Last Day that we are fully glorified to live in his presence forever (again 8:29-30; Philippians 3:21).  The cross must always be before us – now and for all eternity. Although our justification occurs the moment we put our hope and trust in Christ, our salvation continues from the past (Ephesians 2:8-9) to the present (1 Corinthians 1:18) and is the hope of our future (Romans 5:9).

But there is more to this amazing statement than simply falling short.  If we look at other texts referring to the glory of God, we see that as Christians we are to behold and rejoice in God’s glory.[8] 

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (5:1-2)

And again:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (8:30)

And in Paul’s second letter to the Corinth church he wrote:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6; see also 4:17)

And Jesus himself said in words that are most astonishing:

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one. (John 17:22)

Therefore, there is a sense in which we are already glorified in our union with Christ and in which we will be fully glorified. Today we are to behold the glory of God and rejoice in it, for we will someday be like him as the apostle John writes, “When he appears we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). On that glorious day when we will be like him by being in perfect union with him, we will not fall short of his glory in any way, for we will be “glorified” (8:30; John 17:22).

vv. 24-25a

Verse 23 summarizes Paul’s teaching from 1:18 through 3:20 that both Jew and Gentile are under God’s judgment.  Verse 24 then relates to verses 21 and 22, that God has provided the solution for the problem of sin. If verses 21 and 22 describe the divine side of God’s righteousness, then verse 24 highlights the human side of our justification before him. It is important to note, the verb “justified” does not mean being made righteous or even being treated as if we are righteous. Instead, it means we are declared righteous. We have been acquitted – in a legal sense – by God from all charges against us because of our sin. And this verdict of acquittal is received the moment we put our hope and trust in Jesus.  It is not something we have to wait for at the Day of Judgment.

Moreover, this justification (righteousness) is given to us “by his grace as a gift.”  This means that our acquittal is totally unmerited and that it was done without any requirement of God other than faith in his Son.  We have no ground at all to be justified since we are guilty, and God is not compelled – beyond his own will – to justify us.  This is why Paul calls it “a gift.” Because a gift demanded, obligated, or owed to someone is no gift at all but a payment for work already done.  Although God created us, he was never obligated to justify us.  We have never done anything which has put God in the position of owing us anything (11:35). God would have been entirely just and right to destroy the entire human race and start over again if he was so willed. But instead, by his own free will, he loved us and provided the only way possible to redeem us so we could live in his presence.  Therefore, his justification – that is, the righteousness of Christ – is a free gift given by God and received through the instrument of faith by us.

But still, how is this justification possible?  Can God simply declare us acquitted without any punishment? He cannot because he is a righteous (just) God. It is “through redemption” our justification is made possible.  The word “redemption“ means a price was paid to redeem something.  During Paul’s time, redemption often meant paying the price to redeem, or better to ransom, a prisoner of war, slave or a prisoner.  In this context, it is the payment for sin, which included the death of his Son – “that is in Christ Jesus.”  If we need to answer the question: To whom was the payment made, it is not necessary to say God paid the payment to himself, as some commentators have suggested.  And it certainly was not paid to Satan as was often taught in the early church.  In the Old Testament, for example, we are told God redeemed Israel out of Egypt. Yet, God did not pay a redemption price to Pharaoh. How then should we understand redemption? The word “redemption” is what Christ did for us on the cross.  He paid the price, which is death, for us by taking our punishment on himself.  As well, God’s work of redemption is not only his Son’s death on the cross, although this is central to its meaning. But “redemption” also includes his incarnation, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God the Father.  What a wonderful word to meditate on!

In verse 25a, we see that it was God the Father who “put forward” or better “displayed publicly” (nasb) his Son, Jesus Christ, “as a propitiation by his blood.” Here “his blood” means the death of Christ on the cross. Our redemption, then, was given by the will and by the initiative of God the Father.  Although the Son and the Father are distinct Persons, they are still One.  And so, we should never think the Father forced his Son to die to appease his wrath.  Neither should we think of the Son as independent of the Father as human sons are of their fathers. The Son went to the cross willingly. Both the love of God and the wrath of God are miraculously brought together on the cross to display the glory of the righteousness (justice) of God

The word “propitiation” is significant as well.  This word is often used in the Old Testament[9] to mean the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant on which God appears as a cloud (Leviticus 16:2).  And this is the same way it is used in Hebrews 9:5. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest sprinkles blood on the mercy seat as atonement for Israel. What the Mosaic covenant hid behind the veil in the Holy of Holies is now publicly displayed in Christ’s once for all sacrifice of atonement. Jesus Christ himself has become both the mercy seat and the atoning blood for our redemption.

Many people have found the teaching that God the Father would demand the death of his Son as an atoning sacrifice to appease his wrath unacceptable.  They, therefore, have attempted to interpret this verse differently but with little success. When Paul uses this word to describe the death of Christ after describing the universal wrath of God from 1:18 through 3:20, it is not possible to come to a different conclusion. Recall, God’s wrath is not an impulsive burst of vindictive anger but “an inevitable and necessary reaction of absolute holiness to sin.”[10] So this atoning sacrifice which is the ground or foundation by which we receive justification, must “be received by faith.”  Faith in Christ is faith in the redeeming value of Christ’s shed blood.

vv. 25b-26

In the second half of verse 25, Paul gives the purpose by which God the Father put forward his Son as a redeeming sacrifice; it was “to show God’s righteousness.” The word “show” means to present convincingly.  The reference to “God’s righteousness” refers to God’s holy character and, therefore, the necessity of an atoning sacrifice to satisfy his justice. This is because, before Christ, God restrained himself from punishing Israel’s sin to the full measure it deserved. His “divine forbearance” was when he “passed over former sins.”  But this patient endurance of past sins called into question his justice.  For God to be holy, sins committed before the cross had to be atoned (Acts 14:16; 17:30).  However, this does not mean that sins were overlooked or that there was no punishment. It also does not mean that Old Testament believers did not receive complete forgiveness of their sins (Psalm 51:1-3; Isaiah 43:25). Those who had faith like Abraham also had the certainty of their forgiveness just like we do.  Paul uses the words “passed over” because their sin had “not been adequately punished in Christ, and the absolute righteousness of Christ had not been revealed on the cross.”[11]

Paul repeats what he has just said about God showing his righteousness, but now he adds that it is “at the present time.”  This refers to the “but now” (v. 21) that introduced this important paragraph. And he demonstrates his righteousness by being “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The meaning here is, God maintains his just and righteous character even when he acts by putting forward his Son as an atoning sacrifice.  Although today, many people think God was not just in sending his Son to die for us, Paul is making it very clear he is. And that this demonstrates his righteousness in providing God’s demands of justice.[12]  Those who do not experience this heavy weight of the glory of the cross either diminish the sacrifice of Jesus or the sinfulness of their sin, or both.

The righteousness of God is received through faith alone and not by works of the law (3:27-31)

In the final verses of chapter 3, Paul presents the implications of the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus’s death.  He makes several points concerning Israel and its law: first, Israel should not boast about its special status with God; second, God is not only the God of Israel, but according to Israel’s own Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), he is the one God of the whole world.  The God whom the Gentiles now worship is the same God Israel worships.  And third, even though the righteousness of God is obtained by faith, this does not invalidate the Mosaic law; instead, it provides its foundation.[13] However, Paul’s emphasis is on faith first introduced in 1:17 and then in 3:22 – that is, we receive “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” Faith is now the primary theme of verses 27 to 31, and indeed all of chapter 4.

vv. 27-28 First result of justification: we cannot boast about anything

Paul states, there is no “boasting” before God. Boasting means self-congratulation.  This seems strange to us. But Paul states, we have no grounds before God to claim we have a right to stand justified before him. So “law of works” is more general than just obedience to the Mosaic laws. It refers to any attempt to obtain justification before God through our own efforts.  In other words, it is legalism. Good deeds (e.g., giving to the poor, attending church regularly) can never put us in right standing before God. Of course, a Jew might say, this is fine for Gentile sinners, but I have the Mosaic law, and I keep it. A Jew could boast, he is in a covenant relationship with God while the Gentile is not.   But Paul’s position is, we are all sinners and in debt to God, and no effort of our own is sufficient (v. 23). From a Jewish point of view, Paul could claim for himself that concerning “righteousness under the law,” he was blameless but now he views all that as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:6-7).  The Jew has no special claim before God simply because of the law. The contrast here is between faith and works, between believing and doing.[14]  So neither Jew nor Gentile has anything to boast about. If we could boast, then heaven would be full of people singing their own self-righteousness praises rather than singing to the glory and praise of God (Revelation 5:9-14).     

But why does Paul then use the phrase “law of faith”?  Paul is not saying there is another law like the Mosaic law. Rather, this kind of play-on-words highlights the difference between attempting to obtain justification through personal effort and justification received by faith. So, the “law of faith” refers to the rule or principle of faith. It, therefore, refers to the gospel, which may only be received by faith.

This contrast between our own efforts to obtain justification and that of faith is repeated in verse 28.  As Moo writes, “A serious erosion of the full significance of Paul’s gospel occurs if we soften this antithesis; no works, whatever their nature or their motivation, can play any part in making a sinner right with God.”[15]

vv.29-30 Second result of justification: God is God of Jews and Gentiles

The contrast continues in these verses.  If justification could be obtained through the Mosaic law, then Gentiles would have to become Jews first. But Paul rejects this by asking whether God is “not the God of Gentiles also”? And immediately answers his question in the affirmative.  The reason is that “God is one.”  This is one of the oldest and most basic beliefs of Jews - the Shema.  A faithful Jew would repeat this prayer every morning and evening.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the lord is one. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

At the centre of the meaning of “one” there is only one God in all the universe.  This is the foundation of monotheistic teaching of the Old Testament.  There are not many gods; there are no greater or lesser gods; there is only one God for all humankind.  And he is the God of all. He is not just the God of Israel, with the Gentiles having another god.  Zechariah, the prophet, makes this clear. On Christ’s return, only one name will be worshipped:

And the lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the lord will be one and his name one. (Zechariah 14:9)

Paul echoes this teaching. Christ Jesus is God over both Jews and Gentiles (Philippians 2:9-11). 

Of course, Jews believed that God created the entire world, including Gentiles. But, God was only the God of Israel in a relational sense because of God’s covenants of Abraham and Moses. But Paul consistently taught that the first five books of Moses (the Torah) could no longer form a wall or barrier between Jews and Gentiles. The people of God are no longer defined by ethnic birth and by obedience to the Mosaic law. Now the people of God were those who were united in Christ.  And all people, Jews and Gentiles, have equal access to God in the same way, by God’s saving grace alone, through faith in his Son alone.

v. 31 Third result of justification: The Mosaic law is fulfilled

This verse again highlights the tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  If what Paul has just said is the Gospel truth, then what about the Mosaic law? This would have been the most important question for Jewish Christians brought up to obey the law.  Paul’s answer to this question is, the law is still valid even though it does not have any significance in justification, that is, in salvation.  In fact–and this is important (see Special Topic: Salvation in the Old Testament)the law was never intended as a means of justification.  Obedience to it was always the result of gratitude and love towards God, who had saved the Israelites by his grace from the Egyptians and by his grace had brought them into the Promised Land.  Rightly understood, the Law confirms Paul’s teaching on faith.

But the questions remain: what role does Mosaic law have now after Christ for both Jews and Gentiles?  In order to make it more understandable, many interpreters say Paul’s reference to the “law” means all the Old Testament Scriptures.  However, this is unlikely given the context.  It seems best to continue understanding the “law” as the commands in the Mosaic law.  And given the emphasis on faith in this section, the phrase “we uphold the law,” refers to the law being fulfilled in Christ.  So the law is still with us. It is still the basis of judgment. And there is no possibility of standing before God without meeting its righteous demands.  But, looking forward in Romans, Paul states “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4).  And again, Paul says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4).  Christ has fulfilled all the requirements of the law (Matthew 5:17). And so, we, who are in a relationship with Christ through faith, also fulfill the demands of the law in our union with him. So rather than “overthrowing” (abolishing) the law, we completely fulfill its demands in our union with Christ. For there is “now no condemnation for those who are in [union with] Christ Jesus” (8:1).  As well, Paul, like James, constantly emphasizes that faith includes obedience to the “law of faith.”  This means the moral requirements of the Law are still with us, and as believers, we can fulfill the “righteous requirement of the law” when we walk according to the Spirit (8:4).

Even though justification is central to our faith, we should not reduce salvation to justification alone. Salvation is multifaceted. Our Lord’s salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification and, ultimately, glorification. It includes a change of heart that loves and is devoted in our union with Christ. This salvation is both from guilt as well as the power of sin (see notes in chapters 6 and 7). We thank and praise God for our justification but also for giving us his Holy Spirit through whom we can walk in a faithful new life in Christ.  Such a life always results in obedience of faith that produces good works (6:6-7:18; 8:30; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31; Philip­pians 2:8-10; 1 John 5:3-4).

Abraham is the Father of Jews and Gentiles (4:1-25)

Paul has given three ways his interpretation of salvation differs from the Jewish interpretation. First, he stated, no one is righteous by “works of the law” (3:20); then, even more surprisingly, he said, Gentiles would be justified through faith without circumcision, i.e., they do not have to come under the law (3:30); and third, salvation is by faith alone (3:28). These would have been shocking statements for the Jews. So Paul also needed to back this with their own Scriptures (Old Testament).

To do this, Paul uses Abraham as the foundation of what it means to be justified by faith alone.  However, Paul does not simply portray Abraham as a good example.  Sometimes our present-day emphasis on the New Testament reduces Old Testament stories to just such interesting examples.  But, for the Jewish Christians, this would be a problem.  Paul needed to show how God was working in continuity with all they knew from their Scriptures. The gospel of Christ was not separate from the Old Testament but a fulfillment of it.[16]  So, Paul shows us that the gospel of grace by faith was already there in Abraham’s life and that Christ and the gospel of Christ was a fulfillment of everything promised to Abraham (cf. John 8:56-58; Galatians 3:8). Therefore, it may help us if we remind ourselves of how God dealt with Abraham and how he responded to God’s promises.

1.     Genesis 12:1-3: God first calls Abram to leave his father’s house and go to the land that God would show him. God also promises Abram he would become a great nation, his name would become great, and he would bless others.  In fact, all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abram.

2.     Genesis 15:1-21: Then God makes a covenant with Abram, promising he will have a son who will inherit the promises God made to Abram. And through this son, a great nation would be formed.  Abram believed God’s promises, and therefore, God “counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

3.     Genesis 17:1-14: God reaffirms his covenant promises to Abram, changing his name to Abraham – father of many nations. The sign of this covenant is circumcision.

Through God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Paul understands that righteousness comes through faith.  Being right with God always requires faith and trust.  This was true right from the beginning.  In 4:1-2, Paul says Abraham has no basis for boasting, and so neither do Christians (3:27). Moreover, because Abraham was justified by faith and not works which would make God obligated to Abram (4:3-8), Paul concludes this is true for everyone (3:28). From this, it follows that God unites both uncircumcised (Gentiles) and circumcised (Jews) through one faith (3:29-30; 4:9-17).

Abraham is justified by his faith and not by works (4:1-8)

vv. 1-3

Paul has consistently emphasized the continuity between the gospel of the Old Testament and the New.  As in his earlier letter to the Galatians, Paul goes back to the first Israelite, Abraham, to show that the gospel of grace received by faith is the same from the beginning.  This was important teaching for the Gentile Christians to know their salvation has a long history that includes all of the Old Testament.  But it was doubly important for the Jews who venerated Abraham to place him at the highest human level.  And even more importantly, Jews believed Abraham’s righteousness was obtained through works; it was Abraham’s obedience in sacrificing his son Isaac that made him righteous (Genesis 22) – the greatest of Abraham’s many works:

“Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” (1 Maccabees 2:52, nrsv)

In this quote, Abraham’s faithfulness in offering Isaac as a sacrifice resulted in being counted as righteous. The Jews considered this faithfulness to God’s command as meritorious work.

However, Paul goes back even earlier and refers to Genesis 15:5-6. In that passage, God grants (credits, counts) Abraham's righteousness immediately after he believes in the promise made to him. This was before the sacrifice of Isaac. So, Paul points out to the Jews, it was not because of Abraham’s obedience that he was “counted” righteousness, but it was an unmerited gift of God received through his faith. The word “counted” (sometimes translated “credited” or “reckoned”) means to declare in a legal transactional sense. This chapter uses the word eleven times, best illustrated in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Indeed, Abraham’s obedience was proof of that faith (Genesis 22:8). James in the New Testament seems to make a similar point (James 2:20-21).  Therefore, in contrast to what the rabbinic Jews taught, Abraham had no grounds for boasting that his work earned him righteousness (v. 2).  Although many Jews might have accepted that they or their contemporaries had nothing to boast about, they certainly thought Abraham did.

vv. 4-8

Having shown that Abraham’s righteousness was not by his obedience but by being counted righteous through faith, Paul makes a general and foundational distinction between obedience and faith. If righteousness is obtained through obedience, it is earned, and God owes man.  “The one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” So, if obedience to God’s commands is considered work, God would be obligated.  But God can never be obligated to humans (11:35). He is only ever bound to himself. This is an entirely different teaching from “the one who does not work but believes {verb} in him who justifies {verb} the ungodly, his faith {noun} is counted as righteousness {noun}.” Paul could not have drawn a sharper distinction. Faith, simply accepting God’s gracious gift, does not put God under any obligation.  We should also note, it was not “faith” itself or the act of faith that was “counted as righteousness,” but faith was the instrument by which God imputed (counted, credited) righteousness to Abraham.

We should not miss the word “ungodly.”  God does not justify the righteous but the ungodly! While we are sinners in open rebellion against God, he shows his love for us by sending his Son to die for us (5:8). As Jesus himself said:

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17)

But how can God grant such a great gift simply through Abraham’s and our faith? It is because God is gracious, merciful, faithful and loving. However, the underserved gift of righteousness does not prove God’s mercy; rather, because God is merciful, he offers the gift of righteousness.  That God is gracious and merciful is simply assumed by Paul; it does not require proof.[17]

To further convince the Jewish Christians, Paul uses their standard procedure of quoting a verse both from the Torah and from the Writings using the word “count” (or “credit”) in both quotes linking the two passages (Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:2).[18] With two beatitudes, David, in his psalm, confirms it is the gracious gift of the Lord.  David implies that God’s offer of forgiveness can never be an obligation but is always a gift.

Special Topic: Salvation in the Old Testament

We know, of course, how people are saved after Christ came.  We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:12) and Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6).  But what about before Jesus?  A common understanding is that salvation for the Jews was by keeping the Mosaic law, including its sacrifices. But we know from Paul’s letters that this is not true. In Galatians, he writes, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law” (Galatians 3:11). Then Paul quotes the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk saying, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). So even before Jesus, the person considered righteous before God is the one who puts their faith in God. And as we have already seen in chapter 4, it was through Abraham’s faith in God’s promises that he was counted as righteous. Those who were faithful after Abraham looked forward to a time when their Redeemer would come and save them from their sins. Job makes this clear when he states,” I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25-26). 

Of course, there were many Israelites who were unfaithful. In fact, there was only a remnant of Israelites who remained faithful to God. These were the true spiritual Israel. The great chapter of faith in Hebrews lists many of these faithful saints, all of whom were “commended through their faith” (Hebrews 11:39). All the promises of redemption were only given to them. So, there has always been only one way to God through faith in his promises. And this genuine faith resulted in loving him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Abraham is not justified by circumcision, by the law, or by sight (4:9-22)

Paul had already made the point that God credited righteousness to Abraham because of his faith before he had acted in obedience. But what about circumcision, the law, or even seeing before believing? Did this have anything to do with Abraham being credited righteousness?  Paul says, ‘no’ – it is only by Abraham’s faith that the promise of God was realized.  

Faith and not circumcision (vv. 9-12)

Circumcision did come soon after the promises of God. And God did require circumcision from every male descendent (Genesis 17:1-14). Circumcision was a “sign” or a “seal” of God's covenant with Abraham. Still, it was before his circumcision that Abraham received righteousness through his faith. According to Jewish tradition, the time between God’s promise (Genesis 15:6) and circumcision (Genesis 17:23-27) was twenty-nine years.[19]

But as time went by, particularly after the return from exile in Babylon, about 300 years before the time of Christ, the rite of circumcision became more and more important.  The ten northern tribes had already been lost in the Assyrian deportations.  All that remained was the tribe of Judah which had been exiled on mass to Babylon.  The Jews, in order to maintain their unique identity as the people of God, concentrated on the visible signs that separating them from their pagan neighbours.  These primary identity markers were circumcision, the special food laws, and keeping the Sabbath.  These markers became a significant issue when the early church – which was primarily Jewish Christian – began including Gentiles (see all of Galatians and Acts 15). No doubt, this was also a significant issue in the church in Rome.  So, based on Abraham, Paul argues that circumcision–or keeping the Mosaic law concerning food and the Sabbath–had nothing to do with receiving Christ’s righteousness and so was not a requirement for the people of God that now included the Gentiles.

v. 9

As is common in a diatribe, Paul again answers a Jew who is objecting to his argument.  The objector might say: Even if I agree that Abraham received “this blessing” of righteousness from God because of his faith, he still had to be circumcised. For God himself said, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:14). How then can this blessing of righteousness be credited to an uncircumcised Gentile?

v. 10

Paul answers this objection by posing his own question, pointing out the historical reality.  Abraham was not circumcised until many years after (Genesis 17) he had been credited righteous (Genesis 15:6). Circumcision, therefore, could not be the basis for receiving righteousness.

vv. 11-12

Paul then states two truths based on the historical fact that Abraham was credited righteousness because of his faith years before he was given the sign of circumcision.

First, the “purpose” for this delay was to point out that Abraham was “the father of all who believe” independent of circumcision.  As Paul points out, the Jews thought he was the father of circumcision, but Abraham was the father of faith. This is a profoundly fundamental interpretation.  The reason is that Abraham is no longer viewed just as the father of the ethnic Israelites but as the father of all the true people of God in every nation and every age who put their trust in God. The people of God can no longer be equated to Jews alone.  Race does not define the people of God.  And even more, God's promises of salvation to the Israelites are now identified with Abraham’s true spiritual descendants.  The people of God are now the people of faith and are counted righteous.

Second, equally surprising for a Jew, Paul states that Abraham is only the father of those Jews who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour – “who walk in the footsteps of the faith.”  These are the Christian Jews who, like Abraham, are credited with righteousness not because they were “merely circumcised” but through the same kind of faith in God as Abraham had “before he was circumcised.”

The promise of God came by faith and not the law (vv. 13-22)

v. 13

The “promise” of God is the primary theme of this passage from verses 13 to 22. The word promise is used four times as a noun and once as a verb. This promise was made “to Abraham and his offspring” that they would become “heir of the world.”  This promise is not realized “through the law” but through “righteousness of faith.”

First, Paul says the “promise” made to “Abraham and his offspring” is being “heir of the world.” There is no direct reference to this “promise” in Genesis. Still, it is a summary of the four aspects of God’s promise to Abraham: Abraham would have many descendants, comparing their number to the dust of the earth, the stars in the sky, or the sand of the seashore (Genesis 13:6; 15:5; 22:17) and a father of many nations (Genesis 17:4-6, 16-20); he would possess the promised land (Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 15:7; 17:8); and, he would be a blessing to all the peoples of the world (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).  Later the prophet Isaiah would state that the promise of land would include the whole world (Isaiah 2:2-4; 49:6; 55:3-5; cf. Acts 13:47) and, ultimately, the world to come (Hebrews 11:10-16; Revelation 21-22).

So, this universal statement is significant in light of God’s promise to Abraham.  It was through the man Abraham that God called all people to himself.  Abraham and his descendants were to show the whole world who God was, what he required and what he was like.  However, in this task, Israel failed.  Through Christ Jesus–the perfect Israelite–all these aspects of God’s promises were realized.  Those who put their hope and trust in Christ are in union with Christ and in that union inherit with Christ “the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 3:29; 4:4-7), and in this sense, the whole world. So, “offspring” refers first to Israel, but ultimately to Christ, and through Christ all those who are in union with him. And “heir of the world” summarizes the universal result of the coming of the Messiah, who is not just the Saviour of ethnic Israel but all those in the world who put their hope and trust in him. Paul then states this “promise” did not come through the “law” but through “the righteousness of faith.”  The “law” refers to God’s commands in general and not specifically to the Mosaic law since the Mosaic law had not yet been given at the time of Abraham. 

The phrase “righteousness of faith” means the right standing before God, which we have when we put our faith and trust in Christ Jesus. In other words, the righteousness of Christ is received by faith in union with him. Abraham was the first to receive this righteousness through faith in God and his promises. So Paul explicitly contrasts the “faith” and the “law.”  Interestingly, the opposite of “faith” is not disbelief as one might expect, but the “law.”  This is the point Paul is making consistently. Righteousness is not obtained through obedience to the law but through faith in God and his promises.

vv. 14-15

Paul explains why the promise cannot be obtained through “the law.”  If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, no one will receive the promise because no one obeys the law entirely. In that case, God’s promise would be pointless, and the faith of the faithful would be of no value.  The only condition of God’s promise is faith. Faith and works of the law concerning salvation are fundamentally opposed because faith depends on the gift of grace, and works rely on us keeping the law perfectly.

In verse 15a, Paul again points out that “the law” only reveals knowledge of sin (3:20), and our attempts to keep it fail. As a consequence, the law only “brings wrath.”  The second half of verse 15 explains that transgressing the law results in wrath. 

Paul reserves the word “sin” for the more general condition that justifies God’s judgment. And he uses the word “transgression” to mean breaking a specific, definite command. A transgression is a sin, but some sins are not transgressions. So in verse 15b, Paul is not saying that if there was no general law of God (outside the Mosaic law), there is no sin.  Certainly, outside of the Mosaic law, sin still exists since all people are sinners who reject God and do not worship him. Those that sin without the Mosaic law is not aware that they are rebelling against it. But their knowledge of natural revelation makes them liable for punishment. And so all people are under God’s condemnation and wrath (1:18-20).  However, when there are specific written laws, as in the law of Moses, those who transgress these particular laws are under even greater wrath. So, rather than helping the situation, the law of Moses, in this sense, made matters worse.[20]

vv. 16-17

Paul switches from explaining the negative statement of verse 13a – that the inheritance “did not come through the law” – to the positive statement of 13b, the inheritance comes “through the righteousness of faith.” 

The “[the promised inheritance] depends on faith” and “on grace.”  Paul’s teaching always has a very close connection between faith and grace. Faith and works were contrasted in verses 4, 5 and 13; in verse 16, faith and grace are complemented.  The promise could not depend on works since no one can keep the law perfectly. Therefore, the promise must depend “on faith in order to rest on grace.”  So, faith itself is a gift of grace.  This promised inheritance extends to “all his [Abraham’s] offspring.”  And here, Paul also includes Gentiles who have faith, along with Jews who also have faith, as Abraham’s (spiritual) offspring. For Paul writes, “also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham who is father of us all.” All Christians, therefore, view Abraham as their spiritual forefather. Therefore, Paul interprets God’s promise to Abraham, “I have made you the father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5) to include Jews and Gentiles from all over the world.

What is astonishing about this verse is, God’s justification of Abraham, and so us as well, is compared to God’s work in creating the world from nothing (“calls into existence the things that do not exist”) and who created life out of earth (“who gives life to the dead”).  In creation, God spoke, and it was.  In the same way, God now speaks, “Let there be righteousness,” and there is!  Where there was “void and darkness” – nothing but sin, guilt and unrighteousness – there is now Christ’s righteousness imputed to all who put their hope and trust in him.[21]

vv. 18-22 Faith and not sight

Paul’s focus in this section is still on God’s promise to Abraham, but the emphasis is on Abraham’s response despite the obvious physical obstacles.

v. 18

Paul states that Abraham “in hope believed against hope.” This means Abraham kept hoping, even though there was no logical reason or even common sense to hope.  It is worth noting that when Scripture uses the word “hope,” it does not mean simply wishful thinking.  For example, we might say, “I hope it does not rain tomorrow on our picnic.”  In this case, the word ‘hope’ is simply a wish.  In Scripture, hope in God’s promises is a joyful assured expectation.  Unlike predicting the weather, it is guaranteed to happen, so it looks forward to God fulfilling his promise.  In Abraham’s case, he did not hope in man's strength but in the sovereignty of God.  And because Abraham’s hope was based on the faithful sovereign character of God, it was not a baseless irrational wish. 

This hope was realized when Abraham became the “father of many nations” (Genesis 15:5).  “This suggests that, in Paul’s mind, the ‘many nations’ of which Abraham is the father are equivalent to the spiritual “seed” made up of believing Jews and Gentiles.”[22] That is, the “many nations” promised to Abraham are the innumerable descendants, including not only ethnic Israel, but also, all the converts who have come to Christ from the “many nations” through faith like Abraham.[23]

vv. 19-22

In these verses, Paul details how and why Abraham hoped against hope.  When he considered his own body and his wife's body, he did not “weaken in faith.”  At the time of the promise, Abraham was past the time of procreation since he was about a hundred years old (Hebrews 11:12).[24]

Paul uses the word “dead” to refer to Abraham’s inability to procreate and “barren” to describe Sarah’s womb.  However, this is not the usual term for barrenness. The reason is that Paul highlights faith in God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17).  As John Calvin writes in his commentary:[25]

Let us also remember, that the condition of us all is the same with that of Abraham. All things around us are in opposition to the promises of God: He promises immortality; we are surrounded with mortality and corruption: He declares that he counts us just; we are covered with sins: He testifies that he is propitious and kind to us; outward judgments threaten his wrath. What then is to be done? We must with closed eyes pass by ourselves and all things connected with us, that nothing may hinder or prevent us from believing God is true.

Instead of weakening in his faith in God, the opposite happened: he “grew strong in his faith.”  His faith increased even though he faced the physical limitations of his and Sarah’s body.  He was able to overcome the obvious conclusion by putting his hope in the character of God.  Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”  In other words, Abraham saw, with spiritual eyes, the unseen reality clearer and truer than the ‘seen’ physical reality. 

But how and why was he able to have this strength of faith?  The answer is in the following phrase: because “he gave glory to God.” That is, by his faith he honoured God and gave thanks to him, doing the opposite of the idolaters (1:21).  God was glorified when Abraham trusted in his promises.  We can even say that faith is what glorifies God[26] (see Hebrews 11).  Rather than focusing on his and Sarah’s weakness, Abraham focused on God’s power, sovereignty and trustworthiness.

But what does “he gave glory” mean?  It means he consid­ered, meditated, and trusted in the glorious holiness of God; that is, in all the infinite attributes of God.  That is how we honour and glorify God by taking the truth of who God is and making it the complete and total basis of our lives.  There is nothing more per­fect, beautiful and glorious than God himself.  Practically, Abraham glorified God by believing and acting on God’s promise. And like Abraham, we glorify God when we trust in his promises.  The indispensable quality, the very essence of faith, is glorifying God.

That glory is expressed in the earthly wonder of the incarnation of God’s own Son (Isaiah 61:8). As Paul had previously written to the church in Corinth:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

And again, Paul points out the reason for evangelism:

For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:15)

This was true for Abraham and all people of God throughout history.  The greatest people of faith are those men and women who have glorified God.  And it is not unusual that such giants of faith are also most afflicted in trials and temptations.  Such things that drive others to despair, drive people of faith to glorify God.  So faith gives God glory by trusting in who he is at whatever cost that is to us.

Trusting in the promises means trusting in the Giver of the promise.  The degree to which we trust someone is the degree to which we know that person’s character.  So the degree we trust in God is the degree we know God’s character.  Our faith grows when our knowledge of God’s character grows (1 Corinthians 4:4-6).  This is not more knowledge about God, i.e., more facts about him.  True knowledge of God is personal and experienced; in other words, relational.  How then does our knowledge of God grow; through reading and meditating on Scripture as prayer (Psalms 143:8).  We can summarize this as follows:

1.   Faith grows by glorifying God.

2.   Glorifying God grows by trusting him more and acting in obedience to that trust.

3.   Our trust in God grows as we know him better.

4.   Our knowledge of God grows through the Spirit as we read Scripture prayerfully, meditating on his character.

Most of us know what prayer is: acknowledging God’s sovereignty, confessing our sins, thanking him for his loving care and faithfulness and making petitions for others and ourselves. In other words, we are speaking to God.  But what if we think of prayer as conversation? How then is God speaking to us?  God’s primary, foundational and inspired way of speaking to us is through his inspired Word – the Scriptures.  So when we read the Bible we should be reading it as if God is speaking directly to us. It is, therefore, a good practice to always ask God to illuminate his word to us before we begin to read.  John Piper has a prayer which he suggests we pray before reading Scripture. It is based on the mnemonic IOUSL.[27]

1.    Incline my heart to your word (Psalms 119:36; Prov 22:17)

2.    Open my eyes so I might see wondrous things in your word (Psalms 119:18; Exodus 33:18; Matthew 13:13; 1 Peter 1:8-9)

3.    Unite my heart to fear your name (Psalm 86:11)

4.    Satisfy my soul with your goodness (Jeremiah 31:14; Psalms 17:15; 63:3-6)

5.    Lead me in your way (Psalms 5:8; 23:3; 31:3; 43:3; 61:2; 119:35; 139:24; 143:10)

This is a wonderful way to begin each reading of Scripture.  In Psalm 63:6, David also speaks of meditation. “I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.” J. I. Packer gives a very good definition for Christian meditation[28]: (See also Genesis 24:63; Joshua 1:8; Psalms 1:2; 38:12; 63:6; 77:3, 6, 12; 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78, 148; 143:5)

Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God”

Note again the phrase “grew strong.”  This did not happen overnight for Abraham and it does not happen instantly for us.  It is a process by which our faith grows and is strengthened.  This is the human side of faith.  God grants us saving faith as a gift but we also have a responsibility to grow that faith with the help of the Spirit through meditation on him from Scripture. Jesus states that if our faith is as small as a mustard seed, it is sufficient (Matthew 17:20). And to the pagan woman in Tyre, he states, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28).  It does not take much faith, but the object of our faith must always be God. And the secret to growing our faith is to glorify God.

The faith of Abraham and the faith of the believer (4:23-25)

Paul brings the entire chapter to a conclusion by explicitly applying Abraham’s experience with God to all people who believe in Jesus.  In just three verses, Paul sums up the entire gospel and the doctrine of justification by faith. What was “counted to him [Abraham]” (Genesis 15:6) is also “counted to us.” The principle applies to all people. The plan of salvation for the Gentiles was from the very beginning. Abraham had to believe that God could not only create life from the dead womb of Sarah but also raise his dead son, Isaac after he sacrificed him.  Because of this faith and trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness, Abraham was justified. Similarly, we too must believe that God “raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.” Abraham was the first to have the doctrine of justification applied to him.  And like Abraham, we put our trust in the character of God. He alone is faithful and able to accomplish all that he has promised. As Peter writes,

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

What exactly is this faith?  Paul also answers this question.  It is, first of all, faith in God (“who believe in him”), who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God who is perfectly holy, faithful, just and who raises his Son from death. So, second, faith is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is foundational to our faith. Jesus’ resurrection is not a resuscitation as it was for Lazarus but a resurrection of the One who passed through death into eternal life.  Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

And third, our faith is in God the Father, who delivered up his Son “for our trespasses;” he atoned for our sins on the cross.  Finally, we have faith that Jesus was “raised for our justi­fication.” But what does this last phrase mean?  In 5:9, Paul says we are justified by his blood.  This is the usual way we think of our justification. But here, Paul says we are justified by his resur­rection.  The answer is not hard to see.  Jesus’ death could not have atoned for our sins without the resurrection.  The two cannot be separated.  His resurrection proclaims the vindication of Jesus. If he had not been raised, then Jesus would not have borne the guilt of every sin, and nothing he said prior to his death could be believed.  Christ’s resurrection proclaims that God is fully satisfied with the redeeming work of his Son. And so now Christ reigns as our King and High Priest.  As the writer to the Hebrews says, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).

Questions for Reflection

Study it

1.     [3:21] What is the significance of “but now”? What does the phrase “righteousness of God” mean in this verse? Why does Paul add, “although the Law and the Prophets testify to it”?

2.     [3:22] What is emphasized in the phrase “righteousness of God” in this verse?

3.     [3:23] What does it mean that everyone “falls short of the glory of God”?

4.     [3:25-26] What does the word “propitiation” mean? In what sense did God “pass over former sins”? And how does “the present time” “show his righteousness”?

5.     [3:27] What does the phrase “law of faith” mean?

6.     [3:27-31] Identify the three things resulting from justification.

7.     [4:1-3] What “works” does Paul refer to in v. 2.  How is Paul’s view of Abraham and the Jewish view of Abraham different concerning righteousness? What were Abraham’s “works” and their relationship to his faith?

8.     [4:4-5] How does Paul distinguish between obedience (“work”) and faith? In what sense is faith itself not work? What state is the person in when they are justified?

9.     [4:6-8] Why does Paul refer both to Abraham and David?  What is the difference between a gift and an obligation? 

10.  [4:9-12] What “blessing” is referred to in v. 9? How much time elapsed between the promise to Abraham and when he was circumcised? How is this significant for accepting uncircumcised Gentiles? To whom is Abraham a father in these verses, and why is he?

11.  [4:13] What is the “promise”?  In what sense is this fulfilled through Christ?

12.  [4:14-15] Why can’t the promise be given through the law?  What is the difference between "sin" and “transgression”?

13.  [4:16-17] What depends on faith, and why does it?

14.  [4:18] What does the phrase “hope he believed against hope” mean? How does Paul understand the phrase “father of many nations”?

15.  [4:19-22] In what sense did Abraham not weaken in his faith? How does Paul use the term “dead”? How did Abraham glorify God?

16.  [4:23-25] What does Paul’s teaching concerning Abraham’s life and David’s understanding have to do with the Roman Christians? What does the phrase “raised for our justification” mean?

17.  [4:1-22] List the ways Abraham is both the foundation and an example of our faith.

Live it

1.     Do you view or understand sin as falling short of the glory of God? How should sin be understood by that phrase?

2.     What was the reason you chose Christ to be your Lord and Saviour? Is your choosing Christ ground for boasting?  Why or why not?

3.     Do you think obedience to God’s commands is important for your salvation?  In what sense are they, and in what sense are they not?

4.     When you stand before the final judgment seat of God, on what basis will you make your defence?

5.     Do you think of Abraham as your spiritual father?

6.     How do you view the Old Testament?  Is it a series of unrelated exciting stories, or do you see it as a continuum of God working out his salvation through history?

7.     How are we like Abraham concerning our inability?

8.     From this passage, how can you honour and glorify God? 

9.     According to v. 20, what is the ‘secret’ of strong faith?

10.  Do you think of your sins being the reason for Christ’s death?  Do you think of Christ’s resurrection as the purpose of your justification?


[1] Martin Luther, in his commentary of Romans, called this passage, “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible” because of its focus on justification by faith. John Piper calls this paragraph the most important paragraph in the Bible (Piper, PDI Celebration East Conference, May 31st, 1999). D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones commenting on the opening words of the passage says, “there are no more wonderful words in the whole of Scripture than just these two words ‘But now’” (Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Chapter 3:20-4:25, 25).

[2] Although ‘the covenant of grace’ really extends from the time of Adam and Eve until Christ’s return, there is a unique fulfillment of the covenant of grace as the new covenant with the incarnation of the Son of God.

[3] This profound break is not just in God’s plan of salvation history for the universal church but applies equally to the personal history of each believer (Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 221).

[4] Thielman, 217.

[5] Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Chapters 3:20-4:25, 37.

[6] It should be noted, many recent interpreters translate this phrase as “the faithfulness of Christ” (see net Bible). Syntactically, this is valid. And there are good arguments of either interpretation.  However, in these notes we take the traditional interpretation because of Paul’s overall emphasis of contrasting “works of the law” with “faith” of the believer.

[7] Hodge, 84.

[8] Llyod-Jone, Exposition of Chapter 3:20-4:25, 51-52.

[9] In the Greek Old Testament, which Paul used, “propitiation” is used twenty-one times to refer to the mercy seat.

[10] Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 235.

[11] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 267-268.

[12] Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 242.

[13] Schreiner, Romans, 176.

[14] Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 247-48.

[15] Moo, 251.

[16] Some have used the metaphor of a house. If God is the foundation, his work in the old covenant can be considered the framing of the house, while his work in the new covenant is the completion of the interior (Schreiner, Paul, 20).

[17] Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans, 75.

[18] The Greek Old Testament that Paul is using to quote the Psalms contains the same word in both passages (4:3-6 and 4:8).

[19] Mounce, 125.

[20] Moo, Epistle To The Romans, 277.

[21] Horton, 621.

[22] Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 283.

[23] Osborne, 127.

[24] Some commentators point out that there is an inconsistency because in Genesis 25:1-2, Abraham has six more sons with Keturah.  Their solution is that only Sarah’s barrenness could have been the problem.  But the text here and in Hebrews does not permit such an interpretation.  The best solution, which remains faithful to the text, is that God’s healing of Abraham’s body continued with him even after Isaac was born.

[25] Calvin, 180.

[26] Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Chapters 3:20-4:25, 221,

[27] John Piper, Reading The Bible Supernaturally, Seeing and Savouring the Glory of God in Scripture, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Publishing, (2017), pp. 251-274.

[28] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, Downer Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, (1973), p. 23.