I’m not sure about you, but in Romans, I see Paul as kind of like a lawyer representing the facts of the gospel, salvation and our need for God’s intervention. He does this with great articulation, skill and passion. What we see here in Romans chapter 4 has sort of been a running theme since Jesus ascended into Heaven and the gospel starts to spread. There’s this sort of buzz around the churches and confusion around circumcision and if new believers, aka the Gentiles, must be circumcised in order to be saved. Since Romans is a letter written to the church in Rome, that is made up of mainly Jews who came to faith at Pentecost that have sort of spread the gospel on their own, Paul needs to speak to this issue. The church in Rome, as we have previously learned, has never had leadership, direction, or even a visit from one of the apostles. So this chapter does cover an important topic, using Abraham as an example, because this makes it easier for the Jewish Christians to understand.
Paul sets up his whole argument and starts off by acknowledging that “Abraham, humanly speaking, is the founder of our Jewish nation.” He then goes into asking what did Abraham discover about being made right with God? He quotes Genesis 15:6 that says, “And Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.” Paul goes on in verses 4-5 to say, “When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.”
He then asks the question, is this blessing just for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Then he brings his point home by saying, well we have been saying the Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith, but how did this happen? Was it only after he was circumcised? No! Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised. He goes on to say in verse 11, “Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already has faith and that God already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised.” You see, circumcision was a sign and personal seal for the Jews that they were God’s special people. The circumcision of all Jewish boys set the Jewish people apart from the nations who worshipped other gods, making it a very important ceremony. God had given the blessing and the command to Abraham for the ceremony in Genesis chapter 17:9-14. Paul is saying here that that ritual of circumcision did not earn Abraham his acceptance by God, Abraham found favor by faith alone before he was even circumcised. Abraham was about 75 years old when he was called by God in Genesis chapter 12, verses 1-3 and he was 99 years old in chapter 17 when the circumcision ceremony was introduced.
Ceremonies and rituals can serve as reminders of our faith and they instruct new and younger believers, but they don’t give us any special standing with God. They are simply outward signs that demonstrate our inner trust and belief in Jesus. Just like water baptism. We are not saved by faith PLUS something. We are not saved by simply loving God and doing good things. We are saved ONLY by faith in Jesus and his ability to forgive us of our sins.
Paul calls Abraham the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised, because they are counted as righteous because of their faith. He also calls Abraham the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised BUT ONLY if they have the same kind of faith he had before he was circumcised. This is a pretty big statement to make the the Jewish people. They have lived their entire lives under the laws of the old covenant. I love what he says in verses 14-16, “If God’s promise was only to those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment for these who try to obey it. The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break! So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe.”
He goes on to describe that this is what was meant by the covenant that God gave to Abraham when he said “I have made you the father of many nations.” This was said to Abraham when he was about 99 years old and at a time when he had no children. Despite the facts, Abraham continued to trust in the Lord. Even though we all know that Abraham was not perfect and had moments of sin and mistakes, he continued to trust that God would fulfill his promise.
Paul ends the chapter with an encouragement to the Roman church that because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for his benefit. It was recorded for our benefit too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in Him, the One who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and He was raised to life to make us right with God.