After having dispelled the constraints of the old law to a degree in the previous chapter, Paul now moves to explaining some of the context and consequences of the evolution of God’s plan for men in the form of some great patriarchs from the past: Abraham and David.
Righteousness does not come from the works of the law, it comes from having faith. Paul is saying this as a way to both encourage new Gentile believers and to decrease judgment from their Jewish counterparts. If the Gentiles feel, or are made to feel that they are inadequate because of their past as non-Jews, they need not worry or feel this way. Paul explains that righteousness comes from their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. To support this point, Paul quotes from the book of Genesis: “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” For us today, the meaning is the same. Under the new law and the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is not our good deeds that save us. Rather, it is our faith in Him that saves us, as His sacrifice alone is what can atone for our sins in the sight of God’s wrath at our selfish choices. Our good deeds, our kind works, our efforts at doing god can neither produce righteousness nor can they save our eternal souls. It is our belief and confidence in Jesus Christ that saves us, a relationship that is established in the watery grave of baptism. We do not produce our own righteousness in this sense; rather, we take part in the righteousness of Jesus.
Perhaps to the surprise of these New Testament Christians, there is precedent in the Word of God for men to be justified by their faith apart from works. To amplify this concept, Paul again quotes from the Old Testament, this time quoting the much-revered King David from Psalm 32:1-2: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Paul’s mastery of language, relationships, and intellect is apparent as he calls on two “witnesses,” Abraham and David, to testify that justification is accomplished through faith. Many of the Jews in Rome would perhaps have been looking askance at the Gentiles, whom they could have perceived as “johnny-come-latelys” to the throne of God without having put in the work required by Old Testament law. Paul is working hard to explain to the Jews how all are justified under faith, using language and constructs that would have been familiar and convincing to them. As an aside, Paul’s clever use of Jewish law and customs to explain faith’s role in man’s relationship to God should not represent a direct credit to Paul, but rather a direct credit to God, who (as He often does) selected the best tool in the toolbox to accomplish His will on the earth.
Paul goes further to explain faith’s role in verses 9-12 with the relationship it has to circumcision. For many years, circumcision was the physical sign of a man of God. And while the Jewish people took this commandment of God very seriously (to their credit, for their staunch obedience to God is admirable), Paul explains that it is not the act of circumcision nor is it the state of being circumcised that increased their righteousness. Rather, it was their faith that brought righteousness. Abraham then, is not only the father of all of the Jewish people that were circumcised to obey God’s command, but he is also the father of all of those who are faithful but not uncircumcised. Faith is the most important part of the equation. Circumcision seems to have been a test of that faith, to prove to God that their faith was worthy His blessings. But under the new law of grace, righteousness is awarded through faith.
The final section of chapter 4 in verses 13-25 examines the superiority of faith over works, couched in the idea that all men have access to God. If not heirs of Abraham through works, then we are heirs of his through faith. And Abraham’s examples of faithfulness are many, Paul exemplifying the instance when Abraham believed that he and Sara could become parents at such advanced ages when they beget Isaac. Paul then neatly ties a bow on this discussion by bringing the focus back to the present: “Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”
For us, this discussion means gratitude to God for Jesus, a confident understanding of faith’s place in our religion, and the knowledge that every man and woman is welcome to come to God. We are not the authors of our salvation, nor do we accomplish our salvation. Instead, we humbly submit and believe in Him. Through the actions of Jesus Christ, God greatly simplified the entire process for us, and that feat deserves no end to our gratitude and thanksgiving.