Our text brings forward the thought of Saint Paul from Romans 3:21-31. There is a broad and narrowing reading of these verses. They belong together and do not exclude one another. One view says Paul is only getting on about personal salvation, with no reference to God’s promises to Israel, that is, to the Sinaitic covenant. It is all about personal justification, nothing more. Another school, more recent, says it is only about God’s promises to national Israel; to Abraham and the covenant people of the Old Testament. Actually, it is both. Paul is asserting the Lord’s justifying declaration that the believer is now part of the covenant family of God, the family in and though whom God promised to deal with evil. In other words, it is about Israel, but Israel which is comprised of people: Ethnic Jews and Gentiles but also individuals from both. This is why Paul moves directly into a conversation about Abraham, an individual who also represents entire people groups, indeed, who represents Jew and Gentile alike.

Abraham was the starting point of God creating a covenant “family.” His is the family to which all believers now belong (by or through faith). Therefore, “Justification” is God’s declaration that one has been adopted into His family, the family originated with Abraham, and He adopts them on the merits of another. Paul explains just how this may be so.

Paul describes the nature and constitution of the covenanted family of God now that Christ has come. If we are adopted into the family of God, then are we to be ethnic Jews? Are all to be circumcised? Is Abraham our ancestor according to the flesh? Or are we related to him in some other way? This introduces the themes of the chapter, which sets (1) Abraham as an example of justification and (2) explains God’s intention to establish the covenant with Abraham in the first place and the nature of Abraham's family. The climax of the chapter comes in verse 17: Abraham’s family is not composed of a single ethnic people (Jews), but of many nations, which means the gentiles, too.

Genesis 15 stands in the background. Genesis 15:6 appears in verse 3, with Paul referring to it throughout Romans 4. Genesis 15 is the chapter in which God establishes the covenant with Abraham, promising descendants, a family, greater than the number of stars. Abraham believed God as the promise-making, promise-keeping Lord. The Lord credited or accounted this belief-trust-faith as righteousness. Abraham was in the right. By God’s grace and through the gift of faith, Abram (Abraham) was justified. Then followed the ceremony of “cutting” the covenant in blood. Stunningly, only God passes through the bloody pieces and declares the covenant valid. This means the Lord will uphold the terms of both parties within the covenant. The Lord will provide right belief, repentance, and faith, to say nothing of obedience. For Paul, as for Judaism, being in the right with God equates with covenant membership; a covenant of blood established by God who acts on our behalf. In fact, Genesis 15:6 is tantamount to saying, Abraham believed God, and this was the basis of the covenant which was then established, with the onus falling on God’s faithfulness to the covenant He cut and He swore to uphold for His names sake and the sake of Abram and his posterity — the family of God.

Paul, therefore, argues against any notion of Christianity being an ethnic religion, a branch of ethnic Judaism, defined by works of the Law. No, Abraham was not made the father of faith through works or ethnicity. There was not any such thing as a Jew yet when God established His covenant with him. Abram simply believed God and His sole ability to declare the ungodly to be righteous. Some Jews suggested Abram kept a kind of proto-law and so was justified. Paul says that is not the account Genesis gives. Had this been the case, then Abraham's covenant heritage would have been defined for all time by the performance of those works and God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant through the Messiah would be redundant.

Paul resists any such conclusion in verses 4 and 5. Using the imagery of labor, Paul explains wages as a right. That is not grace. That is not what faith is about. Faith is about trust, trusting a promise from a promise-maker. The metaphor only goes so far because of grace. It is not the full-of-faith person who believes the promises of God, but rather the ungodly whom He justifies. Faith is a gift. Justification is a gift. Covenant inclusion is a gift. Adoption is a gift. Paul is instructing the Romans about salvation by grace alone. Now we understand why he reaches back to Abraham.

It is not the full-of-faith person who believes the promises of God, but rather the ungodly whom He justifies. Faith is a gift. Justification is a gift.

God called Abram into covenant, a covenant designed to resolve the problem of ungodliness, rebellion, corruption, and death (1:18-32). Abraham, in other words, started where we all start. In particular, Abram started where pagan, non-Jews, start—unbelief and ungodliness. That was where God met him with grace. Then, once adopted and altered, Abraham was to live by faith in the Living God; a faith which lives and works and serves. The family of God has an ethic, has expectations. But Paul’s main point is that the gentiles come in, by faith, to covenant membership exactly as Abram (Abraham) did; grace and faith.

Paul then summons David in Psalm 32 to substantiate how God justifies the ungodly by grace through faith. The covenant with Abraham was designed to reconcile sinners to God. To belong to the covenant, in the sense Paul is expounding it, is to be someone whose sins have been dealt with in the manner described in 3:24-26. To have ones sins forgiven, not reckoned against one’s name, is precisely what God intended when He called Abraham in the first place. It is salvation by grace through faith because of the blood-covenant provision of God who, Himself, fulfills our obligations with respect to the Law. Jew and gentile are saved the same way: Abram, the non-Jew, paving the way for the entire ungodly gentile world.

The promise to Abraham and his “family” of Jews and gentiles is then found in verses 13-17. Paul says he would inherit the entire world, not merely a little plot of land between Egypt and Syria. This is what God is after in the Messiah: All people and the entire Earth.

For the whole New Testament, the idea of the Holy Land, in terms of one strip of territory over and against all others, is instantly overturned. The whole world belongs to its rightful King, it always has. This is why it has been groaning for the redemption that comes as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant achieved by Messiah’s death and resurrection. Consequently, neither Jewish heritage nor geography matters in the New World ruled over by the crucified and risen Messiah.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Romans 4:1-8, 13-17.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 4:1-8, 13-17.