In the previous section of Romans, Paul had reminded his readers that the Old Testament witnessed to the message that he was declaring everywhere he went, which was that salvation from God’s wrath was experienced through a sinner having faith in the promised Messiah, who had now come, that is, Jesus, and had suffered the penalty for sin. The obvious response from a Jew would be, Where are we told such things in the Old Testament?
We can see that Paul is still speaking to Jews because he refers to Abraham as ‘our forefather according to the flesh’, which would not be true of Gentiles who were not Christians. And Abraham is the example from the Old Testament that Paul chooses to use as one who reveals the way of salvation that he has been spreading. He has several things to say about Abraham in this chapter and we can think about them in the next few days.
First, Paul says that Abraham was not justified by his works. Many of us will be familiar with the statement in the letter of James that seems to contradict Paul’s words when James says that Abraham was justified by his works. Various explanations have been given for James’ statement. Personally I think James is contrasting true faith and false faith. True faith produces works, which indicates the person is a genuine believer, and in that sense he is justified by his works. Paul would not deny that, but he would deny that works without a living faith could justify a person. Abraham had a lot of good works, yet none of them contributed to his possession of righteousness.
Second, Paul says in verse 3 that Abraham believed God. This does not mean that he believed in God, which he did of course, but that he believed what God had promised to him. The verse that Paul quotes comes from Genesis 15 where God promises various things to Abraham, including that he would be Abraham’s shield and reward and that Abraham would have many descendants through his own son, who was yet unborn. These promises were all connected to God’s previous promise to Abraham about him being the means through which God would bring salvation to the world. Abraham’s focused on what God would do in order to keep his promises about this great salvation. So Abraham believed God when he said that a Saviour would come. He did not know every detail of what Jesus would do, but Jesus does remind us that by faith Abraham saw the day of Jesus and the fact that it was coming made him very glad (John 8:56). Abraham did not boast about his own achievements or works, but instead believed the promises of God.
Third, Paul gives more details about the righteousness that God gives as a gift by referring to the words of David in Psalm 32. Those who receive the gift have been forgiven all the wrong things that they have done, with those sinful actions having been atoned for (covered) by a sacrifice. It is amazing to think of how sinners can be forgiven and accepted by God.
Fourth, who could receive the blessings connected to God’s righteousness? The example of Abraham informs us that one’s religious connections and rituals have no role in obtaining it. Paul reminds his readers that Abraham received this righteousness before he was circumcised, which means that the ritual on which the Jews depended did not give them this righteousness. Instead circumcision was a sign that he had already received the gift of righteousness. It was also a permanent, personal seal for Abraham that he had trusted in the God who promised salvation. The detail that Paul stresses is that circumcision was not essential for receiving the gift of righteousness from God. Therefore, if it was not essential for him, then it is not essential for those Gentiles who have the same kind of faith as Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Fifth, it is important to note that Paul is using legal language when he says that righteousness was counted or reckoned to Abraham. God as judge had a ledger in which all the sins of Abraham were listed and for which he deserved to be punished. In his mercy God arranged for a way in which Abraham’s ledger could be changed from that of a condemned sinner to a person with a righteous standing. That way involved the Messiah becoming the substitute for Abraham, paying the penalty for his sins and providing him with an unchanging status in God’s sight. Abraham rejoiced to know that his substitute was coming, and we know that the substitute was Jesus. And what was done for Abraham by God as the judge is also done for all who believe in Jesus.