I. Epistolary Introduction - 1:1-17
II. The Way of Salvation - 1:18-5:21
A. Human Depravity: the doctrine of universal sin - 1:18-3:20
B. Divine Deliverance: the doctrine of particular justification - 3:21-5:21
1. Justification: its provision - 3:21-31
2. Justification: its proof - 4:1-25
a. the inadequacy of works in general - vv. 1-8
1) the example of Abraham - vv. 1-5
[Paul takes up the strongest argument of his opponents: if you can’t explain Abraham, you can’t explain anything.]
a) the proposition - vv. 1-2
The central role of Abraham in any discussion of how one may find acceptance with God . . .
According to Jub. 23.10, "Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life." In the Prayer of Manasses (8) Abraham is said not to have need of repentance, for he never sinned.
Therefore, the case of Abraham was paramount: "If he was not justified by works, then no man could be. If he was justified by faith, there can be no other justification for any man."
The point of the proposition in v. 2 is this:
A man who is justified by works can boast. If Abraham had done the requisite works, his boasting would be entirely appropriate. But Abraham cannot boast before God. Therefore, Abraham was not justified by what he did, but rather, as v. 3 will make clear, by believing God.
b) the proof - v. 3
c) the principle - vv. 4-5
1 - works - v. 4
2 - faith - v. 5
When a man works at a job he works for wages. When his job is completed he must be paid. It is his legal right to demand payment. The employer is legally and morally indebted to that worker and is obligated to pay him commensurate with his efforts. The employer is not doing him a favor by paying him his wage. It is not an act of kindness or grace or compassion. It is the payment of a debt.
Therefore, if a man could work for his salvation he could justifiably demand of God that he be paid. God would then be compelled to bestow salvation, not as a favor, not as grace, not as mercy or compassion or love, but as a matter of legal indebtedness.
But God owes us nothing. He doesn't owe us Christ's death or the Holy Spirit or any favor of any sort. If you should insist on relating to God as a worker relates to his employer, you will most certainly be paid your wages: death (Rom. 6:23).
What kind of person does God justify? God justifies only one kind of person: the ungodly person who, instead of arguing that God owes him anything other than hell, simply believes. God never has nor ever will justify a single godly person.
2) the example of David - vv. 6-8
The blessed man, says David, is not the man who has good works laid to his account, but the man whose bad works are not laid to his account.
b. the inadequacy of a ritual in particular - vv. 9-12
1) what the ritual (of circumcision) didn't do for Abraham - vv. 9-10
The standard Jewish response to the question in v. 9a was: "Only the circumcised!" Paul's response is to remind his readers of a very important point of biblical chronology. Abraham believed God and was declared righteous before he was circumcised. According to Gen. 15:6, the text Paul quotes in v. 3, Abraham was 85 years old when he believed God and was justified. But Abraham did not undergo circumcision until Gen. 17, some 14 years later (when he was 99). Thus, long before Abraham submitted to any religious ritual or ordinance, he was saved and accepted in God's sight
2) what the ritual (of circumcision) did do for Abraham - vv. 11-12
a) in relation to Gentiles - v. 11
b) in relation to Jews - v. 12
In dismissing circumcision as a contributing factor in Abraham's acceptance with God, Paul does not mean to say the ritual had no significance whatsoever. In fact, it served as a sign and seal of the righteousness he received solely by faith. That is to say, it pointed to, illustrated, confirmed and guaranteed in an external and physical way what God had done in an internal and spiritual way.
The conclusion is inescapable: we are justified by believing, not by achieving. Thus we say:
"Nothing, either great or small,
Nothing sinner, no.
Jesus died and paid it all,
Long, long ago.
Cast your deadly doing down,
Down at Jesus' feet;
Stand in Him, in Him alone,
'It is finished' yes indeed,
Finished every jot,
Sinner, this is all you need,
Tell me, is it not?"
c. the promise of God - vv. 13-17
1) the principle - v. 13
The covenant promise to Abraham entailed 3 things:
1) title to the land of Canaan (Gen. 13:14-15);
2) an innumerable posterity (Gen. 13:16; 15:5-6);
3) he would be a channel or source of blessing for all nations (Gen. 12:3; 17:6-8; 22:17-18).
What was Abraham's responsibility? There were no stipulations to be met, no works to be performed, no law to be fulfilled. There was only God whose word of promise was to be believed, to be received by faith plus nothing.
2) the proof - vv. 14-17
a) otherwise faith is voided - v. 14a
b) otherwise the promise is nullified - vv. 14b-15
Let's look at the first two together. His point is simply that faith and promise have no meaning or place in a relationship that is governed by works and reward. If what you do for me is based on what I do for you, our relationship is a legal one, not a gracious one. Whether or not I have faith in what you have promised is irrelevant. If I fulfill the terms of the legal contract, you must pay me. Paul's point is that if Abraham's relationship to God was of that sort, then the words "faith" and "promise" are meaningless. They have no role in a relationship governed by legal obligation and indebtedness.
c) otherwise grace is excluded - v. 16a
d) otherwise assurance is undermined - vv. 16b-17
If the promise is based on what we do, we start asking questions like: "How many works are necessary? What kind of works are necessary? How long must I perform them? How thoroughly must I perform them? How can I know if they are the works of which God approves?" PT: certainty and assurance and confidence are destroyed in a works system. Assurance can only come if it is all by grace.
1 - the breadth of the promise - vv. 16b-17a
2 - the basis of the promise - v. 17b
Why is it so important to have Abraham as our father? Because it was to Abraham that the blessings of the covenant were given. If you hope to share in the inheritance, you must be related to Abraham. But where does this leave Gentiles who are not his physical descendants? The answer Paul gives here and elsewhere is crucial: physical descent from Abraham is no longer essential to inherit the promises. It isn't Abraham's blood in your veins that makes you his seed and heirs according to the covenant, but rather Abraham's faith in your heart. See esp. Gal. 3:16-17,29ff.
The concluding statement in v. 17 (God, who “calls into being that which does not exist”) has been interpreted in two ways. Some insist that this refers to God’s creative activity by which he called the world into existence out of nothing. Others argue that this phrase “relates to God’s promise to summon nations and descendants from Abraham where none existed. The promise that Abraham believed (Rom. 4:18-21) was that God would grant him descendants, and thus the point of this second clause in verse 17 is that Abraham trusted that God could effectively call these descendants into existence, even though they did not yet exist. Paul is interested not so much in the past creative work of God as in faith in God’s future work to produce a worldwide family for Abraham” (Schreiner, 237).
d. the faith of Abraham - vv. 18-25
1) the personal experience of Abraham's faith - vv. 18-21
a) in defiance of circumstances - v. 18
Abraham never denied his circumstances, but he did defy them. Faith is not convincing yourself that things don't exist when they do or that things do exist when they don't. The Bible never calls on us to ignore reality. Rather, it calls on us to put our faith in the Lord of reality. In other words, faith doesn't declare the circumstances and natural barriers to be non-existent. Faith simply declares that God is not shackled by them as we are.
b) in reliance upon God - vv. 19-21
Our struggle is not unlike Abraham's. Thus, our faith in God, though the circumstances may differ, is analogous. Calvin explains:
"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 that God is true."
The phrase translated in v. 20, "he did not waver in unbelief," or he "did not weaken in faith" has also been translated as "he did not doubt." Moo points out that "to doubt is a fair translation as long as it is realized that the doubt meant is not a passing hesitation but a more deep-seated and permanent attitude of distrust and inconsistency in relationship to God and His promises" (290). After all, it says in Gen. 17:17 that when told by God he would have a child with Sarah he "fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, 'Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?'" Thus Paul is not denying the presence of at least some degree of doubt in Abraham's heart, but is focusing on the overall, settled disposition of his trust in what God has said. After all, though Abraham was a great man, he was still a sinful man.
Note that there are two clauses in vv. 20-21 that modify the statement that Abraham “grew strong in faith.” That is to say, Paul describes two ways by which Abraham’s faith was strengthened. First, he grew strong in faith “by giving glory to God.” Worshiping God, that is to say, ascribing honor and praise to him as the one who alone has the ability to fulfill his seemingly impossible promises, actually generates stronger faith in our hearts. By faith we acknowledge God as all-powerful and true to his word, which in turn nurtures an even greater measure of faith in his ability to perform what he has promised. Second, he grew strong in faith “by being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able to perform.” The full assurance in Abraham’s faith came from his contemplating the power of God. Meditating on God’s omnipotence intensifies our confidence in him and deepens our assurance in the certainty of his word.
2) the practical effect of Abraham's faith - v. 22
3) the prophetic example of Abraham's faith - vv. 23-25
A brief comment on v. 25 is in order. Paul says that Jesus was delivered up “because of” (dia) our transgressions. This is clear enough: our sins were the reason for his death. But Paul also says that Jesus was raised “because of” (dia) of our justification. Some object to the suggestion that Christ’s resurrection from the dead was somehow dependent on our justification. They render the second use of the Greek preposition (dia) “with a view to”, which is to say, Jesus was raised from the dead so that we might be justified. Others insist that the parallel required by the two-fold use of the same preposition demands that we understand Paul to be saying that in some sense our justification was the cause or ground of Christ’s resurrection. Schreiner explains:
“To say that Jesus was raised because of our justification is to say that his resurrection authenticates and confirms that our justification has been secured. The resurrection of Christ constitutes evidence that his work on our behalf has been completed. The death and resurrection of Christ fulfill the promise of universal blessing made to Abraham, for they are the means by which all peoples enter into the new people of God” (244).