In Romans 4:1-25, Paul proved four aspects about justification by faith from the life of Abraham in the Old Testament: (1) how the Old Testament proved that justification is by faith and not works (Romans 4:1-8); (2) how the Old Testament proved that justification is by faith and not by circumcision (Romans 4:9-12); (3) how the Old Testament proved that justification is by faith and not the Law (Romans 4:13-17); and (4) how the Old Testament proved that justification is by faith in God (Romans 4:17-25).
We have already considered the first two aspects about justification that Paul proved from the life of Abraham. First, justification is by faith and not of works. Abraham was a pagan idolater who had done nothing and could do nothing to earn his justification. Second, justification is by faith and not circumcision. Abraham was justified at least fourteen years before he was circumcised. The conclusion is more than obvious: Abraham’s circumcision had absolutely nothing to do with causing his justification.
Now we come to the third aspect about justification that Paul proved from the life of Abraham – justification is by faith and not the Law (Romans 4:13-17).
Here in these verses, promise, grace, and faith are contrasted to Law so that we can see clearly that there are two opposing ideas about justification. One is justification as a gift by grace through faith in God’s promise. The other is justification as a wage by works through the Law.
Now which was it with Abraham? Was Abraham’s justification a gift by grace through faith in God’s promise? Or was Abraham’s justification earned as a wage by works through keeping the Law?
Abraham was not justified by keeping the Law (Romans 4:13-15).
God’s promise didn’t come through keeping the Law (Romans 4:13) – the Law was 430 years later. God’s promise came through faith. In other words God’s promise of justification through faith in His testimony concerning His Son isn’t given to those who insist on earning it through works, or circumcision, or keeping the Law – it is only given to those who will freely receive it.
God’s promise couldn’t come through keeping the Law (Romans 4:14-15). Through the Law faith would be made void – “For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified” – justification would then be earnable; men could please God in their flesh; faith would be unnecessary; and Christ would have died needlessly.
Also through the Law the promise would be nullified – “For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified.” God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants was an unconditional promise. The covenant or promise that God entered into with Abraham was based solely on what God would do and on nothing that Abraham would do. Abraham didn’t work for the promise; he wasn’t circumcised in order to receive the promise; and he didn’t keep God’s Law in order to receive the promise. If Abraham had the ability to bring about his justification then there was no need for God to make the promise that he would bring it about and therefore the promise would be nullified.
Through the Law justification is impossible (Romans 4:15). The Law brings about wrath not justification because men are sinners and the penalty for violating God’s Law is God’s wrath and the death of the sinner. The Law wasn’t given to save men but to show men that they need to be saved. The Law which brings about wrath shows men their great need for grace and mercy so that they will flee to God’s promise of justification through His Son and come to Jesus who said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4:16-17)
Abraham was justified by God as a gift (Romans 4:16). The promise cannot and will not be received by works through the Law – it is only by faith in accordance with grace – and this way the promise is guaranteed. Think about it – if the promise of eternal life was through works of the Law it could not be guaranteed because the Law can be broken and because we are all sinners no one could ever reach it or attain to it. But the promise is guaranteed because it cannot be broken (God keeps His promises) because it is in accordance with grace and not by Law. Also this way the promise is guaranteed not only for those who are of the Law – the Jews – but also for those who are not of the Law – the Gentiles. And in both cases, for the Jews and for the Gentiles, the promise is guaranteed by grace through faith. Therefore only those who are of the faith of Abraham receive the promise.
Abraham was justified by grace through faith (Romans 4:17). Faith isn’t just believing in God (the demons believe in God); faith is believing God. Believing God gives God glory for in doing so one believes the trustworthiness and ability of God. Abraham believed God! Abraham believed God concerning God’s promise. Abraham believed God concerning the Christ and His resurrection from the dead. Any man who will be saved will believe God concerning His testimony about His Son – “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son” (1 John 5:10).
Adding works of any kind to the gift of justification by grace through faith is to not believe in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. It is unbelief and makes God into a liar.