In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul set forth a framework for understanding the righteousness of God as a judge. God’s impartiality toward Jews and Gentiles placed both groups in need of an alien righteousness before God’s judgement bench. Paul warned the Jews that reliance on the law would profit them nothing—since they did not practice it (Rom 2:1-10; 17-29). Gentiles likewise needed God’s grace in Christ because they were incapable of consistently maintaining even their own standards—let alone God’s (Rom 2:12-16). Paul’s presentation of the righteousness of God in Romans 1-3 laid the foundation for his purpose in the letter. Paul argued that since only faith in Christ—and not works of the Mosaic law—provided one with the righteousness of God, Jews and Gentiles in Rome should set their spiritual pride aside, receive one another in love, and speak with one voice the praises of God (Rom 12:1-2; 15:1-7). To where could Paul turn to find illustrations of faith as the means by which sinners can be made right before an impartial God? Paul turned to Scripture’s storyline. He cited Abraham—the father of the Jewish people—as an example of one who was made right with God by faith even before the law was given. And Paul saw in David’s words in Ps 32:1-2 a text that supported his proposition that God grants His righteousness to sinners by faith and apart from works of the law.
(1) In Rom 4:1-12 Paul cited Gen 15:6 and Ps 32:1-2 to explain how God credits righteousness to sinners apart from any Old Testament law. In Gen 14:1-16, Abraham rescued his nephew Lot from the kings that raided Sodom. Abraham risked his life for a family member but still had not received God’s blessing of a son. When would God’s promise come about? In Gen 15:1-4 the Lord spoke to Abraham and reassured the patriarch that He would protect him and provide him an heir. The Lord told Abraham to look at the night sky and promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars Abraham saw shining in the black of night. In response, “Abraham believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). In Rom 4:3, Paul cited Gen 15:6 as scriptural proof that God grants righteousness to those who believe His word. Performing the works of the Mosaic law, even circumcision, Paul argued, was not the means of being made right before God. In Rom 4:7-8, Paul cited David’s words in Ps 32:1-2 to establish that God grants righteousness to sinners. Paul identified in Ps 32:1-2 a reference to the kind of people whom God forgives and to whom God grants His righteousness: sinners. Psalm 32 is attributed to David and in Rom 3:4, Paul cited another psalm of David, Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is David’s confession of sin following his immorality with Bathsheba. Paul’s use of Ps 51:4 in Rom 3:4 anticipates his citation of Ps 32:1-2 in Rom 4:7-8. Paul cited David’s life as an illustration of gospel forgiveness apart from the legal requirements of the Mosaic law. Works of the Mosaic law (circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, food laws, etc.), Paul argued, could not merit righteousness for someone who was by nature and practice a sinner. Paul then turned again to Gen 15:6 to identify the period in Abraham’s life when God made Abraham the promise and the patriarch believed unto righteousness. Abraham’s faith commitment was expressed before the Lord instituted the sign of circumcision in Gen 17:9-14. Paul wrote that Abraham received circumcision as a sign of the righteousness that he enjoyed by faith alone before the sign of circumcision was established in Israel. In this way, Abraham was the father of faith for both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 4:12).
(2) In Rom 4:17-18, Paul quoted Gen 17:5 and Gen 15:5 to reinforce his position that faith is the means by which God grants righteousness to sinners of all nations. Paul noted that when the Lord established the covenant of circumcision for Abraham’s physical descendants, the Lord changed the patriarch’s name from Abram to Abraham (Gen 17:5). “For I will make you the father of many nations,” the Lord said (Gen 17:5). Paul saw in Gen 17:5 an opportunity to recall for his audience in Romans that the Lord had first made this promise to Abraham in Gen 15:5—before the covenant of circumcision was established. Paul argued that faith and not circumcision (often thought to represent the Mosaic law part-for-whole) is the key characteristic of Abraham’s true descendants (Gen 15:5).
(3) In Rom 4:22-23, Paul quoted Gen 15:6 to underscore God’s faithfulness in granting righteousness to sinners who believe in the same manner that Abraham believed. Throughout Romans 4, Paul argued that faith is the means by with God grants righteousness to sinners. And Paul saw in Abraham’s faith an exemplary manner for trusting God. God called Abraham to believe that even though he and Sarah were far beyond the years of natural conception, God would yet provide them a biological heir. Abraham was fully convinced that what God had promised, God would bring to fulfillment (Rom 4:21). Against all observable circumstances, Abraham believed. And because Abraham believed in that manner, it was credited to the patriarch for righteousness. Paul concluded Romans 4 by stating that God grants righteousness to all sinners who believe that God will grant them righteousness by their faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Rom 4:23-25).