Paul continues to address the potential Jewish objections to his claims regarding justification and the law of Moses. The question in this verse introduces a new objection, based upon the suppressed premise that Abraham was justified by his obedience rather than by his faith. Paul also introduces here a term that he will use to separate Abraham’s fatherhood into two distinct categories: flesh and promise. The Jews are children of Abraham according to the flesh, but all those who believe in Christ for their righteousness are children of Abraham according to the promise, and it is the children of the promise who will inherit the Kingdom of God.
The second verse introduces the objection suppressed in the opening verse. Had Abraham’s obedience, his works, been meritorious of justification he would have reason to boast before God. However, Abraham was conscious of his sinfulness and recognized himself to be righteous according to God’s gracious choice and not due to his own merit. For when did Abraham boast of his works before God? If his works were truly meriting God’s favor, why should they be left unadorned with his self-praise? Yet Abraham glorified God in thankfulness.
Paul does not linger upon the hypothetical, but takes us directly to the text of Scripture. Genesis 15:6 tells us that Abraham believed God, and according to his belief was righteousness imputed to Abraham. It would be easy to misunderstand the imputation of righteousness had Paul not laid three chapters of groundwork prior to using Abraham for his example. For it is not Abraham’s belief as belief that is the ground of his justification, but it is God’s grace extended to us in the person and work of Christ that is the ground of our justification—God is just and justifier. What then is belief? Belief is efficacious when it is attached to the appropriate object. It is the object of belief that attains or does not attain justification. Thus, Abraham’s belief in God proves that justification is of God’s grace alone, because He is the object of Abraham’s belief. Had Abraham trusted in, that is, believed in his own works, then his belief would not have resulted in justification, for the object of his belief would have been ineffectual—for no man is justified by keeping the law, for all men are under the condemnation of their willful sinning.
Paul expounds upon the implications of trusting in works vs. trusting in grace in the next few verses. Here he states that the wages of works are not of grace, but of due. If one works and that work is of himself, then one has claim to a reward. A claim is not accomplished by grace, but by merit. So, if we are justified by our works, then we are not justified by God’s grace, and from the arguments laid before we know that God’s grace is our grounds for justification, therefore it cannot be of works.
The opposite side of the equation is as follows. The one who does not work, that is, the one who does not rest upon, trust in, or believe upon his work for justification; but instead believes in God who justifies the ungodly (for indeed all are under the curse of sin)—to this one righteousness is bestowed by God’s grace without reference to, or consideration of the merit or works of that one. If justification is to be of God’s grace, it must be all of God’s grace that accomplishes it, otherwise the work of man (however infinitesimal) would merit consideration, and therefore he should boast of himself apart from God’s grace.
Paul goes once more to the Scriptures by way of another blessed forefather, King David. Just as Abraham believed in God’s gracious justification apart from consideration of his own works, so too does David believe in God’s gracious justification apart from consideration of his own works. Or, it can be said oppositely from an alternative vantage: that Abraham and David believed in God’s gracious justification because they considered their own works and found them entirely lacking before a holy and just God. Therefore there is a two-sided consideration: one side that considers not the merit of our works for our acceptance before God and one side that considers the inadequacy of the merit of our works for attaining God’s favor. The former looks to God by the means of Christ’s and beholds His love, whereas the latter reflects upon oneself in light of having beheld God’s glory.
The quotation of David’s psalm 32:1 acknowledges the blessedness of the one who has been forgiven by God. It is not the one who boasts in his righteousness who is blessed, but the one who boasts in God’s graciousness and mercy to forgive the account of sins committed and goods omitted. Who better than David to speak these words, for it was he who sinned most grievously and was yet forgiven before God. His adultery, murder, and vast bloodshed would have garnered him many deaths according to the Law, but because God desired to use David to exalt the glory of His Name, David was led to recognize the greatness of God’s grace and the blessedness of his own account, which God forgave according to His good pleasure and purposes.
Repeated in briefer language is the same principle of the initial part of the quotation. Blessed indeed is the one to whom God does not credit his sin. Who is Judge if not God? Who is able to blot out transgressions but Him? Indeed, was it not the rage of the religious leaders who spewed forth at Jesus when He offered forgiveness to sinners? They understood well that God alone has the authority to forgive any trespass, and as David confesses in another Psalm, all sin is an offense to God first and only when considering justice. For though we may sin against another, no other has authority over us but by God’s decree, and over all things stands God’s decree, so that every offense to another is chiefly a rebellion against the will and decree of God Himself. How then could we recognize our sin and yet claim to be justified by keeping the law, for but one small sin is enough to have spat in the very face of the Sovereign of the Universe. Therefore God’s grace alone justifies the sinner, who boasts alone in that matchless grace.
Paul transitions in this verse to consider once more the truth that God’s justice is not arbitrary, nor is it founded upon the actions of men. The question he would ask to those who sought to justify themselves in Abraham by exemplifying his works have not considered all the pertinent facts.
How was Abraham reckoned righteous, when in his circumcision or when in his uncircumcision? Indeed faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, because it had an object that was efficacious. So then, to what object could Abraham look to and rest in, trusting for his righteousness before God? It could not be his circumcision, the act or work, and the sign by which he was brought into covenant with God outwardly. For his faith was reckoned as righteousness prior to his circumcision. What a blow of devastation to those Judaizers who sought to bring the Gentiles into conformity with the ceremonial laws of Moses!
Circumcision was received as the sign and seal, which testified to the faith that Abraham had already exhibited in God while he was yet uncircumcised. The sign and seal was a testimony of Abraham’s righteousness before God, although it was not the object upon which that righteousness was fixed. Rather, Abraham’s faith in God was a testimony of God’s free grace bestowed upon those who will believe upon Him in Christ, so that by his example Abraham would become the father of all who believe without being circumcised. That is, Abraham is a father of the faithful by virtue of his faith in God, which is the example of God’s promise revealed to those who are not born of Abraham according to the flesh.
And to those who are spiritually circumcised, as Moses states in the Law that circumcision is to be of the heart, to these Abraham is the father—both to those who have been circumcised in the flesh as well as those whose flesh has not been circumcised, yet both alike circumcised in their hearts by faith and according to the grace of God in Christ. For what steps did Abraham take in which we are to follow? Abraham believed in God’s gracious promise, and it was imputed to his account: righteousness.
If it were unclear what specifically Abraham believed in God concerning, Paul makes it clear in this verse. The promise of God to Abraham and to his descendents was that he would be the heir of the world (the father of nations). The promise was given prior to the Law, that is, prior to the command to be circumcised, and therefore was not given through the Law, but through faith in God Himself, and His faithfulness to fulfill His promises.