Here Paul contrasts the implications of righteousness by means of the Law with righteousness that is by faith. If the heirs of God’s promise were heirs by their own obedience, that is, by the Law, then faith is made null and void and the promise according to faith is therefore null and void. Faith and works cannot equally stand as the instrument of receiving God’s declaration of righteousness. If we receive it by works, it is our works that have become something God must reward, and trusting in God to give graciously has become trusting in God to give us what we are due. But this cannot be so, for God is the just and the justifier, not according to anything in us, but according to His free and Sovereign choice. This is why we must receive the promise by faith, for faith apprehends what God has wrought, whereas works cannot.
Besides, as Paul has shown, no one is able to fulfill the Law, but all have sinned before God. And sin before God according to the Law brings the wrath of God to bear upon sin. But where there is no law, that is, where the promise is not founded upon law, but upon faith, there can be no violation. Why? For the promise rests upon God Himself, who cannot vitiate His own will, nor can He violate His purposes. Therefore where we apprehend God’s promise by faith we are heirs according to the promise apart from the Law effecting it, and apart from the violations of the Law, which our sinful state have brought to bear upon us.
Now Paul lays out a more complete summary of the equation. Faith is the instrument by which we receive God’s grace. Those who possessed the Law, the Jews, were no less heirs by faith than those who are not Jews who trust in the righteousness of God by faith in Christ, according to the example of Abraham. Abraham, by virtue of his faith, has become the father of all who believe by way of example, so that no one would have cause to boast in the Law (Jews) or in ignorance (Gentiles), but that all would boast in Christ (Christians, both Jews and Gentiles).
Paul here parenthetically quotes the verse from Genesis 17 where God make His promise to Abraham as evidence for Abraham’s fatherhood before proceeding to in his summary. Abraham’s fatherhood of all who enter by faith was witnessed before God Himself, for Abraham believed God’s promise was sure. Paul closes this verse with a transition into the kind of faith that Abraham exhibited. Abraham’s faith was not a faith in faith, as if such a thing were possible. For faith must have its object in which it believes, and the object of Abraham’s faith was God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” Was it not because Abraham believed in God that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac? For he knew, as Paul states here, Abraham believed in the God who raises to life the dead (cf. also Heb. 11:17-19).
What a treasure of expression is found in this verse! In hope against hope Abraham believed. The phrasing is only contradictory to those who are so scrupulous for the literal word that they obscure intention. For Paul is not saying the Abraham hoped without hope, nor is Abraham hoping without an object or wishfully. Abraham hoped with a hope in God against all earthly hope. For in his natural years, and in hers, Abraham and Sarah were past the normal age of conceiving children. But because Abraham hoped in God, he hoped against these natural considerations and believed that God would give him what He promised: that Abraham would become the father of many nations, and have descendents innumerable.
If this were not clear enough Paul makes it plain here when he speaks of Abraham’s consideration of his natural state. Without wavering in trust, Abraham believed in God although his body was old and Sarah’s ability to conceive had passed away along with her youth. Against these natural hopes did Abraham hope.
So Abraham held fast to the promise of God, unwavering and even growing stronger in his belief, thereby giving glory to God. Christian, if Abraham is our father, why do we not, like him, cling fast to the promises of God against all earthly hopes? Surely this is what Paul wishes us to see, that the promise of God is so certain, and that Abraham’s faith was fixed on this certainty, and that we as children of faith should fix our trust on the certainty of God’s promises to His people. The same certainty is exhibited in the words of Jesus who tells us to worry not over the cares of life, but to seek God’s Kingdom, for there all promises are yea and amen.
Abraham had full assurance that God was able to accomplish what God promised to accomplish. Here is the substance of faith and the destruction of works based righteousness according to the Law. If God had said to Abraham, “Do this perfectly, and I shall do for you,” what hope would Abraham have had? His hope would have been placed in himself to keep his end of the bargain. But what does God tell Abraham, “I will do for you all these things, therefore walk blamelessly.” Because God had put His name upon Abraham, He desired Abraham to walk according to His commands. And why did Abraham obey? It was not because Abraham expected his obedience to accomplish what God had promised, but because Abraham expected God to accomplish what God had promised—for God is able to do what humanity cannot.
Paul quotes again from Genesis, concluding his exegesis of the righteousness of God given to Abraham and received by his faith in God to give it according to His Word. Because God has chosen to bring about the promises, it is faith that acknowledges that God is able to accomplish what He had chosen to accomplish. What effort of man is necessary for God to choose? God’s choice is His own, for His mind conceives, without a beginning, all of everything as one without reference to Creation, which has beginning. Therefore it is God’s choice to accomplish, and not our accomplishing efforts, that effect righteousness for those whom God has chosen.
Paul transitions from Abraham to his own present audience, and by implication of the Holy Spirit’s work, to us as well. God’s reckoning righteousness to Abraham is a word that speaks to Abraham, that speaks to the saints in Rome, that speaks to us today, and that speaks to all who shall receive the word as it was first spoken. God’s Word, the same yesterday, today, and forever, speaks eternal truths to all men in all times and places: righteousness comes by faith in God’s grace to give it freely to those who will trust Him.
It is for our sake, says Paul, for the sake of the believers in Rome and for all believers in Christ, because believers in Christ trust that God has raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. It is necessary to pause and consider what it is that Paul fixes first as the object of our hope in God. It is the resurrection of Christ that comes first in his mind. The power of God and his purpose to redeem a people from the curse of death is the word that speaks to all the suffering of this present age. For the common man under sin, what greater fear is there than the cold certainty of death and the uncertainty of its after-effect? We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, for by His life we are promised life in Him, according to the promise of God, which is our surest hope against hope, for the first death comes to us all according to what is natural.
Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, was delivered up to death on the cross. Why did Jesus have to die? Paul is clear, and especially so in light of all that he has said thus far. Sin condemns us to wrath, the penalty of which is death. Christ therefore took upon himself the sins on our credit, died according to the penalty of sin, bearing the wrath of God that righteously falls on all sin, in order to expiate our account and make us holy and wholly able to come cleanly before the throne of God. What then does it mean that Christ was raised because of our justification? God cannot die, but humanity must die because of sin. Christ who is fully God and fully man, had to conquer the two-fold enemy: sin and death. Christ conquered sin on the cross, and he conquered death in being raised from death to life. Our justification, wrought by God according to His Sovereign Pleasure, required the two-fold victory of Christ for its fulfillment. God has chosen, God has given, and God has accomplished all things necessary for our justification in Christ.