Having retold the story of the cumulative sin of Israel leading to the great atonement on the cross, Paul then reemphasizes that, just as both Jew and Gentiles were locked into sin and judgment, now they are both justified by faith:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of Law? By a Law defined by works? No, but by the Law defined by faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Law.
What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his reward is not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’ Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.
As I read it, Paul begins 3:28 by contrasting an improperly works-defined Torah with a Biblical (!) faith-defined Torah. The fundamental confession of Israel had been that God is one and that he was the God of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4). But if he is the true God then all nations must belong to him for He is the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Thus, the Law defined by faith (monotheism, creation, God’s covenant with Israel always meant to transform the nations) is the right way to understand the Law: such an understanding upholds rather than overthrows the Law of Moses.
Paul then asks about Abraham in Romans 4:1. I agree with Richard Hays and N. T. Wright about the translation of that question because the traditional interpretation has Paul declaring as a fact that Abraham is “our father according to the flesh.” This would directly contradict verse 11, which states that Paul is “the father of all who believe” whether or not they are descended from him according to the flesh. Instead, Paul asks, “Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” and answers in the negative.
Verse 2 states that, if Abraham could have claimed he was right with God on the basis of national covenant identity, he could boast the way some Jews were boasting (Paul describes such Jews in Romans 2:17-20). However, while God made a covenant with Abraham, this was while he was still an uncircumcised Gentile. This is the direction of Paul’s argument that gets finally stated in verse 10, but also in verse 5 in the reference to the God who justifies the ungodly—i.e. who counts them as righteous before Him.
Paul points out that Abraham was powerless to make himself into a great nation. God had to do that. All Abraham could do is trust God to fulfill his promise to make him into that great nation. Thus, 4:3: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’”
God promised Abraham a great reward in Genesis 15:1. The same word that is used in the LXX for “reward” can also mean “wage.” So when Paul refers to Genesis 15 it is natural that he would think of this association and write, “Now to the one who works, his reward/wage is not counted as a gift but as his due.” This passage has been used to argue that Paul’s opponents believed that a person would be saved if they did enough good works to merit salvation. But, if they taught this, then one would expect Paul to actually argue against the idea. He doesn’t seem to think such an argument is necessary. He simply makes the suggestion that boasting in ones “works” that identify a person as a Jew is prideful and constitutes a claim to have worked for a reward rather than to have received a gift. It seems that Paul thinks that merely suggesting to someone that Abraham might have earned the reward in Genesis 15 would be enough to disgust his opponents. Note that Paul has to deal with some Corinthian Christians in a similar way: “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4.7). Many Reformed preachers have found material in this passage to preach grace, monergism, and justification by faith without any alleged merit of good works. There is, likewise, no reason to impute merit soteriology to Paul’s Jewish contemporaries on the basis of Romans 4.4.
What do we do with “ungodly” in verse 5? The common Evangelical habit is to simply see in this word the acknowledgment that Abraham was a believing sinner who needed forgiveness. But the word “ungodly,” if it refers to moral character, is much too strong for such an interpretation. It denotes not believing sinners but rather unbelieving apostates or hypocrites. There is no record of Abraham being a godless person in the narrative of Genesis, nor in Abraham’s summary of it in Romans 4. So how does Abraham exemplify the justification of the ungodly?
In case anyone thinks my observation is idiosyncratic, the late John Murray writes that Paul did not view Abraham as “ungodly.” In his The Epistle to the Romans, he writes about the word “ungodly” in 4:5, “Verse 5 is a general statement of the method of grace and is not intended to describe Abraham specifically. We have here, rather, the governing principle of grace; it is exemplified in the case of Abraham because he believed in accordance with the principle.” Murray has to be right about Abraham’s moral character. When Jesus accused the Pharisees of being ungodly (though he doesn’t use the exact word) he contrasts their behavior with the behavior of Abraham (John 8:39, 40). Jesus obviously considers Abraham a godly example.
But it is hard to see how Abraham himself is not being described by Paul in the use of the word “ungodly.” Another possibility is that being “ungodly” is the same as “before he was circumcised.” N. T. Wright argues in a JSNT essay, “Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4” that Paul believes that God will make all sorts of people his descendants. The God who justifies the ungodly has nothing to do with Abraham’s justification but rather the justification of other people when they are engrafted into his family. Wright’s analysis doesn’t convince me because the issue in Genesis 15 is whether someone will come from Abraham himself—a natural child by Sarah. It seems to me that Abraham is trusting God to make him a great and mighty nation. Engrafting others into that nation is also an important part of the story, but I can’t see how it is involved in Abraham’s question in Genesis 15. Wright’s interpretation of Genesis 15 with Romans 4:5 would work better, to my mind, if God had dealt with Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15:2, 3) the same way he dealt with Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-21). It seems to me that Abraham believing God’s promise that he would constitute him as a great nation was to believe that God would vindicate himself by keeping his promise and vindicate Abraham’s trust in that promise. Believing in this future vindication meant that God considered Abraham’s trust to be his vindication in the present.
Claiming that Abraham was uncircumcised would not make him “ungodly” in the moral sense. Uncircumcised Gentiles who were residing in Israel had virtually the same status in worship as Circumcised Israelites. Since many seem to have forgotten this point, I shall quote at length:
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and all the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of the house of Israel or of the sojourners in Israel presents a burnt offering as his offering, for any of their vows or freewill offerings that they offer to the Lord, if it is to be accepted for you it shall be a male without blemish, of the bulls or the sheep or the goats” (Leviticus 22:18-19, ESV).
“Thus it shall be done for each bull or ram, or for each lamb or young goat. As many as you offer, so shall you do with each one, as many as there are. Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in offering a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do. For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you” (Numbers 15:11-16, ESV).
“If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him” (Numbers 15:27-31, ESV).
Readers might wonder why Paul doesn’t simply refer to these passages to support his point that Gentiles are reconciled to God just as Jews are. But that is not enough. Under the Law, while there was “one law” (“of faith”!) for Jew and Gentile, they were still two separate bodies of people. Gentiles were not admitted to Passover, for it was reserved for circumcised Israelites. In a certain limited since they could be said to be “without god” or “ungodly.” Paul is arguing that now Jew and Gentile believers are one covenant people. Thus he starts by pointing out that God had a covenant relationship with Abraham before he was ever circumcised—while he was ungodly. Additionally, Abraham was promised the “reward” (misthos – Genesis 15:1 LXX), which was to be constituted a great nation even though he himself was, at the time, simply a Gentile called out of Ur. By trusting God for that future he was counted as righteous before God in the present.
Paul then adds another example of the justification of the ungodly in the life of David. I will examine this in Part 2.