As in Romans 1:16-17 Paul’s interpretation of Habakkuk 2:4 is in complete harmony with the literal meaning of the Old Testament passage, so the Apostle’s quotation in Romans 4:3 of Genesis 15:6 is in full agreement with the literal meaning of Moses. Paul wrote: “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”[i] As in Genesis 15:6, so in Romans 4:3 faith is the instrument through which Christ’s righteousness is imputed, rather than faith itself being the ground or basis of the receipt of righteousness. Paul makes it very clear that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, through which the sinner receives the imputed righteousness of Christ and obtains a perfect legal standing before God. Abraham was not justified by works, but solely through faith, entirely by grace exclusive of all human merit or effort (4:1-5), a teaching to which David also testifed (4:6-8). Since Abraham was justified prior to his circumcision, it is apparent that ceremonies or rituals, even those ordained by God such as circumcision, are not the instrumentality through which sinners are justified (4:9-12). Salvation is by grace through faith to all, whether Jew or Gentile, and not by the law or circumcision, for Abraham’s justification apart from circumcision and the law (4:12-22) is a pattern for Christian justification (4:23-25). In the book of Romans, Paul cogently and clearly demonstrates with his quotation from Genesis 15:6 that Abraham, and all, receive justification apart from works by grace through faith alone.
While Paul’s main point in his argument of Romans four is justification, the transformed lifestyle that is the certain consequent of and companion of gratuitous justification is not absent from the chapter. Those who have ceased working to obtain justification and simply believe on Christ (4:5) are those whose lifestyle evidences a “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham.”[ii] Those justified by faith alone will also be the faithful, following the pattern of Abraham who not only received a free justification but also separated from the idolatry of Ur and obeyed, loved, and served Jehovah. God both declared that Abraham was righteous solely by faith and stated of the patriarch, “Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). Abraham not only entrusted himself to the Lord at a particular moment, but he persevered in the faith (Romans 4:17-22). The continuity between justifying and persevering, sanctifying faith is clear in Romans 4-5—one and the same faith results in both salvific blessings. While the main emphasis of Romans 4 is the element of the Old Testament doctrine that “the just shall live by faith” that establishes justification by faith alone based on the righteousness of Christ alone, the corollary truth of the life of faithfulness of the justified is also apparent.
Hodge comments with insight:
According to the Remonstrants or Arminians, faith is the ground [rather than merely the instrumental cause] of justification. Under the Gospel God accepts our imperfect obedience including faith and springing from it, in place of the perfect obedience demanded by the law originally given to Adam. There is one passage in the Bible, or rather one form of expression, which occurs in several places, which seems to favour this view of the subject. In Romans 4:3, it is said, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness;” and again in ver. 22 of that chapter, and in Galatians 3:6. If this phrase be interpreted according to the analogy of such passages as Romans 2:26, “Shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?” it does mean that faith is taken or accepted for righteousness. The Bible, however, is the word of God and therefore self-consistent. Consequently if a passage admits of one interpretation inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible in other places, and of another interpretation consistent with that teaching, we are bound to accept the latter. . . . [We must consider not only] grammatical structure and logical connection indicate . . . [but also] the analogy of Scripture. . . . [T]he Apostle . . . teaches, first, that the great promise made to Abraham, and faith in which secured his justification, was not that his natural descendants should be as numerous as the stars of heaven, but that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed.; secondly, that the seed intended was not a multitude, but one person, and that that one person was Christ (Gal. 3:16); and, thirdly, that the blessing which the seed of Abraham was to secure for the world was redemption. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: … that the blessing of Abraham (i.e., the promise made to Abraham) might come on” us. The promise made to Abraham, therefore, was redemption through Christ. Hence those who are Christ’s, the Apostle teaches, are Abraham’s seed and heirs of his promise. What, therefore, Abraham believed, was that the seed of the woman, the Shiloh, the promised Redeemer of the world, was to be born of him. He believed in Christ, as his Saviour, as his righteousness, and deliverer, and therefore it was that he was accepted as righteous, not for the merit of his faith, and not on the ground of faith, or by taking faith in lieu of righteousness, but because he received and rested on Christ alone for his salvation.
Unless such be the meaning of the Apostle, it is hard to see how there is any coherence or force in his arguments. His object is to prove that men are justified, not by works, but gratuitously; not for what they are or do, but for what is done for them. They are saved by a ransom; by a sacrifice. But it is absurd to say that trust in a ransom redeems, or is taken in place of the ransom; or that faith in a sacrifice, and not the sacrifice itself, is the ground of acceptance. To prove that such is the Scriptural method of justification, Paul appeals to the case of Abraham. He was not justified for his works, but by faith in a Redeemer. He expected to be justified as ungodly (Romans 4:5). This, he tells us, is what we must do. We have no righteousness of our own. We must take Christ for our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. In the immediately preceding chapter the Apostle had said we are justified by faith in the blood of Christ, as a propitiation for sin; and for him to prove this from the fact that Abraham was justified on account of his confiding, trusting state of mind, which led him to believe that, although a hundred years old, he should be the father of a numerous posterity, would be a contradiction.
Besides, it is to be remembered, not only that the Scriptures never say that we are justified “on account” of faith (dia» pi÷stin), but always “by,” or “through” faith (dia» or e˙k pi÷stewß, or pi÷stei); but also that it is not by faith as such; not by faith in God, nor in the Scriptures; and not by faith in a specific divine promise such as that made to Abraham of a numerous posterity, or of the possession of the land of Canaan; but only by faith in one particular promise, namely, that of salvation through Christ. It is, therefore, not on account of the state of mind, of which faith is the evidence, nor of the good works which are its fruits, but only by faith as an act of trust in Christ, that we are justified. This of necessity supposes that He, and not our faith, is the ground of our justification. He, and not our faith, is the ground of our confidence. How can any Christian wish it to be otherwise? What comparison is there between the absolutely perfect and the infinitely meritorious righteousness of Christ, and our own imperfect evangelical obedience as a grooud of confidence and peace!
This doctrine is moreover dishonouring to the Gospel. It supposes the Gospel to be less holy than the law. The law required perfect obedience; the Gospel is satisfied with imperfect obedience. And how imperfect and insufficient our best obedience is, the conscience of e very believer certifies. If it does not satisfy us, how can it satisfy God?
The grand objection, however, to this Remonstrant doctrine as to the relation between faith and justification, is that it is in direct contradiction to the plain and pervading teachings of the Word of God. The Bible teaches that we are not justified by works. This doctrine affirms that we are justified by works. The Bible teaches that we are justified by the blood of Christ; that it is for his obedience that the sentence of justification is passed on men. This doctrine affirms that God pronounces us righteous because of our own righteousness. The Bible from first to last teaches that the whole ground of our salvation or of our justification is objective, what Christ as our Redeemer, our ransom, our sacrifice, our surety, has done for us. This doctrine teaches us to look within, to what we are and to what we do, as the ground of our acceptance with God. It may safely be said that this is altogether unsatisfactory to the awakened conscience. The sinner cannot rely on anything in himself. He instinctively looks to Christ, to his work done for us as the ground of confidence and peace. This in the last resort is the hope of all believers . . . they all cast their dying eyes on Christ. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (pgs. 167-170, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, Charles Hodge)
It should also be noted that the Reformed sacramental notion that infant baptism is a vehicle conveying saving grace and that through baptism grace is “conferred by the Holy Ghost” upon the elect (Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 28 because baptism is a “seal” of salvation is a serious heresy. Since Romans 4:11 is the only verse in Scripture that could with any plausibility be used to support the Reformed view, its advocates argue from this text that circumcision is a “seal” of grace, that their sacrament of infant baptism is equivalent to circumcision, and that, therefore, infant baptism seals or conveys grace to their infants. This argument is filled with errors. Even if circumcision were equivalent to baptism, which it is not, the example of Abraham would teach that faith is a prerequisite to baptism. A parallel between circumcision given to all the physical seed of Abraham and baptism given to the spiritual seed of Abraham would restrict baptism to believers, since “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).
The use of the word “seal” in Romans 4:11—for the already justified and already believing Abraham—by no means supports the Reformed contention. First, the verse does not say that circumcision was a seal of grace to Jewish male infants. While circumcision was a “sign” by nature, it is not affirmed to have been a “seal” to all, but only personally to believing Abraham, who received it when he had already been justified by faith. A recognition of this distinction in Romans 4:11 explains the Old Testament use of the word sign or token (twøa) in connection with circumcision (Genesis 17:11) but the complete absence of references in the Old Testament to the ceremony as a “seal.” Second, the New Testament does not equate circumcision with baptism or state that the latter replaces the former. Third, the Biblical immersion of believers has nothing to do with the ceremonial application of water to infants that the Reformed claim is baptism. Fourth, a seal is a visible mark or impression evidencing the authority of the one who authorizes the seal to the genuineness or correctness of whatever is witnessed to by its presence. However, baptism does not leave a visible mark upon those who receive it, and it is not administered to single individuals by Divine authority—the authority given the church to administer baptism is general (Matthew 28:18-20). No man can put marks upon the elect of God which shall authoritatively certify that they are His, and neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper authenticate one’s personal election to himself or to others; such authentication is given to the regenerate individual himself by the presence of true faith and the manifestation of that faith in a changed life, as taught in 1 John (cf. 5:13). Unlike the ordinance of baptism, the “seal” of circumcision given to Abraham was indeed a visible mark and was applied to the individual man Abraham by direct Divine authority. Circumcision was a seal to Abraham, but to nobody else. Finally, when advocates of Reformed theology and other Protestants speak of baptism as a “seal” or vehicle of grace, they use the word in a sense entirely absent in Scripture. None of the appearances of the word “seal” (sfragi÷ß) in the New Testament indicate that grace is conveyed through a “seal” (Romans 4:11; 1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Timothy 2:19; Revelation 5:1-2, 5, 9; 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 7:2; 8:1; 9:4). Those who think that infant baptism was the instrument of their receiving forgiveness, those who think that they received the sacrament as confirmation and evidence that they were already regenerated in the womb, and those who think they had water applied to them in infancy as evidence that they were certain to be regenerated in the future unless they consciously rejected the “sacrament” and its efficacy are underneath a terrible spiritual delusion. They will certainly be damned unless they recognize that their unbiblical religious ceremony did nothing beneficial for them, admit they are still lost, and then repent and believe the gospel.
Indeed, baptism is not even a “sign” in the sense regularly employed in Reformed theology. The ordinance is indeed a sign of what Christ did and suffered, but it is not a “sign” promising that any saving work will be done in the one who receives it—yet it is in this latter sense that the Reformed generally speak of the ordinance as a “sign.”
[i] ti÷ ga»r hJ grafh\ le÷gei; ∆Epi÷steuse de« ∆Abraa»m twˆ◊ Qewˆ◊, kai« e˙logi÷sqh aujtwˆ◊ ei˙ß dikaiosu/nhn. The One who accounted Abraham as righteous is God, twˆ◊ Qewˆ◊; e˙logi÷sqh is a form of the Divine passive. “Abraham believed in God, and God reckoned [“it was reckoned by God”] to him unto righteousness.” Compare Leviticus 7:18 (7:8, LXX):
ea»n de« fagw»n fa¿ghØ aÓpo\ tw◊n krew◊n thvØ hJme÷raˆ thvØ tri÷thØ, ouj decqh/setai aujtw◊ˆ tw◊ˆprosfe÷ronti aujto/, ouj logisqh/setai aujtw◊ˆ, mi÷asma¿ e˙stin: hJ de« yuch/, h¢tiß e˙a»n fa¿ghØ aÓp∆ aujtouv, th\n aJmarti÷an lh/myetai, “And if he do at all eat of the flesh on the third day, it shall not be accepted for him that offers: it shall not be reckoned to him, it is pollution; and whatsoever soul shall eat of it, shall bear his iniquity.” Whether in Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, or James 2:23, the aorist of ∆Epi÷steuse in the New Testament quotation of Genesis 15:6 is constative. Compare the present tenses of pisteu/w employed for Christian belief in 4:5, 11, 24 and the aorists for Abraham’s belief in 4:3, 17, 18.
[ii] Romans 4:12, toi√ß stoicouvsi toi√ß i¶cnesi thvß e˙n thØv aÓkrobusti÷aˆ pi÷stewß touv patro\ß hJmw◊n ∆Abraa¿m. The present participle stoicouvsi supports the fact that a continuing lifestyle that matches Abraham’s is in view, rather than only the action of a particular moment.