It is easy to wonder how Paul ever thought he would get Jews and Gentiles together, but Paul had a secret weapon: God. God was the one who wanted the unified worship of every nation, race and language. He did it by extending grace to all and by demanding faith from all.
Many have sought God’s favor by showing how their deeds set them apart. But God’s free act of grace in Christ means his children must share a common faith no matter what their deeds might be.
(NET) Romans 4:16–17 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants– not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed– the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do.
Romans 4:16 is another of those formidable creations by Paul that is best understood by dividing it into its constituent parts. Note the switch to NET, which sticks closer to the Greek text in this verse than ESV does.
(NET) Romans 4:16a “For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace,”
The phrase for this reason points forward, not backward. We might rearrange the sentence to say: “The reason it is by faith is so that it may be by grace.” Critical to Paul’s entire argument is that being declared righteous by God involves faith on our side and grace on God’s side.
The word “it” has twice been italicized in our rearranged sentence so that we may focus our attention on determining what the prior reference might be. Thomas Schreiner says, “The subject could be God’s plan of salvation . . . or the promise . . . but ‘the promised inheritance’ is probably the most comprehensive and precise rendering.”
(NET) Romans 4:16b “with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants– not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all”
Because the promise is grounded on faith, it is certain for all who, when under the law, shared the faith of Abraham, and those who, like Abraham, demonstrated their faith apart from the law. In that way, Abraham is the father of all who receive righteousness by faith. Schreiner says, “Here the intent is to say that the inheritance is available to both Jewish Christians and Gentiles who share the faith of Abraham.” The words “Abraham, who is the father of us all” would have shaken Jews to the core!
John Chrysostom summarizes with great skill: “Here Paul mentions two blessings. The first is that the things which have been given are secured. The second is that they are given to all Abraham’s descendants, including the Gentiles who believe and excluding the Jews who do not.”
(NET) Romans 4:17 “(as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed– the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do.”
In support of his shocking assertion that Abraham is the father of all who believe (4:16b), Paul cites one of God’s promises to Abraham from Genesis 17:5. The clause “He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed” (4:17b) stresses the solemnity of the promise by reminding the reader that God spoke directly to Abraham in naming him the father of many nations.
The final clause — “the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do” (4:17c) — provides a marvelous double-edged meaning. In Abraham’s time, when the promise was made, God made the sexually dead Abraham alive and thus ensured the existence of his countless descendants.
The second meaning affected those to whom Paul wrote and us as well. The two present-tense verbal forms stress that God is still making the dead alive and summoning things that do not exist into reality. What things? For one he is creating a new people of God comprising all Abraham’s descendants and including both believing Jews and Gentiles. This is exactly Paul’s message in Ephesians 2:11–3:6.
What do we have in common?
In previous chapters of Romans, Paul has shown that works are wholly insufficient to achieve salvation. Today he demonstrates deeds are actually irrelevant for salvation. Because salvation is by grace through faith, all who believe come to God in exactly the same way. That commonality is the basis for unity in the church. Whatever differences make one a Jew and another a Gentile do not matter; what makes each a Christian is exactly the same!
1. Who has a right to call themselves a Christian? Who is eligible to call Abraham their spiritual father?
2. Read Ephesians 2:8–10. What role do works play after salvation?
Most of us find it alarmingly easy to focus on our differences. But the narrow gate that leads to life requires each of us to enter on the same basis ─ by grace through faith.
Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.