Romans 4 and Abraham
Let's start this section with a ton of verses from Romans 4! I'll include light commentary after each passage.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 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 CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.Romans 4:1–4
Abraham was justified by faith so that he would have nothing to boast about. In other words. God wanted it to be clear that Abraham's justification came totally from Him and not from anything that Abraham did. Now, it is obvious that Abraham did do something. He left his home, his family, and everything he knew to travel to a land which he did not know. Biblical faith is trust in God. His trust was seen in his willingness to leave behind all he knew. This is the same with the gospel. The gospel calls us to leave behind all that we know and to give up on all our usual programs of happiness so that we can put our total faith in God. It was upon the basis of this faith that Abraham was justified. God did not give him what he was due; the promises He made to Abraham were based upon the righteousness of God.
Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.Romans 4:9–12
In the book of Romans, Paul is dealing with a contention between the Jewish and Gentile communities within the church. As any scholar would point out, not that I am a scholar by any definition of the word, the historical setting of Paul's letter to the Roman church is a command that Claudius had given concerning the Jews in Rome. He expelled them from Rome until his death. Upon his death, Nero allowed the Jews to return to Rome. This caused a problem within the church because up until that point, the congregations were mainly made up of Gentiles if not totally. The Jewish brethren, which had been keeping the law up until this point (Acts 21:20), were not comfortable with the liberty that the Gentile brethren had in Christ. So, this led to some demanding that others be circumcised, keep some dietary restrictions, or even observe the festal calendar of Leviticus 23 (Romans 14).
In response to these arguments, Paul had to write a lot about circumcision as he does in this section. His main point is that the circumcision of Abraham was a seal of the righteousness that was imputed because of his faith. He was justified prior to his circumcision so that he may be the father of all regardless of their practice of circumcision.
For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.Romans 4:16–17
This passage reveals that the problem the Jewish brethren had with the Gentiles wasn't just circumcision; they really wanted to bring them under the entire Law (Galatians 5:3). So, Paul affirmed over and over that it was their faith that united them, not their obedience to the Law. Speaking of imputed righteousness, he says that God calls into being that which does not exist. In other words, God calls a person righteous (obedient) before they are obedient. God looks at the heart, as we will notice in a later part.
Abraham was Counted Righteous Before He Was Circumcised
It is necessary that this point to put into perspective Abraham's imputed righteousness by looking at a timeline of Abraham's life. Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Haran (Genesis 12:4). Abraham married Hagar ten years after arriving in Canaan (Genesis 16:3). When Ishmael was born, he was eighty-six (Genesis 16:16). Abraham was ninety-nine when he was circumcised (Genesis 17:24). He was one hundred years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5).
From the above, we can see that Abraham's faith was counted as righteousness at seventy-five years of age. He was circumcised twenty-four years later, and he offered up Isaac five years, at the least, after that. We don't know exactly when Isaac was offered up, but it was after Ishmael and Hagar were kicked out of the house (Genesis 21:9-21). The main point is that it was years after Abraham's faith was counted as righteousness that he was circumcised, and it was several years after that before the saying was “fulfilled” in the binding of Isaac (James 2:23). Romans 4 and James 2 are reconciled when one sees that Romans 4 is about the initial point of justification whereas James 2 is about obedience in response to one's faith. Or, you could say, Romans 4 is about conversion while James 2 is about remaining faithful.