Romans 4:17. That is why [righteousness] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all
When I was a little kid we would sing this song called “Father Abraham.” It went like this:
Father Abraham had many sons\
Many sons had father Abraham
I am one of them
And so are you
So let’s all praise the Lord (proceeding into all kinds of motions).
Paul’s argument in chapter 4 of Romans is that righteousness comes to us by faith not by works of the law. His big example is Abraham, an example he began to flesh out back in Galatians:
Galatians 3:29. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Abraham was declared righteous by his faith, before there even was a law to obey. Before Abraham was circumcised. Before Abraham bound Isaac in sacrifice. Before Abraham did anything of any real value, he was declared righteous. In fact, we can point to some pretty lousy things Abraham did along the way too. But in Genesis 15 Abraham is counted as righteous because of his faith in the covenant promise of God.
Romans 4:2-3. For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Paul’s conclusion is that the true children of Abraham are any and all who receive grace through faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
Here’s the thing about God’s declaration of righteousness over Abraham though. After Abraham is declared righteous he still keeps on sinning. Read Genesis 16. Does Hagar ring a bell? And what about chapter 20? Lying about Sarah….again. For a guy that’s been declared to be righteous, he kind of leads a not so righteous life at times.
But this is the only way righteousness can work for us. It has to be given totally apart from what we do BEFORE it and AFTER it. If it is ever contingent upon our behavior it will never stick. It must be unconditional. It has to be given totally apart from any condition that the righteousness, given free of charge, will result in sudden righteous behavior on the part of the receiver. For example, the thief on the cross was given righteousness apart from any condition that it would result in righteous behavior in the days to come. Abraham too was given righteous status apart from a condition. And of course, so are we. The promise has to rest on grace. Not some sort of test of our character.
True, imputed righteousness will result in righteous behavior. In fact, I would argue that only freely given, unconditional righteousness imputed by grace will actually have any sustaining power to produce righteous living. We can only be what we actually are. But, as soon as the righteousness is given as the result of a behavior, or in anticipation of a behavior, it ceases to be grace through faith, and surely it will fail.
But Abraham’s righteousness did not result in righteous perfection in his life. Nor will it in ours. “To live is Christ” means that righteousness has been freely granted to us, and this should and will result in righteous living. But at the same time we will not live righteous lives consistently, or even most of the time. We will be simultaneously sinners and saints until the culmination of our righteousness in Christ through the power of the resurrection. God speed that day!
Do you believe that you have been declared righteous? Are you a child of Abraham, a child of faith? How does God’s declaration of your righteousness apart from any conditions free you to live a life of righteousness? How does it comfort you when you fail to live a life of righteousness?