Yesterday, I preached from Romans 4:13-17 on the nature of the promise of God to Abraham’s offspring. God made a promise to all those who would be children of Abraham that they would “inherit the world” and be at peace with God. Ultimately, that promise comes to believers because Jesus was Abraham’s perfect child, who kept fulfilled God’s promised and guaranteed the promise to all Abraham’s “imperfect children.”
You can listen to that sermon here.
But, although I sometimes draw out systematic theological implications from the passages I’m preaching through, I saw in this passage something that I chose not to bring up in the sermon. I saw the “5 Solas” of the protestant reformation. I don’t think I’m stretching too much to see each of them present in these verses, but I wanted to share my thoughts and let the reader decide.
The 5 Solas of Romans 4:13-17
Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
Paul’s goal in Romans 4 is to exhult in the glory of the news that we are saved by faith alone, apart from works. But, what’s fascinating is that to do this, he goes to the account of Abraham from Genesis 12-17. He’s talking about the gospel, but then in order to show the contours of this gospel, and to show that it is trustworthy, he shows that Abraham believed this gospel as well (Gal 3:8).
Why is this important to Paul? Because Paul’s God is the only one true God, and therefore is the God of the Bible. So, if Paul is going to proclaim a good news about the Messiah, then that news MUST accord with the promises made by God about the Messiah in the Old Testament. For Paul, scripture alone must be where our beliefs about the gospel rest. Paul makes many arguments from reason, logic, and philosophy, but he ALWAYS grounds and supports his arguments from scripture. Paul knows that although those other things can be helpful tools, that scripture alone is sufficient to finally settle the matter of what we should believe – even when it comes to the gospel.
So, because we see Paul’s commitment to scripture here as the final authority in settling the matter about being saved by “faith alone”, we see the reformation doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”
Sola Fide (By Faith Alone)
The doctrine of Sola Fide was really the crux of the debate in the Protestant Reformation. Are we justified by faith alone APART from works of the law? Or do our works in some way contribute to our justification? Well, throughout the entire chapter of Romans 4, Paul aims to prove that, and in Romans 3:28 he explicitly says it:
Romans 3:28 – we are justified by faith apart from works of the law
In chapter 4, Paul sets out to prove that by showing that even Abraham, who was thought to be the seminal example of being justified by works, was actually justified by faith before he’d ever done any works. He was counted as completely righteous before he’d ever done a single act of obedience, even circumcision (Romans 4:11). He simply believed God’s promise, and that believing was counted as an entire righteous life (Romans 4:3). Paul’s entire point is to show that we do not have to have the law in order to be justified, and because of this, Gentiles who don’t have the law can still be counted righteous. So, it’s clear that Paul’s case against a synergistic “faith+works” justification resounds from Romans 4 generally, but then in 4:13-17, we see him contrast faith with works explicitly.
He says “the promise didn’t come through law-keeping, but through the righteousness of faith” (vs 13), and he goes so far as to say that if the promise comes through law-keeping, then faith is useless (vs 14-15). How could there be synergy between works and faith if works cancel out faith (cf 4:4-5)?
In verse 16 Paul says then that the promise depends on faith, and the implication is of course that it depends on faith INSTEAD of law-keeping. It’s very difficult to see a synergy in justification when Paul says that our justification (recieving the promise) depends on faith, as contrasted with works.
So, we see it everywhere in Romans 4, but we see it explicitly in 4:13-17, that we are justified by “faith alone” – Sola Fide
Sola Gratia (By Grace Alone)
Romans 4:16 – this is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace…
The line of thought for Paul in vs 16 is pretty amazing. The promise depends on faith, instead of works, so that the promise may rest on grace, instead of merit.
What Paul is saying is that if the promise is to depend on (or even be supplemented by) our law-keeping, then it will not be by grace, but will be about what we’ve earned.
This is certainly a blow to the Roman Catholic understanding of justification, because they would of course say that justification is by grace, but that it is still accomplished partially through works (empowered by grace, done in faith, but works nonetheless).
But Paul’s statement here undermines that way of thinking. The promise must depend on faith, as contrasted with works, SO THAT it may rest on grace. If the promise depends, even partially, on works, then the implication in Paul’s words is that the promise will no longer rest on grace. The reason is because, in vs 4, Paul reminds us that for the one who works, his wages aren’t counted as a gift (as grace), but as what he deserves.
So, Paul is contrasting grace with merit, and he says that when works contribute to our justification, then we’ve done something to “merit” justification, meaning it’s no longer by grace.
So, instead of that, Paul says that the promise rests on grace. We are justified “all of grace”. It is because of God’s sovereign grace, which he freely bestows, apart from our permission or our having earned it.
The promise of our reconciliation with God and inheriting the world depends on faith, so that it may rest on grace.
We are justified by grace alone – Sola Gratia
Solus Christus (through Christ alone)
This is the only of the 5 Solas that is not explicit in this passage, but I think it is almost so. Paul says that Abraham was justified by the “righteousness of faith” (vs 13), the promise itself was about a child who would come and bring blessing to the nations – the one “righteous” son of Abraham.
Verse 16 says that the promise depends on faith, and rests on grace, and we must ask “faith in what or whom?” And also, “if it is not by our merit, whose merit is it by that we inherit the promise.
All these things have as their antecedent, Christ.
The promise was ultimately about him (Gal 3:16)
It was his righteous life that was imputed to us, and our sinful lives that were counted to him, thus earning both the forgiveness and righteousness that faith in Christ takes hold of.
The faith that justifies is faith in Christ (Rom 3:22)
And indeed he purchased that faith for us on the cross (Phil 1:29)
And so the promise rests on grace to us, because it rested on the merits of Christ.
So, you cannot have Romans 4:13-17 without the finished work of Jesus. Although it is implied in the passage, it is explicitly required the passage.
So, justification through Christ alone is definitely present in this passage – Solus Christus
Soli Deo Gloria (To God’s glory alone)
Verses 16 and 17 of Romans 4 show us that ultimately, it was God’s guaranteed promise to Abraham that we are depending on. It was so guaranteed that God could say “I HAVE made you the father of many nations”, even while Abraham still had no children. And the reason for this is that God is the only one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist.
Why can he do this? Because all things exist by and for him – for his glory.
Nothing exists apart from him, and from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom 11:36). So, God is both undergirding and bringing about (through Christ, who is God in the flesh) this promise. It was done all out of sheer grace, and for no other reason than that he might be seen as glorious.
This promise was from God, it was brought about through God, and although it was for our joy, it was for our joy IN God. The promise that we would have peace with God IS for our joy, but that joy is found in God. In treasuring him (because that’s what it means to glorify him).
So, God’s glory is magnified in our justification being by faith in Christ (instead of our works) and by his grace (instead of our merit) and our justification finds its end in our being set free to glorify God by enjoying him forever – Soli Deo Gloria
Romans 4 has been a joy to study, and has confirmed ever more in me the truth of the 5 Solas, and if I were to expand out past simply verses 13-17, it would be even more explicitly clear how pervasive each of those “Solas” are in this chapter.
There were many things where the reformers were only beginning to reform, and thus they issued the call of “Semper Reformanda” (always reforming), but in these essential areas, I find instead that scripture is “always confirming” their truth to me.