What does Romans chapter 4 mean?Romans 4 focuses on the faith of Abraham. Genesis 15:6 says clearly that Abraham believed God and that faith—his trusting belief in God—was counted to Abraham as righteousness. Abraham was not justified by works. God wasn't paying him back for something. Abraham's was justified as God's gift to him. In the same way, David speaks of those whose sins the Lord does not count against them as being blessed by God. They do not earn forgiveness. God gives it (Romans 4:1–8).
This brings up a possible objection: wasn't Abraham righteous because he obeyed God by being circumcised? That's what many Jewish people believed. Paul says no, God declared Abraham righteous for his faith long before Abraham was circumcised. Obedience comes after faith; in Abraham's case, many years passed between the two events! Circumcision became a sign of Israel's faith in God and seal of the righteousness God had already declared for Abraham. In this way, Abraham became a spiritual father to all who come to God by faith, even those who are not circumcised for religious reasons; in this passage, referred to as the Gentiles. Abraham also became a spiritual father, as well as a physical one, to all the believing Jews who would follow the example of his faith in God (Romans 4:9–12).
God essentially promised Abraham and his offspring "the world," in a sense. Can that promise be claimed by keeping the law? Paul says no. For one thing, the promise was given centuries before the law existed. If law-keeping was required for the promise, then Abraham's most immediate descendants would have been left out! Second, nobody can keep the law. This is a point Paul was careful to make very clearly in chapter 3. If receiving the promise depends on keeping the law, the promise is useless and so is faith. No, God's promises to Abraham's offspring will be received by faith (Romans 4:13–19).
Abraham's faith in one specific promise is then held up as a model for us. God told Abraham he would have a natural-born son with his wife, Sarah and become the father of many nations. Abraham believed that and continued to believe it even as the years passed without a child. He remained faithful, even as he approached 100 years old, and Sarah approached 90. In fact, Paul insists, Abraham's faith grew stronger, not weaker, over time. That is why God counted his faith as righteousness. The same can happen for all of us now. Those who believe in the God who handed over Jesus to pay the price of our sin with His death and then raised Him back to life for our justification will be declared righteous, as well (Romans 4:20–25).