What does Romans 4:17 mean?
ESV: as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
NIV: As it is written: 'I have made you a father of many nations.' He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
NASB: (as it is written: 'I HAVE MADE YOU A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS') in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist.
CSB: As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations-- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, the one who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist.
NLT: That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, 'I have made you the father of many nations.' This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.
KJV: (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.
Paul wrote at the end of the previous verse that Abraham is the father of all who share in his faith in God. Now, as evidence of this, Paul quotes what God said to Abraham in Genesis 17:5, "I have made you the father of many nations." These nations include all people whose faith is in God.
Paul then picks up the statement he'd begun just before this quote. Abraham is father of all believers in the sight of God. That is, Abraham is the spiritual father of all believers, not just of those who are under the law, meaning the Jews. Paul describes the God Abraham believed in using very specific terms. This is the God who gives life to the dead, partly referring to God bringing Abraham's and Sarah's bodies back to life-giving form even at the ages of 100 and 90 respectively, fulfilling His promise to give them a son. It is true, as well, however, that God also brings life to the dead in the sense of resurrection from the dead, as He did when raising Jesus back to life after the crucifixion.
This is also the God who calls into existence things that were not there before. Again, this likely refers to Abraham's and Sarah's promised miracle child and the nations that would come through him. Nations that had never been would spring into existence, including the nation of Israel.
It is also possible that Paul is describing God as creator of the universe, tying back to what he wrote about those who reject God in spite of witnessing all He has made (Romans 1:18-20). Those who believe in Him, as Abraham and all of his offspring do, understand and embrace the truth that God is the maker of all things. This is often described as creation ex nihilo, meaning "creation out of nothing."
Romans 4:13–25 continues to focus on the faith of Abraham. God made promises to Abraham and his descendants, promises which Abraham believed. Those promises can't be received by keeping the law, but only by faith. God promised Abraham a son with Sarah, and Abraham continued to believe that promise would be kept even as it became less and less likely in human terms. We, too, can be counted as righteous by faith in Jesus' death for our sins and God's resurrection of Him for our justification.
Romans 4 is all about the faith of Abraham. God declared Abraham righteous because of his faith, not because of his works. A declaration of righteousness was God's gift, not a payment. This righteousness is available to everyone, circumcised or not. God declared Abraham righteous many years before he was circumcised, making him the spiritual father of all who believe, whether circumcised or not, whether Jew or Gentile. God's promises to Abraham and his offspring can't be received by keeping the law, only by faith. Abraham's faith in God's promise of a son with Sarah did not waver even as he grew older. God will declare us righteous, as well, if by faith we believe in the God who delivered Jesus to die for our sins and raised Him back to life for our justification.
So far, this letter has established that every single person is guilty of sin and does not deserve God's forgiveness. Whether we know God's law explicitly, or not, we still fail to obey. Only faith in Christ can rescue us from the penalty we deserve for that sin. Romans 4 explores the example of Abraham, and God's amazing gift of declaring Abraham righteous solely on the basis of his faith. This declaration was given many years before Abraham was circumcised, causing Abraham to become the father of all who believe God by faith. Abraham's continued faith in God is a model for us. Romans will continue by exploring how Christ brings us peace with God.
The book of Romans is the New Testament's longest, most structured, and most detailed description of Christian theology. Paul lays out the core of the gospel message: salvation by grace alone through faith alone. His intent is to explain the good news of Jesus Christ in accurate and clear terms. As part of this effort, Paul addresses the conflicts between law and grace, between Jews and Gentiles, and between sin and righteousness. As is common in his writing, Paul closes out his letter with a series of practical applications.
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