The Word of Faith Movement and Romans 4:17?

Question
I'm in the Word of Faith Movement, but I've been hearing teaching on Romans 4:17 that seems a little off? I'm not sure though, but it seems greedy in a way. Can you explain the meaning of Romans 4?
Answer
Thanks for your question. It's good to be cautious.

Some Word of Faith (WoF) groups misuse Romans 4:17 to teach what is called "the name it - claim it - frame it" doctrine. In other words, a person can "name" or "confess" that they have a new red convertible Mercedes - continue to "claim" it (this is WoF "faith") despite what they may see - and then in time they will "frame" what they have continuously claimed (that is own the aforesaid red convertible Mercedes). So, in the Word of Faith Movement God is treated as a sort of cosmic genie, where He can be summoned by lying claims called "confessions." WoF teachers rationalize that if God "calls into being things that were not" (Rom. 4:17), then true believers will do the same.

However, the above is a complete distortion of what Paul is teaching in the Book of Romans. Romans 4:17 focuses upon the power of God's promises and His faithfulness to keep those promises. It's not about Abraham's and Sarah's confession, but about God's faithfulness.

Romans 4 teaches that salvation is by faith alone. In the first few verses of Romans 4, Paul is like a prosecutor building a divine court case against a defendant. In this case, the defendant is "justification by works" (Rom. 4:2, 4). According to Paul "works" are guilty of not providing justification. In essence, in Romans 4, Paul places two witnesses upon the courtroom stand: (1) Abraham and (3) David, neither of which were justified by works.

Many Jews asserted that Abraham was justified by works (see, Jubilees 23:10; 16.28; 24.11; 2 Bar. 57.1-2; Mishnah, Kidd 4:14). Essentially, they asserted that Abraham:

  • performed the whole of the Law before it was written

  • was perfect in all his works

  • had no need of repentance

However, according to the Apostle, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, this was not accurate. First, Abraham was a Gentile, not a Jew (Gen. 11:27-28, 31; 15:7). Second, Paul asserts that Abraham had the gospel preached to him (Gal. 3:8). If we carefully examine the book of Genesis we will see that Abraham continued to preach the gospel to himself (he kept on believing; Heb. 11:8-19). In Romans 4, Paul maintains that Abraham's obedience and good works, were the fruit of his unquestioning saving faith in God, which in itself was a free gift of God. Paul is asserting that "believing" (Greek, episteusen) is profoundly different from "working" (Greek, ergon). "Believing" relies upon Someone else, while "working" relies on one's self. "Believing" involves freely receiving, while "working" requires doing.

So, Paul is emphasizing that God's righteousness is not a by-product of anything man can do; it is something outside of man, an alien righteousness granted to one by God's grace alone. This is why it must "counted" (Greek, logizomai, meaning "reckoned") to them, which Paul emphasizes throughout the chapter (Rom. 4:3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24). So, in context, God is the one who reckons righteousness. Righteousness is gracious in character (blessing, Rom. 4:6, 8) and in context it is defined in terms of forgiveness of sins (Rom. 4:7).

The object of Abraham's faith was God, not himself or his confession (Rom. 4:3). According to Paul, good works follow genuine faith (Eph. 2:9-10). Against all-natural odds (Gen. 15:4-5), "Abraham believed the LORD, and [God] counted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). So, Abraham was justified freely by God's grace. Consequently, Romans 3:27 was true of Abraham too. Abraham had nothing to boast about. Abraham was justified by faith alone, not works. See WCF 7.6; 16.5; BC 22.

Paul continues his argument in Romans 4:6-8. Having established the foundation of his case in Romans 4:1-5, Paul brings in another witness (cf. 2 Cor. 13:1; cf. Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16) against the defendant of "justification by works." He places King David upon the divine court-room stand. What does David say?

David testifies concerning his blessed relief of sins forgiven. David had: (1) coveted Bathsheba; (2) committed adultery with Bathsheba; and (3) in essence murdered Uriah. David had broken at least three of the Ten commandments. He was literally helpless before holy God. Death is the penalty of sin (Rom. 3:23; cf. 2 Sam. 12:13). However, David testifies that he received an undeserved righteousness bestowed upon him:

Psalm 32:1-2 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

So, David confirms Abraham's testimony. Both state that righteous was from outside of themselves. Both affirm that it is the Lord alone that reckoned righteous to their account:

Genesis 15:6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Psalm 32:2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

When Paul tenders his closing statement, it is the cry of the Reformation's five Solas:

My gospel using "scripture alone" (Latin, Sola scriptura) states that both Abraham and David by "faith alone" (Sola fide), through "grace alone" (Sola gratia) attained Christ's righteous through "Christ alone" (Solo Christo), "to the glory of God alone" (Soli Deo gloria).

There is no room left for "justification by works." "Justification by works" is guilty of not providing biblical justification. Those that think they are justified by works are "guilty" before the Throne.

However, Paul is not finished with his argument yet and he continues to Romans 4:9-12. The Jews considered Abraham their father ("our father Abraham," Rom. 4:12). So, is justification by faith alone only for the Jews? Certainly not! Abraham was a Gentile (Gen. 11:27-28, 31; 15:7). He was also the father of Ishmaelites and Edomites (Gen. 25:1-25; 36:1-43). So, what applied to the Jews above also pertains to all Gentiles. See WCF 7.5; 14.1; 27.1; 28.1; 28.4; 28.5; WLC 34, 162, 166, 167, 172, 176; BC 33; HC 66.

In addition, Abraham (Abram) was credited as righteous well before he was circumcised. Look at the biblical facts:

  • Genesis 15:2-3, states Abram was childless; "for I continue childless" ... "Behold, you have given me no offspring."

  • Genesis 15:4-6, chronicles the promise to Abram that he would have an heir; "your very own son shall be your heir."

  • Genesis 16:16, reports that, "Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael" to him.

  • Genesis 17:24-27, affirms that Ishmael was 13 yoa when his 99-year-old father Abraham, and his whole household were circumcised.

Therefore, assuming that Hagar was with child soon after Abraham's faith (Gen. 15:6), there is a space of at least 14 years between Abraham being reckoned to be righteousness and him being circumcised. While it may have even been longer; a time less than 14 years is literally impossible. So, Abraham was declared a righteous man while still a Gentile! In essence, Paul is saying if one can properly add and subtract then one will affirm that justification is by faith alone, not works. Abraham rested in his faith (believed God, Rom. 4:3, 16), not his works.

Circumcision was a covenant "sign" and "seal" (Rom. 4:11). A sign signifies something greater than itself. When we see the Golden Arches off of a highway the sign signifies something other than itself is present - a restaurant. It is a place of rest and so-called feasting. So, the sign is a comfort to the observer. As a "sign," circumcision was a distinguishing mark setting Abraham and his descendants apart as God's covenant people. However, it was not merely a sign, but a seal as well meaning they were in covenant with God.

Likewise, in the New Covenant, baptism marks one as a member of God's covenant and it acts as a seal, authenticating that one is within God's covenant. Let's be clear. Baptism doesn't save; it is a sign and seal of covenant inclusion, not necessarily regeneration. The Westminster Larger Catechism Question 165, asks, "What is baptism?" It answers:

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord's. See WLC Q 166-167 as well.

So, Abraham is the father of all those that believe - not merely of the Jew, but the Gentiles too (Rom. 4:11-12). As Paul maintains in Galatians 3:29, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."

Paul continues his argument in Romans 4:13-17. Having firmly established that justification is not by works or circumcision, the Apostle continues his indictment of the guilty before God and now asserts that the Law had nothing to do with justification either. After all the Law came 430 years after Abraham was made heir to the promise by faith (Gal. 3:17; cf. Gen. 15:5).

Moreover, "if the inheritance depends on the Law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God freely granted it to Abraham through a promise" (Gal. 3:18). So, if those who live by the Law are heirs, then faith has no value. Law and promise are distinct from one another. Stott argues:

Law-language ('you shall') demands our obedience, but promise-language ('I will') demands our faith (Gal. 3:12). What God said to Abraham was not 'Obey this law and I will bless you', but 'I will bless you; believe my promise'.

Paul now stuns his readers. The Apostle, fully acquainted with the Scriptures concerning Abraham, now maintains that God's promise to Abraham was that he would be heir to the world! (Rom. 4:13). But, in Genesis Abraham was promised Canaan (Gen. 13:12, 14, 17)?

What could he mean then? How did Canaan suddenly become the world? Paul knew that by the good and necessary consequence of Scripture, it may be deduced (WCF 1.6) that:

  • Abraham would be the father of many nations, not just Israel (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).

  • Abraham's seed was Messianic (John 8:56; Gal. 3:16) and therefore "in Christ" Abraham's seed would exercise universal dominion (Psa. 2:8; Isa. 9:7; Rom. 8:17; Gal. 3:27-29; 2 Tim. 2:11-13; cf. Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 20:4; 22:5).

So, Paul emphasizes that the promise was much greater than the Jews had even realized! And since, Abraham was now deceased, the only way he could be heir of the world was by promise, not works (i.e. dead people can't inherit anything and don't work).

In Romans 4:15-16, Paul continues with the delivery of his argument. In reality, no one except Christ can keep the Law (Matt. 5:17-18). Seeing we can't obey the entire Law, it makes the promise null and void (Gal. 5:3; Jas. 2:10). So, the Law enhances one's sense of transgression and thus of being under God's wrath. So, if the fulfillment of the promise(s) was based upon obedience to the Law it would never be obtained. In other terms, the Law itself is not sin, rather it is the Law which is transgressed that is sin and works wrath (Rom. 7:7). Because of man's sinful human nature, the Law of God which all mankind violate, so far from justifying them actually condemns them working in them wrath. Why? Because the Law makes no provision for grace and mercy. Romans 4:16 reads, "it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace." Therefore, the emphasis is upon God's grace; justification is by God's grace alone. After election, effectual calling, and regeneration, faith's limited function in conversion is an empty hand receiving what grace lovingly offers; "otherwise grace would no longer be grace" (Rom. 11:6).

So, Abraham is the father of many nations (Rom. 4:17; "the father of all who believe," Rom. 4:11) by faith alone. As Paul maintains in Galatians 3:29, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." As in the example of Lazarus (John 11:1-44), God alone is the one that can give life to the dead.

As to the phrase, "calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom. 4:17), this refers to the fact that God can speak of things that do not exist yet, as if they do exist, as his Word never returns void but accomplishes that to which he sent it to do (Isa. 55:11; cf. Num. 23:29; Isa. 40:8; 46:10; Matt. 24:35). So, God can speak of things that don't exist as if they actually do, because they actually will and already do in his decree(s). So, this is the way he spoke to Abraham, as by the design of God, Abraham being the father of many nations, will come to its ultimate consummation in the last day. God called the world into being Ex-Nihilo (Isa. 48:13) - and it is. In a similar way, he called Abraham's seed into existence (the elect, Eph. 1:4-5) - and they will be as well. They are as good as seated in heaven heavenly places in Christ Jesus already (cf. Eph. 2:6).

Paul continues stating Romans 4:18-22. Now, that Paul has both raised and proved his case against the false religion of "justification by works," he speaks to the reasonableness of Abraham's hope, faith, and gospel (Gal. 3:8). Some definitions are in order:

"Hope" refers to the anticipation of something desirable. In Abraham's case that he would have a son, an heir. Hendricksen states:

In the present case the object of hope was the fulfilment of God's promise that Abraham would have a son, in whose line the precious promise of God - "I will be your God ... in your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed ... So shall your seed be" - would attain fulfilment.

Against all hope, Abraham believed in hope (Rom. 4:18). What seemed absolutely impossible humanly speaking, Abraham believed God not only could, but would do. When Abraham looked at the obstacle of his old ragged body that was as good as dead and the barrenness of Sarah's womb, he still grasped onto hope (Rom. 4:19; Gen. 17:19); a hope that maketh not ashamed (cf. Rom. 5:5).

No unbelief made him waver (Rom. 4:20). Though years passed, Abraham remained faithful. Abraham's faith was strengthened by that which he encountered (Rom. 4:20). So, though no unbelief made him wavier (Rom. 4:20), this doesn't mean he didn't have struggles (Gen. 17:17-18). Abraham wasn't living in some mere fantasy world. He faced the double-death facts: (1) he had an old body, which was as good as dead and (2) Sarah was barren, or as good as dead. However, he also understood some other double-life giving facts as well: (1) God is trustworthy and (2) he will do what he says he will do!!! This is faith.

"Faith" is simply believing or trusting a person. In this instance, Abraham trusting God, who is altogether absolutely trustworthy. Biblical faith is not some mere superstition, but rock-solid trust in the most trustworthy Person in the universe. Therefore, biblical faith while it transcends reason, it is completely rational. It is the firm conviction in the love, sovereignty, and trustworthiness of God himself. Abraham believed in God's covenant promises and remained faithful. That is why his faith was "counted to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4:22).

Paul continues his argument in Romans 4:23-25. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The record of Abraham's life is not just some mere historical account, it also applies to every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ - Jew and Gentile alike; it was written for believer's instruction (Rom. 15:4). When one genuinely believes in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, they are exercising a faith similar to Abraham's. Abraham believed that God could and would raise his old body and Sarah's lifeless womb from the dead (Rom. 4:17, 19) and when Christians believe in God who literally raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, they are demonstrating an Abraham-like faith (Acts 3:15; 4:10; 13:30; Rom. 7:4; 8:11; 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:4-7, 11-12, 20; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10; 1 Pet. 1:21).

  • God raised dead Abraham's body

  • God raised the lifeless womb of Sarah

  • God raised Jesus from the dead

  • God raises dead sinners from their spiritual depravity into union with him

Believing in God is the key component that Paul is stressing. The one who delivered up Jesus and handed him over to be crucified is God (Rom. 8:32; cf. John 3:16; Acts 2:23-24; 4:27-28; Rom. 5:8). Not only was Christ handed over by God for the sins of his elect (Heb. 2:13), he was also raised for his chosen people's justification too (Rom. 4:25). If Jesus didn't rise from the dead, no one could have been saved (1 Cor. 15:17). However, because Jesus was perfectly righteous, death could not hold him (Acts 2:24).

We need to notice well the phrase, "it was counted to him" (Rom. 4:23). These words center upon God's action in crediting Abraham's faith to his account as being right with him (Gen. 15:6; Gal. 3:6). And the very same God that credited Abraham's faith to his account, also credits the believer's faith to their account. Christ was raised that he might enter the holy place not made with hands, and present his own blood, that his people might be made righteous, through his death (Heb. 9:11-12, 24). Notice when God's people are made righteous, upon their justification through Christ alone.

Paul's closing argument sums up the ruling of the divine court, that the elect are justified by faith alone and not by the works of the Law!

As can be seen from the context of Romans 4:17, the WoF Movement completely distorts the true meaning of Scripture. The Word of Faith Moment is a cult. It contains many false doctrines. This is not something to take lightly as its another gospel, which is no gospel at all. Run from such teaching that is contained the WoF Movement.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).