Can you explain Romans 4:17—“[God] calleth those things which be not as though they were?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

To begin our study, we will read Romans 4:17 in context: “[16] Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, [17] (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. [18] Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.”

Let us go back to Genesis chapter 17, where the LORD God promises to give Abram/Abraham a son, Isaac. “I have made thee a father of many nations” (Romans 4:17) quotes Genesis 17:4-5: “[4] As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. [5] Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.” Isaac will not be born until Genesis 21:5, approximately a year later. Yet, God spoke of Abraham’s fatherhood as though it was already true: “a father of many nations have I made thee [not “a father of many nations will I make thee”].”

“God calleth those things which be not as though they were” is another way of saying, “God considers His future promises as though they have already been fulfilled.” Abraham did not know everything, but he at least believed God’s words about the future. Upon hearing God’s communication to him, childless Abraham made up his mind to consider himself a father. The LORD God said it, and while Abraham did not see it physically, he could, through the eyes of faith, see the birth of Isaac as if it was already accomplished (which is exactly what God Himself saw because He could look into the future, and Abraham believing God’s words saw into the future too)! No evidence to the contrary swayed Abraham: he literally did see that promise fulfilled eventually, though believing in it long before it actually occurred.

Moreover, according to Romans chapter 4, God’s promise to Abraham involved more than just a literal, physical bloodline (Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, Jacob’s 12 sons, and the resulting 12 tribes of the nation Israel). The Apostle Paul comments that we (as Gentiles) have a relationship to Abraham too because we share Abraham’s faith. As Abraham was saved by grace through faith without works, so we are saved by grace through faith without works. In that sense, we also are “the children of Abraham.” He is said to be “the father of us all” (read Romans 4:16,23-25, for example). What did Abraham do to be justified? He did nothing; Abraham had no works or Law-keeping (the Mosaic Law was given 400 years later). Abraham simply believed God and it was counted/imputed unto him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:1-5). The same is true of us in the Dispensation of Grace; therefore, Paul cites those passages.

Also, as justification qualified Abraham for eternal life, we also (as justified people) are now able to have eternal life. Not only does Paul state that God “calleth those things which be not as though they were,” God also “quickeneth the dead” (Romans 4:17). By the time of Genesis chapter 17, Abraham’s reproductive capability was functionally dead; it was here that God restored it to life. Continue reading Romans chapter 4: “[19] And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: [20] He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; [21] And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.” Here is resurrection life, how God enables—brings to life—dead sinners so they can function for His glory!!! We experienced a similar event when we passed from eternal death to eternal life, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as sufficient payment for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; cf. Romans 4:5,23-25).

While there was no one but Abraham (no Isaac, no other believers such as believing Jews in Israel, no believing Jew or Gentile members of the Church the Body of Christ yet either), God had already—in Genesis chapter 17, before Abraham’s children came—called Abram “father of many.” (“Abraham” literally means “father of a multitude,” according to Genesis 17:5. Notice the name change here from “Abram” to “Abraham,” God giving him His Word so he/Abram could have faith in it.) Abraham was childless—that “many”/multitude did not yet exist. However, God considered it just as true as if it did exist, since He knows the future and accomplishes what He wants now in order to bring about His desired end. Without sight, Abraham agreed with God.

Almighty God knows the end from the beginning, what is yet to be—whether giving Abraham his son Isaac, or bringing us safely to Heaven. Like Abraham, we do not currently see with physical eyes God’s promises to us fulfilled, but we do know they will come to pass in His own timing. We simply behave and believe like Abraham: trust God’s Word to us, Romans through Philemon, knowing full well we too will one day see with physical eyes God’s promises to us that we already have right now!

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen
(Hebrews 11:1).

“(For we walk by faith, not by sight: )”
(2 Corinthians 5:7).

Also see:
» What happens after death?
» Is John 20:29 applicable to us today?
» “If only I saw a miracle…?”