The context of Romans 4 is salvation by faith. Paul uses the example of the patriarch Abraham to show how our relationship with God is based on faith and not the works of the Law. Romans 4:17 states, “As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ [Abraham] 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.”
The truth that God “calls into being things that were not” is expressed various ways in various translations: God “calleth those things which be not as though they were” (KJV), “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (ESV), “calls into being that which does not exist” (NASB), and “summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do” (NET).
It is possible to understand the last part of Romans 4:17 as meaning that God has the ability to create ex nihilo. This idea is brought out in translations that say that God “creates new things out of nothing” (NLT) or simply “creates new things” (CEV). The “nothing” in this context would be the deadness of Sarah’s womb (verse 19), and the “new things” that God creates would be Abraham’s offspring mentioned in verse 18. God gives life to the dead and creates something from nothing.
The other translations emphasize the decree of God—the fact that He “calls” or “summons.” When God speaks, it’s as good as done. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham (“father of a multitude”) while Sarah was still childless. God spoke of Abraham’s descendants when as yet there were none. God truly has the ability to speak of impossible things and, in the speaking, make them possible.
Abraham heard God’s promise and believed it. That faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness (Genesis 15:6) and provides the example of all who would later exercise faith in God (Romans 4:11). Looking into the future, God can speak of things that do not exist as if they do exist. God has power over death and the ability to create life. Abraham believed this, and so do we, if we are spiritual descendants of Abraham (see Galatians 3:29).
Some Word of Faith groups misuse Romans 4:17 to teach the name-it-claim-it doctrine. According to this false doctrine, we can speak God’s Word over our finances, our bodies, our automobiles, etc., and see miraculous results to our benefit. All we need is a “confession” and enough faith, and God will transform the physical realm into an environment of blessing. We can “speak those things that are not as though they are,” sit back, and enjoy the fruit of our words. Of course, Romans 4:17 is not remotely about the power of our words; it is about the power of God’s promises and His faithfulness to keep those promises. Isaac, the son of promise, was not born because Abraham “confessed” or “declared” certain words but because God promised he would be.