Romans 4 – Abraham and David Demonstrate Righteousness Apart from Works
A. Abraham is declared righteous through faith.
1. (1-3) Abraham was not justified by works, but declared righteous through faith.
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
a. What then shall we say: In building on the thought begun in Romans 3:31 Paul asks the question, “Does the idea of justification through faith, apart from the works of the law, make what God did in the Old Testament irrelevant?”
b. What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found: In answering that question, Paul looks at Abraham, who was the most esteemed man among the Jewish people of his day – even greater than the “George Washington” of the Jewish people.
c. For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about: If anyone could be justified by works, they would have something to boast about. Nevertheless such boasting is nothing before God (but not before God).
i. This boasting is nothing before God because even if works could justify a man, he would in some way still fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
ii. This boasting is nothing because before God, every pretense is stripped away and it is evident that no one can really be justified by works.
d. For what does the Scripture say? The Old Testament does not say Abraham was declared righteous because of his works. Instead, Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
i. Paul makes it clear: Abraham’s righteousness did not come from performing good works, but from belief in God. It was a righteousness obtained through faith.
ii. Generally, the Jewish teachers of Paul’s day believed that Abraham was justified by his works, by keeping the law. Ancient passages from the rabbis say: “We find that Abraham our father had performed the whole Law before it was given” and “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord.” The rabbis argued that Abraham kept the law perfectly before it was given, keeping it by intuition or anticipation.
iii. The Apostle Paul does not say that Abraham was made righteous in all of his doings, but God accounted Abraham as righteous. Our justification is not God making us perfectly righteous, but counting us as perfectly righteous. After we are counted righteous, then God begins making us truly righteous, culminating at our resurrection.
iv. “Counted is logizomai. It was used in early secular documents; ‘put down to one’s account, let my revenues be placed on deposit at the storehouse; I now give orders generally with regard to all payments actually made or credited to the government.’ Thus, God put to Abraham’s account, placed on deposit for him, credited to him, righteousness . . . Abraham possessed righteousness in the same manner as a person would possess a sum of money placed in his account in a bank.” (Wuest)
v. Genesis 15:6 does not tell us how other men accounted Abraham. Instead, it tells us how God accounted him. “Moses [in Genesis] does not, indeed, tell us what men thought of him [Abraham], but how he was accounted before the tribunal of God.” (Calvin)
vi. Remember that righteousness is also more than the absence of evil and guilt. It is a positive good, meaning that God does not only declare us innocent, but righteous.
2. (4-5) A distinction made between grace and works.
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
a. Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace: The idea of grace stands opposite to the principle of works; grace has to do with receiving the freely given gift of God, works has to do with earning our merit before God.
i. Wuest on charis, the ancient Greek word translated grace: “Signified in classical authors a favor done out of the spontaneous generosity of the heart without any expectation or return. Of course, this favor was always done to one’s friend, never to an enemy . . . But when charis comes into the New Testament, it takes an infinite leap forward, for the favor God did at Calvary was for those who hated Him.”
b. Not counted as grace but as debt: A system of works seeks to put God in debt to us, making God owe us His favor because of our good behavior. In works-thinking, God owes us salvation or blessing because of our good works.
i. God isn’t praising laziness here. “The antithesis is not simply between the worker and the non-worker but between the worker and person who does not work but believes.” (Murray)
c. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness: Righteousness can never be accounted to the one who approaches God on the principle of works. Instead it is given to the one who believes on Him who justifies the ungodly.
d. Him who justifies the ungodly: This is who God justifies – the ungodly. We might expect God would only justify a godly man but because of what Jesus did on the cross, God can justify the ungodly.
i. It isn’t as if God is happy with our ungodly condition. We are not justified because of our ungodliness, but despite our ungodliness.
ii. Morris quoting Denney: “The paradoxical phrase, Him that justifieth the ungodly, does not suggest that justification is a fiction, whether legal or of any other sort, but that it is a miracle.”
e. Faith is accounted for righteousness: Just as Abraham, so our faith is accounted for righteousness. This was not some special arrangement for Abraham alone. We can enter into this relationship with God also.
i. By this we understand that there are not two ways of salvation – saved by works through law-keeping in the Old Testament and saved by grace through faith in the New Testament. Everyone who has ever been saved – Old or New Testament – is saved by grace through faith, through their relationship of a trusting love with God. Because of the New Covenant we have benefits of salvation that Old Testament saints did not have but we do not have a different manner of salvation.
3. (6-8) David and the blessedness of justification through faith.
Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”
a. Just as David also describes: King David of the Old Testament knew what it was like to be a guilty sinner. He knew the seriousness of sin and how good it is to be truly forgiven. He knew the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. If David were judged on works alone, the righteous God must condemn him; nevertheless he knew by experience that blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven.
i. “No sinner, and try he ever so hard, can possibly carry his own sins away and come back cleansed of guilt. No amount of money, no science, no inventive skill, no armies of millions, nor any other earthly power can carry away from the sinner one little sin and its guilt. Once it is committed, every sin and its guilt cling to the sinner as close as does his own shadow, cling to all eternity unless God carries them away.” (Lenski)
b. To whom God imputes righteousness apart from works . . . blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin: David agrees with Abraham regarding the idea of an imputed righteousness, a goodness that is given, not earned.
i. “Our adversaries the papists oppose the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us; they cavil at the very word . . . and yet the apostle useth the word ten times in this chapter.” (Poole)
c. Blessed is the man: In the Psalm quoted (Psalm 32:1-2), David speaks of the blessedness, not of the one who is justified through works, but of the one who is cleansed through imputation. This is centered on what God places upon us (the righteousness of Jesus), not on what we do for God.
4. (9-12) Abraham was counted righteous before he was circumcised; therefore he was not counted righteous because he was circumcised.
Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
a. Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? If we are counted righteous by God because of faith, not because of circumcision (or any other ritual), then the blessedness mentioned in Romans 4:7 can be given to the uncircumcised Gentiles by faith.
b. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Abraham was counted as righteous in Genesis 15:6. He did not receive the covenant of circumcision until Genesis 17, which was at least 14 years later. Therefore his righteousness wasn’t based on circumcision, but on faith.
c. The faith which he had while still uncircumcised: In fact, Abraham, the father of all those who believe, was declared righteous while he was still uncircumcised! Therefore, how could anyone then say (as some did in Paul’s day) that Gentiles must be circumcised before God would declare them righteous?
i. For the Jewish people of Paul’s day, the significance of circumcision was more than social. It was the entry point for a life lived under the Law of Moses: And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:3).
d. That he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised . . . who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised: The Jews of Paul’s day thought circumcision meant they were the true descendents of Abraham. Paul insists that to have Abraham as your father, you must walk in the steps of the faith that Abraham walked in.
i. “Our father Abraham” is an important phrase, one that the ancient Jews jealously guarded. They did not allow a circumcised Gentile convert to Judaism refer to Abraham as “our father” in the synagogue. A Gentile convert had to call Abraham “your father” and only natural born Jews could call Abraham “our father.” Paul throws out that distinction, and says that through faith, all can say, “our father Abraham.”
ii. It must have been a shock for the Jewish readers of this letter to see that Paul called Abraham the father of uncircumcised people! Faith, not circumcision, is the vital link to Abraham. It is far more important to have Abraham’s faith (and the righteousness imputed to him because of it) than it is to have Abraham’s circumcision.
iii. William Barclay explains that the Jewish teachers of Paul’s day had a saying: “What is written of Abraham is also written of his children,” meaning that promises given to Abraham extend to his descendants. Paul heartily agreed with this principle, and extended the principle of being justified by faith to all Abraham’s spiritual descendants, those who believe, who also walk in the steps of the faith of Abraham.
5. (13-15) God’s promise to Abraham was based on the principle of faith, not law or works.
For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.
a. For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law: Since all God’s dealings with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob happened before the giving of the Mosaic Law, we can’t say they were based on the law. Instead, they are based on God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness through faith.
i. “Faith is the ground of God’s blessing. Abraham was a blessed man, indeed, but he became heir of the world on another principle entirely – simple faith.” (Newell)
b. For the promise . . . through the righteousness of faith: The law cannot bring us into the blessings of God’s promises. This is not because the law is bad, but because we are unable to keep it.
c. Because the law brings about wrath: Our inability to keep the law (our transgression) means that it becomes essentially a vehicle of God’s wrath towards us, especially if we regard it as the principle by which we are justified and relate to God.
d. Where there is no law there is no transgression: How can Paul say this? Because “Transgression is the right word for overstepping a line, and this for breaking a clearly defined commandment” (Morris). Where there is no line, there is no actual transgression.
i. There is sin that is not the “crossing the line” of the Law of Moses. The root of sin isn’t in breaking the law, but in breaking trust with God; with denying His loving, caring purpose in every command He gives. Before Adam sinned he broke trust with God – therefore God’s plan of redemption is centered on a relationship of trusting love – faith – instead of law-keeping. When we center our relationship with God on law-keeping instead of trusting love, we go against His whole plan.
B. Following Abraham’s example.
1. (16) Justification according to grace, through faith.
Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all
a. It is of faith that it might be according to grace: Faith is related to grace in the same way works is related to law. Grace and law are principles, and faith and works are the means by which we pursue those principles for our relationship with God.
i. To speak technically, we are not saved by faith. We are saved by God’s grace, and grace is appropriated by faith.
b. It is of faith: Salvation is of faith and nothing else. We can only receive salvation by the principle of grace through faith. Grace can’t be gained through works, whether they be past works, present works, or promised works. This is because by definition grace is given without regard to anything in the one who receives it.
i. “Grace and faith are congruous, and will draw together in the same chariot, but grace and merit are contrary the one to the other and pull opposite ways, and therefore God has not chosen to yoke them together.” (Spurgeon)
c. So that the promise might be sure to all the seed: The promise can only be sure if it is according to grace. If law is the basis of our salvation, then our salvation depends on our performance in keeping the law – and no one can keep the law good enough to be saved by it. A law-promise of salvation can never be sure.
i. If the promise “were of the law, it would be unsure and uncertain, because of man’s weakness, who is not able to perform it.” (Poole)
d. But also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all: If our relationship with God is according to grace (not circumcision or law-keeping), then that relationship is for those who are of the faith of Abraham, even if they are not of his lineage.
i. A Gentile could say, “I am not a Jew, I am not of the law; but I am of the faith of Abraham,” and he would be just as saved as a Jewish believer in Jesus would be.
e. The father of us all: The fulfillment of the promise in Genesis 17:4-5 is found not only in Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, but especially in his role as being the father of us all who believe – and those believers come from every nation under heaven.
2. (17-18) The life-giving power of the God Abraham believed in.
(As it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed; God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.”
a. So that he became the father of many nations: Even as it took a supernatural life-giving work to make Abraham the physical father of many nations, it also took a supernatural life-giving work to make him the spiritual father of many nations.
b. Who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as if they did: These works of God demonstrate His ability to count things that are not (such as our righteousness) as if they were (as in counting us righteous).
i. If God could call the dead womb of Sarah to life, he can call those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) to new life in Jesus.
ii. “I’m greatly comforted when God speaks about me as righteous, justified, glorified, holy, pure, and saintly. God can talk about such things before they exist, because He knows they will exist.” (Smith)
c. Contrary to hope, in hope believed: This life-giving power was accomplished in Abraham as he believed. The power was evident naturally and spiritually.
i. Abraham’s example also helps us to understand the nature of faith. The conception of Abraham’s son Isaac was a miracle, but it was not an immaculate conception. Abraham’s faith did not mean that he did nothing and just waited for God to create a child in Sarah’s womb. Abraham and Sarah had marital relations and trusted God for a miraculous result. This shows us that faith does not mean doing nothing, but doing everything with trust and reliance on God.
ii. “All true believers, like Abraham, obey. Obedience is faith in action. You are to walk in the steps of the faith of father Abraham. His faith did not sit still, it took steps; and you must take these steps also by obeying God because you believe him. That faith which has no works with it is a dead faith, and will justify no one.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Sense corrects imagination, reason corrects sense, but faith corrects both. It will not be, saith sense; it cannot be, saith reason; it both can and will be, saith faith, for I have a promise for it.” (Trapp)
3. (19-22) The character of Abraham’s faith.
And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
a. Not being weak in faith: Abraham’s faith was strong but it was also strengthened. He was strengthened in faith.
i. The idea seems to be that Abraham was strengthened inhis faith; but Paul could also mean that Abraham was strengthened by his faith – certainly both were true.
ii. How we need to be strengthened in faith! “Dear brother, little faith will save thee if it be true faith, but there are many reasons why you should seek an increase of it.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Spurgeon knew that ministers and preachers especially needed to be strengthened in faith. He sometimes shared his own struggles in this area from the pulpit, but wanted to make it clear that his struggles in faith should never be indulged: “Whenever, dear hearers, you catch any of us who are teachers doubting and fearing, do not pity us, but scold us. We have no right to be in Doubting Castle. Pray do not visit us there. Follow us as far as we follow Christ, but if we get into the horrible Slough of Despond, come and pull us out by the hair of our heads if necessary, but do not fall into it yourselves.” (Spurgeon)
iv. “I do not think we shall have many conversions unless we expect God to bless the word, and feel certain that he will do so. We must not wonder and be astonished if we hear of a dozen or two conversions, but let the astonishment be that thousands are not converted when they hear such divine truth, and when we ask the Holy Spirit to attend it with divine energy. God will bless us in proportion to our faith. It is the rule of his kingdom – ‘According to your faith so be it unto you.’ O God, give thy ministers more faith! Let us believe thee firmly!” (Spurgeon)
b. He did not consider his own body, already dead: Abraham, in faith, did not look to circumstances (his own body and the deadness of Sarah’s womb) but he looked at the promise of God.
i. In Romans 4:19, there is textual uncertainty as to if we should read he considered his body as good as dead or if we should read he did not consider his own body. Either is possible, though the second seems to be a better choice.
c. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief: His faith did not waver; and it gave glory to God. Though it was a huge challenge, Abraham remained steadfast in faith.
i. “When there is no contest, it is true, no one, as I have said, denies that God can do all things; but as soon as anything comes in the way to impede the course of God’s promise, we cast down God’s power from its eminence.” (Calvin)
d. Being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform: Abraham’s faith came because he had been fully convinced of God’s ability to perform what He has promised.
i. Is your God too small? The God of Abraham was able to perform what He had promised, and Abraham was fully convinced of this.
ii. Some people don’t come to Jesus or don’t go further with Him because they are not fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. They think, “It is fine for them but it won’t work for me.” This thinking is a devilish attack on faith, and must be rejected.
e. Able to perform: This kind of faith sees the work of God done. It sees the work of God done in the immediate (Isaac was born in fulfillment of the promise) and in the eternal (accounted to him for righteousness).
4. (23-25) Abraham’s justification and our own.
Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.
a. It was not written for his sake alone: It wasn’t only for Abraham’s benefit that God declared him righteous through faith; he is an example that we are invited to follow – it is also for us. Paul’s confidence is glorious: It shall be imputed to us who believe; this wasn’t just for Abraham, but for us also.
b. Who believe in Him who raised up Jesus: When we talk about faith and saving faith in Jesus, it is important to emphasize that we mean believing that His work on the cross (delivered up because of our offenses) and triumph over sin and death (raised because of our justification) is what saves us. There are many false-faiths that can never save, and only faith in what Jesus accomplished on the cross and through the empty tomb can save us.
– Faith in the historical events of the life of Jesus will not save
– Faith in the beauty of Jesus’ life will not save
– Faith in the accuracy or goodness of Jesus’ teaching will not save
– Faith in the deity of Jesus and in His Lordship will not save
– Only faith in what the real Jesus did for us on the cross will save
c. Raised because of our justification: The resurrection has an essential place in our redemption because it demonstrates God the Father’s perfect satisfaction with the Son’s work on the cross. It proves that what Jesus did on the cross was in fact a perfect sacrifice made by One who remained perfect, even though bearing the sin of the world.
i. Delivered up because of our offenses: The ancient Greek word translated delivered (paradidomi) was used of casting people into prison or delivering them to justice. “Here it speaks of the judicial act of God the Father delivering God the Son to the justice that required the payment of the penalty for human sin.” (Wuest)
ii. “Jesus’ resurrection always includes his sacrificial death but it brings out the all-sufficiency of his death. If death had held him, he would have failed; since he was raised from death, his sacrifice sufficed, God set his seal upon it by raising him up.” (Lenski)
iii. “Christ did meritoriously work our justification and salvation by his death and passion, but the efficacy and perfection thereof with respect to us depend on his resurrection . . . This one verse is an abridgement of the whole gospel.” (Poole)
iv. In this chapter, Paul clearly demonstrated that in no way does the Old Testament contradict the gospel of salvation by grace through faith. Instead the gospel is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and Abraham – justified through faith – is our pattern.
©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission