Justification is through Faith Alone
Romans 4. Paul presents Old Testament examples which bolster the truth of the previous chapter, namely that we are justified through faith. In ch.3 we see the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:25) to satisfy God as to the question of our sins. In ch.4 we see the resurrection of Christ to secure our place of acceptance. In ch.3 we believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:26) for justification, but in ch.4 we believe what God has said (Rom. 4:24) for peace (Rom. 5:1). The word “reckon” occurs 11 times in this chapter. It means, “think it to be so,” or “consider it to be so.” The word is sometimes translated as “counted”, or “imputed”.
- Justification is Not by Works: Two Old Testament Examples (4:1-8)
- Justification is Not by Ceremony: Circumcision (4:9-12)
- Justification (Promise) is Not by Law-keeping: Three Reasons (4:13-16)
- Justification is by Faith in the God of Resurrection (4:17-22)
- Justification is by Faith in God who Raised Up Jesus (4:23-25)
Outline of Romans 4. The chapter can be broken in half:
- How we are justified; on the principle of faith, vv.1-16
- Justification is not by works (2 examples), vv.1-8
- Justification is not by ceremony, vv.9-12
- Justification is not by law-keeping, vv.13-16
- Whom we believe; the God of resurrection, vv.17-25
- Abraham believed God who quickens the dead, vv.17-22
- Christians believe the God who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, vv.23-25
Four events in Abraham’s life are alluded to in ch.4:
- The time when he believed the Word of God (v.3) and was justified.
- The time when he received the sign of circumcision (v.11).
- The time when he was promised to be heir of the world (v.13;17).
- The time when he believed in the God who quickens the dead (v.20) that Sarah would bare him a son.
Justification is Not by Works: Two Old Testament Examples (4:1-8)
Abraham and David were not insignificant persons in the Jewish economy; Abraham is the nation’s greatest patriarch, and David is the nation’s greatest king. Abraham was justified 430 years before the law was given (gal. 3:17). David was justified long after the law was given. They illustrate (in type) the two sides of justification:
- Abraham represents the positive side of justification: he gained a righteous status before God (vv. 1-5). For Christians, we go far beyond this, and are given a new position “in Christ”.
- David represents the negative side of justification: he was cleared from every charge of sin against him (vv. 6-8).
The Example of Abraham (vv.1-5)
¶ What shall we say then that Abraham our father according to flesh has found? v.1 Paul cites Abraham as his first evidence that Justification is not based on works but on faith. His first example to illustrate his thesis is Abraham; “our father according to flesh“.
2 For if Abraham has been justified on the principle of works, he has whereof to boast: but not before God; v.2 If Abraham was reckoned righteous on the principle of “works,” then there would be something in his blessing which he could take credit for, and thus he could “boast” in it. But that was not the case; “before God” is the aspect of justification in Romans, compare with James where justification is before men. There is room for boasting with something before men, but not before God.
3 for what does the scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” [Gen. 15:6] v.3 By asking “what saith the scripture?” Paul takes the matter completely out of the realm of human opinion and places it squarely on the foundation of the written word. This is a critical step when dealing with spiritual questions. This is a quotation from Gen. 15:6 (see also Gal. 3:6; Jam. 2:23). The point is that Abraham did no works, but simply believed God’s word about the numerous seed, etc., and God reckoned him righteous in grace. Note: “believing God” (believing what He says, believing “on” Him) is much greater than “believing in God” (believing that He exists).
The “righteousness of faith” or “imputed righteousness”. This is not (as many believe) God’s righteousness given or transferred to the believer. That would be impossible, because God’s righteousness is a character of God. (However, there is a certain sense in which the righteousness of God is placed upon us as a garment or shield, see Rom. 3:22.) Rather, imputed righteousness is a righteous status that we are given by God if we have faith. God reckons men righteous who by practice are not righteous, but have faith in what God has said concerning the death and resurrection of Christ. Actually, God has been reckoning men of faith righteous from the beginning of time (e.g. Abraham and David).
4 Now to him that works the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but of debt: v.4 This verse shows that works and grace are exclusive. If a man could earn justification by works – let’s say he lived a perfect life – then God would owe the successful worker salvation! That would change the principle of God’s justification from free grace to debt, and that would contradict Gen. 15:6!
5 but to him who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. v.5 It is not that his faith was reckoned to him as righteousnesses (deeds), but that, in God’s reckoning, he himself was given a permanent status of righteousness on account of his faith. “Imputed righteousness” is given to us, not like adding money to a bank account (a quantity of deeds, say 10,000 righteousnesses), but rather like stamping an entire life with a new quality or status… we are righteous in God’s sight! It is different than “put to account”, which is an expression only used twice in scripture (Phil. 18 and Rom. 5:13).
The Example of David (vv.6-8)
6 Even as David also declares the blessedness of the man to whom God reckons righteousness without works: v.6 Paul cites David as a second example of one whom God had reckoned righteous, with nothing mentioned about works. Notice that the negative side of justification is emphasized; non-imputation of sin. Abraham was justified before the law was given, David was justified after the law was given. God’s principle of justification didn’t change! David remarks on the happiness of the man who has assurance from the Word of God that his sins are covered.
7 “Blessed they whose lawlessnesses have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered: 8 blessed the man to whom the Lord shall not at all reckon sin.” [Psa. 32:1-2] vv.7-8 The prophet said to David, “The lord has put away thy sin.” David was guilty of sinning, and he needed forgiveness. This is the only time forgiveness is mentioned in Romans. Forgiveness is the negative aspect of justification; non-imputation of sins. David broke five of the ten commandments; (1) he coveted, (2) he lied, (3) he stole, (4) he committed adultery, and (5) he committed murder. It says “whose sins are covered”, far different than David covering his own crimes; now they were covered by God, or blotted out of His sight. David spoke of being “blessed” or “happy” with knowledge that his sins were gone; although settled peace with God wasn’t known by Old Testament saints, only governmental forgiveness.
Is Old Testament justification the same as New Testament justification? Abraham was “justified,” but not in the full New Testament sense of justification, which involves being brought into a new position before God “in Christ” risen (Gal. 2:17). However, the principle of faith on which Old Testament saints and New Testament saints are blessed is the same, which is Paul's point here. The Old Testament saints received absolution for each sin they committed; but never were brought into a new position through the blood of Christ, because it hadn’t been shed yet. They were shut out from entering into the holiest by the separating veil. However, while justification was not revealed before the cross, God did justify anticipatively. David only knew of sins being covered (held in abeyance for one more year) as the Day of Atonement indicates (Lev. 16). But today, with the work of Christ having been accomplished, we have a fuller revelation through the Gospel as to what God has done with our sins. We know that our sins are taken away, not just covered (1 John 3:5). And now, a new and living way has been opened for us! The “offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” is complete, and we have “no more conscience of sins”!
Justification is Not by Ceremony: Circumcision (4:9-12)
Application of circumcision to today. In our daily life in the Western hemisphere we don’t face the Jewish influence as Paul faced it. You don’t hear people going around saying “you need to be circumcised to be saved”. But the principle Paul has established regarding the ceremony of circumcision applies to all religious rites and ordinances of any kind; Jewish or Christian. Whether it is baptism, confirmation vows, the eucharist, penance, last rites, etc. Outward things done in the name of religion will not merit God’s reckoning a person righteous! Faith alone is the principle of justification.
¶ 9 Does this blessedness then rest on the circumcision, or also on the uncircumcision? For we say that faith has been reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. v.9 Paul then takes up the question of religious ceremony; specifically, the rite of circumcision. What bearing does circumcision, though instituted by God, have on justification? The apostle uses the established facts of how and when Abraham was justified (similar to Gal. 3:6-9) to show that circumcision has nothing to do with justification.
10 How then has it been reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. v.10 How and when Abraham was justified. Abraham was declared righteous (justified) by God in Gen. 15:6 when he was still on “uncircumcised” Gentile ground. It wasn’t until 13 years later in Gen. 17 that the sign of circumcision was given (v.11). “How” he was circumcised is the great subject in vv.1-16, which brings out the fact that God justifies on the principle of faith. In vv.17-25 the subject is “who” Abraham believed; the God of resurrection.
11a And he received the sign of circumcision as seal of the righteousness of faith which he had being in uncircumcision, v.11a When and why Abraham received the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was given 13 years after Abraham was justified (Gen. 17). Therefore, it was not the cause of his justification, but rather an outward sign in his body as “a seal of the righteousness of faith” which he had 13 years before!
11b that he might be the father of all them that believe being in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned to them also; v.11b This very important order (Abraham’s justification by faith, and then the seal of his justification) had massive repercussions:
- it proved that justification by faith was far more important then the outward sign.
- it made Abraham the father of faith, rather than merely the natural ancestor of the Jews. He is the father of all those who have his faith (v.16).
- it proved that the Gentiles would be given imputed righteousness as well as the Jews, if they believed.
12 and father of circumcision, not only to those who are of the circumcision, but to those also who walk in the steps of the faith, during uncircumcision, of our father Abraham. v.12 Hence, all (including Gentiles) who walk in “that faith of our father Abraham” have him as their father spiritually! Abraham is the father of two families: (1) naturally, the father of those who have his blood, marked by circumcision; and (2) spiritually, the father of those who have his faith, marked by the steps of faith. The spiritual family is what is in view here.
Justification (Promise) is Not by Law-keeping: Three Reasons (4:13-16)
- Reason #1: the Abrahamic promises pre-date the Law
- Reason #2: the principles of law and faith are exclusive
- Reason #3: the law can only result in God’s wrath on man
Justification or Promise? There is a change in the language starting in v.13. In vv.1-12 it was talking about justification (being reckoned righteous in God’s sight). But now a new word is introduced; “promise”. Paul is now reasoning from the principle of God’s promise, which is that faith inherits the promise, apart from the Law or any system by which man might try to win favor with God. In vv.13-16 Paul is contrasting law and promise. Promise implies God’s fulfillment of it; while the Law claimed man’s obedience of its demands. This is the same subject that is taken up in Gal. 3:19-20. The beauty of promise is that it depends on God alone; thus it is sure (v.16). Only faith can lay hold of what doesn’t involve man.
Reason #1: The Abrahamic Promises Pre-date the Law (v.13)
¶ 13 For it was not by law that the promise was to Abraham, or to his seed, that he should be heir of the world, but by righteousness of faith. v.13 The Abrahamic promises pre-date the law by 430 years (Gal. 3:17), so blessing (the fruit of justification) could not be by the Law. On the other hand, the promise coincided with Abraham’s faith; therefore faith is the basis of blessing. His being “the heir of the world,” is not found exactly in the Old Testament, but the truth of it is in Gen. 17:5, “I have made thee, etc.” as an accomplished fact.
Reason #2: The Principles of Law and Faith are Exclusive (v.14)
14 For if they which are of law be heirs, (1) faith is made vain, and (2) the promise made of no effect. v.14 The principles of law and faith are exclusive. Justification by law does two things that run contrary to scripture. First, it denies justification by faith, because there would be no need for it if man can work for his blessing (see Gal. 2:21). Secondly, it precludes God from fulfilling His promises because no one (apart from Christ) can keep the Law!
15 For law works wrath; but where no law is neither is there transgression. v.3 The Law can only result in God’s wrath on man. The law cursed the person who was under its obligations and did not fulfill its requirements perfectly (Gal. 3:10). It could not bless, only curse! But without a law there is nothing to transgress. Transgression is a special type of sin (a double-sin) and so the Law results in greater wrath.
Conclusion: Grace is the Only Sure Foundation (v.16)
16 Therefore it is on the principle of faith, that it might be according to grace, in order to the promise being sure to all the seed, not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of Abraham’s faith, who is father of us all, v.16 Faith and grace are principles that go together (c.p. v.4). If I am justified through faith without works, then I have no part in my salvation. It is all God’s work; grace. But why did God design justification to be by grace alone? The reason is not random. If justification was based on works, circumcision, or law-keeping then it would rest on an unsure, human foundation. But if it is by faith, God’s grace being the resource, then it is sure to all Abraham’s seed, those who have faith, including Gentiles as well as Jews.
Assurance & Resurrection. Paul had already proven that justification is by faith alone, but he wants to go further and establish a solid foundation of understanding in the believer. To have the assurance of our justification, we need to have something for our faith to rest on. Rather than choose something less significant, the Spirit of God gives us – as a foundation for our faith – the very seal of God’s approval of the finished work of Christ. In Rom. 3 we saw that “faith in his blood”, that is, faith in what occurred at the cross, is what justified us. But no mention was made of assurance to the believer. Now in Rom. 4 he speaks of believing what God did at the grave in raising the Lord Jesus from the dead (vv.24-25). The resurrection of Christ is God’s acceptance and approval of Christ’s finished work (His “Amen”, 1 Peter 1:2). God was not only satisfied with the work of Christ, but He was glorified in it. To be fully saved – to be justified and know that we are justified – we need to believe the full gospel: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This “full gospel” is “the gospel of our salvation” (Eph. 1:13).
Justification is by Faith in the God of Resurrection (4:17-22)
17 (according as it is written, “I have made thee father of many nations,” [Gen. 17:4]) before the God whom he believed, who quickens the dead, and calls the things which be not as being; v.17 This is a quote from Gen. 17:4; a later event than Gen. 15:6. To illustrate the need for faith in the God of resurrection, Paul continues to use Abraham as an example. The word “whom” is a key. In vv.1-16 the great subject is “how”, the fact that God justifies on the principle of faith. But in vv.17-25 the subject is “whom” we believe. Notice that it is not belief in God only, but in God who:
- Quickens the dead; has the power to give life where all was death.
- Calls the things which be not as being; His word is so faithful that you can count on its fulfillment before there is visible evidence of it! In this case, God told Abraham he would have an innumerable posterity, when at that moment they could not even have one son! It was the principle of resurrection.
18 who against hope believed in hope to his becoming father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, “So shall thy seed be:” [Gen. 15:5] v.18 Against human hope (all human hope was gone) he believed with faith’s hope. There was no human hope because of death, but faith laying hold of the promises conceived of what had never been seen before!
19 and not being weak in faith, he considered not his own body already become dead, being about a hundred years old, and the deadening of Sarah’s womb, v.19 Paul is showing that, in principle, Abraham believed in the resurrection. He believed that God would overcome death to fulfill His promises. In Abraham’s and Sarah’s case it was not that they were physically dead, but that their power to procreate life was dead in them, because of their advanced age. Yet God overcame that “deadness,” and gave them life out of that condition of death, giving them Isaac.
20 and hesitated not at the promise of God through unbelief; but found strength in faith, giving glory to God; v.20 Abraham “found strength”. He didn’t look within himself and find strength, rather he looked up to God, and “the promise of God”. What gave him strength was that God had said it! Abraham’s faith gave “glory to God.” This shows that faith honors God; it is the simple acknowledgement that God means what He says (John 3:33).
21 and being fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to do; v.21 This expression “fully persuaded” is the closest thing found in an Old Testament saint to “peace with God” (Rom. 5:1). The major difference between Abraham’s faith and our faith is this: Abraham believed that God could raise the dead, we Christians believe that God has raised the dead. It is the same faith (same divine life, too) but ours is based on a finished work. This is why our souls can have peace.
Fully persuaded. Someone might raise the question: what if I don’t have as much faith as Abraham? am I not saved? It is important to see that Paul is not emphasizing how much faith we have, but on whom our faith is placed. It is all about the credibility of the Person in whom we place our faith.
22 wherefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness. v.22 Tying back in with the beginning of this chapter, Paul makes the following point. It is not any faith that saves; but faith that vindicates the character of God. Faith that believes that His word is so sure that God will bring life out of death in order to fulfill it!
Justification is by Faith in God who Raised Up Jesus (4:23-25)
23 Now it was not written on his account alone that it was reckoned to him, v.23 It was “not for his sake alone”. We are to learn from what God has recorded in Scripture regarding Abraham’s faith and apply it to our own case.
24 but on ours also, to whom, believing on him who has raised from among the dead Jesus our Lord, v.24 Now Paul is summarizing and applying the previous principles to us. Belief in Jesus (Rom. 3:26) does justify us, but the other side is belief that God has raised Him from the dead, which is what gives us peace (Rom. 5:1). Notice that it says “has raised”. The one difference between Abraham’s faith and our’s is that Abraham believed in something future, while we look back on something accomplished.
25 who has been delivered for our offences and has been raised for our justification, it will be reckoned. v.25 Here we have the Gospel in a nutshell. Christ was “delivered for our offenses”; that is, His suffering and death was the payment of our debt. But He was “raised for our justification” in that His resurrection is the receipt that proves our debt was paid. In Rom. 3:25 you have propitiation, but in Rom. 4:25 you get substitution. The twice repeated expression “Christ was raised for our justification” means that in His resurrection there is a new standing “in Christ” for the believer in God’s sight!
A standing of acceptance. In the end of Rom. 4 there is something beyond Rom. 3, where you have blood-shedding, and God’s righteousness for justification. Here there is not only death but resurrection. I have not only Christ’s blood before God as my full clearance from sins, but I have Himself, risen and accepted “for us”; i.e. I am set in a place of full acceptance through His resurrection (Eph. 1:6, 1 John 4:17).
All that blessed work is done,
God’s well-pleased with His Son;
He has raised Him from the dead,
Set Him over all as Head.1