Post Series on Romans 4:1-25:
- Righteousness Comes by Faith (Romans 4:1-8)
- Does the Blessing of Abraham Extend to the Nations? (Romans 4:9-12)
- Why Does God Extend Righteousness by Faith Alone? (Romans 4:13-25)
In the introductory chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Church in Rome, he outlines the condemnation against the whole world–both against Jews and against Gentiles–that exists because of sin. In chapter 1, he describes the case against Gentiles. In chapter 2, he insists that Jews who have the Law have no excuse. And then, in chapter 3, Paul exalts the righteousness of God over against the sin of the whole world.
But also in chapter 3, Paul begins to reveal that God has provided a solution to the deep curse of sin through Jesus Christ:
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)
But although the righteousness of God has now been revealed apart from the law, it isn’t as though God’s plan for righteousness to come by faith is without precedent. To prove this point, Paul spends chapter 4 to demonstrate the way in which the gospel of justification by faith alone has always been the way God has revealed his salvation to his people.
Now, as a brief side note, it is important for English readers to understand that justification means “to make righteous.” In other languages, this is obvious, because justice and righteousness come from the same root words. In Greek, the root word is dikaios, so the word in v. 2 (“if Abraham was justified by works…”) is edikaiothe, and the word for in v. 3 (“it was counted to him as righteousness“) is dikaiosunen. So, to ask, “How was Abraham justified?” is the same thing as asking “How was Abraham made righteous?”
The Example of Abraham: Righteousness Comes by Faith
To open chapter 4, Paul writes:
1What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Romans 4:1-5)
To prove his case, Paul goes all the way back to the beginning of God’s people, with the first forefather according to the flesh, Abraham. Indeed, if Abraham were justified by his works (as the Jews were contending), then he has something to boast about among people, although not, of course, before God.
But, Paul asks, what does the Scripture say? Genesis 15:6 is very clear on the matter: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” For Abraham, the father of God’s people Israel, faith came by righteousness, and not by works of the law.
Critically, Paul is not asserting that faith itself is some kind of work that makes Abraham righteous. This is important, since in our postmodern culture many people teach that the only important part of your spiritual life is not what you believe, but how sincere you are in your belief. So, such a person might look at this passage and say, “See! It was Abraham’s belief that made him righteous.”
This is not at all the case! Look carefully at v. 5: Abraham was justified because he believed “in him who justifies the ungodly,” not merely because he believed in something. Abraham’s faith was the instrument by which he received God’s righteousness; Abraham’s faith was not itself Abraham’s righteousness. Righteousness comes by faith because faith receives God’s righteousness. God is the one who makes us righteous, through our faith; putting our faith in anyone or anything else will not have the same effect.
The Testimony of David: Righteousness Comes Apart from Works
David, like Abraham, was justified apart from works. Paul next points to the second most important Old Testament recipient of God’s promises:
5And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:5-8)
What is so important to understand in this quotation is that Paul is not grabbing a random proof-text from the Bible in some kind of desperation to prove his point. Rather, Paul points to this passage of David’s for two reasons:
First, David is downstream from Abraham. David is a direct descendent from Abraham, and he is included in the covenant blessings passed down through the covenant people of God, Israel. David is not an example of God dealing with someone else through some other dispensation of grace, but rather an example of God dealing with the offspring of Abraham as God had sworn to Abraham: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7).
Second, if there was anyone in the Old Testament who exemplified God’s free justification of a sinner, it was David. Though a deeply flawed man who committed (and tried to cover up) adultery and murder, David nevertheless was made righteous through his faith in the God who justifies the ungodly. In fact, David was so freely loved and accepted by this ungodly-justifying God that God blessed David and promised him that David would never lack a descendent to sit on the throne of Israel (2 Samuel 7).
Putting Abraham and David together, Paul builds a rock-solid case from the Old Testament that righteousness comes by faith, apart from works of the law.
If this is the case, then what are you depending upon for your own salvation? Are you attempting to prove yourself and earn your acceptance in God’s sight? Are you resting your faith in someone other than the God who justifies the ungodly?
Or do you know the blessing of Abraham, having experienced for yourself that righteousness comes by faith? Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven and sins are covered, against whom the Lord will not count his sin! Bless are those who have received God’s perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ by faith alone, apart from works of the law!