Justification is the heart of Paul’s message in Romans 1-8. To be justified is to be declared legally righteous in God’s eyes. It is not only just as if we never sinned; it is just as if we always obeyed. In Romans 1-3, Paul has level-set his audience – all have sinned, some under the law, some without the law. Therefore, all are deserving of the wrath of God.
The message of the gospel is that God has set us right through the finished work of Christ on the cross. But here’s the scandal: we didn’t do anything to deserve it, and we didn’t do anything to earn it. Furthermore, we can’t do anything to lose it. God gave it to us. All we do is believe him. It is this gift of justification by faith that is so controversial, both in 1st century Rome and 21st century America. The gospel removes all boasting in works and tears down the walls we erect to keep others out.
Romans 4 is all about justification by faith, and Paul’s argument is that’s what the Bible is all about too. How are we set right with God? By faith in Christ. How can we know? Because the Bible tells us so – Paul, as well as the Old Testament.
1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just 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; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Paul is confronting the Jewish notion that Abraham was justified by his works. He says Abraham was justified by faith. For proof, Paul simply returns to the Scriptures. “For what do the Scriptures say?” (3:3) The biblical precedent is that justification is by faith and excludes any self-righteousness at all. Genesis 15:6 is Paul’s proof-text, and Abraham is his best example of justification by faith. Why Abraham?
Genesis 1-11 shows us the creation of the world. As Genesis 12 begins, we see the world funnel down to one man, chosen by God to receive his promise. We aren’t told why God chose Abraham, but we know it wasn’t because of his righteousness. He came from a family of idolaters. He was chosen for the same reasons all who believe are chosen: because God wanted to.
We see the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, where God speaks and commands him to leave his home, and he will make out of him a great nation that will bless the world. Genesis 12:4 tells us Abraham went as the Lord had told him.
We see the sins and trials of Abraham’s life in Genesis 12-14. He enters Egypt fearful of his life and hands his wife over to Pharaoh claiming she is his sister. We see he and his nephew, Lot, separate and take different lands. We see him rescue Lot in a dramatic battle. We see him encounter Melchizedek, the high priest of God on his return and turn down worldly riches for a heavenly blessing.
Then, in Genesis 15, we see God’s covenant with Abraham. It has been years since he left his home. He has been waiting on God’s promise to come through. He’s an old man, and Sarah is an old woman. How can God give them a son? Genesis 15:1-6 tells us of their conversation. God promises Abraham a child. Despite all circumstances that cry out against it, Abraham believes. And God counted it to him as righteous.
In Genesis 16, we see Sarah become impatient. She gives her servant, Hagar, over to Abraham. He sleeps with her, and they have a child. Then, finally, in Genesis 17, Abraham is circumcised – the covenant sign of God’s people.
Now, let me ask you a question. Was it circumcision that earned Abraham’s favor with God?
All Paul is doing is showing us the chronology of the Bible. How was Abraham justified? By his works? No! By his faith? Yes! Works are not part of the equation for justification. What makes Abraham right before God is not his righteous deeds but his belief in God’s promises, in God himself. It’s after his believing that he was circumcised.
Abraham lived about 500 years before the law was given to Moses. After the law had come, surely the rules changed, right? At that point, people we justified by their deeds. To refute this objection, Paul quotes David’s words from Psalm 32. David lived 500 years after the law was given. How was David justified? By works of the law or by faith? What does Psalm 32 say? “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” David has lawless deeds, not law-full deeds. He’s a sinner who doesn’t deserve the grace of God. Justification by faith isn’t Abraham’s experience alone. It is David’s as well. Therefore, it must be the experience that spans all generations of the people of God. The covenant God made was always on terms of faith.
In Genesis 15:7-20, we are told of the covenant God made with Abraham. In that time, covenants were sealed with an animal sacrifice. The animal would be cut in half, and the two parties would walk together through the two pieces, symbolizing the consequence that each would face if they broke their end of the deal. But we notice in the covenant God made with Abraham that only one person walked between the torn animal. Only one person promised to be torn if the covenant was broken. And that person was not Abraham. It was God. God put Abraham to sleep, and in a dream showed him this covenant promise. God alone walked through the sacrifice because God alone would keep the promise and bring it to fulfillment.
And years later, after Abraham’s offspring have multiplied into a nation, and that nation has drifted from God time after time, God keeps his promise. He continues to come to them, continues to care for them, continues to call them his people. And then Jesus comes that Christmas morning and begins to make all things new. Abraham believed, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
To summarize, the argument of Romans 4:1-12 is that righteousness comes through faith in God alone. Our works add nothing to our righteousness nor take anything from our righteousness. All who believe are justified by faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from all works, to the glory of God alone. Salvation is of God, by God, through God, and for God. We are beneficiaries of his grace. We didn’t convince him, persuade him, or impress him. We rebelled against him, but he saved us anyway because he is the promise keeper.
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Let’s return to the call of Abraham. He’s standing at the peak of his city. He looks out beyond the walls and sees nothing but wilderness. Has God called him to go into that? He didn’t even give the destination. He said he would show him in due time. Should he go? How could he not go? This God is different from the rest. He seems trustworthy. His promises have power. His heart feels different as he hears from him. That promise…how can he refuse that promise?
The word “promise” is mentioned five times in these verses. God promised Abraham he would make him into a great nation. But a nation can’t start and end with one man. Abraham needed a son. Through that son, God would eventually save the world. But that son was to be born to a man 100 years-old and a woman 90 years-old. That’s crazy. But is it any crazier than God creating the world out of nothing? Abraham’s faith is his trusting God’s promises.
To be saved, we must come face to face with the promises of God in the person of God. We don’t obey our way into the Kingdom. We believe our way into the Kingdom. It is not a baseless, blind, leap-in-the-dark faith. Such faith does not exist. Faith relies on something sound and sure. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith for us as “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
As Abraham considered the future, he saw his boy laughing as his mother once laughed at the silliness of God’s promise. A man and woman who should be great-grandparents by now giving birth? The life-long barren one will have a child?
But how could it be? It could not come from anything inside of Abraham. He could not bring forth a child in his own power. It is God who gives life. We should never look to our goodness, or obedience, or power to save us. We should always look to the goodness of God. Why would we return to the impossible when Jesus has already accomplished the impossible on our behalf? Abraham couldn’t provide God’s promise no matter what rules he obeyed or disobeyed. Sarah was barren, and he was old. There was no changing that. God had to do it, or it would not be done.
Notice the logic of verse 16. “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring.” The “it” is the promise. The promise depends on faith. It does not depend on works. If it did, it would not be grace. It would be wages. The only wages we deserve is death (Romans 6:23). But if the promise depends on faith in the one who makes the promise, then the one who receives the promise receives it by grace. Furthermore, the promise is so pervasive and expansive and everlasting that it extends to the offspring of the one to whom it was originally given. Abraham, the believer of God, became the father of all who would later believe in God. How? By the great work he did in creating his son in his old age? No! By believing the God who gave him a son in his old age. Our justification – our righteousness before God – is made up entirely of believing in God.
Abraham saw his old age. Why couldn’t God have come earlier? Why now? How can this happen? These days, he felt the creaks as he rose from his bed. He saw the wrinkles on Sarah’s face. They had never known anyone as old as they give birth to a child. Could it be?
In hope Abraham believed against hope that he should become the father of many nations. The promise didn’t seem reasonable, yet Abraham saw God as trustworthy and therefore believed. When God came to him and promised a child, he looked at all the circumstances and believed God beyond them. Why? Because he saw God as trustworthy. He believed the promises of God because he believed the person of God.
Abraham did not allow his feelings to inform his doctrine. He let God’s doctrine inform his feelings. When he felt hopeless, he looked to God for hope. When he felt as if this promise would never come to pass, he looked to God and knew that God would do what he said. As Abraham gave glory to God, he grew strong in his faith. Though circumstances said otherwise, when Abraham considered God he believed more in his promises, not less. He became fully convinced that God could do what he had promised. That’s why he was justified. Not because he did a lot of good deeds but because he believed in the Good God.
For us today, what must we believe to be saved? Paul summarizes it in verses 24 and 25. “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Justification will be counted to those who believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead – the very Jesus who died for our sins upon the cross and was resurrected on the third day. The resurrection became the proof that the sacrifice of Christ was accepted. The penalty had been paid. If you believe in this gospel, you are saved. You are justified before God. You believe his promises. You trust in him alone. You love him and follow him and obey him because you cannot do otherwise.
We have God above all circumstances who can create a child from an old man and life from death and righteousness from unrighteousness. What are you facing that you can’t trust God during? If your salvation was based upon what you do or don’t do, you would never feel secure. How could you? You can’t even obey the rules you give yourself each day. But if it is God that declares us righteous, who acquits us and creates in us new hearts, how can we not feel secure? God is not running the calculations in heaven to see if we add up to righteousness. He is reckoning us righteous in Christ and imputing the merit of Christ upon us to make us worthy of him.
Real faith gives us a sure standing when everything else feels like it’s falling away. Real faith is realizing that no matter what the world says, no matter what our heart says, no matter what our circumstance says, we are as secure as Christ is.
After all those years, Abraham finally heard the cry of new life. He looked and there lie his boy in his mother’s arms. He was here! After all those tense moments of wondering. After all the questions, spoken and unspoken. After all the tears, all the miles, all the ridicule. Here was Isaac – the promised child!
And then there is Isaac, the one whom God has asked Abraham to sacrifice. Here they are, together on the road to Mt. Moriah. He’s not sure what God is going to do, but he knows God’s promise will remain. Even if the boy does die, somehow God will provide. Even if it means resurrection, God will provide. So, come what may, he walks on.
Michael Bird summarizes Abraham this way, “What made Abraham unique was that he put his faith where his fear was.” Real faith transforms and overcomes real fear. Wherever in our lives we have fear, faith in God is the remedy. George Muller said, “Faith does not operate in the realm of the possible. There is no glory for God in that which is humanly possible. Faith begins where man’s power ends.”
Many years later, another man walked out of the city to the sacrificial mountain. He took no one with him. He had followed God perfectly his entire life. No sin entered his life and no sin would until that moment he bore the weight of man’s awful sin.
And so it is with our justification. Do you want to be set right with God? Then look to God. When you’ve come to the end of yourself, when you can’t obey any longer, when you see that you cannot do anything truly good and deserve only the wrath of God, lift your eyes to the cross and see the righteousness of God flowing down. Behold the Son of God dying on your behalf, becoming the sacrifice pleasing to God. See the resurrection and know that you, by faith alone in his work, have been justified by Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. If you throw yourself upon God, no matter how far the fall or how great the impact, he will always catch you in the arms of Jesus. After all, it depends on his promise. In all human history, he has not yet failed one person who has trusted in him. How can he fail you now?