Justification by Faith Alone Illustrated Part 1 – Romans 4:1-8
Pastor Mark Hardy March 25, 2012
During my seminary experience at The Master’s Seminary the Lord provided for Julie and me financially in some very special ways. Because of my counseling training I was hired at The Master’s College as a Dean in the Student Life Department and I also had some other roles as well while I was there. One of the benefits of working at the college was that they paid for all of my seminary training, which was the primary reason I went there to begin with.
One year the seminary and college went through some major budget cuts. I’ll never forget Dr. Charles Smith, then the Executive Vice President and Dean of the seminary before he died, whom I had a close relationship with and deeply enjoyed his friendship and wisdom, personally coming to me and saying, “Mark, don’t you worry about the finances because I have access to a financial Foundation that will cover whatever you lose in the cutbacks to ensure that you get through seminary.” And that is exactly what Chuck did for me.
Every month until I graduated from seminary this Foundation would graciously deposit or “credit” into my account a set amount of money that I did absolutely nothing to receive. It was a free gift that blessed our lives immensely. Likewise, God has graciously credited righteousness to every believer’s spiritual account because of faith alone not due to anything he or she has done. This is what we’ll see this morning.
As we continue on in our study of Romans we now come to chapter 4, which is one of the most important discussions on the relationship between faith and works in salvation in the Bible. The entire chapter is devoted to Abraham, the father of the Hebrew race (Genesis 12-24) and Israel’s greatest and most revered patriarch, who is the supreme example in the Old Testament of justification by faith alone. Turn in your Bible to Romans 4.
In Romans 4:1-25 we see six truths about justification by faith alone as illustrated primarily from the life of Abraham that contain valuable lessons for us today. This morning we will be looking at only the first two truths in vv. 1-8.
The first truth about justification by faith alone in this:
I. Abraham was Justified by faith Alone
A. Paul begins by asking in v. 1: What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?
1. Having firmly established and defended justification by faith alone apart from works of the Law for both Jews and Gentiles, so that all boasting is eliminated in vv. 21-31, Paul now turns to the person of Abraham to flesh out and illustrate what he has just said.
2. Here Paul describes Abraham as “our forefather according to the flesh.” Most likely since this question is addressed at his Jewish opponents, he is merely distinguishing Abraham as the physical ancestor of all Jewish people, of which he includes himself, from his spiritual fatherhood of all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, which we will see in vv. 11-12 and 16-17.
3. Now when Paul asks, “What then shall we say that Abraham…has found,” in essence he is asking, “What was it that Abraham “found” or discovered about how a person is justified or attains a right standing with God?”
4. As a Jew, a former rabbi, member of the Sanhedrin, and a Pharisee, Paul knew exactly how rabbinical tradition viewed Abraham. The Jewish rabbis saw Abraham as the ultimate example of justification by works.
5. They believed he was the only righteous man of his generation who exemplified the best of Jewish virtues (Neh. 9:7-8; Isa. 51:1-2), since he was called the “friend of God” (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; Jam. 2:23), and that is why God chose him to be the ancestor of God’s special people.
6. This view in seen in various Jewish writings:
• The Book of Jubilees 23:10 says, “For Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.”
• The Prayer of Manasseh 8 states, “Therefore thou, O Lord, God of the righteous, hast not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who did not sin against thee, but thou has appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner.”
• Although Abraham lived 600 years before the Mosaic Law, the Mishnah’s third division Kiddusin 4:14 wrongly interpret Genesis 26:5 to say, “…and we find that Abraham our father had performed the whole law before it was given, for it is written, ‘Because that Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
7. What a claim! Abraham is seen as being perfect in all his deeds, had no need of repentance, and obeyed the whole Law before it was even written. Paul knew that the Jews saw Abraham as being justified by works.
8. Therefore, in answer to his question about what Abraham has found out in reference to justification and for the sake of argument, Paul goes along and assumes that he was justified by works as the Jews believed, though in fact he knows this is completely untrue and will prove it.
B. Look at v. 2: For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
1. The word “if” here is a first class condition meaning, if and it’s true or since. Paul is using this hypothetical situation to prove his point.
2. If Abraham was truly justified by his works then “…he has something to boast about.” He would have legitimate reason for boasting before God because he would have merited salvation by his own human efforts.
3. However, Paul has already clearly shown in 1:18-3:20 that all mankind is guilty before God and is hopeless and helpless to save himself from the wrath of God, which includes Abraham. Therefore, justification cannot be merited by man’s works because even his most righteous deeds in himself are seen by the perfectly holy God as “filthy garments” (Isa. 64:).
4. This is why Paul emphatically declares, “…but not before God.” Absolutely no one, except the God-man Jesus Christ, has perfectly kept God’s holy standards in every way.
5. Therefore, it is utterly unthinkable for anyone to boast in God’s presence. Paul has already said in 3:27, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded” or totally eliminated.
C. Paul then explains the source of Abraham’s righteousness and why he had no basis whatsoever for boasting before God. Look at v. 3: For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
1. Notice how when faced with a controversial issue, Paul goes right to Scripture as the final court of appeal. This is a lesson we all should learn, for the inerrant Word of God is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
2. The word “Scripture” (graphe) speaks of God’s authoritative Word as a whole in its one unified voice. And the totality of that voice is expressed through the one verse Paul quotes here, Genesis 15:6, which says, “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
3. The context of v. 6 is that Abraham was discouraged over living in the land of Canaan for ten years and still not having an heir (vv. 1-3). The Lord then came to him and promised in vv. 4-5: “This man (speaking about Eliezer of Damascus, his most trusted servant) will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And he took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Now v. 6) Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
4. Notice the central statement that “Abraham believed God.” It was the fact that he “believed” (episteusen) God with reference to God’s promise that justified him. There is not a word about his works anywhere in this passage.
5. And contrary to what many Jews believe, faith itself is not a work. Faith is only the means or channel through which God works His redeeming grace to justify the sinner who reaches out to receive His free and unmerited gift of salvation.
6. We see this same emphasis on faith in Galatians 3:6-9: Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
7. Notice again that it was Abraham’s faith that, “…WAS CREDITED (or reckoned) TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
8. The word “credited” (elogisthe) here is a commercial accounting term that means to reckon, impute, count, and consider. It refers to putting something to one’s account.
9. Now of the 41 times this term is used in the New Testament, Paul uses it 35 times, and 11 of those times are right here in Romans 4. Therefore, 25% of all New Testament occurrences are in this chapter.
10. It is only because of faith alone that God credited (reckoned, imputed) a status of righteousness to Abraham’s spiritual account that did not inherently belong to him. The word “righteousness” (dikaiosunen) refers to God’s saving righteousness or justification, the act by which God imputes the perfect righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9) to the sinner’s account, declares righteous the forgiven believer, and treats him just as if he has never sinned.
11. And this is all done by God as a free gift of His grace through faith. William Hendriksen said it well, “From start to finish, therefore, right standing with God is God’s gift. It is appropriated by God-given faith. To God therefore belongs all the glory. For human boasting there is no room whatever.” (pg. 147)
12. So here we see that Paul uses the Jews own Scriptures to expose their wrong view of Abraham as the ultimate example of justification by works and shows them that his salvation was by faith alone!
13. John MacArthur accurately states, “By using Abraham as the supreme scriptural example of justification, or salvation, by faith alone, Paul was storming the very citadel of traditional Judaism. By demonstrating that Abraham was not justified by works, the apostle demolished the foundation of rabbinical teaching—that man is made right with God by keeping the law, that is, on the basis of his own religious efforts and works. If Abraham was not and could not have been justified by keeping the law, then no one could be. Conversely, if Abraham was justified solely on the basis of his faith in God, then everyone else must be justified in the same way, since Abraham is the biblical standard of a righteous man.” (pg. 233)
14. As we come to vv. 4-5 Paul then restates the substance of vv. 2-3 by comparing the two ways a person can receive something. In these verses he contrasts grace and obligation, as well as faith and works.
D. In v. 4 we see that the first way a person can receive something is as a debt or obligation that is owed him: Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.
1. Using the example of working a job from everyday life to help us understand justification before God, Paul says that the person who “works” for a “wage” or payment does not reckon (credit) the payment he receives as a “favor” or gift of grace, but rather “as what is due” him. It is the debt or moral obligation of the employer to pay the employee what he is “due” or owed.
2. Likewise, if someone could save himself by his own righteous works, then salvation would not be a “favor” or gift of God’s grace, and Christ’s sacrifice would have been in vain. For that person justification is like a wage that is due him and boasting in his self-achieved salvation would be legitimate.
3. However, human works have no part in justification. Paul shows this in the second way a person can receive something, which is by grace through faith as seen in v. 5: But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
4. This is Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone in a nutshell. Concerning this verse, Leon Morris rightly states, “The contrast is not between the worker and the nonworker (Paul is not canonizing laziness), but between the one who trusts in his works and the one who trusts in God. The trusting person does not stand before God in the capacity of a paid laborer, receiving his due for work done, but as a believer. He has no good works to plead. None.” (pg. 198)
5. Once again Paul drives home the point that justification is by faith alone not by works. And again Paul says, “…his faith is credited as righteousness.”
6. C.E. Crainfield says that this signifies “…a counting which is not a rewarding of merit but a free and unmerited decision of divine grace.” (pg. 231)
7. And the object of our faith is God “who justifies the ungodly.” The word “ungodly” (asebe) refers to the impious who are those without reverence for God and violate His holy standards.
8. In other words, this refers to everyone who has ever existed because we are all sinners, including Abraham. Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us that people without Jesus Christ are spiritually “dead in your trespasses and sins,” are “the sons of disobedience,” and are “by nature children of wrath.”
9. Therefore, justification is the crediting of faith as righteousness to the ungodly. The statement “God justifies the ungodly” is absolutely shocking!
10. How can a just and holy God who is the righteous Judge of the universe do such a thing? Is this not a contradiction of His holy and just character?
11. In the Old Testament Law God required that a human judge condemn the wicked and justify the righteous or innocent (Deut. 25:1). And to not do so was repeatedly denounced.
12. For example:
• Proverbs 17:15: He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.
• And Proverbs 24:24-25: He who says to the wicked, “You are righteous,” peoples will curse him, nations will abhor him. But to those who rebuke the wicked will be delight, and a good blessing will come upon them.” (Isa. 5:23)
13. God even uses Himself as the Supreme Example of a just Judge by saying in Exodus 23:6-7, “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty.”
14. So how in the world can God justify the ungodly? The paradox is resolved in Romans 5:6 which says, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
15. F.F. Bruce said it well, “God forbids in the Law…what God in fact does in the gospel. No wonder that Paul thought it necessary above (i.e. 3:25-26) to maintain that God, in justifying sinners, nevertheless preserves His personal integrity. Once they are justified, indeed, the ungodly should cease to be ungodly, but it is not on the basis of any foreseen amendment of their ways that they are justified.” (pg. 118)
16. God justifies the ungodly not because He condones sin or disregards it but only because by His grace the sinless Son of God was crucified on the cross as the wrath-removing, sin-atoning sacrifice who paid in full sin’s penalty as our Substitute. Because of Christ sacrifice alone God imputes believers’ sin to Christ’s account and He imputes Christ’s righteousness to believers’ account and declares them righteous.
17. John MacArthur said it this way, “God could not have justly credited righteousness to Abraham had not Abraham’s sin, like every believer’s sin, been paid for by the sacrifice of Christ’s own blood. Before the cross, the believer’s sin was paid in anticipation of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and since the cross the believer’s sin has been paid in advance.” (pg. 239-240)
18. What a deal! Jesus Christ took our hell, so that He could give His heaven to everyone who will receive it by faith in Him!
19. Now having made his case for Abraham’s justification by faith alone apart from works, Paul now strengthens his case by showing that it is also taught by another great Old Testament example. We see this in the second truth about justification by faith alone, which is this:
II. David’s testimony Confirms justification by Faith
A. Look at vv. 6-8: just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: (Paul then quotes Psalm 32:1-2) BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.”
1. The word “blessing” (makarismon) or “blessed” (makarioi) is used three times in these verses and means happy or fortunate. Thomas Schreiner says, “The word ‘blessing’ testifies to the gracious character of justification. Those who have experienced forgiveness of sins are conscious of receiving a great blessing from God, a gift that brings happiness precisely because it is underserved and unexpected.” (pg. 219)
2. Notice again that this blessing is “…on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” The blessing of righteousness that God “credits” or imputes apart from works here is defined in having one’s “lawless deeds” graciously forgiven, his sins “covered,” and his sin “not taken into account” by turning to God in repentant faith.
3. Douglas Moo states, “…it is not the reckoning of people’s good works but God’s act in not reckoning their sins against them that constitutes forgiveness. This perfectly accords with Paul’s concern to portray justification as a free act of God that has no basis in a person’s works.” (pg. 266)
4. Psalm 32 was written by David, Israel’s greatest King, sweet psalmist, and the one who is said to be a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). It is a sequel to Psalm 51 in which David confessed his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah.
5. Paul’s point in David’s example is that his forgiveness was the result not of his meritorious works, but of divine grace through his faith in God. Whereas Abraham lived prior to the Mosaic Law, David was squarely under it and gives witness that the same principle of justification by faith alone was operative.
6. In this respect both Abraham and David have something in common. Although justification is far more than forgiveness, it certainly encompasses forgiveness.
7. John Stott correctly observes, “Justification involves a double counting, crediting, or reckoning. On the one hand, negatively, God will never count our sins against us (i.e. forgiveness). On the other hand, positively, God credits our account with righteousness, as a free gift, by faith, altogether apart from our works.” (pg. 126)
8. And since David was actually already a justified man when he committed his terrible sins, in his case we also learn the truth that sin in the true believer’s life does not cancel out justification. Although God showed His displeasure of David’s sin by chastening him until he confessed his sin, He forgave him when he did, but afterwards David suffered the consequences of his sin.
9. The same is true for us today! Sin in the believer’s life is a serious issue with God and if not confessed and forsaken brings God’s discipline because we belong to Him (Heb. 12:5-11). But it can never cancel out justification for those who are truly saved.
10. This is why we need to keep short sin-accounts with God and continually claim the promise of 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
11. So here in vv. 1-8 Paul has proven that justification by faith alone is nothing new. Together Abraham, David, and Paul show that this is God’s one and only way of salvation for sinful mankind in both the Old Testament and the New.
In closing, it is not until a person confesses that he is a sinner who needs a Savior that he will be a candidate for salvation because he still trusts in his own goodness and works. God only credits or imputes righteousness to sinners by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
Have you received Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord? Only then can you experience the blessing of being clothed in Christ’s righteousness, declared righteous before God, and forgiven of all of your sins not merely having them covered but completely taken away by Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the cross, so that the Lord will never ever take them into account. What a blessed salvation we have in Jesus Christ! To God be the glory for the things He has done! May we not take these things for granted!