Romans 4:1-25

Now available in book form at Redeemer Publishing


Is justification accomplished through faith alone?  Or is justification accomplished by a mixture of faith plus works?  This question has divided Christendom for centuries.


The Roman Catholic Church teaches that, while Christ supplies our salvation, the underlying merit for our justification lies in ourselves — our faith, our love, our contrition.  This is the ultimate irony - that Rome should not believe the foundational truth of the epistle to the Romans.


In chapter 3, Paul set forth the teaching of justification by faith and apart from works.  He then proceeds to ILLUSTRATE that teaching here in chapter 4.


Romans 1:1 - 3:20

Romans 3:21-31

Romans 4:1-25

Justification Needed: Man is unable to justify himself.

Justification Stated: God has justified the ungodly in Christ

Justification Illustrated in the cases of Abraham & David.

Man’s failure

God’s success.


Chapter 3 closes with a question.  Paul, having established the truth that we are justified through faith and apart from the works of the Law, asks:  Do we then nullify the Law through faith? (Romans 3:31a).  The answer is quite abrupt:  ...May it never be!  On the contrary, we establish the Law. (Romans 3:31b).  This brings us to a question.  How do we establish the Law through faith?  The answer is given in chapter 4.





The Law commanded that all things be established by two or three witnesses.  Accordingly, Paul gives two Old Testament witnesses to show that justification in the Old Testament was through faith.  The first witness to the doctrine of justification by faith is Abraham, the father of the Jews.


1.         The Witness of Abraham (4:1-5).


Abraham was the founding father of the Jews.  He was revered among them.  Many had come to believe that he was chosen by God because he was so faithful.  1 Maccabees 2:52 reflects this idea when it asks, “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and was it not reckoned to him as righteousness?”  If anyone could ever be said to have been justified on the basis of his good works, it would have been Abraham.


a.         The question presented.


            What shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? (Romans 4:1).


Abraham was the physical father of the entire Jewish race.  He was the patriarch of the patriarchs.  There could be no greater witness provided than Abraham.


Notice how Paul phrases the question.  He does NOT ask, “What do WE learn from studying the life of Abraham?”  Instead, he asks, “What did Abraham learn about justification?”


By asking the question in this manner, Paul has us step into the sandals of Abraham, view a man’s relationship with the Lord though his eyes.


b.         A question of pride.


            For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. (Romans 4:2).


Paul offers a second class condition.  It says “if” but then assumes that this is not the case.  We would say, “If Abraham was justified by works, but he wasn’t...”  But if he HAD been, then he would have something about which to boast.


Perhaps Abraham COULD boast before men.  After all, he could boast that he left family and friends and that he followed the Lord to the land of Canaan.  He could boast before men.  But not before God.


This is important.  Abraham WAS justified by his works before men.  James 2 declares this.  But no man has any work about which he can boast before God.  Not even Abraham.  Why is this?  Because every work a man performs has been infected and contaminated by SIN.


Which is safer to eat, a hamburger laced with cyanide, or a New York strip steak laced with the same cyanide?  Neither is safe!  They have both been poisoned.  And we have likewise been poisoned by sin.

c.         Reckoned as righteousness.


            For what does the Scripture say?  "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." (Romans 4:3).


Paul appeals to the Scripture for his evidence.  The passage from which he quotes is Genesis 15:6.  Before the end of this chapter, Paul will have quoted this verse three times.  This is one of the clearest declarations of a salvation experience in the entire Bible.


What did Abraham do to be declared righteous in the eyes of God?


    Leaving Ur of the Chaldees?

    Giving Lot the first pick of the land?

    Rescuing Lot from the eastern invaders?


These were all commendable actions.  And yet, it is none of these works which led to Abraham's justification.


Abraham simply believed God.  This word for "believe" is an aorist active indicative.  It looks to a specific point in time when Abraham believed.  Notice the result.  His faith was reckoned as righteousness.


I want to suggest that this was a very special kind of faith.  It is no mere belief in the existence of God.

- nor that Jesus died on a cross.

- nor that He rose from the dead.


It is not merely believing certain facts.  It is a faith that rests upon and relies upon and commits itself to the one who saves.  It is the type of faith that relies upon Jesus Christ to save.  When this type of faith is present, that faith is reckoned as righteousness.


The word translated “reckoned” is the Greek root logizomai.  It is found 11 times in this chapter.  In verse 8 it is translated by the phrase, “taken into account.”  It is an accounting term.  It is the kind of term that you use when you speak of charge cards.


Imagine that you have a charge card debt.  It is a tremendous debt - far more than you can ever repay.  It is a debt of sin.


The good news of the gospel is that Christ has paid your debt.  And that is not all.  He has credited to your account His perfect righteousness.  It is for this reason that God can declare you to be legally righteous.


d.         The principle of wages.


            Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. (Romans 4:4).


Paul states an accepted economic principle.  It is that work results in wages.  And such wages cannot be classified as a gift.  When you work for your employer and it comes time to be paid, he doesn’t refer to that payment as a gift.  It is not a gift but a wage.  You have worked for it.  You have earned it.  It is your due.


e.         The principle of grace.


            But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness (Romans 4:5).


The good news is that God does not deal with the believer according to the principles of economics.  For us, He uses the principle of GRACE.




Wage reckoned as what is due.

Reckoned as righteousness.


Now this brings us to a problem.  How can faith be a substitute for righteousness?  Is there any virtue in faith?  No.  Faith is merely the instrument that brings the imputation of righteousness.


You see, faith in itself cannot make you righteous.  It is by faith that the righteousness of Jesus Christ is credited or reckoned to you.  You are reckoned by God as having the very righteousness of Christ in the same manner by which he was judged for your sins upon the cross.


2.         The Witness of David (Romans 4:6-8).


            ....just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:

            "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." (Romans 4:6-8).


Now we move to the case of David.  From his example, we will see the same principle.  God reckons righteousness apart from works.


David's testimony is taken from the Psalms.  It is a quote of Psalm 32:1-2.  It is given in the form of a Beatitude.  There are really three blessings indicated.


"Blessed are those..."


           Whose lawless deeds have been forgiven (4:7).


You've probably seen the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren't perfect, their just forgiven!”  Well, it's true!  We ARE forgiven.


           Whose sins have been covered (4:7).


The reason that our sins are forgiven is because they were covered on the cross.  The idea of “covering” sin goes back to the principle of a sacrifice on the altar.  When you offered a sacrifice, an innocent animal was killed and his blood was taken and sprinkled on the altar.  But that was not the only place where blood was sprinkled.


It was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant.  And it was sprinkled on the people - they would be literally covered in blood.


This meant that, when God looked upon them, He did not focus upon them and their sinful condition, but rather upon the blood of the sacrifice.  The blood was a sign that the penalty of death had been paid.


           Whose sin the Lord will not take into account (4:8).


Paul uses a double negative:  “...whose sin the Lord will NOT in ANY WAY take into account.”  Because of the covering of the blood, God does not take sin into account.  He does not reckon us to be sinners.  Instead, we are reckoned to possess the very righteousness of Christ.


Some years ago a wealthy English businessman purchased a Rolls Royce and soon afterward took his new car to France. When in the south of France, it broke down and he phoned the Rolls Royce people in Britain. The manufacturer flew a mechanic to France and the man’s car was repaired. He expected to receive a sizable bill for this unprecedented service, but as months passed and no invoice arrived the businessman wrote the Rolls Royce Company asking for his account to be rendered.


He received a written reply, “Dear sir.  We are unable to supply you with a bill as we have no record of a Rolls Royce ever having a mechanical breakdown.”


That is exactly what happened to David.  And to Abraham.  And to you.  Your record of debt has been blotted out.  God says concerning your sins, “I have no record of any transgression on your behalf.





In verses 1-8 we asked the question of whether this righteousness comes through works.  Verse 9 now asks the question of whether this righteousness comes through ritual.


            Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also?  For we say, "Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness."

            How then was it reckoned?  While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised?  Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. (Romans 4:9-12).


Once again, we turn to the example of Abraham.  The point which Paul makes is that Abraham was declared to be righteous BEFORE he was circumcised.  This means that his circumcision could have had nothing to do with his justification.


Notice that in verse 11 circumcision is viewed both as a sign and “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised.”


A wedding ring is an example of a covenant sign.  The ring does not MAKE you married.  If you lose the ring, the marriage is not nullified.  It is merely a sign of the marriage covenant.

The fact that circumcision is described as a “sign” is significant.  A sign points to something.  It signifies.  What does circumcision signify?  It signifies FAITH.


As an aside, this is why we baptize infants.  In the same way that circumcision was a sign and a seal of the righteousness of faith under the old covenant, so also, BAPTISM is the sign and the seal of the righteousness of faith under the new covenant.


You might protest, “Wait a minute!  If baptism is a sign of FAITH, then why do you baptize little children who are too young to have any faith?”


The answer is that it is for the same reason that Abraham was instructed to circumcise both his children and those living within his household.  It is because the promise is "to you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself" (Acts 2:39).





Paul contrasts the promise to Abraham with the Law.  Verse 14 says that, if you can get anything from the Law, then the promise which God made to Abraham was a lie.


1.         Law Brings about Wrath.


            For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not 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 is nullified; 15  for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. (Romans 4:13-14).


On what basis did God give His promises to Abraham?  Was it because Abraham had been keeping the Law?  No.  It was because Abraham BELIEVED the Lord.  It was through FAITH.


Why is this?  It is because only FAITH can bring righteousness to unrighteous people.  The Law can't do that.  The Law can only condemn.  It can only pronounce a person guilty.  Any attempt to bring the Law into salvation results in canceling out faith.


"...faith is made void and the promise is nullified." (Romans 4:14).


If you try to approach God on the basis of your own ability to keep the Law, then you cannot claim the promises of God.


On the other hand, if I am saved through faith and apart from the Law, then it is the Law that has been voided.


"...but where there is no law, neither is there violation. (Romans 4:14).


My older brother lives in Europe.  In certain areas there are no speed limits.  When you drive on a highway that has no speed limits, you are not breaking the law by speeding.


Here is the point.  The promise was given to Abraham in a day when there was no law.  The law hadn't been given yet.  And the law which came later is unable to void the promise that came first.


2.         Promise Brings Certainty.


It is only because of the promise that you can have any assurance for your salvation.


            For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be CERTAIN to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham..." (Romans 4:16).


If the promise was not by faith, then there would be no certainty.  If God's promises depend upon my obedience, then I cannot be certain of anything.


3.         Faith leads to Family.


            For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, 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, 17 (as it is written, "A father of many nations have I made you") in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. (Romans 4:16-17).


The scope of salvation through faith went far beyond the Jews.  And because it did, there is a sense in which the family of Abraham goes far beyond mere physical offspring to encompass all who believe.  This is in contrast to the Law.



Demands obedience

Given to Israel


Faith in accordance with grace

Given to all men (“many nations”).


When Abraham was promised that he would be "a father of many nations," God wasn't merely speaking of Semitic peoples.  Verse 16 says that He is "the father of us ALL."


That means the promises of the older testament are ours to claim.  God doesn’t have one program for Jewish people and another for the church.  He has made the two groups into one and has broken down the middle wall of partition.




            In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, "So shall you descendants be."

            And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; 20  yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:18-22).


When we read that Abraham “did not waver in unbelief,” this does not mean that he never had any lapses in faith.  It doesn't mean that he never struggled.  A study of his life shows the contrary.  And yet, throughout his life he continued to hold onto the promises of God.


That faith was rewarded when Abraham and Sarah had a son.  That was what the promise was all about.  God said to Abraham, “I’m going to give you as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and grains of sand upon the seashore.”  And so Abraham waited.  And he waited some more.  And both he and Sarah got older.  And still no children.  Not even ONE!


What was more, Abraham's name meant, “Father of many.”  I can imagine whenever Abraham met someone and they exchanged names, the newcomer would say, “Abraham, father of many - exactly how many children DO you have?”  And Abraham would have to answer, “None - YET.”


In verse 18 we read that "in hope against hope he believed."  This is a bit of an oxymoron.  In other words, Abraham continued to believe even when there was no hope.  We can draw the following conclusions about Abraham’s faith:


1.         Abraham’s faith was grounded upon the promises of God, not upon his own subjective faith.  This was not a faith in faith.  Nor was it a subjective feeling.  It was a faith upon the objective promises of God.


2.         Abraham believed in the promises in the face of evidence to the contrary.  He and Sarah were far past the age of bearing children.  It seemed impossible that the promise of God could indeed come to pass.


There is a lesson here.  We need to believe the promises of God, even when they go against earthly or human wisdom.


3.         Abraham’s faith was not inert, but rather was active.  It produced a corresponding action in the life of Abraham.  Real faith works.  It produces a corresponding manner of life in the one who believes.





            Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, 24  but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25  He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification. (Romans 4:23-25).


The story of Abraham is not merely about Abraham.  It is much more than just a nice story about someone who lived long ago and far away.  It is about YOU.  It was written “for our sake.”


Delivered up

Because of

our transgressions

Was raised

our justification


When we read that Christ "was delivered up because of our transgressions," we understand what this means with regard to His sacrificial death on our behalf.  Indeed, these words seem to be a quote from Isaiah 53:12.  But in what way was Jesus "raised because of our justification"?  There are two possibilities:


1.         One suggestion is that this means His resurrection is the evidence that you have been justified.  His resurrection forever verifies our salvation.


2.         It is only because Christ has RISEN from the dead and LIVING today that He present righteousness is credited to me.


You see, if the whole of my present position before God consists of being “in Christ” and, if Christ is still in the grave, then where does that leave me?  I am rotting in a grave!  But that is not the case.  He has risen and I am reckoned to have been risen to a new life with Him.  Thus, I am "justified in Christ" (Galatians 2:17).


Don’t miss this!  I am declared righteous because the perfect and righteous character of Jesus has been reckoned to me.  Not merely the perfect life He lived while on earth.  But His infinitely and eternally perfect character — THAT is the righteousness which has been reckoned to me.  The result?  We shall see it in the next chapter.


            "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1).


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