The book of Romans is Paul’s working out of what the gospel is. He’s shown that all of humanity is guilty before God (Romans 1:18 – 3:20). Those who have had direct access to God’s word, the scriptures, have not lived out what they found there. Those who have not had direct access to the scriptures, but have the conscience, which reflects something of what is in the scriptures, they have not lived up to what their conscience dictates. They too are guilty. All of mankind is guilty before God. But then Paul introduces that we can be forgiven through the Lord Jesus Christ, by faith (Romans 3:21 – 31). We are forgiven not by works, not by obedience to the Mosaic law or any other law, but by faith in Chris. We are forgiven through believing that He died on the cross, taking Gods punishment for all of our wrongdoing.
But then the question might be asked of Paul, “Is this a new thing?” Surely, if God had always planned that this salvation from His wrath would through believing in Jesus, then we would have known about this before. Is this something that is just breaking in to the fabric of how God deals with mankind? What about the thousands of years before Christ’s coming? What about the Jewish history, what about Abraham, what about those that went before? The purpose of Chapter 4 is to state that God has always made people innocent before him by faith. This is not a new thing. It’s not a novelty; it’s always been there in the scriptures.
Two Witnesses to Salvation by Faith
First Paul calls two witnesses to his case that the Jews of his day would have known extremely well. These witnesses are Abraham and David. He shows that these two men knew fully the truth of forgiveness before God came through faith and faith alone.
Abraham Was Justified by Faith
“For if Abraham was justified by works he had something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed god and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’“ Romans 4:2,3
Abraham was declared righteous before God through faith, it was not according to his works. He is a man who has travelled a better part of 1000 miles because God had said he should, and this in days without our modern transportation. He left home and family. He left his own culture. He had done all this for God, to go and live amongst a people, where he was an alien and a stranger. Surely if somebody had believed God to that extent, had changed his life and had done so much, he can boast before God can’t he? Surely he can be declared righteous before God by what he does? Paul was very clear, Abraham could not boast before God. He had done what asked, there is no means by which he could have boasted and said how great he was before God.
“He calls that glorying, when we pretend to have anything of our own to which a reward is supposed to be due in Gods tribunal. Since he takes this away from Abraham, who of us can claim for himself the least particle of merit” John Calvin.
You would have thought that somebody who had produced the theology which underpinned so much of the Reformation, the transformation in the knowledge of God that happened in the Middle Ages, surely he would have had something to boast about before God? But Calvin’s own words, ask who of us can claim for himself the least particle of merit before God? Abraham could not glory before God in his works. Abraham was given God’s righteousness, that is how Abraham was declared innocent, it was given to him, he did not deserve it.
Abraham Was Not Justified By Works
“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” Romans 4:4,5
If Abraham had earned this righteousness then God would have been duty bound to give it to him, to declare him so. But there was no such obligation on God to declare Abraham righteous or innocent. God was not duty bound, looking at Abraham’s life, to declare Abraham innocent before Him. Why? Because Abraham was not innocent before God. This faith that the apostle is talking about is not just blind faith, not faith in any idea about God, it is belief in what God has done for us through the Lord Jesus Christ. We will see that in the end of the chapter. God declares the ungodly innocent when they have this saving faith. Paul puts it very clearly:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”
1 Corinthians 6:9 – 11
He is talking to God’s people in the congregation at Corinth. Some of them did these things but they were washed, they were sanctified, made clean, were justified, declared innocent in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. Some of that congregation in Corinth had earned the wrath and judgment of God upon their lives, but through faith in Christ they were declared innocent.
“No room therefore is left for despair, though God clears not the impenitent guilty, yet through Christ he justifies the ungodly” Matthew Henry
This faith was not a faith from themselves, they could not have said faith is a work of their own.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, less anyone should boast.” Ephesians 2,8,9
David Was Justified by Faith
“just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness, apart from works.” Romans 4:6
David speaks concerning the gracious non imputation of sin, the fact that his sins are not counted against him, and the forgiveness of sin mentioned in Psalm 32 Paul quotes from in Romans 4. David could write,
“When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me, my vitality was turned into the drought of summer.” Psalm 32:3,4
It is thought that Psalm 32 is a companion to Palms 51. In this case David is reflecting on his own adultery with Bathsheba and his attempt to cover up this sin by the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. David was then challenged by the prophet Nathan, which led David to groan exceedingly under the weight of the sin that he knows he has done wrong. The only relief that David got from that sin, was when he knew that God wouldn’t charge it to his account.
“I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said I will confess my transgressions to the LORD, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.“ Psalm 32:5
“David’s religion therefore, was not one determined by the concept of good works, but by that of the gracious remission of sin and the blessedness, regarded as the epitome of divine favor, and no affirmity with that secured by works of merit.” John Murray
David knew that once sin is removed from God’s view, graciously not charged to his own account, he had entered into the blessedness of God. David did not have any belief in the idea that merit can be secured by good works. Why is David a particularly good example of that? There was no sacrifice under the Old Testament system for the removal of the sins David had committed (adultery and murder). There was nothing David could do, no sacrifice, no action, nothing prescribed in God’s law, nothing the priest could do on his behalf, that would remove his guilt of adultery and murder before God. It simply was not there. The only hope that David had was that God would forgive him when he confessed his sin and that’s the truth that David writes about in Psalm 32. David knew he had to be forgiven by faith.
Faith Unifies the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision
Abraham Was Made Righteous Before Being Circumcised
This faith unifies God’s people. Once there was the obvious and direct division between the Jew and the Gentile. But now what we see is that Abraham, the father of faith, unites God’s people.
“Does this blessedness then come from upon the circumcised only or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised but while uncircumcised.” Romans 4:9,10
Abraham was declared righteous, declared innocent before God, in Genesis 15: 6, at least 14 years before he was circumcised. Faith was what made him innocent, what justified him, not the outward sign of circumcision.
“Abraham was pardoned and accepted in uncircumcision, a circumstance, which, as it might silence the fears of the poor uncircumcised Gentiles, so might lower the pride and the conceitedness of the Jews, who gloried in their circumcision, as if they had the monopoly of all happiness.”
It might silence the fears of those that hadn’t followed the full Jewish code, they can still be declared innocent before God. But equally he was righteous after his circumcision, being circumcised in and of itself is not a hindrance to knowing God as long as you don’t put your faith and trust in that.
Abraham’s Circumcision Confirmed The Righteousness Given by Faith
“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised.” Romans 4:11a
A mistake may creep into our thinking, that if circumcision had no part in Abraham’s justification then it had no value to him. Circumcision was the outward seal of authenticity, that he was genuinely accepted. His faith had given him that acceptance, and the outward sign of this was the circumcision.
Abraham is the Father of All With Faith – Both the Circumcised and the Uncircumcised
“that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised..” Romans 4:11b,12
God has brought a wonderful unity here. The middle wall of partition, as Paul puts in Ephesians chapter 2, the barrier that was between Jew and Gentile, is now gone. It is faith and faith alone that gets us right before God. Abraham could not boast in his works before God, he was given this righteousness by his faith. Also in his faith he unifies those there were both circumcised and not circumcised.
Faith Brings God’s Promise of Salvation
The Promise –Inherited by Faith In Christ, Abrahams Seed
“For the promise that he would be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham or to his seed through to the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Romans 4:13
God had declared to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. Abraham saw Christ from a far. The Lord Jesus Christ tells us in John 8:56 that about 2000 years before the He walked on the earth, God revealed the Lord Jesus Christ to Abraham, and Abraham rejoiced in this knowledge. Abraham’s faith was rooted and centered in the Lord Jesus Christ. God would fulfill that promise of salvation to Abraham and his descendants by making his people heirs to the great and wonderful hope that finds its ultimate fulfillment on the new heavens and the new earth. God’s people will only reach the new heavens and earth through the work of Christ on the cross.
The Promise – Not inherited by Law
“For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law, there is no transgression.” Romans 4:14,15
The Mosaic Law, given over 400 years after God declaring Abraham righteous, was there to reveal more clearly human sin which should bring us to the Lord Jesus Christ. Now there is perhaps a class of self confident person who knows nothing of God, who might feel that they are good enough to be accepted by God just as they are. But anybody who has looked at the moral demands in the Mosaic Law and how the Lord Jesus Christ interprets those demands in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) cannot fail to see their guilt before God. Have you obeyed His command to love Him with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength, with every ounce of your being, at every moment of your life, right from your youth to the very end of your life? An honest person will soon realize that they haven’t.
Who can be so confident in their own life and works that they feel that they should have heaven? The law commands obedience and it produces wrath when it is violated, it knows no grace. The wrath of God comes upon our transgression of the law; the law brings death, preventing the receiving of the promise, that eternal life.
“For as many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse; for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’” Galatians 3:10
The Promise – Sure Because it is Inherited by Faith
“Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also of those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.“ Romans 4:16
“If salvation be in any form or to any degree dependent on the merit, the goodness or the stability of man, it can never be sure, nay, it must be utterly unattainable. Unless we can be saved by grace we cannot be saved by all” Charles Hodge
If our salvation is not dependent upon us, but is dependent upon God, then it is secure. We as human beings are weak and fickle and unstable, but God isn’t. He is steadfast, He is all-powerful, He knows everything, He is not taken by surprise. He is utterly dependable and reliable and will perform His word.
The Promise – Inherited by Believing in the Power of God
“(as it is written, ‘I have made you a father of many nations’), in the presence of Him whom he believed – God who gives life to the dead and calls those thing, which do not exist as though they did who contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, ‘so shall your descendants be’. And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.” Romans 4:17 – 19
This is power of the God that Abraham believed in, “I have made you a father of many nations”. Abraham didn’t even have a son and God says “I have made you a father of many nations”. This was humanly impossible, Sarah was beyond the age of child bearing. It was impossible, but not for God. Faith looks at the power of God who does these things, who gives life to the dead. God’s power calls things that are not as though they are. When Abraham had no descendant and no ability humanly speaking to have a descendant, God called a nation into being, such is the power of God.
Abraham had faith, not just when life was good, not just when it looked easy, but he had faith when the earthly circumstances were impossible. We live in a nation today that is moving not just to apathy, but to ardent opposition by certain elements against God. Faith recognizes such opposition. There is a definite anti-God feeling among the elite in the media and they wish to see God removed [Christian Institute News Item, “Anti-Christian bias is OK at the BBC, says former presenter” 25/1/2011]. Faith doesn’t dismiss such opposition, it acknowledges it, but it sees a higher power, a greater power knowing that God is not hindered by these things, He can still work.
“The object of faith is clearly God in the omnipotence of His character, the determinedness of His purpose, and the security of his promises.”
“The mind is never so enlightened that there are no remains of ignorance, nor the heart so established that there are no misgivings. With these evils of our nature, faith remains a perpetual conflict, in which conflict it is often sorely shaken, and put to great stress; but still it conquers, so that believers may be said to be strong even in weakness.” John Calvin
In one sense it is staggering to think that John Calvin wrote that quote. He was one of the theological giants of European medieval history, putting together that theology that underpinned Luther’s discoveries. Paul wants us to have Abraham’s strong faith. Abraham’s response to the trial was:
“he did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.” Romans 4:20,21
We need absolute confidence in the power of God to fulfill that which he had said he would do. We need to glorify God, believing in Him and taking Him at His word. It is dishonoring to God to say that God is mistaken, that He is wrong, to believe He actually doesn’t have the power to do fulfill His word. Would Abraham have said, “You can create an earth, you can create a universe, but I just don’t think you can raise the dead, I just don’t think you can give me a son”? That was not Abraham, he had absolute confidence in the power of God. We are to learn from this example.
Do We Have the Faith of Abraham?
“Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him but also for us. It should be imputed to us who believe in Him, who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses and who was raised because of our justification.” Romans 4:23 -25
What we believe in, is important, Paul in verse 23 has introduced that we should have the faith of Abraham so that we too can be declared innocent before God. In verses 24 and 25 Paul makes clear what we are to believe in: Jesus Christ died on the cross and raised Himself from the dead. He dies on the cross taking God’s punishment for His peoples’ sin, and rose again demonstrating that He had fully taken our punishment allowing us to be declared innocent before God.
Again, it’s seeing the difficulties; it is acknowledging by eye the problems. Knowing that God put His son to death upon the cross and then raised Him up again, believing it. We don’t see many graveyards with a fence around them and padlock gates to keep the dead in. They don’t tend to rise out of their graves; it’s not something we usually see. But why should it be impossible for God to raise the dead? If He gave us life in the first place, if He has created this earth and this universe, why is it impossible for God to raise the dead? See the difficulty, but then look to the power of God.
The Lord Jesus was delivered for our offenses, our sins against Gods law. In a nutshell, death is not a natural event for mankind. God created Adam and Eve and they were made immortal. Death is not a natural event for man, it is a penal event. It is a punishment. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and God had told them they would die if they sinned. They died spiritually in that were separated from God, they dies physically, and unless forgiven in Christ would die eternally, under the wrath of God in Hell. We believe that Jesus Christ took the punishment for our sin on the cross. It is an admission of guilt, I should die because of my wrong doing, because I have misused His name, because I have not perfectly loved Him. The law says I deserve eternal punishment in hell. But Jesus took my punishment on the cross at Calvary.
But Christ rose again from the dead. It is only those that are under the penalty of sin that stay dead. Jesus never had any sin of his own; death couldn’t hold Him in of itself. But more than that, my sin, your sin, the sin of all those who believe in Him was transferred to Him upon the cross. God poured forth His full anger and wrath upon His son, upon the cross, Gods anger was fully satisfied. The punishment for sin was fully taken so that there was no longer any residue of that sin left in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s fully accounted for, only those who have sinned stay dead, Jesus Christ never sinned, there is nothing of His people’s sin, it’s all been fully accounted for upon the cross. There was nothing to hold him in the grave, the grave couldn’t hold Him, there was no sin upon Him at all.
I can’t tell you to what extent Abraham saw all of that, I don’t know how much God directly revealed to him, but we have a very clear revelation in the scriptures of what Jesus has done for us. The question is, do we believe that revelation? Do we believe that Jesus died for us taking God’s punishment for our wrong doing, and that His sacrifice was fully accepted? Do we believe that we are forgiven by faith, and not at all by anything that we do with our lives and with our works? Do we have the faith of Abraham?
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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