“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” —Romans 4:3
“What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?” (Romans 4:1). This passage begins once again with an almost rhetorical question from the apostle Paul, “What shall we say then…?” Now, as we understand that a rhetorical question is a question that is uttered to bring our attention to the obvious and it requires no answer, if we had been paying very close attention to what the Holy Spirit had been revealing through the course of the letter thus far, Paul’s own answer to his question should be glaringly obvious.
Although God is the sovereign Potentate, King over all, His declaration of justification does not come from His power as King, but instead, through His ruling as a holy and just Judge. Romans 3:26 calls Him the “just Justifier.” Although a king, or even a president, can pardon a criminal and let him go free, when that criminal is released to the public, he’s still the criminal he always was; the guilt that was upon him was never removed; and even if he never commits another crime the rest of his life, he’s still only a pardoned criminal. But justification is a legal term (theologians call it a forensic). Justification is God’s declaration that the righteousness of His law has been fulfilled… and that fulfillment came by the life and death of His righteous Son, Jesus Christ. When a criminal is pardoned by a king, he still knows the guilt of what he has done; when a sinner is justified by a holy Judge, that sinner leaves the courtroom of God without guilt or condemnation because he is fully assured in the sufficiency of his Substitute for having taken the penalty on his behalf.
In Romans 4:1, Paul is speaking to the Jews, because he references “Abraham our father pertaining to the flesh,” what has he found? What has he gained? What use was there in circumcision? Yet, it does not exclude the Gentiles, as we will see in just a moment.
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Romans 4:2). To paraphrase the first part of v2, I might say it this way: “If Abraham’s righteousness came by his own efforts, Abraham would have something to brag about; but since it is clear from everything explained to this point that ‘there is none that doeth good, no not one’ (Romans 3:12), then Abraham cannot make that boast before God.” The apostle makes his appeal and proves this from the Scriptures…
“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3). The apostle quotes Genesis 15:6. This is where we, as Christians must always state our case: from the pages of Scripture.
“After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward. And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and He said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.” —Genesis 15:1-6
Abram’s faith was based upon the Word of the Lord, upon God’s declaration of what He would do; Abram was told to “Look now” to ponder and consider the stars as an example of how plentiful God would make his descendents; and he believed God and God, therefore, placed His own righteousness upon Abram’s account for that belief. In fact Abram’s faith was in the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, because his faith and trust was in the Word of the LORD (Genesis 15:1, 4): that is, we know and understand that Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate (John 1:1, 14). Further, this justification came by nothing that Abram did. He did nothing to warrant God’s making to him any promise whatsoever.
Additionally, that Abram is counted as having God’s righteousness is evident in Scripture because his life is not the most exemplary. Abram lied to Pharaoh about Sarah (Genesis 12:18), nor did he leave all his family behind when God told him to leave them all (i.e., Abram’s father, Terah, his brothers, and also Lot, his nephew).
“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (Romans 4:4). If justification came as a result of what man had accomplished, or even in what he could potentially accomplish, then it would not be grace, but it would come by obligation. To think that man can be justified before God by what man can do or what he has done will bring about some serious problems with Scripture in general and the character of God in particular. First, to suggest that justification comes by works and not by grace is to suggest that man’s works can be perfectly acceptable to God; yet, that violates Scripture because we have been told that previously: “there is none righteous” (Romans 3:11), and that “there is none that doeth good” (Romans 3:12).
Second, to place God under obligation to our own works or deeds would subordinate Him to our work, even if it were possible for us to do something perfectly, and without sin (even though we can’t); and moreover, even if it were possible, the thought of making God obligated to reward us for something we did, would make Him less than what He is. It would debase His exalted, heavenly position, and it would exalt us to equality with God, at the very least, if not altogether above God at the hellish and blasphemous worst.
This is why saving faith is a grace that must come from God, alone because if there is faith already within me to obligate God to justify me, I have exalted myself and rendered the sovereign God a slave to my faith.
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). This doesn’t mean that a sinner doesn’t do anything good, or try to do something good. In fact, among the puritans, they had a term for those who were unsaved who, under conviction of the preaching of the Word of God, they would do “bad good works” in hopes of lessening their offenses against God, because they were not saved. What this verse does mean, however, is that there was nothing that one could do to merit grace; and that God justifies the ungodly, it is evident that since they are ungodly, there’s nothing they could do to warrant godly justification.
It would also be good at this point to mention that once a sinner is justified by grace through faith, the evidence that it truly is saving faith by which that soul has been justified will be a desire to bring forth works unto righteousness. That is what makes the verse in James consistent with v3 as Paul uses it: “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:23-24). James is actually proving that justification is by grace because mere belief which is only an ascent and acknowledgement to the facts is not true saving faith. He says earlier, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). Saving faith must come from God and must be imparted by God.
Justification is a grace, which is also evidenced in Abram’s life after God imputed (counted) his faith as righteousness because of his lapses of faith after God’s declaration of justification. Abram sires a child through Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid (Genesis 16) and he lies to Abimelech of Gerar about Sarah being his wife (Genesis 20:9-12). Yet, he does grow in faith once he is justified because it is evidenced in what he does in Genesis 22 when he takes Isaac his son to sacrifice on Mt. Moriah upon the Lord’s word.
As I mentioned earlier that, although this was addressed to the Jews directly, it is also a good and righteous exhortation to the Gentile believers. Paul includes the non-Jews as children of Abraham by faith a little later on in the passage when he says, “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16). Because faith is a spiritual matter, and since sinners are justified by faith, the same saving faith imparted to Abram from our text, is the justifying and saving faith imparted to all believers in Jesus Christ. That’s good news, great news for the Gentile believer! For if the Jew, who received the Word, ordinances, commandments from God must be justified by God’s grace, then those without the Law of Moses have a manifold blessing in having received the grace of God apart from the ordinances and commandments. What is common to both groups is the Word of God received by faith (Romans 10:17).
Read the previous article in this series, “No Antinomianism” (Romans 3:31).