Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Lesson 16: Romans 4
There is a tendency among us humans to divide into groups.
God created a diverse universe. This is the way he wanted it to be. When he made us humans he made us so that we would not all be the same. We are different in our talents, interests, abilities, health, intelligence, appearance, and callings. In this sense, all men are not created equal.
There is also a uniformity in God’s creation of man. All were made in the image of God, obligated to represent his sovereign lordship. All were equally represented in Adam, who was assigned as the head of the human race. All equally fell into sin and became depraved in Adam. His sin passed on to all his posterity. Romans 5 (our next chapter for study) very clearly summarizes this truth and its solution.
Sin has distorted our diversities into false categories. In our fallen nature we develop pride and prejudice very early in our lives. I remember playing around the neighborhood and on the school yard when I was very young. When someone crossed us we often formed “clubs” to exclude them. There were those we considered “friends” and those we excluded from the group. When I taught Jr. High I saw the tendency of teens to form cliques. They would often mercilessly exclude certain people, and prejudicial favor others.
Our society as a whole sadly reflects that same attitude even among adults. It is sometimes good and productive to form special interest groups to learn together, and to encourage others in specific areas. However, we also tend to come up with unfounded categories into which we put people different than us. Those are often looked down upon, or sometimes hated. Sometimes people are shunned because of racial prejudices or economic differences. Sometimes we divide up because others speak differently or have been raised with different mannerisms. False standards of virtue and acceptance create sinful pride and the unjust treatment of others.
The groups God has divided us into are of a very different nature. Though all are fallen in Adam, some are redeemed from that fallen condition, others are not. In our confused, fallen condition we tend to explain that in wrong ways. Humans tend to think of things people do as the cause of why some are saved and others are not. Some think that baptism or belonging to a certain church redeems us from sin. Some think that those who made a right decision or religious choice will be favored by God. Some imagine that they earn salvation from sin by doing good deeds, or by sincere thoughts. However, God’s word condemns those ways of salvation as prideful and wicked. Dividing men up by those standards is wrong.
In Paul’s day many of the Jews had created a religious clique. They believed their heritage, their descent from Abraham, made them better than everyone else. They believed that being from a circumcised family assured them of eternal life with God.
In Romans we are taught that the Jew’s own Scriptures show their error. No one has an advantage when it comes to salvation from sin. It is by grace alone that any are redeemed by the propitiation of Jesus Christ. To illustrate this, in chapter four Paul uses the life of Abraham, the father of all Israel.
Abraham as an Example
Abraham was clearly a man justified before God. No one questioned that. His justification was not because of the things in which the Jews were taking pride.
Romans 4:1-5, “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has 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.’ 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,”
Abraham was the one to whom God revealed his promise to redeem a people for himself. He was justified. He was given the Righteousness of God, and forgiven for his sin and guilt. If he was justified by what he had done or earned, then he had something to brag about. But he didn’t. Abraham had sinned just like everyone else. He had inherited the same corruption from Adam. It condemned him, and separated him from God.
The righteousness he had was a gift from God. It was not a reward for what he had done, or for being a better person. It was imputed to him, credited to him, by means of faith.
It is important to know what part this faith plays in his being justified. Three facts about faith help us understand this most important teaching of Scripture.
1. True faith is not what most people think it is.
It is not just an inner feeling or conviction. It is not a blind or irrational leap in the dark contrary to known facts. It is not a trust in something without sufficient evidence. There is no virtue in these things. They are not what the Bible calls “faith.”
Just trusting in something is not always good. That kind of trust is what the first two commandments forbid. Faith in a false god, or in a false way of salvation, or in a false hope is condemned in the Bible. Faith is only a good thing when it trusts in the true promises God has spoken. Therefore, it is the object of our faith, what we trust in, that makes it either good or bad. A faith in what God has not revealed is a “wicked faith” and offends God.
2. Biblical faith is not something we naturally have.
As we saw in the last chapter of Romans, faith is impossible for unredeemed humans (3:10-12). They cannot understand spiritual things as they truly are, much less can they be confident in them. They cannot seek after the true God, so they will not trust in him. They cannot do anything truly good. Certainly exercising true faith in Christ is a good thing.
As Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:2, “not all have faith.” Biblical faith is a special work of God upon the heart to give it confidence in what he has said. It is a sure confidence that comes by grace alone to the unworthy.
3. Faith is not the cause of being justified. It is the means God uses.
The foundation of our being made right with God is the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. He died in place of his people paying the price they deserved for their sin. By his suffering and death he satisfied the requirements of justice completely.
As the Holy Spirit applies that redeeming work to undeserving hearts he removes their guilt and offense, clothes them with his righteousness, and produces in them life and true faith. Those redeemed respond with repentance and trust in the true promise of God alone. It is this trust, this God-given faith, that is the means by which the work of Jesus declares us to be justified.
The faith by which Abraham was justified was a trust in the true promises of God. The method of salvation has always been the same. Those who are justified, trust in the work of God’s promised Redeemer and not in themselves.
Before Jesus was born, believers looked forward with faith in the promise of redemption, even though they did not understand it fully. Since the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we believers look back with faith, resting upon the finished work of Jesus.
Paul then quoted Scripture to show this foundation for justification.
Romans 4:6-8, “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.’ “
The quote here come from Psalm 32:1-2 by King David, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
Men are justified before God by having Christ’s righteousness imputed to them. In imputation, we are not merely treated as if we were righteous. In Christ we actually become righteous. We are just because of his declaration.
The true believer has the righteousness of Jesus Christ placed around him like a robe. As Isaiah said, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)
In all ages the method of salvation has been the same.
Paul turned back to Abraham to illustrate justification by grace through faith. Many of the Jews had come to classify people not based upon that inner work of grace, but by the outward sign of belonging to Israel, circumcision. It produced pride and prejudice.
Abraham was justified before he was circumcised.
Romans 4:9-12, “Does this blessedness then come 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. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still 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.”
God gave Circumcision as a seal to mark out his people. Circumcision proclaimed a righteousness which was not their own. They joined together in a community to live by God’s promise, the hope of Messiah. They admitted the hopelessness of doing anything that would make them right with God.
So it was a sign, saying their righteousness was by that faith God gives by grace. If it is a sign of something God does inwardly, then it cannot be the cause of salvation. The Jews were wrong who expected their circumcision to save them. They were wrong in thinking that uncircumcised Gentiles could not be saved. Abraham was not yet circumcised when God by grace justified him.
Believers from all nations were intended to be blessed in the same promise to Abraham. He is not just the spiritual father of the Jews, but of all who believe in all ages. As Paul wrote in Galatians 3:6-9, “just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”
Today, after the shedding of Christ’s blood, baptism has become that sign. Baptism is the sign that marks out God’s people as those justified by grace through faith. It means the same thing as the Circumcision of the Old Testament. This is reflected in Colossians 2:11-12, “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
The promise has not changed. It is not different. God has always saved his people the same way. God grants life and faith by grace alone on the basis of the One Savior dying to pay the penalty of the sins of his people, satisfying justice and giving them his righteousness.
Dr. Charles Hodge explained, “As Abraham was the head and father of the theocratic people under the Old Testament, this relation was not disowned when the middle wall of partition was broken down and the gentiles introduced into the family of God. He still remained the father of the faithful, and we are ‘the sons of Abraham by faith,’ Galatians 3:7”
Grace, not our efforts or choices, makes us true children of God.
Romans 4:13-17, “For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed 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 made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression. 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 to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (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 things which do not exist as though they did;”
Abraham is the spiritual father of all who believe, not just of the Jews who had the written law, and who practiced circumcision. He is father also to those who were redeemed among the Gentiles who know nothing of circumcision. When the gospel comes to them, and they too believe, they show the same promise at work in them.
These are the three groupings into which God divides mankind.
1. Some never profess to belong to God through his promise of atonement.
They are those not chosen to eternal life, and who never join with God’s people even in an outward way.
2. Some profess Christ but are not truly redeemed.
They may even join with God’s people and take part in worship and other activities. In the time between Abraham and Jesus, they would take on the sign of circumcision. In the era of the New Testament church they receive the sign of baptism. However, they are among those not chosen to eternal life by God’s grace.
Jesus addressed them in Matthew 7:21-23. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ ”
While these may have many outward advantages in this life by their association with God’s covenant people, they remain condemned.
3. Others are truly justified through Christ by grace alone.
These are the elect of God (Ephesians 1:3-6). They profess faith in God’s promise, come to him in honest repentance and trust in the work of the Savior. When able, they join with the visible church and take on the sign of the covenant (which in this age is baptism).
The sobering reality is that many might say they belong to Christ and even become baptized and join a church. They might seem to live a good life and impress many with their conservative ways. However, only those undeserving souls, humbled by grace and given confidence in Christ’s work, are robed with the righteousness of the Savior and restored to fellowship with God.
The foundation of our confidence is not found in what we do.
The basis for our redemption is based upon the promise of God. Paul briefly reviewed the details of Abraham’s confidence in this next section of Romans chapter four.
Romans 4:18-19, “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.”
When God told him that he and his wife would have children in their old age, it seemed humanly impossible. There was no reasonable hope based on outward things. However, though his faith was still immature, he believed God.
Romans 4:20-22, “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. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ “
There was a true faith implanted in his heart. Trusting in God’s provision for his sin, not in his own good works, the righteousness of God was imputed to him.
We too may wonder at times how God can forgive us and adopt us as his true children. Some may become confused by lapses into sin the way Abraham strayed and sinned. They may worry that they do not measure up or that their faith is not strong.
Grace is truly an amazing thing. Since our faith like Abraham’s is imperfect in this life, we will at times falter. It is the work of Christ that is the foundation of our hope. A weak faith should make us pray all the more, not to give up as if we haven’t done enough. By admitting that we fall short, we show the work of grace on our hearts.
John Calvin gave this comforting pastoral advice, “the mind is never so enlightened that there are no remains of ignorance, nor the heart so established that there are no misgivings. With those evils of our nature, faith maintains a perpetual conflict, in which conflict it is often sorely shaken and put to great stress; but still it conquers…”
This was recorded in Scripture not only for the ancients, but for us today.
Romans 4:23-25, “Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall 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 was raised because of our justification.”
Those who are redeemed have nothing in which to boast. Note how often this has come up in this section. If we are counted among God’s blessed people by what we do, we have cause to either worry when we sin, or to boast when we do well. Instead we learn to glory in Christ alone.
It is challenging living in our pluralistic society. These divisions as God makes them are hard for us to accept. Man never ceases to make prideful and prejudiced divisions of his own. The truth is, the gospel takes it out of our hands entirely.
If we have come to see our own unworthiness, and to trust in Christ’s work alone for salvation, then we ought to be thankfully humbled before God, and before others. We ought to engage in humble and faithful worship. We ought to struggle hard to obey out of gratitude, with no delusions of earning our salvation, and we ought to busily evangelize, tell others, all kinds of others, both the challenging truth which God has revealed to us in his word. We need to declare that in spite of our own record, our own successes, our own accomplishments, there is hope in the promise of God, in the work of Christ.
(The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)