In this passage, Paul is dealing with the important idea of justification. Romans 4 has Paul answering one important question: how is a man justified? Justified is a legal term, and it simply means to be declared righteous. With justification comes approval and innocence. In Romans 4, Paul uses two examples that the early readers of Romans were familiar with -- Abraham and David -- to show what faith is. We too, can learn so much from this very, very rich text!
(A) The first example: justification by faith gives Abraham a relationship with God (v. 1-5)
This entire passage is concerned with the idea of “justification” and using the example of Abraham, the first 4 verses introduce two different types of justification (and righteousness). Let us compare them:
|Justification by faith||Justification by works|
| How do you think of yourself? |
"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God." (v.2)
|The one who is justified by faith has nothing to boast about before God.||The one who is justified by works would be boasting about self.|
| What are the actions performed? |
"For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”" (v.3)
|In quoting the OT here, Paul says that the act is believing in God, and then, it will be counted as righteousness.||It involves working and trying hard to live out own ideals.|
| What type of wages/reward? |
"Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due." (v.4)
|What is given is given as a gift.||What is given is referred to as "due", carrying with it the idea that you get what you work for.|
| Who qualifies? |
"And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness," (v.5)
|The ungodly who does not work||---|
Paul is trying to explain what the justification that comes by faith looks like. As we look at the different traits of these two ways of justifying ourselves, we can answer Paul's question in the opening verse of Romans 4. What was gained by Abraham? It was a righteousness gained by faith.
Perhaps these are familiar words, familiar truths. But let us pause and consider what this text means, and how it will affect and change our lives. What these opening verses are saying is that salvation comes to those that do not qualify, and do not work their way to obtain some standard an ideal. In fact, verse 5 makes it clear that this justification comes to the "ungodly".
If we consider our own lives, do we actually life a life of justification by works, or by faith? Most Christians will readily say that we live by faith, but practically, how does each belief work itself out in life?
Living a life of faith through works could mean that:
- I see prayer as a means of paying my dues. I need to come to God to remind Him of my existence and what I have done for Him. Bad things that happen as a result of skipping a prayer (or not praying) could be seen as a punishment! Good things that happen result from my devotion.
- I am always anxious, because I need to be doing things to please God and if I don't, who knows what will happen?
- I am unable to stand up to criticism, eager to contend with people and even God. Therefore, judgment and criticism comes quickly.
- When faced with difficulties and challenges, the question "Why me?" comes up quickly and surely.
- Ultimately, I see God as the judge, the one who gives me what I deserve, and what I have worked for. We have a transactional relationship.
In contrast, a life of faith:
- There is a deep appreciation and even enjoyment of everything, because there is a great recognition of personal unworthiness of everything that has been showered and bestowed. Everything is something that exceeds personal expectations!
- It leads to a joyful celebration with other similar recipients of grace.
- I can boldly proclaim the gospel to anyone and everyone.
- God is my benefactor through whom I have received much from His generosity. I owe Him everything, and He has a right to remove everything with Him anytime. I have no right to insist or demand anything.
These two beliefs lead to two completely different way and approach to life. It hinges on two different views and beliefs of God, and who we think we are.
Which life are you living?
(B) The second example: justification by faith gives David joy and blessing (v. 5-8)
Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 to give another description of the man justified by faith. Here, he quotes a Psalm of David, and tells us that the Bible calls blessed the ungodly who is justified -- "whose lawless deeds are forgiven" (v.7a), "whose sins are covered" (v.7b), "against whom the Lord will not count his sin" (v.8). The blessed (or happy) man, according to the Bible is not one who has everything -- a good job, stable income, a family he desires. More than that, blessed is the one who has everything that he could not obtain based on his own efforts or merit. To use an analogy, to be one who is justified by faith is not moving from a -100 status to a 0 status, only to work your way up to a level 100. No! It means being moved from a -100 to 100! These verses tell us that justification by faith alone means that not only do we not have to pay for our sin, we also do not have to work for our own righteousness. This is the offer of the gospel.
Who, then, is included in this offer? Paul deals with it in verses 9 to 12. There are two groups of people that he refers to in verses 9 for this next part of his argument -- the circumcised and the uncircumcised. (Note: Circumcision is just a physical marker to distinguish the nation of Israel from others). Paul points out in verses 10 and 11 that Abraham himself was not circumcised when it was counted to him as righteousness. This was the debate that was at the heart of the early church that Paul sought to address when writing this epistle. In our context, examples would be questions like "do I have to go to church in order to be saved?", "do I have to read my Bible in order to be saved?". Rom 4:11-12 plainly states that justification is by faith alone, and it applies to all, both the circumcised and the uncircumcised. This means plainly that this gift (referred to in verses 4) is available to all.
How many of us genuinely believe that we are saved entirely by faith and not by works? Probably all of us. Yet, aren't there people that we've written off entirely when we try to share the gospel, thinking that they could never be saved? These verses remind us that salvation is not by works but faith alone, and this gospel can save anyone, even the hardest, coldest, meanest person.
(C) 4 implications of justification by faith: God is shown to be faithful, great in love, glorious and our Savior
So far it has been great. Romans 4 is so theologically rich. But that is not all! There are some amazing implications of this truth.
1. Justification by faith is how God shows faithfulness (v.13-15)
These verses point us back to the promise made to Abraham and his offspring in Genesis 15. God told Abraham that he would be heir of the world (i.e. all nations). This promise could not be fulfilled if it depended on the works of Abraham and his offspring. In the first place, practical impediments such as geography and language would prevent hte spread of the law, and therefore, the adherence to the law and the benefits that it would bring. More importantly, none of us have the ability and motivation to obey the law. The law could never do that because it could never motivate and transform us. It shows us our inability, but it does not change or help us (v.15). The promised blessings would never come to the world, if it depended on us keeping the law.
What then, could faith do that the law could not? It enabled them to be truly righteous and truly blessed. At the same time, it enabled God to keep His promise.
2. Justification by faith is how God shows His great love for the nations (v.16-18)
We read about how God made a promise to Abraham and his descendants. What does the passage say about who the children of Abraham are? All who trust in the same faith as Abraham are his children, not just the Jews or his descendants by blood. We are included by faith! Does God only accept people who have blind faith? No, He accepts only those who like Abraham, have a non-works faith.
3. Justification by faith is how God shows His glory (v. 19-22)
Interestingly, these verses show something about the relationship between reason and faith. Abraham is described as thinking about various things in verses 19-22. There are two things that would cause him to doubt, namely "his own body, which was as good as dead" (v.19a) and "the barrenness of Sarah's womb" (v.19b). Yet, verse 20 tells us that "no unbelief made him waver" when he considered something else -- God's ability to do what He promised.
Did you notice that reason and faith are not opposed? In fact, in this example, we see that true faith is reasonably obtained. Abraham did not have blind faith, but also thought through things and took them to logical conclusions. Faith is not about not thinking, but rather, thinking about the right things. In fact, these verses tell us that thinking about God generates faith, and God gets the glory. This is how we can glorify God, when we learn not to trust in ourselves, nor the circumstances, but trust in God who works out all things by thinking about who He is. John 3:30 reminds us that He must increase, and we must decrease. This is the Christian life, and what it means to live by faith alone.
4. Justification by faith is how God shows salvation (v.23-25)
Abraham's experience is the same for us today! Paul is arguing that Gen 15:6 was also written for our benefit! We may think that we have done too much wrong and are too far off for God to save us, but these verses show us that the same saving faith is available to us today. We who are ungodly and unrighteousness can actually be made righteous today. How? Verses 23-25 show us also two key things that we must trust in and believe. We must believe that (i) Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses and died on the cross for our sins in our place and (ii) raised for our justification and resurrected to show that God accepts the payment on our behalf.
This does not mean merely believing objective facts about what God has done in Christ in a cold and distant and impersonal manner. It also means taking HIm up on His offer and promises for us too! This is what it means to be like Abraham, who believed and had faith and had everything counted to him as righteousness. This is what it means to live by faith alone, not because we are faithful, but because God is faithful. There is nothing we can do to add to His faithfulness, except to trust in Him and what He has said.
How do we apply this? There are, or will be many moments in life when we feel the weight of our sins. In those moments, we do not brush it off and try to convince ourselves to be happy. In those moments, we do not wallow in self-pity and remorse. Instead, we take the glorious truths from Romans 4, and look back at the cross. We love to sing this hymn Before the throne of God above, and one of the verses tell us exactly how we are to respond:
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me
This is what it means to live by faith alone.