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Bible: What Does Romans 4 Teach Us About Justification by Grace through Faith Alone?

Updated on September 15, 2016

The Apostle Paul


Yahweh: "Abram, Count the Stars"


Justification: By Works or By Faith?

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Romans 4--Abraham and David: Justified by Grace through Faith

Justification by Faith

Continuing his now familiar method of pedagogy—that is, introducing rhetorical questions and then immediately answering them—Paul asks his readers what Abraham, the famed Hebrew patriarch, discovered about the matters the apostle has been discussing (v. 1).

He replies that Abraham learned that justification before God comes by believing God’s promise, not by performing the deeds of the Law; he maintains that performances may impress people, but they certainly do not move God (v. 2).

The apostle quotes Genesis 15:6 to show how God imputed His righteousness to Abraham’s account when the patriarch believed His word (v. 3).

In the physical realm, workers receive wages in accordance with what their employer owes them for their labor; in the spiritual life, those who do not work but exercise faith in the Justifier of the ungodly, have Christ’s perfect righteousness graciously credited to their account (vv. 4-5).

Paul cites the poet-king David as another exemplar who spoke of imputed righteousness. In Psalm 32:1-2, David describes the blessedness (happiness) of the person whose sins (and sin) God forgives, covers, and does not count against him (vv. 6-8).

Forgiveness of Sins for All Believers, Jew and Gentile

Returning to his discussion of the Hebrew (Jew)-Gentile issue, Paul asks rhetorically if God confers this happiness upon both peoples; Abraham, after all, was a circumcised Hebrew (v. 9).

The apostle, however, stops the implied questioner in his tracks by pointing out that Abraham was uncircumcised when God imputed righteousness to him (v. 10; cf. Gen. 15:6).

According to Genesis 17, Abraham received the “sign of circumcision.”

This ritual acted as “a seal” that indicated he had securely possessed righteousness—a spiritual status he obtained prior to his circumcision.

This fact establishes the patriarch as the father of both Gentile and Jewish believers (vv. 11-12).

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The Law


Salvation by Grace through Faith Apart from the Law

God did not promise Abraham (or his descendants) that the patriarch (or the nation) would inherit the Earth by keeping the Law, but by believing Him (“the righteousness of faith”) [v. 13].

[The NASB renders verse thirteen more clearly than does the NKJV.]

Paul argues that if those who keep the Law (the Jews) are heirs, then Abraham’s faith would be empty and God’s promise would be negated (v. 14).

Yahweh gave the Hebrews the Law to show them that their rebellion against it caused them to fall under His condemnation (wrath); He never meant for them to try to keep it in order to earn salvation.

Although sin certainly existed in the world before God wrote the Law for Moses, the LORD did not charge people with transgressions of particular laws before He delivered it to Israel.

In other words, He did not credit those sins to the account of those who lived before the Law came (v. 15; cf. 5:13).

[Ryrie explains that “sin is not charged as a specific violation of a particular command when there is no law” (New Testament Study Bible, 271).]

Having concluded that people cannot obtain the promise by trying to keep the Law—that is, by practicing the ritualism and performing good works—, Paul asserts that the seed of Abraham—both Gentile and Jewish—can acquire it only by grace through faith (v. 16).

[Their obtaining the promise would be impossible if it depended upon their keeping the Law.]

The apostle’s reference to Abraham, who became the “father” of all believers in God’s sight because of his faith, reminds him of the LORD’s declaration concerning the patriarch (“I have made you a father of many nations”; Gen. 17:5) [v. 17a].

Abraham believed God could “give life to the dead” by enabling him—an old man—to procreate with elderly Sarah (v. 17b; cf. 4:19), and that He could bring into being what did not exist—many descendants?—(v. 17c).

Despite feeling that this happy event had no possibility of occurring, the patriarch still believed God’s word; by so doing, he fulfilled his part in the LORD’s plan regarding the number of his descendants He would give him (v. 18; cf. Gen. 15:5).

Abraham faced the obvious reality—“I have a one hundred year-old body, and Sarah’s womb is dead”—yet he did not allow these facts to prevent him from believing God’s promise (vv. 19-20a).

In fact, his faith grew, and he became so convinced of God’s power that he was able to give glory to Him (vv. 20b-21). Having obtained this faith, Abraham found righteousness credited to his account (v. 22; cf. Gen. 15:6).

Imputed Righteousness

Paul inserts the lesson his readers should learn from studying Abraham’s example.

Namely, all people who believe in the God Who raised Jesus—the One whom His enemies delivered up to death so that He could pay for humanity’s offenses; the One whom the Father raised from the dead “as a proof of God’s acceptance of His sacrifice” (v. 25; see Ryrie, New Testament Study Bible, 70)—will have righteousness imputed to their account (vv. 23-24).

[Christ’s resurrection proved that God accepted His sacrificial work on humanity’s behalf.

If His death had not satisfied God’s righteous demands and provided full payment for sin, then God would not have been able to justify anyone, and Jesus would have remained in the tomb.]

© 2013 glynch1


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