Lesson 5 Romans 4:1-25
Paul so far has set before us his basic understanding of justification by faith in Romans 3:21-26. Paul had been very emphatic that justification by faith has been in effect, even during Old Testament times (Romans 3:21; Romans 1:2). Yet with all this he has not given any evidence to support his claim, and this was an important task to accomplish, because he knew some if not the majority of the Jews doubted it.
Paul anticipates their objections by asking a question about Abraham and what Abraham had discovered on this subject (Romans 4:1). Selecting Abraham as his first witness was an absolutely essential decision on Paul’s part because both Judaism and Christianity acknowledge Abraham as the father of their faith. Furthermore, Abraham was the most important figure in the Old Testament.
Paul then reasons, If I can demonstrate that Abraham is in harmony with justification by faith, the case for faith is won and legalism can be put to bed, forever put out of the minds of the believers, both Jew and Gentile.
Old Testament Proof of Justification by Faith
The Jewish belief was that Abrahams works had justified him which Paul brings out in Romans 4:2. So Paul alludes to this to draw in his Jewish readers. The Jews based their thoughts on Genesis 26:5 (That God blessed Abraham “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws”). Therefore, from that verse, they based their belief that the patriarch “had performed the whole Law before it was given”
The Jews themselves in their book of Jubilees 23:10 states that “Abraham was perfect in all of his actions with the Lord and was pleasing through righteousness all the days of his life.”
Another Jewish book, the Prayer of Manasseh, mentions that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t have to repent to God because they were righteous and “did not sin against you” (Prayer of Manasseh 8 REB). Lastly, the Wisdom of Sirach states that “Abraham was a great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found equal to him in glory. He observed the Law of the Most-High and entered into an agreement with Him. He certified the agreement in his flesh, and when he was tested, he proved faithful (Wisdom of Sirach 44:19, 20, Goodspeed).
If all that is true, then Abraham certainly did have something to boast about! But Paul dismisses the possibility as soon as he raises it – Thus his exclamation “but not before God” (Romans 4:2). To Paul it is unthinkable that anyone, even Abraham, could have matters for boasting in God’s presence.
Paul then turns to the Bible, the Old Testament to provide proof: “Abraham Believed God, and it was Credited to Him as righteousness” (verse 3 NASB). His test is Genesis 15:6, in which Abraham believed God’s promise that the aged and barren Sarah would have a son and that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. Abraham believed God’s promise, Scripture tells us, “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Clearly Paul is using Genesis 15:6 to prove that Abraham was justified by faith rather than works. But that interpretation, the apostle knew was not the one held by the Jews of His day. In the Jewish book of I Maccabees 2:52, for example, we find the following question: “Did not Abraham prove faithful under trial, and so win credit as a righteous man? (REB). The passage changes the idea of faithful into faithfulness and thus meritroriousness that deserved a reward. Against Rabbi Shemiah who lived about 50 BCE. Represented God as saying, “The faith with which their father Abraham believed in Me . . . merits that I should divide the (red) set for them, as it is written “and he believed the Lord and he counted it to him for righteousness.”
The Jews by the time of Christ had begun to consistently interpret Abraham’s faith as a type of merit-earning faithfulness. Paul knew that. Yet he deliberately chose Genesis 15:6 to prove just the opposite.
Rather than to avoid the disputed passage, Paul needed to demonstrate that rightly interpreted it confirmed his contention that Abraham had nothing to boast about because he had been justified by dependent faith apart from good works. The apostle undertakes his demonstration in Romans 4:4-8.
Verse 4 and 5 provide the first step in his argument: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as favor, but what is due. But to one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (NASB).
The idea underlying that rather complex explanation of Genesis 15:6 is that the Old Testament text makes no mention of any work by Abraham, but only his faith. Had good works been mentioned, then they could have been credited to Abraham for righteousness as something justly “owed” to him. But that is Paul’s point. There were no works. Thus, God owed him nothing. To the contrary, in the context of Genesis 15:6, Abraham’s astounding faith that an old barren woman would not only conceive (a human impossibility) but make Abraham the father of many nations could only be due to the gift, or grace of God. That faith in God’s gift of grace was then, Genesis 15:6 tells us, credited to the patriarch as righteousness. Thus, he was justified by faith in God’s gracious gift rather than works.
By the end of Romans 4:5 the apostle has made his point. But he is not going to let his case rest there; lest some of his detractors not see the point. He will bring David onboard to clinch his case.
But before we go to David we need to examine the concept of “credited” (“reckoned,” RSV; “Accounted, Phillips; “counted” or “Imputed,” KJV). Paul uses the word ten times in chapter 4, with five of them in verses 3-8. When employed in a financial context, it signifies to put something to somebody’s account. And Paul employs the word that way when he writes to Philemon about Onesimus: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Philemon 18)
The apostle’s use of credited is clear: God justifies the wicked not by what they have done but through their faith and trust in Him. Their faith is thus counted or imputed as righteousness. It is that use in light of the King James Version that gave birth to the phrase “imputed righteousness.” Romans 4:1-8 is one of Paul’s clearest presentation on how Christ’s righteousness is transferred to a sinner who come to Jesus. It happens not by works of any type but by faith in Jesus. At the very moment that a person accepts Jesus by faith, God accounts him or her as righteous.
That thought brings us back to David. To say the least, Paul is mustering his big guns as he aims at his fellow Jews’ objections to justification by faith. If Abraham was the most important person in Jewish history, David wasn’t far behind. Next to Abraham and Moses, he was probably the most revered.
Thus romans 4 calls on two of the most important witnesses available to prove its point that righteousness is by faith without works. And in the Jewish mind it was important to have two witnesses, since Deuteronomy 19:15 explicitly states that “a matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (NIV).
So in verse 6-8 Paul calls upon David to validate the point he made from Abraham’s witness in verse 1-5. And what a witness he is. While Abraham, though he had his faults, might possibly be thought of as one who had enough goodness to merit salvation, no one had the same suspicions about David. All knew, including David himself (see Psalm 51), that the only way he could be saved was by God grace. Thus, he presented an excellent case in Paul’s argument.
Quoting in verse 7 and 8 from Psalm 32:1, 2 with its usage of credited, or imputed, the apostle nails down his case. Yet that all-important word is employed in a different sense with the forgiven David than it was for Abraham. Paul tells us that God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness. But for David we find that God did not credit his sin to his account. Thus, the apostle in a few short verses explains justification as having two aspects. A positive and a negative. First, God counts our faith as righteousness. Second, He does not count our sins against us. As a result, those who come to God through faith in Christ are truly “clean.” So, it was with David. Paul in romans 4:6-8 equates his experience with righteousness and justification. And the good news, of course, is that God’s Grace is still available in our day as we appropriate it to our lives by faith.