What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 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 credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (Romans 4:1-8).
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true in the profound theological doctrines of the Bible. As the apostle Paul teaches us about justification, he does not merely tell us this truth, but shows us. In these verses, we find Paul’s vivid illustrations of the doctrine of justification by faith.
Paul will use the supreme examples of Abraham, David, and himself to make his point. If anyone has been made to have a right standing with God, it was surely these three men. Paul first makes his case with Abraham. Likewise, he uses David in verses 6-8 to establish Abraham. The apostle is making an argument from the greater to the lesser. If the supreme example, Abraham, was justified by faith alone apart from works, then how much more is everyone else who exercises faith in Jesus Christ enter the kingdom of heaven. These are some of the most important verses for clarifying the gospel in the entire Bible.
We have already looked at two major paragraphs in Romans regarding justification by faith. In Romans 3:21-26, we saw the instruction in which Paul laid out the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In verses 27-31, we saw the implications of justification by faith, which demand our humility, unity, and obedience. As we come to chapter four, we move to the illustration of this core doctrine. We have gone from the instruction, to the implications, to the illustration of justification by faith.
Our outline for Romans 4:1-8 will cover, one, what Abraham found, in verses 1-3. Two, what Paul taught, in verses 4-5. And three, what David declared, in verses 6-8. Here, Paul goes from Abraham, to himself, to David. This speaks to the unity and perfect harmony from one biblical author to the next writer within the entire Bible. The Scripture speaks with one voice, never contradicting itself. It is a seamless tapestry, every thread woven together perfectly to form one large tapestry of truth.
I. What Abraham Found (4:1-3)
Paul begins with what Abraham found in verses 1-3. The apostle writes in question form, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” (verse 1). Paul brings to our attention the chief example of one who has attained a right standing before God, namely, Abraham. It is noteworthy that Paul goes back to the Old Testament to make his case for justification by faith. This clearly establishes that there is only one way of salvation in both the Old and New Testaments. As Paul teaches justification by faith in the New Testament, he uses the Old Testament to make his point. This case is legitimate if there is only one way of salvation in both Testaments. Everyone who has ever been saved in the history of the world has been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
What did Abraham discover regarding how to be right with God? This is the question Paul raises in verse one. This was the primary issue of every generation. How can a sinful man be made right with holy God? This is the very question that the gospel addresses and answers. How can we find acceptance with God?
Not Justified By Works
Paul next makes a hypothetical statement, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about” (verse 2). When Paul writes, “justified by works,” he is talking about Abraham’s self-righteousness, his own morality and self-perceived goodness. What did he do to contribute to his salvation, whether in full or in part? If Abraham was justified by works, then he could legitimately have a reason to brag that he contributed to his own right-standing before God and purchased his own salvation. This is merely a hypothetical statement, because the Bible clearly teaches that by man’s own works, he cannot be justified. Paul is following an errant line of thinking for a moment to show that it is a false premise. If Abraham could be justified by works, then he would have something to brag about.
However, at the end of verse 2, Paul slams the door on this line of faulty thinking. He answers, “But not before God” (verse 2). Even Abraham’s best deeds appear as filthy rags to God. There is nothing he can do that will merit his favor before God. When he stands before God, there will be no boasting of what he did. God is a jealous God, and He will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8). The idea that a man – even the best of men like Abraham – can be justified by his works cannot be true. If it were true, God would have to share His glory with man. But God will not share His glory, because He is jealous for His own glory.
“Abraham Believed God”
Paul continues to decry this line of thinking. He writes, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (verse 3). Here, Paul uses the Scripture to anchor his point. He quotes from Genesis 15:6, showing that what he is teaching is not new, but goes back to Genesis.
Who was Abraham? When God called him, there was absolutely nothing good in Abraham. He lived in the pagan land of Ur of Chaldees and was a pagan idolater who worshiped the moon god. The pollution of sin reeked in his life. Abraham had nothing good whatsoever to commend himself to God. When we think of Abraham, we think of Abraham the believer. But Abraham was not a believer when God first called him. He was Abraham, the idolater and blasphemer.
Notice, “Abraham believed God.” The order that the words appear in the original Greek New Testament placed the word “believed” first in the sentence. It literally reads, “believed Abraham God.” When the biblical authors wanted to draw attention to a word, they put it at the beginning of the sentence in what is called the emphatic position. This placement draws the attention of the reader to the first word. Paul wants to emphasize the word “believed.” Abraham took God at His word and believed.
What was the result of Abraham believing God? God had previously promised Abraham that a great nation would come from his loins. From this great nation would come the Messiah, who would be the Redeemer of God’s people. According to John 8:56, the gospel was preached to Abraham. Abraham knew the gospel, because God made it known to him. Abraham believed God. That is all he did to find acceptance with God. He did not believe and work, but simply believed God.
Righteousness Credited to Abraham
What was the result of Abraham’s belief? Paul continues, “And it was credited to him as righteousness” (verse 3). This word “credited” (logizomai) is found nine times in Romans 4. In verse three, “It was credited to him.” In verse five, “His faith is credited as righteousness.” In verse six, “God credits righteousness.” In verse eight, “God will not take into account,” that means ‘not credit.’ In verse nine, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” In verse 10, “How then was it credited?.” In verse 11, “The father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them.” In verse 22, “It was also credited to him.” In verse 23, “It was credited to him.” Finally in verse 24, “To whom it will be credited.”
The word “credited” comes from the Greek word logizomai. You can hear the English word ‘logarithms’ or ‘logic’ in this word. It is a bookkeeping or accounting term that means ‘to post to the account of,’ ‘to credit to the account of,’ or ‘to put to the account of.’ It is when something is moved out of one side of a ledger account and transferred into the other side of the ledger. In the world of banking, one may take an asset out of one account and transfer it over to a different account. That is what the word “credited” means. God takes the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ and transfers it into the account of the sinner who believes.
“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him” (verse 3). Note to whom it was credited – “to him.” Not to Abraham and Sarah. Not to him and his children. Not to him and his servants. Only to Abraham. This teaches that very person must believe on their own. Just because the father believes the gospel does not mean righteousness is credited to the whole family. Just because mom believes the truth does not mean all her kids are saved. It is only imputed to the one person who believes. The perfect righteousness of God was purchased by Jesus Christ and transferred into Abraham’s account. Abraham has done nothing to deserve it, earn it, or work for it. It is credited purely by the grace of God.
The Meaning of Righteousness
The word “righteousness” (dikaiosyne) means ‘perfect conformity to a standard.’ Justification gives a standing of perfect conformity to God’s own holiness. That is what was transferred into Abraham’s account. This transfer happened immediately. It was not progressive, like sanctification. It happened in the twinkling of an eye, at the exact moment that Abraham believed. Literally, one second he was spiritually bankrupt, and the next second he possessed all the riches of God’s grace transferred to his account. It was a complete transfer. It did not come in installments. It is also a present transfer, meaning it is a reality in this lifetime.
There is a false doctrine taught by a man named N.T. Wright, who has a new perspective on Paul. Wright says that this righteousness is not transferred until the final day, at the final judgment, and your works will be evaluated on the last day to see if this transfer will take place. That is a false gospel. This righteousness is presently transferred the moment anyone believes. Look at the verb tense. “Abraham believed God and it was,” not ‘will be,’ “credited to him as righteousness.” Once the righteousness of Jesus Christ was transferred into Abraham’s account, it was an irrevocable transaction, never to be reversed. It will never be counter-transferred back to God’s account, where Abraham will then be without it. It is a once-for-all-time transaction, a finished transaction when righteousness was credited to Abraham.
The Example of Onesimus
The story behind the book of Philemon is that Philemon was a man in the ancient world who had a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus did not like being a slave, so he ran away illegally to Rome to start over in a new life. In the amazing providence of God, Onesimus crossed paths with Paul, who was there under house arrest. Paul preached the gospel to Onesimus, and Onesimus was converted to Christ. After his conversion, Onesimus asked Paul what he should do. Paul told him that he must go back and make things right with his master. He must return and serve his master.
Just because Onesimus had become a Christian did not cancel out his moral obligation to Philemon. By way of example, if a man buys a brand new car and makes four of sixty payments, then he becomes a Christian, he cannot call the car dealership and say, “This wipes out my remaining debt. I do not have to pay you anymore money, because I am now a Christian.” To the contrary, this new believer is still responsible for his obligations. Therefore, Paul told Onesimus he must go back to Philemon to fulfill his obligation, but to take a letter from Paul to his master – the book of Philemon. Paul will speak on Onesimus’ behalf and let Philemon know what has happened in his life.
Paul makes an important statement when he says to Philemon, “But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (verse 18). Philemon can transfer whatever is owed by Onesimus to Paul’s account, and Paul will pay it. Onesimus did nothing to work for Paul in order to earn this money that Paul would give to Philemon. This is purely a gracious gesture on Paul’s part. That is what God has done for us in the gospel. In essence, God is saying, “I will pay it all. I will transfer from My account into your account the perfect righteousness that you need.”
This is what Abraham discovered, that he was justified by his faith rather than by his works. I pray that you have discovered this as well. If you have believed in Jesus Christ, the righteousness of God has been transferred from His divine account to your account. By faith alone, you now have received the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ that you need to stand faultless before God. This righteousness does not come from you or anyone else. No other person, church, pastor, or denomination can transfer this deposit into your account. Only God can deposit what you need from His account into your account.
II. What Paul Explained (4:4-5)
Second, Paul explains this truth in the next two verses in order to show that Paul and Abraham are in perfect agreement. Verse four gives one scenario and verse five gives another. Paul will make a contrast between wages and a gift. Wages are what you work for. They are earned through hard work. A gift is freely given without anything done to merit the gift. Paul will use the general principle that the worker is worthy of his wages.
The apostle writes, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due” (verse 4). If you make an agreement to pay someone twenty dollars to perform a service, when they have finished the job, you cannot say that you have a gift to give them. Not when they have worked for it. Rather, you are paying them the wages for which they worked. On the other hand, it could be that you see a man on the street corner, and out of the goodness of your heart you walk up and hand him twenty dollars. That would not be wages, but a gift based upon your own benevolence. Paul begins with this example of a wage that is due to the workman.
Faith is Credited as Righteousness
Paul next gives the other principle, which is how the gospel works. The apostle writes, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” (verse 5). We cannot work to earn our salvation. It is a free gift of God. God does not justify the godly, because there are none who are godly. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). “Ungodly” (asebes) means ‘wicked’ or ‘irreverent.’ That is exactly what Abraham was when he believed the gospel.
We see the result of his belief, “His faith is credited as righteousness” (verse 5). It is the idea of transferring into Abraham’s account from God’s account His perfect righteousness that was secured by Christ through His sinless life and substitutionary death. Abraham’s faith activated the transfer by which God credits the righteousness of Christ to his account. It is abundantly clear that our salvation is by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
III. What David Declared (4:6-8)
Finally, we see what David declared in verses 6-8. Paul uses one of David’s psalms as the confirmation for the case that he has made with Abraham. Paul writes, “Just as David also speaks of the blessing,” referring to divine favor in salvation, “on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (verse 6). Then he quotes Psalm 32:1-2, that teaches that salvation is apart from works. “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven” (verse 7). “Blessed” is the opposite of being cursed. A person is either blessed or cursed. There is no middle ground. To be cursed means an unbeliever is under the wrath of God. To be blessed means he is under the favor of God and finds acceptance with God.
“Lawless deeds” refers to the sin that breaks the Law of God. “Deeds” is in the plural, meaning this includes all of one’s lawless deeds past, present, and future. Paul stresses that our sins “have been forgiven.” This verb tense indicates that this forgiveness has already happened. It is not a progressive forgiveness that happens over time. It is not that one day in the future we will be forgiven. Divine pardon occurred the moment you believed in Jesus Christ. Some people think that when they were saved, God forgave all of this sins up until that point, but not their future sins But when Jesus died on the cross two thousand years ago, all of our sins that were laid upon Him were in the future. He paid for every single sin a believer would commit in the entirety of their life. The entire slate was wiped clean.
“Forgiven” (aphiemi) is a picturesque word that means ‘to send away.’ It is actually used in the Scripture when a man would divorce his wife and send her away. In other words, she is put out of the house, no longer a part of his life. That is the idea for forgiveness. It means that God has sent away the debt of our sins. He has put away the curse of the Law by assigning it to Christ. God has canceled out the debt we owed the justice of God by having His Son incur the debt on our behalf. God has taken our sins and sent them away. He has buried them in the sea of His forgetfulness. God has taken our sins and placed them behind His back. God remembers our sin no more.
Paul follows up with a parallel phrase, “And whose sins have been covered” (verse 7). Not only are our sins canceled out and sent away, they are also covered over, meaning God can no longer see them. They are under the blood of Christ. Again, “sins” is in the plural. It is not merely an isolated sin that is covered, but all of them. The whole package has been concealed from God’s sight.
Paul repeats the same thought in verse 8 as he continues in David’s psalm, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (verse 8). This time “sin” is in the singular. David has already stressed the plural, now the singular. This is in reference to all sin, even each individual sin. God will not “take into account” (logizomai) the sin of the one who believes in Jesus Christ.
There are three creditings that God causes to occur. The theological term is imputation, which means to charge to the account of another. The first imputation occured when Adam sinned. His sin was immediately charged to the account of every person who would ever live. Paul writes in the next chapter, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). At the moment that Adam sinned thousands of years ago, you and I also became a sinner. Adam was our representative. It is like in football when one man jumps offside, everyone on the team is penalized. When Adam jumped offside, the whole team, the whole human race, was penalized. Adam acted on our behalf. That is the first imputation. Adam’s sin was credited to your account.
The second imputation was a another transfer of sin. This occurred two thousand years ago at the cross, when all the sins of all the people who would ever believe in Jesus Christ were transferred to Him. The Bible says “[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In that moment, Jesus bore our sins in His body upon the cross (1 Peter 2:24). In so doing, He was made to bear the curse of the Law for our sins (Galatians 3:13).
The third imputation is the imputation of the righteousness of God in Christ that is transferred to everyone who believes. This is the truth of justification by faith. The righteousness of Christ, secured through His sinless life and substitutionary death, is credited to all who believe. First Adam’s sin was imputed to the entire human race. Then, the sin of all believers was transferred to Jesus Christ at the cross. Finally, the righteousness of God was credited to the account of all who believe the moment they put their trust in Him. This is the progression of salvation.
Paul gives both a negative and a positive crediting in our account. In the act of justification, there is something that is credited to believers (verse 6). According to verse 8, the sin of believers is no longer credited to them. Instead, our sin has been credited to Christ at the cross. Jesus suffered, bled, and died in our place upon the cross. Our sin was credited to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness was credited to us. That is God’s accounting. That is God’s bookkeeping in salvation. We could call it the great exchange. The worst about you was credited to Christ, and the best about Christ was credited to you. You gave up the dirt of your sins to receive the diamonds of His grace. He gave the diamonds of His righteousness to us and received the dirt of our sins. This is a summary of the gospel.
There are many applications we can make as we wrap up this study.
First, we see the importance of the Old Testament. As Paul makes his case for justification by faith, he repeatedly goes back to the Old Testament. This shows the Old Testament is still of great value in New Testament times. Even the moral law is of great importance to believers today. Though the ceremonial law has been abolished and the civil law is not in effect for us, the moral law is still binding upon us. We still need to have an understanding of the precepts, promises, and prophecies found in the Old Testament.
Second, we see the importance of sound doctrine. Paul is belaboring this doctrine of justification by faith. Sometimes we get in the middle of theological sections in the Bible and question when we are going to get into something practical. We will eventually come to the practical section of Romans, but tall skyscrapers must rest on a deep foundation. All Christian duty rests securely upon sound doctrine. All behavior rests upon beliefs. There is not even an imperative verb given in Romans until chapter 6. We are not told to do anything until that point. So here, Paul is laying a doctrinal foundation, which should impress upon us the importance of theology.
Third, we see the hopelessness of our works to save us. Our righteousness is not achieved by our own deeds. Not by our morality. Not by our religiosity. Christ paid in full for our salvation. Our works contributed nothing to our right standing before God. Absolutely nothing.
Then fourth, we see the power of the gospel. God made Abraham, an idolatrous heathen, to be the premiere example of a true believer and to be the father of a nation. The gospel made him the father of the faithful. Through Abraham’s loins the Messiah would come into this world. This is the power of the gospel to take someone who is a nobody, and make them into someone of strategic importance through the merit, power, and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. This should encourage us, that God can bring to Himself people who are far away from Him and transform them into trophies of grace.
You may have a family member, work associate, or good friend from school who seems beyond the reach of God. Take heart that God delights in taking the one who is furthest away from Him and bringing Him near. That is exactly what God did with Abraham, and it is exactly what God did with Paul. No one could have been further away from God than Abraham and Paul. God loves to showcase His glory and power in those who are most sinful, and it is done through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This should be a great encouragement to us in our witnessing to other people. Abraham was not the one who grew up in a Christian environment. He did not attend a Christian school. He did not have Christian friends witnessing to him. Abraham was as pagan, as idolatrous as any person could possibly be. Yet the grace of God found him. Abraham believed God, and immediately God credited to him His righteousness. The same is true for each of us who have believed. May we tell others that it can happen to them as well.