Romans 4:1-12

Romans 4:1-12

SERIES: The Book of Romans

Justification Illustrated:  The Father of Faith, Part 1  

Introduction:  We begin this morning by reading together Romans 4:1-12:

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? {2} If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. {3} What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 

{4} Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. {5} However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. {6} David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 

{7} “Blessed are they 

                           whose transgressions are forgiven, 

                           whose sins are covered. 

                  {8} Blessed is the man 

                           whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” 

{9} Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. {10} Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! {11} And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. {12} And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

If a world-wide poll were taken asking people to name the three greatest religious leaders of all time, who do you think would be named on the most ballots?  I’m not asking who would receive the most first-place votes (undoubtedly that would be Jesus), but rather who would be named in either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place on the most ballots?  Would it be Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II?

I think not any of these.  I believe it would be Abraham.  Are you aware that Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims all revere Abraham as one of the greatest religious leaders in the history of mankind?  You see, Muslims are descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son.  Jews are descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s other son.  And Christians, according to the Apostle Paul, are Abraham’s spiritualdescendants.

It is then a brilliant apologetic maneuver on the Apostle’s part to pick Abraham as his paradigm illustration of someone who is justified by faith.  But it would be wrong to consider the choice merely a debating technique, for we will find that Abraham uniquely demonstrates the truth of justification by faith because of the chronology of his life.

However, before we examine Paul’s great illustration, I want us to review last week’s message briefly.  We discovered that justification is “a judicial act of God, whereby He declares, on the basis of the perfect sacrifice of Christ that all the claims of the law have been satisfied with respect to the sinner who puts his faith in Jesus.”  In layman’s language justification is a declaration that we are not guilty legally, despite the overwhelming evidence that we are guilty morally.  

The reason God can justify us and still remain righteous is that He does not ignore our sin; rather He sent his one and only Son, Jesus, who had no moral guilt of his own, to die in the place of those of us who are morally guilty.    All who put their faith in Him, and only those who put their faith in Him, are declared “not guilty” at Heaven’s bar of justice.

These truths were clearly taught in chapter 3.  The illustration of these truths is offered here in chapter 4.  Suppose you wanted to find in Scripture an individual who was justified by faith, but you also wanted to prove that he was not justified by works, by religious ritual, or by law.  Wouldn’t you be delighted if you could find a person who was actually declared righteous by God prior to good works, prior to participation in religious rites, prior even to the giving of the Law?

If you found such a person, your case would be watertight, wouldn’t it?  Well, Abraham is just such a person.  Before he performed his greatest works of faith, God declared him justified.  Fourteen years before he was circumcised, God said he was justified.  Nearly 600 years before the Law was given to Israel, God said he was justified.  The first two of these we will examine today; the third we will take up next Sunday, Lord willing.  Let’s begin, then, with the first part of the illustration:

Justification is by faith, not works.  (1-8)

Let’s read 1-3 again:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?  If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God.  What does the Scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Now the first fact that jumps out at me here is that …

Abraham had righteousness credited to his account prior to good works.  (1-4). We discover this as we study the life of Abraham.  Abraham was 75 when God called him out of Ur of the Chaldees and directed his steps toward the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:4).  Whether or not he was a justified believer at the time he journeyed to Canaan, we aren’t specifically told, but we aretold that he acted in faith, that he received some fantastic promises from God, that he built an altar and called upon the name of the Lord, and that he showed some glimpses of fine character (as when he granted his nephew, Lot, the choice of the Valley of the Jordan).  He even received a special blessing from Melchizedek, a priest of the most high God.  

Abram was 85 years old when God came to him again, as recorded in Gen. 15.  The essence of the conversation is something like this:

                  God says, “Abram, I am your protector and your reward.”

Abram responds:  “But Lord, the only reward I’ve asked for is a son.  I am childless, and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus—a servant in my household.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him:  “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”  

He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.”  

Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  

         Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” 

Whether Abraham was saved prior to Genesis 15:6 or not, I do not know.  But I do know this—that from Gen. 15:6 on, Abram is a saved man, because God says so.  God reckoned Abram’s faith as righteousness before he interceded for the 50 righteous souls he thought might be in Sodom (ch. 18), before Isaac was born (ch. 21), before he offered up his only son on an altar (chapter 22).  It was prior to all of these great deeds that God declared Abraham a saved man.

Now chances are there is someone here this morning who is saying to himself, “Yes, that’s all well and good, but I know a passage of Scripture that says Abraham was justified by his works, not priorto his works.”  Well, so do I, and I think we would be remiss if we did not examine it briefly today.  The passage is James 2, and I’m sure you will want to turn there with me.  I begin reading in verse 21:  

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”   

Oh oh!  A plain contradiction to Romans 4, right?  Wrong!  Look at verse 21.  It says Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son.  That’s Genesis 22, at least 25 years after God had already declared him justified in Gen. 15.  James is saying that Abraham’s offering of his son proved the affirmation of God that he was a saved man.  We might even say that he was recognized by others as being a saved person when he produced the works of a saved person.  But he was recognized by God as a saved person when he believed.  And it is recognition by God which counts for eternity.  

Now last week we talked about justification as parallel to the verdict “not guilty” in a court of law.  But what I only alluded to last week is that there is another equally important aspect to justification.  Not only are believers declared “not guilty;” they are actually declared “righteous.”  Now, if possible, this is even more amazing than being declared “not guilty.”  There is no parallel to this in the American judicial system.  A guilty person can win acquittal on a technicality, or by bribing a juror, or by intimidating a witness.  But no one would declare him “righteous” on that account.

God, however, declares that we are both “not guilty” and “righteous.”  He removes our sins and then He adds his own righteousness to our account.  That is clearly seen right here in Rom. 4:3: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”   

Did you know that God is a bookkeeper?  He is, indeed.  In fact, He keeps several sets of books.  The Bible speaks of a Book of Life (Ps. 69:28) which is apparently a list of the names of all those who have ever lived on earth.  It would appear that from this Book some names may be blotted out, the record of their existence expunged, and their memory erased.  But there is also the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27), which is the record of all those who were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.  From this book there never has been, nor ever will be, any erasures.

Then there is a Book of Remembrance, mentioned in Mal. 3:16, where is recorded the spiritual actions and even the spiritual thoughts of those who believe.  If you are ever concerned that no one noticed a kindness you did, or time you spent in prayer, or a gift you gave anonymously, let me say to you, God remembers, and He records such things in his Book of Remembrance.

Finally, there is a book in which are recorded the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad.  2 Cor. 5:10 talks about this book of deeds for believers: “For we must all appear before the judgment sat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”  This book will determine degrees of reward in heaven.

But the same truth is taught for unbelievers in Rev. 20:12: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened….  The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”  This book, I assume, will determine degrees of punishment in Hell.

Now it’s these latter books, the books of deeds, where I think God’s major accounting takes place.  The first entry made on our ledger sheet was at conception, when in the debit column were written the words, “Sinner by nature.”  That means that by our very inheritance of humanity from our parents we are tainted by sin.

Probably by the time most of us were two years old another entry would be made on the debit side of our ledger sheet, “Sinner by choice.”  And from that time on there would be tens, hundreds, maybe thousands, even tens of thousands of entries in the debit column recording all our evil deeds, evil thoughts, evil motivations, and even sins of omission.

But, you say, there have to be some assets as well as liabilities.  What about the time I helped a handicapped kid in school?  What about my catechism classes and my confirmation?  How about my annual donations to the United Way?  Or what about my membership in Rotary or the Shriners? Here’s what Isaiah says about our assets:  “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).  The reason they are so viewed is that they are ego symbols for us, rather than responses to God’s love.

Now let’s go back to Abraham and look at his ledger sheet.  In respect to his account, verse 1 asks, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”  (4:1).  If he was justified on the basis of his works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  Men are impressed with ego symbols, but God is never impressed because God keeps the real books and God knows that every entry so far in Abraham’s account has been a debit and there hasn’t yet been a single credit!  All liabilities and no assets.  This guy’s balance sheet is worse than TWA’s.  

But then an amazing thing happens.  Abraham simply believes God, and all of a sudden an accounting miracle takes place.  Over Abraham’s enormous list of liabilities God writes, “Paid in Full” and in the heretofore blank asset column He writes, “Righteous.”  And then for good measure God adds a parenthesis:  “this guy’s my friend” (James 2:23).  From the moment Abraham believed in his heart what God said, he and God were united in the intimacy of friendship.

This same accounting miracle is available to us, too, and we, too, can become friends of Almighty God.  He has written off forever all the sins of the one who trusts in the death of His son, and He has placed the deposit of His own righteousness to their account so that the books which one declared them bankrupt now show them to possess all that God requires of them.  

Friends, this accounting term, “to credit” or “to reckon,” which we have examined this morning is found 41 times in the New Testament, 35 times in Paul’s writing, 19 times in Romans, and 11 times right here in chapter 4.  We simply must understand its import and its impact if we would grasp the truth of justification.  

Now in verses 4-5 of our text another important point is made, namely that not only was Abraham justified prior to good works, but he was also justified while he was still ungodly.

Abraham was justified while he was ungodly.  (4-5).  “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”  

The point of verse 4 is understood by means of an illustration.  The IRS says that gifts (at least under certain circumstances and up to a certain point) are not taxable.  It would be a great personal advantage if I could treat the salary check the church treasurer writes out for me twice a month as a gift from the church.  Unfortunately, the IRS frowns on that.  They say if I work for it, it’s not a gift but a wage, and it’s therefore taxable.

And when I stop and evaluate it, I realize they’re right.  I have yet to write a thank-you note to the Church for my paycheck any more than you have thanked your boss for yours.  Why?  Because we earned it.  If it’s earned, it’s not a gift and a thank-you is unnecessary.  But if I am given something I haven’t earned, then my whole attitude is different, and so is the IRS’s.  

Now look at verse 5:  “However, to the man who does not work (i.e., does not try to earn his salvation) but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”  The question to me is pretty simple:  do I want God to credit my account with the moral wages I have earned, or would I prefer that He credit my account with the gift of His righteousness?  If the latter, then I must quit working for a right standing with God and start trusting in Him.

There is to me a rather astounding phrase in verse 5:  “who justifies the wicked.”  Abraham was a wicked person when God justified him.  In fact, do you realize that the wicked are the only ones God justifies?  How contrary this is to our ordinary way of thinking!  We generally believe that God wants good people in Heaven and that the way to get there is to be as good as possible and hope for the best.

The fact is, however, that God utterly refuses to take into Heaven anyone who claims to be good.  Jesus once put it this way:  “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  (Mark 2:17)  Abraham was not good when God justified him, nor are any of us.  W. R. Newell, a great preacher of a previous generation, wrote about an incident in his ministry, which I think would be valuable for us to consider, despite its length:  

Years ago in the city of St. Louis, I was holding noon meetings in the Century Theatre.  One day I spoke on this verse—Romans 4:5. “To him that worketh not, but believeth in him who justifieth the ungodly; his faith is reckoned unto him for righteousness.”  After the audience had gone, I was addressed by a fine looking man of middle age who had been waiting alone in a box seat for me.  

He immediately said, “I am Captain G—,” (I abbreviate his name; he was a man very widely known in the city):  And when I sat down to talk with him, he began:  “You are speaking to the most ungodly man in St. Louis.”  

I said “Thank God!”  

“What!” he cried.  “Do you mean you are glad that I am wicked?”  

“No,” I said, “but I am certainly glad to find a sinner that knows he is a sinner.”  

“Oh, you do not know the half!  I have been absolutely ungodly for year and years and years, right here in St. Louis.  I own two Mississippi steamers.  Everybody knows me.  I am just the most ungodly man in town!”  

I could hardly get him quiet enough to ask him:  “Did you hear me preach on ‘ungodly people’ today?”  

“Mr. Newell,” he said, “I have been coming to these noon meetings for six weeks.  I do not think I have missed a meeting.  But I cannot tell you a word of what you said today.  I did not sleep last night.  I have hardly had any sleep for three weeks.  I have gone to one man after another to find out what I should do.  And I do what they say.  I have read the Bible.  I have prayed.  I have given money away.  But I am the most ungodly wretch in this town.  Now what do you tell me to do?  I waited here today to ask you that.  I have tried everything; but I am so ungodly!”  

“Now,” I said, “we will turn to the verse I preached on.”  I gave the Bible into his hands, asking him to read aloud: 

“To him that worketh not.”  “But,” he cried, “how can this be for me?  I am the most ungodly man in St. Louis.”  

“Wait,” I said, “I beg you to go on reading.”  

So he read, “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly.”  

“There!” he fairly shouted, “that’s what I am—ungodly.”  

“Then, this verse is about you,” I assured him.  

“But please tell me what to do, Mr. Newell.  I know I am ungodly; what shall I do?”  

“Read the verse again, please.”  

He read:  “To him that worketh not”—and I stopped him. 

         “There,” I said, “the verse says not to do, and you want me to tell you something to do; I cannot do that.”  

“But there must be something to do; if not I shall be lost forever.”

“Now listen with all your soul,” I said.  “There was something to do, but it has been done!”  Then I told him how that God had so loved him, all ungodly as he was, that He sent Christ to die for the ungodly.  And that God’s judgment had fallen on Christ who had been forsaken of God for his, Capt. G’s sins, there on the cross.  

Then, I said, “God raised up Christ; and sent us preachers to beseech men, all ungodly as they are, to believe on this God who declares righteous the ungodly, on the ground of Christ’s shed blood.”  

He suddenly leaped to his feet and stretched out his hand to me.  “Mr. Newell,” he said, “I will accept that proposition!”  And off he went without another word.

Next noon day at the opening of the meeting, I saw him beckoning to me from the wings of the stage.  I went to him.  

“May I say a word to these people?” he asked.  I saw his shining face, and gladly brought him in.  

         I said to the great audience, “Friends, this is Capt. G, whom most, if not all of you, know.  He wants to say a word to you.”  

“I want to tell you all of the greatest proposition I ever found,” he cried.  “I am a businessman and know a good proposition.  But I found one yesterday that so filled me with joy, that I could not sleep a wink all night.  I found out that God, for Jesus Christ’s sake, declares righteous any ungodly man that trusts Him.  I trusted Him yesterday; and you all know what an ungodly man I was.  I thank you all for listening to me; but I felt I could not help but tell you this wonderful proposition; that God should count me righteous.”[i]  

I like that.  It expresses beautifully my own motivation in the ministry.  I cannot help but tell you this wonderful proposition: that God should count me, Mike Andrus, righteous.

Abraham’s experience was confirmed by the prophet David.  (6-8) In verses 6-8 a confirming witness is added in the person of one of Israel’s great spiritual heroes—King David.  Perhaps this quotation from the Psalmist is added to show that at the mouth of two witnesses the thing could be established.  For a Jewish audience, Paul could not find a better backup witness to Abraham than David.  Here’s what he says in verses 6-8:

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:  “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”

This quotation is from Psalm 32, where David describes his initial effort to hide his sin with Bathsheba.  You’re familiar with David’s description in that Psalm of the incredible pain caused by a guilty conscience:  “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long, for day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”  But finally David quit pretending and acknowledged his ungodliness.  He confessed everything to God and the result was total forgiveness.  The Lord refused to count his sin against him. 

Friends, when a person can sin in the heinous fashion that David did, and still have God write “not guilty” on his ledger, that is a blessed man.  Did David work for it?  No.  Did he do penance?  No.  Did he go on a pilgrimage?  No.   Then what did he do?  He just took God at his word and accepted the fact that God justifies those who acknowledged their wickedness and are willing to receive his forgiveness.

There’s something very interesting about this quotation from David that demonstrates the close relationship between the negative and positive aspects of justification.  We have suggested that they are actually two sides of the same coin.  Negatively, God declares us “not guilty.”  Positively, He declares us “righteous.”  The quotation from Psalm 32 talks only of the negative side and the fact that the Lord didn’t charge David’s sin to his account.  But when the Apostle Paul introduces the quotation he appeals to the positive aspect (Rom. 4:6):  “David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.”  When God does His bookkeeping on our accounts, He does it on both sides of the ledger.  He subtracts the guilt from the debit side, and He adds righteousness to the credit side.  

Now let’s turn to the second of the three ways in which Abraham illustrated that justification is by faith alone: 

Justification is by faith, not rite.  (9-12)

Look again at verses 9 & 10:     

“Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?  We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Under what circumstances was it credited?  Was it after he was circumcised, or before?  It was not after, but before!”

Abraham had righteousness credited to his account prior to circumcision.  (9-11). Once again I remind you that Abram was 85 years old when in Gen. 15:6 it says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”  In chapter 17 we are told that he was 99 years old when God changed his name from Abram to Abraham and commanded him to be circumcised.  Therefore, 14 years passed between the time Abram was justified and the time he was circumcised.  Therefore, the rite of circumcision, as important as it was, could have nothing to do with his justification.  He was saved before he experienced the most important religious rite in the Old Testament. 

Look again at verse 11:  “And Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he (already) had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”  A seal is something you put on a Mason jar after it’s full, not before.  For Abraham circumcision was a sign of God’s ownership and a seal of the faith he already possessed.  

Abraham’s experience confirms the Christian’s experience.   (11,12)  The fact that Abraham was justified prior to his circumcision has very practical import for us today, even though we do not practice circumcision as a religious rite.  That import is shared in the middle of verse 11: “So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.  And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”  

I think these verses are telling us simply that we don’t have to become Jews to be saved, but it’s also telling us that Jews do not have to abandon their Jewishness to be saved.  But both Jews and Gentiles do have to walk in the footsteps of faith like father Abraham if they want to hear God declare them “not guilty” and “righteous.”  

Furthermore, I think it is appropriate to suggest that if circumcision had nothing to do with the justification of Abraham, then ipso facto no religious rite or ritual practiced today, including baptism, communion, confirmation, or church membership, can have anything to do with ourjustification.  Christian baptism, for example, is just like circumcision, a sign of God’s ownership and a seal of the faith which has already led to one’s justification.  To be baptized before one exercises personal faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is, therefore, getting the symbolic cart before the reality horse.

Conclusion:  I suggest to you that the plan of salvation sounds too simple for a lot of people.  We Americans have a favorite saying:  “There are no free lunches.”  Applied to the spiritual realm that means for an awful lot of people that they have to work for their salvation, they have to earn it, they have to do something.  God says no; what had to be done has already been done by Christ.  

I close with one more quotation from a preacher.  This comes from a sermon preached in Victorian England by Charles Haddon Spurgeon just 100 years ago.  His text was Romans 4:5:

If any of you are giving yourselves such proud airs, listen to me for a little while.  You will be lost as sure as you are alive.  You righteous men, whose righteousness is all of your own working, are either deceivers or deceived, for the Scripture cannot lie and it says plainly, “There is none righteous, no, not one.”  

In any case, I have no gospel to preach to the self-righteous, no, not a word.  Jesus Christ himself came not to call the righteous, and I am not going to do what he did not do.  If I called you, you would not come; therefore, I will not call you.  No, I ask you rather to look at that righteousness of yours till you see what a delusion it is.  It is not half so substantial as a cobweb.  Be finished with it!  Flee from it!  

Believe that the only persons that can need justification are those who are not just in themselves.  They need something to be done for them to declare them just before the judgment seat of God….  To declare him just who is just is no work for God; that were a labor for a fool.  But to declare him just who is unjust, that is work for infinite love and mercy.[ii]

DATE: January 29, 1995








Book of Life

Lamb’s Book of Life

Book of Remembrance

[i] W. R. Newell, quoted by Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans, Vol. 2, Part 1, 232-234.  

[ii] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “God Justifieth the Ungodly,” Ministry Magazine, March 1981, 5, slightly edited.