A Verse by Verse Study of Romans 4:1-25
In the last blog post, we studied Romans 3:21-31 which was all about how God had a plan to make us right in his sight. That plan was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we can receive this free gift of salvation by having faith in him. Now in Romans 4, we will answer the question: what does faith really mean in the Bible? What kind of faith do we need to have, and what exactly do we need to have faith in?
Abraham the Father of Faith
In this chapter, Paul uses Abraham as an example to demonstrate how we can enter into a covenant with God and be in a relationship with him. In verses 1-3, it tells us that Abraham was not justified by works, but rather he was proclaimed righteous through faith.
In verse 2 Paul argues that if good deeds made us acceptable to God, we could have something to boast about. But we know that the Bible tells us that good works don’t make us right with God, so we have nothing to boast about. Now the New Living Translation cuts this verse short and leaves off, what I think, is a significant point. In the New King James Version (NKJV), verse 2 reads:
‘For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.’Romans 4:2 (NKJV)
‘But not before God‘. This phrase tells us that our boasting in our own good works is still nothing before the greatness of God, because even if we could be justified by our own works, we would still fall short of his glory. We could never perfectly fulfill the law.
Verse 3 asks the question, ‘What does Scripture say about Abraham?‘. In this verse, Paul is referencing Genesis 15:6, which tells us that Abraham believed God, and so God counted him as righteous because of his faith. In Paul’s day, the Jewish teachers believed that Abraham was justified by his works, by keeping the law. They believed he lived a perfect life obeying God’s law.
Moses was given God’s law over 1000 years after Abraham’s time. The Jewish rabbis believed that Abraham kept these laws by intuition, or by anticipation of the coming laws. But Genesis 15:6 clearly states that God counted Abraham righteous because of his faith, not works.
It’s also important to note Paul’s wording here: he does not say that Abraham was made righteous in all of his doings, but that God counted him as righteous. If you read the account of Abraham in Genesis (and remember, not all of Abraham’s life was even recorded) Abraham was not perfect in all of his deeds before the Lord. He messed up plenty of times! We are not justified because God has made us perfectly righteous and sinless, but rather we are counted as perfectly righteous. God will, however, make us perfectly righteous after our own resurrection.
What Does Righteousness Mean?
It doesn’t simply mean the absence of evil or guilt, but it is also the presence of something positive. We are not simply declared innocent. We are also declared good. Think of a person being declared innocent of a crime. The judge is not saying, “You are a good person”. He is only saying he is innocent of the crime. But God is declaring us both innocent and good.
Verse 4 talks about earning wages. When we work for wages, the paycheck is not a gift but something that is owed to us. The NKJV words this verse this way: ‘Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt‘. That paycheck is not given as a favor to us, but rather the payer is in our debt for the work we have done.
Consider this then: a system of works seeks to put God in our debt, making God owe us his favor because of our good behavior. When belief systems tell us that we must perform to gain God’s favor, what this means is that God owes us because we have earned it.
Verse 5 tells us that righteousness is never counted for the one who tries to obtain it through works. It says it is given to the one who believes in the God who forgives sinners. Notice here, who it is that God forgives: sinners. It doesn’t say God forgives those who are trying to be good people, but rather that they are sinners. This doesn’t mean that God is happy about our sin. We are not justified because of our sin, but despite it. And this verse is also telling us that a relationship with God was not some special arrangement for Abraham alone. All people can all enter into this relationship with God.
What verses 1-5 are telling us is that God did not provide two ways of salvation: one through obeying the law in the Old Testament, and one by grace in the New Testament. Everyone who has ever been saved, Old and New Testament, has been saved by grace through faith. Because of the New Covenant through Jesus Christ, we have benefits of salvation that the Old Testament believers did not have, but we do not have different ways of salvation.
In verses 6-8 Paul is quoting from Psalm 32:1-2. David was speaking from experience. He knew what it was like to be guilty of sin, and how good it was to be forgiven. Being forgiven, having our records cleared of sin is centered on what God has done, not what we do for God.
Verses 9-12 talk about how Abraham was counted as righteous by God before circumcision. He was not counted righteous because he was circumcised. What Paul is also saying here is that since we are counted as righteous because of faith, not because of circumcision, then Gentiles can also be counted as righteous by faith.
On an interesting note, Abraham was counted as righteous in Genesis 15:6, but he did not receive the covenant of circumcision until Genesis 17, which was at least 14 years later.
The Jews of Paul’s day thought they were descendants of Abraham by following in the covenant of circumcision, but Paul is saying that to be descendants of Abraham – to belong to Abraham’s family tree – they must walk in the steps of faith as Abraham did. It must have been a shock for the Jewish readers of Paul’s letter to see him call Abraham the father of uncircumcised people!
In verses 13-15 Paul explains how God’s promise to Abraham was based on the principle of faith and not on the law or works. Paul argues that God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants could not be based on the law.
- First, God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all happened before the law was given (Mosaic Law).
- Second, the law cannot bring us into the blessings of God’s promises, not because the law is bad, but because we are unable to keep it.
- Third, because we are unable to keep the law perfectly, it only brings about God’s wrath and punishment.
I like how Paul adds that the only way to avoid the law is to have no law to break!
What is Sin?
Breaking the law is often equated with sin. Does this mean that before Moses there was no sin? Absolutely not. We all know that sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, long before the Mosaic Law. Sin then is not simply breaking the law, rather it is breaking trust with God. How do we break trust with God? By denying His loving, caring purpose in every command he gives. God’s plan of redemption is centered on a relationship of trusting love (or faith) instead of law-keeping.
Verse 16 tells us that the promise is received by faith and that it is given as a free gift. Other translations use the word grace which is implied by the phrase ‘free gift’. Faith is related to grace in the same way that works is related to the law. Grace and Law are both principles, or doctrines. Faith and works are how we try to fulfill those doctrines. But faith is the only means in which we can have a relationship with God.
To speak technically then, we are not saved by faith: We are saved by God’s grace, and grace comes to us by faith. Grace is defined as giving without regard to anything in the one who receives it. There is nothing we can do to merit grace – it is a free gift given to us by God, if we believe – or have faith.
Verses 17-18 talks about the life-giving power of the God Abraham believed in. This life-giving power reassures us that, if he can bring the dead back to life, he is able to count anyone as righteous and holy, even though we are not. Ephesians 2:4 tells us that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead.
3 Ways to Have Faith Like Abraham
Verses 19-22 now describes the character of Abraham’s faith.
1. In verse 19, it says that Abraham’s faith was strong. He did not look to circumstances (his own aging, dying body or the deadness of Sarah’s womb), but he looked to God and his promises.
2. Verse 20 tells us that Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. Abraham remained steadfast in faith, and because his faith never wavered it grew stronger, which brought glory to God. When life is smooth sailing and things are going the way we want, we won’t deny that God can do all things. But as soon as there is some delay to God’s answers to prayer or circumstances look grim, we begin to lose faith in God’s ability. Abraham never wavered, even in bad circumstances, and his faith in God grew.
3. Verse 21 tells us that Abraham’s faith came because he was fully convinced of God’s ability. People have very different testimonies about how they came to faith in God. Some found it easy to believe, while others struggled with unbelief and required more evidence. They had to overcome skepticism and doubt.
Often, we see doubt as the opposite of faith and a negative, bad thing. But doubt can lead us to a search for truth, which can strengthen our faith. Everyone experiences some form of doubt about God in their life, even while having faith in him. If you are having doubts, allow that doubt to lead you to a deeper understanding of God’s Word. It’s also a good idea to seek out teaching from more mature Christians, who can also share how God has worked in their lives. Because in the end, knowledge can only lead you so far. The real proof is in witnessing how God can change you and others.
But needing evidence is not a lack of faith. To have faith in God and his plan of salvation does not call for blind faith. Like Abraham, we need to be fully convinced. But once convinced, we simply need to trust in God and not allow our faith to waver, no matter what circumstances life brings.
Verses 23-25 tell us that God did not count Abraham as righteous just for Abraham’s benefit, but for everyone. He is the example that we are invited to follow. God has given us a New Covenant in Jesus Christ, and if we have faith in this promise, God’s grace is sufficient to count us as righteous too.
What Do We Need to Have Faith In?
When we talk about faith in Jesus, it is important to emphasize what we need to have faith in. It does not mean to:
- Have faith in the historical event of the life of Jesus – to believe that Jesus did really exist.
- Have faith in the beauty of Jesus’ life.
- Have faith in the goodness of Jesus’ teachings, or
- Have faith that Jesus was a messenger of God (or even that he is God) but not believe that he is the only way of salvation.
Only faith in the real Jesus and what he did for us saves us. What did he do? He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin and then he was resurrected. Many other religions believe that Jesus existed, and even that He was a messenger from God. Some religions believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, but they believe that there is still more required for us to be truly saved.
In John 14:6, Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.‘ What he didn’t say was ‘I am a way, or a truth‘. He is THE way and THE truth.
If you are currently searching for answers and truth, I am praying that you don’t become discouraged by your doubts and view them as insurmountable. Allow your doubts to lead you to the evidence.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:7-8, ‘Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.‘ God wants to know you and have a relationship with you. If you are truly seeking to know God, he will make himself known to you. But a warning: seeking God requires the right attitude and humility. James 4:6 says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. It requires recognizing our need and dependence on God.
If you sincerely and humbly seek God, you will find him.
Person of Interest: Why Jesus Still Matters in a World that Rejects the Bible by J. Warner Wallace – Join cold-case detective and author J. Warner Wallace as he investigates Jesus using an innovative and unique approach he employs to solve real missing person murder cases.
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel – Investigative journalist, Lee Strobel, felt certain that his findings would prove Christianity false. But instead his research brought him to the only logical place: to his knees. Follow him on his journey as he retraces his steps from skepticism to faith.