Justification of the Ungodly by One Faith

October 17, 2021 Speaker: Jad K. Series: Romans: Real Hope for the Righteousness of God

Scripture: Romans 4:1–4:25

What is faith? For many, faith seems to be a concept that goes against the facts, an abstract idea that goes against what is tangible. Some might say: it is believing the impossible; or it is wishful thinking; or it is an abstract feeling for those who do not follow logic; for others, faith is believing in our own selves. Many of these thoughts suggest that the source of faith is in ourselves, and its object is immaterial. But for the believer, the source of the true faith is the promise of God documented clearly in an irrefutable manuscript, and the object of our faith is a person whose existence in undeniable, and that is Jesus Christ. God is the author and perfecter of our faith.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul has shown commitment to proclaiming faith and truth by presenting his gospel and defending it against critics in a Q&A form as if he were having a debate with an imaginary opponent. He has been arguing that all have sinned, all are dead, all need justification, and that this can only be obtained through Jesus Christ who is the only way to God, who grants righteousness through faith to all who believe apart from the law. Paul then concludes chapter 3 with 3 main points: because Christ is the justifier apart from the law, the humility of faith triumphs over boasting. Because Jews and Gentiles become children of God through faith, there is no discrimination or distinction. And because justification came first and the law was later given for the purpose of obedience, there is no need to oppose the law or become antinomian.

At first glance, chapter 4 seems to be a long unnecessary bracket, making us wonder why Paul is bothering with someone who died hundreds of years earlier. Get us to how we uphold the law already! But we must remember the context of first century Judaism and the role Abraham played in it. Abraham was the forefather of the Jews and he was rightly held in high regard. Paul is now addressing his descendants in this letter with matters regarding faith, law, justification and gospel. Many rabbis thought of Abraham as the prototype of the man justified by works. But if there was a prime example of justification by faith before the coming of Jesus, the standard would be Abraham. It is only logical then that Paul would present the case for faith from none other than Abraham the Patriarch. The gospel of faith is not a new creation or a figment of Paul’s imagination; it had been foretold long ago, many generations before the law was given. Abraham is the beginning of demonstrating how there is only one way for people to be made righteous before God and right with God. The way of salvation has been one and the same all along, and both Jews and Gentiles, in the Old and New Testaments, past, present and future must be saved by one way and one way only, and that is through faith – faith in Jesus Christ. For there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

In making his argument, Paul repeats several key words in this chapter: faith, works, law, righteousness, justification, counted, promise, and circumcision. He uses these words with the example of Abraham the forefather and David the prototypical king to make the case against boasting and discrimination, while championing faith based on the promise of God. Our study today will focus on the following points:

  • Justification by faith
  • Faith unites where circumcision divides
  • Faith receives promise and law
  • Abraham persevered in faith
  • One faith uniting all believers

Justification by faith (v.1-8)

Many Jewish rabbis and interpreters considered Abraham to be a very righteous man, one who obeyed God and the law even before it was given; one who had done good things to earn God’s favor or get his attention; they postulated that God foresaw the works of Abraham and so gave him the promise and the faith; or that even Abraham’s act of believing was in itself a good work of righteousness that earned him the favor of God and deserved the reward. They wanted to follow in what they believed were his footsteps, seeking to obey every letter of the law. And that made boasting rampant back then as it remains today. Remember the Pharisee who prayed in Luke 18:9-14: thank God I am not like one of them! He has all the reasons to boast in his obedience to the law, which had become his idol and his master. We must also remember that there was in the context of the early church much heated debates between believers from a Jewish background and those from a Gentile background, and between believing and unbelieving Jews. This led to discrimination and preferentialism, vices that continue today.

This is exactly why Paul makes his argument from Abraham’s life. For if Father Abraham had been righteous as the rabbis believed, and he had done good deeds prior to faith, then he would have earned his righteousness. When you and I receive our paychecks, our bosses cannot claim that they have gifted us money or been gracious to us in giving us something we do not deserve. We earned our wages. And just like any worker who receives wages or a salary, Abraham would have received the wages of his good works. This is the economy of all religions outside of Christianity. It is a language of doing in order to receive. If we are honest with ourselves, oftentimes this is the language of our relationship with God, thinking we can earn his favor or atone for sin. Or that we can appease him through good works. Or like Catholics and others believe that we can work hard and grow in sanctification until a point where God sees how good we have become and then justifies us.

But this is not the case. The language of the Christian faith is a language of “done.” It is finished. And so it was for Father Abraham whose justification preceded the giving of the law. He had done nothing to earn God’s favor. He and his family worshiped other gods (Joshua 24:3). He was not righteous. There is no one righteous, no not one, not even Abraham. In fact v.5 clearly states the condition of Abraham – and everyone – before justification: ungodly – or as some other translations say: wicked. But God called Abraham away from his family and out of his land, and gave him a promise, so he believed God who counted this faith to him as righteousness. He had done no works of righteousness; he was a sinner, but the Lord did not count his sins against him. He accounted to him a righteousness that did not inherently belong to him (Douglas Moo; p.262). And here Paul quotes Psalm 32 using the words of David, the prototypical king, who also acknowledged that God is the one who justifies and forgives sin. Sin only brings death, and the wages of sin is death. Think of it this way: the sinner is working to earn his wages, which is death. So no one can say he will receive injustice from God. But God who is rich in mercy does not count sin against some people and so does not give them their wages. He rather counts righteousness, or credits righteousness, or gives the gift of righteousness, and that by faith. Is there then reason to boast in works? By no means! If one was good enough to be justified by works, there is no need for faith, for grace, or for a gift.

Faith unites where circumcision divides (v.9-12)

What role does circumcision play then? When Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness in Genesis 15:6, there was no mention at all of circumcision. This was mentioned much later in Genesis 17:10-14, at which point Abraham was 99 years old, some 25 years after he was counted righteous. Abraham was clearly saved first then set apart. He was given the covenant, then he was given the outward sign. Both were gifts. Circumcision was a sign of justification and a seal that marked those who are set apart into the community of faith. Because Abraham was justified first, he became the father of all who believe, whether circumcised or not, which makes him the father of both Jewish and Gentile believers. The sign of being set apart does not become a seal unless the person is justified first. It is walking in the faith that matters more than being born to believing parents, being raised in church, being circumcised, being baptized at birth, or given a Christian name. Whether circumcised or not, righteousness must come by faith, after which those who are justified and who walk in this faith are assured that they belong to the family of faith whose father is Abraham. In our context in the new covenant, believer’s baptism and church membership are God’s gifts to believers, and they are the sign that we belong to the people of God and the seal of our justification.

Paul had already mentioned in Romans 2:29 that the important circumcision was that of the heart. He again tackles this same subject in his letter to the Galatians where some were trying to force circumcision on others as the hallmark of the new covenant in Christ. But circumcision had no independent value. When Abraham was justified by faith and righteousness was counted to him, circumcision did not add anything material to this transaction, but only confirmed it (Moo; p.269). We become Abraham’s spiritual children by faith not by circumcision, or baptism, or through the Lord’s supper, or by becoming part of Israel. Circumcision had become the hallmark of the Jewish community and had unfortunately separated between Jews and gentiles, at a time when the Jews were given the sign for the sake of blessing gentiles. Paul is here contrasting circumcision with faith which unites peoples from all nations, Jews or gentiles, slaves or free, male or female. As John Stott says in his commentary on Romans: where circumcision divides, faith unites. The sign of Christian faith does not become the seal without walking in the faith. Whether one is circumcised, or baptized at birth, or does the sign of the cross has no bearing. It is faith that unites those who walk in the footsteps of Jesus. And in faith there is no discrimination; there is rather unity with one another through our union with Christ. Faith promotes the uniqueness of our distinctive gifts for the glory of God, takes away boasting and discrimination, and reminds us of the promises of God we have in Christ.

Faith Receives Promise and Law (v.13-16)

How does the promise of God relate to the law? The Word teaches us that we were dead in sin then we were made alive in Christ. But our human ways and sinful nature always seek to perform, to do, to earn. All man-made religions are at their core works based. But these verses proclaim the grace of God to be preeminent in election: he graciously gives the promise and the righteousness of faith, then gives the law to guide our obedience. Before the law was given to Moses, it is not as if sin did not exist. It did and that’s why there was need for salvation. In 5:13 Paul says that “sin indeed was in the world before the law was given.” What happened with the giving of the law is that it enabled people’s sins to become visible to them. Sin became more serious and consequential, a concept that came to be known as transgression.

Once I was hiking with a friend up in Connecticut when we got lost and had to make our way through difficult terrain and shrubs and then down a cliff. Unbeknownst to us we had ended up on someone’s property. But we clearly realized it when we suddenly heard behind us the unmistakable sound of the cocking of a shotgun. We had no idea we were trespassing. But if you and I enter a field, walk onto a property, or jump a fence when there is a sign that says “no trespassing,” our sin becomes visible and more serious: it is now a trespass or transgression. This is what Paul meant by “where there is no law there is no transgression.” However, sin still exists without the sign, for we cannot escape the general revelation of God nor the particular revelation of the law by any of our own schemes, devices or works (see Rom 2:14-15). We are helpless and we are without excuse. Now that the law has been given, we are inexcusably more accountable to God.

Some may claim that there are two ways to be saved: through faith in Jesus, or through obedience of the law. This is utterly nonsense. There is only one way. Grace is always first. If we adhere to the law for salvation as v.14 says, we would not be within the system of grace and faith; we would be within a system of debts and dues. We can never repay God for what we have done; we would always owe him; and he would deal with us according to that. Romans 3:20 proclaims that by works of the law no human being is justified in his sight. But v.5 here says: to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. Mere observation of the law is never sufficient for justification. By faith we receive the promise of God, we believe him, and we joyfully accept the law working to please him. His promise is the beginning of the manifestation of his grace to us. God begins his work of salvation by guaranteeing a promise, by taking away sin, by counting righteousness, by giving faith, by preserving the believer, by guiding in obeying his commands, and by leading to eternal glory. It is the same process for all those who share in the faith of Abraham, in the righteousness counted to him, and the promise he has received by faith. This is what the “it” in v.16 refers to, namely the promised inheritance and the righteousness of faith which Paul already mentioned in v.13, wonderful elements that all believers in all of history will share together as children of Abraham who is the father of us all.

Abraham persevered in faith (v.17-22)

The story of Abraham, his faith and perseverance is truly a marvelous one. He was minding his own business – one might say minding his own sin – until he turned about 75, then God appeared to him in Genesis 12 and gave him the promise of a blessing and the fatherhood of many nations. He then told him get up and go to where I will tell you. Abraham believed God, believed the promise, and obeyed. In Gen 15:12-21, God assures Abraham of his promise through a unique experience that basically meant that if God would renege his promise, he would be cut in half. Abraham waited and believed. From a human standpoint, there was not much hope. That hope may have seemed even more impossible as he and Sarah waited for quarter of a century. Even Sarah laughed, for which woman had ever given birth at 90?! But faith believes that God is able to overcome the visible facts. For God creates out of nothing and gives life to the dead; there is assurance and security in God’s word and his promise. And Abraham believed that, welcoming Isaac when he was nearly 100. The promise was being fulfilled.

How does Jesus tell the Jews in John 8:56 “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad?” And how much of the promise to be heir of the world and father to many nations did Abraham see in the flesh? Hebrews 11 says he lived as in a foreign land and in tents. But he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. He did not see his offspring like the sand of the shore or the stars in the night sky. In fact, Hebrews 11:13 says that Abraham and others died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth. They desired a better country. This is why by faith Abraham obeyed even when tested to go offer the son of the promise, even believing that God brings the dead back to life. Faith desires and believes what the Word has to offer, not what this world offers. Faith seeks and desires God over the world. What did Abraham see? A little bit. What did he believe? The promises of God, which means everything, and with time his faith grew stronger. He looked forward to the eternal city. He looked forward to the resurrection. He looked forward to the fulfilment of the promise. Even when he did not know of the Messiah as the Jews later knew, or as we can look back in history and see, faith was counted to him as righteousness for he believed the promises of God which also contained salvation and blessing to all the nations of the earth through the offspring of Abraham, the one Paul identifies in Galatians 3:16 as Jesus Christ himself.

One Faith uniting all believers (v.23-25)

That is why Abraham is the father of all who believe, and we all share in the same faith. That is why the counting of faith as righteousness was not written for his sake alone, but for the sake of all who walk by faith, which also includes us and those who will come after us. There is one faith. There is one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is one salvation. All those who believed in the Old Testament knew that their sins must be atoned for and all those who believe today have their sins atoned for – both in Christ alone. All those who believed God in the Old Testament believed the promise that one day there will be a perfect sacrifice and all those who believe today believe that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. The promise to all who believe is also to inherit the world. And we are assured at the end of Hebrews 11 that we will all receive the inheritance together.

By faith, Abraham believed the promise. He saw some of it but did not live long enough to see all of it in the flesh. By faith, Abraham also believed the day of Jesus but did not live to see it in the flesh. He walked by faith not by sight. We can look back and see more of the fulfilment of the promise in the coming of Jesus, yet we continue to live by faith until the day when our hope becomes our reality and our faith becomes our sight as we see all nations of the earth blessed, as we receive our inheritance, as we enter the city whose maker and builder is God. Abraham, we and all believers throughout history, past, present and future believe in the only true God who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead. For the Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of the promise that through Abraham’s offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed. He was delivered as a lamb for slaughter to propitiate God’s wrath for our sin. In this act of sacrifice, the legal grounds are set for us all to be justified and for God’s wrath to be satisfied.

But our High Priest did not stay dead. No he did not! He was raised. He is risen as the seal of our inheritance, the firstborn from the dead, the confirmation of our justification. Christ is risen, and we will rise again with him! Sin cannot influence him; death has no dominion over him; and we share in the same power as we unite with him. We have not yet come to the eternal city. We have not yet been taken from this sinful world. We have not yet ceased to suffer, to be sojourners, to live in tents, to endure. But by faith we look forward with hope, with confidence, with assurance that he who raised Jesus from the dead has promised us that he will raise us with him, is faithful to keep us until that day when we enter the celestial city, and will graciously with him give us all things! This is the one faith of all believers.

Conclusion

The summary of this chapter is that God acts toward his elect graciously, without any compulsion or obligation. He justifies the wicked. He gives great and eternal promises: justification, inheritance, the nations; unspeakable joy; eternal glory – and his Son Jesus Christ! He does not count sin against his people but counts to them righteousness entirely by grace without any works, and even gives the faith to receive the righteousness and the promise. It is the same faith that makes believers from all generations share in the same union with Christ, which excludes boasting and discrimination.

Faith in God means renouncing any works-based salvation, but it does not mean laziness. Paul would be the last person to promote laziness. In the system of grace that we live in by the power of God, we look forward to the promise of our inheritance by faith, and we love, obey, endure, worship, pray, give, proclaim, hope, and do all things for the glory of God, by the power that he gives, and because he first loved us. We live in peace with him and with one another, our hearts resting in the tangible signs and seals of the righteousness he has given us.

God gives signs and seals of his new covenant. They are not passes to enter heaven, but they are necessary to confirm our justification. If we claim to be believers, but have not been baptized, are not members of a local church, and are not partaking in the means of grace God lavishes on us through corporate worship and communion, then there is a huge question mark of uncertainty regarding the seal of the righteousness by faith. As we said earlier in the message, circumcision was to Abraham a gift just like his faith was, a sign of the covenant and a seal of the righteousness in which he stood. And so it is for us brother and sisters: the means of grace to us as the body of Christ are gifts and seals of the righteousness we receive by faith. Let us then rejoice in these gifts together in one assembly, united together with Christ, not only forsaking boasting and discrimination, but promoting humility and unity, walking in oneness of faith, reminding one another of the promises of God, fully persuaded that God has the power to do what he has promised.

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