Paul’s Reformation (A Bible Study in Romans 4:1-25)

On October 31st 1517, Martin Luther took a hammer and a nail, and with a few swift strokes, attached a copy of his 95 thesis to the wooden doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This is also regarded as the beginning of what would become the protestant reformation; one of the great awakenings, when thousands would come to understand the gospel to be the free gift of God that it is, apart from any works that we could accomplish in order to attain it.

But what many who read this account don’t often realize, is that the 95 thesis that Luther nailed to those doors so long ago, were never meant to bring about such a great divide among the church. He wasn’t calling out his fellow brethren to abandon their churches, or the authority of their ministers, or even the Pope himself (that may very well have happened eventually anyway, but that’s not what’s happening here). No, Luther was calling those in authority to repentance for deviating from the proclamation of what’s revealed to us in scripture.

It wasn’t a cry for us to run from Catholic orthodoxy, as much as it was a plea for us to return to the sound doctrine that can only be found in the pages of God’s holy word. The reformation came to represent that crucial and pivotal truth; which eventually came to be encapsulated in the Latin motto, “Sempre Reformnanda”, or ‘Always Reforming’. Instead of allowing our traditions to dictate the truth of God’s word, we insist that our only tradition be the diligent and faithful adherence to God’s word.

Here in our passage in Romans 4, we see Paul doing something very similar. He’s already spent the first three chapters of Romans demonstrating that all men are guilty of sin before God, and that the only hope of redemption is to be justified by faith, and that true faith is only revealed through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s look at it quickly. First, all men are guilty of sin.

Romans 3:9-12

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS AFTER GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.”

Next, that faith is the means by which God justifies a man.

Romans 1:16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUSS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”

And last, that faith be in Christ alone, whether Jew or Gentile; all come to the Father through Christ.

Romans 3:21-24

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

And with his argument made, Paul now appeals to the scriptures to show that this isn’t something that he’s making up on the spot, but has always been the case, and God has always communicated through His word, that He justifies all kinds of men through the same means. Namely, by grace through faith. And knowing how skeptics would respond to this, he decides to go all the way back to Abraham; because being the forefather of all Israel, he was considered to be a great man, and one that many saw as earning favor with God.

Romans 4:1-3

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 Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

So right off the bat, Paul want’s there to be no mistake about the point he’s getting at. “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” (Romans 4:1). Or to put it more plainly, ‘What has Abraham found within himself?’, ‘What has Abraham done to be justified?’. Verse 2 continues, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2). So the question is what has Abraham done? What great and terrific act did Abraham put on display before God, so that he could earn his redemption? The Jewish people might say what? That he put his faith on display, right? That he believed God, and that earned him a good standing before Him. But Paul says, no. That’s not what scripture is telling us. And then he quotes Genesis 15:6 in verse 3. “For what does the Scripture say? ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Romans 4:3). Take a look there in Genesis.

Genesis 15:1-7

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. And He said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.”

And this wasn’t the first time that Abraham had been given this promise. On three previous occasions, God had spoken to Abraham, to make the same promise to him. The first was while Abraham was settled in the land of Haran.

Genesis 12:1-2

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from you father’s house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing;

After this, Abraham left with his family, and made their way to the land of Canaan, where the Lord spoke, once again, to Abraham.

Genesis 12:7

The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So [Abraham] built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him.

Abraham then makes his way as far as Egypt because of a famine that was in the land at the time, and then circles back to Canaan once it had passed. This is where the Lord spoke a third time to Abraham.

Genesis 13:14-16

The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered.

And still, at this point, Abraham has said nothing. And this was a long journey; probably somewhere between seven to eight hundred miles. We know that Abraham left Haran when he was 75 and settled in Canaan probably a year later or so. And never a word. And then God comes a fourth time, and says, “Your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1). And Abraham asks what the reward will be, and God says that not only will you have descendants, but they will be of your own line, and you will be their true father. Keep in mind, this is a promise that wouldn’t be fulfilled for another 23 years. But Abraham believed what God had promised. He believed God, or “had faith” in His promise, and it was “credited”, or “counted”, or “reckoned” as righteousness.

The act of faith wasn’t righteous in that of itself, it was simply counted as such. Which is an important distinction, especially when you consider that “righteousness” is still that which is required. It’s not faith that God demands, but righteousness. Without righteousness, we have no standing before Him. We are cut off. And we’re not talking about some superficial man-capable righteousness. No. God demands the righteousness of His very own holiness; and if we don’t meet that standard, we are destroyed.

Matthew 5:20

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

2 Corinthians 5:21

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Philippians 3:8-9

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;

Abraham had no righteousness within himself. His faith was merely the means by which he obtained the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And if there was nothing that Abraham, this great man of faith, could do to earn his own righteousness, then we are in a far worse state. And Paul expands on that idea, and broadens it’s application to all men in the next two verses.

Romans 4:4-5

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,

His faith, just like Abraham’s faith, is credited as righteousness. Just as we’ve seen, the act of faith is not a righteous act. It is simply counted as one. It’s not something you do; faith is a state of mind. A state that can only be attained by having a new heart, with new desires. If it were a work, we’d be in a lot of trouble. Verse 4 says that if you work, then you expect to get what you’ve earned. When you get a paycheck, you don’t thank your boss for doing you a favor; you say to yourself, ‘I earned this’, ‘I’m entitled to it’, and you boast about it,.. if there’s anyone to boast to. In that case, It’s all about me, and what I’ve done. There’s nothing about God, and what He’s accomplished. But then we still have a problem, don’t we, because what does scripture clearly say about our works?

Isaiah 64:6

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away

Even our best works are filthy garments. In Leviticus, we’re told that in order for the priests to enter into the presence of the Ark of the Covenant, that they had to change their garments. And they had to put on special robes that could only be worn in that room. It’s the same with us. When we stands in the presence of God, we’d better leave all our filthy works outside. God won’t look upon us otherwise. God won’t have anything to do with us. If God doesn’t see His own perfect and holy image reflected back at Him, there’s only one thing we can expect to hear, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).

We need to remember just how precious a gift our saving faith is. That’s what grace is, unmerited favor. While we were still God’s enemies, He killed His own, and only Son, and poured His wrath upon Him. And through that, displayed an act that was so perfect and righteous, that anyone who’s willing to just believe it, and truly put their faith in it, and in Him who committed it, would be saved once and for all. Paul talks specifically about this later in this same epistle.

Romans 5:6-8

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

I wonder if you’ve ever been asked the question, ‘Would you go to hell for someone you loved?’, or ‘If you could spend a million years in hell, and by doing so, you could allow all the unsaved people to go to heaven, would you do it?’ I’ve heard that question a few times. I think I’ve even asked myself that question once or twice. But the question itself has two fatal flaws. First being, that in order for the question to be taken seriously, the first thing you have to do is deny the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross. You have to completely disregard the fact that Christ already did that very thing, and that He did it for you. The second flaw is that we fail to realize that if we could ever honestly answer ‘yes’ to that question to even the smallest degree; we do so only because we’ve been freed from the bondage of sin and selfishness through the work of Christ on the cross. Don’t count your salvation so lightly. It is truly a gift.

Ephesians 2:8-10

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Everything that we are, and everything that we’ll become is all because of the work that God is doing, and because of the work that He’s doing through us. We owe everything to Him. We keep nothing. And what we receive is so much more, because we receive Christ, for eternity. Paul quotes David here (more scripture), so that he can demonstrate how we’re blessed by this faith, in the next few verses.

Romans 4:6-8

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.”

Notice what’s being said in verse 6; Paul is saying that this Psalm, Psalm 32 which is titled in my bible as ‘The Joy of Forgiveness’, is being written by David, not just about the forgiveness of sins, but about being counted as righteous, apart from works. Paul is putting David (another great man of the faith), and he’s putting him right up against Abraham, and he’s saying that what justifies one, justifies the other. There is absolutely no difference between them. Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness, and faith was counted to David the same way.

Consider what the Psalm says here. In it, we have three instances where sin is mentioned in these two verses, and then their being nullified by God. There’s nothing done by these men, whom are being blessed, to earn this, nor are they doing anything to initiate it. Blessed are those who, what? “whose lawless deeds”, “whose [collective] sins”, and “whose [individual] sin” have been “forgiven”, “covered”, and are “not taken into account”. God does all the work, God takes care of everything, and we just receive the blessing of being counted as righteous.

And now, having shown that the scriptures only show one path to salvation, now Paul begins to show us who it is that benefits from this. The church that Paul was writing to had both Jews and Greeks worshiping together, as far as I understand. So with Paul going on and on about Abraham and David, many listening to all this may have thought for a moment that Paul was just appealing to his Jewish brothers here, but he wasn’t. And the next few verses Paul uses to destroy every shred of separation that the Jews and Gentiles might have thought that they had between one another.

Romans 4:9-12

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.

For Paul, this issue of circumcision was nothing new to him. He had been through issues in the past, both with Timothy and Titus, and in the Galatian church, and he knew what division it could bring. For the Jews, circumcision was the sign given to them that set them apart from the world. It’s what identified them as Jews, God’s people. And there were many who wanted to keep up that wall of separation, and maintain a distinction between Jew and Gentile. And Paul, knowing what kind of trouble that can bring, and the correction it requires, gives a pretty perfect explanation here as to what circumcision is really about, and who it’s for.

Paul points out that Abraham received the blessing BEFORE he was circumcised. We’re told in Genesis that Abraham was circumcised when he was ninety nine years old, and while his son Ishmael was thirteen years old. Which means that Abraham received the blessing from God anywhere from fourteen to twenty four years prior. Was he ‘not blessed’ that entire time? Was he ‘unrighteous’ until he was circumcised? Of course not. Abraham was justified the moment that he put his faith in God. The sign of circumcision was simply that, ‘a sign’. A sign to show to the rest of the world who it was that God had already put His blessing upon.

Also note what it’s emphasized in verses 11 & 12. “So that he might be the father of”, who? ‘All who believe, without circumcision’, AND ‘those who are not only of the circumcision, but who follow in the steps of faith’. Whether circumcised or not, “Faith” is the means by which one gets saved, not some physical ceremony or ritual. It all comes down to saving faith. Paul continues on that note in the next few verses.

Romans 4:13-15

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

Here, Paul is building the foundation for what he’ll get to later on in this epistle; namely, that not all Israel is Israel. Only those who have been made righteous through faith are heirs to the promise of Abraham, no one else. Anyone who is without faith, is left with the law, a law they can not keep, and a law that brings wrath and judgment. However, with that in mind, the next couple of verses may present a problem.

Romans 4:16-17

For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,  (as it is written, “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONSHAVE I MADE YOU”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.

It would sound, at first, as though Paul is saying that the promise is given to two types of people in verse 16. First to those who are “of the Law”, and then, those who are “of the faith”. So what’s going on here? Is Paul telling us that those Jews, who attempt to keep the law will be saved anyway, just because their Jews? Well, I think it’s safe to say that since Paul has spent the entire epistle thus far teaching us the exact opposite, that there would have to be another explanation.

There are two possibilities that I’ve read. The first is that under the banner of faith, Paul is distinguishing, once again, all those who are under it, both Jews and Greeks; referring to the Jews as being those “of the Law”, and the Greeks as the ones “of the faith”. I would disagree with that notion, because everything that we’ve read, just in this chapter alone; everything about Abraham and David, both the forefather and the first true king of Israel, both being Jews, Paul has been telling us were both men “justified by faith”. I think there’s a better explanation than that. Look at the end of Romans 3.

Romans 3:29-31

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

I think we can see this in two regards. First, through faith, we are declared righteous. Therefore, as scripture tells us, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). He’s already fulfilled the law completely. The law has no teeth anymore; we now see it as a reflection of God’s holiness. Second, the law has a different purpose for us now. The book of Galatians tells us that “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). Here the law leads us to Christ (by what means?), through faith. So I think that those that Paul is speaking about in verse 16 are the same people, and he’s just broadening the understanding of what those who are “of the faith” look like.

But through all this, Paul is still using Abraham as our example, to show us what it means to have true faith. He goes into more detail about that in the next few verses.

Romans 4:18-22

In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE.” Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith , giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore IT WAS ALSO CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.

So with Abraham, now being ninety nine years old, having no children through his wife (though one through her maidservant), and knowing that she could not bear children, he had been given this promise from God many years prior; and he had every opportunity to doubt God. But he didn’t. We’re told here that instead of becoming weak, he grew strong in faith, and that he was “fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform” (Romans 4:21). Instead of being weak, he gave glory to God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. But keep reading.

Romans 4:23-25

Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

If you’ve put your faith in Christ as your Lord and Savior, it’s been credited to you as righteousness. This is your transaction that we’ve been discussing. Everything that Paul’s been talking about, everything that Abraham demonstrated, and everything that David is rejoicing about, is about you, and it applies to you. This scripture is about us. “Not for his sake only was it written” (Romans 4:23), “but for our sake also”, “as those who believe” (Romans 4:24). That’s who we are; those who believe. We believe in the promise given to Abraham. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and was buried and was risen. And we believe that through faith, our sins are now covered, and our faith is counted as righteousness. And through that righteousness, we can come boldly before the throne of God, and stand in His presence. And as Jude tells us also, it’s all the work of God.

Jude 1:24-25

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

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