I know a wonderful man who owns an excavating business. He tears down buildings so that Americans can build bigger buildings. He once told me, “Every morning as I drive to the city, I thank the Lord that I have job security.” He answered my puzzled look by adding, “Almost every building you see will be replaced within forty years. People in America don’t like old stuff.” How true. If the American mindset were in Rome, the Colosseum would have been turned into low-rent apartment buildings long ago—or a multi-level parking lot. We want things that are new. We are not content with the old.
That presents a problem for people who read Romans 4. Paul uses this chapter to explain that the radical teaching of Romans 3 is not new at all. Rather it is the old, old story of how God has been saving people from the very beginning of history.
In addition, many people today want a religion that makes them feel good about themselves. Sin has become a four-letter word as churches teach that the Sermon on the Mount begins with the “be-happy-tudes.” Never mind what is right and wrong; never mind what is truth and what is a lie. The prevailing question for many is, “How do I feel about myself with this religion?” And, should the elders of the church point out that our lifestyle may be contrary to God’s will rather than in compliance with His will, we will change churches. Churches abound that approve paedocommunion, women in leadership positions, same-sex marriages, and a host of other things. I know of a church that counsels expectant teens by driving them to the abortion clinic.
Paul, on the other hand, deals with logic. What good is your religion if it does not save you? You can have all the touchy-feely emotional highs your religion has to offer, but it is all useless if in the end you are still at enmity with God and destined for eternal condemnation. It is ironic that while Jews demanded miraculous signs and Greeks looked for wisdom, Paul confronted them with logic—and they thought he was foolish! Today, as well, the unbeliever considers Christianity to be foolishness when, in fact, it is the only worldview that logically makes sense. Many scientists today are abandoning evolution for the more logical view of an intelligent Designer. Which is more logical: life begins at conception or the zygote is only a potential human? Ask any livestock owner what he expects as he breeds his cattle, hogs, or sheep. He can very quickly point out the foolishness of those who think the fetus is only a tumor or a lifeless mass.
And so it is with salvation. Which means of reconciliation with God is more logical: one of God’s choosing or one of man’s design? Ask anyone who has ever grossly offended another person. Reconciliation must come on the terms of the one offended. After spending three chapters explaining how man has offended God, that all are guilty before God, and that man must be reconciled to God in order to be saved, Paul explains how God Himself has graciously provided salvation through faith in His Son’s sacrifice on the cross.
In explaining that his teaching was not a new doctrine, Paul points his readers to Abraham. The Jews had long claimed Abraham as their father. When Jesus had confronted them with His teachings, they had retorted that Abraham was their father (John 8:39).
Unfortunately, the Jews misunderstood the faith and righteousness of their ancient ancestor Abraham. Many Jews believed that Abraham was a good and pious man who delighted in believing and obeying God. Based on his own goodness and piety, God saved Abraham. This is clearly salvation by works. It was the religion of the Pharisees who thought they could boast in their prayers saying, “I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not like the others.”
If Paul could prove to the Jews that Abraham was justified by faith (and not by works), they would have to believe in Jesus Christ. To combat their erroneous teaching, Paul brings the Jews back to Genesis 15:6 where God inspired Moses to write, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Genesis 15:6 is the first time in the Bible where we hear about faith, righteousness, and justification. Faith is something you believe, trust, or hope. For example, when you enter a room and see a chair you have faith that the chair will hold you up should you sit in it. Acting on your faith would be moving across the room to actually sit in the chair. Righteousness is being right with God, without sin, holy. Paul has just spent three chapters explaining how Jews and Gentiles alike have no righteousness of their own. We therefore stand in enmity before God until we can be declared righteous. The word justification does not actually appear in Genesis 15:6, but it is contained in the phrase “credited to him.” In spite of Abraham’s sin, God treated him as if he were righteous. As such, justification is not an action on the part of Abraham but a decree on the part of God. The difference between the tradition of the Jews and the logic of Paul is rooted in why God credited Abraham with righteousness. The Jews believed that Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith. Paul argued that Abraham was saved by faith.
When you go to the store with a twenty dollar bill, you may rightly expect to receive twenty dollars worth of groceries. You have faith in the purchasing power of that little piece of paper that has a twenty engraved on it. It is not your faith in that bill, however, that gives the twenty its purchasing power. The purchasing power of the twenty is given to it by something outside of yourself. I recently was given a one hundred trillion dollar bill (no kidding—fourteen zeros!) from the bank of Zimbabwe. It has a legitimate seal and serial number on it from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. It is legal tender. Let’s suppose I take my newfound wealth and go to Walmart to buy a new tie. And I expect change. I daresay that I would find out very quickly that my faith in the purchasing power of that bill was misplaced. Its actual value is under two dollars.
It is faith that motivates you into action, but your faith is not enough. It is not your faith in a chair that holds you up; it is the strength of the chair. It is not your faith in a twenty dollar bill that buys the groceries; it is the government’s guarantee to back up the purchasing power of that bill. Likewise, Paul argues that a person’s faith in what reconciles him to God has to be in the right thing. You must have faith in Jesus Christ to save you. Your faith itself, however, is not the thing that saves you. Your faith is not what gives Christ to power to save you. Your salvation must rest in something outside of yourself, and that is the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on the cross of Calvary. The worth of our salvation is in the work of Jesus Christ, not our faith. His sacrifice and His righteousness must be imputed to you.
Paul’s logic is very clear. It was not Abraham’s faith that saved him; it was his faith in the right thing—the righteousness of the promised One that God credited to him. Faith is not enough. Faith must be in the right thing—not your works, not yourselves, not your self-righteousness, but the righteousness of Jesus Christ. As Christians we live because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. If ever we would think that we are righteous on the basis of our faith, we need only look at our sinful behavior (even as born-again believers) to know how much we need the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
Paul continues to present his case by using logic. He moves away from Abraham, whom the Jews knew the Old Testament recorded as “a friend of God” (2 Chron. 20:7, Isa. 41:8), to focus on David, a man after God’s own heart. Quoting Psalm 32, Paul presents three very important lessons on sin and how David viewed forgiveness.
First of all, his sin was forgiven. The word used in the Greek can be translated “sent away.” David rejoiced that his sins have been sent away. The reference, of course, is to the scapegoat. In the Old Testament, the sins of the people of Israel would be placed on a scapegoat. The scapegoat would then be sent away from the city. This became very clear imagery of how the sinner is separated from his sin by a substitute. By means of the substitute, one’s sins were removed from him. David could rejoice in the glorious truth that his transgressions had been removed from him as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
In addition, his sins were covered. This was a reference to the great Day of Atonement when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the mercy seat of the ark. One of the items in the ark was the tablets that had written upon them the Ten Commandments. Once a year, the High Priest would pour the blood of the lamb on the mercy seat that covered the Law of God. The atoning blood became the memorial symbol of sin and salvation—Israel’s rebellion and God’s grace. Even so, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, shed His blood to take away the sin and rebellion of all who call on Him. Their sins are covered by His blood.
And finally, David rejoiced in Psalm 32 because the Lord has not counted his sin against him. Two ledgers have been kept. On one was written David’s sin; on the other was written the perfect obedience of the Promised One. By judicial action, David’s debt had been written on the ledger of the Messiah. The Messiah’s righteousness had been placed in his account. The sovereign, gracious God looked upon David, clothed in the righteousness of the coming Christ, as if he had never sinned. So also, when we look to the sacrifice of the Promised One, Jesus Christ, our sin is imputed to Him and His righteousness is placed in our account. The God against whom we have sinned must then look upon us just as if we had never sinned.
Surely, using these two key Old Testament figures should have been enough to convince the Jews to place their faith in Jesus Christ. It should convince us to do the same. In His mercy, God has provided the way for us to be reconciled to Him. It is not by works, lest any man should boast. It is all through Christ Jesus who gave Himself up as the perfect once-for-all sacrifice for our sin.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. In what ways has the world (and often the church) adopted foolish teachings? Why do they cling to such teachings?
2. Why does Paul appeal to the faith of Abraham in explaining salvation? What misconceptions of Abraham’s faith did the Jews have? Are those misconceptions prevalent today?
3. How was Abraham saved?
4. What does the word it stand for in Romans 4:3?
5. Is justification a judicial act of God or is it an inward work of God? What is the difference? Why is it important to distinguish between the two?
6. Martin Luther said, “I am a sinner and righteous at the same time.” How do you understand that statement?
7. How is having your sins sent away a comfort to the Christian?
8. What does it mean that your sins are “covered”?
9. “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (Romans 4:8 NIV84). How significant is the word “never” in this verse? How does it compare to man’s forgiveness?