The Expository Files.


Justification By Faith As Presented In Romans Four

-Part 1-

Romans 4


{It is the belief of the writer that JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH involves: a heart bowed in loving allegiance to and trust in Jesus Christ, which produces voluntary and unqualified submission to His authority, expressed in obedience. In this two-part study of Romans chapter four, I offer some of the strongest scriptural evidence that has led me to this conviction. -web}

In the first three chapters of Romans, these affirmations are established:

1. All Have Sinned (Rom. 1:18-3:23).

2. The Gospel Is God's Power To Save Sinners (Rom. 1:16,17).

3. The Gospel Concerns God's "Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead," (Rom. 1:3,4).

4. The Gospel Was Received By The Apostles, And Is To Be Proclaimed (Rom. 1:5; 14,15).

5. The Response Called For Is Faith That Obeys (Rom. 1:5).

Before going further in this study, consider carefully these affirmations; read the passages cited and be sure in your own mind that this represents the teaching of the apostle.

Now in Romans chapter three, beginning with verse 21, this divine plan for sinners [the gospel] is described in terms of being justified by faith. Though we have sinned, we can be "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," and this benefit is ours "through faith," (3:24,25).

In the fourth chapter of Romans, Paul uses the example of Abraham and David to teach us more about what it means to be justified by faith. Before we get to that, some background will be helpful.


Since Paul is addressing Jews, it will be helpful to understand some things about how the Jews thought; their perspective furnished the background for Paul's arguments. Notice what the Jews took pride in:

Genealogy was a vital factor in maintaining the Jewish nation in tact for the arrival of the Messiah. That's why the book of Matthew opens with a portion of Christ's genealogy, establishing Him as the son of Abraham and the son of David. There was a vital necessity to attend to the matter of genealogy. But the Jews carried this too far. For instance, when certain Pharisees and Sadducees came to the baptism of John, they were not ready to repent. They maintained a self-righteous attitude on the basis of their bloodline. Their boast was, "Abraham is our father!" (Matt. 3:9).

There was a trust in self; a reliance on human accomplishment that was way out of balance (as in Lk. 18:9-14). Paul said they were ignorant of God's
righteousness, and they were "seeking to establish their own righteousness." Therefore, they had "not submitted to the righteousness of God." The typical Jews in the days of Christ and the apostles, gloried in genealogy and human merit.

Jewish men and religious leaders were militant and dogmatic about the necessity of circumcision. Even after Christ's death which ended the law (Rom. 10:4; 7:1-6), "certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, saying, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'?" (Acts 15:1). Paul had to tell them: "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God," (Rom. 2:28,29; see also, 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). These are some of the things the Jews treasured in their religion; these were some of the prominent objects of their pride: genealogy, human merit, circumcision, and ...

When the time came for there to be a change in the order of things (with the death of Christ, and the beginning of the New Covenant; see Heb. 10:9), many of the Jews were not willing to part with the old law, and their practice of it. They were attached passionately to the old ways of Judaism and their use of the Law of Moses. Paul said to them: "Indeed, you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast of God," (2:17). They gloried in the law, so they had a real hard time with the notion of being righteous apart from the old law. But it must also be observed ...


Over several generations, the Jews had developed a lot of traditional practices and concepts, not revealed by God but developed in the minds of men. These they cherished with zeal and militance (see Matthew 15:1-20). The Jews worshipped and enforced their own traditions. And ...

They held certain men in high esteem, and while this wasn't necessarily a bad thing, it relates directly to the arguments made by Paul in Romans chapter four. Abraham and David were cherished historical figures.

So the Jews placed importance on these things and made these the objects of pride and loyalty: genealogy, human merit (self-righteousness), circumcision, their law, their traditions and their heroes. As we study the fourth chapter of Romans, it is helpful to keep these things in mind.

Rom. 4:1

"What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?"

Here is the question that sets the chapter in motion. Paul is calling upon the Jews to think about one of their own, Abraham. And he is suggesting that they draw a conclusion about his experience. "What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?" In other words, what conclusion should we draw regarding this man; what do we need to learn?

The word "flesh" often carries the idea of man, and that which pertains to man (see Matt. 16:17; Gal. 1:16; 2 Cor. 10:3). So Paul's question is: What did Abraham find out about man, and those things that pertain to man; what did he discover about himself, and what lesson do we learn from that?

When Abraham tried to take charge, and accomplish something on his own [apart from God] what happened? when he relied on his own works, and centered his confidence and trust in himself and his own performance, what happened? Paul wanted his Jewish readers to think about this, and learn from it.

You see, there were Jews everywhere having trouble accepting the gospel because they were inclined to rely on human works of merit (self-reliance instead of trust in God). Their disposition was to rely upon their own performance; this was the attitude generated by the Pharisees, and the typical Jew was so influenced - to reply on himself and his own law-keeping performance.

But the first thing the gospel said to them was: "You haven't performed!" (See chapters 2 & 3). "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Rom. 3:23). So Paul - in Romans 4:1 - is asking the Jews to consider one of their own, Abraham. The question could be stated this way: WHEN ABRAHAM TRIED TO TAKE CHARGE AND ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING ON HIS OWN [apart from God], WHAT HAPPENED? "What shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?"

Think about the history of Abraham, as given in the Old Testament, and you can answer this inquiry.

What happened, on two occasions, when he lied about his relationship with Sarah?

What happened, at Sarah's suggestion, when he bore a son through Hagar?

When Abraham depended on his own ingenuity and performance; when he trusted in himself rather than God and took charge based on fleshly wisdom, he got into trouble and wound up guilty before God.

But when he put his faith in God and did what God said, " was counted to him for righteousness." This is how Romans chapter four begins: THIS INQUIRY ABOUT WHAT ABRAHAM DISCOVERED, WHEN HE RELIED ON HIMSELF RATHER THAN FULLY TRUSTING GOD.

In the second verse, Paul is beginning to answer this question. He introduces a contingency that was never realized; that is to say, he deals with something that never happened, to make a point.

"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God."

Here is something that never happened. "If" often introduces a contingency, but sometimes it is a contingency that is never realized. Here is something that never happened.

Abraham didn't do it all by his own ingenuity and performance; he didn't earn righteousness by relying on himself. Therefore, he had nothing to boast about before God!

At this point, we may need some clarification concerning the term "works." Here in Rom. 4:2, what kind of works are we talking about? "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God."

Are we talking about works of obedience on the basis of faith in God? No! Because there isn't any doubt, Abraham had those kind of works. Abraham had and displayed works of obedience on the basis of faith in God (Heb. 11:8; Jas. 2:21). You see, there is a kind of works that Abraham had; there is a kind of works God required of him: works of obedience based on faith in God.

The works of Rom. 4:2 ARE NOT WORKS OF OBEDIENCE BASED ON FAITH, for Abraham had those works! These works (in Rom. 4:2) are works of human merit, human ingenuity and performance which reflect reliance on self. These are the kind of works which, when possessed, would give the worker the right to boast about his own accomplishments. Abraham wasn't justified by these, thus he was not able to say to God, "I am righteous, and I did it myself!"

"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God." Here is something that never happened. Abraham didn't do it all by his own ingenuity; he didn't earn righteousness by relying on himself, so he had nothing to boast about before God!

What is Paul doing? He is telling the Romans, Abraham didn't do it by himself (self-reliance), and you can't either. You need God. You need to hear God, believe God and obey God. You need the gospel of God in order to be righteous. Self-reliance avails nothing.

Two questions may help us grasp the line of argument that begins in Romans four.

WAS ABRAHAM RIGHTEOUS? The answer is YES. Paul's whole argument in this chapter is predicated on this premise: Abraham was righteous.


By keeping the law of Moses? No. The law of Moses came some 430 years AFTER Abraham's day.

By self-reliant performance or impeccable obedience? No.

By circumcision? No. In verses 10 & 11, Paul points out that "faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness," while he was still uncircumcised.

By pedigree or genealogical connection? No. Abraham actually came out of a heathen background (see Josh. 24:2,15).

Abraham was righteous by faith; an obedient faith, which is to say: HE DIDN'T DEPEND UPON SELF, HE DEPENDED UPON GOD. He heard God, believed God, and obeyed God! Isn't this the basis of man's response to God in every dispensation?

This is the very thing we are called upon to do today! We need the gospel; we need to hear it, believe it and obey it. And when we've done that, we have no basis before God to boast about what we've done. WE'VE JUST RESPONDED; we've just received something offered to us. When man depends upon himself instead of God, he gets into trouble every time. But when we place our faith in God and do what He says, it is counted unto us for righteousness.

{More from Romans 4 in the next issue}

 By Warren E. Berkley 
 From Expository Files 3.1; January 1996