By Ron Halbrook
The theme of Romans is “the gospel of Christ” as “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth . . . . For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (1:16-17). The letter is a polemic against Jewish Christians who taught that once a Gentile obeyed the gospel of Christ, he must then be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Because Paul affirmed the all-sufficiency of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, he has been called the great Apostle of faith and Romans the great epistle of faith. The fourth chapter helps to unfold the theme by showing that to the sinner who “believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (v. 5).
The first three chapters of Romans read like a legal brief, convicting all mankind of sin. Those who did not retain God in their minds but who turned to idolatry and immorality, had been cast off by God for their sins (1:18-32). Those who received and retained the oracles of God condemned the other nations, but were self-condemned because they were guilty of the same sins (2:1-3:20). Standing before God, the perfect and impartial Judge, all men were condemned because all had sinned (2:2, 12; 3:9, 19, 23). Jew and Gentile, alike needed the salvation which is in Jesus Christ by faith.
The conviction of sin is followed by a summary statement which reiterates the theme and sets the stage to further develop the theme (3:21-31). Since all have sinned, all have hope of justification only by the grace of God “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” A redemption is a deliverance or liberation obtained by payment of a ransom; the death of Jesus is the ransom price and, thus, “the ground of the whole remedial system . . . . The ransom is the meritorious means of the justification, or the valuable consideration which procures it . . . . Now when this blood is offered and accepted, when it takes effect as a ransom, which it does when we believe in, and obey Christ, then we are released from sin; and the sin is forgiven” (Moses E. Lard, Romans, pp. 116-18). Before turning to emphasis upon the condition of faith for justification, Paul emphasizes the only ground of merit upon which the gift is offered: the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ! Man’s helpless condition in sin and God’s matchless gift in Christ exclude all grounds of boasting. A perfect record in keeping the deeds of the law would establish, not exclude, boasting. Since all have sinned, boasting is to be excluded by a gift through “the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (vv. 27-28). Chapter four is a detailed defense of this conclusion.
Faith Counted for Righteousness: “What Abraham Hath Found” (Vv.. 1-8)
Abraham, father of the Jews, himself confirmed Paul’s argument. What had Abraham learned about justification before God? He found as all men find that his own works were sinful, that he had no record of perfection to offer God, and therefore that he was ungodly under the law of God. Finding himself in sin, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (v. 3).
The first eight verses picture God as though he were keeping a ledger or book of accounting. What He sees, this He reckons, counts, or imputes. That is, He marks down on the ledger “sin,” charging the debt to a man; this man has worked sin and the account thus shows him to be “ungodly:” God does not mark down the sin of one man onto the account of another man. Sin is put down to the account of the sinner himself and to no one else (cf. Ezek. 18). If a man never sinned, his ledger would be always clean and thus the account would show him to be innocent, just, righteous. If our works are all perfectly just, “the reward” must be given by right of a debt on God’s part; we could then boast of our doing. “What is owed as a debt cannot be reckoned as a favor” (Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, III, p. 258). Reckon, count, or impute does not mean transfer. God does not juggle the accounts, marking down one man’s sin or righteousness on the account of. another. He marks down what He sees.
Abraham worked sin and was ungodly, so could not offer his own record of perfection nor demand the reward (3:23; 4:2, 4-5). The only way God could put down righteousness to the account of a sinner is by forgiving the sin, thus giving a gift of grace or unmerited favor. Such a favor could be bestowed universally and unconditionally upon all men, or conditionally and, therefore, only upon those meeting the condition. Abraham found that God justifies the ungodly by grace, upon the condition of faith. What must God see and record in order for His ledger to show us being innocent, just or righteous? Faith is regarded and recorded for righteousness (vv. 3, 5)! Upon the meritorious ground of the death of Jesus Christ, God records faith and the account shows righteous, just, innocent. The chart below illustrates what happens when the ransom price is applied to our need:
David learned the same lesson and exclaimed the blessedness, the wholeness, the happiness of the man who receives this gift:
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Though Paul does not discuss the nature of faith in the first few verses of Romans 4, his quotation of David from Psalm 32 reminds us that the nature of saving faith is an obedient faith. David’s exclamation followed upon his meeting the condition for forgiveness, the condition of an obedient faith expressed in the confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness (Psa. 32:1-5). In like manner, the faith of Abraham was an obedient faith from the first moment that we learn anything about his faith (see Gen. 12:1-4; cf. Heb. 11:8 – “by faith Abraham . . . obeyed”). Abraham, before the law of Moses, and David, under the law, both learned that not their record of perfection but rather their faith was “counted for righteousness.” The sinner throws himself upon the mercy of the court and obtains forgiveness upon the condition of obedient faith.
Faith Counted for Righteousness: “Upon the Uncircumcision Also” (Vv. 9-15)
Since certain Jewish Christians insisted that Gentile Christians be circumcised, Paul asked whether the blessing of forgiveness came “upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also?” The case of Abraham is conclusive. “Faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness” when he himself was still “in uncircumcision” (vv. 9-10). The statement, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness,” is a quotation from Genesis 15:6 and circumcision was not commanded until some time later in Genesis 17. When he did receive circumcision, it was a sign that God already recognized and approved his faith. Thus, God sealed Abraham as the father of all “who also walk in the steps of that faith,” whether they be uncircumcised Gentiles or circumcised Jews (vv. 11-12). To walk in those steps is “to believe what God says, and by reason of so believing, to do what he says . . . . They were being led away from the truth into a judaistic concept of their duty . . . . To keep the law and practice circumcision in order to be saved is not walking in those steps” (Bryan Vinson, Sr., Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome, p. 80). Neither can we walk in those faithful steps by keeping the commandments of men and by perverting the truth of God with human innovations.
The promise of salvation came not to Abraham through the law of Moses, but came before that law and through a “righteousness of faith” exemplified in Abraham (v. 13). (f the promised inheritance is “of the law, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect” (w. 14-15). Righteousness or salvation cannot be of the law, for “the law worketh wrath.” The law could make men conscious of sin (“for where no law is, there is no transgression”), but the law could not remove the sin. Paul’s conclusion that justification must be by faith, and that this justification is for us today, follows.
Faith Counted for Righteousness: “For Us Also” (Vv.16-25)
Paul concludes that the promise, then, indeed is “of faith, that it might be by grace.” This makes Abraham truly “the father of us all” truly “a father of many nations” spiritually (vv. 16-17). The very faith by which Abraham was justified before circumcision was the same faith which made him “the father of many nations” in the flesh (Gen. 12:1-2; 17:5). How embarrassing for Judaising teachers that Paul should make the fleshly seed in which they took pride dependent upon the continuity of a faith which justified Abraham before circumcision! He believed that god would multiply his seed; Abraham “against hope believed in hope” when in his old age he received the promise of a son. by the same faith excercised before the covenant of circumcision, Abraham later discounted the fleshly limitations which seemed to preclude the birth of this son (vv. 18-20). Abraham “had to decide whether to believe God against nature, or believe nature against God” (Lard, p. 148). He was “fully persuaded” that what God has promised, “he was able also to perform” (v. 21). All this transpired before and without the law of Moses.
Abraham’s faith was reckoned “to him for righteousness,” making him the father of all who are justified by faith – even of all in the gospel age.
Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification (vv. 23-25).
Justification by faith is for us also!” To the sinner who “believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (v. 5). But Paul ends where he began this section of Romans: upon the only ground of merit for this marvellous gift. Jesus died as the sacrifice for sins and arose that as High Priest he might bear the blood into the Holy of Holies. Salvation by faith is truly of grace. “Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.”
Faith Counted for Righteousness: An Abused Doctrine
There are still religious groups today which refuse to accept what the Spirit taught through Paul, and who abuse justification by faith in an effort to make it fit their own doctrines. The doctrine of the Armstrong’s, Seventh-Day Adventists, and other Sabbatarians binds certain parts of the law of Moses. They separate Moses’ law into “moral” and “ceremonial,” keeping the former and rejecting the latter, in an effort to escape the law of animal sacrifices while retaining the law of the Sabbath. This does not break the identity of modern Sabbatarians with ancient Judaisers. There is no evidence that the Judaisers of Paul’s day required animal sacrifices. The common identity is in selecting certain parts of the Old Law to bind today. All such efforts undermine the all-sufficiency of justification by faith in Christ. Abraham was justified before and without the Sabbath law just as certainly as before and without the circumcision law. Such laws have nothing to do with justification by faith in Christ today because He has neither revealed nor required them within “the law of faith.” All those who attempt to defend polygamy, instrumental music in worship, infant baptism, or any other practice by an appeal to the Old Law abuse the all sufficiency of justification in Christ.
The term count, reckon, or impute has been abused. Some people insist that it implies the transfer of sin and righteousness from the account of one person to that of another. Calvinism argues that God transfers the sin of Adam to the account of every man, transfers the sin of every man to the account of Christ, and transfers the righteousness or obedience of Christ to the account of a penitent sinner. There is nothing at all about any transaction of transfer in Romans 4. God puts down righteousness to our account, on the condition of faith. The basis for this gift is forgiveness through the blood of Christ (3:25).
It was Abraham’s faith and “not the righteousness of God, nor the righteousness of Christ” which was marked down to him. “Indeed, the position that Christ’s righteousness, whether the attribute or the righteousness of perfect obedience, is ever imputed to human beings, is without even the semblance of countenance from the Bible” (Lard, p. 129). When Abraham complied with the condition of faith, “God, on the basis of the ransom which is in Christ, counted his belief to him, not instead of, nor as equivalent to, a life of perfect obedience; but that, by means of it, as a condition, he might attain to justification, or release from sin” (Lard, p. 138). Faith is the condition for merciful pardon and has nothing to do with a transfer or juggling of accounts.
It is also taught that when God does “not impute sin” (v. 8), He takes no account of the sin which we practice. This error grows out of the doctrine of transfers: God imputes or marks down (transfers) the perfect obedience of Christ to the account of the sinner, and consequently sees nothing but obedience even where there is disobedience. God marks down sin when we sin; to “not impute” is to forgive (v. 7). The doctrine of transfers creates a realm of unconditional and automatic grace in which sin practiced is never marked down at all. Romans 4 teaches that God imputes or marks down all sins; upon the condition of faith, He mercifully forgives them, clearing the ledger, and marks down righteousness.
Romans 3:21-4:25 does not teach the denominational doctrine of salvation by faith alone, or salvation at the point of faith before and without any other act of obedience. The passage establishes the essentiality of faith, with very little attention to the obedience of faith elsewhere discussed (1:5; ch. 6; 16:26). Where 3:28 says “justified by faith,” “Luther made his famous translation, ‘we are justified by faith only,’ which daring act gave rise to that doctrine” (Lard, p. 123). Paul again and again says “by faith” but never once “by belief only, thereby excluding other condition” (Lard, p. 131). The nature of saving faith is obedient faith. That does not mean we will never err or sin, but it means we are always humble and penitent for’ sin, willing to put it away, ready to implore divine forgiveness, and anxious to forsake our error that we may return to the divine standard of truth. This was the character of Abraham – not a character of perfection, but one of faithfulness.
The character of saving faith is obedient faith. Baptism in water for the remission of sins is justification by faith in the gospel age. The principle and purpose of faith declared in Romans 4:3 (faith counted “for – eis righteousness”) is identical to the call issued in Acts 2:38 (repent and be baptized “for – eis – remission of sins”). That which moves a sinner to obey the gospel and lay hold on eternal life is faith. Faith is the motivating power, and thus faith saves. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” In the absence of faith, there can be no salvation because no motivation to sumit, obey, and accept the gospel. He that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:16). Romans 4 shows “that works without faith would not justify,” and James 2 shows “that faith without works would not justify” (R.L. Whiteside, Romans, p. 95). Also, “the principle of justification is the same, whether the justification be that of the saint or the sinner. In both cases, it is by belief with other acts; and in neither case by belief without those acts” (Lard, p. 131). Saving faith is obedient faith.
Speaking where the Bible speaks, being silent where it is, we have a wonderful message to preach. It is the solution to man’s greatest problem! When the ungodly obeys the gospel of Christ, “his faith is counted for righteousness” by the grace of God.
- How does chapter 4 reflect the great theme of Romans?
- What is a “redemption” and what place does it have in the gospel plan?
- Read Ezekiel 18 and explain how it helps us to understand what God imputes to a person’s record (Rom. 4:1-8).
- On what ground of merit can God record our faith unto righteousness?
- Was Abraham justified by faith before he was circumcised? Prove your answer.
- Was Abraham justified by faith before and without any other act of obedience? Prove your answer.
- What are some practices which men attempt to justify today on the same principle used by ancient Judaisers?
- Denominational theories see transfer from one account to another in the Bible word “imputation;” what three transfers are claimed?
- How does the denominational doctrine of transfer create a realm of unconditional or automatic grace?
- Discuss the nature or character of saving faith.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 1, pp. 9-12
January 4, 1979