Pastor David B. Curtis


Father Abraham

Romans 4:1-8

Delivered 04/10/2011

So far in our study of Romans we saw in chapter 1 that Israel failed to do and be what God had called for them to do and be: "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God..." We saw from 1:18 thru 3:20, that the whole world is guilty of sin and under the wrath of God.

Then in 3:21-31 we see that God provided a faithful Israelite in the Lord Jesus Christ to do and be all that Israel was to do and be. In these verses Paul lays out the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone and Christ alone in which God declared righteous the believing sinner. For the last several weeks we have been looking at the doctrine of justification by faith alone:

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Romans 3:28 NASB

The doctrine of justification by faith alone makes most of churcheanity uncomfortable. That someone could go to heaven who does not live a righteous and holy life does not sit well with us. But why? I think that if we are living a righteous life, at least by our own standards, then we cannot conceive that someone who wasn't would go to heaven. It offends our sense of justice. We're living holy and so must they, or they don't get in.

I think another reason that we don't like a faith alone Gospel is that we live in a world where we are what we accomplish. The question is always: "What have you accomplished lately?" What book have you written? What project have you completed? What deal have you closed? What account have you opened? What building have you built? What paper have you written? What verdict have you won? What experiment have you completed? The pressure is on for more production, more profit, more performance. And so those who do not perform in the area of morality or works are discounted from being Christians.

This doctrine of justification by faith alone is to me the most important doctrine there is. It is the Gospel. And many today have changed the Gospel of grace into a Gospel that acknowledges the grace of God, but also requires good works by the individuals. Whenever someone thinks that one has to contribute something, however small, to one's salvation, he is perverting the Gospel of Christ; he is trying to rob God of some of His glory.

It is hard for us to understand sometimes, but there is something about the message of the true Gospel that is deeply offensive to human nature. It offends our sense of justice, and it offends our pride. It tells us we need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves no matter how many accomplishments we have. It gives no credit to us at all for our salvation. The Gospel is the "Good News" of what Christ has done for us. Believing the Gospel is trusting in the substitutionary death and payment of Christ for our sins. C.H. Spurgeon described the Gospel this way:

The Gospel is that Jesus Christ suffered in the place of all sinners who trust Him as their Saviour; that He endured what they ought to have endured and made atonement to God for all the sins that they would ever commit; and if you thus trust Him, you are saved. The simple act of relying upon Jesus as your Substitute and Saviour puts away your guilt and sin forever. (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 53, Sermon "Rule of Grace," pp 500-502, Pilgrim Publications, Pasadena TX)

In order to be saved, a person must first realize that they are a sinner under the wrath of God without hope. Second, they must recognize that they can do nothing at all to avoid the wages of their sin. Third, they must understand that Christ paid all the penalty for their sin through His atoning sacrifice, enduring what they should endure. Fourth, the sinner must trust Jesus and Jesus alone as his Substitute for his sins.

To the Jews the "Good News" of the Gospel sounded like something entirely new. It appeared to be contrary to their Scriptures. This is why Paul asked:

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law. Romans 3:31 NASB

The Law is established insofar as it testifies to faith. We meet all the requirements of the Law by faith in Christ. Faith in Christ is obedience to the Law.

In chapter 4 Paul turns to Abraham to prove his point of justification by faith alone. The story of Abraham shows us that in Jesus Christ, God has done what He had promised from the beginning. This story shows God's covenant faithfulness:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? Romans 4:1 NASB

Richard B. Hays translates verse 1 this way, "What then shall we say, have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?" The question that arises from all that has been said in chapter 3 is "Does this mean that if we are now God's covenant people, we are to be incorporated into the physical family of Abraham?" This is the same issue that Paul dealt with in Galatians.

The phrase "according to the flesh" (kata sarx) is in contrast to "according to the Spirit" and should be interpreted in redemptive historical terms, serving to elucidate the contrasting natures of the two covenant ages. The contrast between flesh and spirit run throughout this letter, and is common in Paul. "According to the flesh" being the product for the old age and "according to the Spirit" a gift of the new age. Paul's answer is "No," we have not found Abraham to be our forefather according to the Old Covenant.

That question is answered in:

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 to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, Romans 4:16 NASB

This verse is the full answer to the question of verse 1. We could state the question, Do we have to become Jews to become part of the family of God? And Paul's answer is a resounding, "NO!" Abraham's family is not characterized by their race or Torah or circumcision, but simply by faith, believing in the promises of God.

Let me give you a little history of what the first century reader understood about Abraham. The majority of rabbis who lived during the time of Christ believed that Abraham was made right with God--was saved, forgiven of his sin, received eternal life, and was chosen by God for salvation--because of his character. They thought Abraham was the best man in the world during his generation. Therefore, he was chosen by God to be the father of His people, Israel. They said that God chose Abraham because he was a righteous man. The Jewish religious leaders thought that Abraham was righteous, because they twisted certain Scriptures to come to that conclusion. For example:

because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws." Genesis 26:5 NASB

With convincing arguments, the Jewish leaders applied this to the modern need for "works" in order to be justified. They noted that Abraham obeyed God. But they neglected making a right interpretation. For Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith in the promise of God many years before God commanded him to be circumcised! And his obedience to God came about without a codified Law, which did not come until over 430 years later!

The apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus taught that Abraham was given justification and circumcision, because he earned it by keeping the Law (44:19-21). The Book of Jubilee, dating from the second century B.C. contains this statement: "Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord and well pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life."

The ancient Rabbis did not really admire Abraham's faith. They believed he was so loved by God because he was thought to have kept the Law hundreds of years before it was given.

Abraham was the first Israelite. No Jewish person would argue with that. It was Abraham whom God called to father a new nation. It was to Abraham that Matthew traced the Jewish genealogy of Jesus. But Abraham was not only the father of a new race, he was also the father of a new faith. He had been an uncircumcised son of pagan idolatrous parents, but when God called him to leave his home, abandon his polytheism, and trust in the Lord God alone, he did so. So Abraham was universally recognized as the first Israelite--both racially and spiritually.

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. Romans 4:2 NASB

Remember that the "works" here are not moral effort, but works of Torah. If he was justified by works, then only Israelites could be justified. If Abraham was our forefather according to the flesh, then you can only be justified if you are a physical Israelite. But Abraham was not our forefather according to the flesh. Abraham had no ethnic boast.

Abraham, the very first Jew and the first man ever to be specifically declared a justified man, attained that standing long before the Mosaic Law was even given, and he attained it on the basis of his faith, not his works. Paul is going to demonstrate that salvation by grace through faith is not a recent invention of his--it's the way men have always been justified.

If Abraham earned his justification, he could boast, but not before God. Grace excludes boasting. If God calls everyone to Himself, as many today teach (contrary to Romans 8:30), and it is up to us to accept or reject Christ, Then those of us who trust Christ can boast. They can say, "I had the intelligence, foresight, insight, wisdom to trust in Christ, and therefore, I have something to boast about!":

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. Ephesians 2:8-9 NASB

Salvation is designed to give glory to God and not to man.

Paul now turns to the ultimate authority, the Scripture:


"For what does the Scripture say?" His use of the singular, "Scripture," indicates the unity of biblical revelation; he's referring to the consistent message of the whole of Scripture. The use of the present tense, "say," points to the way that the Scripture continues to speak consistently. Paul is quoting here from:

Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6 NASB

This is the first use of "believe" in the Bible. It sits in the background with Enoch and Noah, but here it is stated clearly: "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."

Let's consider what this verse is saying. First, it doesn't record one thing which Abraham did in order to be "accounted righteous." Let's back up and get the context. God came to Abram and told him to leave his home and go to a land that He would show him. Then God said:

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; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." Genesis 12:2-3 NASB

Do you see any "if's" in God's word to Abraham? This is not an agreement, it is a promise. You will read in vain in Genesis 12-15 to find anywhere where God says "If you will do...then I will do..." In other words, there were no conditions. This was a unilateral covenant.

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." 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:5-6 NASB

God took Abraham outside his tent at night and showed him the starlit sky. This was not the same sky that we see at night, which is adulterated with all the diffused light of a modern society. No, this was a brilliant, magnificent sky. God told Abraham to count the stars in that sky and said to him, in effect, "If you can count the stars of the heavens, then you will have some idea of what your eternal influence will be. There will be children born to you as innumerable as the stars in the heavens." What God was promising Abraham at this point, I believe, was an influence on eternity that would be immeasurable and would never end.

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." 8 And he said, "O Lord GOD, how may I know that I shall possess it?" 9 So He said to him, "Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11 And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. 12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 And God said to Abram, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 "But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 "And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. 16 "Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete." 17 And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: Genesis 15:7-18 (NASB)

"The Lord made a covenant"--in Genesis 15:18 is literally: "the Lord cut a covenant." Here we see that God cut a covenant with Abraham. He cut it in a way that was familiar to the people of the ancient Near East, but very unfamiliar to us. They would take a heifer and a ram and a goat, they would split the animal in half and lay the halves opposite one another on an incline, so that the blood would flow down and puddle in the bottom of a little valley. Then the stronger of the two that were entering into the covenant would go first and would walk through the blood. The blood would splash up on his ankles and legs, and it was symbolic: "If I fail in any way to keep the covenant, this is what you may do to me." That was the symbolism.

After that one would walk through the blood, the weaker of the two would then walk through the blood with the same symbolism: "If I fail to keep the covenant, this is what you may do to me."

As Abram is either asleep or perhaps still groggy from the deep sleep he had been under, he sees God do an amazing thing: pass through the animal parts all by Himself, while Abram watches on the sidelines.

God, represented by the smoking oven and the burning torch, passed through the animal parts by Himself. As Abram watched, God showed this was a unilateral covenant. Abram never "signed" the covenant, because God "signed" it for both of them. Therefore, the certainty of the covenant God makes with Abram is based on Who God is, not on who Abram is or what Abram does. This covenant cannot fail, because God cannot fail. Abram cannot break a covenant he has never agreed to!

By entering into this covenant, there is a sense in which God was saying, "If I don't keep My word, let Me be put asunder." God was putting His Deity on the line as a confirmation of His oath to Abram.

God had taken Abraham, who was having a real problem with God, because he had no heir in his household, and had shown him the stars of the night sky. Then, He told Abraham to count those stars. Then, with Abraham's attention on the night sky, God told this childless man whose wife was barren:

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." Genesis 15:5 NASB

"Count the stars... so shall your descendants be." We are not told what mental processes Abraham went through when he heard that promise, but we are told what the conclusion of that was: "Abraham believed God."

Do you remember the definition of faith that I gave you last week? Faith is understanding and assent to a proposition. God said to a childless man, "Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars." And in the Hebrew Abraham said, "Amen, Yahweh". So be it. He believed what God told him. That is faith.

Abraham didn't do anything (he didn't repent, commit himself to a life of service, surrender all to God, or anything else). He simply believed the statement which God made about him and his descendants. And God counted Abraham as righteous. God entered into a covenant with Abraham.

The Greek word translated: "credited" in Romans 4:3 is logizomai. Paul uses it 19 times in Romans. It is a courtroom word used 11 times in Romans 4. It means: "a judge looks at the evidence, and in light of the evidence, regards something as true." It was a book-keeping term used of writing down in the ledger the finances available. He would record as a fact in the ledger what he had counted in cash in the register. Credited means: "to regard or consider something as true." Abraham's faith was placed on his account before God as righteousness.

The passive voice in "it was credited to him as righteousness" indicates the action of God. Abraham believed God, and then God, out of His free grace, accounted it as righteousness. Abraham's standing forever changed before God, and so does yours when you put your faith in the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world!

The imputation of Christ's righteousness means that every moment of the day, God accepts me as He does His Son. Think of that, especially when you feel like a no-good loser spiritually. Your acceptance by God is not based on your righteousness, but on that of God's Son.

The text says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." No lapse took place for God to test Abraham out to see if he would measure up or if he would be good enough or to see if he would last. The imputation of righteousness is not a process. It is a divine declaration.

Notice what Paul says in Galatians:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "ALL THE NATIONS SHALL BE BLESSED IN YOU." Galatians 3:8 NASB

What was the "Gospel" that was preached unto Abraham? It is identified in the specific quote of the Scripture that Paul gives: "All the nations shall be blessed in you." Paul says that this quote means that God was telling Abraham that all nations would have some in them that would be justified through faith.

Did Abraham understand what God meant by; "ALL THE NATIONS SHALL BE BLESSED IN YOU"? God evidently explained to Abraham that through his decedents a righteous one would come who would redeem man from the curse and satisfy the justice of God. How do I know that? Jesus told me:

"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." John 8:56 NASB

Abraham believed that God would provide a redeemer to deal with man's sin:

And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." And he said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" 8 And Abraham said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together. Genesis 22:7-8 NASB

I think that Abraham may have understood far more than that for which we give him credit.

To say that Scripture foresaw and preached the Gospel beforehand is to personify Scripture. The written text is treated as a person who sees and speaks. Paul's personification of Scripture means that for him the written text expresses the voice of God: What Scripture says, God says. We must grasp this! When we spend time in the Word, we are spending time with God. God speaks through His Word. Since this is true, shouldn't we be spending more time with God's Word?

This Abraham, who "believed" God's promise, "In thee shall all nations be blessed,"also twice deliberately misled kings concerning the identity of his wife out of fear for his life, which he could not lose while childless, because the promise of God required a child. This was not consistent behavior with the truth that he "believed." Also, Abraham yielded to the subtlety of Sarai's suggestion that he have sex with Hagar in a personal attempt to make God's promise come true.

The point I am trying to make here is that men are saved by believing the Gospel promises, not by their consistency of behavior. Am I trying to encourage sin by this? No, I'm simply trying to clarify the faith that saves: It is one which is fixed in the promises of God and not the actions of men.

Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. Romans 4:4 NASB

This verse teaches that had Abraham done some work to become saved, then his salvation would have been a reward, not the grace of God; God would have been indebted to Abraham to provide salvation.

If you work at a local building supply store, for every hour that you put into your job your employer is obligated to pay you. When you receive your paycheck, you do not go to the boss and tell him, "Thank you for the wonderful grace you've shown to me by giving me this check!" Of course not! You earned it. You labored for the company, so the company had a legal obligation to compensate you for your labors.

But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, Romans 4:5 NASB

It is not of works but faith! Now that sounds simple enough if you understand what faith is, but it can get real complicated if you don't. Ray Steadman writes, "This word 'believe' is misused. I would like to use a modern equivalent for this word--a phrase that, perhaps, you don't usually associate with the word 'believe,' but I think it makes it clear and vivid to us as to what Abraham did that made him acceptable to God. Let me substitute this phrase: Abraham made room for God in his life. Now that is what believing is: Abraham practiced God."

So to believe means to do something? Believe means to make room for God in my life? That is very subjective! Let's not make faith mystic. To trust in Christ means that I no longer trust myself for salvation, nor do I trust my baptism or the church or the countless religious activities that I do. Here is the very heart of grasping the Gospel. The Gospel is not about me and what I do; it's all about what God in Christ has done to save me from my sin. It's not about my work or my service or my worship or my giving or my piety. It's about the sufficiency of Christ as the righteousness of God for sinners that trust in Him.

Notice who God justifies. The ungodly! How does God do that? Justifying the ungodly is something that God says He won't do:

"Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the guilty. Exodus 23:7 NASB
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD. Proverbs 17:15 NASB

So how can God justify the ungodly? The answer is in:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Romans 5:6 NASB

Faith in Christ is the solution to the problem of 1:18-3:20. The answer is in 3:21-31, God set Jesus forth as a propitiation. The ungodly who trust in Christ have been punished in Christ, we died with Him and were raised with Him.

The Jews believed that God justified the godly. Religion believes that. That if you want to be right with God, you have to be good, you have to do good works, you have to merit salvation. But God is in the business of justifying the ungodly. That is an absolutely stunning statement. In fact, He only justifies the ungodly, because that's the only kind of people there are. There are no people who earned their standing with God. All are ungodly sinners. Aren't you thankful that Paul did not say that God justifies the godly? If that were the case, then none of us would ever be justified.

Keep the context in mind here. The links between verse 5 and what precedes strongly imply that Abraham is still in mind. God justified Abraham, who was ungodly. Abraham was an ungodly Gentile who believed God and was counted righteous.

Verse 4 &5 is backed up by a quotation from the Psalms:

just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: Romans 4:6 NASB

Here Paul cited another eminent man in Jewish history whose words harmonized with the apostle's. Abraham lived before the Mosaic Law, and was a Gentile called of God. David was a Hebrew who lived under the Law.

Abraham's story is in the law section of the Hebrew Bible, and David's is in the prophets section. In 3:21 Paul said, "The righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets." Here is the second witness. Abraham represents the patriarchal period of Israel's history, and David the monarchy period. As Israel's greatest king, one would assume that David would have been a strong advocate of the Mosaic Law. He was, but he did not view it as the key to justification.

As with Abraham, God made a covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:11-17)--a covenant the Jews still look to be fulfilled. In introducing both Abraham and David, Paul plays an unbeatable hand. The Jews, while demanding circumcision of the Gentiles, denied that they needed to be made right with God as they believed they were already made so:


This is New Covenant language--the covenant is the means of forgiveness.

If you look back into the history of David, you will find that he uttered these words at a time when his hands were red with the blood of Uriah, the Hittite. He had murdered a man to cover his adultery with Bathsheba.

Notice the last phrase in verse 8, "the Lord will not take into account." The word there is the same as the word for "credited" or "credits" in verses 3, 4, 5, and 6. So verse 8 is saying, "Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not credit [will not put to his account, will not impute to him]."

The Jew may have said that they had salvation through Abraham and Moses. Well, remember, David did too! But even he, the king of Israel--the one with whom God entered into a covenant--was brought to the place where he acknowledged his deep need of justification, of forgiveness, and acceptance by the God against whom he had sinned.

What is identical between Abraham and David is that they are both men in need of the saving activity of God; Abraham as a Gentile, David as a fallen Jew. Paul uses these two men to show the absolute necessity for everyone to be made right with God. God dealt with Abraham from outside of the covenant and David from within. If such pillars of Israel needed to be credited righteous, it would be presumptuous for any Jew to deny his need also.

Before we close this morning, notice what this Psalm tells us about the sin of the one who trusts God: Their sin is forgiven--the word means: to "send away." It has the idea of physical removal from one location to another. When God forgives you, He removes your sins from you as far as the East is from the West.

Their sin is covered--the word means: to "cover so completely that it can never be uncovered again." The passive voice implies that God has covered over the sins so that He sees them no more. The picture behind the word relates to the sprinkling of the blood of a sacrifice by the high priest on the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant on the yearly Day of Atonement. Although the picture is unfamiliar to us, all Jews instinctively understood it. By the sprinkling of the blood, the high priest was unknowingly acting out a picture of the bloody death of Jesus Christ. The message is clear: The blood of Jesus is so powerful that it completely covers all your sins. All means all. If you have trusted Christ, your sins are covered--yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever.

Our sins will not be taken into account--this brings us back to the word logizomai, which means: "to credit to one's account." In this context, it means that once you trust Christ, your sin will never be counted against you. God will not credit your sin to your account. Why? Because your sin is now "credited" to Christ's account and His righteousness is now "credited" to your account.

This removal of sins results in "Blessedness"--what does it mean to be blessed? It doesn't mean that you have plenty of money, or that your health is good, or that all your circumstances are good. It means that all is well between you and God! And the ONLY way that all can be well between you and God is by FAITH ALONE!

Continue the Series

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