Romans Chapter 4 Commentary – Justified Through Faith

In this commentary of Romans chapter 4, we will see that the righteousness that leads to eternal life is separate from keeping the law. As in the case of Abraham, righteousness is given through faith, not earned through works. It is a free gift of God.

The Main Message of Romans Chapter 4

The apostle Paul had just spent the first 3 chapters of Romans discussing how all people, Jews and Gentiles, are guilty before God, and that we will all be rightly judged by God.

Now, in Romans chapter 4, Paul explains how a person is justified in the presence of God. He uses the example of Abraham to show how justification is through faith in Christ; not by keeping the laws of the Jewish community.

Let’s walk through a summary of Romans 4 verse by verse.

Romans 4:1-12 – Abraham Justified by Faith

The apostle Paul continues this chapter with one more predictive question, he spent the last chapter answering questions that he thought may arise in the minds of the Jewish community based on what he said about the law.

Verse 1 

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?

So why does he bring up Abraham? In order to gain a correct understanding of the point Paul is making here we have to go back to Genesis and look at God’s promise to Abraham. Let’s start in Genesis 15. So this chapter we see God make a covenant with Abraham (or Abram). 

5 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 credited it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:5-6

This is the passage we see Paul quote in Romans 4. If we keep going through Genesis in chapter 16, we see Abram and Sarai waver in their fatih. 

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not borne him a child, but she had an Egyptian slave woman whose name was Hagar. 2 So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please have relations with my slave woman; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. – Genesis 16:1-2

Abram sleeps with Sarai’s maid (with her consent, I might add) and the result is a son, Ishmael. Isaac isn’t born until much later. Isaac is the son of Abraham and Sarah it is through him that the promise is extended to. So as you can imagine this tension between Isaac and Ishmael caused a lot of drama, not just for their own family but it caused conflict that still exists today. Much of the turmoil we see over in the middle east comes straight back to this relationship.

Then, in Genesis 17 we see God renew his promise to Abraham. Then, he gives him the sign of circumcision. I would encourage you to take the time to read this full chapter on your own.

The lesson for us in this story is that our disobedience does not nullify the promise of God. God’s promises are solemn and binding. God’s Word is unchanging.

Ok, so let’s keep going.

Verses 2-3

Romans chapter 4:3

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

I read one commentator say Abraham was like the George Washington to this Jewish community. He was the recipiant of God’s covenant promise and the father and founder of many of their religious practices and traditions. So, Paul is saying that if anyone had anything to boast about it would have been Abraham.

But, not even Abraham was justified by his own human effort. Here is Paul referring back to God’s promise in Genesis. Remember, Abraham was counted as righteousness by his faith in chapter 15. 

Verses 4-6 

Now to the one who works, the wages are not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,

    and whose sins are covered;

blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

The first thing we should notice here is the phrase “Him who justifies the ungodly”. This phrase is referring to all of us. Paul just spent the last, almost, two chapters explaining how all are guilty before God. The law of Moses was not and is not capable of making us righteous before God. 

Also, this passage presents two different options for how one may attain righteousness. Either it’s something that we earn (which we’ve already seen in the past two chapter isn’t possible), or it’s something that is given to us as a gift. 

Righteousness is given through faith, not earned through good works.

Even king David announced that the blessing that is given through faith is better than any blessing that came from the law. The law and the sacrificial system only offered a temporary cleansing.  Faith in Christ offers eternal atonement; eternal forgiveness of our sins.

Romans 4:9-10

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Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised…

We have already determined that Abraham was counted righteous before receiving circumcision. Paul also wants to make it clear that this righteousness through faith is available to the Gentiles also. He didn’t want the Jewish community to think his reference to Abraham meant that only Jews could receive this righteousness.

Verses 11-12

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, 12 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.

While circumcision itself is not the source of Abraham’s righteousness, it was was given as a sign and a seal. Let’s talk about these two things; sign and seal.

First of all, circumcision was given as an outward sign that he had been justified by faith. Think of a wedding ring. It’s a sign that you married; it doesn’t make you married. 

Circumcision was meant to signify that a person belonged to God.

Paul also refers to circumcision as a seal. The original greek word for seal means “a signet (as fencing in or protecting from misappropriation); by implication, the stamp impressed (as a mark of privacy, or genuineness).

A sign points to the existence of what it signifies. A seal authenticates, confirms, certifies, and guarantees the genuineness of what is signified.

It’s actually the same root word that Paul uses in Ephesians to describe the seal of the Holy Spirit.

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit – Ephesians 1:13

Free Bible Study Guide of Ephesians

Paul will go into this idea more when we get to chapter 8 and he discusses life in the Spirit. For now, we can glean from what we have read thus far that the Holy Spirit is God’s mark of ownership on our lives. Once a person places genuine faith in Christ, they are sealed with the Spirit. Again, circumcision was a sign of the righteousness through faith back in the Old Testament, but it also points forward towards the future seal of the Spirit.

Romans 4:13-25 The Promise Realized Through Faith

This final section in Romans chapter 4 shows us how Abraham took hold of the promise of God through faith.

Verses 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. 14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, then faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

This passage reinforces the concept that the giving of the Law does not nullify the promises of God. The law was added after the promise was given to reveal sin. With the law came conditions. God promised blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. The blessing of Abraham is separate from the blessings that came through obedience to the law. 

Plus, it didn’t take long before the Israelites learned that they could not keep the law. Remember, the law was designed to point towards the need for a new and better way to obtain righteousness. The law couldn’t get the job done.

There’s a passage in Galatians 3 that helps us understand these ideas.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as one would in referring to many, but rather as in referring to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 17 What I am saying is this: the Law, which came 430 years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. – Galatians 3:16-18, 29

The promise to Abraham for descendants and a blessing is separate from the conditions and works of the law.

Verses 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 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, 17 (as it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist.

The promise God gave Abraham had short and long-term fulfillments. God promised Abraham that he would become a great nation. These descendants would come from a son that God would give him and Sarah in their old age.

But, we also see that God’s promise was two-fold. Abraham’s descendants are not merely flesh and blood, but also those who place faith in Christ.

As true believers, we are among the children of Abraham through faith in promises and word of God.

Romans 4:18-19

18 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.” 19 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; 

I could sit and camp out with this passage forever.

In hope against hope he believed. Does that resonate with you at all? Are there any circumstances in your life that feel hopeless? Like there is no possible way anything good can come of it? 

This is how Abraham could have felt about God’s promise to give him a child. It seemed hopeless.

Yet what does it say he did? He did not allow his circumstances to weaken his faith.

Verses 20-21

Romans 4:20-21

20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.

Abraham did not waver in unbelief about the power of God.

There are things in life that are worth wavering in faith over. 

My car will not die.

My boss will give me that raise.

My children will not fight today.

However, we can be fully confident in the promises of God. I love this New Testament passage in Hebrews:

For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear an oath by no one greater, He swore by Himself, 14 saying, “indeed I will greatly bless you and I will greatly multiply you.” 15 And so, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise. 16 For people swear an oath by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath serving as confirmation is an end of every dispute. 17 In the same way God, desiring even more to demonstrate to the heirs of the promise the fact that His purpose is unchangeable, confirmed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to hold firmly to the hope set before us. 19 This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and reliable – Hebrews 6:13-19

Free Bible Study Guide of Hebrews

Paul’s point here is that God’s promises do not change. He will not go back on His Word. Abraham’s faith made him fully confident that God was able and willing to carry out His promise to Him. We can place our full confidence in the faithfulness and righteousness of God.

Let’s keep going in the following verse.

Verses 22-25

Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. 23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our wrongdoings, and was raised because of our justification.

Abraham’s justification through faith was not just for his sake. It was to show the wisdom, kindness, and glory of God. God’s eternal plan has always been justification through faith. We are brought into a right relationship with God through believing. This example of Abraham is one piece in the beautiful tapestry of God’s plan for salvation through Christ Jesus.

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