I used to say that a challenge in our culture for people accepting the Gospel message of God’s extravagant grace was the American work ethic that you’ve got to earn everything that you get. But now, with the rise of a substantial entitlement society, it is not like there is a commensurate rise in people taking hold of the freely offered Gospel. Probably the associated ideas of righteous living and yielding one’s life to a control outside of self are concepts equally difficult for both extremes!
Let me help you through this passage today, as it is not as difficult as it at first may appear. As with many Scriptures, it is helpful if you understand what came immediately before what you are reading. The final portion of chapter 3 (verses 21-31) says that in Christ there is a salvation from sin that is a righteousness (the thing we need) obtained through faith (the way it has actually always been). But Paul anticipates some objections that might be made by Jewish people in regard to valued elements from their revered history. They might ask, “Well what about stuff like good works, circumcision, and the Law – aren’t these things good for something? And aren’t they really important to something like SALVATION? Hmm?”
So Paul begins to answer this anticipated objection by saying, “Let’s look at Abraham.” Hey, if there is anyone who should be OK with God by some means other than faith, surely it is this incredible guy. But Paul will shoot down their objections 1-2-3 … refuting that Abraham got any merit for salvation from (first) the doing of good works (verses 1-8), secondly circumcision (verses 9-12), and thirdly the Law (verses 13-15).
Paul blows up the idea of works by pointing to the moment of salvation for Abraham in Genesis 15 where the Scripture says that he believed God – not that he DID ANYTHING! – and that faith was what gave him righteous credit. And David is quoted as affirming the same principle.
Then, regarding circumcision – a subject I hate preaching about, but which was a big deal to the Jewish people – Paul points out that Abraham was credited (with imputed righteousness) BEFORE the rite of circumcision was given – like, 14 years before, to be exact. So that didn’t earn him any merit.
And finally, regarding the Law – again a big, big deal to the Jews. Well, it gets even sillier to believe that this contributes to salvation, because the Law would not be given to Moses until about 430 years after the time of Abraham’s faith. For example, that is a longer span of time than it has been to when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth or the King James Bible was authorized! Beyond that, we have already written in this series that the Law brought condemnation, not grace.
Christ has done the work for us on the cross. Our part is to receive the gift in faith. This righteousness is imputed to our account, and we have justification – we are declared righteous. And we don’t earn it.
Romans 4:1-15 – Abraham Justified by Faith
4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
8 Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.