Illustrating the Doctrine of Justification by Faith – Romans 4:1-8

Why Romans 4 is important

As we enter into a new chapter, we note that the subject has not changed.  The apostle is continuing with the theme of justification, although now his concern is to do what he has already hinted at (at 3:21 for example) – to ground the exposition of the doctrine explicitly in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  He now points to Abraham the father of the Jewish nation and David the greatest of all the Jewish kings as examples of men who were justified by faith apart from works. The reason for adducing their examples is obvious.  If the father of the Jewish people and the “friend of God” par excellence (Jam. 2:23; Isa. 41:8) was justified by faith then would it not follow that all who follow in his footsteps are also justified by faith?  And if King David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), was also justified by faith, then why should we think that there is any other way of becoming right with God?

But there are other reasons why I think the apostle is staying on this topic.  As we have already pointed out, this is a very central doctrine and the key to the entire epistle and the gospel.  It should have the same place in the church today – Luther called it the article of the standing or falling church.  And it should have the same place in our lives.  If Paul spends eight chapters in his definitive exposition of the gospel stating, defending, and drawing out the implications of justification by faith alone, then we need to understand the reasons why he placed such great emphasis on it.  So let me give you three reasons why I believe Paul placed this great emphasis upon this doctrine.

The glory of God is at stake

First, he did so because the glory of God is at stake.  We saw that in our last study in Romans 3:27-28.  There, Paul writes, “Then what becomes of our boasting?  It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  By a law of works?  No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”  In this chapter, he picks up the theme again in verse 2: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”  And then in verse 20, he describes Abraham’s faith in this way: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.”  You see that emphasis throughout.  Paul is concerned that boasting is excluded and that the glory is given to God.  According to Paul, this happens when people are justified by faith and not by works.  Those who are justified by faith do not cling to their righteousness but to the righteousness of God, and therefore have nothing to boast about. 

Thus this doctrine is important because it is inextricably connected to the glory of God which is the most important thing in the universe.  All that exists, exists in order to show the glory of God.  Every spiritual blessing which we receive is given in order to demonstrate the glory of God.  And our enjoyment of every blessing depends on this fact of the glory of God, for every blessing is in some sense a partaking of God’s glory (cf. John 17; Eph. 3:10; Rom. 5:1-2).

So, in other words, justification by faith alone was not important to Paul primarily because he was in love with the doctrine but because he was in love with the God of the doctrine.  Paul longed to see the glory and honor of God displayed.  So, if the doctrine of justification by faith is boring to us, we need to ask ourselves whether we in fact care about the glory of God.  In any case, we need to ask ourselves how much of a role this motive plays in our hearts when it comes to defending this truth.  Do we defend it because we want others to see how clever we are, or do we defend it because we want others to see how great God is?

The true happiness of man is at stake

Another reason this truth is so important is because the way of justification by faith alone is the only way men and women can become reconciled to God, and therefore it is the only way to true blessedness.  The apostle sounds this note in verses 6-8 where we read three times the word “blessed” or “happy.” 

“David,” the apostle explains, “also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” (6). In the Psalm that he is quoting, David portrays his condition when he still had unconfessed sin in his life: “Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.  For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:2-4).  That is, unconfessed sin had an effect even upon his physical body.  Though it is not always the case, yet sometimes symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and fear can have their root problem in sin that has been hidden.  In such cases, confession is the way out: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (5).  David knew that his good works did not counterbalance his wrong deeds.  The only way to freedom from guilt and despair is to confess the sin or sins to the Lord and to fall on his mercy and free forgiveness.  Grace is the foundation of blessing.

But there is more to the blessing of free justification than a good conscience now.  Paul was happy because he had his eye on the future.  In chapter 5, he tells us why the Christian can rejoice: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (5:1-2).  We can rejoice because, as justified people, we are at peace with God and therefore have access to him through Christ.  This access is also the guarantee that one day we shall have complete access to God when we partake and see the glory of God in the eternal state.  This was what the Puritans called the Beatific Vision and it is what made Paul rejoice.  But again, this blessed rests upon the foundation of justification by faith alone.  So it is essential.

The foundation of sanctification is at stake

There is yet another reason that might not be so apparent at first.  The holiness of the Christian depends upon justification by faith.  There are two ways you can approach this doctrine.  You can approach it as a sinner who wants to be free from the burden of sin or you can approach it as a slave to sin who only wants another excuse for his sin.  For those who come to it in the latter way, Paul has stern words: “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:1-2).  Those who twist this doctrine into an excuse for their sin, wrest it, as Peter says, to their own destruction.

Rather, those who truly believe that God justifies those who trust in Jesus alone ought to be holy persons.  Notice that Paul says this in Romans 6:7, “For one who has died has been set free [justified] from sin.”  If you are dead to sin, it is because you have already been justified.  Why is this?

The reason lies in the fact that we cannot live in relation to God apart from being reconciled to him; and this happens only when we are justified.  Further, the life of sanctification must be lived in the attitude of dependence and trust upon God.  This is because “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jam. 4:6).  Believing that your works are the reason God accepts you does not lead you to trust in God; instead it will lead to self-dependence and arrogance and pride.  That is why it is so crucial to believe in Jesus alone for your standing before God.  That alone leads to humble trust, and to those who have such an attitude, God gives his Spirit and grace.

That was Paul’ whole argument in the latter part of his epistle to the Galatians.  He had established the true doctrine of justification over again the Judaizers who wanted to bring in the observance of the law as something essential to salvation.  But then he administered the fatal blow to their position by undermining their main objection to the grace of God by noting that sanctification only comes through the Spirit and the Spirit is given to those who believe.  Paul’s whole argument is that only those who believe the true doctrine will live holy lives.

What does Paul mean by “faith counted as righteousness”?

Let’s now look at the text.  First of all, let’s notice that Paul has introduced some new terms into the discussion but he is still talking about justification by faith.  Because in verse 2 he says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”  And in verse 5 he writes, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, he faith is counted as righteousness.”

But the new term he introduces is the word “counts” which is also translated by the words “impute” and “reckon” in the KJV.  He uses the term 11 times in this chapter.  It is obviously important to Paul as he explicates the doctrine in term of the example of Abraham.  What does he mean by this?

We do know one thing.  It is clearly another way of saying that we are justified by faith.  The connection with the previous chapter demands this.  Paul had there given that magnificent statement of the doctrine.  Now he defends it from the OT from the fact that Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness.  This argument does not make any sense unless counting faith for righteousness and justification by faith are basically the same thing.

Now then, what does the apostle mean?  Some have tried to make the case that when Paul says that faith is imputed as righteousness, he is equating faith with the righteousness.  So then what Paul is saying is that our faith is what makes us righteous.  

I don’t think that is the correct interpretation.  Rather, what Paul means when he says that faith is counted as righteousness is that when a person trusts in Jesus as Lord and Savior, God looks at that person as also being righteous because of what Christ has done for them.  When we say that God imputes righteousness, what we mean is that God puts it to the believer’s account (the terms carries both legal and monetary connotations), so that he considers the believer in Christ as possessing the righteousness of God.  That he counts faith as righteousness simply means that this transfer happens when we believe in Jesus.

Let me give you four reasons why I believe this is the correct interpretation over against the idea that faith itself is the righteousness.

First of all, the instrumental role of faith in our justification demands it.  We have already noted that this chapter is an extension of the argument begun in chapter 3 and that Paul is now defending what he had previously defined.  In chapter 3, Paul says that we are justified by faith, that we become partakers of the righteousness of God by faith.  There faith is obviously instrumental.  It is through (not on account of) faith as a means that we become right before God (see 3:22, 25).

Second, the righteousness that is imputed, counted, and reckoned to us is specifically called the righteousness of God (3:21,22).  How you can call faith the righteousness of God is beyond me.  So when the apostle says that faith is counted as righteousness he must mean not that faith is the righteousness but that it is the means by which this righteousness is appropriated.

Note what Paul says in 10:10: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (KJV).  The righteousness is the same as that mentioned in verse 6, “the righteousness of faith” (KJV) which is also the same righteousness in verse 3, “the righteousness of God.”  So, in some sense, righteousness which is imputed is both a faith-righteousness and a God-righteousness.  But it is not a faith-righteousness in the same sense that it is a God-righteousness.  For, as Paul says, man believes unto righteousness; similarly, man confesses unto salvation.  Just as confession is not salvation, but leads to it, even so faith is not righteousness but leads to it.  The righteousness of justification is the righteousness of God in the sense that God is the origin of it; it is the righteousness of faith in the sense that it is through faith in Christ that we become the possessors of it.[1]

Third, if faith were our righteousness, this would make a work out of faith.  For then we would be able to boast in our faith as the reason for which we were saved.  But this makes nonsense out of all the texts that contrast faith and works and say that we are saved by grace.  On the other hand, if faith is simply the hand by which we receive God’s righteousness, then faith is no longer a ground of boasting.

Fourth, though Paul never explicitly says it, I think we are justified in saying that the righteousness of God which we receive is not our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ.  As John Stott argues, “on at least three occasions Paul comes so close to this picture [being clothed in Christ’s righteousness] that I for one believe it is biblically permissible to use it.”[2]  He then goes on to point to 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Cor. 1:30, and Phil. 3:9.  In 2 Cor. 5:21, the apostle says that God made Christ to be sin for us so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.  In 1 Cor. 1:30 he says that Christ is made for us (among other things) righteousness.  And in Phil. 3:9, Paul writes that he wants to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  It is a righteousness that comes to us, not one that emanates from us.  And it comes to us in a way that it is inextricably tied to Christ and what he has done for us, and therefore is justly called the righteousness of Christ.

To recap, when Paul says that faith is counted as righteousness, he means that when God imputes faith as righteousness, he means that we are justified by faith in Christ and that it is on the basis of what Christ has done for us that we receive, not our own, but the righteousness of God.  

Perhaps an illustration might help us grasp this concept. Remember Onesimus, the slave of Philemon?  He had run away from his master, evidently after having stolen some money from him, and had come to Rome.  But as God’s providence would have it, he met Paul and became a converted man.  Paul sent him back to Philemon with a letter and in it Paul asks him to forgive Onesimus.  In the course of the letter, Paul brings up the matter of stolen property and writes on the behalf of Onesimus, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge[3] that to my account.  I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it” (Philem. 18-19).  This is what we mean by imputation.  It means God putting the righteousness of God to your account when you believe because Jesus has already paid the price with his blood.

Let’s see now how the apostle develops this thought in the first eight verses.


In these verses Paul demonstrates the compatibility of the OT with his teaching that sinners are justified by faith alone, apart from works.  He appeals therefore to Abraham the greatest patriarch of all.  Beginning in verse 1[4], he asks, “What then shall we say was gained[5] by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?”  In other words, how did Abraham find favor in the eyes of God?  Many of Paul’s contemporaries would have pointed to Abraham’s obedience as the key reason he found favor with God.  The apostle takes up this premise in verse 2, when he writes, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”

What is Paul saying here?  He is explicitly denying that Abraham had anything to boast about and therefore he could not be justified by his works.  He supports this with the following verse.  Verse 3 says, “For what does the Scripture say?  ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’”  Gen. 15:6, which the apostle quotes here, makes it clear that it was the patriarch’s faith, not his works, that was imputed to him as righteousness.  Remember that the apostle is illustrating the principle of 3:27-28 with the example of Abraham.  Surely if anyone had a reason to boast in their obedience, it was Abraham.  But not even Abraham could boast for he had no works sufficient for his justification before God.  Even he had to be justified by faith apart from works.

In verse 4, the apostle shows why it is that counting faith for righteousness (as opposed to justification by works) is the only way to exclude boasting.  Verse 4 says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”  In other words, if you work to earn a wage, then when that wage or reward is given to you, you can rightfully say, “I earned this.”  Salvation then is not a matter of grace, but becomes a matter of debt and a ground for boasting.

Verse 5 gives the other side of the coin: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”  Here the apostle unpacks for us what he means by having faith counted as righteousness – or, alternatively, what he means by justification by faith alone.  The people for whom this is true are described negatively and positively.  Negatively in the words “the one who does not work” and positively in the words “believes in him who justifies the ungodly.”  Now there are three things in this verse that point to the fact that we are justified by faith alone, wholly apart from works.

First in the words, “to the one who does not work.”  This makes it clear that works have no part in our justification.  Justification is not a process of moral change that makes us fit for the kingdom of heaven.  Justification happens in an instant, at the very beginning of the Christian’s life, so that there is no time to clean up our act.  Good works are necessary, but they do not provide the foundation of one’s relationship with God.  Justified people work from a right standing with God, not in order to get a right standing with God.

Second, in the words, “but believes in him who justifies the ungodly.”  The word “ungodly” is very important here.  Not only do our works never come into consideration in the matter of our justification, the people who are justified are described as ungodly.  Or, to put it another way, though our good works do not come into consideration, our bad works do.  How can this be?  How can God justify such people?  The reason is because “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).  This also means that our faith cannot be considered as a good work.  Though we are justified by faith, though faith is counted for righteousness, yet even in the act of faith, we are still considered “ungodly.”  Faith is not the righteousness imputed and adds nothing to it.  

Finally, in the words, “his faith is counted as righteousness.”  As John Piper has noted, this does not say anything about the works springing from faith, but simply says that faith itself is counted as righteousness.  We are justified by faith alone.  God imputes the righteousness of his Son to those who, leaving the rags of their self-righteousness behind, cling in faith-dependence upon Jesus.

In verses 6-8, the apostle buttresses his account by appealing to the experience of King David.  Notice that here the imputation of righteousness is parallel with the non-imputation of sin.  Though justification is not only the forgiveness of sins (as some unfortunately reduce it to), yet it does necessarily involve it.  There is no acceptance with God apart from the forgiveness of our sins, purely by grace and apart from works.  There is a double act in our justification: the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness, the erasing of our debt and the addition of a positive balance to our account, the righteousness of God.  Truly such people are blessed.


I don’t know where you stand this morning, how you are burdened with sin – whether with the guilt of sin or with power of sin or both.  Or maybe you don’t care about sin at all.  But regardless of where you fall, this text has something to say to people in each of these categories.  

To those of you who are burdened with the guilt of your sins and failures: you know you are a sinner before God and that God is righteous and you don’t know how in the world God cold accept you and forgive you.  This text tells you how this can happen.  For those who do not work but who believe in the one who justifies the ungodly, as ungodly, they are given a righteousness that gives them peace with God and access into his presence.

To those of you who are struggling with sin’s dominance in your life, remember that God imparts his Spirit not on the basis of works but on the basis of grace.  The foundation of your sanctification is your justification.  The temptation is to think that because we have failed therefore there is no hope, and then to give up fighting sin.  But God is not waiting to strike you down or strike you off because you have failed – if you are in Christ your standing with him is not in jeopardy.  So keep fighting your sins, not out of fear but out of your security in the gracious love of your Father who accepts you completely in Jesus Christ.

To those of you who do not care – what can we say?  You do not care about your own soul.  You are among those whom Paul describes in Romans 10 – “being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”  They needed to be saved, and so do you.  Unless you are willing to submit yourself to the righteousness of God by faith in Christ, you are lost.  Awake sinner, and come to Christ!

May God bless these words to each of us.  Amen.

[1] See John Murray, Romans (NICNT), p. 359.
[2] John Stott, Romans (BST), p. 128.
[3] The word ellogeo is synonymous with logizomai.
[4] Again, I want to point out that in my own exposition of this text, I am indebted to John Piper’s exposition of it.
[5] “Gained” in the Greek: “The dominant thought in this usage is that of being granted a favored standing before someone who has the power to withhold or bestow the favor he chooses.” From The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, p. 323.


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