Justification by Faith: Two Case Studies (Romans 4:1-12)

March 27, 2022

Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville, Alabama

4 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 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 counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 

Good morning! Please open your Bibles to Romans 4.

One of my favorite movies is Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. It’s the true story of a lifelong con man named Frank Abegnale who, over the course of his career posed as an airline pilot, a medical doctor, a lawyer, and a college professor, all the while passing millions of dollars in fraudulent checks before finally getting caught.

In the movie, Frank idolizes his father, who in the opening scene is making a speech to his Rotary Club after accepting their Businessman of the Year award. His speech is simple. I’ll show you the clip—it’s just about a minute long.

[show clip]

There’s a reason I showed you this clip. This story of the two little mice wasn’t just the story Frank’s dad told himself. It became the story we tell ourselves all the time.

When I was trying to find the clip so I could show you, I actually found another video telling the story. Here’s a couple of screen shots from that video.

[With Great effort the mouse climbed out]

Then, the video gave what it saw as the moral of the story:

[The mouse realized God helps those who help themselves]

A 2000 Barna research poll asked over a thousand people, representing 30 different faiths whether they agreed with the statement: “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.” 75% agreed that it did. [1]  

A 2016 survey conducted by LifeWay research found that three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) say people must contribute their own effort for personal salvation. Half of Americans (52 percent) say good deeds help them earn a spot in heaven.

And while I want to believe that we in the church know better, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve bought into the same myth of the two little mice—that somehow we can paddle and paddle and paddle and paddle until we churn that cream into butter and save ourselves.

Paul was facing the same issue in Romans 4. He’s taken us through the argument that neither Jew nor Gentile is righteous. All are equally under condemnation and judgment.

In other words, every one of us us in the position of these two little mice. That’s Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

But then, there’s 3:24: and are justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

God’s word does not say, “And are justified by their hard work and their perseverance and their commitment to paddle and paddle and paddle and paddle until they can crawl their way out of the hole.

In verse 28, he goes on,

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 

So maybe the Jews at this point were going, “Okay… okay… so GentiIes are justified by faith apart from the Law. But we Jews—we circumcised—we get there through keeping the law, right? We’re the second mouse!

And Paul says, no, no, you’re missing the point. Romans 3:30:

30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

And the Jews are like, no. God gave us the law. Every Jew ever is  righteous because he keeps the law and unrighteous if he doesn’t. He gets circumcised on the eighth day, he doesn’t work on the sabbath, he doesn’t eat bacon, or shrimp. It’s always been that way, it always will be that way. Tradition!

And I imagine there were some people in the church in Rome—remember that this was a church made up of both Jews and Gentiles.

And maybe they had heard all of the theological, doctrinal, academic arguments that Paul had been using in the first three chapters, and maybe they’re saying, “Okay, Paul. We’ve heard your intellectual arguments. But now we want you to prove it. Show us someone who is righteous apart from the law.

And what Paul does next is brilliant. Look at it with me, beginning in Chapter 4, starting in verse 1:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Now, there’s two possibilities of translation with verse 1. The option the ESV and most other translations take is that the phrase “according to the flesh” refers to Abraham—that is, Abraham is the physical ancestor of the Jewish people. However, the word order in the Greek has the phrase “according to the flesh” immediately after the verb that’s translated “gained, or found, or discovered.” Which would mean the verse ˆshould read, “What then, shall we say that Abraham our forefather gained according to the flesh?”

What did Abraham gain by his own efforts, according to the flesh? The answer—nothing! Verse 2: If Abraham was justified by works, by something he did, then he would have something to boast about, but not before God.

Can you imagine Abraham pulling God aside and saying, “Hey, God—I know why you picked me to be the father of the Jews. I mean—who wouldn’t pick me? I am pretty awesome, after all.”

The truth is, Abraham, according to the flesh, would have been the last person God would pick to be the father of a multitude. Why? Because when God chose him, he wasn’t a father at all, much less of a multitude. Abraham wasn’t even his original name. The name Abraham means “Father of Multitudes.” What was his name before God changed it to “Father of Multitudes?” It was Abram—“Exalted Father.”

And for the first 75 years of his life, even that was a joke. Abraham and Sarah had long since given up on the idea that they would have children.

Until one night, God appears to Abram in a vision. This is in Genesis 15, if you want to turn there.

God tells Abram in verse 1,

“Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 

And Abram pushes back on him. He basically says, God, ever since Genesis 12:2 you’ve been telling me you’re going to bless me and make me a great nation. You told me that my descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16). Now here we are, decades later, and I still don’t have any kids.

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue[a] childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son[b] shall be your heir.” 

That’s when God takes him outside to look at the stars.

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Now let’s zero in on verse 6, because this is the whole reason Paul brings up Abraham. Abraham believed God—he placed his faith in the fact that God would do what He said he would do.

By the way, you know what that word “believed” is in Hebrew? This is on the back of your listening guide. The word in Hebrew is “Ah-mahn.” Yeah—its where we get our word “Amen.” And it means “confirm, support, uphold, be established, be certain of.”

Abraham “amened” God. He said, Ok. I’m going to be certain of what you are telling me. I don’t understand it; it doesn’t make sense to me; it surely isn’t going to happen by anything I am able to do according to the flesh, but so be it, God!

And look what happens: Abraham “amened” God, and God counted it as righteousness.

The word counted is anaccounting term, meaning to confer a status that wasn’t there before. Your translation might say reckoned, considered, imputed, computed. It all means the same thing. Abraham wasn’t considered righteous before, and now he was.

Why? Because he kept the law? No. What book of the Bible is the story of Abraham found in? Genesis.

What books of the Bible contain the law? Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy.

Abraham was considered righteous BEFORE THE LAW WAS GIVEN!

And just in case there were any slow learners in Paul’s audience, Paul also reminds them in verse 10 that this was before circumcision was given.

Beloved, don’t miss this: Abraham was counted righteous not because he kept the law. The law wasn’t given yet. He wasn’t counted righteous because he was circumcised. That wouldn’t come for another 25 years.

When he was 99 years old. Which, wow. I don’t even want to think about that.

So why did God choose Abram in the first place? We don’t know. There is nothing in Genesis 12 that suggests there was anything special about Abram when God called him to leave his home. Only that God called him, and Abram answered.

And this is the gospel. God has chosen to pour out his grace on you. Not because you deserve it, not because you’ve always tried to live a good life, but because He chooses to. It’s not about your obedience to His law. It’s not because you paddled and paddled and paddled until you could make enough butter to stand on.

But God sent His son Jesus, who kept the law perfectly. Jesus shed His blood for us, and Romans 3:24 says that we are justified by his grace as a gift.

It is a gift. Verse 4—Justification is not the wages we earn through hard work.

Notice verse 5:

And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 

Notice that word “ungodly.” It isn’t that God gives grace to people who try to be good. God gives grace to people who know they’ve been bad.

See, Paul doesn’t stop with just one example from Jewish history. He doesn’t just hold up Abraham. He goes on to quote David. David, the greatest king in Israel’s history. The one who was described as a man after God’s own heart.

Look at verses 6-7

just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts 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.”

Here Paul is quoting Psalm 32, which most scholars believe David wrote after he committed adultery with Bathsheba.

David broke three of the ten commandments in this episode. He coveted another man’s wife—the Tenth commandment. He committed adultery with her—the Seventh commandment. And he murdered her husband to cover it up—the Sixth commandment.

David deserved death. Unlike Abraham, he had the law. And he broke it. But when he confessed his sin, God did not count his sin against him.

This is the gospel. When we say yes to God—when we say Amen and believe that God will do what He says He will do, God pronounces us righteous. Not because of the good that we’ve done. And in spite of the bad we have done.

We are justified by grace through faith. Period.

So here is where we bring this to a close. There is only one thing that can be on the resume of a follower of Jesus.

When you ask people if they follow Jesus, they give you their resume. I go to church. My parents took me to church. I try to be a good person. Blah, blah, blah.

Romans 4:16 tells us the only thing that can be on the resume of a child of God:

16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 

Can you imagine what a miserable place heaven would be if people got there by their good works? For all eternity you would have to hear people bragging about how they got there because of such and such, or my mansion is so big because I did this for God.

You know what it would be like? It would be like sitting around with a bunch of old out of shape fat guys who played high school football, and they’re all talking about their glory days.

“Remember that tackle I made against Stanhope?”

“I could throw this football over them mountains.”

For ten thousand years.

You know what it going to make heaven so amazing? It’s that every single person who’s there is going to say, “I’m here because of the grace of God.”

From the apostle Paul to the thief on the cross, everyone is going to have the same answer. From Billy Graham to Billy Carter. From Abraham to David to you and me.

My salvation rests on grace, through faith. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.


[1] “You May Swear on the Bible, but It’s Not in the Bible.” https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-sep-11-cl-18991-story.html#:~:text=Yet%20when%20asked%20to%20comment,the%201%2C002%20survey%20respondents%20agreed.

Author: James

I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.

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