God's Word For You is a free Bible Study site committed to bringing you studies firmly grounded in the Bible – the Word of God. Holding a reformed, conservative, evangelical perspective this site affirms that God has provided in Jesus Christ his eternal Son, a way of salvation in which we can live in his presence guilt free, acquitted and at peace.



Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002


[In this chapter, note that 'justified' (1), 'blessedness' (9), and 'received the promise' (13), are three different ways of expressing the one truth. They are not three different things.]

Paul anticipates that his Jewish Christian readers will raise the question of Abraham, the great ancestor from whom their nation was descended, and to whom God gave his promises.

[1] Was Abraham justified (put right with God) by works? (That is, by something he did?) (4:1-8)

In response to this question Paul discusses the difference between justification by works (performance) and justification by faith:

Justification by works (performance)
Justification by faith

Something to boast about

Is an obligation

Only the perfect are justified

Sin is held against you

Nothing to boast about


The wicked are justified

Sin is forgiven

Sin is covered

Sin is never counted against you

The first difference is about the right to boast (4:2). We have already addressed this in Studies 6 and 8. The second difference concerns obligation (4:4): if we think that we are justified by our own performance then we believe that God owes us a not guilty verdict, that he must credit our goodness to our account, and accept us because of it; but if we are justified by faith, it is quite obvious that it is a gift, that God does not owe us anything, that he is not obligated to acquit us because we are good. The third difference is that if justification is by works, then only the perfect are justified, whereas, if justification is by faith, the wicked are justified (4:5). The fourth difference is that those who relate to God on the basis of their works have their sin held against them, while for those who are justified by faith sin is forgiven, covered and never counted against them (4:6-8).

How sharply this cuts across our natural human perceptions and the perceptions of all religious teaching outside of the Gospel! Who is this 'God who justifies the wicked It is the Father of Jesus Christ who, from the foundation of the earth had willed and planned his sacrificial death for the wicked ' for you and me. What is this 'blessedness' of which Paul and David speak, in which sin is not counted against us? It is the blessing of gospel righteousness which is credited to us apart from our works.

Did you notice that four times Paul uses the verb 'credit', three times in relation to 'righteousness', and once in relation to wages. The topic of discussion is 'righteousness', that is, justification by faith.' At this point we need to realize the significance of this word 'credit'. Paul uses it deliberately, because there is a difference between 'credited' or imputed righteousness and imparted righteousness. Imparted righteousness, which teaches that when I am justified I am made in myselfacceptable to God, is not Biblical. Imputed righteousness, which teaches that when I am justified I am counted or reckoned to be acceptable to God, is Biblical.The righteousness of Christ is credited to the one who believes in Christ, so that the believer is, as the Reformers pointed out, at the one time justified and a sinner. This is very obvious in the quote Paul gave us from Psalm 32:1,2. Transgressions are there, but they are forgiven. Sin is there, but it is covered. Sin is there, but it will never be held against the person who is justified by faith. When a person believes in Christ the righteousness of Christ is credited to him/her, but he/she remains a sinner who sins. Failure to understand this important point has caused many Christians to live their whole lives under an unbearable burden of guilt and despair, and many potential Christians to be turned away by what seem to be empty promises and hypocrisy, but are really misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the truth.

This truth, that God 'justifies the wicked' - those without any 'works' to merit acquittal or acceptance, is, to the religious human mind, offensive and radical in the extreme. We must not allow that offence and that radical nature to be diminished. As soon as we do we have lost the truth of the gospel and we have reduced the cross to insignificance.

[2] Was Abraham justified (put right with God) by circumcision? (That is, by something done to him?) (4:9-12)

Addressing head on the perceived significance of the ritual of circumcision Paul points out that God's affirmation that Abraham was justified by faith came before his instruction to Abraham to be circumcised. Rather than being the meriting cause of his justification, circumcision was a sign given to affirm an already existing positive relationship with God which was on the basis of faith. It is faith, not circumcision, which identifies a person as a child of Abraham. Whether they are circumcised or not circumcised is irrelevant. [Refer back to the notes on Romans 2:25-29].

[3] Was Abraham justified by the law? (4:13-25) Compare Galatians 3.

Paul points out to anyone who wants to relate to God on the principle of law that under this operating principle faith has no value and God's promise is worthless (4:14). Law, he says, brings wrath (4:15), as he has taught us at length in 1:18-3:20. In addition, Galatians 3:10-12 teaches us that if we relate to God under the operating principle of law we are under a curse, because 'cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law'. The principle of law demands 100% obedience to 100% of the law 100% of the time. If we want to live by law that is what we have to do.

Under the principle of faith, by contrast, righteousness is by God's promise (4:13-16), is by grace (4:16), and is irrespective of law (4:16). Because it is unrelated to our performance of law it is guaranteed (4:16) to all who have faith. [Don't make the mistake of letting that word slip past: 'Guaranteed' (NIV & GNB), 'sure' (KJV), 'valid' (NEB), 'certain' (NASV), translate the Greek bebaian. Technically, the word denotes 'legally guaranteed security' (James Dunn). Its implications are far reaching. It stands as a heavy indictment against a vast amount of what is perceived to be Christian teaching and writing, and it stands as an anchor to which those who are victims of such teaching can cling.] Here under this operating principle righteousness is credited, not on the basis of works/law, but on the basis of faith (4:22-24; Galatians 3:6).

For your study: From your reading of Romans 4 and Galatians 3:1-14 create two contrasting lists: one of what is true under the Principle of Law, the other of what is true under the Principle of Faith. Discuss the foolishness of believers continuing to relate to God under the Principle of Law. See the Appendix at the end of these Studies.

[4] What did Abraham believe? (Romans 4:17-21)

It is important that we understand that the gift of imputed righteousness was not the focus of Abraham's faith: it was granted after Abraham believed, and was granted on the basis of Abraham's faith (read Genesis 15:6). He wasn't declared righteous because he believed he was declared righteous. He believed 'in God' (4:17), or, as Genesis puts it, 'he believed the Lord'. Which God did he believe in? 'the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as thought they were' (4:17). Irrespective of how impossible and incredible the word of God seemed, Abraham believed 'that God had the power to do what he promised' (4:21). The focus of his faith was not in his acquittal, but in God. The declaration of righteousness was made because Abraham believed God; it is only after that declaration of justification is given by God, that Abraham also believes that declaration.

So with us. We are saved (justified, declared righteous, redeemed, etc) through, because of, by, our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that God gives us, along with Christ, justification. It is only after God thus declares that he has acquitted us that we know and believe also this, that we are justified.

In other words: we are not saved by believing in salvation. We are saved because we believe in Jesus Christ. Paul draws attention to this in verses 23 and 24: 'This is why 'it was credited to him' were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness ' for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.' Here mentions the resurrection, as he did in 1:4, as he will in chapter 6 at length, and as he will in identifying the criteria for salvation in chapter 10. If we do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we do not believe in the Biblical Jesus, and we do not know God. Like Abraham, who believed that God could bring life out of the lifeless womb of Sarah, so the Christian believes that God brought life out of the lifeless tomb of Jesus Christ, validating all of Christ's claims to be the eternal, life-giving Son of God, whom to know is knowing God, whom to see is seeing God. In other words: Christian faith, like the faith of Abraham, because of which righteousness was credited to him, is faith in the true God: Jesus Christ.

For your study: To fill out your understanding of the faith of Abraham study Galatians 3:6-4:31; Hebrews 11:8-19; John 8:56-58, and James 2:20-26 (where James prohibits us from thinking that faith is merely mental assent; true faith, James teaches us, involves commitment and trust).