(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 12/30/01 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Let's read Romans 3:21 through 4:8. I'm reading from the newly-released fourth edition of the Literal Translation of the Bible, otherwise known as the LITV:
Romans 3: (21) But now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (22) even the righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ toward all and upon all those believing; for there is no difference, (23) for all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, (25) whom God set forth [as] a propitiation through faith in His blood, as a demonstration of His righteousness through the passing over of the sins that had taken place before, in the forbearance of God, (26) for a demonstration of His righteousness in the present time, for His being just and justifying the [one] that [is] of the faith of Jesus. (27) Then where [is] the boasting? It was excluded. Through what law? Of works? No, but through a Law of faith. (28) Then we conclude a man to be justified by faith without works of Law. (29) Or [is He] the God of Jews only, and not also of the nations? Yes, of the nations also, (30) since [it is] one God who will justify circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. (31) Then [is] the Law annulled through faith? Let it not be! But we establish Law. (4:1) What then shall we say our father Abraham to have found according to flesh? (2) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast, but not with God. (3) For what does the Scripture say? "And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness." (4) Now [to one] working, the reward is not counted according to grace, but according to debt. (5) But to the [one] not working, but believing on Him justifying the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (6) Even as also David says of the blessedness of the man to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: (7) "Blessed [are those] whose lawlessnesses are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; (8) blessed [the] man to whom [the] Lord will in no way charge sin."
Romans 3:21 through 26 puts forth the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel. Paul then follows this with some questions and answers to address some of the implications of what he just said. The first part of chapter 4 continues this question-and-answer format. Of course, there were no chapter divisions in the original, and this is a bad place to have a division. Let's continue with Paul's questions and answers.
Paul asks this question: What then shall we say our father Abraham to have found according to flesh?" Here we see that little word "then" again. Paul's questions aren't just coming out of the blue. They're related to what was said before, and they help to flesh out the implications of what was said before. What was said just before this was that justification is through faith and not through works. Paul then puts forth the implication of this for the Old Testament saints. He uses the examples of Abraham and David, who were considered the pillars of the Old Testament saints. Matthew 1:1 says, "The Book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham." This is to show that the Old Testament saints were justified in the same way that the New Testament saints are justified, refuting the argument that the Old Testament saints were justified through works. Paul shows that this is not some new doctrine but that this doctrine has always been in effect. Paul said back in Romans 3:21 that the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel was witnessed by the Old Testament saints. The dispensationalists are stopped in their tracks. Their heresy is exposed right here. When Paul asks, "What then shall we say our father Abraham to have found according to flesh?", the dispensationalist heretics would say, "he found salvation by his works." But this is not what the Holy Bible says.
Let's first look at the structure of the question, because different translations structure it differently. The KJV says, "What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?" So the "as pertaining to the flesh" is put after "Abraham our father," meaning that Abraham is our father according to the flesh. This is what some manuscripts say. But the order of the words in the Textus Receptus is this: "What then shall we say Abraham the father of us to have found according to flesh?" This is the order that the LITV uses as well as Young's Literal Translation. As a side note, it's interesting that the KJV translators decided to deviate from the Textus Receptus and go with other manuscripts here. So much for their self-proclaimed adherence to the TR. Anyway, after studying this, I believe that the translation of the LITV is correct. This passage is NOT talking about ABRAHAM'S being our father according to the flesh; instead, it addresses a much deeper question. What did Abraham find according to his flesh? In other words, what did he find by his circumcision and external privileges and works? Did he find acceptance before God in these things? Was he justified by his works? Well, look at verse 2:
Romans 4: (2) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast, but not with God.
It's as plain as day, isn't it? If Abraham were justified by works, he would have a boast, but that boast would not be with God. Back in Romans 3:27, Paul asked in light of the gospel he just put forth, "Then where is the boasting?" He answered, "It was excluded." Now why was boasting excluded? It's because salvation is conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ ALONE, with NO contribution from the sinner. If the sinner had anything to contribute to his justification, then he would have room to boast. But there is NO ROOM for boasting when the sinner is TOTALLY EXCLUDED from the ground of salvation. So we see the logic here. If Abraham was justified by works, then he would have a boast. And what would he have a boast in? HIMSELF. He would have been able to have boasted in his own works. If he believed that his own efforts or circumcision made the difference between salvation and damnation, he would have reason to boast in his own efforts or circumcision. His boast would obviously not be in God.
I can hear some false religionists now: "But if he thanked God for his circumcision or for enabling him to meet the condition, then he would be boasting in God." This is a lie. If one claims to boast in God but believes that something OTHER than the work of Christ alone makes the difference between salvation and damnation, he is boasting in HIMSELF. He has a boast, but not with God. If he believes that Christ died for everyone without exception and thus believes that it is NOT the work of Christ alone that makes the difference between salvation and damnation, he has a boast, but not with God.
But what of Abraham and all of the Old Testament saints and all of the saints past, present, and future? They have no boast in themselves, because they believe that it is the work of Christ alone - His atoning blood and imputed righteousness alone - that makes the difference between salvation and damnation. They have a boast, and it is in Christ crucified.
Let's look at verse 3. He starts with a question again. "For what does Scripture say?" Paul is saying, "Judge what I say according to the Scripture!" The Scripture to which Paul is referring is the Old Testament. What does the Old Testament say about Abraham? Does it say that he was justified by works? No. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to prove his point. Let's turn to Genesis 15, and I'll read verses 1 through 6:
Genesis 15: (1) After these things the Word of Jehovah came to Abram in a vision, saying, Do not fear, Abram; I am your shield, your reward will increase greatly. (2) And Abram said, Lord Jehovah, what will You give to me since I [am] going childless and the son of the inheritance of my house [is] Eleazar of Damascus? (3) And Abram said, Behold! You have given no seed to me; and lo, the son of my house is inheriting of me! (4) And behold! The Word of Jehovah [came] to him saying, This one shall not be inheriting. But he that shall come forth out of your own bowels shall be your heir. (5) And He brought him outside and said, Look now at the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And He said to him, So shall your seed be. (6) And he believed in Jehovah. And He counted it to him for righteousness.
Note that Abraham's name is still Abram at this point, but since he will eventually become Abraham, the New Testament Scripture says "Abraham," and so will I. Now there are some false religionists who would look at this passage and say that this belief had nothing to do with the gospel; instead, it was a belief that God would give Abraham a ton of physical descendants. Now of course, the passage in Romans 4 that we're considering would make no sense if this were the true interpretation. Romans 4 would be saying that Abraham was not justified through works, but he was justified through the belief that he would have a lot of descendants. But as we will be seeing in verse 5 of Romans 4, the Lord willing, this belief was in the God who justifies the ungodly.
So what did Abraham believe? What we just read in Genesis 15 was a PROMISE. It was a PROMISE that God was Abraham's shield. It was a PROMISE that Abraham's reward would increase greatly. It was a PROMISE of a seed. Let's read further about this promise in Genesis 21:12:
Genesis 21: (12) And God said to Abraham, Let it not be evil in your eyes because of the boy, and on account of your slave-girl. All that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for in Isaac your Seed shall be called.
Now Genesis 22:18:
Genesis 22: (18) And in your Seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have obeyed My voice.
What is this SEED that was promised? Turn to Galatians 3. Let's first read verses 13 through 18:
Galatians 3: (18) For if the inheritance [is] of Law, [it is] no more of promise; but God has given [it] to Abraham through promise.
Who is this SEED that was promised to Abraham? It was Jesus Christ. Now look at verse 29:
Galatians 3: (29) And if you [are] of Christ, then you are a seed of Abraham, even heirs according to promise.
Now since the SEED is Christ, all who are IN that SEED are the SEED of ABRAHAM. Are you seeing what the Genesis 15 passage is saying? Are you seeing what Abraham believed?
The Genesis 15 passage was a reiteration and expansion on God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. Let's turn there:
Genesis 12: (2) And I will make of you a great nation. And I will bless you and make your name great; and you will be a blessing. (3) And I will bless those who bless you, and curse the one despising you. And in you all families of the earth shall be blessed.
Now again, some self-righteous religionists would say that there's no gospel here and that it is merely a promise of physical descendants to Abraham. But I'll go so far out on a limb as to say that this IS talking about the gospel, and it is talking about justification through faith not works, and it is not talking about all of Abraham's physical descendants, but it is talking about those who have the same faith as Abraham. Some would say, "That's really stretching it. How can you get that out of this passage?" Well, turn back to Galatians 3, and let's now read verses 6 through 9:
Galatians 3: (6) Even "as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness," (7) know, then, that those of faith, these are sons of Abraham. (8) And the Scripture foreseeing that God would justify the nations by faith, preached the gospel before to Abraham: "All the nations will be blessed" "in you." (9) So that those of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham.
Are there any doubts what the Genesis 12 passage means? God preached the GOSPEL to Abraham, which is the GOSPEL of salvation conditioned solely on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of the Seed, Jesus Christ. He told Abraham that those who had the same faith as he did, which is belief in God who justifies the ungodly based on the work of Christ alone, would be blessed. Is there any doubt about this? In Luke 1:55, Mariam, the mother of Jesus, rejoiced in God her Savior, who spoke to Abraham. Also in Luke 1, Zacharias speaks of the covenant between God and Abraham. Let's turn over there. Let's read verses 68 through 75:
Luke 1: (68) Blessed be [the] Lord, the God of Israel, because He visited and worked redemption for His people. (69) And [He] raised up a Horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David; (70) even as He spoke through the mouth of His holy prophets from the age [before]: (71) Salvation from [ones] hostile to us, and from [the] hand of all the [ones] hostile to us, (72) to execute mercy with our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, (73) [the] oath which He swore to our father Abraham, (74) to give to us, [that we] being delivered out of the hand of [those] hostile [to] us, in order to serve Him without fear, (75) in consecration and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.
Is there any doubt what God told Abraham and Abraham believed? Let's turn to John 8:56. This is Jesus speaking:
John 8: (56) Your father Abraham leaped for joy that he should see My day, and he saw, and rejoiced.
Look at that! Abraham rejoiced that he should see the day of Jesus Christ! He rejoiced in looking toward Jesus Christ as the one who would come to establish a righteousness that would answer the demands of God's law and justice, as the one who would come to make an atonement for the sins of His people, as the one whose work makes the only difference between salvation and damnation! Is there ANY DOUBT what Abraham believed? Abraham believed GOD'S GOSPEL PROMISE to save His people conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone.
Now let's go back to Romans 4:3. When it says that Abraham believed God, we know what it's talking about, right? Now let's go into the second part of the phrase, which is "and it was counted to him for righteousness." Many false religionists read this to mean that Abraham's faith was counted to him INSTEAD OF or IN THE PLACE OF righteousness, meaning that God accepted Abraham's faith IN PLACE OF perfect righteousness. This could not be further from the truth. A better translation would be "and it was counted to him UNTO righteousness." Faith is the MEANS THROUGH WHICH the imputed righteousness of Christ is received, as we saw last week, and as we will see again in verse 5 and in Romans 10:10, the Lord willing.
Let's go on to verse 4:
Romans 4: (4) Now [to one] working, the reward is not counted according to grace, but according to debt.
Let's go through this sentence phrase-by-phrase. The first phrase is "Now to one working." In the context of the passage, this is talking about one who is working for his salvation. This person believes that his salvation is conditioned on something he does. He believes in justification by works. The second phrase is "the reward is not counted according to grace." This can only be understood if one understands grace. Grace is something that is unmerited or undeserved. If someone works for a reward and gets a reward because he works for it, this reward is not gotten because of grace. The person who worked for the reward actually DESERVED or MERITED the reward. For example, if I'm a plumber, and I fix a leak in a person's house, and the person pays me, he is not paying me out of grace, because I worked for that money. This goes right into the last phrase, which is "but according to debt." As a plumber who completed a job for someone, that person OWES me money for the job I did. He is INDEBTED to me because I did WORK for him. The same goes for someone working for his salvation. If someone believes that he must do something to gain or maintain God's favor, then if God were to give His favor, would God's favor be an act of GRACE? NO! God would actually OWE favor to that person. Remember - grace is unmerited favor. Grace is giving something to someone that they do not deserve. If someone believes that his efforts form at least some part of his entitlement to the reward of heaven, then is that person getting to heaven by grace, or does God OWE him heaven? Remember back in Genesis 15:1, God said to Abraham, "I am your shield, your reward will increase greatly." Now if Abraham WORKED for this reward, if he DID something to DESERVE this reward, then God would be OBLIGATED to GIVE this reward based on ABRAHAM'S WORKS. Do you see this? I hope you're getting this concept, because it's very important in understanding works versus grace. If something is given out of GRACE, then it CANNOT be worked for. By definition, this would not be GRACE.
Paul says the same thing in a different way in Romans 11:6. Let's turn over there:
Romans 11: (6) But if by grace, no longer [is it] of works; else grace no longer becomes grace. But if of works, it is no longer grace; else work is no longer work.
Paul is clearly and logically making the distinction between works and grace. He shows that these are two MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE things. It can't be grace and works. If it is by grace, which is undeserved favor, it cannot be of works, which is deserved favor. If you call deserved favor "grace," which the Arminians and Roman Catholics do, then this so-called "grace" is not true grace. If it is by works, which is deserved favor, then it cannot be of grace, which is undeserved favor. If you call undeserved favor "work," then you're not talking about true work.
Let me give you another example using the plumber. Suppose I'm a plumber, and I haven't done any work for a particular person, yet that person deposits money into my bank account. In a very simple way, that person is showing GRACE, because he gave money to me that I didn't work for. But when we're talking about GOD'S grace, that gets magnified an immeasurable amount. An example can't begin to compare, but let me give you a little glimpse of the magnitude with the plumber example. In addition to what I already said, now suppose that I am actually the ENEMY of this person and am out to DESTROY this person, yet this person deposits two million dollars into my bank account. That gives you a tiny bit more of an idea.
But since illustrations do not do justice, let me show you the reality of God's grace. By nature, the elect are enemies of God, at war with God, unable and unwilling to submit to God's righteousness, bringing forth dead works and fruit unto death. Everything they do is a hateful thing to God. They are children of wrath. They are undeserving of even the least of God's favor. But God, in grace, sent His Son, the God-man mediator, to live a perfect life and die the death of a criminal in the place of these undeserving people. The sins of these undeserving people were imputed to Jesus Christ, and Christ paid their sin-debt in full. In time, God the Holy Spirit changes their hearts, imputes Jesus Christ's perfect righteousness to them, counts them not guilty, and comes into communion with them. They are given the gift of everlasting life and go to heaven based on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. Their own works are totally excluded from their regeneration, from their being kept saved, and from their final glory in heaven. It is all based on something outside of themselves - the work of Christ alone. The work of Christ alone is what makes the difference between salvation and damnation. THAT is grace.
Now from Romans 11:6, we see that even if a tiny bit of works is introduced into the picture, it's all works and cannot be grace. From Romans 4:4, we see that if it is of works, then the reward is of debt and not of grace. Think about those who believe that Christ died for everyone without exception. They say that they believe in salvation by grace. But what do they believe? They do NOT believe that it is the work of Christ ALONE that makes the difference between salvation and damnation. Instead, they believe that it is the work of the SINNER that makes the difference. Their salvation is one of DEBT. What they really believe is that God OWES them salvation because of something THEY did. They make God into a debtor, and they make man into the king. This is utterly repugnant to God's people. Again, as we saw in Romans 11:6, their so-called "grace" is no longer grace, because they believe in a works salvation.
Finally, let's go over verse 5:
Romans 4: (5) But to the [one] not working, but believing on Him justifying the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
We'll go over this one phrase-by-phrase as well. The first phrase is "But to the one not working." This is the antithesis of the one working in verse 4. This person does not believe that his works form any part of the ground of his acceptance before God. Instead, he believes the second phrase, which is "but believing on Him justifying the ungodly." The true believer believes what Paul went over in Romans 3:21-26. Romans 3:26 says, "for His being just and justifying the one that is of the faith of Jesus." The true believer believes that God is both just and justifier. He believes that God justifies the UNGODLY based totally on the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. The word "ungodly" is very important here. God justifies the UNGODLY. Now if salvation were of works, then God would be justifying the GODLY, wouldn't he? He'd be justifying people who are RIGHTEOUS, who DESERVE to be justified. But salvation is by grace. Thus, God justifies those who were ENEMIES of God, UNRIGHTEOUS people, people who deserve to go to hell based on their character and conduct. Those are the only people God justifies. Jesus said in Mark 2:17, "Those who are strong have no need of a physician, but those badly having illness. I did not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners." If God were to justify those who were already righteous, it would not be of grace but of debt. Righteousness demands everlasting life. If someone were righteous in his own character and conduct, God would be obligated to give him everlasting life. But we saw in Romans 3:10 that there are NONE righteous, and in Romans 3:20 that by works of Law no one will be justified.
Those who do not work but believe on Him who justifies the ungodly are those who believe that their salvation, from start to finish, is based on the work of another, the Lord Jesus Christ. They believe that the work of Christ alone ensures the salvation of all whom Christ represented. So when Paul is talking about those who do not work but believe on Him who justifies the ungodly, he is totally excluding those who believe in universal atonement, in partial depravity, in free will, or in ANY SYSTEM that makes the sinner the one who makes the ultimate difference in his destiny.
The last part of the sentence says, "his faith is counted for righteousness." Abraham believed God, the one who justifies the ungodly based on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone, and it was counted to him unto righteousness. And this goes for everyone who believes God, the one who justifies the ungodly based on the work of Christ alone. Their faith is the instrument by which they receive the imputed righteousness of Christ. Hebrews 11:6 says that without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith is the belief in God's promise of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone, totally apart from the work of the sinner. It is through THIS FAITH and THIS FAITH ALONE that we are justified. Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There has been, and there is, no other way. Amen.