Lecture 19: Romans 1-4
Lecture: Romans 1-4
We are now in the Book of Romans. There’s so much in Romans that we’re going to break it into three different lessons. Today we’re going to look at the first four chapters. Let me say something about commentaries. Whereas in some of the other books of the New Testament, we’re really limited in terms of the quality commentaries that you have access to, Romans is the exact opposite, Romans has, shall we say, a plethora of commentaries to choose from. Let me give you at least three of them, the ones that I use the most: the one that probably for you would be the most helpful is this one by some fellow named Robert H. Mounce, who happens to be my father, and that does not affect my judgment of the commentary at all certainly. But as a commentary of Romans written for the Broadman and Holman series, this is an excellent commentary—one that all of you can process fine, with not a lot of technical stuff in it, it just spends time explaining the text. If you can only have one commentary this would be the one to get. If you want something a little more detailed, then I would recommend the one in Baker’s series by Tom Schreiner. When I taught Romans in seminary, this is the commentary that I used. The Baker’s series is a little different from other series. They don’t so much go word by word, verse by verse, but they go paragraph by paragraph as they explain the text. Now that’s a good way to do things. It helps you see the flow and the larger picture better. It can be a little frustrating if you just want to find out what a verse here or a word there means, but this is an excellent commentary written by a superb scholar. The third commentary is an amazing commentary by Doug Moo, it’s in the Eerdmans series, and this is a masterpiece of a commentary. In fact, Tom Schreiner’s a friend of mine; I called Tom once and said, “What commentary do you recommend?” He said, “Moo.” Moo’s is just a masterpiece of a commentary. It goes word by word, verse by verse. It’s easy to pop into one area and find out what a word here or a phrase there means; it’s a very good commentary. There you have three different commentaries to choose from.
Let me say a couple of things about the historical setting of Romans. You remember that Paul is now at the end of his third missionary journey and it’s about AD 57. He’s been spending the winter in Corinth; he’s going to go back to Jerusalem, but his intentions are to move the base of operations from Antioch to Rome. What Paul wanted to do was to have a fourth missionary journey to Spain. He was always driven to preach the Gospel where others had not preached, and he must have felt content that he had reached Asia Minor and Greece and that area. He wants to go further west so part of why he’s writing a letter to the Roman church is to introduce himself. Now there are a lot of people that know him, chapter 16 is his greeting to many people in Rome, but he has never officially been there or had anything to do with the church evidently. He wants to introduce himself to the Roman church, he wants to make Rome the base of his operations so he can go even further west to Spain. That’s some of the historical setting behind the Book of Romans.
The Book of Romans is by far the most systematic presentation of biblical theology that we have. That’s partly due to the occasion, the reason that he’s writing the letter. He wants to lay out in detail in a logical systematic way what he believes so the Roman church will know who he is, but what we get out of it is this marvelous step-by-step understanding of the Christian faith. I would imagine that well over half of what we believe comes out of Romans. Now these may be topics that are discussed in other books, but in terms of the verses we quote, the places we go to illustrate what we believe, it’s the Book of Romans that we go to well over half of the time. It’s an important Book.
There’s an outline in your notes, and as I talk through Romans you’re going to want to follow the outline. I’m going to stick to the outline pretty closely, more so than we do with other books of the New Testament. There are two things that I want you to see as we go through it. First, I want you to see the big picture; I want you to see the flow of theology. I want you to see how Paul moves from basic assertion to the next level of understanding and how one idea builds on the next. There’s a detailed outline there to help you see the flow of thought. Obviously what I also want you to learn are the verses and the words, but I want you to learn what the words and the verses mean in the context of the overall systematic presentation of the Gospel. One of the best classes I had in college was my class on Romans. The way the teacher tested us is that he could give us a phrase as short as three words and we had to place it in chapter and in verse and in the overall general flow of theology and in the specific argument in which it occurred. We worked pretty hard in that class, but it was a great class because what it did was help us understand what is the overall flow and how do specific verses into the context. That’s what I want you to do as we work our way through Romans.
It’s going to take us three weeks to get through the Book of Romans, it’s just too important to push into a smaller time frame. This time we’re going to look at chapters 1-4 and Paul is going to be discussing primarily his doctrine of sin and then his doctrine of salvation. Next time we’re together, we’ll look at chapters 5-11. Chapters 5-8 are primarily concerned with sanctification—how our salvation works itself out in our everyday life. Then in chapters 9-11, he’s going to deal specifically with the issue of the Jews and their relationship to the Gentiles and God’s overall plan. The third time we’re together, we’ll look at chapters 12-16, which has to do with ethics—how all this theology affects us in our day-to-day living. That’s the big picture for the next 3 weeks.
Introduction to the Book of Romans(Rom. 1:1-15)
I’m going to skim through the introduction, since it’s pretty basic for Paul. It’s enlarged a little more, and it gives us hints as to what is to come. There's a salutation where Paul identifies himself as the author, he identifies the audience as the church at Rome, then he gives his greetings—this is a very common three-fold structure in an ancient letter. He makes some personal remarks, he makes a statement of thanksgiving, and then he says why he is writing, what is his purpose in writing. Verse 14 for example, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish (14). I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome (15).” Now Paul is not calling the Romans Barbarians and foolish. The word Barbarian is an onomatopoeia, meaning the word sounds like what it means; here it simply means people who don’t speak Greek. You know how you often hear people speak another language, and it sounds like, “blah, blah, blah, blah,” that’s where Barbarian comes from in English, and it’s where it comes from in Greek as well. Paul is not calling them Barbarians as fools, he’s simply saying, “I am here to preach to all people so that’s why I want to get to Rome and I want to preach in Rome.”
Theme Verses (Rom. 1:16-17)
We then get to verses 16 and 17, which are really part of the introduction, you notice that they start with the word “for,” so in Paul’s mind they are connected into what he has been saying. Verses 16 and 17 are so critical in Paul’s thought that most commentaries, in their outlines, pull them out and make them a separate section. I just called them theme verses. This is, again, if you want to memorize the two verses that you should memorize because they will come up over and over again in conversation, and it is the essence of the Gospel—just like those earlier 2 verses were. Let me just read them, the reason he wants to preach to the people in Rome, to preach to the wise and the foolish, the Greeks and the Barbarians is because he is not ashamed of the Gospel, that is why he wants to preach. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (16). For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith (17).’”
The Power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16)
Let’s pull this apart because we need to make sure that we understand each of the words in these two verses: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” Gospel is simply a word that means Good News, so a Gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ, and Paul says, I’m not ashamed of it. It’s interesting to say “why would anybody be ashamed of it?” until you stop to think about what the Gospel really is. I mean in his day and age, Greek culture universally viewed material as evil, and yet at the heart of the Gospel is the bodily resurrection of Jesus, so they are running counter to all current philosophy. Jews expected a worldly king, so they viewed Jesus as a failed Messianic person, actually more of a failed rebel or fanatic. In Judaism there was no honor in being a Christian, the Gospel is the message of human weakness and inability.
The fact of the matter is that it is easy to be ashamed of the Gospel and it’s something that we need to be cautious of. Paul’s asserting, I’m not ashamed; I don’t care if I run counter to all the Jewish beliefs, all the Greek beliefs, I don’t care if the message is crazy. Paul just didn’t care what people thought. In one sense, that’s a wonderful quality isn’t it. He believes the Gospel; he’s not ashamed of the Gospel and the reason that he’s not ashamed of the Gospel, he says, is because “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” I’d like to emphasize the word is because in Paul’s mind, there’s no question. He believes with every fiber in his being that the Gospel is the power of God, there’s no question about that in his mind. It is true and even though it may appear to be something weak to the world, it is God’s power. The word power here is the word that is used in verse 4 of the power that the Holy Spirit exercised in raising Jesus from the dead. The power that you and I share in as we share the Gospel is the same power that gave life to a dead person. That’s a lot of power isn’t it. I’m not ashamed of it he says. It’s a message of salvation.
Notice the thrust on “to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The Jew first and then the Greek is not a statement of significance, it’s a statement of chronological priority. The Gospel did go to the Jews first: Jesus was a Jew, Paul preached in the synagogues before he went and talked to the Gentiles. The Gospel did go the Jews first and then the Greeks, but the point is that it has gone out to everyone who believes. If you’re familiar with Paul, you can see all of his pet terms being used in these 2 verses.
The Essential Nature of the Gospel (Rom. 1:17)
Having said that, then in verse 17 he goes on to describe in even more detail the essential nature of the Gospel. He says, "For in it," in the Gospel "the righteousness of God is revealed.” We talked about this when we talked about Galatians: righteousness and justification is the same word in Greek. These are just two different ways that we translate the same word or word group. Righteousness, righteous, justification, and to justify are all in the same word group in Greek. It’s a legal metaphor; it’s a declaration of not guilty, specifically not guilty of your sins.
There are two parts to this phrase. He says, in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed.” On the one hand, what Paul is saying is that the fact that God is a righteous God is revealed. In other words, the Gospel is the declaration of something about God, the he is righteous, that he is not guilty of sin, that he is Holy, that he is perfect, that he is totally separate from sin. That’s part of what the Gospel is—a declaration of the character of God. The other side to that is the Gospel if the declaration of how God can make you and me righteous. When you have the of construction in Greek, it’s a very flexible construction way more so than in English. Both of these ideas are wrapped up in this phrase. The Gospel is the declaration that God is righteous, that he is just, that he is Holy, but the Gospel is also the declaration of how a righteous God is in the business of making people righteous, of how people can be declared not guilty of their sins.
How do you that? How do you get declared not guilty of your sins? I don’t know of anyone who acknowledges their sin who does not want to be not guilty of them.” In it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” Now the commentaries have a lot of fun with this phrase, trying to figure out the exact nuance of those two different prepositions, from and for. I just think Paul’s saying it is completely and totally and utterly a matter of faith. That’s what’s going on in that phrase—that being made righteous has nothing to do with what I do and it’s not about me doing things to merit salvation. It’s only about faith and it is by my faith that God declares me righteous. It’s from faith, it’s for faith—it has everything to do with faith.
Let me say a couple of things about faith, because it will help maybe make some of this come alive. You need a good definition of faith and you need a definition of faith that doesn’t use other religious language. As you’re talking to the person on the street corner you say, “Well you have to have faith in Jesus.” What’s faith? Well you trust him. What does that mean? We tend to use biblical language and ‘Christianese’ to describe these central things that we believe, and I would encourage you for all these terms, righteousness and all these, to come up with some definition that anybody can understand who has never stepped foot in a church or opened a Bible. That’s very important I think. The definition that I like for faith actually comes from Romans 4:21, because it’s talking about how Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Now that’s the best biblical definition that people can understand for faith that I know of. Having faith in God, trusting in God, means that you are fully convinced that God is able to do the very things that he has promised that he was going to do. Then you can go from there to talk about what has he promised and what it all looks like. That’s a great definition of faith.
The opposite of faith, in Paul’s language, is works, and he’s going to use the word works a lot. Works are things that you do in order to merit or deserve salvation, in order to deserve justification. Faith is being fully convinced that God’s able to do what he has promised to do, and that is counter to works, whether the works of the law, specifically Jewish things that they did. That is the antithesis in Paul. Now what re some modern day versions of works of the law, some modern day things that would be the opposite of faith? Doing acts of piety. In Catholicism, doing sacraments stores up merits for you to be applied against your bad deeds when you die. This is also true in some non-Catholic traditions too. The problem is that if you don’t have some modern day parallels to works of the law, when we read, especially in chapter 2, it’s not going to make a lot of sense. What Paul is proclaiming is that we are made righteous by being fully convinced that God is able to do what he says he has done and is going to do. The opposite is trying to do something to earn favor with God. You know the song, "Nothing in my Hands I bring, but to thy cross I cling,” that’s faith. The recognition that I don’t come to God with anything in my hands; I have nothing to offer for him. We ask for Grace and we receive it. We’ll discuss that more as we go, but I wanted you to see that.
Old Testament Proof (Hab. 2:4; 3:17-19)
Having said that being declared righteous is totally an issue of faith, he then quotes his favorite Old Testament verse, Habakkuk 2:4, but “the righteous shall live by his faith.” Habakkuk is one of the few people in the Bible that ask God a question and got an answer. You notice Job never got an answer. You have to ask God the question in the right way, and Job didn’t ask it in the right way. I think what’s going on in Habakkuk is that he genuinely did not understand why the righteous were suffering and the wicked were prospering. He cries out to God, and it must have been an honest question. It’s like Mary saying, “How am I going to have a baby again?” Now Joseph had some problem with that and got struck dumb because he didn’t ask it in faith. Mary just said I don’t understand how this is going to be. The same thing is going on here with Habakkuk I think and God answers him, “Hang in there, eventually the wicked will be punished, the righteous will be rewarded, and in the meantime the righteous person will live by faith. The person who is right with me will live believing that ultimately the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded. That’s the context in Habakkuk and that’s one of Paul’s primary verses.
In terms of faith I like Habakkuk 2:4, and I really like Habakkuk 3:17 and 19. This is at the end of the Prophet’s letter and he writes, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls (17),” in other words, no matter how bad it gets God, “yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (18). GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places (19).” That’s pure faith isn’t it. Habakkuk says, “Okay, I’m going to believe that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded and I don’t care if I don’t ever see any evidence that that is going to happen again, I’m still going to believe it. I am fully convinced that God’s going to do what he says he’s going to do.” That’s the background to the quotation here in Romans 1:17.
In verses 16-17, the theme verses, we are to take strength in the fact that God is a God of vengeance and that God will punish. We’re told God will punish the wicked in his way and in his time. When you read in the Book of Psalms, David hangs on to that truth a lot. I think that if you would ask David that question he would say, no, I hope they repent ultimately, but I understand that God is a Holy God and sin against him is serious, and God is a God of vengeance, so the wicked will be punished. I think it’s more that kind of an approach as an encouragement to continue in righteousness.
The Unrighteousness of All People (Rom. 1:18-3:20)
Paul is going to start to unfold his theme verses, and this is the beauty of Romans: he’s going to step by step. What he’s going to do in 1:18-3:20 is show that everyone apart from Christ is unrighteous, because if righteousness is only through faith in Jesus Christ, then there can’t be righteousness anywhere else. If there were righteousness somewhere else, then his central truth isn’t true. If people are righteous apart from Christ, then there are other ways to become righteous. Paul’s thesis is that righteousness being right with God only happens through Jesus Christ. That’s why he moves into the darkest most depressing three chapters in the Bible, because his intent is to show that everyone is a sinner, and so we’ll drudge through it.
It is interesting, in theological terms, Anthropology proceeds Soteriology. In theological terms, anthropology is a study of the human condition: who we are before God and that we’re sinners. Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation, and the biblical pattern is that you don’t just start talking about salvation. You have to start with sin. If you don’t discuss sin, then salvation doesn’t make any sense. Anthropology, the human condition, our sinfulness, is a necessary precursor if salvation is going to be real.
This section breaks into three parts and you’ll see this in your outline. He’s going to deal first with the Gentiles, then he’s going to deal with the Jews, and then he’s going to summarize everything. Those are the three subdivisions of Romans 3.
The Gentiles, Who Have General Revelation (Rom. 1:18-32)
Let’s start with the Gentiles in 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Now Paul has compacted a lot of theology here, but it’s an important verse so we need to back out of it. The assumption in verse 18 is that God is just, which means if a just God responds in wrath or anger to something, then there is sin. The fact of his wrath proves sin. He’s not like me who sometimes get mad at my kids for no reason. When he gets mad at his children, there’s always a good reason—they’re sinners. That’s the theological assumption behind 18. He’s saying “the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven,” meaning, it’s all over the place. God is mad at “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,” who, not because they are tricked or don’t know, it’s because they are unrighteous, that they suppress the truth of what they know about God. The presence of God’s wrath is evidence for Paul that there is sin. Because what he does through the rest of the chapter is he starts to unpack that.
He gets into an area of what we call general revelation. General revelation is what everybody can know about God regardless of where they live or when they live. There are certain universal truths that God has made known to all people, and we call that general revelation. He gives two of them right here; he says, "For," this is why God’s wrath is appropriate, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." What has God shown to all people (19)? “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. They are without excuse (20).” There is a tremendous emphasis here on the clarity of the revelation, that there’s absolutely no excuse and that everyone knows certain things about God, since God has written it into the fabric of creation and everybody can see it and everybody should have responded to it.
Now what are the three things that everybody can know about God? He lists two of them here and implies one of them. Everybody can know that God has eternal power, which means it’s power beyond anything we can understand. Everybody, by looking at creation, can understand that its creator is divine. What that means is that he is separate from creation, his divine nature. In other words, you go to the ocean or the mountains and look at a sunset or look at a flower if is meaningful to you ,and when you look at that, creation is screaming clearly to you: I was created by a God whose power is beyond anything you can understand who is separate from creation. That’s what divine means. Now there’s an assumption there that everybody knows that there is a God, because you can’t have the first two without that assumption. You have those three things that everybody knows about God, and Paul’s point is that everybody knows this about God, but they have not responded to it and therefore God’s wrath is just (if you want to go backwards up through the verses). Now there are some fascinating theological questions that you might ask about that like, is there such a thing as a true atheist? Apparently not! There’s one little caveat that I’m going to add at the end of the chapter, but everybody knows it, and everyone has suppressed the truth about what they know about God because they are unrighteous. That’s called general revelation.
Paul then goes into discussion of what they did in verses 21-23, that instead of responding to the God that was so clearly shown in creation, verse 23, “and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Instead of worshipping God as something separate from creation they turned to idolatry and they tried to conceive that creation holds the keys to its own existence, basically, that creation is God represented as idols.
Then, what Paul does is he goes in and he talks about the penalty for their sins, and the phrase that is used all the way through here is “God gave them up.” He gave them up in their impurity to idolatry, verses 24-25; he gave them up to their passions, specifically homosexuality in verses 26 and 27; and then he gave them up to improper conduct in verses 28 and 31.
The summary verse 32 is the capstone for everything, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die,” see maybe that’s another point of general revelation. He says all these people that have been given over to sexual sins and improper conduct and to idolatry, they also understand that those who do such things deserve to die, that when you fail to recognize the God of creation, creation is telling you that you are going to be punished. Maybe that’s another thing that everybody knows about God. “They not only do them, but they give approval to those who practice them.” In other words, that’s the ultimate sin. Not only do people not respond to God properly and be turned over in their sins, but they want other people to sin with them, even though they know the punishment for doing so. That’s Paul’s estimation of the Gentile world, the world that only has general revelation, the world that doesn’t have exposure to the Old Testament Law. Now one of the interesting questions is, does the phrase “give up” mean that ultimately God gives them up to the lie so that they no longer understand the things of God from creation? When I was teaching at a college I remember I had a student from India come up and ask me the question, is this me? It was interesting, it was hard to look at someone and say, “Yes.” With all of the idolatry worship there was in her native religion, everything in creation was shouting at her and because as a wicked person, she failed to respond to God as he wants us to. I told her that, but it was hard.
The Jews, Who Have the Law (Rom. 2:1-3:8)
Having dealt with Gentiles who only have access to general revelation, in Romans 2-3:8, Paul turns to the Jews who have the law. It’s not apparent right away that he’s thinking about Jews, but it comes up pretty quickly that that’s what he’s thinking of. Again, I need to give you some backdrop that makes chapter 2 is just unfathomable. As a note, whenever you say “the Jews believed” it’s like saying charismatics believe or Catholics believe or Baptists believe; you have to be careful of stereo typing. But in a very general sense, the Jews believed that simply by being Jewish and by being circumcised, they got into Heaven. The possession of the law and the fact that the males were circumcised is all that it takes to get your 'get-out-of-Hell-free card' as we like to say. How you live and what you do is really irrelevant. In fact, in the Talmud (a Jewish book), in one of the tractates, it pictures Abraham sitting at the gate of Gehenna (Hell) making sure that no circumcised person ever enters.
Now are there any modern day equivalents to that? Sure. Our neighbor back in CA thought he could fly, it was the cocaine and he jumped off a second story building and killed himself. We went to his funeral and he happened to be an Episcopalian, and I don’t know how wide spread this is in the Episcopalian thought, but this is what happened there. The priest, after talking about the man’s life, (he didn’t know him well because he didn’t go to church his whole life), said, “Well because this man was baptized as a baby in the Episcopalian church, we know that today he is in Heaven.” Judaism is not really that far from the modern world. Again there are other kinds of modern day equivalents. I had an emotional experience at camp when I was 12; I got my ‘get-out-of-Hell-free card.’ I think there are lots of ways in which this same thought pattern of Judaism manifests itself today in different ways. The thinking used to be that as Americans, as God’s chosen people, the New Jerusalem, we won’t go to Hell. Isn’t that what the Puritans came over here to establish? I don’t think that happens anymore, but it did. I remember when I was little there was this sense that if you are an American, you are going to Heaven. That’s what’s lying behind all this stuff. I possess the law, meaning I’m Jewish; I’m one of his chosen people; I am a physical descendant of Abraham; and my folks circumcised me when I was 8. That’s all it takes, so I can go live anyway I want and it doesn’t matter. I can condemn the Gentiles for sinning, but it doesn’t matter to me because I’ve got my get-out-of-Hell-free card. That’s the backdrop behind chapter 2.
Paul starts to address them. He says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man,” he leaves it general at first, “every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things (1).” That’s the point. See Paul’s envisioning the Jews reading chapter 1 and going, “Yeah go get them Paul, those Gentiles are horrible people. Of course I do all the same things that they do, but I was born Jewish so it doesn’t matter to me.” Paul’s saying if you’re going to judge them for doing things as wrong, you’re judging yourself because you’re doing the same thing. Do you see the conflict? He goes through and he makes that point, then he has this marvelous in verse 4, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” God is patient with us, and all redeemed sinners say, Amen! Good thing that he didn’t lose his patience with us before we became Christians, right? But he’s patient giving us time to repent, and because we’re not supposed to be doing all those things, we’re supposed to repent.
He goes through and he discusses that, and then in verse 6, he makes the point that judgment is impartial, that God’s judgment is impartial and it’s based on works. All reformed people cringe a little when you start with this particular doctrine, but if God let people into Heaven because they were born Jewish, the argument is, he’s not fair. Paul is saying God has only one standard of judgment and he calls it works. Now in Christian language, at least the way that we talk about it here, works is when you became a Christian, God changes your heart and your changed heart results in a changed life to one degree or another. That change is works in a good sense not works in a sense of meriting salvation, but the change that happens in my life when God changes my heart. I have to tiptoe around that a little. Paul doesn’t, but I will.
The point that Paul wants to make is that God is impartial. He doesn’t show ethnic favoritism and therefore there’s one standard and the one standard is your life, your works. Let’s look at how he says it, verse 6, he “will render to each one according to his works,” there he said it. Then he’s going to spend the next several verses explaining it, “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality (7),” so those are works, “he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (8).” Then he says that same thing all over again, and in verse 11 he states the most fundamental truth, “For God shows no partiality.” I don’t think you would get verse 11 out of the Old Testament if you just read it in isolation. Probably when the Jews heard it they went, “We’re God’s people, we’re his favorite, we’re his son, we’re his children, he created us,” but the underlying fundamental truth of Paul is that God does not show partiality. He’s going to judge us all on the same basis and that judgment is works.
Have you ever noticed that when Scripture talks about works, I don’t know of a single place that talks about judgment in terms of whether you and I have faith or not, are you aware of that? But over and over and over again, Scripture talks about the judgment based on works. Now God know my heart—h knows whether he gave me new heart or not. It’s not like it’s a mystery to him. He knows who the real Christians are and who the fakes are, but in judgment in Scripture, it’s saying show me. Did your life change? Time and time and time again throughout Scripture, judgment is pictured as being based on your life and God’s saying, did your life change? When God changes us in our conversion, we change outwardly as well as inwardly over a process of time and that, sanctification is the technical word, is the basis of our judgment. John 6:28-29 is about what works we do in order to inherit eternal life. The rich young ruler asks, “What do I have to do to be saved?” Wasn’t circumcision enough or do I have to do something else? A little alms giving, well how much? They didn’t hear Jesus say what can a man give in exchange for his soul—nothing. That’s the issue of the impartial judgment by works.
You have to hear verses 11-16 in the Jewish context. Verse 13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Now is that a works righteousness? No. He’s not saying you do things to earn salvation, but to the Jews who were saying I can live anyway I want and it doesn’t matter, Paul says if you simply hear the law that doesn’t matter, you have to do it. There’s the changed heart producing a changed life to one degree or another.
Impartial judgment by works is what verses 6-16 is about. He makes a statement in verse 6, he illustrates it in verses 7-10, and then he says ultimately what’s behind this is that God is an impartial judge, verses 11-16. The judgment is based on one standard and that is the changed life. Then he wants to illustrate this in verses 14-16 and I’ll just tell you up front these are simply the most annoying verses to me in Scripture, I cannot figure out what they mean! Every time I taught Romans I changed my mind. It’s almost like on the even years I thought they meant this and on the odd years I thought it meant that. I’ll tell you where I am this year, but it will probably be different when I preach on it.
In verse 14, he wants to illustrate the necessity of doing and not just hearing, “14For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Now the basic function of these Gentiles is clear—they are examples of how God expects our lives to change. Not just hearing the law, but doing it. There are two interpretive possibilities here: one is that he’s referring to Gentiles who naturally do obey some of the law. They do the right thing, they follow their conscience "For when Gentiles," and that would punctuate it differently, "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires…(14).” Now he couldn’t be saying “do everything the law requires,” but he’s saying there are some Gentiles who, because of their conscience, obey some of the commands of the law. That should illustrate to you the necessity of doing and not just hearing. The problem with that interpretation is, what’s the whole point of chapters 1-3? To show that everyone is unrighteous apart from Christ. Is Paul going to hold out Gentiles who are doing the right thing? If they are only doing some of the right things, that would make sense.
The other interpretation punctuates it differently and it says "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law," they are Gentiles, they don’t have access to the Old Testament, "by nature do what the law requires, the law is written on their hearts." Who is that? Gentile Christians—that’s the language of the New Covenant. Paul could be using a Gentile as an example to a Jew of someone who doesn’t have the law by nature, who is not born Jewish, but he’s doing the things of the law, to say, can’t you see the importance of doing? I’m leaning toward the second this year; I’ll go back I’m sure, but the basic point is clear, that it is not those who hear the law, but it’s those who do it, who are changed by the power of God and their lives are altered. All you have to do is look at these Gentiles, whoever they are, to illustrate that.
Then in verse 17, he really is focusing specifically on the Jews. There are two things that the Jews held on to, the possession of the law, verses 17-24, and circumcision, verses 25-27. What Paul is saying is that, you have the law, but you don’t obey it. You can’t just take pride in the possession of the law, you can’t take pride just in circumcision, that’s not what God requires to be righteous. He gets to the summation in verses 28-29, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly,” there’s not a historic Jew that wouldn’t start screaming at that point, for the idea of being a Jew isn’t something that’s outward would have gone counter to everything the non-Christian Jews believed. He says, "For no one is a Jew." The old RSV said for no one is a real Jew and the word real doesn’t exist in Greek and it’s really confusing. Paul’s say, "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical." What? I thought it was outward and physical, Paul says, no, no you don’t get it. “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man, but from God (29).” Now that is absolutely radical, way at the top of radical things that Paul says. He looking at Jews who are holding on to their birth and their circumcision. Paul’s saying it’s irrelevant, being a Jew, being circumcised. A true Jew—real circumcision is not something outward it’s something internal. It’s something that God does in your heart, it’s the New Covenant. Paul is radically redefining what it is to be a Jew, what it is to be a descendant of Abraham. This is a theme that goes through Romans especially in chapters 9-11, we’ll talk a lot more about it. It’s all the way through Galatians, especially in chapter 3. The point is that it’s not an issue of being born a Jew—that has nothing to do with righteousness—it’s what’s on the inside, it’s what God has done on the inside.
The first subsection was Gentiles, then Jews. He talks about three possible misconceptions, Paul is very paranoid and justifiably—see it’s not justified if they are really after you right? Paul is justifiably paranoid about being misunderstood and so he picks up three possible misconceptions and things that people might do with what he just said. They are all things that he’s going to talk about in more detail later so we can skip them for now.
Summary and Scriptural Proof (Rom. 3:9-20)
In Romans 3:9-20 Paul comes to his summary and scriptural proof. Now one thing that is important to understand is that Jesus doesn’t come on the scene until 3:21, so he had to view the argument theologically, because he’s going to say that everyone’s a sinner. But he’s moving toward Jesus in 3:21 so this is his summation of the world of people apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ. His summation is that both Jews and Greeks are under sin, again Jews would say, “NO, I was circumcised, I’m not under sin.” Paul says go back and read chapter 2 again. He strings this series of Old Testament quotations, “None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (12),” and so on. He goes through this summation of Old Testament citations and the point is to emphasize that Jews and Gentiles alike are in need of Jesus Christ and that God’s wrath is justifiably on all people because all people have sinned.
Verse 20 is very important, "For by works of the law," (again we would say for by being baptized as a child, having an emotional experience, however you want to make it modern), for by trying to do something to merit favor with God, “no human being will be made right in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” To the Jews especially who thought, “if I can just do the 630 Deuteronomical laws, especially the 10 big ones, then I’m earning favor with God and I’m going to get to Heaven,” he says, “no, you don’t understand; that’s not what the law was for. The law was to identify sin. It’s a temporary guardian.” Remember we talked about this in Galatians a little; the law was a temporary guardian meant to identify sin, to drive me to my knees because I can’t do what it calls me to do, and it calls me to trust in God. Even back in Moses’s day it’s purpose was to call people to trust in God.
Righteousness Defined: Justification (Rom. 3:21-4:25)
He’s established the ground work, and things change in 3:21. Romans 3:21 through especially the first part of 25 is another absolutely key passage in the Book of Romans that needs to be well marked in your Bible. He’s shown us how righteousness is not to be arrived at; now he’s going to show us how righteousness is to be arrived at in 3:21 to the end of chapter 4.
Justification is Through Christ (Rom. 3:21-26)
Relation of Justification to the Law (Rom. 3:21)
His first basic thing is that justification is through Christ, not the law, not Moses, not these other things, but justification is through Christ in 21-26, “But now the righteousness of God” and here the emphasis is more on how am I made right with God, how does God make me righteous, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” The Old Testament Canon is divided at least in to two: the Law, which is the Pentateuch, the first five books, and then the Prophets, which include 1 and 2 Samuel all the way through the minor prophets. The third category of the Old Testament Canon that was solidified about this time is what we call The Writings—Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, the poetic literature. He’s saying, how God makes people righteous is something that is apart from the law, and we would say the Old Testament points toward it and it does. The sacrificial system points toward it, the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 points to it, the Old Testament points to Christ in the sacrifice, but how you and I become righteous is really apart from that, and he says here’s how it is.
Through Faith in Christ for All (Rom. 3:22-25a)
The justification is through faith in Christ for everyone, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (22).” It’s like Paul says if you didn’t get that let me say that again. “For there is no distinction,” okay there’s chapter 2—there’s no distinction, God’s impartial, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (23).” Jews and Gentiles—everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory that God intended us to have and we all “are justified by” not by doing things to merit his favor, but by “his grace” that means “it’s as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” and then speaking about Christ Jesus, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (24).”
Okay, we have to pull that apart because that is the heart of Paul, just like Rom. 1:16-17 were. Righteousness first of all has to do with faith. It’s by faith; it’s not by law; it’s for all who believe. Righteousness is one hundred percent an issue of not doing things to merit God’s favor, but it’s by believing, being fully convinced that God is who he says he is and that he’ll do what he says he’ll do. Being fully convinced in the character and activity of God—that’s faith.
But it’s not just faith. Faith is the cry today, isn’t it? As long as you’re sincere, it doesn’t matter, as long as you have faith in something. Have you heard the theme song to the Enterprise the latest Star Trek spinoff? It’s called Faith of the Heart and it’s all talking about faith, but it’s faith in human beings to achieve anything we want. If you want a modern day version of the Tower of Babel, Star Trek is on at 8:00 o’clock Friday night; listen to the song, “I can reach the stars, I can do anything because I have faith in me.” The Bible says, no, it’s not faith regardless; it’s faith in Jesus Christ so the object of the faith is absolutely crucial.
The phrase “in Christ” is an important phrase, and we’ll talk about it more in another context. People have struggled over the years to define what it means to be “in Christ.” I think at a minimum it means there is some mystical union. In Romans 6 we were buried with Christ in our baptism, we were crucified with him. There is in some mystical sense of when you and I became Christians we were joined to Christ. We became part of his body, and there’s a mystical element in Paul, and that at least is what is going on here, that justification is for those who have faith, for those who are in Christ—for those who are joined with him. We’ll talk more about that later. Let me emphasize something. You know John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress? If you ever want to read his autobiography, it’s a very powerful story because he was very much the sinner and after he became a Christian, he stayed very much the sinner. He struggled with, how can God love me and forgive me because I’m such a wretch. Let me just read because it was this passage that turned him around. This is what John Bunyan says about himself,
As I was walking up and down in the house, a man in a most woeful state, that word of God took hold of my heart: “You are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” But oh, what a turn it made upon me! Now as I awakened out of some troublesome sleep and dream and listening to this Heavenly sentence, it was as if I heard it thus expounded to me.
In other words, this is what I hear this verse to be saying and God speaking, “Sinner you think that because of your infirmities—your sin I cannot save your soul?” He just didn’t understand how God could save him. Augustine struggled with that, “But I’m such a sinner—how could you save someone like me?” Sinner you think that because of your sin I cannot save your soul, but behold my son is by me and upon him I look and not on you and will deal with you according as I am pleased with him. Isn’t that powerful? That’s what it means to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, that God will look on his son and will treat us as his son deserves. It doesn’t get any better than that does it. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ again for all who believe.
There couple of other words we need to look at. The next one is grace. We’re justified by his grace as a gift. God’s goodness is the basic definition of grace, and God’s goodness is shown in two different ways. When God’s goodness is given to those who don’t deserve it, it’s called grace. When God’s goodness is given to those in need, it’s called mercy. That’s the basic distinction of grace and mercy. They both have to do with the fact that God is good and he is giving his goodness to us, but grace is God’s goodness given to those who do not deserve it; mercy is God’s goodness given to who are in need.
In Phil Yancey’s book, What’s Amazing About Grace, there is a marvelous section, well the whole book is good, but in one part Yancey says, Grace means that you can’t do anything to make God love you more and God’s grace means you can’t do anything to make God love you less. He doesn’t love you because of you, he loves you because he is a God of grace who extends his goodness to those in need and it doesn’t have to do with who you are. That was a very powerful paragraph in his book to me, but that’s what grace is. In other words, it’s a gift, you and I don’t deserve anything, but God in his grace gives it. That’s how grace fits in. We are justified by his grace, in other words, that means it is a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
There are a lot of metaphors in this passage because, how do you describe something that is indescribable, but has no parallel? Well, it’s like this, it’s like this, it’s like this and so Paul is throwing metaphors at us to help us understand what God did for us on the cross in Christ Jesus. One of the metaphors is redemption. Redemption is a metaphor that comes from the slave market. If you wanted a slave or if friend of yours was a slave and you wanted to redeem him, you would go down to the auction, and there are two ideas connected with redemption: Price paid and freedom secured. Whenever you see redemption talked about, both of these ideas are always there that God paid a price and that the price was the death of his son, and the freedom that was secured is freedom from sin—freedom from its absolute mastering and power over me. We were redeemed, we were enslaved to our sins, but with the price of his son, we were given freedom from the mastery of sin. That’s our redemption that is available to those who are in Christ Jesus. These are powerful metaphors.
Hilasterion (Propitiation; Expiation)
The third metaphor then is in the very next sentence, “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (25); now let’s talk about propitiation. The Greek word is hilasterion, I’ve preached on this a few times in the last year and I need to use the Greek word to explain this. Hilasterion has a wide range of meanings, and in academics there’s a tendency to say well it means this or it means this or it means this, and in this particular case I think it means everything. I think it’s a very rich word with lots of associations, and Paul intends all of them. Hilasterion can mean propitiation. When we describe Christ’s death on the cross as a propitiation what we’re saying is that Christ’s death on the cross appeased God’s wrath. In other words, there was something about Jesus hanging on the cross that was directed towards God that said, you are furious with our sin and we need to do something with your anger with your fury toward sin and this penalty, this death on the cross, pays the penalty for the sin and it appeases your wrath. Part of what is going on on the cross is God’s anger against sin is being dealt with. Now he’s going to go on and talk about that, but can God just ignore sin? No he can’t, because then he’s no longer just. His wrath has to be appeased; it has to be dealt with. Christ’s death on the cross dealt with that.
The word also means expiation. Usually expiation is connected with liberal theology. When the RSV first came out the church went at it tooth and nail among other reasons because they translated hilasterion as expiation and it was considered the liberal view of what happened on the cross. It may be the liberal view, but it’s part of the view. What expiation says is that when Jesus died on the cross some of that was directed at sin, and so the sin was paid for, which means that we could accept God’s forgiveness. Some of what happened on the cross has to do with our guilt and sense of guilt; it says when Christ died on the cross he dealt with your sin. He not only appeased God’s wrath of your sin, but he dealt with your sin, and he did what was necessary to forgive it.
The third way in which hilasterion is used is actually for the top part of the mercy seat on the Ark—the cover of the ark where once a year the high priest went into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood on the Day of Atonement, the yearly ritual in Judaism, on the top of the Ark where forgiveness happened for the nation. This place on the ark is called the hilasterion. What is the Christian hilasterion? It’s the cross; It’s the public place of God’s forgiveness of human sin. Hilasterion is a very rich word and the reason it’s important it is describing what Jesus did on the cross.
When Jesus was made to be sin, who knew no sin, so that you and I could be made the righteousness of God, he dealt with God’s anger, he dealt with our sin, and the place that that happened was the cross. That’s all wrapped up in one word, hilasterion. It’s a pretty profound concept isn’t it, but notice that, and I think this is really important, it still has to be applied to you and to me, “ 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood,” in other words, on the cross “to be received by faith.” You still have to receive it. Universalists would say well Christ died on the cross so we all go to Heaven. No, a Christian would say, Christ died on the cross and you still have to receive it; you still have to respond in faith; you still have to believe that Jesus did on the cross what he said he was going to do and that is appeases God’s wrath and deal with human sin, that you can’t do it, but your hands are empty and you come to the cross.
It’s one thing to be forgiven and it’s another thing to come to a full understanding of what that means and for a lot of people that takes a process. What anybody has to do in that situation is like Bunyan, you start feeling the guilt of your prior life, you have to say “no, Jesus’s death on the cross was sufficient to save me from my sins,” Romans 5, we’ll talk about it next time, but sometimes that has to be processed; it’s hard especially for people who have had difficult lives to say, “okay, I’m completely clean.” You are completely clean, but sometimes it takes awhile for that to really sink in. That is a good process to go through. All of us will continue to sin that doesn’t bring into question the cross, it brings into question our relationship, and so there is forgiveness for ongoing sin to keep the relationship clean and direct and healthy, but that doesn’t affect this act of forgiveness where your sins were taken away and you were made acceptable to God. That was on the cross done once and for all.
The Justice of God’s Actions (Rom. 3:25b-26)
It’s interesting that in 25b-26, Paul finds it necessary to argue that God is just even though he forgives. Here’s what he is saying: the Old Testament sacrificial system never forgave sin. You know the verse in Hebrews, "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins," (Hebrews 10:4). What evidently happened was the forgiveness that was truly granted in Old Testament time was granted not because animals were killed, but because God knew that his son was going to die and that forgiveness in the past was not based on the animals, it was based on Jesus’s future death. What Paul is going to say here is that the mere idea of a righteous and just God forgiving sins should bother you. How can a just God forgive sins? How can he be just and forgive? The answer is, and that’s what he goes on to say, he passed over the former sins because of Jesus, and it was to show his righteousness of the present time. In other words, Jesus had to die in order for God to remain a righteous God and for him to forgive sins. Jesus had to die. The blood of bulls and goats, sincerity, doing good—none of this would make God righteous and a forgiving God; only Christ’s death would do that. Justification is by faith and justification is by faith in Jesus Christ.
Then you have this fascinating comment at the end of verse 25, “This” in other words, Jesus being put forward as our hilasterion, Jesus dying on the cross, “was to show God’s righteousness.” This was to demonstrate the fact that God himself is a righteous God. You might ask the question, "I didn’t know that God’s righteousness was in question,", but here’s what is behind it. God’s righteousness is in question because God has forgiven sins, and the underlying question is, how can a God be righteous, how can a God be just and forgive someone of their sins? Paul has a healthy balance in his view of God that God is not only loving, but he’s also just, and that means he can’t ignore sin. God just can’t turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to sin and say I pretend it never happened, I’ll just forget it. If he did that, and again this is all the underlying theology behind this verse, if God simply did that, then he would no longer be just, because a just God can’t ignore sin. It’s not true to his character. In other words, Jesus had to die and his death shows that even in the midst of God forgiving sins that God himself is still righteous. That’s spelling out a little more detail what’s going on in this verse. This was to show God’s righteousness, what brought God’s righteousness into question, “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
We think, wait a minute! I thought that sins were forgiven. Well you have to go a little deeper to understand what he is saying. Hebrews 10:4 says, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” It is impossible for the sacrificial system in Leviticus to affect forgiveness on its own. Now if you went back and read Leviticus, you’d say you know you sacrifice the animal and your sins will be forgiven, but what really is going on at a much deeper level, a level that is too deep for Moses to explain, is that ultimately it was not the sacrifice of bulls and goats that took away their sin, God did forgive sins in the Old Testament, he in a sense passed over them, because he knew that Jesus was going to die. In other words, it Jesus’s death that made it possible for sins in the Old Testament to be forgiven. It was the sacrifice of the bulls and goats. It was the future sacrifice of Jesus. In a sense, yes, Jesus passed over former sins, passed over the sins in the Old Testament; he did not punish them as they deserved. The forgiveness was not because of the sacrificial system, the forgiveness was because Jesus was going to die and God knows it. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Then Paul in verse 26 comes up to the present time and says of Christ’s sacrifice, “It was to show his righteousness,” to show that God is still righteous, “at the present time,” in other words, just as God passed over sins in the past so God is forgiving sins now, but Christ’s death on the cross was to show God was righteous at the present time, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (26).” Do you see the arguments? Pretty condensed. No sacrifice in the Old Testament ever accomplished forgiveness. The only forgiveness that has ever been—past, present and future—is because Jesus died on the cross, and Jesus’s death was absolutely necessary if God on the one hand was going to retain his character of being a just God and on the other hand was going to forgive sins. Christ’s death is the central act in all history, and the efficacy, the ability of God to forgive based on Christ’s sacrifice, goes into the past as well as Paul’s present, and is well into Paul’s future which is now our present. Okay, again this is the heart of Romans. Everything that is in there is important, but it is condensed, and a lot of these things are going to be explained in more detail as we go through the Book of Romans.
Justification is through Faith (Rom. 3:27-4:25)
Paul then goes on to next topic and that is specifically that justification is through faith. He has already introduced the topic, but the focus was on Jesus; now the focus shifts to faith. At the end of chapter 3, he discusses three implications, three possible misunderstandings that people might have based on what he has just said, and those three things again are picked up later in Romans, so we’re going to skip them and we’re going to right to chapter 4.
Abraham was Justified by Faith (Rom. 4:1-8)
Paul begins in chapter 4 with the example of Abraham. You need to understand in terms of background that in the Jewish mind, Abraham was the prime example of why justification is by works. Abraham was a person who did something, in the Jewish mind, to merit favor with God. So if Paul does not handle the issue of Abraham and his faith and the fact that he didn’t merit favor with God, he didn’t earn favor with God, then a traditional Jew would look at Paul’s writing and go, “No, you don’t understand it, you’ve not dealt with our greatest argument for our position and that is Abraham.” Paul has to deal with the example of Abraham. Rabbi Shemaiah writes on Exodus 14-15 and he’s putting words into God’s mouth, he says, “The faith with which their father Abraham believes in me merits that I should divide the sea for them.” The Rabbi’s saying that because Abraham earned favor with God that God was under obligation to part the Red Sea and let the children of Israel through so the Egyptians couldn’t get them. That’s how they understood Abraham’s faith, Abraham’s merit. Paul starts in the first eight verses by emphasizing that Abraham was not justified by doing things that earned favor with God, or what I’ve been calling merit, but rather Abraham simply believed and that is justification is being made right with God was the result of his faith.
Starting at verse 1, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, if he had earned it then, 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.’” The point that Paul is making is that Abraham didn’t do anything to merit favor with God, he simply believed, and then what did God do? He counted it, he reckoned it to him as righteousness. Counted or reckoning is a bookkeeping term; it means you have to check in the credits column. That’s the important word, and it goes all the way through this chapter. Some translations don’t let you see that it is the same metaphor all the way through. The New American Standard and the ESV will keep using reckoned and counted all the way through so you can see the flow of the argument. The point is that Abraham did nothing to deserve righteousness, he simply believed and then God simply checked it off in the books, “Okay, you’re counted as righteous, you’re reckoned as righteous, you’ve got a check in your credits column.” That’s the basic argument, Abraham believed and God reckoned it, counted it to him as righteousness.
Having made the statement, then he argues his point by logic in versed 4 and 5, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due (4).” In other words, if Abraham did something, if he earned something, it’s not going to counted to him, it’s his due, it’s his wages. “But to the one who does not work, but believes,” trusts who has faith, this is Abraham, “in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (5).” Paul is setting up this balance; on the one end you have someone who does something to earn something and is given his wages, on the other hand you have Abraham who didn’t do any of that. He simply believed, he simply trusts, and he was justified on the basis of his faith. Paul says Abraham didn’t earn justification, God reckoned it to him because of his faith.
Then in verses 6-8, Paul makes a parallel argument with David, and this is a not a parenthesis, but he’s going to get back to Abraham in a second. He says David understood the same truth as well. He says, “6Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works,” in other words, David’s on my side too; he understands that God counts righteousness not based on what people do, but on their faith. Then he quotes Psalm 32, 7“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,” he doesn’t pronounce a blessing on people who earn favor with God and do more good than bad and therefore God justifies them, they’re simply forgiven. “8Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Again there’s that reckoning metaphor that he’s picking up. It’s interesting, if you go on in Psalm 32, you can see some more language that helps explain this argument about David. When Paul quotes the Old Testament he expects his readers, Jews and Gentiles alike, to know the whole context of the passage. Lots of times, Paul will make reference to one verse and what he really wants you to do is to envision the whole chapter. For example, in Psalm 32:5, David says, “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.” See that’s a man who in his interaction with God simply believes, simply trusts, and therefore God simply forgives. There’s no earning and wages involved. Later on in verse 10 David says, “Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.” When you look at all of Psalm 32, you can understand why Paul uses it here, because the person whose sins are not counted against them, the person who is forgiven of his sins, is the person who freely confesses and understands that God freely forgives, it’s the person who trusts in the Lord. That’s the argument of David that justification is by faith, the faith not only that we see with Abraham, but the faith that we see David talking about in Psalm 32.
Abraham was not Justified through Circumcision (Rom. 4:9-12)
In verses 9-12, Paul centers in on the whole issue of circumcision. Remember, the Jews believed that because they possess the Law, because they were Jews ethnically, and because their men were circumcised, that’s all that God required, it automatically got them into Heaven. Paul has to deal not only with Abraham, but has to deal with specifically with the issue of circumcision. He’s talking about Abraham’s circumcision. The whole point is that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. In other words, he wasn’t circumcised and as the result of that act declared righteous, he was declared righteous because of his faith and at a later time was circumcised. Having made that point, then Paul gets into more of a description of what this faith is. If justification is by faith, we need to understand what faith is all about. He wants to look into Abraham’s faith. Starting at verse 11 and speaking of Abraham, “he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” Here was the purpose of how God put this all together: “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe,” Abraham is the father of all who believe, all Christians, “without being circumcised,” the Gentiles, “so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.” God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of many nations, he would be a blessing to the world. Well, here’s the blessing to the world, because as an issue of faith and not ethnic religious rituals, Abraham can become the father of all who believe, whether they are circumcised or not. Their righteousness can be counted to them. He goes on, “to make him the father of the circumcised, who are not merely circumcised, but also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” There’s the description of Abraham’s faith, how it occurred before his circumcision and why God did it this way.
The Promise is by Faith (Rom. 4:13-17a)
Verse 16, "That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and” (I’d like to add therefore) “be guaranteed to all his offspring.” You see, if justification were not based on faith, if justification were based on ethnic heritage or on certain religious activity, it can’t be guaranteed to anyone, in fact nobody would be justified. Rather the standard of justification is our faith and because it’s faith in what Christ did on the cross, our righteousness can be guaranteed to us. It cannot be guaranteed if it was based on law keeping—it can only be guaranteed if it’s based on faith. What was true of Abraham, Paul says, is also true of you and me. God’s promise to us of justification is based on faith like God’s promise to Abraham was based on faith.
Description of Abraham’s Faith and Application (Rom. 4:17b-25)
Then in the second half of verse 17, you get this wonderful discussion of what faith is: “the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” That’s a great definition of faith isn’t it, believing that God is who he says he is and that he’ll do what he says he’ll do. He “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘shall your offspring be.’” He goes on and he talks about how he did not waiver in his faith and then verse 21 Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” That is the best definition of faith I know in the Bible. Believing in God, trusting in God, having faith in God means that you are fully convinced that God is able to do what he has promised to do. Justification is not by earning it, it’s not by works of the Law or any other works. The whole world apart from the work of Christ is condemned by sin because they did not respond to what God has decreed upon himself in creation, but rather God, who is a righteous God and yet wants to make us righteous, put forward his son as our hilasterion, and if we have faith in him, if we are fully convinced that he did on the cross what he said he was going to do, then you and I, like Abraham, can be made right with God because of our faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. That’s Romans 1-4.