Pastor’s Class Notes
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Introduction: Paul’s teaching of justification by faith exploded like a bombshell in the theological circles of his day (it still does today). He has already stated his case, but now turns to his strongest argument–confirmation by example. Paul will now replace abstract ideas with concrete illustrations.
Paul is going to prove that justification by faith is not heresy, but rather central to the message of Scripture. It is a doctrine as old as the Jewish faith. God’s covenant with Israel was based on grace through faith 400 years before the Law was ever given. Far from being a new concoction, justification by faith has always been the only way of salvation.
Romans 4:1 “What shall we say then that Abraham our
father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath
The Jews believed in salvation by works. It was something a person had to earn by merit. Paul will now use their number one hero as his illustration to contract their theology. The question is raised, How did Abraham find salvation? Everyone admitted that Abraham was justified. The question was, How?
Abraham was a fitting example to use, for there is no doubt as to his salvation. God called Abraham “My friend” (IS 41:8). To the Jew, Abraham was the ideal man, all a person could ever be before God. He was the best of the best, founder of their race. Abraham was not merely a great Israelite; he was the embodiment of all Israel in a single person. All the race proceeded from his loins.
Therefore, it is important to know whether their forefather’s salvation was based on works of the flesh or on grace through faith. The answer would establish an overwhelming precedent. In whatever way Abraham got saved, everyone else must also get saved.
Romans 4:2 “For if Abraham were justified by works,
he hath whereof to glory; but not before
If there was ever a man good enough and great enough to boast, it was Abraham. It must be confessed that he was a giant among men. At God’s command, he left Ur as an old man. He had a gracious spirit and a hospitable attitude. He endangered himself to rescue Lot. He was a powerful intercessor and was also willing to sacrifice his own son.
This is an impressive list of accomplishments, to say the least, but only from the human perspective is it magnificent. Men might be impressed, but not God. The Lord records another list:
· Abraham could not leave all his family behind in Ur;
· Twice he lied and put the honor of his wife in jeopardy;
· He consented to Sarah’s request and had sexual relations with Hagar.
No, not even Abraham can boast before God. No one can claim merit in the presence of God. Such an idea must be removed once and for all.
None of Abraham’s wonderful deeds saved him. There was no saving merit in his deeds. Even great Abraham had to get saved just like the rest of us–by grace through faith.
It is difficult for us to grasp that the best of men have no better chance of earning Heaven than the worst of men. If Abraham has nothing to boast of, neither do the rest of us.
Abraham did not earn favor with God based on merit. Surely no one would ascribe to themselves more holiness than they would ascribe to Abraham.
You might be good enough to impress others, but you will never have any ground to boast on before God. Job argued his innocence in the presence of his friends, but when God arrived, Job abhorred himself, and repented in dust and ashes (42:6). He also said, “Behold, I am vile” (40:4). Isaiah was an upstanding man, acceptable to his peers, but when he saw the vision of God, he cried, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips” (6:5). Daniel was universally revered, but when Gabriel arrived, the elder statesman was in the midst of confessing his sin. One of the greatest proofs that a man walks with God is this: no matter how good he may appear to others, he carries within himself a sense of his uncleanness before God.
If you could be saved by works, there would be room for boasting. Salvation would be something you earned based on merit. However, since boasting is disallowed, works cannot be the way. Then what is the way? Before we determine the way, we must agree on where to look for it.
Romans 4:3a “For what saith the scriptures?”
We will find our answer in the Word of God. To Paul this was the ultimate authority, the supreme court. This climaxed his case.
We must ever abide by the same principle. In all matters we must seek to abide by the Word. It matters not what this great man says or what that denomination teaches. We do not decide according to what we or others think, desire, or feel, but according to the Word of God. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (IS 8:20).
Paul’s reference in this question is to the Old Testament. Do not think for even one moment that Christianity is strictly a New Testament faith. We live according to both Testaments. The two go together. The Word of God is incomplete without either.
The testaments complement one another. Without the New, the Old would be unfulfilled. Without the Old, the New would be harder to comprehend (for instance, imagine trying to understand the book of Hebrews without Leviticus).
Since the two form one unit, the same plan of salvation should be found in both parts. The New Testament obviously teaches justification by faith. Paul staunchly advocated it, but where can it be found in the Old Testament? At Genesis 15:6. . . .
Romans 4:3b “Abraham believed God, and it was counted
unto him for righteousness.”
In Genesis 15:4-5 God promised Abraham that he would beget a son through whom his ancestors would become as numerous as the stars. It was a promise Abraham did not deserve. Not only that, it was an impossibility. Sarah was too old to bear children. The only hope for its fulfillment was God. And that is exactly where Abraham put his trust.
This was not merely intellectual assent, but also trust in God to accomplish it. The key to success in Abraham’s life was not his holiness, but rather his faith. The moment he placed simple, completely yielded trust in God, righteousness was reckoned to him.
What does God want from man above all else. To be believed, trusted in, and received. He yearns to be accepted. A man can never earn God’s favor. That is impossible. Hence, his only hope is to take God at His Word and stake everything on God’s promises.
God has allowed all His claims against sinners to be satisfied in the substitutionary death of Jesus. Therefore, that which we could never achieve can be obtained. That which we cannot earn can be received.
This is not to say that works are unimportant. They are very important, but only as a result of salvation, not as a cause. Once a man receives the gift of salvation, he is under a lifelong obligation to try to walk worthy of that love. But he is no longer a guilty outcast seeking to achieve justification. Rather, he is a saved lover already assured of Heaven, offering his all to the God who bestowed the pardon.
I can almost hear someone saying, “Preacher, that is beyond me.” Well, friend, it is beyond me, too. Only God would have conceived such a plan. He somehow found a way for sinful men to dwell in Heaven. Only He could find a way to cleanse dirty sinners without contaminating Himself. He alone could find a way to justify ungodly sinners and yet remain just.
All man-made schemes are of no avail. Some will say we do not need salvation–to them everything will be all right in the end. You are wrong, friend. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (RM 3:23). When you first sinned, an angel entered the recording room of Heaven and wrote on your account, “Guilty.” This is no grave matter. The angel cannot reverse it, for his stylus has no eraser on it.
“Guilty” is written there. Now what are you going to do about it? Someone says, “I will do good and that will settle the account.” Do you really think so? Well, let us call Moses into the recording room. “Moses, please use your tablets to erase this account.” Moses rubs the tablets repeatedly over the word, but everything stays the same. Suddenly, God thunders from the throne, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in my sight” (RM 3:20).
What else will you try? Someone claims they will become great and achieve prestige. Ah, let us call David to the recording room. “David, please use your kingly crown to settle this account.” David puts down his crown and rubs the letters, but nothing is changed. Suddenly God speaks again. “Not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (I Cor. 11:26).
Do you have another choice? Did I hear someone say riches? You want to use money to buy your way out of God’s debt? “Solomon, come to the recording room. Bring your gold and pay this man’s debt.” Stacks and stacks of money are credited to your account, but “GUILT” is still charged. Riches cannot suffice. A dying rich man cried out for the gold he had long loved. It was brought to him and placed at his side, but soon the wealthy man was shrieking, “Take it away! Take it away! That won’t do!” That’s right. It won’t do.
But wait, do I hear another possibility being offered? You want to base your hope on rituals? Baptism, Lord’s Supper, Church membership, penance, the Sacraments–you think these will suffice? “Aaron, come to the recording room. You served as the great High Priest. Perform rituals in behalf of this one.” However, “Guilt” remains. God finally interrupts, “The customs of the people are vain, as are the traditions of men” (JR 10:3; Col. 2:8).
If these things fail us, then what is our hope? Who can rub out our guilt? Your only hope is to cease trying to save yourself. You must run out of yourself, and into the Master. He took your guilt, bore your all. If you will place on Him your total trust for salvation, you shall be forgiven and cleansed.
Only Jesus can walk into the recording room of Heaven and cancel the debt of our sin. What is this I see? Someone has trusted in Him. He is taking His garment dipped in blood and wiping away the stain of “guilt” from the record. But wait, there’s more. With His own nail-scarred hand, He is crediting His own righteousness to the sinner’s account.
That is what the word “counted” means in verse 3. It is a bookkeeping term that indicates a business transaction. It is an important word to Paul. He used it 35 of the 41 times it occurs in the New Testament (11 times in this one chapter).
God does not declare us to be something we are not. The Lord does not play “make-believe.” Instead, He simply declares that the demands of justice have been satisfied in the substitutionary death of Jesus. Based on that fact, you can be forgiven now.