Justification by Faith Illustrated (4:1-25)

Lesson ▪ 2002-03
Tags: Romans 4:1-25; Justification; Abraham; Faith
Excerpted from God’s Righteousness Revealed: An Exposition of Romans
Related Resources: Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10


In the fourth chapter Paul appeals to the story of Abraham as an Old Testament illustration of justification by faith. Abraham was, of course, a key personality to the Jewish segment of Paul’s audience. Paul argues that, contrary to popular Jewish opinion, Abraham was not justified by works, but by faith in God’s gracious promise. Later in the chapter Paul contrasts faith with circumcision, the law, and sight.

Justification by Faith, not Works (vv. 1-8)

Having introduced the subject of justification by faith in 3:21ff, Paul begins this chapter by asking what Abraham’s experience was in the matter of justification (v. 1). Had Abraham been justified by his works, he would have had grounds on which to boast. However, Paul dismisses this idea from the outset (v. 2; cf. 3:27). He then appeals to Genesis 15:6, which states that Abraham’s faith was accounted9 for righteousness (v. 3). This transaction occurred when Abraham, then childless, believed God’s promise to give him a physical descendant-heir and eventually multiply his seed as the stars (Gen. 15:1-5).10

Paul proceeds to contrast works and faith. Works establish a debt (v. 4), whereas faith—including the renunciation of personal effort—is the means by which one receives God’s righteousness as a gift (v. 5).11 Paul’s point is that the great patriarch did not achieve righteousness, but received it by grace. The case is further established by a quotation from another Old Testament authority, David, who speaks of the imputation of righteousness without work. The source quoted is Psalm 32:1-2, which describes David’s experience of forgiveness as a believer. This text establishes a connection between justification and forgiveness; in addition, it contrasts the imputation of righteousness with that of sin.

Justification by Faith, not Circumcision (vv. 9-12)

In the following verses Paul addresses a logical question: Is circumcision a prerequisite to justification by faith (v. 9)?12 Again he appeals to the case of Abraham. He concludes that circumcision is irrelevant to justification, for Abraham was declared righteous before being circumcised (v. 10). Circumcision was a sign, a seal of the righteousness he had already received by faith (v. 11). As a result, he can serve as a spiritual forefather to all that believe, whether circumcised or uncircumcised (vv. 11-12).

Justification by Faith, not the Law (vv. 13-17)

Having established that Abraham’s righteousness was not dependent on works or circumcision, Paul moves on to discuss its potential connection to the law. God’s promise to Abraham and his seed was not based on the law, but on faith (v. 13). If it were based on observing the law, the promise would be invalid, for the law serves not to justify, but to condemn (vv. 14-15). Since a works-based system is ineffective, God’s plan is by grace, through faith (v. 16; cf. Eph. 2:8). This places all people, regardless of religious background, on an equal footing, making Abraham the spiritual father of all who believe (vv. 16-17).

Justification by Faith, not Sight (vv. 18-22)

Paul continues his investigation of Abraham’s experience by relating the true nature of his faith. He believed in God’s promise though there was no natural basis for hope (v. 18). His faith remained strong even though both he and Sarah were old—in terms of childbearing ability, dead (v. 19). Rather than doubt God’s faithfulness, he gave glory to God (v. 20), being fully convinced that He would fulfill His promise (v. 21). His was the kind of faith that is accounted for righteousness (v. 22)—a faith that takes God at His Word despite a seeming lack of evidence.

New Testament Application (vv. 23-25)

Paul concludes his discussion by stating that the statement of Genesis 15:6 was not for Abraham’s sake alone, but also for us (vv. 23-24; cf. 15:4). His experience provides a wonderful picture of the means by which righteousness is imputed today—through faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead (v. 24). The basis for our justification is the work of Christ: He experienced death because of our sins, and He was raised from the dead in order to secure our justification (v. 25).


A number of important applications emerge from Paul’s argument in chapter 4:

  • There is no place for boasting in the matter of salvation. If Abraham and David contributed nothing to their standing before God, surely we cannot expect to do so. Salvation comes through grace alone, unattended by works, rituals, observance of the law, or human reason. We accept it through faith—a simple act of taking God’s promises at face value.
  • Having been justified by faith, we remain in need of forgiveness when we commit sin. Forgiveness consists of a restoration of fellowship on the basis of non-imputation of sin.
  • We demonstrate the reality of saving faith by persisting in spite of adverse circumstances. Though God may test our faith severely, our confidence should remain unshaken and we should continue to glorify Him.
  • The Old Testament remains a valuable source of inspiration and guidance for believers today. This is not to say that it expresses God’s will for mankind in the present, or even that it fully anticipates New Testament revelation. Nevertheless, it was “written for our learning” (15:4).


9 Paul uses the Greek logizomai to refer to God’s conferring of righteousness on those who believe. Logizomai, a commercial term, conveys the idea of reckoning or charging. It occurs eleven times in Romans 4; the KJV renders it with forms of the verbs count (vv. 3, 5), reckon (vv. 4, 9, 10), and impute (vv. 6, 8, 11, 22, 23, 24).
10 It is uncertain why God singled out this incident in Abraham’s life as manifesting saving faith. One would suppose that Abraham demonstrated faith when he obeyed God’s call to leave Ur. Had he not irrevocably identified himself as a follower of Jehovah before the event narrated in Genesis 15? Nevertheless, it is difficult to interpret Romans 4 so as to conclude that he was justified earlier.
11 E. F. Harrison’s comment on Romans 3:22 is appropriate here: “Incidentally, it is never said that men are saved on account of their faith in Christ, a construction that might encourage the notion that faith makes a contribution and has some merit. On the contrary, faith is simply ‘the hand of the heart’ (Godet). It takes what God bestows but adds nothing to the gift. All recipients of salvation are shut up to faith, for ‘there is no difference,’ a repetition of the verdict of 3:9.”
12 In 2:25-29 Paul dismisses the idea that circumcision is a means of gaining favor with God. Here he affirms this truth from the life of Abraham, who was pronounced righteous long before being circumcised.