Righteousness by Faith


Romans 3:27-4:25


Tom J. Nettles


I.  Faith and the Law – 3:27-31 Paul has just demonstrated that one can only understand the death of Christ in terms of God’s own fulfillment of the Law’s demands. God’s having fulfilled it through Christ means that in reality neither Jew nor Gentile can fulfill it, whether it is the revealed encoded Law or the intuitively-perceived, heart-impressed universal presence of the divine image. Christ’s death is the absolute “No” of God to any claim to righteousness we might be tempted to make. He alone in righteous and thus he alone can be the justifier. (3:25)

A. All human boasting, whether Jew or Gentile is excluded. Boasting is excluded by the law (principle) of faith. Were justification by works, that is, according to the principle of personal obedience, then life, eternal life, would be a reward for human effort, an unbroken course of obedience to the Law. Life would be granted on the basis of the merit of the obedient one.  This was the principle upon which our first parent, Adam, was promised life. His failure, however, rendered the operation of that principle null and void. Faith, therefore, as a principle operates in a way that completely bypasses the necessity, or expectation, or possibility of the personal righteousness of the sinner in any way. Faith, as opposite to and exclusive of works, embodies a justification in which faith itself holds no intrinsic merit, nor does it arise out of a meritorious affection. (27, 28)


B. The God who justifies is the God that has created all men and to whom all men owe the same sort of obedience. All are equally under condemnation. The simplicity of God’s holiness means that there is not a multiplicity of ways for a creature to be acceptable before him. If all rational creatures, human beings that is, are under condemnation, then the way of forgiveness will be in accord with the simplicity of God’s character, and mandates that all be received into life in the same way. Thus for Jew and Gentile faith is the only way for the restoration of favor. By faith an unworthy sinner finds union with all the things that God has done in Christ for his acceptance. Irrespective of circumcision, or any other aspect of the ceremonial law, God justifies Jew and Gentile by the same faith. (29, 30)


C. Is faith, therefore, a principle that works contrary to the law, since it replaces law-keeping as the way of righteousness and life? No, Paul answers. The contrary is true. Only by faith can the Law be established. Any system of receiving eternal life that was not dependent on faith as Paul explains it in this letter, would be a denial of the validity, perpetuity, and immutability of righteousness contained in God’s Law. Faith, however, as explained in this letter, gives the believers union with  everything that the Law required in it first revelation to Adam in external command and internal knowledge. All that subsequently was contained in the Moral Law is honored in God’s way of salvation by faith. (31)


II. Abraham Justified by Faith – 4:1-8  Paul begins his extended argument by showing that Abraham’s rightness before God came by faith upon which God declared him righteous.

A.  Paul illustrates his theological argument by this particular incident. He asked what Abraham gained according to the flesh  [Not as the ESV puts it, “our forefather according to the flesh,” for Abraham was not forefather of the Gentiles according to the flesh.] Paul used this same terminology when talking about his own credits according to the flesh in Philippians 3. He answers that if in the flesh (perhaps he has in mind circumcision specifically) he is justified, his glorying will be in himself that is works according to ceremonial law, but not before God. Scripture [Genesis 15:6] says believing God was counted to Abraham as righteousness. (4:1-3)

B.  Now Paul infers a general principle from this particular event in the life of Abraham. The one that works and is paid receives his just due and does not glory in the generosity of the one that pays him, for he has exchanged his labor for recognition of its specific worth. Even so, if one has nothing of worth to give or perform, any reward is due solely to the benefactor. All lawbreakers are “ungodly,” have no merit by which they could earn life or be recognized as righteous, find, nevertheless, that by trust in the word and provision of another they are accounted righteous. (4:4, 5)

C. This principle of imputation of righteousness apart from works is illustrated not only in the case of Abraham, but in the case of David whose sin was not counted against him, but rather his sin, due punishment, was forgiven and he himself was counted righteous. (4:6-8) Paul used this concept of non-imputation of punishment for sin to show that the ungodly can be accepted only by pure grace. Not only are they forgiven, but they are counted righteous. This declaration comes not to those that work but to those that believe.


III. Abraham’s faith in its relation to circumcision – 4:9-12 – Paul establishes the fact, quite instructive in itself, that Abraham was declared righteous on the basis of faith years before he was circumcised. Circumcision then was received as a seal of the righteousness that he already had on the basis of faith. The seal of circumcision did not authenticate, add to, or create anything new in the righteousness that Abraham possessed by faith. It was a mark in his flesh, a symbol, of a reality that God had granted Abraham a righteous standing through trust in the promise. Abraham would not have trusted if God had not previously circumcised his heart. Circumcision, therefore, stood as a consistent witness that the one in whom Abraham trusted would come through the line of Abraham physically, but would be received by faith by all those that received the circumcision of heart. The spiritual circumcision preceded the physical circumcision and marks Abraham as the father of all that believe, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, and all that have faith are partakers of the same grace that Abraham had prior to his circumcision.


IV. Abraham’s faith and the Promise of God – 4:13-21:  The promise believed establishes a completely opposite reality to the Law received.

A. 4:13-15 – God’s favor toward Abraham, and all sinners, comes in the form of a promise. Belief n this promise constitutes righteousness. The Law is not presently designed to create life, but to confirm death, that is, the present wrath of God on all that do not believe ( John 3:18, 36) The Law says, do and live, and is completely incompatible with righteousness by faith, which says believe and live. The Law was misinterpreted as a means of life (Romans 10:1-3) when it was given in the fallen order to reveal more clearly the reality of wrath and death.

B. Grace is operative both in the arising of faith and in the content of the promise.

1. Faith itself is a manifestation of the great power and grace of God (16) “It is by faith that it may be by grace.” Faith is of such a character that it does not arise naturally in the fallen human nature. Just as an infertile woman combined with an impotent man cannot conceive a child, so a heart dead in trespasses and sins cannot be the source of faith in God’s holy purpose. Thus Paul prayed that we might know the “exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:19 and 2:1-10). Even as God has made those that were not the people of God to be the people of God (1 Peter 2:9, 10) as opposed to those that stumble and do not believe, and has made those that were strangers and aliens now to be fellow citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), he has made those hostile to God naturally, now receptive to God and trusting in all that he says. “”Who give life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (17) Only in that way could Abraham find hope when there was no natural reason to hope, and did not weaken in faith when he saw that God’s promise was given as an absolute contradiction to that which was impossible by nature. That a person believes is as much an act of grace and power as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

2. The content of the promise was a matter of grace. That Abraham would Father a child by Sara was also a matter of power and grace. God, in pursuit of his purpose to bring a redeemer into the world, the seed of the women, would perpetuate the line of Abraham through whom the nations would be blessed by a birth conceived in an unusual manner. The only assurance that this could be the case was the promise of God with whom nothing is impossible. The promise that he would be the Father of many nations seemed absolutely to contradict the combination of facts the at one hundred his own body was “as good as dead” and the womb of Sara was barren. Nevertheless, God had said it, and God was pursuing his own glory in these anticipated events. Thus the miracle of faith in the miracle of an impossible birth. “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised.


V. Abraham’s Faith and Imputation – 4:22-25

A. Abraham’s faith was imputed to him as righteousness. The point that Paul is establishing here is that the way of right standing before God is not through one’s own righteousness, but through the righteousness of another. Abraham had no merit of his own and was not received, therefore, by God on the basis of his own righteousness but was received in that he trusted another. Specifically, in the promise Abraham saw the reality of deliverance from sin for a multitude of people. The fruit of his own body would provide deliverance from sin and righteousness by his life; Abraham’s faith would serve as the model for how this divine provision is to be received. It is faith because it cannot be by merit and such faith is “counted’ or “imputed” because the object of that faith is the only one in whom righteousness dwells.

B. The words “Imputed to him” are seen as important because it shows that God grants righteousness by imputation. This mean, that whereas in ourselves we would be counted guilty, God can be just in counting us as “not guilty” and even as “righteous” because of the object of faith that is the death of Christ and his resurrection as a righteous man received into life before the throne of God. Chapter five upcoming expands the reasons as to why  “It will be counted to us.”

C.  Righteousness is imputed to us as a result of the work of Christ in his death and resurrection. This reference to both death and resurrection anticipates verses like 5:9 and 5:10 and 5:17. His death served as a substitute in that he “was delivered up for our trespasses” to procure forgiveness. He was raised for our justification refers to his having conquered death because of  the payment of the wages of sin and his acceptance in heaven, his humanity inextricably united with his deity, with a fully acceptable completion of every aspect of righteousness in his cordial and joyful obedience to the law and every other requirement that the Father made of him as one that would obey for others.  “For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).


The precision of Paul’s argument and the exegetical labor that he gives to this demonstrates how central the doctrine of justification is to his gospel. We have no blessings from God apart from those that are invested in Christ as our righteous substitute. Recent controversies over imputed righteousness reveal how resistant we are to this concept of a freely bestowed righteousness, and actual perfect obedience to God’s law in the life of Christ declared to be ours by virtue of his taking union with us in our nature in order to accomplish for us what we lost in Adam’s sin. There are many points in this that could be offensive to modern sensibilities and exactly which one, or combination of several, causes the periodic revolt from these truths is sometimes difficult to discern. It happened, however, immediately upon the preaching of the gospel in the apostolic age for Paul has to defend this doctrine in his letter to the Galatians. Romans presents this gospel with such force and internal connection that it seems to be Paul’s attempt once and for all to seal the centrality of this teaching, not only for the Roman church, for the all the seed of Abraham in perpetuity until Christ returns  to claim his own.