There once was a frog who fell into a jug of milk. And though the frog tried every way imaginable to jump out, he couldn’t. The sides of the jug were too high, the walls were too slippery, and because he was floating he couldn’t get good footing to jump anyway. So he did the only thing he could do. He paddled and paddled and paddled and voila (!) the milk slowly turned to butter, which became solid enough for him to stand on to jump out of the jug.[1]

We might find such a story engaging and maybe humorous even, but I think this story, sadly, resembles what most Christians believe. Let me explain. You see, we’ve now finished walking through the first three chapters in Romans where Paul makes his case for justification by faith alone, the wondrous “act of God’s free grace, where He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only because of the righteousness of Christ imputed (or reckoned) to us, which we receive by faith alone.”[2] That’s where we’ve been in Romans 1-3, but today as we move on ahead into Romans 4 I think we’ll see that Paul knows the tendency of the human heart. Though we sing ‘Amazing Grace’ how God saves ‘a wretch like me’ I think most people believe if we just keep paddling, keep working, and keep doing our best we’ll make it to heaven in the end. Sadly, this isn’t true. Paul knew it, and deep down I think we know it too. So what does Paul do? After teaching us in Romans 1-3 Paul now turns to illustrate what he’s taught us with two lessons from two of the largest figures in the Old Testament: Abraham and David. This isn’t just a good idea Paul had, as if these two men were just the first individuals to pop up in Paul’s head as he finishes chapter 4. No, turning to Abraham and David was first, nothing really new for Paul. In Romans 1-3 he’s already rooted his teaching in the Law and the Prophets, in all of the Old Testament, so it’s not surprising to see him return to it again. But second, that Paul once again goes to the Old Testament was something of a masterstroke.[3] You see, Abraham was the great patriarch, the one man God promised to turn into a nation, making him the Father of Israel. And David, of all the kings Israel had, he was the greatest king in Israel’s history, who not only led Israel to its greatest heights as a nation but was the one king God promised to bring the Messiah through. So, other than Moses perhaps, no one in the Old Testament is more important than these two.

But I do wonder. What’s your honest response seeing this? I’m well aware that whenever we turn to the Old Testament today there is an immediate gap or a distance we feel simply because the world of the Old Testament is so far removed from us today. But be reminded.[4] The Old Testament is more than half of our Bible. The Old Testament paves the road for the New Testament. And by doing so the Old Testament leads us to the coming of Christ and reveals how God, in Christ, has kept all the promises He made before. I know we’re not quite in the text yet, but here at the beginning I just want to point out what Paul does in the text. That he goes back to the Old Testament to illustrate and prove his case reminds us of the inspiration and the beauty of the Old Testament Scriptures. Far too many today separate the New Testament from the Old Testament thinking the New to be a Christian book about grace and the Old to be a Jewish book about Law. Paul did know such thing. Instead, he reaches back to Abraham and David as his two prime examples of justification by faith alone to show us that God has always saved sinful man like this. Or to put it differently, by reaching back to these examples, Paul’s making it clear that he’s no theological creator or innovator, no. Instead, Paul’s pointing out that what he’s been saying has always been the truth!

Well let’s see this for ourselves. So this morning I’d like to call your attention to Romans 4:1-8.

A Lesson from Father Abraham (v1-5)

v1-3 first, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Paul begins chapter 4 with a question, as is often his method. In fact Paul does this 14 times in Romans as he explains and applies the realities of the gospel.[5] And this time his question concerns Abraham. Remember what we’ve already said, Abraham was the great patriarch, the father of Israel, that’s true. But by the time of the first century, as traditions have the tendency to do, Abraham had become something of a mythic figure. So it’s not surprising that many Jewish authors of the first century and a bit farther back made statements about Abraham that are exaggerated to say the least. Let me give you a few examples. One author states, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.”[6] Another author says Abraham, “did not sin against God”[7] and another even says “no one has been found like him in glory.”[8] So for first century Jew, Abraham was the epitome of the godly man who earned a righteousness before God by his own works.[9] Yet what do we see when we open up the Old Testament? Abraham was a pagan wealthy man who was chosen by God, who didn’t always make the right choices. He lied on multiple occasions to avoid conflict and trouble, and in a few instances he was very abusive to his servants.

So in bringing up Abraham Paul goes straight for the jugular of Jewish tradition and says Abraham wasn’t as upright as the tradition teaches. To do this would’ve been shocking to them in that day. It’s like someone today calling Mr. Rogers into question. I mean, no one’s going to speak against him, or call his character into question, it’s just something you don’t do! Look at v1-2. After the question in v1, he says in v2 that if Abraham was truly justified or earned a perfect righteousness by his own works, he would have something to boast about. But when God comes into the equation that simply can’t be a possibility. So Paul adds that little phrase at the end of v2, “but not before God.” Think of it. Hasn’t Paul proved that everyone, Jew and Gentile cannot boast before God because all are under sin? Indeed he has. So Paul’s conclusion about Abraham is that he’s not the epitome of the godly man who earned a righteousness before God by his own works, no. Abraham is one example of an ungodly man who God saved and made righteous through faith.[10]

This is all explained further in v3 where Paul says, “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” I love how v3 begins, do you? “For what does the Scripture say?” How refreshing, how wonderful for us to see such an example of Paul bringing the matter under the scrutiny of the Scriptures! Too often the Scriptures are left behind when Christians are struggling with a certain doctrine, with society at large, or even with themselves. And too often the Scriptures are left behind when the Church gets into a controversy or debate. But look at Paul here! When Paul wants to illustrate and expand on the great doctrine of justification by faith alone what does he do? He goes to the Scriptures. Surely this is the posture of the Christian. The Christian isn’t one who interprets life and doctrine and all things on their own as if they were the authority of all truth, no. The Christian is one who, in all things, lives under the authority of the Word of God. You see, we may truly examine the writings of Plato, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Sproul, Piper, or anyone and find them helpful or unhelpful to varying degrees. But when we come to the Scripture we find something different. We don’t examine it, it examines us.

Back to Paul in v3 now. What are we to think about Abraham, the Father of Israel? Hear the verse once more, “For, what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” This is a quote of Genesis 15:6. To get the full gist of why he quotes this here at this point in v3, let’s go back to the context.[11] In Genesis 12 God had made a great covenant, a promise to Abraham, that he would be the father of a great nation and through his descendants God would bless all the families on earth. Fast forward a few chapters, in Genesis 14, and we find that Abraham and his strong men rescued Lot and won a great war defeating four kings. But it seems he was plagued with doubt after this victory, perhaps because up until this point the promise God had made to him still hadn’t come to pass and he had no descendants yet. Then Genesis 15 begins with God saying, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abraham still in doubt cries out that he’s childless and still has no heir. To which God responds, “…your very own son shall be your heir…” and God brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…So shall your offspring be.” Then comes Genesis 15:6, the verse Paul quotes in Romans 4:3, “And he believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”

There we have it. Do you see now why Paul reaches back and quotes this pivotal verse? Paul does so because he deeply desires us to know, to see, to learn, and to love two things. First, Abraham’s covenant relationship with God was established and made secure not by Abraham’s works but by faith.[12] And second, it was by faith, or through faith that Abraham was counted or reckoned as righteous. So what he’s been saying all along in Romans 1-3 about us and about justification by faith alone does indeed go all the way back to Genesis. Or, as it was with Abraham so it is with us. Our covenant relationship with God is established and made secure not by our works but by faith. And, it’s by faith, or through faith that we’re counted or reckoned as righteous.

Now, Paul will explain this more with another illustration. Keep on and look to v4-5, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” Here two people are contrasted. In v4 one’s in view who works and from such working this one receives wages. These wages aren’t a gift, no, they’ve been earned by working. But in v5 it changes. Here one’s in view who doesn’t work but believes, and from believing is counted as righteous. But notice in v5 this one doesn’t just ‘believe’ in a general sense, they believe specifically in Him, or in God, who justifies the ungodly. So alongside this believing there’s also an acknowledgement of our sin, our ungodliness, that in such sin we could never earn righteousness at all. No, we believe in a God who saves, who? Not the godly person, or the person who has it all together, not even the person who promises to be righteous, no. We believe in the God who saves the ungodly and declares the ungodly sinner to be righteous. Why? How? Only because of Jesus. He not only saves us by the sinful death He died for us, but by the perfect life He lived for us. When we believe in Him, His perfect righteousness is put into our account and God counts us as righteous!

How do we respond to this? What’s the application here? Praise God! That such grace has come to sinners like us! Church, I believe forgetting, getting over, or losing the wonder of this is our greatest danger. Which means remembering it, rejoicing in it, and continually being stunned by this God of grace is our greatest need.

A Lesson from King David (v6-8)

How would you describe someone who is blessed? Is a blessed person someone who has their life together? Is a blessed person someone who is married with 2.5 kids? Is it someone who’s healthy? Is it someone who has a nice house and drives a nice car? Or is a blessed person someone who gets that front parking space at Publix? Many speak of people being blessed if they fit into these categories, but notice what v6-8 says here? “…just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Paul is once again doing what he did in v3, “For what does the Scripture say?” but this time he goes back to David and quotes from Psalm 32, where we find that the blessed one is not only forgiven, the blessed one not only has their sins covered, it’s more. The blessed one doesn’t have their sins counted against them. Do you see the connection between these two quotes? I do think by adding David to Abraham here Paul’s adding more confirmation to what he’s saying, but more’s going on. In Genesis 15:6 we saw Abraham was ‘counted’ righteous. Notice the same word shows up in Psalm 32 as we see the blessed one doesn’t have their sins ‘counted’ against them.[13] It’s the same word, and with this being the same word we see the same reality as before, but this time it’s from a different angle. The Abraham quote in Genesis is all about what he’s given. So there he was counted, or reckoned, as righteous. Not a righteousness he earned by works but a righteousness gifted to him by grace through faith. Here with David it’s similar but we see the other side of it. It’s not what he’s given this time, but what is taken away. His own sin, his failure, his vile deeds are not counted against him, rather he’s forgiven, his sins are covered, and because of this he’s blessed.

The question coming from this is a hard one but a beautiful one. I’d like you to do something. Get into your mind the worst sin(s) you’ve ever committed. Not just something minor you’ve done here or there, I’m talking of those past sins that still impact you in the present with a weight, the ones that embarrass you, that bring deep shame to you. The sins that tempt you to think God could never love you. Got them in mind? Listen v7-8 once again, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” 

So see the two sides of what it means to be truly blessed, here in v1-8. On one hand we have the example of David, sins not counted against us. On the other hand we have the example of Abraham, righteousness given to us. How can this be? By faith! Faith in who? Faith in God who justifies the ungodly in Christ. Only those who’ve been wrecked and remade in the gospel of grace know what it means to be truly blessed.

Conclusion:

I want to be clear about this. So perhaps I can just ask, ‘Are you a Christian?’[14] Here’s how you discover the answer. Have you come to the end of yourself, in every possible way? Are you looking only and entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ and what He has done on your behalf? Or are you like the frog we began with today, paddling and paddling away in life trying to be saved in the end by your own works? We’d likely never put it like that, no, it usually just looks like someone trying their best to be a good Christian. But that’s salvation by works. Or it can look like believing in God and trying your best to do His will. That’s salvation by faith plus works. It can even look like believing in God with all your heart. That’s salvation by faith as a work![15]

Let’s put it how Paul puts it. Salvation is a free gift to those who do not work but believe in God who saves sinners. So have you stopped attempting to do anything to right yourself before God? Are you looking only and entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ and what He has done on your behalf? This is the Christian’s great confession. That we’re ungodly, guilty before God, deserving of death and hell, that we truly have nothing, literally nothing, to recommend ourselves to God. But that He, in love, sent His Son to live for us, die for us, rise for us, ascend for us, rule over us, and one day to return for us, to dwell in the midst of us forever.

By faith alone, God pardons all our sins, accepts us as righteous in His sight, only because of the righteousness of Christ counted to us. This is God’s grace, and for it, we praise His name!


[1] Kent R. Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1991), 83.

[2] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q33.

[3] Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2014), 95.

[4] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999) 25.

[5] Douglas Moo, Romans, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 144.

[6] Jubilees 23:10.

[7] Prayer of Manasses 8.

[8] Sirach 44:19.

[9] J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 93.

[10] Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 283.

[11] Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, 84–85.

[12] Moo, Romans, 2018, 284.

[13] Moo, 289.

[14] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, vol. 3 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 178–80.

[15] Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, 99.

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