Romans Chapter 4: Justification by Faith
Paul develops his argument about justification by faith more in this chapter.
In chapter 3, Paul made his great claim of justification by faith in Christ alone—a faith which excludes boasting and upholds the law.
His argument was attacked by many Jews at that time. They maintained that the condition of salvation was not only faith, but observance of the law. They also required the Gentile Christians to observe all kinds of ritualistic laws, including circumcision. By doing so, they damaged the essence of the gospel.
However, they didn't insist on upholding the law for no reason. In fact, in the Old Testament, there are some verses that imply justification by works. One example is Deuteronomy 6:25. Moses said to the Israelites,
“If we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness” (Dt 6:25)
So, it was not unreasonable for Jewish Christians to demand that Gentile Christians obey the law.
So then, does the Old Testament teach righteousness by works, while the New Testament teaches righteousness only by faith? Do the Old and New Testaments contradict each other when it comes to righteousness? What do you think about this matter?
Before we discuss how Paul answered this question, there’s one thing we should know about God—our God is a faithful God. What does it mean for God to be faithful? It basically means that God doesn’t change. God didn’t change the way for us to be justified. Faith is the basis for justification in both the Old and New Testaments. That’s the point of Romans chapter 4.
Now, in Romans 4, Paul uses two examples from the Old Testament to support his case of justification by faith—Abraham and David.
“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?… What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.… David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Rm 4:1,3,6)
This was a stroke of genius. Abraham and David are two of the most important and esteemed figures in the history of Israel at that time and now. They are so famous that even non-Christians know their names.
Abraham was the father of the Jews. The nation of Israel began with him. In Genesis chapter 12, God promised Abraham that He would make his descendants into a great nation whom He would bless. David was the greatest king of the Jews.
So, Paul chose these two people on purpose to support his assertion of faith-based justification to the Jews who opposed him.
First, about Abraham’s righteousness, Paul says,
“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God.” (Rom 4:2)
By using the conjunction “if,” Paul emphasized the fact that Abraham was not justified by works. Then, what made Abraham righteous?
“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rm 4:3)
Λογίζομαι: Credited Righteousness
This verse introduces us to an extremely important word for the whole chapter: λογίζομαι (logizdomai). This word is repeated 11 times in this chapter and translated mostly as “credited” (v 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24) and “count” (v 8).
‘logizdomai’ is an accounting term, meaning “to count as.” To credit something is to give a status that was not there before. This term is also used in the Scriptures in ascribing or attributing righteousness.
In verse 3 Paul, quoting from Genesis 15:6, says that Abraham’s faith was “credited to him as righteousness.” What does it mean? It doesn’t merely mean that faith results in righteousness, or that Abraham’s faith was in itself a form of righteousness deserving of God’s favor.
God treated Abraham as though he were living a righteous life. His faith was not righteousness, but God counted it as if it were. Abraham was not in himself righteous, perfect and blameless, but God treated him as though he were. This is an amazing gift from God.
Theologians say, “the crediting of Abram’s faith as righteousness means ‘to account to him a righteousness that does not inherently belong to him.”
This interpretation is seen in Romans 4:5 which says,
“However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Rm 4:5).
We can understand a great deal from the term ‘logizdomi.’ When we received our credited righteousness, we were still wicked. It means that we became justified and righteous not because we deserved it or because we did something righteous, but just because God treated us as though we were.
It means that it is possible to be loved and accepted by God while we ourselves are still sinful and imperfect. What God requires us to have is humble hearts and penitent souls resulting from true faith in Jesus. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done before or even after believing Jesus, we can still “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Heb 4:16), relying on what Jesus did for us and God’s righteousness freely given to us through Christ.
Justification and credited righteousness are therefore the same thing. To be justified is to receive credited righteousness. This is what Martin Luther and other theologians called “passive righteousness,” or “imputed righteousness.”
And, the only thing that makes it possible is ‘faith.’