Imputed Righteousness by Faith
Romans 4 may be considered, or perhaps retitled “The Citadel of the Doctrine of Faith Alone” because this is where we discover the key and beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther famously said that this doctrine is “the article upon which the Church stands or falls”. He was right when he said this, and in the Reformation, this was at the center of the debate. Consequently, this debate in the 16th century Reformation, led to a plethora of different issues that result from this crucial doctrine. For now, I want us to understand that the Protestant position must hold at its core the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. Any group, no matter how “non-denominational” they ascribe themselves to be, if they hold to this doctrine they are Protestant in their core. But what is the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide)?
Firstly, let’s ask, what does it mean to be “justified”? To put it simply, when we talk about justification, we are talking about a legal standing. In Romans 3:24, the Greek word is “dikaioo” but it is in the passive verb form “dikaioumenoi”. This is important to understand, because what this is telling us, is that the justification is an action, not a state of being. This is important because there are many who tell each of us, such as in Roman Catholicism, that we must be in a state of righteousness, meaning we must actually be just, not simply have justification declared to us as a stamp on our tattered record. But the Greek here does not allow this. This is the context by which we enter into Romans 4 and the doctrine of justification.
Justification then, is not something the saint acquires by acts of penance, duties to the church, to their neighbor, or even to God. Justification is, as we have seen in Romans 3:24, an act of grace by God to the sinner, whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner, and how? By faith alone in Christ (Romans 3:28). We could spend entire, lengthy pages talking about this doctrine, but I think that would betray our purpose in this endeavor; instead, Paul gives us a single, beautiful sentence that explains it all for us in 2 Corinthians 5:21:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” -2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV).
Peter also says:
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” -1 Peter 2:24 (ESV).
Isaiah speaks from the Old Testament:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” -Isaiah 53:5-6 (ESV).
This is the doctrine of imputed righteousness. When I trust in Christ, through that faith, my sins become his to bear on the cross; he pays my debt that I cannot pay, and in return I get his righteousness. This is the whole purpose of the illustrations and sacraments of the old covenant. The lamb that is slain represents the sacrifice that was dying for the sins of the people the lamb represented (the people of God–Israel). The lamb that was sent out of the camp revealed that the sin offering was taking the sins of the people out of the camp, far into the sea of forgetfulness. The purity of the lamb that was required represented that the sacrifice was itself unblemished by sin; it itself had no sin, so that with its sacrifice, it took the sins of the people, and in return, gave its unblemished spirit to them.
All these were “types and shadows” as the Book of Hebrews shows us (Hebrews 10) of the true sacrifice, which was Jesus Christ. We are in a new covenant made by his blood, but yet the functions are still the same. He is our High Priest, our sacrifice before God, and in his death, all his peoples’ sins are buried and sent off into the sea of forgetfulness, never to be brought to the court of justice, and his unblemished state is theirs. My sins to him, his righteousness imputed to me. This is the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, of Imputed Righteousness, which is contrary to the doctrines of Rome, which is infused righteousness, a righteousness that is of Christ and ours as well.
The difference between the Protestant Reformation and Rome was this: In the former, justification was by legal declaration, the ladder by forensic discernment. Put more simply, in the Protestant position, God justifies me by looking, not at my blemished and vile record infested with sin and stamps me righteous, but by the record of Christ. For the Roman Catholic position, it is forensic, meaning, there must actually be, present with the sinner actual justification. I cannot simply be declared just, and perfectly just, I must be literally just (this leads to the Roman Catholic dogma of Purgatory, suffering remaining unrighteousness in Purgatory before one can enter heaven).
There are various forms other than Roman Catholic position, but I’m using that as a contrast right now because ultimately this is legalism vs faith. All legalistic subsets of Christianity operate on the fundamental principle that Christ’s righteousness is enough “insofar as” you keep yourself worthy of it. For this purpose, I use the most basic forms of both grace and law in contrast to one another, and that is found best–in my opinion–in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
Abraham the Father of the Faithful
Now we want to ask the question, why does Paul use Abraham as his prime example to explain this doctrine of justification? Very plainly, I think Paul uses Abraham because he is keenly aware of the Judiazers running around Palestine and the Roman Empire telling people that to be Christians, they can’t just have the faith in Christ, but they must first perform the Jewish rituals; likely stemming from the logical idea that to enter the new covenant, you must first enter the old one. Now that’s logical, but does that mean it’s biblical? By no means, and this Paul struggled with. We already see evidence that Paul is attempting to squash the Judiazer threat in Romans 1-2, where he silences the entitled Jews in the church by telling them they are as wretched and pagan as the Gentiles they scorn.
But more than this, in his letter to the Galatians, there is hardly a more clear assault upon the theology of the Judiazers (what the letter calls “the circumcision party”). In that letter, what does Paul use as his primary argument? Abraham! He uses Abraham there in chapter 3 just as much as here. So what’s Paul’s point in both uses? The Judiazers claim the entitlement of the blessings of Yahweh, since they descend from the man by whom God gave the promises in their most primitive form. The very first promises of God to Israel, that He would make Israel His chosen nation and people, is given to Abraham, their father. You see how the Jews believed themselves entitled to this by birth in Jesus’s debate with the Jewish leaders in John 8:34-41, the Jews appeal to their genealogy to Abraham as proof they are not slaves to sin. Jesus’ response is that their presumption is lethally misplaced, and that being born of Abraham’s loins in no way saves you from the judgment.
Paul picks up on that theme in Romans 4, and how does he do this? Again, he returns to Abraham, and seeks to use him to uproot the very presupposition of the Judiazers. The Judiazers say that we must do what Abraham did to be justified. Paul says, okay, and what did Abraham do? The Judiazers want to take us to Abraham’s circumcision; Paul takes us even farther back, to Genesis 15, where the promise was first uttered. Who declared the thing, and who simply believed it? God declared it, and Abraham believed it; trusted it, and there Paul says that actually, Abraham is on his side, not on the Judiazers’. Paul’s doctrine of justification is not a new idea; it has been in the Jewish Scriptures literally from the beginning.
With that argument set forth, the grounds of the Judiazers’ argument is entirely uprooted, because if Paul’s doctrine stands, that means Abraham circumcised himself as a result of being justified and redeemed, not to gain it. From this point, Paul concludes his argument, that to anyone who works for his justification before God, he is no longer attaining a gift, but his due wages. You are making God owe you something, and if that be the case, it is not you who owes God a debt, but God who owes you the debt! That is not the gospel, and that certainly makes no sense in light of everything Paul just said in the last three chapters!
Justification for All
With this argument made, Paul essentially bypasses the legal requirements for justification with the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with this: If I am not ultimately justified by the law, that means that I am not required to enter into the old covenant to be saved. I don’t need to be circumcised, I don’t need to adhere to the Jewish dietary laws, and undergo the temple worship. If Abraham was justified before circumcision, that means I am as well! This means that even Abraham, the Father of Israel was not always a Jew! After all, he came from a pagan nation. Abraham was made an Israelite by the grace of God! These are mind blowing truths and wonderful news for all of us! We are made Israel by God’s grace, not by genealogy!
This was the purpose of the circumcision; it was the sign of the grace of God, the sign of the covenant, the sign of the Gospel. And it is by this faith that Abraham lived, and all the patriarchs that came after him (see Hebrews 11). Having grabbed hold of the promises, Abraham considered not his own strength nor his body, but trusts in God to bring about what He promised He would bring. In this, he progressively loses trust in his own body and strength and leans more and more upon God and the promises. This is how the faithful live; this is how we are sanctified. It is all faith in God.