Romans 4:1-12
God Justifies The Sinful Person

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

Re-Translated In November 1999

1.  "So, what should we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, obtained?," (verse one).  Chapter four begins with these words.  Since he uses the phrase "our ancestor according to the flesh," we understand that Paul is addressing the Jews here in particular.  Paul is addressing those who were living in a pride that claimed "God's law was given to us and we have kept it."  What Paul has been stating so far is that "when a person is justified it does not come from the works of the law, but it comes from faith," (3:28).  But, the message that the basis for a righteous relationship with God is not on human works was truly difficult to accept for a person in use to feeling pride in his or her works and in use to thinking he or she had been racking up good [deeds] with God.  In any time period of the world, the gospel has only been a stumbling block for the haughty.  But, Paul stands on common ground and clears up why [the gospel] is a "righteousness based on faith" and not a "righteousness based on the law."  [Their] common ground is the scriptures.  [As] recorded in their scriptures, he takes up Abraham who the Jews look up to as a forefather and David who they look up to as the true king.  So then, with these characters which we see in the Old Testament scriptures how will "the righteousness of God that comes from faith" be proven?

Abraham Was Recognized As Righteous

2.  First, let's read from verses one through five.

"So, what should we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, obtained?  If he were justified by works he should have been proud, but he couldn't be before God.  What has been written in the scriptures?  It has, 'Abraham believed God.  But it was recognized as his righteousness.'  Therefore, remuneration to the one who works is not considered grace but as what one should rightfully be paid.  However, the person who believes in the one who justifies the sinful person, even though he has no works, his faith is recognized as righteousness," (verses one through five).

3.  Abraham, who they looked up to as their forefather, was also for them a representative of a holy man or a righteous person.  There was no difference in understanding between the Jews and Paul regarding the fact that [Abraham] had once lived in a righteous relationship with God.  Thereupon, Paul begins to speak on why Abraham was regarded as a righteous person.  It, of course, is a situation recorded in scripture.  Was it based on the superiority of Abraham's works?  Was it based on works which he could take pride in before God?  Paul says, "It wasn't."  What is written in the scriptures?  What Paul quotes here is the words from Genesis 15:6.  "Abraham believed God.  But it was recognized as his righteousness."  The scriptures clearly record that the reason it was recognized as righteousness was not because Abraham did any kind of works but because he believed God.

4.  In order to understand what this means let's open to Genesis chapter fifteen.  The backdrop in use for this scene is the agony of Abraham where the child who was to be his heir had not been born.  It was an agony that had to do with Abraham's relationship with God because when God called Abraham he made the following promise:  "You will leave the home town in which you were born, the house of your father, and go to the land that I will show [you].  I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and lift up your name; so that you will become a source of blessing.  I will bless the person who blesses you and I will curse the person who curses you.  All the families on earth will enter into blessing through you," (Genesis 12:1-3).  Abraham obeyed these words and set out. That was the beginning of the relationship between God and Abraham.  However, while he promised to make a great nation, in reality, the child to be his heir had not been born.  Where in the world was the truth of God?  Such doubts were growing in his heart.  Therefore, in chapter fifteen, Abraham complains to God.  "As you see, since you have not given me descendants, a servant of [my] house will be my heir."  He could not help himself from speaking to God in this manner.  He was advanced in years.  The more that time passed the dimmer the flame of his hopes grew.  Indeed the flame was already about out.  But, God said to this Abraham, [so spent with time and short of hope], "He will not be your heir, but the one born from you will be your heir."  Then, he took Abraham outside and said.  "Look up to the heavens and try to count the stars if you can."  Then he added, "Your descendants will be like these [stars]."

5.  In this scene God did not do anything brand new for Abraham.  He did nothing more than repeat the promise he had given before.  As we read in Genesis, God was always that way with Abraham.  He did not even show him any special signs.  He did not show him anything to increase his expectations, neither did he give him anything to be a basis for a sure hope.  He might have changed his manner of presenting it, but in the final analysis he had only repeated the same promise.  What might this mean?  It might have meant that God was looking for acceptance of his word by Abraham and for his faith in these promises through thick and thin.  In other words, he was looking for acceptance in the truth of God, reliance on the truth of God and entrusting oneself over to the truth of God.  To put it another way, he was looking to him for [his] faith.  When there was no reason at all to hope, he was looking for him to still embrace hope and believe.  And, contrary to the despair right before his eyes Abraham dared to believe the Lord.  Because of this the Bible says the following:  "Abram (Abraham) believed the Lord.  The Lord recognized it as his righteousness," (Genesis 15:6).

6.  Make no mistake that what God recognized here as his righteousness was not his godliness or piety.  Since we often mistake so-called godliness for faith, this matter is especially important.[1]  Going back to The Epistle To The Roman Disciples, please take notice of what Paul is saying.  After he quoted Genesis, he said that,  "Therefore, remuneration to the one who works is not considered grace but as what one should rightfully be paid.  However, the person who believes in the one who justifies the sinful person, even though he has no works, his faith is recognized as righteousness."  It's not wrong at all to be godly.  Being pious was definitely important.  But, when Abraham was made righteous it was not because he was godly or deep in devotional faith.  Rather, Paul daringly made Abraham into "a sinful person, a sinner."  He said that God, who justified Abraham, was "the one who justifies the sinful person."  The Genesis story proves that Paul's message is not wrong at all.  A person's godliness or devotion crumbles so very easily according to time and circumstance.  Blow it and it's gone.  Even in the case of Abraham.  He was no exception.  Abraham could not obtain righteousness as a payment or reward.  Abraham did not offer anything worth being proud of and then receive righteousness in exchange for it.  What he did receive was not a reward or remuneration.  It was grace.  He just turned himself over to God's truth and he received grace for what it was [grace and grace alone].  That's what it means when it says he still embraced hope and believed.  God recognized that faith as righteousness.

David Was Recognized As Righteous

7.  As we continue, let's read verses six onward.

"Likewise even David was beaming in the following way as a blessed man who was recognized by God as righteous without depending on works. 'Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven and who had their sins covered.  Blessed is the person whom the Lord doesn't regard that he has sin,'" (verses six through eight).

8.  What Paul is quoting from here is Psalm thirty-two.  It is a song known as a psalm of repentance.  David was truly a man loved by God.  He was a man who walked with God.  In this regard there were no differences in understanding between Paul and the Jews.  But, was it because his works were recognized by God?  Was it because he didn't sin but walked faithfully in the law?  No, not for that reason.  He himself was also a sinner.  The Bible speaks on the life of David without falsifying it.  It speaks openly on his sin as well.  One of the well known events is called "The Incident With Bath Sheba."  This is recorded in Second Samuel chapter eleven.  David committed the sin of adultery with Bath Sheba the wife of one of David's subordinates who was in the battlefield.  Then, she became pregnant with David's child.  David tried to conceal this sin anyway he could.  Ultimately, David sent Uriah her husband to the front line to the heat of the battle and had him killed in action.  Uriah died and Bath Sheba became David's wife.  So his sin was certainly hidden from human view.  However, even though he could cover up a thing like sin from other people, he could not cover it up from God or himself.  The words of Psalm thirty-two make this truth plain.  "I kept silent but with unending groaning I have rotted to the bone. Your hand is heavy upon me both by day or by night, my strength is in the drought of summer and is utterly knocked out," (Psalm 32:3-4).

9.  But, this psalm continues on like this.  "I showed you [my] sin and did not conceal [my] blame.  I said, 'I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.'  At that time, you forgave my sin and faults," (Psalm 32:5).  He stopped being silent before God, he stopped keeping his heart stubbornly shut, and he recognized his sin before God's presence.  It is specifically recorded in Second Samuel chapter twelve how that the prophet Nathan was sent to David and his sin was identified.  Of course, even on this particular occasion given him by God as well, he could have squelched it like nothing if he wanted to.  Because with his political authority  it was possible to ignore Nathan.  But, David didn't do that.  He confessed his sin before God.  At any rate, when his sin was forgiven it was not based on his works.  He just quit covering up his sin and turned himself over to the grace of God.  When his sin was forgiven, it was mainly because of God's grace.  God covered his sin.  Of course, David did not know at that time what in the world God would do in order to cover a person's sin.  He did not know that one day God would set forth Christ and make "an offering to atone for sin for the one who believes," (3:25).  But, what is more clear than that is the fact that he had received God's grace purely as grace.  Because he knew God's grace, he spoke on his own personal blessedness.  "How blessed is the person who has been forgiven of rebellion and has had his sins covered, (Psalm 32:1).  In this manner he was also justified by faith and not by works.

To Whom Does This Blessedness Extend?

10.  In addition, Paul continues the message and says the following:

"Well, this blessedness, is it only given to a person who has received circumcision?  Or, does it extend to uncircumcised persons as well?  We say, 'The faith of Abraham was recognized as righteousness.'  How was [his faith] recognized like that?  After he received circumcision?  Or, was it before he received circumcision?  It was not after he received circumcision, but before he received it. Abraham received the sign of circumcision as proof that he was justified by faith before receiving circumcision.  Thus, he became the father of all persons who believe just as they are in a state of uncircumcision and they also were recognized as righteous.  Furthermore, he did not only receive circumcision and [become] the father of those who received circumcision, but became a father as well to the people who follow the example of faith which our father Abraham had before circumcision," (verses nine through twelve).

11.  Paul speaks by making hypothetical objections which the Jews might still come up with.  He says, "Aren't both Abraham and David our forefathers? Aren't they people who belong to the Jewish race?  It bothers us to treat them like the uncircumcised.  The reason David could say a blessing was because he was an Israelite who had received circumcision.  It doesn't mean that this blessing also extends to the uncircumcised, right?"  But, Paul responds to this with the truth as recorded definitively in the scriptures.  When the faith of Abraham was required as righteousness, was it after or before he received circumcision?  It is in Genesis chapter seventeen when Abraham receives circumcision.  In other words, when Abraham was justified by faith, Abraham was "an uncircumcised person."  With that, the conclusion Paul gives goes according to the following wording:  He became the father of the Jews and the Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised.  In other words, it means that Abraham is the father of all persons who believe as they are without having circumcision and he didn't only receive circumcision, but has become the father of the people who follow his example of faith.

12.  Therefore, even the answer to the question in verse nine becomes clear in due course.  "Well, this blessedness, is it only given to a person who has received circumcision?  Or, does it extend to uncircumcised persons as well?"  Of course, it extends to the uncircumcised as well.  This is a message which holds great significance for us as well.  We ourselves are [among] "the uncircumcised."  But, the blessedness which Abraham received and the blessedness which David received are not unrelated to us.  The blessedness of the person who has been recognized as righteous by God without depending on works is being given to us as well because if we quit being proud of our own righteousness and recognize that we ourselves are sinners and that we are sinful persons, and "believe in the one who justifies the sinful person," we will also be justified by faith.  By faith we too are made descendants of Abraham.

End Note

1.Japanese often consider a godly attitude in a person's life as more important than who he or she worships.  If someone is pious or godly, people will admire him or her regardless of the target of his or her worship.  People often think godliness is a good work that should be counted by God or some deity.  This is the point I am making when I say we Japanese mistake godliness for faith.

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