What does “righteousness” mean to us? At first it may be an irritation, an easily-dismissed concept that seems impossible to attain. Who, the world tells us, is to say what is right? In the light of God’s Word, however, we find that Jesus calls His followers to righteousness, even perfection. We also find forgiveness of our sins through His death on the cross. We find, in Romans 3, justification! For a long time, my understanding of justification and righteousness went this far. I was secure in the accomplished fact of Christ’s redemption and rejoiced in God’s grace, but I located justification as something that had taken place, and I had already experienced in my life. There is, however, a wonderful view of justification in Romans 4 that I had never seen! It’s a view illustrated by the example of an impossible promise and an unsearchable purpose at work in the life of Abraham.
After dealing in ch. 3 with the objective, positional justification accomplished by the death of Christ, Paul in this chapter shows the subjective, dispositional justification carried out by the resurrection of Christ. He uses Abraham as the example to show that adequate, living justification is God’s deeper work in calling fallen people out of everything other than God and bringing them back to Himself, so that they place their full trust in Him rather than in themselves.
Romans 4:1, note 1
In chapter 3, justification is accomplished by the redemption of Christ through His death on the cross. In this chapter, verse 25 tells us that Jesus “was delivered for our offenses and was raised for our justification,” linking justification to Christ’s resurrection. It’s true that the resurrection is proof that God’s righteous requirement was satisfied by Christ’s death, but the context of this chapter reveals that God’s justification is much more than legal forgiveness. The Recovery Version note quoted above continues:
In Gen. 15 Abraham’s being justified by God was not related to sin; rather, it was for the gaining of a seed to produce a kingdom that will inherit the world (v. 13). Likewise, this chapter indicates that justification is not merely for man to be delivered out of God’s condemnation, but even more for God to gain many sons (8:29-30) to constitute the one Body of Christ (ch. 12) as the kingdom of God (14:17) for the fulfillment of His purpose.
This story from Genesis 15 seems at first to cover familiar territory: aging, mortality, the desire for children, and eventually trust in God’s promise. I’m so glad that Paul read Genesis 15! In Romans 4, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he uses the story of Abraham’s desire for a seed to reveal justification as a living and subjective reality.
Abraham was called by God, who appeared to him as “the God of glory” and left him with a mysterious promise. In Genesis 12 God promises Abraham that his seed would possess the good land, and in chapter 13 He confirms and strengthens the promise. As time went by, Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless. Naturally, Abraham began to wonder how this promise could be fulfilled, eventually suggesting that his faithful household servant would be his heir. God’s answer was quick (Gen. 15:4-6):
But then the word of Jehovah came to him, saying, This man shall not be your heir, but he who will come out from your own body shall be your heir. And He brought him outside and said, Look now toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And He said to him, So shall your seed be. And he believed Jehovah, and He accounted it to him as righteousness.
This is the mysterious “accounting” that Paul uses here and in Galatians 3 to demonstrate that righteousness through believing God is not a novel teaching of the followers of Jesus. As the note points out, the context of this accounting by God is not Abraham’s need to be forgiven of sin (although surely as part of fallen mankind, Abraham did have this need). Instead, the context is the promise of a seed! This is absolutely a matter of life. Initially this seed was Isaac, but eventually Paul identifies this seed as Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). Through faith in Him we sinners become sons of God (vv. 26-29), receiving the promise originally given to Abraham!
Eventually, God’s purpose for the seed is seen in verse 13. Abraham or his seed “would be the heir of the world,” pointing us to God’s desire for a glorious expression to represent Him on the earth (Gen. 1:26). God’s purpose is absolutely centered on Christ. Through faith we are joined to Christ, becoming His Body for His expression. This expression, the church, is the kingdom of God today (Rom. 14:17).
Christ was raised for our justification. This is an accomplished fact, but how marvelous it is that today God works out His eternal purpose in a living and subjective way in justified and glory-bound sons! We are called not only to have doctrinal assurance of justification, but to “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham” (Rom. 4:12). Next week, we’ll look more at walking in these steps of faith.
- The Life-study of Romans, chapter 7 contains and expands upon many of the footnotes from the Recovery Version of the New Testament referenced in this post.
- Chris Hall digs into Abraham’s experience of being called by God on his blog.