1 What then will we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about—but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness. 4 Now to the one who works, pay is not credited as a gift, but as something owed. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes on him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness. — Romans 4:1-5
The Surprising Gospel that Justifies the Wicked
by Jason Dukes
Do you believe what Abraham believed?
That may be the most important question you will ever answer, and that you will ever have to keep remembering your answer to. Paul was challenging the church in Rome, most likely the majority of them with Jewish background, to remember how Abraham believed and what Abraham believed, and to remember their own need for the gospel and their only pathway to righteousness. Romans 4:1-5 should challenge us in the same way.
Paul desired the Christ-followers in Rome to quit judging and sheltering themselves from the pagan culture around them. The people of Rome lived lives debaucherously, indulging their lusts, and the Jewish Christians were repulsed by it. Paul caught his readers off guard in his transition from chapter one to chapter two. He had listed “people without excuse” who had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles....Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity....They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator” (Romans 1:20-25).
As Paul described those people who exchanged “the truth of God for a lie,” his readers were likely thinking “Yes, absolutely, that’s right.” They were willing to believe grace for their own salvation, but they were not willing to extend grace to others for the sake of them receiving salvation. Instead they had retreated into a Roman Christian bubble, disengaging from the mission of God, and hoarding the message of God He intended them to deliver (Romans 10:1-15).
Paul’s scathing indictment is clear at the beginning of chapter 2: “Therefore, any one of you who judges is without excuse. For when you judge another, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the same things. Before you move on, beg Jesus to help you not fall into the same mindset
Now, back to Romans 4:1-5.
Paul challenged those Christ-followers in Rome to continue believing what they had originally been captivated by: the undeserved gospel of a good and loving God. Abraham was invited into the righteous mission of God before he did anything to demonstrate the righteousness of God. Abraham believed God to the extent that he was willing to leave everything to engage in God’s righteous purposes. This was all because of God, not Abraham, since God initiated it.
Abraham’s behavior did not thwart God’s kind invitation extended to him, nor did the behavior of those pagan Romans thwart God’s kind invitation that was to be extended to them through the church living in Rome. Furthermore, Abraham’s righteous actions did not create in him a sense of elitism, nor should the Roman Christians allow their attempts at righteous behavior to create in them a sense of “we are better than those Roman pagans.”
They were forgetting what Abraham believed and the effect of his belief. “Now to the one who works, pay is not considered as a gift, but as something owed. But to the one who does not work, but believes on Him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5 HCSB).
If we need to perform for God’s goodness and graciousness to be given and to keep being given, then we are not believing the unearned gospel gift of His righteousness given to us—a gift which should continue to be given through us. We who are ungodly are declared to be godly by the One who demonstrated His love for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Now we are asked to believe that godliness and righteousness have also been given freely to other ungodly sinners through the finished work of the cross.
- Do you believe what Abraham believed?
- Do you believe the gospel as good news for the ungodly, or do you believe the gospel as news for the good and godly?
- Are you working for a gift that has already been given, or are you believing the finished work of the cross?
- Does the gospel you say you believe move you to shelter yourself from the ungodly sinners around you, or does it move you to live sent to deliver the undeserved gospel intended for both the ungodly sinner that is you as well as the ungodly sinners around you? May we believe as Abraham believed. Lord, help my unbelief.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.