Yesterday, I had the opportunity to preach Romans 4:1-8 as we continued our study through the book of Romans on the Lord’s Day. First Paul begins with a robust understanding of human depravity in chapter 1.The apostle then moves on to explain the theology of salvation—specifically focusing in on justification by faith alone in Christ alone in chapters 2-3. As we arrive at chapter 4, remember that Paul is pushing back against the Jewish teaching of salvation which was rooted and grounded in the keeping of the Law. It was a works based system.
How did the Jews arrive at such a horrific theological error? Like most errors, it wasn’t an overnight switch. However, through the years they came to embrace some really troubling things about Abraham; in fact, they invented a new Abraham in order to teach their false view of salvation. We can see this in two historic pieces of literature from Jewish history.
- The Prayer of Menassah states the following, “Therefore, Thou, O Lord, God of the righteous hast not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who did not sin against Thee but Thou hast appointed repentance for me who am a sinner.”
- The book of Jubilee (second century B.C.) teaches the following, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord and well pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.”
Since Paul understood that the Jews embraced a false Abraham and a false salvation by works, he set up Romans in a systematic manner that began with a robust understanding of human depravity (which would include Abraham) and then moved to point out how Abraham was truly saved—by the imputed righteousness of Christ—resulting in the one-time justification of him before God. This was all received by faith rather than a reward for his effort.
This is why Paul decided to spend an entire section (chapter 4) on the conversion and salvation of Abraham. This was an apologetic approach that pushed back against the errors which were a direct assault on the true gospel of Jesus Christ. This is one reason why the Jews hated Paul and one reason why he eventually had his head cut off as a martyr for Jesus.
Paul makes the point that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. We see a couple of important facts here. Abraham had faith in God, and it was counted (λογίζομαι) as righteousness. “God imputes faith (cf. Jms. 2:23; Rom. 4:3ff.; Gal. 3:6). This imputing sets up a relation between salvation and faith and raises the question of merit. In Gen. 15:6 God reckons faith as righteousness because he is pleased to do so and not because it has intrinsic worth.”  The rabbis of Paul’s day had removed the true meaning of this word and likewise the judgment of God from God’s will. They began teaching (λογίζομαι) as a means of general recognition. Paul understood this error well and places great emphasis upon the true meaning of the term.
The reason God does not impute (credit) sin to us, is because Christ has been made sin for us. As a result God imputes righteousness to us. Abraham was saved in the exact same way we’re saved—through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ and the imputation of his righteousness. That’s why later Paul will come to chapter 8 and declare these wonderful words: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 537.