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6. An Old Testament Illustration of Justification by Faith (Romans 4)


Fred Bowlby, owner of the local pub, The Pig and the Whistle, had become famous for his Doomsday Chair, a cane chair with gold cushion, chained to a fixture in a pub in West London. Any who dared to sit in this chair were offered free liquor. A city slicker had accepted the challenge and allegedly died on the spot. Charlie Skinner, the town drunk, probably had not intended to sit in the chair at all, but unknowingly sitting in the ‘killer chair,’ his body was found in the river, where he had drowned.

Father Duddleswell maintained that the absence of faith leads to superstition, and so he was challenged by the pub owner to sit in the chair. The father found numerous excuses, but the offer of one hundred pounds and considerable public pressure made it unwise to refuse. The father agreed to sit in the chair every day for a week at a designated time. When the week was over the father proudly took the chair home and displayed it in his study.

Praised for his courage by an associate, the father reluctantly confessed that he wasn’t courageous at all. The father had found an identical chair in the local antique shop, and with the help of the pub owner’s wife, had switched the two chairs in the middle of the night. The real chair he had buried in the garden.

It wasn’t long, however, before Fred Bowlby, the pub owner, came to the home of the father to make a confession. “As you know, father, that is not the Doomsday Chair,” he said, pointing to the chair displayed in his study. “You see, father, after Charlie Skinner drowned I found an identical chair at the antique shop and replaced the killer chair, for fear someone else might die.”

“And what did you do with the real chair?” the father inquired. “Well, I would have buried it in the garden, but my wife being a keen gardener, I knew she’d find it. So I took the real chair back to the antique store and told them I must return it since it didn’t suit the decor of my place.” Fred commended the faith of the priest, for even though it was not the real killer chair, he had acted with courage in accepting the challenge of the pub owner.

When Fred left, Father Duddleswell collapsed into his armchair, ashen-faced. Quickly he instructed his associate to dig another hole in the garden.19

Now few of us would desire the kind of faith illustrated by Father Duddleswell. But the faith illustrated in Romans 4 is another matter. This is the kind of faith by which a man is justified and declared righteous by God.

The first three chapters of Romans have been devoted to proving that all men rightly fall under the condemnation of God: the Gentiles because they have rejected the revelation evident in creation (1:18-20); the Jews because they failed to live up to the standards of the Law (Romans 2:17-29).

The bad news of universal condemnation (Romans 3:10-18) is overshadowed by the good news of a righteousness of God provided to all who believe in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26). What man cannot do by his own efforts, God has done in the Person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. His death appeased the righteous anger of God toward the sinner. His death and resurrection provide the righteousness which men need to be declared righteous by God. Faith in Jesus Christ makes men righteous without Law-keeping.

To the Jews the good news of the gospel sounded like something entirely new. It appeared to be contrary to the Old Testament Law. This is why Paul asked, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Romans 3:31).

This objection to Paul’s preaching of the gospel of justification by faith is thoroughly set aside by the example of Abraham, who was regarded as the father of the Jews. If Abraham was justified by faith, then surely Paul’s teaching is neither new nor unfaithful to the faith of Israel in the Old Testament age. As we shall soon see, it was not Paul who had departed from the ‘faith of our fathers’ but the Jews.

Abraham Was Justified by Faith, Not Works

Paul eagerly probed into the ‘roots’ of the Jews. What was the experience of Abraham in this matter of justification? Was he justified by faith or by works? “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” (Romans 4:1). If Abraham were found to be saved by his works, then he would have something of which he could boast. And, of course, by implication there would be something in which the Jew could boast. The Jews did mistakenly suppose that Abraham was saved by works. Dr. A. T. Robertson informs us that the “rabbis had a doctrine of the merits of Abraham who had a superfluity of credits to pass on to the Jews.”20 But the Scriptures make it clear that Abraham could not boast before God because he was justified by faith, not works: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3).

If justification were on the basis of our works we would face several problems. First, man would have a basis for boasting. Surely this is wrong for we are created and saved in order to praise and bring glory to God, not to boast concerning ourselves. Second, we would then operate under a system of obligation, rather than under grace. Under grace God is free to give us what we do not, in and of ourselves, deserve, while under obligation, God must give us exactly what we deserve—and, who wants that? Third, it is contrary to both Old and New Testament Scripture, for in Genesis 15:6 we are told, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

David agreed with what the Scriptures record concerning Abraham’s justification by faith, apart from works, for he wrote, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven. And whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (Romans 4:7, 8).

This quotation from Psalm 32 stresses the negative side of the reckoning which occurs in the justification of the sinner. The sins of the man who trusts in God are not reckoned to him, but are forgiven and forgotten by God. Just as the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us—that is, it is put to our account—so our own deeds are not held against us.

The word “reckon” is an accounting term and it refers to the actual accounting of something either to our credit or our loss. When we are justified by faith, our sins are not reckoned against us, as they should be, but the righteousness of Christ is graciously put to our credit.

I once knew an inmate in the Dallas County Jail who had some way or other induced the record keeper to write on his record that he was accused of another crime and would be coming up for trial soon. This was so he would not be shipped out to the state penitentiary. In the eyes of the law there was an offense charged against him. That offense was ‘reckoned’ to his account. But in David’s case, he had no accusations on his record, even though a sinner, because God had not imputed his sins to him.

So then both Abraham and David give testimony to the same truth: In the Old Testament men were not justified by works, but by faith.

Abraham Was Justified While Still a Gentile

That Abraham and David (and therefore all Old Testament saints) were justified by faith apart from works was a bitter pill to swallow for the Jews. But Paul is not willing to stop here, for there is much more to be learned from the faith of Abraham. At least the Jews could console themselves in the fact that Abraham was a Jew, and not a Gentile. If Abraham was saved as a Jew, then could the Jews not insist that every man must be saved as a Jew (cf. Acts 15:1f.)? Paul strikes this hope down by showing that Abraham was declared righteous while yet a Gentile.

At first glance we might be inclined to think that verses 9-12 are intended to prove that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works; specifically, not by the rite of circumcision. Although this is true, it is not the main point Paul is striving to prove. The point which Paul is driving at is the universality of justification by faith and that it is not for the Jews only, but for Gentiles.

Was Abraham saved as a Jew or as a Gentile? Was Abraham declared righteous as one who was circumcised or as uncircumcised? Abraham, in Genesis 15:6, was declared righteous on the basis of faith fourteen years before he was circumcised (compare Genesis 15:6 with 17:24). Technically, then, Abraham was saved as a Gentile, and not as a Jew, for he did not enter Judaism by circumcision, nor did he have the Law to keep. What a blow to the Jew who maintained that one could not be saved without becoming a Jew by circumcision and keeping the Law (Acts 15:1)!

What, then, is the value of circumcision? If entrance into Judaism through circumcision does not in any way contribute to one’s justification, what good is it? Circumcision is not the source of one’s salvation, but the sign of it. It is a symbolic testimony to what has happened inwardly in the man who has been justified by faith.

The mere presence of an inspection sticker on your car does not make that car road-worthy, but it does represent in a visible fashion its road-worthiness. On the other hand, putting an inspection sticker on a car with bald tires, a faulty muffler, and no brakes will be of little help in hazardous driving conditions. Circumcision was a seal which attested to the faith of Abraham. It signified that he was righteous in the eyes of God.

The outcome of all of this is that Abraham is the ‘father’ of all who are justified by faith. He is the father of those who are justified by faith and have not been initiated into Judaism and of all believers who are also Jews. Being a Jew or a Gentile has no bearing on one’s justification, nor does the keeping of the Old Testament Laws and rituals. The only determining factor is one’s faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

God’s Promises Are
Realized by Faith, Not by Law-Keeping

In verses 13-17 I see a slight shift of emphasis. The Jews were not only seeking individual righteousness and justification before God, but also participation in experiencing the promises of God to Israel as a nation. In verses 13-17 Paul makes it plain that just as justification is attained by faith, so are the promises of God realized by faith. If I recall correctly, the Jews believed that if there was but one day when the nation would abide within the Law, the  Messiah would come. If the Jews thought that they were saved by faith, but received God’s blessing by Law-keeping, Paul lays this error to rest in these verses. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13).

There would be no need for faith if men became heirs through the Law, and the promise would be null and void, for the only thing the Law can produce is wrath and condemnation (Romans 4:14, 15). So that God can work in accord with the principle of grace, and so that men may have confidence of experiencing the promises of God, it is based upon faith and not on Law (4:16). Since the blessings of God are based upon faith and not on Law-keeping, they are assured to those who are of the Law (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles), through faith in Jesus Christ. Once again, Abraham is the father of us all, that is of us all who believe by faith in Jesus Christ.

Abraham’s Faith Is
Like That Required by the Gospel

So we must grant that everything we receive from God must be on the basis of faith, but was not the faith of Abraham vastly different from the faith required today? Not at all, Paul informs us, for it was a faith precisely like that required today.

“… in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (4:17).

Jules Henri Poincare, who in extolling the memory of his distinguished friend, uttered these terrible words: “It matters little what God one believes in; it is the faith and not the God that makes miracles.”21

With this Paul does not agree, for he makes it plain that it is the object of our faith that makes all the difference between heaven and hell.

Abraham’s faith was in a God Who could create something out of nothing. So far as his chances of having a child, they were nil. He and Sarah were as good as dead. Yet Abraham trusted God to create something out of nothing, a son from an old man and a barren woman.

Abraham also believed in a God Who could raise the dead. This is evident in his faith in the promise to have a son of his own loins and Sarah, for they were both as good as dead so far as producing children was concerned. “And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Romans 4:19). Nowhere is this faith in God’s ability to raise the dead more evident than in Abraham’s willingness to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice (Genesis 22).

In addition, Abraham’s faith was one that did not dwell on the obstacles to faith but on the object of faith. There is a minor textual difficulty in verse 19, some texts leaving out the word “not,” others inserting it. Some texts would thus read, “ he considered not his own body, now as good as dead.” The meaning here would be that Abraham did not dwell on the obstacles, but on God. Other texts say that “ he contemplated his own body now as good as dead …” We would then understand the emphasis to be on the fact that Abraham knew all too well the difficulties, but did not waver in his faith.

Either way, the point is that Abraham, in spite of tremendous human obstacles, trusted in God to do as He promised. His faith overlooked the obstacles and focused upon the object of faith, God. Because of this kind of faith, Abraham was justified before God.

Now Abraham’s experiences are not without application to us today. For it is the same kind of faith which God requires of men today. We must acknowledge ourselves to be just as helpless to enter God’s heaven by our own righteousness as Abraham was to become the father of a great nation. We must trust God to provide righteousness apart and in spite of us as Abraham trusted God to fulfill the promise of a son. So, also, we must trust in a God who has power over death and the grave. Abraham trusted in the God “who gives life to the dead” (v. 17). So we must trust in Jesus Christ Who was raised from the dead.

Now not for his sake only was it written that “It was reckoned to him,” but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification (Romans 4:23-25).

So the kind of faith required of Abraham is precisely the same kind of faith required of men today. The Law is in no way set aside, rather, it is reaffirmed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s way of salvation has never been by works, and has always been by grace through faith.


(1) Salvation is not of works, and only by faith. It should be clear that man can contribute nothing to his salvation. It is all of God; all of grace. And let us not make one last effort of claiming any part in our salvation by supposing that faith is our work, for even this is the gift of God (cf. Eph. 2:8, 9; Acts 13:48, 16:14).

Only this week I talked with a man who felt that we must contribute something to our salvation. I told him that man’s sin is like having greasy hands. When I work on the car and have grease on my hands, everything I touch is stained with grease also. When I come in with greasy hands, my wife quickly informs me not to touch anything until my hands are clean. So man’s hands are smudged with sin and there is nothing but the blood of Christ which can cleanse them. If we try to approach God by means of the works of our hands, those works will be smudged with sin and unacceptable to God. We must do as the words of the song instruct us, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.”

(2) Faith is the only way of receiving God’s blessing. Paul not only tells us that salvation is by faith, but also God’s blessings come only by faith. This past week all of us fervently prayed for a dear friend’s recovery. The answer to that prayer was not based upon our compliance with divine rules and regulations, but on faith. We often forget that the way of salvation is also the only way of blessing.

(3) The ‘sacraments’ do not convey grace as some would tell us; they symbolize grace. There are some who hold to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, insisting that a man cannot be saved apart from being baptized. This error is simply an updating of the error of the Jews, who insisted a man cannot be saved without being circumcised. Baptism is not the source of salvation, but simply a symbol of it. It is an outward act which symbolizes the fact that we, by faith, have been identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

The Lord’s Table, which we observe each week, will not in any way convey grace to you, my friend. It symbolizes the grace of God made available through Jesus Christ Who clothed Himself in human flesh and Who died in the sinner’s place, and Who offers the righteousness of God to all who believe in Him.

May God enable you to cast aside all confidence in any work which you may perform, and humbly accept the work which Jesus Christ has accomplished on the cross.

19 Adapted from ‘The Doomsday Chair’ by Neil Boyd, Reader’s Digest, April, 1978, pp. 100-104.

20 Archibald T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), IV, p. 350.

21 Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore, Stand (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1945), p. 192.

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Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification, Law