What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” – Romans 4:1-8 ESV
God does not owe us anything. Our well-intentioned acts of self-produced righteousness do not score us brownie points with God or put Him in our debt. Paul has tried to make it perfectly clear that God’s declaration of our righteousness is based solely on faith – faith in His gospel concerning His Son. No man or woman can earn or merit favor from God. And yet, because of sin and the death penalty it carries, they find themselves desperately needing to make things right with God. That explains man’s ongoing attempt to serve and satisfy the god of his choosing. Man is always attempting to gratify whatever god he has chosen to worship by sacrificing his time, talents, and treasures to that god. It could be the god of religious or recreation. Every day, countless men and women sacrifice themselves to the gods of entertainment, work, pleasure, popularity, wealth, beauty, and power. They give everything they have to get whatever it is they are expecting their “god” to deliver. But there is only one God, and all stand before Him in the same condition. Despite their best efforts, they have failed to measure up to His righteous standards and have fallen short of the glory He demands. It doesn’t matter how religious or morally-minded you are. It doesn’t matter if you worship the right God or the wrong god. It matters if you worship the right God in the right way. And Paul says that way is by faith.
In his gospel, John writes concerning Jesus, “ The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:9-13 ESV). When Jesus came, the vast majority of the Gentiles didn’t recognize or accept Him. And even though He was a Jew and fulfilled all the prophecies concerning their coming Messiah, the Jews rejected Him. And in doing so, they rejected the gospel of God, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). Paul has already shown that it was not enough to be a Jew. Their privileged position as God’s chosen people gave them access to God’s law and insight into His holy standards, but it did not equip them with the ability to live up to those standards – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).
And knowing that any Jews in his audience would automatically appeal to their unique status as descendants of Abraham, and attempt to use him as an example of works-based righteousness, Paul cuts the legs out from under their argument. He states, “if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2 ESV). He could have bragged about his righteous accomplishments before men, but not before God. His best efforts on his best day would have scored him no points with God. But Paul, quoting from the Old Testament book of Genesis, writes, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” God reminds his Hebrews readers that God had promised to make of Abraham a mighty nation. And yet, Abraham was old and his wife was barren. Both Abraham and Sarah began to wonder about God’s promise. How could Abraham father a mighty nation if he didn’t have a son? So Abraham assumed his heir would have to be one of his household servants. But God told Abraham, “‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Genesis 15:4-5 ESV). God repeated His original promise to Abraham. And the Genesis account records, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6 ESV).
It was Abraham’s faith in the promise of God that resulted in God’s declaration of his righteous standing before Him. It had nothing to do with the works or efforts of Abraham. In fact, Paul makes it clear that when someone works, he receives his wages as a form of payment. It is not a gift. He has earned it. But “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5 ESV). Again, Paul turns to the Hebrew Scriptures to prove his point. Using Psalm 32:1-2, he writes, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight. Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin” (Romans 4:7-8 NLT).
Our forgiveness from God is a gift, unearned and undeserved. Our salvation is made possible by His Son’s death, not by our good works. The only thing God owes man, according to Romans 6:23, is death. Our sins have earned us nothing but God’s wrath, and yet God chose to provide a way of escape, a solution to our sin problem. He sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sins and, in doing so, Jesus satisfied the wrath of God. And when anyone places their faith in God’s provision for salvation – His Son – they receive His righteousness. Their disobedience is forgiven, their sins are put out of sight, and their record of rebellion against God is cleared – once and for all.