Counted to Him as Righteousness

From chapter 1, verse 18, Paul has argued, and demonstrated, that the entire world, all people everywhere, are on the same standard of righteousness. God’s moral law pervades the entire created order. The law given to the Jews was no different from that which existed in the heart of humanity at its creation and, though clouded by sin, still serves as a witness over the entire world. Now Paul summarizes, gives a Scripture witness to his argument, and begins to show that God’s purpose in salvation is equally without distinction as is his judgment according to law.


I. 3:1-20 – Paul draws his argument to a close that all universally are law-breakers and thus under condemnation.

A. 3:1-8 – Paul gives a brief response to several closely aligned objections.

  1. That the Jews fare no better in the matter of righteousness than the Gentiles implies that all of God’s actions toward them have been vain, and mere charade. If physical circumcision becomes uncircumcision, and if the uncircumcised may be declared covenant children, what advantage has been given by the covenant of circumcision? [1] Paul’s response is not full but a mere suggestion. Note he says, “To begin with.” He treats this more fully in chapters 9-11. At any rate, the possession of the oracles of God is an absolute advantage. The granting of circumcision as a clear provocation to circumcision of the heart should have been to their spiritual good. Their loss of the advantage is due to moral perversity, not the uselessness of revelation or the covenant sign.
  2. Verses 3, 4 -Their refusal to respond to God’s favors and be the people of God does not render God’s oracles useless for he is still faithful and will form a people for himself. The citation of Psalm 51:4 shows that true repentance never even considers God as the instigator or co-operator with us in our sin. David, in the Psalm, immediately sees his inborn corruption of heart as provocative of his sinful estate and the immediate prompter of his sin, but such a reality does not diminish his culpability. “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51: 4a).
  3. Verses 5, 6 – If human unrighteousness, particularly the unrighteousness of a people so favored, highlights the surpassing excellence of God’s intrinsic righteousness, then why are we subject to wrath? Shouldn’t our unrighteousness as the occasion of displaying the greater glory of God be a matter of congratulations? Would not God be unrighteous to inflict wrath on those whose actions contribute to his glory? No, for the point of such a phenomenon is to demonstrate the purity of God’s judgment of the world. If his judgment were unjust then his justice would be impure. Sin is real and God’s wrath is a just reaction to it. 5, 6
  4. verse 7, 8 – Paul then engages in an argumentum reductio ad absurdum. Paul extrapolates such an argument into the possible objection that if our lie makes God’s truth abound or if doing evil promotes the greater good, then lying and doing evil are to be celebrated and seen as promoting the divine glory. Paul’s strong emphasis on divine purpose and divine sovereignty had made some people accuse him of this view. In future chapters he expands this discussion, but for the present purpose of his discussion, he rejects the objections and their implications not merely as absurd, but as sinister, destructive, and provocative of divine wrath.
  5. It is instructive to note that Paul’s understanding of human responsibility as operating in the context of divine purpose and providence evoked the same misrepresentations and caricatures in his own day as it does in ours. Paul does not even feign any sympathy with such sophistry but calls it a slanderous accusation toward him and unrepentant rebellion against divine revelation. For those who twist truth into untruth, “Their condemnation is just.” Everything that God does is an unalloyed manifestation of his eternal, immutable character. When he saves a sinner, it as a matter of pure mercy that is consistent with his absolute justice, made so by his inscrutable wisdom. When he displays wrath, it is an uncompromised display of perfectly impartial justice.

B. 3:9-20 – Paul now brings this lengthy discussion to the conclusion that all people everywhere, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, those that have the law in writing and those that have it only on the heart are under divine wrath. “Both Jews and Greeks are under sin.” (9)

  1. He states his conclusion first: “None is righteous, no not one.”
  2. Paul employs a catena of Old Testament passages (Psalms, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Proverbs) that describe the wicked, and applies them to every person. He shows that Scripture points to every aspect of our being and condemns it as sinful.
  • The mind and affections are ungodly, for none understands and none seeks for God.
  • Their rebellion against God is purposeful, for they “have turned aside.” As an entire group, the human race together has “become worthless.” The corporate pollution works its way into each person so that “no one does good, not even one.” The “good” of which Paul writes as he cites Psalm 14, is that intrinsic goodness required by the law in its most pure application, governing both external actions and internal motivations.
  • The organs of speech are vile—throat, tongues, lips, mouth—so that poison of the heart is expressed through the words.
  • The activity in which they are involved—feet, paths, way—shows their godless assumptions about life and often flame out into violence against others, so that the swiftness to shed blood is never absent in a society.
  • All of this stems from the reality that “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
  1. Looking at this scene of universal blasphemy, violence, and purposeful ignorance of God, Paul goes back to the judgment brought against every person by the law. The written code condemns every person for it also is known in the heart of every person—“That every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (19).
  2. When this is seen in clarity in the day of the final revelation of our culpability before God, none will offer any objections to God’s righteous judgment. The doctrinal sparring that some did with Paul on this issue (as indicated in 3:1-8) will vanish and the irresponsible blasphemous vanity of such reasoning will explode. “Every mouth will be stopped.” The law, in our present state of sin, cannot result in righteousness, but only in the knowledge of sin. In chapter 5, Paul will show the connection of all this to Adam. For now, his intention is to give no room for objection to the universal verdict that every person has transgressed and continues to transgress the good, holy, and righteous law of God.


II. 3:21-26If any of the human race will enjoy the presence of the glory of God, given our sinfulness, how can this come about?

A. This same righteousness that Paul has been examining as being contained in both the written law and the law on the heart now is revealed, with breathtaking clarity, apart from the writtencode itself. The law and the prophets, however, do bear witness to this manner of fulfillment of the written code. For example, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11). The deep anguish of one who is righteous—that is, in perfect conformity to the righteousness of the law—will  find a perfect fulfillment, the complete accomplishment of the goal for which he was brought to anguish. The anguish of the righteous one will be the source for unrighteous ones to be forgiven and accounted righteous.

B. Paul explains that this manifestation of righteousness is indeed the righteousness of God, and it comes to the sinner, unrighteous in himself, through faith in Jesus. This righteousness is no respecter of persons for it will come to all who believe, to the circumcision and to the uncircumcision. This is because God’s righteous expectations for his creatures do not differ from person to person or from nation to nation or from ethnicity to ethnicity. All are made in the image of God, all are under, in essence, the same law and all must take the same path to righteousness. (22.)

C. Verses 23 and 24 affirm that this absence of distinction is seen clearly both in the issue of sin and in the gift of justification.

  1. The glory of God—his character, his attributes—serve as the foundation for the revelation of law respectively in the heart, in the creation, and in the verbal written revelation to Moses. That law we have transgressed—if in one then in all three—and are justly called sinners. The grievous nature of such transgression is that it scoffs at the “glory of God” even his “eternal power and divine nature.” So, to demonstrate that finally no distinction exists between Jew and Gentile, Paul affirms, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23)
  2. He continues the sentence [“and”] in order to demonstrate the coordination between guilt and justification. Paul affirms justification also is without distinction of persons, nationalities, or ethnicities. Our sin means that any benefit we receive from God must be a matter of pure grace. It is a gift entirely and is completely without cause as it relates to righteousness or merit on the part of sinners.
  3. As far as God is concerned, however, it is not without cause, without cost, or without merit. It comes “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

D. Verse 25 – Paul points to redemption and propitiation as elements of God’s operations of salvation.

  1. Redemption means that a purchase has been made to free one that was a slave. The price of freedom has been set forth and the slave now can legally go free.
  2. The price itself, was the propitiatory offering made by the Father himself of his beloved Son. This means that all the wrath, fury, tribulation, and distress that should come to the sinner fell on Christ and fully satisfied God’s righteous requirements for punishment. We can do nothing but look to it with the submission to its truth as the legitimate judgment on our sin and as providing the only place of refuge.
  3. It is this act of God’s that renders him righteous in all else that he does. Though all these actions of saving power are pure grace to us, each of them is a demonstration of God’s perfect rectitude in the manner by which he saves transgressors of his law. He has declared that in forgiving transgressions he will “by no means clear the guilty” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Yet by the death of Christ, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In justifying us and then fitting us for the holy and joyful employments of heaven (Romans 8:32), he is both gracious and just.



III.  Faith and the Law – 3:27-31 Paul has just demonstrated that one can only understand the death of Christ in terms of God’s own fulfillment of the Law’s demands. God’s having fulfilled it through Christ means that in reality neither Jew nor Gentile can fulfill it, whether it is the revealed encoded Law or the intuitively-perceived, heart-impressed universal presence of the divine image. Christ’s death is the absolute “No” of God to any claim to righteousness we might be tempted to make. He alone is righteous and thus he alone can be the justifier. (3:25)

A. All human boasting, whether Jew or Gentile is excluded.

  1. Boasting is excluded by the law (principle) of faith. Were justification by works, that is, according to the principle of personal obedience, then life, eternal life, would be a reward for human effort, an unbroken course of obedience to the Law. Life would be granted on the basis of the merit of the obedient one.
  2. This was the principle upon which our first parent, Adam, was promised life. His failure, however, rendered the operation of that principle null and void. Faith, therefore, as a principle operates in a way that completely bypasses the necessity, or expectation, or possibility of the personal righteousness of the sinner in any way. Faith, as opposite to and exclusive of works, embodies a justification in which faith itself holds no intrinsic merit, nor does it arise out of a meritorious affection. (27, 28)
  3. It is true that faith works by love (Galatians 5:6). Faith working by love is the immediate result of the new birth (Compare Galatians 6:15 with 5:6). It expresses itself in love (1 Timothy 1:5) and is a coordinate grace with love (2 Timothy 1:13). The reason that 1 John emphasizes that love is the true test of faith and that no faith in Christ exists unaccompanied by love for God and brother (1 John 3:23; 5:1-5), is that faith arises from love. No one would repent of sin if he had not been taught by the Spirit to hate sin and none would believe in Christ if he had not been taught to love righteousness.
  4. But it is not love that unites us to Christ, but only faith—consent to the perfect righteousness of Christ and trust in that righteousness. Even as the righteousness that we do is not a saving righteousness meriting eternal life, so the love we exhibit is not unmixed with indwelling sin and yet corrupt affections. Neither our righteousness nor our love, therefore, could be the foundation of eternal life. Personal consent to union with Christ is faith and that alone gains his righteousness.

B. The God who justifies is the God that has created all men and to whom all men owe the same sort of obedience. All are equally under condemnation. The simplicity of God’s holiness means that there is not a multiplicity of ways for a creature to be acceptable before him. If all rational creatures, human beings that is, are under condemnation, then the way of forgiveness will be in accord with the simplicity of God’s character, and mandates that all be received into life in the same way. Thus for Jew and Gentile faith is the only way for the restoration of favor. By faith an unworthy sinner finds union with all the things that God has done in Christ for his acceptance. Irrespective of circumcision, or any other aspect of the ceremonial law, God justifies Jew and Gentile by the same faith. (29, 30)

C. Is faith, therefore, a principle that works contrary to the law, since it replaces law-keeping as the way of righteousness and life? No, Paul answers. The contrary is true. Only by faith can the Law be established. Any system of receiving eternal life that was not dependent on faith as Paul explains it in this letter, would be a denial of the validity, perpetuity, and immutability of righteousness contained in God’s Law. Faith, however, as explained in this letter, gives the believers union with everything that the Law required in it first revelation to Adam in external command and internal knowledge. All that subsequently was contained in the Moral Law is honored in God’s way of salvation by faith. (31)


IV. Abraham Justified by Faith – 4:1-8 Paul begins his extended argument by showing that Abraham’s rightness before God came by faith upon which God declared him righteous.

A. Paul illustrates his theological argument by this particular incident. He asked what Abraham gained according to the flesh[Not as the ESV puts it, “our forefather according to the flesh,” for Abraham was not forefather of the Gentiles according to the flesh.] Paul used this same terminology when talking about his own credits according to the flesh in Philippians 3. He answers that if in the flesh (perhaps he has in mind circumcision specifically) he is justified, his glorying will be in himself that is works according to ceremonial law, but not before God. Scripture [Genesis 15:6] says believing God was counted to Abraham as righteousness. (4:1-3)

B. Now Paul infers a general principle from this particular event in the life of Abraham. The one that works and is paid receives his just due and does not glory in the generosity of the one that pays him, for he has exchanged his labor for recognition of its specific worth. Even so, if one has nothing of worth to give or perform, any reward is due solely to the benefactor. All lawbreakers are “ungodly,” have no merit by which they could earn life or be recognized as righteous. They find, nevertheless, that by trust in the word and provision of another they are accounted righteous. (4:4, 5)

C. This principle of imputation of righteousness apart from works is illustrated not only in the case of Abraham, but in the case of David whose sin was not counted against him, but rather his sin, due punishment, was forgiven and he himself was counted righteous. (4:6-8) Paul used this concept of non-imputation of punishment for sin to show that the ungodly can be accepted only by pure grace. Not only are they forgiven, but they are counted righteous. This declaration comes not to those who work but to those who believe.



V. Abraham’s faith in its relation to circumcision – 4:9-12 – Paul establishes the fact, quite instructive in itself, that Abraham was declared righteous on the basis of faith years before he was circumcised. Circumcision then was received as a seal of the righteousness that he already had on the basis of faith. The seal of circumcision did not authenticate, add to, or create anything new in the righteousness that Abraham possessed by faith. It was a mark in his flesh, a symbol, of a reality that God had granted Abraham a righteous standing through trust in the promise. Abraham would not have trusted if God had not previously circumcised his heart. Circumcision, therefore, stood as a consistent witness that the one in whom Abraham trusted would come through the line of Abraham physically, but would be received by faith by all those that received the circumcision of heart. The spiritual circumcision preceded the physical circumcision and marks Abraham as the father of all that believe, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, and all that have faith are partakers of the same grace that Abraham had prior to his circumcision.



VI. Abraham’s faith and the Promise of God – 4:13-21: The promise believed establishes a completely opposite reality to the Law received.

A. 4:13-15 – God’s favor toward Abraham, and all sinners, comes in the form of a promise. Belief in this promise constitutes righteousness. The Law is not presently designed to create life, but to confirm death, that is, the present wrath of God on all that do not believe ( John 3:18, 36) The Law says, do and live, and is completely incompatible with righteousness by faith, which says believe and live. The Law was misinterpreted as a means of life (Romans 10:1-3) when it was given in the fallen order to reveal more clearly the reality of wrath and death.

B. Grace is operative both in the arising of faith and in the content of the promise.

  1. Faith itself is a manifestation of the great power and grace of God (16) “It is by faith that it may be by grace.” Faith is of such a character that it does not arise naturally in the fallen human nature. Just as an infertile woman combined with an impotent man cannot conceive a child, so a heart dead in trespasses and sins cannot be the source of faith in God’s holy purpose. Thus Paul prayed that we might know the “exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:19 and 2:1-10). Even as God has made those that were not the people of God to be the people of God (1 Peter 2:9, 10) as opposed to those that stumble and do not believe, and has made those that were strangers and aliens now to be fellow citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), he has made those hostile to God naturally, now receptive to God and trusting in all that he says. “”Who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (17) Only in that way could Abraham find hope when there was no natural reason to hope, and did not weaken in faith when he saw that God’s promise was given as an absolute contradiction to that which was impossible by nature. That a person believes is as much an act of grace and power as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
  2. The content of the promise was a matter of grace. That Abraham would Father a child by Sarah was also a matter of power and grace. God, in pursuit of his purpose to bring a Redeemer into the world, the seed of the woman, would perpetuate the line of Abraham through whom the nations would be blessed by a birth conceived in an unusual manner. The only assurance that this could be the case was the promise of God with whom nothing is impossible. The promise that he would be the Father of many nations seemed absolutely to contradict the combination of facts that at one hundred his own body was “as good as dead” and the womb of Sarah was barren. Nevertheless, God had said it, and God was pursuing his own glory in these anticipated events. Thus the miracle of faith is the miracle of an impossible birth. “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (20, 21).


VII. Abraham’s Faith and Imputation – 4:22-25

A. Abraham’s faith was imputed to him as righteousness. The point that Paul is establishing here is that the way of right standing before God is not through one’s own righteousness, but through the righteousness of another. Abraham had no merit of his own and was not received, therefore, by God on the basis of his own righteousness but was received in that he trusted another. Specifically, in the promise Abraham saw the reality of deliverance from sin for a multitude of people. The fruit of his own body would provide deliverance from sin and righteousness by his life; Abraham’s faith would serve as the model for how this divine provision is to be received. It is faith because it cannot be by merit and such faith is “counted’ or “imputed” because the object of that faith is the only one in whom righteousness dwells.

B. The words “Imputed to him” are seen as important because it shows that God grants righteousness by imputation. This means, that whereas in ourselves we would be counted guilty, God can be just in counting us as “not guilty” and even as “righteous” because of the object of faith that is the death of Christ and his resurrection as a righteous man received into life before the throne of God. Chapter five upcoming expands the reasons as to why “It will be counted to us.”

C. Righteousness is imputed to us as a result of the work of Christ in his death and resurrection.

  1. This reference to both death and resurrection anticipates verses like 5:9 and 5:10 and 5:17. His death served as a substitute in that he “was delivered up for our trespasses” to procure forgiveness. “Raised for our justification” refers to his having conquered death because of the payment of the wages of sin and his acceptance in heaven.
  2. None of this would be effectual were it not for the “mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16), his humanity inextricably united with his deity. This person so constituted made a fully acceptable completion of every aspect of righteousness in his cordial and joyful obedience to the law and every other requirement that the Father made of him as one that would obey for others. “For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
  3. In this explanation we see the full meaning of Paul’s explanation that “If you confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9, 10).


The precision of Paul’s argument and the exegetical labor that he gives to this letter demonstrates how central the doctrine of justification is to his gospel. We have no blessings from God apart from those that are invested in Christ as our righteous substitute (Ephesians 1:3, 6, 7). Recent controversies over imputed righteousness reveal how resistant we are to this concept. But, indeed, Paul argues that we have a freely bestowed righteousness, an actual perfect obedience to God’s law in the life of Christ. His righteousness is declared to be ours by virtue of his taking union with us in our nature in order to accomplish for us what we lost in Adam’s sin. There are many points in this that could be offensive to modern sensibilities and exactly which one, or combination of several, causes the periodic revolt from these truths is sometimes difficult to discern. It happened, however, immediately upon the preaching of the gospel in the apostolic age, for Paul has to defend this doctrine in his letter to the Galatians. The apostle’s letter to the Romans presents this gospel with such force and internal connection that it seems to be Paul’s attempt once and for all to seal the centrality of this teaching. He spends himself in this masterpiece of theological reasoning not only for the Roman church, but for all the seed of Abraham—the circumcision and the uncircumcision—in perpetuity until Christ returns to claim his ow

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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