Continuing our study of Romans 4, which is a pivotal chapter in the epistle and key to understanding the biblical doctrine of justification, we move on to verses 4–5, which expand upon verses 1–3 to show us what it means that Abraham's faith "was counted to him as righteousness." As we will see, it is not that faith is equivalent to righteousness or that righteousness is something we merit by trusting God. We are not justified based on faith; rather, we are accounted righteous by or through faith. Faith alone is the instrument that we exercise to lay hold of the ground upon which the Lord's verdict of righteousness is pronounced; faith is not the basis or ground upon which God makes His declaration.
To clarify this point, we must first consider the Greek preposition eis, which the ESV translates with the English word as in "counted as righteousness" (vv. 3, 5). The versatility of eis makes translating it difficult here, but the word as is not likely the best choice since it suggests an identity between faith and righteousness. In this context, eis is better translated "unto" or "with respect to": "faith is counted unto [the end or goal of] righteousness" or "faith is counted with regard to righteousness." Faith is not the righteousness that is our goal but the means to that goal; faith is how we finally receive the righteous status that we seek.
Today's passage confirms this important point theologically. Faith/belief in God is set in opposition to works (vv. 4–5). Although faith is indeed something that we do—we exercise faith—Paul does not put it in the category of good works that are due a reward or payment. Faith is praiseworthy. To believe is to obey the Lord's command. But faith is not an act by which we earn salvation or become deserving of God's kingdom. If it were otherwise, our righteous status could not be a gift. Instead of resulting from the grace and mercy of our Creator, justification would be something we earn or deserve just as we earn or deserve a paycheck by fulfilling our job duties. Given our inability to obey God with the perfection He requires, our only hope is a perfect righteousness with which He covers us by grace alone, an alien righteousness to which we contribute nothing—not even our faith.
Moreover, our Lord grants this status to unrighteous people. He does not wait until we exhibit righteousness before He justifies us; rather, He declares ungodly people righteous in Christ (v. 5). Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary on Romans, "The good news of the gospel is that God pronounces people just, astonishingly enough, while they are still sinners."
A desire to obey God and do good in itself is not opposed to faith. The problem arises when we see our works as the basis upon which God declares us righteous. John Calvin comments, "It is not he, whom he calls a worker, who is given to good works, to which all the children of God ought to attend, but the person who seeks to merit something by his works: and in a similar way he calls him no worker who depends not on the merit of what he does."