A Double Transfer
“Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.”- Romans 4:9–10
Paul’s focus on justification and tight argumentation regarding this doctrine in Romans 4 requires careful attention, so we will summarize what we have seen thus far before moving on to verses 9–10. Remember that Paul introduces his discussion by explaining that the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law is not a repudiation of God’s law, for the law itself reveals this doctrine (Rom. 3:21). Turning to the law—the five books of Moses—Paul notes that Abraham was justified by faith alone (4:1–3; see Gen. 15:6). Justification—God’s legal declaration that we are righteous before Him—is a gift we receive, not a reward that our faith merits. Instead, faith is counted/imputed for the end of righteousness. Faith itself is not righteousness but an instrument by which we lay hold of righteousness (Rom. 4:4–5).
In justification, our faith is not righteousness, so it is not the evidentiary basis or grounds upon which God declares us as righteous. Faith is the Lord’s chosen means of transferring the grounds for His declaration to our account. Justification by faith involves a double transfer or a double imputation: one negative and one positive. When we are justified by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, our sin is not credited to our account (vv. 6–8). God negatively imputes or removes sin from our legal record, although this does not mean the Lord is ignorant of our sin or overlooks it. Even while we are ungodly in practice, the Lord does not hold us legally accountable for our sin when we trust in Christ alone (v. 5). Justification is positional, not existential. In other words, justification does not effect an inward transformation, and God does not wait until our works meet His perfect standard before He declares us righteous. Transformation takes place—we are given new hearts and a new disposition to obey the Lord—but this is regeneration and sanctification, not justification. Regeneration precedes the faith by which we are justified, and the ongoing process of sanctification—of becoming holy in practice—follows justification (John 3:3; Rom. 6).
In justification, God positively imputes or credits Christ’s perfect righteousness to our account (Rom. 5:18–19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8–9). We will discuss this further in due time. Today, we note the importance for Paul’s overall argument of the time at which this crediting took place for Abraham. Abraham was declared righteous before He was circumcised. This means God justifies us before and apart from our obedience (Rom. 4:9–10).
Martin Luther comments: “Righteousness is given through imputation without works, and … this takes place through the nonimputation of unrighteousness. It is the same thing, whether we say, ‘to whom God imputes righteousness’ or, ‘to whom the Lord does not impute sin,’ that is, unrighteousness.” Justification frees us from the burden of our guilt. If we are in Christ, we never have to fear that God will hold our sin against us because it has been removed from our account.
Passages for Further Study