ABRAHAM: JUSTIFIED BY FAITH

Romans 4

Paul had just taught a doctrine known as “justification by faith.” To the first century Christians he was writing to, this must have sounded too good to be true, especially among the Jews, where works were so important. What if there were some readers of this letter who thought this “justification by faith” was a brand-new doctrine? Back in 1:7, Paul made the declaration that in the Gospel a righteousness from God was “revealed.” This might well suggest to some that this “justification” was a new thing, invented during this new Christian era, maybe even by Paul himself. So, now, Paul takes his readers back to the Old Testament to point out to them that this was no new doctrine at all. In fact, it is as old as Abraham! Justification by faith is just another part of the continuing plan of God for the redemption of mankind through His eternal purposes in the work of His Son.

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (4:3)

Abraham, a man held in the highest esteem by Israel, had a right standing before God. This was achieved, teaches Paul, not through Abraham’s good works, but through faith. Abraham’s sin was placed on Christ’s account, and Christ paid the full price. What was true for Abraham is true for believers today. If we view our life of sin as a kind of debt we owe God, then Jesus assumed our debt and our account has been completely settled by Him.

Paul’s choice of Abraham as an illustration of a person being justified by faith is a stroke of sheer brilliance. The Jews respected Abraham—he was the father of their nation, after all! But he was also a Gentile—a pagan Chaldean—who was credited with righteousness as a result of his faith. The truth about Abraham, though, is that he, like any believer, is received by God, not on his own merit, in his own name, but in the rights and in the Name of Jesus Christ. Abraham did nothing to earn his declaration of righteousness.

1. Contradiction?

Is that message at odds with the teaching of James 2:21—24?

Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

There really is no contradiction between the teachings of Paul and those of James; they are in reality two sides of the same coin. Romans 4:2 declares simply:

If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.

The justification that Paul is talking about is “justification by faith”; it is being justified before God, not before man. James, on the other hand, is talking about the evidence of Paul’s justification. The person who claims to have saving (justifying) faith in Christ is obliged to prove it to the people around him. How does he do this? Unlike God, man cannot see this “justification by faith.” But man can see how we live our lives! So the proof of our new position in Christ and before God must be manifested in our good works.

Paul, in writing about Abraham’s being justified by faith, quotes from Genesis 15. James, in writing about Abraham’s works took his illustration from Genesis 22. This incident in Abraham’s life is further explained by the writer to the Hebrews:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17—19)

What does teach us about justification by faith? Simply this: when we are justified by God, we are given a new position in Christ. It is up to us to live up that new position.

2. Wages and gifts

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. (verses 4, 5)

The the thing that distinguishes wages from gifts is work. Paul has established that justification by faith is a gift from God; it is undeserved and unearned by the one justified. This is the difference between wages and gifts: work. When a person works, he gets what he deserves—he exchanges his time and efforts for his employers money. In other words, the worker’s wages are an obligation to him from his employer. When a person does not work, there is no obligation for anybody to give that person anything. Anything that non-working person receives must be viewed as a gift; such is righteousness from God.

All of man’s work, his good work, is not good enough. No human being can live long enough to perform enough good deeds to tilt the scales anywhere near his favor, therefore, there is no obligation for that man to be paid a wage—he cannot be credited with the wage of righteousness. If a man is credited with righteousness, it is strictly because he has believed God; he has claimed God’s gift of salvation and God’s promises in faith.

3. David

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” (verses 6—8)

Abraham, a pagan Gentile who lived long before the Law, was justified by God. Now, Paul gives his readers another example of one justified by faith, but this time he uses a man born under the Law: David.

Verse 5 teaches that it is God who justifies the ungodly. Immediately after that, Paul begins a short discussion about David, a man we would never consider to be “ungodly!” What is Paul trying to get across to his readers? The key is the quote, taken from Psalm 32, verses 1 and 2. This psalm is David’s great “penitential psalm.” It is the confession of his great sin with Bathsheba and his acceptance of its consequences. Paul’s point in quoting this psalm is to illustrate that David’s works were evil; they were the acts of an ungodly man. What he did to Uriah and the sin of adultery were absolute evil in the sight of God. And yet David, because he experienced God’s forgiveness and justification, was able to write:

Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them… (Psalm 32:2)

Though David didn’t use the words, he is essentially describing what Paul is teaching: justification by faith! God treated David better than he deserved to be treated! God credited righteousness to David because his sins were forgiven. We know that David did nothing to merit this forgiveness except to exercise faith: he agreed with God about what he had done and how he needed to be forgiven. We all know the story: Nathan the prophet confronted David with the awful truth of David’s sin and deceitfulness, and David owned up to what he had done:

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. (2 Samuel 12:13)

From the mouth of two witnesses, three if you count Paul, then, comes the undeniable fact that under both the Old and New Covenants, man is justified before God by faith; there is no other way.

4. A sign and a seal

Some sharp-eyed readers of this letter during Paul’s day might have argued that since both Abraham and Paul were circumcised—that is, they acted in obedience to the Law—then obedience to the Law must be part of justification. In essence, works, in the form of obedience, precede justification. To this, Paul notes:

It was not after, but before! (verse 10b)

Paul exclaims that Abraham was justified by faith years before he was circumcised! What was the point of circumcision, then, as far as Abraham was concerned? It was merely a sign, an evidence that he had been justified by faith. One Bible scholar aptly observed:

We cannot doubt that circumcision was delayed in order to teach the believing Gentiles of future ages that they may claim Abraham as their father, and the righteousness of faith as their inheritance.

Another way to look at this is to conclude that Abraham was justified by faith as a human being, not as a Gentile or a Jew. Faith, not religion, is the standard for all human beings.

We now know from extra-Biblical writings that Paul’s message of justification by faith was understood by at least one member of the Roman church. Clement, the bishop of Rome from 90—100 AD wrote this:

It is through faith that Almighty God has justified all that have been from the beginning of time.

It wasn’t just to the Romans that Paul taught this landmark doctrine. In Galatians 3:7, he put it like this:

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.

Jew or Gentile; it’s immaterial to God who it is that comes to Him in simple faith. He freely justifies both.

5. Primacy of faith

It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. (verses 13—15)

The Roman believers have just learned that faith came before circumcision. In these two verses, Paul goes even further by stating that faith also takes priority over the Law. If circumcision, which was instituted only 14 years after Abraham was declared righteous proved that circumcision had nothing to do with anything, then the Law, which was instituted 430 years after Abraham was declared righteous, proves that that it had even less to do with anything!

The promise given to Abraham did not depend on his or his descendants keeping any kind of Law, because Abraham had been justified by faith! What exactly is this “promise?” It, naturally, has to do with Abraham becoming the father of many nations, but it specifies something in particular:

...all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3)

God gave that promise, which also has a messianic implication, to Abraham long before either circumcision or the Law had been introduced. The great blessing of the promise came to Abraham from God on the basis of faith, not works.

6. What faith depends on

The remainder of this chapter speaks of the strength of Abraham’s faith. In the face of old age, Abraham’s faith in God remained young. How was this possible? Why did Abraham have such strong faith in God? The secret to strong, unwavering faith lies in verse 21:

being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Faith is as strong or as weak depending on how we perceive the Object of our faith. If God is the Object of our faith, it will be rock solid and immovable. But if our faith is in our talents or our resources or the circumstances of our lives, it will be weak. We, like Abraham, must be “persuaded” that God is able!

(c)  2011 WitzEnd
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