The Faith of Abraham
© C. O. Bishop
Romans Chapter 4
In Chapters 1-3, Paul has just finished explaining the Salvation offered through Grace…and the fact that it is the only solution offered by God for the completely epidemic Sin of the human race. All are involved; all are infected; all are guilty; all are condemned. So…all are included in the offer of salvation through the single sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God completely “levels the playing field”, in terms of a person’s eligibility for the gift. No one is excluded for reasons of origin, depth of depravity, or relative personal worth (as humans see worth). We are told that the whole world is condemned already. (Jesus confirmed this, and said that believing in Him is the way to accept God’s offer of salvation.)
Paul stated that justification (which means “being declared righteous”) is available strictly on the basis of faith in Jesus’ shed blood. (Romans 3:25) He further pointed out that the teaching of Grace, far from annulling the Law of God, confirms its truth and authority. The Law is what sheds the light of God’s spiritual “pathology” on the life of every human, and declares that we are all fatally infected with sin. One can either admit that truth, or deny it. We can “demand a second opinion”; but the only other sources of such information are either consciously subject to the will of God, and will cite his Law as their authority to diagnose, or they are in conflict with the Law of God, and will either attempt to set aside the authority of God or deny it completely. We eventually have to choose who to trust.
What Saved Abraham?
4 1What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?
2 For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.
Paul raises Abraham as a case in point, through whom he simultaneously explains the principle of Grace and the principle of Imputation. He poses the question, “Was Abraham justified by works or by faith? If it was by works then he had something to boast about.” But God doesn’t permit boasting, in regard to Grace. Paul points out that Abraham was declared righteous when he believed God, not when he began doing the things he was famous for. The works were a result of faith. The faith was what moved God to declare him righteous. (See Genesis 15:6)
3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
Paul follows this with the statement that (obviously) when a person works, their reward is wages, not a gift. If I work for employers, they owe me my wages. They are legally bound to pay me. I do not consider my wages a gift. But Grace specifically means “un-earned favor”. If you can do anything to earn it, then it is not Grace. You cannot mix Grace and works. Either God’s Grace is what saves you or you think you can earn his favor, and will try to save yourself by works. There is no middle ground.
What is the Weak Link?
Where I work, we build ocean-going barges. The chain “towing-bridles”, attached to the barges, are huge… they have to be, to pull the enormous weight of the loaded barge, and not snap in heavy seas, as they are slacked and jerked taut again by the waves and the raw power of the sea-going tugboat. (How huge am I talking about? Each separate link weighs 126 pounds or more. Each link is cast in a mold that encapsulates the next link, so that the whole chain is a series of 126-pound cast-steel links. There are much bigger ones out there: these are just what we use.)
Now, consider: if I took one of those links out, and replaced it with binder twine, what would the strength of the chain be? Obviously the weak link would be the binder twine, and, in fact, it would not even hold the weight of the chain, let alone pull the barge. In fact, if I ran hundreds or even thousands of loops of the twine through the two adjacent links, it would still be impossible to approach the strength of the chain—and the twine would be decidedly the weakest link.
So what is the point of this illustration? A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If my works are, at any level, responsible for my salvation or my security in Christ, then, ultimately, my security is completely dependent upon my works, as they are undeniably the weakest link. When God says salvation is “by Grace, through Faith”, what possible value can my works add? God’s Grace, by Jesus’ finished work at the Cross is the power of God for salvation. If it is not enough, then I am lost. It is as simple as that. I cannot add to Grace by works…but I can respond to Grace by works, because of faith…just as Abraham did. Grace is what saves us…not works.
So, what is “Imputation?”
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
Paul introduces a Old Testament truth, here: the idea that one thing can be “counted for” another; that, by faith, righteousness can be “added to the believer’s account.”
This is an accounting term: when I take a paycheck to the bank, it is just a piece of paper: it has no intrinsic value. But it authorizes the bank to “post value to my bank account”, and, based on that posting, I can make purchases or withdraw cash from that account. This is a fairly important idea, because there is a parallel in the salvation offered at the Cross. When Jesus died for me, he wrote a “check”, in His own blood, payable to the bearer, for the value of “eternal life, and eternal righteousness”. Now, consider: when I take my paycheck to the bank, if I fail to endorse that check, they will not honor it. The value of the check will not be posted to my account.
So how do we “endorse” the “check” Jesus wrote for us at the Cross? By faith: By placing our trust in His finished work. The facts are simple: Jesus really did write the check, if you want to call it that, in His blood, at the Cross, and he offers it to us as a gift. Now: you can do whatever you want with that check…you can toss it aside, judging it worthless; you can set it aside, thinking you may want it at some more convenient time (which still does not get you the value of the gift); or you can place your faith in that blood sacrifice, and the righteousness of Christ is instantly and permanently imputed (posted) to your account. God will eternally see you in the righteousness of Christ…He will never again see you as a condemned sinner.
Let’s look at 2nd Corinthians 5:21 “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him”
This is the ultimate substitution. In Abraham’s later story, we see that God provided a substitute for Abraham’s son, Isaac. A ram was offered in his place. Throughout the Old Testament, we can see that all the blood sacrifices were a substitute for the sinner, at one level or another. And that is why Jesus was called “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” He is the substitutionary sacrifice through whom we can be made righteous before God. He did not become a sinner for us: He became sin. We do not imitate him to become righteous. His righteousness was applied to our accounts by Grace through faith, and, by faith we imitate him, honor him, and depend on His righteousness in our accounts; not at all upon our own works.
6 Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
7 Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
David also described the blessedness of a person whose sins are covered…who has had righteousness “imputed” to him without works. The doctrine of imputation means that God has “posted righteousness to my account”. He has counted me righteous. Not because of anything I have done or can do…I am a sinner, and my whole character apart from Him is to rebel against the righteousness of God. God says in Romans 8 that my sin nature not only is not subject to the law of God, but it cannot be. So how could I be declared righteous?
How is Righteousness Imputed?
9 Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.
10 How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
Paul takes his time getting to the explanation, but we already had a clue back in Romans 3:25—Jesus was the propitiation (the sacrifice that satisfied the righteousness of God) for our sins through faith in His blood.
When Abraham first “believed God”, it was simply regarding the promise of a coming “seed”; that his progeny would be without number. But the specific singular word for “seed” is used. Remembering that Paul used and quoted the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, just as Jesus did, I looked up the word for seed in the Septuagint…and it turns out that the word used there is very specific, the promise of the land is to a specific (singular) seed, while the promise of numerous offspring is plural. It gets more specific later on, but Abraham was looking forward to Christ, just as Abel did, and as did the other men and women of faith.
We look back to Him, and we believe—they looked forward and they believed. They understood enough of the gospel and the character of God to make a decision: so do we. The book of Job was possibly the earliest book of the written word of God, and he knew about the resurrection, and the second coming, and redemption, and life after death. The Old Testament saints were not ignorant.
11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:
12 And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.
13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
Paul carefully reminds the readers that Abraham was still an uncircumcised heathen when God made his promise and Abraham believed. He points out that God declared him righteous then, not 25 years later when he was circumcised. So his circumcision was an outward mark of something that had been an inward reality for 25 years.
Paul says that those who believe are the spiritual offspring of Abraham, whether or not they bear the physical mark of Judaism. In fact, the whole point is that the two ideas are almost unrelated, as there are thousands upon thousands of people (millions, actually) who bear the mark of some sort of faith, but do not have that faith. Jews who did not trust in the Messiah, as Abraham did, but only had the mark of circumcision, were just as lost as the millions today who have been baptized (or circumcised, or both) but have no relationship with the God who chose that sign. Not all Jews were saved, and not all members of churches today are saved… even if the church they attend is faithfully preaching the Gospel. It completely depends upon the individual: do you or do you not place your dependence on Jesus’ finished work—his shed blood—at the Cross?
If someone attends a church that does NOT faithfully preach the Gospel, it just means it is less likely that the person is saved…but not impossible; they may have heard the good news elsewhere, and may already have personally placed their faith in God to save them via the shed blood of Christ. One by one, God saves those who believe…not those who attend a particular church or wear a certain kind of clothing, give money, were born of a certain family, etc. He saves them one by one, by Grace, through Faith alone.
But a real believer has literally been born again, and has a new Father and a New Nature. A baby Christian is hungry for the Word of God; the milk of God’s word. So a genuine believer will not remain comfortably in a church where God’s Word is not taught. He or she will increasingly grow hungry and dissatisfied in the absence of sound teaching from the Word of God.
14 For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:
15 Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.
16 Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,
17 (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.
18 Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.
Law and Grace are Separate, but they Work Together
Paul emphasizes the mutual exclusivity of Law and Grace: he says that if the promise was based on Law, then Faith is made void, and the promise has no effect, because the truth is, the Law brings judgment, not salvation. If there were no rules, there would be no consequences for breaking rules; but there are rules, and there are consequences for breaking them. So he concludes that it is by faith, not law, so that Grace is the only means by which we can receive that promise. The result is that all those who hear and believe the Gospel are saved by Grace, and Abraham has literally become the father of many nations, by faith. People from every nation on earth have heard and believed the Gospel.
19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb:
20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;
21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.
22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.
He also reminds us that Abraham was no dummy—he knew the odds of his becoming a father at that age—but he rejoiced. He was strong in faith…he did not even consider the deadness of his own reproductive organs or those of Sarah, his wife…he believed God’s promise. Specifically, he believed that God was able to fulfill His promises, and that His character was such that he would do so. Paul concludes that on that basis, his faith was accounted to him as righteousness.
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him;
24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead;
25 Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.
Paul goes on to say that this was not written just for Abraham’s sake, but for ours, that we might have God’s righteousness applied to our own accounts, as we place our trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead. He says that Jesus was Crucified for our sins—but he was resurrected so that we could be declared righteous…the Resurrection was God’s declaration that He was satisfied with the payment. (Romans 1:4)
From the Cross, Jesus said “It is Finished!” At the Resurrection, God said “Amen!”
So how will you respond to the promises of God? To begin with, you have to know what He has promised to you. But then, day by day, you can choose to believe Him…or not.
Jesus said “he that heareth my word and believeth on Him that sent me hath everlasting life…”; (that’s present tense: “…has everlasting life”.) Do you trust him for that promise? If so, then you have eternal life now.
What about where he says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you: let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Do you believe that one, too? Just as you have been once-for-all born again by faith, and you trust in his promise to keep you, for eternity, you can daily experience His peace by faith, trusting in His wisdom and strength to guide and protect you.
Lord Jesus, grant us the Grace to hunger for your Word, and to be filled with your Spirit and your Wisdom. Draw us into an ever deeper relationship with you.