ABRAHAM’S FAITH Romans 4
“The words, ‘It was credited to him,’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom. 4:23).From the very beginning, righteousness has been a gift, received by faith.
Abraham serves as a test case, to prove Paul’s thesis that righteousness is a gift received by faith (4:1–3). Neither works (vv. 4–8) nor circumcision (vv. 9–12) nor Law (vv. 13–15) have anything to do with forgiveness of sin (vv. 16–17). Righteousness is credited to all who have an Abrahamlike faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead (vv. 18–25).
Understanding the Text
“Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter” Rom. 4:1–3. Paul turned to the towering figure of Abraham, and proposed he be used as a test case. Since the Jewish people acknowledged Abraham as the father (source) of their race, in Hebrew thought he would set the pattern for his descendants’ relationship with God. Abraham was an admirable man. He risked all in obedience to God. But the biblical text also reports his sins. So the Old Testament says God “credited” his faith to him “as righteousness.” If Abraham had to be given a righteousness he did not possess, and if faith was credited to his account as righteousness, then from the very beginning the key to salvation has been faith—and nothing else. In their teaching on salvation Old and New Testaments are one. You and I who depend solely on Jesus Christ for salvation are one with that unbroken line of saints extending back, even beyond the cross. We are members of history’s grandest order: the order of those who have caught a glimpse of the goodness of God, and who believe Him completely worthy of our trust. “Justified” Rom. 4:1. At God’s Lighthouse Mission in Manhattan the men who attended services in the ’50s were drilled nightly in Bible verses and in a particular definition of “justified.” Justified, they were taught to repeat, means “just as if I had never sinned in the sight of God.” Actually the Greek verb, dikaioo, means to be acquitted, or to be pronounced righteous. It’s not “just as if I had never sinned.” It means “just as if I had lived as perfect a life as Jesus did!” Once, when my normal green-tinted sunglasses were lost, I put on a rose-colored pair. And everything I saw through them was rose colored too. Justification is a little like this. God sees you and me through Christ-colored glasses. When God looks at the person who believes in His Son He sees Jesus Himself. Never hesitate to come freely to God, whatever your need. As you approach, God sees you as His dearly beloved Son. “Credited to him as righteousness” Rom. 4:3. This is another of several key theological terms in this chapter. The Greek word is logizomai. A common word in New Testament times, it meant “to make an entry in the account book.” The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Zondervan) says, “As sinners, you and I have no righteousness that would be acceptable to God. But God has given His Word of promise. When we respond to Him in faith, against our name in His account book He makes an entry that says in effect, ’This person is righteous in My sight!’ Our faith has been credited to us as righteousness” (p. 203). Some might complain that this concept of salvation is too crude. But that same person, if he went to his bank and found that someone had credited his account with the gift of 10 million dollars, wouldn’t complain about “crude.” He’d more likely shout for joy! As we do, knowing that in Christ God has credited to us something far more precious than worldly wealth. “God who justifies the wicked” Rom. 4:4–8. There’s so much packed in these few verses. But most important perhaps is a unique vision of God. I remember a student of mine in grad school when I taught at Wheaton. He was always friendly and most ingratiating. Later he taught at Moody Bible Institute evening school—and his students were very upset. When he taught he was rude, always putting them down and ridiculing any idea that didn’t match his own views. What a revelation of character. You can tell a lot about people by seeing how they treat those who are subordinate to them. What a revelation of God’s character, this teaching of justification by faith. We human beings are not only subordinate, but we’ve rebelled actively against Him. Yet God’s response is to offer us a matchless gift: to justify the wicked, and credit sinners with righteousness. How blessed we are to have, and to know, such a God! “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised?” Rom. 4:9–13 The Jews claimed Abraham as the father of their race. Abraham had received the covenant promises which, transmitted from generation to generation, guaranteed Israel its place as God’s chosen people. It would seem then, that Jesus and justification were Jewish by right. How could Paul defend his missionary work among the Gentiles? In the Old Testament circumcision, the cutting off of the flap of skin which covers the tip of the male penis, was introduced as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17). But, Paul said, this came after God announced Abraham was justified by faith (15:6). It followed, then, that justification by faith did not depend on a person having a previous covenant relationship with God. So justification by faith is available to all! God doesn’t set any preconditions on salvation. We don’t have to clean up our act first. We don’t have to join any particular church or group. We don’t have to beg, or even pray. All we need to do is what Abraham did: trust God’s promise. The blessedness of forgiveness of sins is ours, and righteousness is credited to our account. “Where there is no law there is no transgression” Rom. 4:13–15. We have a new puppy, a miniature schnauzer named Mitzi. Like most pups, when Mitzi was young she had “accidents,” and went to the bathroom on the floor. As soon as she got old enough, we began to train Mitzi. We made it very clear that going to the bathroom indoors is wrong. This morning she slipped off into a bedroom and left a (thankfully dry!) pile on the floor. As soon as I saw her coming out of the room, her ears went back, and she began to slink—the image of guilt. She’d been taught not to do her jobs indoors. My few swats with a newspaper were accepted as just punishment. That’s about what Paul’s saying here about law. Don’t count on law to save you. Law introduces transgression. Mitzi was doing her jobs indoors with a perfectly clear conscience—before she was taught not to. Now that “no” has been introduced, she still does her jobs indoors sometimes. But now she’s guilty of transgressing a rule, and she knows it! The law didn’t change her behavior to any great extent. But it surely did make her realize her errors. We can’t look to law as a way of salvation. Law simply marks out the things we do by nature as sin—and makes us feel guilty when we realize that, even knowing the law, we still do wrong. “That it may be by grace and may be guaranteed” Rom. 4:16–18. Why didn’t God let us at least try to earn salvation? Why not, say, let us do 25 percent, and let Him supply the other 75 percent? Or, if that’s too much, do 20 percent? Or 15 percent? Paul had an important answer. Because if anything depended on you and me, there could be no guarantee. Even the Israelite descendants of Abraham, who were given a head start by receiving Moses’ Law, would have no guarantee of salvation. The issue would remain forever in doubt—at least from a human point of view. From God’s point of view, of course, we have all sinned and fallen short. No one can contribute even 1 percent of that absolute goodness God’s holiness demands He require. But that’s irrelevant to Paul’s point here. Salvation rests on God’s gracious promise alone. Since it all depends on God, our salvation is guaranteed.
Abraham’s Faith(Rom. 4:18–25)
I once read a science fiction story in which the crew of a spaceship suddenly found itself behind windowless, doorless metal walls. Food was regularly passed in, seeming to slide through the walls themselves. Days and weeks went by, and the crew could find no way out. Suddenly one of the crew laughed aloud, and explained. Their captivity must be a test devised by an alien civilization. The walls, which seemed so real to touch and sight, weren’t there at all. They were illusions. If only the crew would believe—really believe—that the walls were unreal, they could walk out of their cage. It was very much like this for Abraham. He was 100 years old. His wife, Sarah, was 90. She’d ceased menstruation long before. To every human sense, an impenetrable barrier existed between Abraham and the fulfillment of God’s amazing promise that he and Sarah would soon have a son. Abraham examined these medical facts. He fully understood the impossibility. And he ignored it. He ignored the facts because he was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised.” And it was this kind of faith, that saw God as the ultimate reality, that moved Abraham to trust God’s promise despite its patent impossibility. For you and me, faith is not really belief against all evidence. We have evidence that Scripture is trustworthy. We have the testimony of untold numbers of persons who have become Christians and tell of inner transformation and peace. We have proof of life after death in the resurrection of Jesus. But the basic nature of faith remains the same. We hear God’s word of promise. And we are fully persuaded that He has power to do for us all that He says He will. Like Abraham, we commit ourselves to the Lord, and receive righteousness as the gift of our loving God.
“Faith” is committing ourselves completely to God.
“Tell me Your name,” I challenged Christ. “Were You a prophet, saint supreme? Did You wear true flesh and blood? Are You that which we call God? Or but a hope, a sigh, A thing compacted of man’s dream?” “I will declare Myself,” said Christ, “When you confess your name and station.” Easy terms. I thought and thought But still the sum of me as nought. “A dying sinner, I.” And straight He told His name, “Salvation.” -Anna Bunston de Bary