Romans Part 5: The Faith of Abraham

February 26, 2007

In chapter 4, Paul explained how Christian justification works. He based his explanation on the account of Abraham in Genesis 15.

Rom 4:3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Paul argued that, because God made his promise to Abraham (Gen 12, Gen 15) before he was circumcised (Gen 17), that therefore the blessing is not only for the circumcised, but also for the uncircumcised:

Rom 4:11-12 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

To understand what Paul is saying, and to reconcile it with what James said in James 2, one must understand the Genesis account of Abraham.

In Genesis 12, God approached Abram and called him to leave his home and travel to another place God would show him. God also made a magnificent promise to Abram at that time:

Gen 12:1-3 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God did not say at that time why he was making the promise to Abram. He simply gave the instructions, and made the promise.

Then in Genesis 15, God elaborated on the promise:

Gen 15:1-6 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Again in this context, God did not tell why he was making the promise, or why he had chosen Abram to receive the promise.

In Genesis 17 God gave Abram three things: a new name (Abraham); the covenant of circumcision; and confirmation of the promise of a son (Isaac). But once more, he did not explain why he had chosen to give these great blessings to Abraham.

In Genesis 22, we finally learn more about why God was doing these things:

Gen 22:1-18 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

Here God revealed why he had chosen Abraham to receive these great blessings. The reason is stated two ways. First he said “because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son“. Then he said “because you have obeyed my voice.” Because Abraham was willing to obey God’s command sacrifice Isaac, God made these great promises to him. For those reasons, God promised:

(1) to bless Abraham; (Gen 12:2-3)
(2) to multiply his offspring as the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore; (Gen 15:5)
(3) to grant his offspring the gates of their enemies (Gen 12:7, 15:8, 17:8); and
(4) to bless all nations of the earth through his offspring.(Gen 12:3)

Notice that God made all these promises prior to testing Abraham. But in chapter 22 God made it very clear that the reason he made the promises was because of Abraham’s obedience to the command to sacrifice Isaac. Because Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, God sent his own son through Abraham as a sacrifice for all our sins. When God made the promise in chapters 12, 15, and 17, he knew in advance all the events that would follow. God saw the faith that was already present in Abraham before he had done anything. He knew what kind of faith it was.

Also notice the relationship between these promises and the righteousness that comes from faith:

Rom 4:13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

In other words, we are told on one hand that the promises were due to Abraham’s obedience (Gen 22:18); but on the other hand that they were due to the righteousness that comes by faith (Rom 4:13). Both obedience and faith are cited as the reason for the promises. That should not surprise us, since obedience and faith are inseparably linked. Abraham was the great example of obedience that comes from faith–the same thing Paul was also called to preach (Rom 1:5).

Paul spoke of this faith that existed in Abraham prior to his deeds of faith:

Rom 4:18-25 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Now let’s look at what James said about Abraham:

Jam 2:20-24 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

In this passage James taught that Abraham was justified (Gen 15 “credited as righteousness”) by what he did. He further explained that Abraham’s faith and deeds worked together. The works completed the faith. Though Abraham was justified before those deeds, he was also justified by them, as they demonstrated Abraham’s genuine faith. James even points out that by obediently offering Isaac, Abraham was fulfilling the scripture from Genesis 15:6. Without the deeds, the faith would have been incomplete and the crediting of righteousness would have been unfulfilled.

In Luke 17, Jesus taught a parable that clarifies this subject:

Luk 17:7-10 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”

Christians are servants of God. As servants, we have been given responsibilities to carry out. We are fully expected to fulfill those responsibilities. But after having carried them out, we are still servants. More importantly, after doing everything God has required, we are still unworthy servants. Obeying the commands of God will not make us righteous. Only God’s gift of righteousness through faith can do that. But like Abraham, we need to have the kind of faith that produces obedience. Those who have that kind of faith are the ones to whom God will credit righteousness.

One comment

  1. Good thoughts brother!Bobby

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