About Jesus    Steve Sweetman

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Abraham Justified By Faith (ch. 4)


Paul needed to illustrate his point that he has made in chapter 3, that is, justification is by faith and not by any kind of good works. So, in chapter 4 Paul brings Abraham into his defense of faith.  The Jews considered Abraham to be the father of their nation, and indeed he was.  They considered him to be as perfect as a man could be.  It is only logical that Paul would use him to defend his point.  It is also important because the book of Genesis speaks of Abraham being a man of faith. 


In verse 1 Paul asks yet another question.  He asks what Abraham thought, and as the NIV puts it, thought about "this matter".  What do the words "this matter" refer to?  To answer this question we must go back to see how Paul ended chapter 3.  "This matter" is in reference to both Jews and Gentiles being justified by faith and not by circumcision or the works of the Law.   


The Jewish leadership would say that Abraham was justified by works but the way Paul writes verse 2 implies that in fact he was not justified by works.  If Abraham was made right in the eyes of God by any good things he had done, then, he could have had reason to boast. 


Paul backs up what he just said in verse 3 by quoting Genesis 15:6 and 22 that states that because Abraham believed what God told him, God credited Abraham as righteous.  The point here is that Abraham's faith, or trust, in what God told him was the reason why God viewed him as righteous.  Therefore, Abraham being viewed as righteous was a matter of faith and not of good works. 


We should note the word "credit" in verse 3.  This is an accounting term.  To understand how God views the believer as being righteous we need to understand what the word "credit" means in this context.  Because we trust what God has said and done, He credits our heavenly accounts with righteousness.  It's not that we really are righteous because we're not.  He, as a matter of His divine will, just deletes our sin from His books and credits our account with righteousness.  Think of it this way.  You have a bank account that is half line of credit and have checking account.  The account is in the red.  You owe the bank one thousand dollars.  Well, the bank decides to be nice to you and wipes out the debt you owe them and puts a thousand dollars into your bank account.  This is exactly what Paul is talking about here.            


To help us understand what Paul is saying about Abraham's faith I remind you of Abraham's story.  The story is told in Genesis 15 where Abraham had no biological son.  God came to him and told him that he would have a son that would come from his own body, through his aging wife Sarah.  Abraham believed what God said and as a result God "reckoned" as the KJV puts it, or, “credited” as the NIV puts it, Abraham as being righteous. 


The story goes on to show how God confirmed
this in what is known as the Abrahamic Covenant.
In those days there were certain rituals performed when making a covenant.  God followed these rituals when he told Abraham to kill a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon.  God also told him to cut these animals in half and lay them on the ground, each half across from the other half.  At that point the parties making the covenant would walk between the dead animal parts as part of the covenant ritual.  In this case though God put Abraham to sleep and God alone walked through the pieces of dead animals.  This signified that God did not make the covenant with Abraham, but He made the covenant with Himself.  God promised Himself to bless Abraham in certain stipulated ways.  This is extremely important to note.  Paul, in other places in his writings, says that this particular covenant was meant to foretell salvation that is found in Jesus. (Romans 4:24-25 and Galatians 3:15 to 4:31)  Paul says that the covenant made in Genesis 15 was to Abraham but had far reaching implications that includes Gentiles.  This means that our salvation is based on a covenant that God made with Himself.  We do not make a covenant with God; neither does God make a covenant with us, when it comes to salvation.  We simply enter into the pre-existing covenant that God has already made with Himself.  As a side point, we also do not make covenants with one another as Christians, as some may suggest.  The marriage covenant, however, is an exception. 


We need to note one thing about the Abrahamic Covenant, and that is, although it was spoken to Abraham, it was directed to Abraham, Israel, and Abraham's offspring Jesus.  Many people miss the point that the Abrahamic Covenant has three, not two, or not one, recipient.  It's easy to miss this if you only read the King James Bible.  A careful reading of the New International Version of the Bible shows that there are in fact three recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant.  All three were recipients of God's promises, that included national greatness, a specific portion of land, among other things.   


Paul is plainly saying that Abraham did nothing to be counted as righteous.  He only believed in God‘s promise.  When it came to the covenant ritual with God, Abraham was not even awake at the time in order to participate in the ritual.  Abraham did absolutely nothing to be counted righteous.  He simply trusted what God told him, and that is, he would have a son through his aging wife Sarah.  This is Paul's point.  


In verse 4 Paul says that when a man works, he gets paid for what he does.  In modern times this is in the form of a paycheck.  The paycheck is not a gift.  It is something that he has earned.  Paul now introduces the word "gift" into the discourse.  He is about to say that being credited as being righteous is a gift from God.    


In verse 5 he goes on to say that to the man who does not work, but still gets paid, his paycheck is a gift.  That is to say, that if you don't work for your salvation by doing good works; if you believe, your paycheck is God counting you as being righteous.


It is important to note that this free gift of righteousness is given to the wicked that has faith, which to the Jews would mean the Gentiles. 


We often see the word "work" as it relates to faith in the New Testament.  In connection with salvation, work simply means "doing something in order to receive salvation from God".   To be specific, work in connection with Jews means obeying the Law of Moses.  One example of works is circumcision.  It can be infant baptism in our day.  It can be not smoking, not going to movies, as it was in the Evangelical world in which I was raised.  Anything we do, apart from faith, in order to be saved, is works.  These kinds of works, in my thinking add to what Jesus has already done for us on the cross.  Such works are blasphemous.  They are telling Jesus that what He did for us on the cross is not good enough.  We need to improve on what He did by adding some of our own works.  What a sinful thought.                            


God commanded Abraham to be circumcised.  It was a symbolic token that he trusted what God had told him.  Circumcision was a practice that made among men in various Middle Eastern societies, not just with the Jews.  Like other social practices, these other societies simply copied the Jews.  Over the years, the Jews turned circumcision into more than a symbol of one's faith.  It became a symbol of Jewishness.  Therefore, if you weren't circumcised, you weren't considered a real Jew.  For this reason, the prophets had to preach that even though outward circumcision was a command in the Law of Moses, inward circumcision, that is, circumcision of the heart, at Paul puts it in Romans, is what God wants most.           


Paul is simply saying that we are not to work for our righteous standing before God.  We are to simply trust what He has done for us.  That's faith.  Works, or doing something to earn our salvation, actually shows a lack of trust or faith in Jesus.       


In verse 6 and throughout chapter 4, we see the word credit.  I remind you again that the word "credit" is an accounting term.  If you credit the bank account of a friend, you put money in his bank account.  The Bible makes it clear that God has some kind of accounting records when it comes to man and his sin. When we trust God's provision for us being viewed as righteous, He simply makes an accounting adjustment.  He deletes the record of sins from His books and replaces these sins with one word, that being "righteous".        


In verses 6 through 8 Paul brings in another important Jewish person to back up his point.  He refers to what David said in Psalm 32:1 and 2.  "Blessed is the man whose offenses have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered.  Blessed is the man whose sins the Lord will never count against him."  David was keenly aware of his sinful state, unlike our Christian world today.  This is why he felt so blessed.


In verse 8 Paul closes what David said by saying, "blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him."  Just think about that.  Someday you and I will see Jesus face to face.  If we have trusted Him for our salvation, He will look on us, as sinful as we are, but will not accuse us of anything.  This is almost too good to be true, as they say, but it is true. 


The reason why Paul quotes from the Psalms is to point out that the idea of being righteous by faith is not knew.  David, whether he knew it or not, spoke prophetically of the day where God would view people as being righteous if they have faith in God.    

We should know that Abraham was seen as righteous by God because he trusted God.  When it comes to circumcision, Abraham wasn't circumcised until 14 years after God first viewed him as being righteous.  Circumcision was not an immediate response to Abraham's faith.   


In verses 9 through 12 Paul makes another important point to back up his thinking that righteousness by faith is for all mankind, and not just for the circumcised Jew.  As he used David's quote to support his point the salvation by faith is not a new concept, so Paul now notes that when Abraham was counted as being righteous by God, he was not yet circumcised.  Circumcision came later.  It was a sign that God viewed Abraham as being righteous.  Abraham was already viewed by God as being righteous prior to him being circumcised.  Therefore, circumcision had nothing to do with receiving this gift of righteousness.  If this is the case, then all of the Gentiles who were not commanded to be circumcised can also be made righteous by faith as well.  It makes perfect sense.


In verse 9 Paul makes one simple statement.  God credited Abraham as being righteous entirely on his faith and nothing else.  This is one of the most important facts of our gospel message. 


Note the words "seal of righteousness" in verse 11.  This is a legal seal as in a lawyer's notarized stamp of approval.  This is not a seal in the sense of something that covers something.  It's like the seal that appears on one's passport.      


Also in verse 11 Paul says something that would have driven the Jews crazy.  He begins by saying "so then".  That suggests that he is making a conclusion here.  The conclusion is that since Abraham was justified by his faith prior to being circumcised, he is the father of all those who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.  Circumcision alone doesn't constitute being a valid Jew.  In New Testament terms, a Jew is one who has faith and is circumcised in the heart, as he has already stated in Romans 2:28.   As I've said, before, we do need to understand that when it comes to salvation, there is no Jewish Gentile distinction, but, when it comes to prophetic history, Israel as a nation is prophetically distinctive.  There is a difference between Israel and the nations when it comes to prophecy.  


When Paul says that Abraham is the father of all who believe, this in fact helps fulfill one of the promises God spoke to Abraham in the Abrahamic Covenant.  The specific promise is that Abraham would become the father of many nations as seen in Genesis 12:1 to 3.   


In John 8:39 and 41 the Jews claimed that Abraham was their father.  This shows you how they thought concerning Abraham.  In John 8:44, Jesus in His boldness, tells the Jews that their father was in fact the devil, not Abraham.  Jesus was saying that they had no right calling Abraham their father because they did not do as Abraham did, neither did they believe as Abraham believed.  In the Old Testament, if any man in Israel was not circumcised, he was cut off from Israel.  You often see the words "cut off from Israel" for a number of reasons; non compliance to circumcision was only one reason.  Jesus must have viewed the Jewish leaders in His day as being cut off from Israel because they did not have Abraham's faith.     


Here in Romans 4 Paul says that people who have faith in Jesus can claim Abraham as their father.  The only reason why you would want to do this is to copy Abraham in his faith. We have the same faith as he did, and as a result of this faith God counts us as being righteous when in fact we are not righteous.  Abraham was not righteous either.  He still sinned after God counted him as being righteous.    


At this point I want to quote from James concerning Abraham and his faith.  James quotes the same verse as Paul quotes, "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness" (James 2:23, from Genesis 15:6). What does James say about this verse?  In James 2:24 he says, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone."  This appears to be a direct contradiction to what we have just seen Paul say, when he says that righteousness is by faith alone.   How can we reconcile this apparent discrepancy?


In James 2:18 James says, "Show me your faith
without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do."  James is saying that true faith will produce good works.  If you have true faith it will be evident in the way you live.  A false claim to faith produces nothing.  A false faith makes no one righteous.  James is stressing the idea that good deeds will follow true faith.  Paul would have no problem with that.  Paul is stressing the idea that faith saves you, not good deeds, yet, once having faith Paul would agree that good works will follow.  Paul basically says that in Ephesians 2:10 when he says that we are called to do good works.  Paul isn't nullifying that fact that good works are important.   Paul would not have any problem with James saying that good deeds would follow true faith.  James is trying to show the difference between true faith and false faith. Paul is showing the difference between salvation by faith and salvation by works.  This is my explanation of this apparent discrepancy.                    


One thing we learn from James is that just because someone claims to have faith doesn't mean he really does have faith.  If one claims faith, you will know their faith is real by what they do.  This is not a matter of judging the person in today's misunderstanding of judging.  We simply observe what the one claiming faith does in his life, which, will make it clear to us if he has real faith or false faith.  False faith saves no one.   


In verse 13 Paul continues the story of Abraham.  He moves away from circumcision as being the means by which one is declared righteious.  He moves on to the law in gerneral, or Law of Moses, as the means by which one is declared righteous.  He says that Abraham and his offspring were promised to be heir of the world.  This had nothing to do with the Law of Moses because the Law of Moses was not even in existence at the time of this promise.  This promise was based on Abraham believing what God told him, which was confirmed in the covenant ritual that God made with Himself to bless Abraham in Genesis 15. 


Note the word "offspring" and the word "heir" in verse 13.  I know there is much controversy over this, but, I believe the word "offspring", especially because it's associated with Abraham, refers to Israel.  Therefore, even though it's not what Paul is addressing here, Paul does imply that Israel will be heir of the world, or, heirs of the world as seen in the next verse.  I believe the plural "heirs" suggests many people, which are the Jews.  I believe that the Jews will become heris of the world when Jesus returns to earth as king of the world.  He will at that point install Israel as His representative nation to the nations of the world for the next thousand years.    


When it comes to the Law, Abraham was long gone.  The Law came to Moses, and therefore, has nothing to do with Abraham being justified.  It really has nothing to do with the promises God spoke to Abraham. Both circumcision and the Law should be excluded from the discussion of God’s promise to Abraham.


In order for Abraham to be the father of many nations, he first needed to have a son.  This was a problem because both he and his wife Sarah were too old to have children.  As Romans 4:21 and 22 says, "He was fully persuaded" that God would follow through on His promise.  As a result of this assurance Abraham was counted as being righteous, and indeed became the father of many nations, through the birth of his biological son, in which his lineage produced Jesus.  When we have faith in Jesus, we have the faith of Abraham and his family.                 


Another way to view Abraham as being the father of many nations is that one of the recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant is Jesus.  The other two are Abraham himself and Abraham's descendents, the Jews.  In New Testament terms, when those of Gentile nations have faith, they become sons of Abraham, thus Abraham becomes the father of these Gentile nations.  That being said, you must not discount the prophetic significance of the Abrahamic Covenant that views Israel as being a great nation that would be the priest of God to the nations.  This will eventually take place when Jesus returns to earth and sets up His rule for a thousand years.    


In verse 14 Paul states that if living by the law, whether law in general or the Law of Moses, makes one become recipients of the promises, then law, or the Law, nullifies faith.  Faith becomes useless and worthless.  That only makes sense.  One can't be a recipient of God's promises by two ways.  It's either by faith or by works.  You can't have it both ways.  This is what Paul is saying here. 


Verse 15 might be hard for some to understand.  Paul says that the law brings wrath.  That simply means that

when you disobey the Law, you provoke God to wrath.  Paul then says that where there is no law, there is no transgression.  Think of it this way.  If a parent does not tell his child to stay clear of the cookie jar, then when the child eats a cookie, the parent can't be upset with the child for eating the cookie.  The parent didn't lay down the law in reference to cookies.  Taking a cookie was not wrong.  If there is no law, there is no breaking of a law. 


In verse 16 Paul concludes that all mankind can receive the promises of God, not just the Jews who have the Law of Moses.  Anyone who has faith in God, as Abraham had, can receive God's promise of righteousness, because the Law has nothing to do with receiving God's promise.  That only makes sense.


It's important to realize at this point that the promise Paul is talking about is the promise of God crediting our account with righteousness; the promise of how God views us as being righteous.  Paul is not saying that the promise of Israel being a great nation or having a specific portion of land as seen in the promises God spoke to Abraham are offered to Gentiles as Replacement Theology teaches.  The context is simply the promise of being counted as righteous and nothing else.


Note the word "grace" in verse 16.  Grace is being compare to Law, or, law in general. We must remember what Paul is arguing here so far in Romans.  He proves that all have sinned.  No one  is able to obey the law of God in its totality.  Therefore, God viewing us as being righteous must be a matter of God's grace, His divine unmerited favour extended to us.


In verse 17 Paul repeats one of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant as seen in Genesis 12.  This promise is that Abraham would not only be the father of the Jews, that is Israel; he would be the father of many nations, meaning, and the Gentile nations.                 


Concerning verse 17, I need to make a comment.  Paul says that God gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.  Many Christians, especially those in the Hyper Faith Movement, misunderstand this verse.  They use this to say that we are to believe, claim, and act as if we already have what we ask from God.  That is to say, we should call things that aren't, that is, the things we want but don't have, as though they are, that is, as if we already have them.  For example, if we ask for good eye sight, we throw away our glasses and live as though we can see well, even though we can't. This is not the meaning of Paul's words.  In context, the things that are not in this verse are the Gentiles that weren't considered to be the offspring of Abraham in Old Testament times.  Remember, Paul is talking about Abraham being the father of Gentiles here.  The context clearly explains the meaning of these words.  God calls the Gentiles, those who weren't, as those who are, that is, part of the descendents of Abraham.  This verse has nothing to do with hyper faith and claiming things that we want but don't yet have.  We as Christians cannot simply speak things into existence as hyper faith folk tell us.  Such thinking is a new age concept that has sadly infiltrated the church these days.            


Because of the word "dead" in this passage, some suggest that Paul had Sarah's unproductive womb in mind.  Remember, prior to the birth of her son Isaac, she was not able to have a child.  You might say that her womb was dead.  There may be some validity in thinking Paul had Sarah's dead womb in mind, but, in my thinking, it's speculative.  Yes, God can speak things into existence.  He can consider that which is not as if it is, but, the text does not say that is what we can do.  Again, Hyper Faith folk are wrong to use this verse to support their position.    


In verses 18 through 21 Paul says that against all hope Abraham became the father of many nations.  Abraham believed God while in a hopeless situation.  Both he and his wife were dead when it comes to producing children.  How could even one descendent, let alone nations of descendents, be born through his lineage?  Still, Paul says that Abraham did not waver in his faith.  This is the kind of faith God wants us to have.   We believe even when things look unbelievable.   


One might challenge Paul's statement that Abraham didn't waver in his faith.  Remember, he did agree with his wife to have sex with Hagar in order to have a son.  That does seem to imply, at least for one evening, Abraham's faith did waver.  That being said, even though Abraham's faith was not perfect, in the long run, in the grand scheme of things, he did have faith.  That tells me that even when we struggle with faith at times, God can still come through for us.  We are human and our faith is not perfect.                         


The above paragraph being said, the Greek word translated as waver here doesn't exactly mean waver in the since that I've just used it.  The Greek word translated as waver here means to make a judgment that would make one change his mind.  That is, Abraham did not sit down and rethink God's promise and conclude he was wrong in trusting God.  Yes, Abraham did waver in the since I used it above but he did not waver in the sense the Greek states.  Abraham did not change his mind concerning God's promise of a son.   


In verses 22 through 25 Paul closes chapter 4 by saying that the words "it was credited to him (Abraham) was not just written for Abraham alone but for us as well".  We who have the same trust in God as Abraham had can be blessed with God crediting our heavenly account with righteousness.  "We who believe that God raised Jesus Christ our Lord from the dead" have the same promise of salvation as Abraham had.  This is why we say that salvation has always been by faith, in both Old and New Testament times.  In Old Testament times people put their faith in God just as we do today.  The only difference between us New Testament saints and the Old Testament saints is that we look back to the coming of the Messiah while those in the Old Testament looked forward to His coming.     


In verse 25 Paul says that Jesus died because of our sins and rose for our justification.  That means that when Jesus died, He was punished for our sins, so that we would not have to be punished.  We have been forgiven for the sins we've committed.  Our sins have been stricken from the heavenly records, but, it doesn't end there.  The resurrection of Jesus provided our justification.  That means God views us as being perfectly just, just as He Himself is perfectly just, and this is due to the resurrection of Jesus. 


The fact that Jesus took the penalty of death for us means we do not have to face this penalty.  This deathly penalty is eternity spend in the Lake of Fire.  The fact that Jesus recovered from this deathly penalty is important. Paul says that the resurrection from death was the thing that causes God to view us as being just.  Jesus' death was the thing that caused God to forgive our sins, but, His resurrection is what causes God to view us as being just, which is what justification means.        


For clarity sake, redemption is the process by which God the Judge removes the penalty due us because of our sin.  Justification is the pronouncement by God the Judge that He has declared us completely just, or righteous, even though we are still unrighteous.    


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