Justified by Faith
Abraham was a great man.
We know that he started his life is Mesopotamia in a place called Ur. He was born close to two thousand years after the creation of Adam and close to two thousand years before the birth of Christ. Ur is near the Euphrates River in what is now southern Iraq, and is in the place known as the cradle of civilization, which is also near the site where the Tower of Babel project was undertaken. Ur was a prosperous place at the time, and it was a hot bed of idolatry, immorality, humanism and materialism. It was in this place and from these people that God called Abram. Genesis 11 tells us that Abram moved with his father, his nephew and his wife to Haran, which represented a move north. Genesis 12 tells us that after Abram’s father died, God appeared to Abram and told him to go to a land that God would show him. According to Acts 7:2, Stephen said, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.'” () From this account, we understand that God appeared to Abraham before he ever left Ur. God singled out Abraham while he was still far from God.
God singled out Abraham. He even appeared to Abraham and said:
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. ().
What was it about Abraham that God singled him out?
Indeed, this is what is behind the question in Romans 4:1.
Just as God promised, Abraham’s name became very great. To the Jews and to Paul, he was the father of their nation. The view of the Jewish teachers and scholars was then and still is that it was Abraham’s greatness that caused God to choose Him. Tradition has it that Abraham started out helping in the building of the Tower of Babel, and became convinced of the error of this activity as he contemplated the greatness of the God who had created everything. He began to search for God and in the sincerity of his search was able to find God. None of this is supported by the Bible, which includes the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the teachings and fables of men. This teaching, although much longer and more involved, concludes like this:
Thus, in a sense, G‑d did not choose Abraham. It was his inherent superiority, and the fact that he was ready to give everything up for the sake of G‑d, that compelled G‑d to choose him.
Of course, no one teaching represents the views of everyone, but this does represent the predominant view of Judaism.
From this view, the Jewish people took great pride in their ancestors, especially Abraham. This is why, when they argued with Jesus about who He was, they said:
"We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?"
Their position as descendants of Abraham was very important to them and according to their beliefs made them special. Therefore, Abraham is an excellent example to demonstrate that we are not right with God because of the things we do.
Romans 4:1-2 begins this argument by example with the following statement:
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. ()
Consider the sentence, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about...” If Abraham’s works were so perfect as to make him right with God, then surely he could boast. If a person is so good that his good works are in excess of what is required for salvation, then that person has much to boast about. This idea of people being so good as to save themselves and others is still taught today, and is often thought of as what makes a person a “saint.” But, notice that this text says that even such a person could not boast before God.
We have just been over a section of Romans that taught very clearly that all have sinned and no one is able to save himself or herself. The argument of Romans 4 is that no one is made right with God by being good enough. Therefore, the next verse of Romans 4 says:
For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." ()
Notice that it says “counted.” This word is also translated as credited or reckoned. So, if there is a ledger book, a credit is on the positive side. It was not Abraham’s works that were credited to him. It was his faith.
Next, the text enters into some of the logic behind justification by faith and not by works. Verses four and five state:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness... ()
The Jews thought and even taught that Abraham’s behavior obligated God to choose Abraham. We also have this same tendency. We secretly think, “I have been good; therefore, God owes me.” This treats God’s goodness as wages. We earn what we receive from God. If we have money, we have it because we earned it. If we have health, we have it because we earned it by taking care of our bodies and exercising. If we are the head of a department or manager, we are in our position because we earned it.
Without denying the hard work that is required for any one of these things I have mentioned, it is important for us to grasp the truth that everything we have, we have as a gift from God. Speaking from a human point of view, the wisest man who ever lived said:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. ()
Romans 4:3 points out that wages are not a gift because it is making the argument that we are made right with God as a gift. This is why the next example the author of Romans uses is that of David. He says:
David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it: “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight. Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin.” ()
Do you see how happy the person is who has received righteousness as a gift?
How blessed and happy is the person who has received the forgiveness of his or her sins!
If we are to talk about wages, we must remember that each of us has earned death. Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins.” () Now, we know that the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)
Justice does not weigh good works against bad works. For example, if one person murders another person, that person is judged as a murderer. It does not matter that they loved their mother and sister. James 2:10 teaches that a person who has broken only one law has become a transgressor of the whole law. It is not a question of how good or bad a person may seem in our sight. Notice that Romans 4:5 says, “... but believes in him who justifies the ungodly.” According to the principles taught here, we are all ungodly. However, the good news is that we are justified freely by His grace. Oh, how incredibly happy we are! We are free from the certain penalty of death that was our just wages.
Romans 4:1 asked a question concerning what Abraham had found, and answered that what Abraham found was that a person is justified by faith. Romans 4:9 asks another question. It asks:
Here again, it is important to understand Jewish tradition. According to the Law of Moses, a Jewish male who was not circumcised was to be cut off from his people. Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel and was considered necessary for taking part in the covenant promises. One could not be a Jew without circumcision.
Until the time of Jesus, only one people and one nation were entrusted with the Scriptures and the Temple. There were God-fearing Gentiles, and because of the dispersion of the Jews throughout the ancient world, the Jewish Scriptures were known in places far from Israel. We see this reflected in the visit of wise men from the east coming to see “He who was born king of the Jews.” Now, the question has become, does one need to become a Jew in order to receive the righteousness that comes by faith? Do we need to become Jews? This is what is meant by “the circumcision.”
To answer this question, Romans 4:10 says:
How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. ()
Circumcision is not necessary for one to be made right with God. Abraham was right with God by faith before He was circumcised, and received circumcision as a sign of this relationship with God.
This is so important for us to understand. Romans 4:12 says:
...who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. ()
It is the faith of Abraham that is our example.
God did not single out Abraham because Abraham was great. Abraham was great because God singled him out.
For us, this means that we do not need to be baptized before we are saved. We are baptized as a sign of the faith that saves us before we are baptized. It means that we are not made right with God by going to church, giving offerings and serving others. We go to church, give offerings and serve others because we are right with God.
We do not have to become anything before God will accept us, forgive our sins and make us His friends. God takes us right where we are and makes us new in Christ. We are reborn, made new.
Think about this.
God does not need another Abraham. He raised up Abraham, calling him out of Ur because God had a purpose. God has raised you up, calling you from wherever you have come, because God has a purpose. God wants you to trust Him, trust Him for everything. The forgiveness of our sins is the biggest and most difficult thing for us to trust Him with. Start with that, and then trust Him for everything else as well. God does not want your greatness. He is great and will do great things in and through you. He is able to do greater things than we can even ask or think. He tells us to trust Him. He counts our faith in Him as righteousness.