The Letter to the Romans



13. The faith of Abraham


Romans 4:1-8

Immediately after introducing a righteousness from God apart from the law, Paul turns to Abraham as the most powerful Biblical example of a person who was counted righteous because of his belief in God. Abraham is the perfect example of this act of grace for two reasons. The first reason is that he was the original father of the Jews, God's chosen people. All Jews traced their heritage back to Abraham and considered themselves to be blessed of God because they were the rightful inheritors of God's blessing promised to the patriarch. The second reason is that he believed God and was counted righteous before God commanded him to be circumcised. It was the act of circumcision that put the mark of God's ownership on him, and the Jews believed that because they also had that mark and were descended from the promised son Isaac, they deserved God's favor. Yet the mark of ownership did not touch Abraham until AFTER he believed God.

Abraham, therefore, was considered righteous before he became a "Jew". Without benefit of the law, which had not yet been given, without benefit of belonging to a chosen race, Abraham believed God, and God counted him righteous. This fact establishes him as the spiritual father of all Gentiles, all those who believe God even without the privilege of birth or law or special status. Further, Abraham's righteousness demonstrates that even the Jews are not counted holy because of their inheritance or ritual observances. Even the chosen race, the Jews, are only counted righteous when they believe in God with no thought that they deserve or earn His favor.


Belief Credited as Righteousness

Paul makes the point that even if Abraham had performed perfect works, he couldn't have boasted about them before God. He might have felt that he deserved to be justified and counted righteous because of his good behavior, but such disciplined performance would not have impressed God. Before God we can boast of absolutely nothing-except about God himself. In 1 Corinthians 1:31 Paul refers to Jeremiah and says, "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord." Jeremiah quoted God as saying, "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, or the strong man boast of his strength, or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understand and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

The first reference in the Bible to a person having faith in God's promises is found in Genesis 15:6. The setting for this passage is God appearing to Abraham in a vision and assuring him that Abraham would not be leaving his inheritance to his servant Eliezer. On the contrary, he promised him an heir from his own body and offspring that would rival the numbers of the stars in the heavens.

"Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness," says Genesis 15:6. Not only is this is the first specific reference to a person believing

God's promises, it's also the first reference to God crediting righteousness to a person because of his belief in Him. We might argue that prior to this event Abraham had been acting obediently; he followed God's leading out of Ur, he offered tithe to Melchizedek, he avoided inter-family strife by offering Lot his choice of the land. Yet none of these acts of nobility or kindness or obedience resulted in God's calling Abraham righteous.

God declared Abraham righteous because Abraham believed God. In spite of physical evidence to the contrary, God promised Abraham that he would have offspring that would rival the stars in number. Abraham believed God rather than believing his own mind or senses. He trusted the Creator instead of trying to rationalize or control his situation. Abraham is the first person whose story the Bible tells to demonstrate belief as the means of attaining righteous standing before God.

Many other patriarchs were counted righteous because of their belief. Hebrews 11 sites many Old Testament figures who received righteous standing before God because of their belief including such unlikely people as Samson, Rahab, and Jephthah. Abraham, however, is uniquely qualified to serve as Paul's example because his story resonates with both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews consider Abraham to be their father, the first one called of God through whom His promises would come. His circumcision establishes him as the recipient of God's covenant. His faith which preceded his circumcision, however, establishes Abraham as the example of one who receives right standing before God because of his belief alone. Both Gentiles-those who were not born into the chosen race-and Jews receive God's righteousness not because of their physical inheritance or moral lives but because of their surrendered trust in God.


Gifts vs. Wages

In this passage of Romans, Paul repeatedly distinguishes between receiving wages and receiving credit as a gift. This distinction is important. In Romans 6:23 Paul defines it even more specifically when he says, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Wages are earned. Gifts are not earned. When talking about salvation, wages represent sin, and credit or gifts represent God's grace. Anything generated from ourselves-good work or bad-is tainted with our original sin and has no ability to effect our salvation. On the contrary, our tainted efforts earn us the wages of sin.

The fact that wages are what we earn for our sinful efforts while the gift of grace is what we receive as a consequence of our faith in Jesus makes a big impact on the way we choose to live. In the first place, Isaiah declared that "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). By contrast, God declared through Isaiah that he was bringing his righteousness near (Is. 46:12-13). In other words, our best efforts are disgusting and worthy only of being cast out. Our righteousness comes to us from God. We do not offer good works to him; he offers his righteousness to us.

In Romans 11 Paul talks about God's having chosen a remnant of Israel "by grace". If they were chosen because of their works, he says, their status with God would no longer be because of grace. Because God chooses them by grace, however, their works are of no significance in their election. Paul also states in Romans 9:30-32 that Gentiles have received righteousness without pursuing good works. They did not have the law to reveal God's righteous demands, yet they received acceptance and righteousness from God because of their faith in Jesus. Israel, he says further, pursued righteousness by works, by struggling to keep the law, yet they did not attain right standing for their efforts. For everyone who believes in Jesus and confesses that he is Lord, however, there is righteousness from God.

No one is justified by observing the law, Paul emphasizes in Galatians 2:15-16. Indeed, if we could achieve righteousness by observing the law, Jesus's death was worthless. As he continues to explain the law's subordination to Christ in the life of a Christ-follower, Paul states that we were delivered from the curse of the law when Jesus became a curse for us and died our death (Galatians 3:10-13). Further, he stresses that since we know God, we fall "away from grace" if we turn back to the law's "weak and miserable principles" and try to be justified by obedience to them. Further, he says, we can't just pick one or two parts of the law and observe them as badges of belonging (such as circumcision-or the Sabbath, he might have added) and expect to straddle the world of grace and the world of law. If we observe any part of the law, we are obligated to obey the whole thing (Galatians 4:8-11).

In short, if we find ourselves expecting to be accepted by God for our sacrifice or obedience or good works, we are deceived. Wages, or earned payment, are the rewards of sin. Any effort we make to be acceptable to God yields nothing but frustration and ultimately death. Our best attempts spring from our sin, and they are not acceptable to God. Only our surrender to the Holy Spirit's conviction of our own sin and our heart's faith in the saving grace of Jesus will assure us of righteousness. That righteousness is a gift from our Father; it does not result from our own efforts or obedience or discipline. It is outside of us, and it is divine. It is God's gracious gift, and we do not earn it.


What About Our Sin?

If we are free from the authority and curse of the law when we become Christ-followers, how do we address the sins to which we still are vulnerable? One of the most frequent scornful questions people ask of Christ-followers who say they no longer live by the law is: "So, is it now OK for you to go out and kill, lie, cheat, and steal?"

People who ask these questions completely miss the astonishing point of the new birth: the Holy Spirit now resides in us who believe, and He is now our authority, power, teacher, and disciplinarian. God himself has replaced the law as our direct authority and as the one who convicts us of sins. The Holy Spirit brings our spirits to life. We are no longer spiritually dead, and our eternal life has already begun. Although our bodies are still mortal, our spirits have entered eternity with Jesus, and the Holy Spirit works in us to change our thoughts, desires, motives, and behaviors so we live more and more like Jesus. Just as the Holy Spirit's first work in us was to convict us of our sin and to bring us to repentance, so his continuing work in us is to convict us of our weaknesses and to teach us to surrender them along with the details of our lives to Jesus and to trust him.

John 3:18-21 says that the result of being saved is committing to walking by truth and coming into the light out of darkness. This light will reveal that the believer's actions are done through God, not done through his or her dark sinful nature. Paul says in Romans 5:8-10 that we were reconciled to God by Jesus' death while we were sinners; we are saved by his life which he lives now to keep us in him. Jesus keeps us when we belong to him, and he takes responsibility for us and for our growth. The work Jesus began in us when we accepted him, Paul tells us in Philippians 1:6, he will carry to completion "until the day of Christ Jesus." Jesus works in us to mold us into the people he wants us to be. He does not leave us abandoned in our still-mortal bodies to fight alone the impulses to sin. He begins and completes his work of transformation in us, and he keeps us growing in him until we reach completion when we are physically united with him.

Paul tells us we are dead to sin after we are born again, because we are no longer under the law. Sin is not our master anymore because we are now slaves of God. The benefit we receive from being slaves to God leads to our holiness and results in eternal life. (Romans 6:11, 14, 22) We are no longer doomed to death; we are eternally alive. Since our spirits come to life when the Holy Spirit indwells us, the core of sin with which we were born is gone, and life with Jesus takes its place. We quite literally are no longer under the control of sin. We have passed from death to life. (John 5:24) When we belong to God, he works in us to make us holy. This process is not teaching us to obey the law; the law, in fact, is no longer our focus. Rather, he teaches us to honor him, to act in love, to surrender our anger and defensiveness and fear to him and to let him teach us to respond with his wisdom and discernment instead of with self-serving, self-protective motives.

To the Galatians Paul wrote that when we live by the Spirit, we'll no longer gratify our sinful desires. He acknowledges that the sinful impulses that are part of still being in our unredeemed bodies conflict with the Holy Spirit in us. But if we're led by the Spirit, he says, we're not under the law, and sin is not our master. The Holy Spirit in us will produce love joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:16-26) In Ephesians 2:8-10 Paul also tells us that we are saved by grace, and we are God's worksmanship. Our new identities in Him are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works which he prepared in advance for us to do." In other words, Jesus takes personal responsibility for us when we accept him. Our new identity is his design, and he not only grows us in him and equips us to honor him, but he also prepares the work he wants us to do for him. When we abandon ourselves to our Savior, he directs our lives and brings to us the experiences and the work he wants us to do.

When we acknowledge that Jesus, not the law, is our focus and authority, we don't move into moral free-for-all. In fact, seeing Jesus as having authority over our behavior instead of the law having that authority actually takes away our inevitable failure. Jesus now teaches us and convicts us, and instead of leaving us hopeless with guilt as the law did, he reminds us that he has already saved us. He asks us to rest in him while he gives us his strength and courage to face our temptations, and his love in us gives us victory over the sin which the law formerly held before us as proof of our intractable guilt.



When we hear God's call to us and respond with belief in his promise of salvation, the Holy Spirit awakens a response in us that is otherwise impossible for us to feel: repentance. The law awakens guilt in us; the love and sacrifice of Jesus stirs repentance. The two are distinctly different. Guilt is the awareness that we are sinful and hopelessly flawed. Repentance is the response to God's love that causes us to want to turn away from our hopeless sins.

Without confession and repentance, the gift of grace remains just out of our reach. Jesus' sacrifice has already covered our sins, but until we confess and repent and give up the control of our lives to Jesus, we live under the curse of the law, and our sins overwhelm us.

David wrote about feeling God's hand lying heavily on him until he confessed his sins; then God forgave him. (Psalm 32:3-5) Proverbs 28:13 states that the person who conceals his sins does not prosper. The person who confesses and renounces them, on the other hand, finds mercy. God is pleased when the wicked turn from their ways. When sinners turn from their sin, they walk into life. (see Ezekiel 18:23) Repent and live, Ezekiel told the people. (Ezekiel 18:32)

Repenting is the first call of God on the heart of a human. Shortly after Pentecost when Peter and John healed the cripple at the gate of the temple, Peter addressed the crowd of Jews and presented the gospel to them again. He explained that the cripple's healing had not come from him or John; rather, it had come from Jesus, the one whom they had rejected, exchanged for a murderer, and ultimately killed.

"Repent!" he said to them. He begged them to turn to God so their sins would be wiped out and they could experience times of refreshing-the presence of God in their lives. (Acts 3:11) "God commands all men to repent," Paul told the people of Athens in his speech recorded in Acts 17 (see v. 30).

To the Corinthians Paul wrote that Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation. (2 Corinthians 7:10). Peter, commenting about Jesus' delayed return, said that the Lord is not slow but patient, wanting everyone to come to repentance. John wrote in 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sins, he will forgive us and cleanse us from all our unrighteousness.

We earn the wages of sin until we are willing to acknowledge our intrinsic and hopeless sinfulness. We live under the curse of the law as long as we hang onto our delusion that we can control and manage our flawed lives ourselves. When we allow the conviction of the Holy Spirit to teach our hearts, however, we come face to face with our arrogance and desperation. When we confess our sinfulness to Jesus and ask for his mercy and salvation, we pass from the curse of sin's wages to the gift of Christ's righteousness being credited to us.

Abraham, "the father of all who believe," (Romans 4:11) repeatedly displayed times of lack of trust. Twice he lied about Sarah's true identity, having her call herself his sister, to protect his own life (Genesis 12:1-5; 20:8-14) Even after he believed God's promises of seed, land, and blessing to him, he laughed after years had passed and God told him again that he would have a son by his elderly wife Sarah. (Genesis 17:15-19) Yet Abraham's initial belief in God's promises (Genesis 15:6) overrode his periods of weakness. When God called him to leave the land of his fathers, he went without questioning. (Genesis 12:1-5) When God asked him to circumcise the males in his family as a sign of the covenant between them, he did, even though he was 99 years old, and his son Ishmael was already 13. When God asked him to sacrifice his son by slaying him with his own hand as Isaac lay upon an altar, he obeyed and would have done the deed had not an angel stopped him and shown him the ram caught in the bushes near him. (Genesis 22:1-9) Even though he was flawed and self-protective, still Abraham was willing to believe God and obey him when he spoke to him. Abraham's willingness to give up his own ideas and follow God was an outgrowth of his complete faith in God's words to him.

God's calls each of us in his sovereign mercy, regardless of our behavior or previous knowledge of him. His call to us is irrevocable; even when we act outside of faith, as Abraham did when he lied about Sarah, God still claims and cares for us. Like Abraham, however, we are to respond when God calls us. Abraham left Mesopotamia and the gods of his fathers when God called him; he circumcised his household at God's command; he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, his son of promise, when God asked him to do so. God asks us to trust him when he calls us; even when we can't see the results of our trust, God's promises are sure. When we turn away from our lives of sin and self-centeredness, God counts us righteous through Christ. The rewards of our eternal security far outweigh the temporary satisfaction of trying to control our own lives or trying to earn favor through our good works and noble suffering.



God is asking you to release your feelings of "deserving" God's reward or commendation. Your standing with God has absolutely nothing to do with your suffering, your selflessness, or your hard work. God is asking you to turn from your own secret pride and surrender to him all of yourself. He is even asking you to let go of your misconceptions that cloud your understanding of his grace.

Jesus is asking you to repent of your sin as well as of your "good works". He wants you to see that your efforts to be noble come from that deep, sinful part of yourself that needs to be brought to life by his Spirit. No amount of "noble" or "innocent" suffering will qualify you for a reward from God. No amount of effort spent on "good works" will earn you credit with God.

God is calling you to stand before him with your hands empty, your heart open to him, and to simply believe his promises to you. He is asking you to acknowledge that your life is hopeless without him, that you are doomed without his intervention, and he is asking you to surrender yourself to him and to accept Jesus' sacrifice for your deep sin.

God is asking you not just to acknowledge your sinful condition intellectually. People can confess their sins without surrendering their hearts to the reality of how completely unjustifiable their actions were. Acknowledgment of one's wrong doing without acknowledgement of one's deep guilt is self-deception. As long as a person rationalizes his reasons for his sin, finding excuses and pleading ignorance for bad decisions and actions, he is not repentant. That person still lives with the relentless pursuit of guilt.

As long as a person believes he is not intrinsically flawed, he is unable to repent. He has no need of a Savior while he believes himself to be basically good.

Jesus is asking you to surrender yourself to the truth: you need Jesus to cleanse you from your fatal affliction of sin. Then, after accepting Jesus as your only hope for life, Jesus asks you to surrender your control of your own life to Him and to allow His Spirit to begin to teach and comfort you. He calls you to grow in trust. He asks that you give up your feelings of entitlement and let Him shape your life and bring his work to you.

Jesus himself wants to be your great reward. The more you learn to trust and surrender to him, the more his peace and presence and wisdom and grace will fill your heart and mind, and the more your presence will touch others with God's love and healing.

God's call to you is a call to paradox. Stand before him with your hands empty, offering him nothing but yourself and clinging to nothing you have valued. As you stand surrendered before him, ask Jesus to fill you with his Spirit and to build your identity in Him. As you release the things you thought were important to you and give up the identity you thought you had, Jesus will restore you and give you back yourself, but it will be a new, confident, peaceful, joyful self that will be different from the anxious one you gave him. You will give up everything, but God will give back more than you lost.

Praise God for the righteousness he gives us through Jesus. Praise Jesus for emptying himself and identifying with us. Praise the Holy Spirit for filling our human hearts with the eternal life and presence of the living Christ!

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted October 19, 2003.
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