Credit where it’s not due
We’ve discovered some important truths in Paul’s 3rd chapter of Romans that relate to our sinful state, faith, justification, atonement and redemption; 1. None of us are righteous, no not one (Jew and Gentile alike). 2. There is a righteousness that is available through faith. 3. This righteousness is obtained by believing in the Lord Jesus. 4.Justification is about a righteousness that is imputed rather than imparted: it primarily involves a change of status rather than practice. 5. This all works by Christ’s sacrifice of atonement: the righteous demands of the law were fully met and paid for on the cross. 6. Redemption is part of this work of God: we are bought with a price that he has paid.
As we’ve noticed previously much of Paul’s letter deals with the difficulty that Jews had with this new gospel that Paul was preaching. They felt passionately that the only way to come to God was by obeying the law. Paul tackles this problem in chapter 4 by analysing Abraham’s relationship to God – did he come to God on the basis of law and circumcision or by some other means?
- Faith not works
Abraham was the founding member of Israel – it was to him that God promised physical descendents and a land forever. So what was the basis of Abraham’s relationship to God? Paul quotes Genesis 15: 6. ‘Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.’ What were the circumstances of this statement? God had promised Abraham many descendents, but there was a problem, he was old, really old and his wife too was old, really old! Sarah was decades passed the menopause: the biology and physiology of her body was such that a child could not be born to her. Abraham was old too, probably too old to father a child. But God had spoken. God took Abraham outside one evening and asked him to look at the stars (with no electric street lights he would have seen many more stars than we see today!) God said ‘look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.’ Abraham’s response was to believe. The circumstances were totally against God’s promise, but God had spoken and Abraham believed. He took God at his word, adding nothing and subtracting nothing. God’s response was to credit him with righteousness. Immediately after this incident God formalised his promise (see Genesis 15) and gave Abraham a glimpse of the future. Sadly in the very next chapter Abraham and Sarah decided that they needed to help God out: Abraham slept with their Egyptian slave. Abraham’s faith wavered but it was not about Abraham’s works it was about his faith. Abraham’s relationship with God was governed by faith not works.
When we work we get paid – our employers don’t pay us as a gift, they have an obligation to pay wages according to our work. But when we come to God we are not asked to work, we are asked to trust and our faith is credited as righteousness. If you’ve read through this chapter you should have noticed a recurring word: credited (I’m using the New International Version, other versions may use ‘counted’ and/or ‘imputed’). We cannot come to God on the basis of doing works – we can only come by faith and God’s response is that we are credited with righteousness. Abraham believed what God said – and was credited with righteousness – for sure he at times behaved in ways that were not consistent with his faith, but it was his faith that saved him, not his works (good or bad).
Another great hero of the Jews was king David. Didn’t he come to God on the basis of law? Paul says the following: ‘David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, who’s sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.’ Note the same idea: righteousness is credited, sins are not! One writer said that God keeps a record of good works but not a record of sins!
Please note that Abraham entered into this situation by simply believing what God said. He believed neither more nor less. This is all that is asked of us too.
- Grace not law
Paul has just described the basis of Abraham’s and David’s relationship to God, but there were two big problems for Jews in Paul’s message: Paul seemed to be saying that neither circumcision nor obedience to the law was necessary. For the Jews circumcision and obedience to the law were of exceptional importance, how could they not be key to the whole thing?
Paul reiterates what he has just said about Abraham: ‘Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness (v9).’ Now Paul addresses the circumstances of this statement in Genesis 15: was Abraham circumcised when he was credited with righteousness or did circumcision come afterward: Paul points out that righteousness was credited to Abraham before he was circumcised. Circumcision was merely a physical process that confirmed Abraham’s relationship to God. As Paul said in v 11: ‘And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.’ So there it is, clear as crystal, circumcision is not essential. This makes Abraham a sort of father to everyone who believes who has not been circumcised (Gentiles) as well as those who have been circumcised (Jews). It’s all by faith whoever you are and whatever physical marks you have.
OK, so much for circumcision, but what about law? Shouldn’t the basis of our relationship to God be about obedience to the law? Here’s the thing: God made his promise to Abraham on the basis of faith, it was not actually dependent on Abraham’s obedience to law, in fact the law had not been given when Abraham exercised his faith. Abraham believed God and it was on this basis that he received the promise to became the ‘heir of the world.’ In contrast those who depend on the law are also heirs but not in a positive sense because the law brings wrath!
Abraham’s faith in God’s promise brought benefits for all of mankind: Paul describes him as the ‘father of us all.’ It seems that Abraham was the physical father of the Jews but he was also in a sense the father of all who believe.
- Life not death
Paul mentions one specific aspect of God’s nature at this stage in his discussion – God gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. This is one of the defining features of God’s nature: the ability to create from nothing and bring life from death. He demonstrated this when he enabled Sarah to have a baby. At this time Abraham’s body was in serious decline: ‘as good as dead!’ according to Paul, but in spite of these unlikely circumstances God was able to work. One can imagine the situation. Abraham looks in the mirror and sees one very old man, definitely past his best! He looks at his wife – she was many decades past child-bearing age – and yet here is God telling him that they will have a son! Abraham has faith that what God says will happen will indeed happen. You can see the nature of this faith, it is accepting what God says without question. This is the recurring theme in the bible: to take God at his word. And yet, how good we are at re-interpreting what God says. Take the Genesis account of creation, tragically there are few today who trust God’s statements and words enough to accept God’s account by faith. Take note this is not some sort of blind faith in a mythical character, the evidence (when considered in a non-selective way) all points to God’s words being true – our faith does not rest on wishful thinking it rests on God’s character and solid evidence.
Paul says of Abraham’s faith that ‘he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he promised.’ There is no doubt that Abraham showed times of greater and lesser faith, but it seems that fundamentally he believed God and took him at his word. The key theme in what Abraham was being asked to believe seems to relate to God’s ability to create and sustain life. Abraham had faith that God would bring life from an old couple! But there was another incident in Abraham’s life which demonstrated his faith in God’s ability to bring life. After the miracle of Isaac’s birth, Abraham was asked to take his precious son and sacrifice him! Here’s the account in Genesis 22: 3Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Notice what Abraham said to his servants, ‘stay here…then we will come back to you.’ It seems that Abraham had every intention of sacrificing Isaac, he was willing to do exactly what God said, but he also knew the promises God had made concerning Isaac – Genesis 17: ‘I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.’ Abraham held both of God’s statements to be true, he did not waver, he would sacrifice Isaac as instructed, but he knew Isaac would go on to live and have descendents. This is a remarkable show of faith – Abraham did not doubt God’s capability to fulfill his seemingly contradictory statements. Paul says that he was ‘fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.’ It was because of this faith that Abraham’s account with God was in the black.
The apostle Paul points out that the words ‘it was credited to him’ were written for us too. We place our faith in the same God. Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead – likewise we place our faith in the same God who overcomes death: he is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. We have seen in chapter 3 that we are under the curse of sin and sin brings death, but God’s gift is eternal life. The Jews wanted to earn this through circumcision and obedience to the law, but it comes only by faith. It is a gift to be received by faith.