Meditations in Romans : 1 : Abraham the Believer
Rom 4:1-3 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
When we came to the end of the previous series of meditations in Romans 1-3, we noted that at chapter 4 Paul steps up a notch in his thinking. Up until then he had been creating a level playing field for Jew and Gentile in respect of us all being sinners. Near the end of chapter 3 he had declared, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law,” (Rom 3:28) as part of his assertion that there was no room for boasting about achievement when it came to salvation. To prove his point and expand on this assertion he is now going to use the example of Abraham, and he is the focal point of chapters 4 & 5.
Abraham was the father of the Jewish nation. Jacob bore the name Israel but fatherhood really went back to Abraham, so he was a significant man to quote. Thus Paul asks the question: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?” (4:1) The ‘matter’ that Paul referred to? It was whether you can earn salvation by doing good things, by good works. After all, Paul argues, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God.” (4:2) If he was a really good example of a do-gooder he might have something to boast about, but the Lord knows the reality of our lives, so perhaps not!
So how do we know the truth? We look in the Bible: “What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (4:3 quoting Gen 15:6) Let’s look at that original verse to see it more clearly: “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” That’s a funny way to put it. It means that God accepted his belief as part of his ‘righteousness account’ but not only part of it; it filled it. Belief was the currency that made Abraham a rich man – rich in righteousness. When a man has lots of money we call him rich. We don’t worry exactly how much he’s got; it’s just got enough to warrant being called rich. By believing God Abraham has sufficient righteousness to be declared a righteous man.
Now Paul is a teacher and he knows that we have to hear it again and again and from different angles so, to use modern jargon, he going to ‘unpack’ this whole thing about Abraham being righteous. He starts by talking generally about earning things or being given things: “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.” (4:4) i.e. if you work you have earned your wages, they are not a gift. Now apply that to what I said earlier, he implies, “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (4;5) Trusting God, or believing what God says, becomes the currency of righteousness. If you trust God to justify you, or put you right in his sight, God takes that trust as an act or attitude of righteousness. That expression of faith is what God considers righteousness to be. In the past we might have considered that righteousness was only seen as an act, as something done, but God looks beyond that to the heart and mind and looks for belief or faith (a heart responding to God.)
Paul knows his Old Testament and so uses David to support what he is saying: “David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” (4:6) Look, he is saying, David said the same thing: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” (4:7,8 quoting from Psalm 32) In verse 5 Paul had spoken of the man who trusts God to put him right with Him (i.e. to justify him). David spoke about the one who had done wrong but who had been forgiven and justified and that without the person having to do lots of things to make up for it.
In the New Testament the matter of forgiveness is simple and straight forward: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) This may be so familiar to us that we have lost the significance of it; this is forgiveness that follows heart change even before there is a chance for the repentant sinner to DO anything. The “doing” to atone for the sin has already been dealt with by Christ on the Cross. All we have to do is BELIEVE that Christ has done it because God has said it, yet this is the stumbling point for many people, for they cannot believe that it can be that easy; they feel THEY have to do something to make up for their sin. No ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ or ‘trusting God for what He says’ is the currency that earns the declaration, “You are justified, you are put right with God in His eyes.” How simple it is, how wonderful it is! Yet how hard it is for the proud person who wants to put themselves right.