Romans 4:1-3 "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Introduction: The Bible uses people to illustrate central truths
For every New Testament teaching or doctrine we can find at least one concrete, flesh and blood example of that truth. When it comes to the central Gospel truth of Justification by Faith Alone, we find such an example in the life of Abraham. The Apostle Paul uses the life of this Old Testament figure to drive home the point of God's declaration of a sinner's innocence at saving faith - i.e justification.
How does Abraham properly illustrate a sinner being declared righteous by God at saving faith - i.e justification?
Numerous passages in both the Old and New Testaments feature Abraham. As a brief sketch of his life shows - Abraham had been originally named "Abram", a pagan living in ancient Babylonia or what was called then "Ur of the Chaldees".
The location of Abraham's home city is well known to the world of archaeology - located South of Kuwait in modern day Iraq. Excavations give insight into Abram's world. In his day there had been a large tower dedicated to pagan worship called a "zigguraut", mimicking its much larger patterned original - the Tower of Babel that we read about in Genesis 11:1-9. The picture below comes from the following article that details this archaeological find: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziggurat_of_Ur
This detail is worth noting, since Abram would had been a pagan worshipper of false deities. Joshua 24:2-3 spells out the rest of the story: "Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him through all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac."
So Abram had been involved in a major center of idol worship when God's grace broke into his darkness. Passages such as Genesis 11:27-31 and 12:1-3 both record God calling Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to the land where God would have him to settle. Along that 800 mile journey, Abram's father and brother died. The journey was not easy. When Abram arrived in God's destination of the land of Canaan, tests were going to be administered to establish Abram's resolve to follow God (see Genesis 12:8-18). Despite all the tests and hard journeys, Genesis 13:4 records that Abram called on God for the first time.
If for anything, Paul's use of Abram (whose name would later be changed by God to "Abraham") would communicate volumes to both Gentiles and Jews. The Gentiles, involved in the first century Greco/Roman paganism of their day - could find common ground with Abraham, who himself had been an idolater. The Jews of course would equally identify with Abraham, since he is their main patriarch from whence all the promises of God to the Jewish people commenced. Moreover, Abraham's lineage would be the very bloodline used by God to bring about the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. All in all, Paul's use of Abraham to illustrate the crucial doctrine of justification by faith could not had been a better choice.
Abraham - the example of what it means to be justified by faith
When God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, 13 years would pass until the event in which God would speak to him in a dream in Genesis 15. The point of God appearing to Abraham in the vision of Genesis 15 was to reaffirm His promises to Him. By receiving those promises by faith alone, Abraham demonstrated the concept of God having "justified" or "credited" or "counted" Abraham as being right with Him. Paul's whole point here is that the doctrine of justification by faith is not some novel invention. We must not ever think that Old Testament salvation consisted of obeying God's ten commandments, since Abraham predated such by over 400 years. Instead, the truth of justification by faith alone is as much an Old Testament truth as a New Testament one. If Abraham, a former pagan worshiper, could be declared righteous by God at saving faith - surely anyone could.
Questions we can use to navigate through Paul's use of Abraham in illustrating justification by faith alone
Some key questions from Romans 4 will guide us in seeing how Abraham illustrates Justification by Faith.
1. Is Justification based upon human goodness? Romans 4:1-8
According to Romans 4:1-8 the answer is "no". As mentioned already, Abraham had been called by God while He was worshiping other gods in Ur in Genesis 11:27-32. Later on we would find out that his wife Sarah was barren, unable to conceive a child, a crucial key to God's promise to Abraham of numerous offspring. Even after trying to bring that about himself with his handmaiden Hagar, Abraham demonstrated that he was unable to bring about anything contributing to his own salvation. It was God's loving choice and calling of Abraham that explains Abraham genuine trust in God (Joshua 24:1-3; Nehemiah 9:7; Psalm 105:41-43; Isaiah 41:8; 51:1-2; Acts 7:1-4; Romans 9:7; 11:1). As Abraham demonstrates, his salvation was by grace through faith alone.
2. Is Justification based upon the religious rite of circumcision? Romans 4:9-12
When Paul wrote Romans, many Jews in his day thought salvation was a result of circumcision plus faith. Yet, when God spoke these words to Abraham in Genesis 15, it was before He had revealed the rite of circumcision in Genesis 17. Justification then is not based upon how religious or irreligious one is. One is declared right with God by faith. This is the argument of Romans 4:9-12.
3. Surely Abraham was justified by keeping the ten commandments? Romans 4:13-15
According to Genesis 15, it would be another 400 or so years before God would reveal the Law to Israel and Moses on Mount Sinai. Abraham was not declared righteous due to keeping the law. Rather it was by grace alone through faith alone - identical to how justification occurs today (John 1:12-13; Ephesians 2:8-9). This is the argument of Romans 4:13-15.
So as we close out today's post, what can we learn from Paul's usage of Abraham in illustrating the doctrine of justification by faith?
In short, Abraham was justified by faith alone. In Romans 4:21-22 we read: "and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform. 22 Therefore it was also credited to Him as righteousness." The essence of saving faith entails the idea of "firm persuasion". The Hebrew word the word "amen". When you here the word "amen", it means you affirm, agree, are fully persuaded of what is being said to you. Thus Abraham literally "amened" what God promised to Him. He could not do anything to earn it, nor could he accomplish it. God alone could bring about the miraculous result of a son born to He and Sarah in their old age. (Genesis 21). By faith alone he received the promise. Abraham was justified by faith alone.
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