Abraham and David – Faith Alone
In the last post we took a very cursory look at the subject of justification. Dr. James White, in his book The God who Justifies, wrote, “To be justified means to be declared right with God by virtue of the remission of sins accomplished by Jesus: Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, and the believer’s sins are imputed to Christ, who bears them in His body on the tree. Justification is from beginning to end a divine action, based upon the mercy of God the Father and the work of Jesus Christ the Son.”
The dreadful problem with man is that all have sinned and the wages of sin is death. Nevertheless, Paul wrote that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” Romans 3:23-25. God justifies the repentant believer and it is through faith alone that this is accomplished. It is not through faith and baptism or any other obedient work that you or I might bring before God to appease his wrath or satisfy some criteria for salvation. As Dr. White noted, “To make any action of man (including the action of faith) the basis of justification is to take away from the righteousness of Christ, which is the true basis of Christian justification.”
Paul was abundantly clear that because justification is through faith, man is in no position to boast of his works or perceived obedience to the commands of God to merit his right standing with God:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one – who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. Romans 3:27-31
Paul then provides an example from all the way back in Genesis 15:6 to support his understanding of the gospel and this verse of scripture will find itself repeated throughout the New Testament.
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. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Romans 4:1-4.
Paul is looking at one of the most central points of redemptive history, which was the call of and promised to Abraham and Abraham’s believing God. The scripture says that when Abraham believed God, righteousness was reckoned or imputed to him. To be ‘counted to him’ comes from a Greek word that holds the meaning of crediting to one’s account just as an accountant might enter an amount in an accounting book. Abraham’s faith resulted in God crediting to him righteousness. Paul then continues to use an example of laborers:
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…. Romans 4:4-5.
Here again we find that the idea of grace is the unmerited favor and help of God. It is a gift. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Romans 11:6. Paul makes the contrast between the one who labors under agreement – this laborer is paid according to the agreement upon the fulfilling of his obligations. The employer does not pay him as a favor but pays him what he is due under the terms of the agreement. As sinners under the law of God we are deserving of death. If we attempt to live under the terms of the Mosaic law we will find that it only increases our awareness of our sin and need for a savior for no one is going to be justified under the law. Instead, we find that God justifies not on the basis of some obligation that is owed to us as sinners. Our justification is not based on the individual’s personal righteousness or anything that they may do in an attempt to merit or earn salvation. Our justification is based on the legal crediting of the righteousness of Christ to our account on the basis of faith along – on believing in him who justifies the ungodly – his faith is counted as righteousness. Romans 4:4-5.
The sinner does not make himself righteous through any series of acts that leads up to his justification or the forgiveness of sins. God credits the sinner with the righteousness of Christ when the sinner is still in his ungodly state. God credits the person as just because of the obedience of Christ being credited to him – not because the sinner is somehow capable of being obedient enough to merit on his own the remission of his sins.
Paul then quoted from David, stating that he also spoke of “the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” when he who wrote, “Blessed are those who lawless deeds are forgiven, who sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Romans 4:6-8.
From these passages we can see a couple of points – first, Christ is the one who satisfies all the demands of God’s justice against the law break through his work on the cross. His death was the propitiation that satisfied the wrath of God and results in the remission of our sins. Second, the requirements of perfect obedience to the law were satisfied in the life of Christ and his perfect life of obedience and righteousness is credited to us. In the cross we can see both God’s justice as well as his grace. When Paul speaks of no one being able to boast, the message is that it would be pure folly and arrogance on the part of man to assert that through his actions he did anything to bring about the remission of his sins. Man is not saved through faith and anything else. It is by faith alone.
If the point wasn’t made strongly enough, Paul continues by delivering a devastating blow to the Judaizers of his day:
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 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. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. Romans 4:9-12.
To drive home the point, Paul notes that Abraham was not circumcised at the time God declared him righteous. It was by faith alone and not as a result of circumcision, law keeping or any other meritorious act on Abraham’s part. The sign of circumcision was not going to be given for another decade and the law of Moses did not come for hundreds of years. Justification by grace through faith has been the means of our right standing with God throughout redemptive history – in this respect nothing has changed.
It is interesting to note that David Bernard notes strongly the necessity of baptism and stresses Paul’s comparison of baptism to circumcision in the Old Testament. Relying on Colossians 2, Bernard writes, “Water baptism is a spiritual circumcision that separates from sins, cuts away the control of the sinful nature, and results in forgiveness of sins. … Without circumcision an Israelite male was not part of God’s people; he was subject to the penalty of death and could not participate in God’s salvation plan.” (The New Birth, pages 135-6).
The passage in the second chapter of Colossians is worth looking at another time but for now, suffice it to say that the passage does not quite state what Bernard is asserting. Further, in typical UPCI style, how can Bernard reconcile his interpretation of Paul’s writing to the Colossians with Paul’s teaching in Romans. Bernard is associating water baptism with both Old Testament circumcision and resulting in the forgiveness of sins. Yet Paul very clearly teaches, as the passages in Genesis also make abundantly clear that Abraham was justified by faith before he was ever circumcised. Circumcision came a decade later and was a sign that was associated with the covenant that God had previously made with Abraham. It was a covenantal sign that God gave to Abraham to provide assurance that God’s promises were true and would be fulfilled.
Paul describes circumcision as a “sign” and “as a seal of the righteousness that [Abraham] had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11). This is precisely what baptism is for us today – it is a sign that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ; it is a public confession of a faith that already exists in our lives. How is this work accomplished in our lives – we are “raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God….” (Colossians 2:12).
Believers are baptized because they are saved and not in order to bring about their salvation. The examples Abraham and the writing of David make clear that one is justified or has their sins forgiven by grace through faith. When you encounter passages that seem to contradict each other, instead of simply disregarding one and stressing the other that better fits your soteriology, it is best to harmonize those passages. It tends to be the approach of the UPCI to do the former – to stress particular passages at the expense of large portions of other teaching. This leads to a twisted, proof-text approach to the gospel rather than a true and deeper understanding of the message of scripture for us today. This will then lead to other issues as a distorted approach to the gospel will lead to distorted views in other areas of our Christian life as well.