The Salvation of Abraham

Text: Romans 4:1-12; Genesis 15:1-7

Introduction:  What does the Apostle Paul mean by the term justification[1]? Is justification a process? Is it subject to increase or decrease (can justification be lost)? Is justification a series of acts that continue throughout this life and is only temporary and contingent upon our obedience? What role does “good works” or “personal godliness,” play in our justification?[2] Is justification at the heart of the gospel or is it primarily an ecclesiological (as opposed to a Soteriological) doctrine?[3] What does it mean, “to believe,” or “have faith” in Christ? This is the crux of the matter in the debate over justification. Wright, Shepherd and their followers insist that saving faith is actually faithful obedience. In other words, faith in its office of justification is conceived practically as covenantal faithfulness. In Shepherd’s case he is reacting to the widespread notion that saving faith, as we are often told by sincere evangelists (like Billy Graham), is quite simple. People exercise this kind of faith all the time. A patient has faith in the doctor who performs surgery. A football coach has faith in his quarterback.[4] As a matter of fact, (so we are reminded by these well-meaning folk), Buddhists, Muslims, Hindu and other religious groups exercise the same kind of faith that Christians do. In this decidedly Arminian[5] understanding of faith, justification is God’s reward for the human performance of faith. This is how most evangelicals understand the issue. They believe justification before God is on the basis of their faith.[6] In response to this “easy believism,” Shepherd and the Federal Vision advocates posit a false dichotomy: either an active obedience faith or a faith that is inactive and dead (with an appeal to James 2:17).[7] In Galatians 3 and in Romans 4, the Apostle Paul uses Abraham as his primary Old Testament example of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In addition to our text in Romans (and Galatians), we need to examine two other passages of Scripture that have direct bearing on this subject. First, we need to turn our attention to the text in Genesis that Paul is appealing to in his defense of justification by faith alone, and next week we will deal with that difficult passage in James 2:14-26, where we are told that a person is not justified by faith alone. Both Paul and James appeal to Abraham.

I.          God’s Promise to Abram:  This fifteenth chapter of the first book of the Bible is another of the really important chapters of the Word of God. In many ways, it is one of the most crucial portions of the entire Old Testament. It is to this passage that Paul builds this case for his understanding of justification by faith alone (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). The pressing question: “How can a man be justified in the sight of God?” is answered in Genesis 15.

A.        The Context:  This chapter also records the ratification of what is known as the Abrahamic Covenant by sacrifice. Abram’s immediate concerns center on his not having a son. He is naturally anxious over this matter due to the fact that he and his wife were advancing in years.

B.        The Encouragement:  God speaks to Abram’s anxiety, “Do not fear, Abram.” God would be his shield in the midst of his hostile surroundings and would give him an exceedingly great reward. Abram need not be apprehensive about the future; God Himself assured the patriarch that He (God) can be fully trusted. God had already made promises to Abram (Genesis 12:2-4; 13:14-17). This chapter is preoccupied with this one single issue: can Abram, in fact, trust God?

II.         The Response of Abram:  Abram’s language here (15:2-3) and in verse 8, is similar to a lament. The word “reward” that God spoke of in verse 1 is the Hebrew word SAKAR and is used in Psalm 127:3 in reference to children (“Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him”). It is clear from the context that this is how Abram interpreted God’s promise.

A.        Abram’s Problem:  Even though God had made it clear to Abram that he would have physical offspring (13:15), the patriarch was, as believers often are, very impatient for the promise. Abram is going by sight and expresses his strong misgivings by pointing to the fact that his only heir wasn’t even physically related to him.

B.        God’s Pledge:  Verse 4 in the Hebrew text is worded very strongly. Abram need not fear. “This one [the servant Eliezer of Damascus] shall not be your heir!” Kidner comments on the connection, “The Old Testament can speak of a legal heir as a ‘son’ (e.g. Ruth 4:17), so the emphatic expression out of thine own bowels (AV, RV) now settled a legitimate doubt for Abram.”[8] God invites Abram to gaze up in the starry night and ponder the innumerable multitude of the starry host—so will your seed be. This served as a “visible word,” a focus of the promise, somewhat as the sacraments do; for the experience was unforgettable.[9]

C.        Abram’s Faith:  S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. has pointed out that “we have here the first occurrence of the word to believe in the Bible.”[10] The word translated believed in verse 6 is in Hebrew HE’EMIN and is related to words conveying reliability, steadfastness and dependability.[11] The form of the verb indicates that this trust in God was not a momentary attitude at that time only. It was an enduring, constant trust that did not waver.[12]

D.        Abram’s Justification:  The expression “credited to him as righteousness” is of the utmost importance. The Hebrew word translated “credited” in the NIV is HASAB. The LXX translates this with the Greek word LOGIZOMAI, which is the New Testament word that Paul uses in Romans and Galatians. It means to reckon or impute. This is, as this series has repeatedly shown, a forensic term referring to a legal declaration. Thus, to justify means to declare or pronounce righteous. The word-translated righteousness is SEDAQA and means to conform to a standard. Here it is used of being acceptable in God’s sight. Abram was treated as one who was completely accepted before God.

Conclusion: You will easily recognize in Abram’s response the Hebrew ‘AMAN. This is where our amen comes from and means that Abram literally voiced his amen in audible response to God’s Word. It was a confessional act. “This faith, which forms the distinctive feature of the righteous man, and by which he obtains life, is obviously no mere assent. It is a profound and abiding disposition, and ingrained attitude of mind and heart towards God which affects and gives character to all the activities…To believe in God, in the Old Testament sense, is thus not merely to assent to His word, but with firm and unwavering confidence to rest in security and trustfulness upon Him.[13] Elsewhere in the Old Testament, this word functions as a liturgical assent after the praise and blessing of God (cf. I Chronicles 16:36; Psalms 42:13, 14; 72:19; 89:52, 53; 106:48; Nehemiah 8:6; compare this with I Corinthians14:16). It also has reference to something that is true, as in legal testimony (Isaiah 43:9, 10). In the context of Genesis 15:6, it means, not just to believe in the heart, but to act as a witness to God’s faithfulness (cf. with Jeremiah 42:5 and the description of the LORD as a “true and faithful witness” and with Christ’s self-identification as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” [Revelation 3:14]).[14]

The false dichotomy put forth by these reformed revisionists (Wright, Shepherd, et. al.) between faith as either “easy believism” or “faithful obedience,” is actually a choice between antinomianism and legalism. John Newton, famous for his hymn “Amazing Grace” was also an astute theologian. He recognized that legalism is always the root of antinomianism. Of the antinomians, Newtonwrites, “Satan labours to drive unstable souls from one extreme to another, and has too often succeeded. Wearied with vain endeavours to keep the law, that they might obtain life by it [legalism], and afterwards taking up with a notion of the Gospel devoid of power [antinomianism], they have at length despised that obedience that is the honour of the Christian, and essentially belongs to his character, and have abused the grace of God to licentiousness. But we have not so learned Christ.” Of the legalists he says, “Their experience seems to lead them to talk of themselves, of the change that is wrought in them, and the much that depends upon their own watchfulness and striving. We likewise would be thankful if we could perceive a change wrought in us by the power of grace; we desire to be found watching. But whenever our hopes are most alive, it is less from a view of imperfect beginnings of grace in our hearts than from an apprehension of him who is our all in all. His person, his love, his sufferings, his intercession, compassion, fullness and faithfulness—these are our delightful themes, which leave us little leisure, when in our best frames, to speak of ourselves.”[15]



[1] “It must be remembered,” comments J. I. Packer, “that Paul is the only New Testament writer to use justify regularly for God’s act of accepting man.” God’s Words: Studies of Key Bible Themes (InterVarsity, 1981), p. 146.


[2] In Norman Shepherd’s Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance and Good Works (1978), we may draw five observations from these theses: (1) Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is essentially two-staged. Romans 2:13 is not a hypothetical statement (Thesis 20). Consequently, there is a present and future justification particular to believers. (2) Believers have a duty to continue in a state of justification (Thesis 21). Justification is not a single act (the future declaration simply restating and making public the former declaration), but is properly a process. (3) Shepherd categorically refuses to exclude good works (as the fruit of true faith) from consideration in God’s declaration of justification. On several occasions, he will call such good works necessary for justification (Theses 21, 22, 23). To be sure, he will affirm that it is Christ and his righteousness alone that are the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, and that these works are not meritorious, but if we are to take Shepherd’s comments at face value, then he can only mean that it is Christ’s righteousness as it has been infused into the believer that provides the ground of the believer’s justification because faith in justification is not contemplated apart from its fruit. (4) Shepherd appears to conflate justification and salvation—committing an error that antinomians commit, but not in an antinomian way. At this point, we might observe this distinction as being carefully drawn by the Westminster Standards. In Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 32, “holy obedience” is said to be the “way appointed to salvation,” but not the “way to justification.” Only faith, and that in a manner entirely exclusive of works, is conceived to have such a role in justification. (5) Shepherd confounds two propositions that the Reformed have always affirmed: (a) one’s claim to justification is contingent on his continuing righteousness; (b) one’s justification itself is not contingent on his continuing righteousness. What’s at stake, when we consider works, is not our justification, but the validity of our profession. In conclusion, Shepherd’s affirmations render impossible the traditional view that justification is a decisive and final act at the initial stages of Christian experience whereby Christ’s righteousness (and nothing else) is imputed to the believer and received by faith alone, and that final justification (if we may so speak) is rendered certain and unalterable by God’s present justification of the believer. Cf. G. P. Waters, Justification and The New Perspectives on Paul (P&R, 2004), p. 210.


[3] Wright is insistent that the Reformers “distorted” Paul’s doctrine of justification and their handling of Romans has, in his words, “systematically done violence to the text,” as a result he argues, the church has lost “sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel,” which he states emphatically is not centered around justification. Cf. his What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 113, 115, 117.


[4] This is how Billy Graham defines faith, cf. his How To Be Born Again (Word Books, 1977).


[5] Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow, for example describe faith as merely a human endeavor, cf. their Unbound Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century (IVP, 1994).


[6] The act of believing does not constitute our righteousness in justification, (but if we confound “faith” with “faithfulness” that is exactly what we are doing). This can be demonstrated from the grammar of the N. T. It is never said that people are saved because of their faith or even on the basis of their faith. They are saved by faith. The Greek preposition DIA, can mean either (1) “because of” or (2) “through.” If it means “because of” in the phrase DIA PISTEOS, faith would indeed be the ground of salvation and a substitute for righteousness. But it does not mean this, because whenever DIA means “because of” its object is in the dative case, and this never happens when “faith” is the object. When the Greek word for “faith” occurs with DIA, it is always in the genitive case, and this is the case the object should be in when DIA means “by” or “through,” indicating that faith is a channel, but not the grounds, of salvation. For an extended discussion cf. J. M. Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary I (Baker, 1991), p. 434.


[7] Steve Schlissel is representative of this kind of reasoning in the Federal Vision, cf. his article “A New Way of Seeing” in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons ed. C. Beisner (Knox Seminary, 2004), esp. p. 22, where he repeatedly implies that it is either/or. Traditional Reformed thought says that it is neither of those two. The Roman Catholic Church made this same kind of argument and the Reformers rightly rejected that false dichotomy. Cf. Calvin, Institutes of The Christian Religion, Bk. III, Ch. II, Sec. 1-30. In light of the claims of Shepherd that faith means covenantal obedience (appealing to Romans 1:6) Calvin comments, “the name of faith is given to it, and for this reason—because the Lord calls us by his gospel; we respond to his call by faith; as on the other hand, the chief act of disobedience to God is unbelief.” Likewise in Romans 2:13, a text that Shepherd builds his case around, Calvin remarked, “The who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children.” Cf. W. Stanford Reid, “Justification by Faith According to John Calvin” The Westminster Theological Journal (Vol. XLII, Spring 1980, No. 2), p. 305.


[8] Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction & Commentary (The Tyndale Press, 1967), p. 123. Kidner notes that in both Gen. 15 and Rom. 4 faith is presented “not as a crowning merit, but as a readiness to accept what God promises.” He proceeds, “Note that Abram’s trust was both personal (in the Lord, AV, RV) and propositional (the context is the specific word of the Lord in verses 4, 5),” p. 124. Wright has adopted the non-propositional approach to interpreting Scripture, adopting an epistemological principle of critical realism. As such, we have in Wright, not only a non-classical, self-consciously formulated approach to doing theology, but also an approach to revelation that is antithetical to that of classical Christianity. Cf. Waters, p. 192, and p. 204, where Waters notes that the reason people like John Armstrong and those in the Federal Vision (esp. Rick Lusk) find Wright attractive is to be traced to their “ignorance of historical and systematic theology. The NPP has been embraced by many ministers and teachers who have taken vows to uphold confessional standards that teach the contrary. Such men have accepted NPP formulations either as acceptable expressions of these standards or as improved expressions of these standards. This state of affairs must be owing to these men’s ignorance of what their standards teach, since charity forbids us from attributing this failure to malicious duplicity. When we read the writings of certain Reformed men enthusiastic for NPP thought, we see both a selective and unpenetrating reading of NPP scholarship, and a culpable ignorance of what Reformed doctrine has taught regarding Scripture, the atonement, justification, imputation, and other doctrines. Such individuals, for example, will be satisfied with Wright’s formulations concerning Christ’s death and its application to the believer (as though they were sufficient to prove the Reformed doctrine) and yet miss the deliberate generalities in which those statements have been framed. What is disconcerting is that the debate has evidenced that a number of our ministers, elders, ministerial candidates, and prospective teachers fail to reflect a competent understanding of the doctrines that we have vowed or are preparing to vow to propagate and defend.”


[9] Ibid. Paul makes clear in Romans 4:11, 12; 9:7, 8 that this promise is fulfilled in the multitude of believers who, both before and after Christ, are brought to faith in God’s promises in the Gospel.


[10] S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Genesis: Believers Bible Bulletin (Dallas: Believers Chapel, 1979), No. 28, p. 4.


[11] Cf. the discussion in Allen P. Ross, Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Baker, 1988), p. 310.


[12] G. Ch. Aalders, Genesis: Bible Student’s Commentary I (rpt. Zondervan, 1981), p. 293.


[13] The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (rpt. Baker, 1980), p. 470.


[14] The nuances of the Hebrew expression are drawn out fully by one of my former seminary professors, Meredith G. Kline, in The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XXXI, Nov. 1968, No. 1, pp. 1-11.


[15] As cited by M. Horton in Christ The Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation (Baker, 1992), p. 57.

The Story of the Bible: Museum in a Book

The fascinating history of its writing, translation and effect on civilization

“A captivating and colorful account of the history of the Bible from parchment to print.” – Ravi Zacharias

The Bible is a remarkable collection of books and letters, written by more than 40 authors over a period of 1,500 years. Its words have been studied, disputed and treasured. They have also brought comfort, conviction and challenge. Today at least one book of the Bible has been translated into more than 2,400 of the world’s 6,900 living languages.

The Story of the Bible is a sweeping panorama of the Bible’s 3,500 year history, answering questions such as why are the Dead Sea Scrolls so important? How accurate are the manuscripts we have? Do all translations say the same thing? Was America really founded on the Bible?

More than an exploration of history, this book makes history come alive with more than 90 color illustrations and 23 removable life-size reproductions from some of the most important Bibles. Timothy Paul Jones, Ph.D. and author of Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus recommends this resource “for the coffee table in your living room, the library at your church, and the desk of every student of the Scriptures.”

About the Author: Larry Stone has written a variety of books, edited and published biblical reference books, and, as a vice president of Thomas Nelson Publishers and president of Rutledge Hill Press, published more than a dozen New York Times bestsellers.


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