Abraham and the Priority of Faith

Text: Romans 4:9-17

Introduction:  The doctrine of Justification by faith alone, so central to the Reformation, still addresses the fundamental question that each of us must answer today. After all, life is short and eternity is long. One day I will stand before God. I cannot escape this encounter. It will take place. How can I be made right in his eyes? Or to give the question a biblical ring, “What must I do to be saved?” Answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). We are “made right” not by living a moral life (it would never be moral enough), or by good works (they would never be good enough), or by religious deeds (they would never be pious enough), but by faith alone in Christ alone. No other doctrine so illustrates the sinfulness of man and the futility of his efforts to save himself. No other doctrine so glorifies Christ as the sole ground of our salvation. No other doctrine so establishes the security of the believer in Christ, and gives us the assurance of our salvation. Hence, no other doctrine is so vital to biblical preaching, and effective ministry. Regrettably, one may have to search long and hard to hear a sermon on sola fide. The shelves of bookstores are not bursting with books dealing with justification by faith alone. Those that do deal with it are not on the best-seller lists. The writers of the Cambridge Declaration claimed that sola fide “is often ignored, distorted, or sometimes even denied by leaders, scholars, and pastors who claim to be evangelical.”[1]

Perhaps most of the blame for this can be placed on the nature of the age in which we live. The contemporary audience is reluctant to think theologically. It wants experience. It wants sensations. But it typically does not want to think, or think hard, or think in theological categories. We are beginning to pay a price for our neglect. The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) that we have addressed throughout this series constitutes a clear, and present danger to the Reformation’s understanding of sola fide. N. T. Wright, a very prominent professedly evangelical scholar declares that justification, as the apostle Paul defined it, has to do, not with individuals personally being declared righteous in Christ, but with membership in the covenant community. They deny, in other words, a forensic or judicial understanding of justification, its character as a declaration, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and the resulting personal salvation. To be justified, they say, is to be rightly related to God through membership in the covenant community. Wright’s position has been endorsed by such noted evangelicals like John Armstrong, and embraced by representatives of the so-called “Federal Vision” (Rick Lusk). In addition, Norman Shepherd likewise rejects the Reformation doctrine of justification, and maintains that both faith (covenantal obedience), and works are instrumentals of justification. The influence of the “New Perspective” men seems to be growing even in the most conservative evangelical circles. Moreover, there would appear to be some cross-fertilization between the followers of Shepherd, and those of N. T. Wright, compounding this threat to the gospel.[2]

Review:  By actual count, what names of men are mentioned most often in the New Testament? Outside of references to the Lord Jesus Christ, and excluding also such references as “Moses said,” or “Moses wrote,” the names most frequently mentioned are in order, these: (1) Paul, (2) Peter, (3) John the Baptist, and (4) Abraham. We might have thought that one of the other apostles, such as John or James, or even the virgin Mary, to mention a female name, would have been mentioned more often than the Old Testament patriarch, but not so. Abraham’s story is that important for the biblical record. Abraham is the big story of Romans four. The Apostle Paul has completed his account of the doctrine of justification in the great and normative passage of Romans 3:21-26. In the remainder of chapter three, he dealt with certain of the consequences that naturally follow from justification through faith on the principle of grace. Now, since Paul has excluded the works of the Law as the source of justification, it is only natural that in chapter four we find him anticipating an objection coming from a Jewish man, taught by the rabbis that salvation was obtained by obedience to the Law of Moses.

Therefore, the apostle turns to a consideration of the question of salvation, or justification, in the Old Testament (the Scriptures to the apostle and his readers). The question before him is this one, “Paul, you have eliminated Law-works as the source of salvation, and consequent boasting, but what about the Old Testament teaching? Do not the rabbis teach that the Old Testament figures were justified by the merit of faith, or the merit of Law-works?” The rabbis did teach that men were justified by “the merit of faith,” for the expression is used of the salvation of Abraham himself in Mekilta 40b, an ancient Midrashic work. In fact, Genesis 15:6, the very text cited by the apostle in Romans four was expounded by them as teaching the justification of Abraham by the merit of faith, strange as it may seem to us. It is very fitting, then, that in answering the question of salvation in the Old Testament, Paul should refer to Abraham, and Genesis 15:6. His aim in the fourth chapter is to show that justification in the Old Testament is the same as that in the New Testament. Or, to put it in a better historical way, his aim is to show that what he is teaching in his ministry, namely, that men are justified by faith on the principle of grace, is in complete harmony with the teaching of the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. This he accomplishes in superb fashion.

I.          Justification Not by Rites or Ordinances:  The Abrahamic covenant was to have a sign; the sign of circumcision, and the remainder of the chapter give the details of the stipulations regarding its institution. If the preceding promises emphasize the divine activity in giving the promises, these verses emphasize the human responsibility in keeping the covenant. The rite of circumcision suggests the removal of the body of the flesh, or the putting away of the sins of the old life (cf. Col. 2:11). In addition, it was intended to be the sign of a faith-righteousness, for Abraham and his descendants could never have earned righteousness before the Lord. They were sinners, both in nature and practice (cf. Rom. 4:11; Jeremiah 4:4).

A.           The Objector’s Question (Rom. 4:9-10b):  After the beautiful exposition of Justification by faith alone from the biblical comments concerning Abraham and David in verses one through eight of the chapter, the imaginary objector speaks again. The question asked indicates that he, too, was familiar with the Old Testament,–but not familiar enough! Put in our words, the question he asks is this, “But Paul, have you not forgotten that Abraham was circumcised? Is that not the rite that brings us a righteous standing before God?”

B.           The Apostle’s Answer (Rom. 4:10c):  The apostolic answer is simple, “Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.” True, Abraham was circumcised, but that event takes place long after he had been pronounced righteous by the Lord in those words cited above, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness” (cf. Rom. 4:3; Gen.15:6). Thus, long before he was circumcised, he had been justified. “His acceptance on the grounds of his faith (Gen. 15:6) was apparently before the birth (or even the conception) of Ishmael (Gen. 16), and Abraham was 86 years old when the child was born (Gen. 16:16). But he was not circumcised until he was 99 (Gen. 17:24). It is thus plain that God’s reckoning of Abraham as righteous took place years before there was any question of circumcision. It was not this rite that gave the patriarch standing before God.”[3]

C.           The Apostle’s Elaboration (Rom. 4:11-12):  In the description of the rite of circumcision, Moses speaks of its meaning in this way, “and it shall be a token of the covenant between me and you” (cf. Gen. 17:11). With this in mind, Paul says that Abraham received “the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised, that righteousness might be imputed unto them also; and the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father, Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (cf. Rom. 4:11-12). It is clear from these words that in Paul’s mind circumcision did not save. It was simply a “token,” a sign, of faith-righteousness, because the patriarch had already been justified (cf. 15:6). The Jews in Paul’s day, by transferring the instrument of justification from faith to the sign of faith had erred grievously. The parallel of water baptism with circumcision and the confusion that exists over the nature and purpose of the former make interesting subjects. Many believe among professing Christians that water baptism saves, thinking that the fact that salvation is not of works does not apply to baptism. The Federal Vision has representatives who openly say this.[4] Paul’s attitude toward circumcision is of marked help here. That he thinks that circumcision is a work is made plain by his words in the Epistle to the Galatians. And if circumcision is a work, it is impossible to escape the conclusion, since the two rites are so similar in nature, that baptism is a work, too, when considered as a means of salvation. As Hodge wrote, “What answers well as a sign, is a miserable substitute for the thing signified.”[5]

II.         Justification Apart From the Law Works

A.        The Argumentation (Rom. 4:13-15):  The apostle, further arguing that salvation is by grace, turns to the consideration of the terms upon which the promises were made to Abraham. In the opening verse of this section he states that they came to the patriarch through faith, not by law-works. This is plain, because the Law annuls faith and the promises. The Law, being the means by which sin is known, works wrath. In fact, where there is no law, there is no transgression.[6] The coming of the Law converts the sin of man, which obtains even without the Law, into transgression. Faith and the Law, then, are opposites. Bring in the one and the other must go, just as God banishes night by bringing in the day.

B.        The Conclusion (Rom. 4:16-17):  In the statement of the sixteenth verse, “Therefore, it is of faith, that it might be by grace, to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed,” we have one of Paul’s most meaningful sentences. The reasoning of the divine mind is very revealing. It is clear that the dominant goal is that the promise might be sure to the elect seed. Now, in order for the promise to be sure to the elect seed, the principle upon which the promise is to come to them must be a gracious one, for they, being sinners, could never earn the reward. Thus, the promise is according to grace (lit.). But, what means, or instrumentality, is compatible with grace? For the human means of receiving the promise must be set out. Well, Paul’s answer is that faith is the only means that is harmonious with the principle of grace, for in faith man does nothing but believe, or receive, the gifts of God. As Paul makes plain in verses four and five, faith is not a work. Faith is counted for righteousness in the case of the man who “worketh not.” Thus, salvation must be received through faith. The divine intent is seen by looking at the last of the key words in the statement, “sure.” To be sure, it must be by grace. And to be by grace it must be of faith. Therefore, to sum it up, assurance of salvation is only possible when salvation is based upon the principle of grace and received through the instrumentality of faith. The Mosaic Law, and other forms of legalistic salvation, can only produce doubt and tension and despair, while grace, and faith lead to safety, certainty, and enjoyment of the promises of God. That is why all plans of salvation, even among professing Christians, which confuse the principles of grace and works, even unconsciously, can only lead to loss of assurance of salvation. The doctrine of the freedom of the will, so prominent in Arminian theology, is one of the reasons that those of that persuasion so often deny the doctrine of assurance of salvation and the perseverance of the saints by the perseverance of God in grace.[7]

Conclusion:  In the fourth chapter he makes four important points:

(1)  First, the Old Testament (the Scriptures to him and to his readers) teaches justification through faith on the principle of grace. Cf. vv. 1-8.

(2)  Second, the Old Testament teaches justification apart from any ordinances, even divinely given ones. Cf. Vv. 9-12.

(3)  Third, the Old Testament teaches justification apart from legal works of any kind. Cf. vv. 13-17.

(4)  Fourth, the Old Testament teaches that the faith that justifies is a faith that is in essence like the faith that Abraham exercised. Cf. vv. 18-25.

It is Abraham that the apostle uses as the illustration to demonstrate these points. And herein is an important thing. In the eyes of the apostle it appears that Abraham is more important in the unfolding of the biblical revelation than Moses. In fact, one of the errors of Jewish thinking in the understanding of the Old Testament is the view that Moses was the greatest Jew who ever lived. This has oriented Jewish thinking to legal righteousness rather than faith righteousness, the fundamental teaching of both true Judaism and Christianity. The apostle’s explanation of the significance of the life of Abraham in the fourth chapter of Romans is, thus, of great significance.[8]



[1] Cf. Here We Stand: A Call From Confessing Evangelicals eds. J. M. Boice, and B. E. Sasse, (Baker, 1996), p. 17.


[2] Cf. Terry L. Johnson’s analysis in his excellent work, The Case For Tradition Protestantism: The Solas of The Reformation (Banner of Truth, 2004), pp. 75-102.


[3] L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 202.


[4] Steve Wilkins, a leading representative of the Federal Vision, declares that water baptism serves as the means of regeneration. Thus to Wilkins way of thinking, baptism ceases being a sign of spiritual reality and now serves as the means of creating the reality! Cf. his article “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation” in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision ed. C. Beisner (Knox Seminary, 2004).


[5] C. Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (rpt Banner of Truth, 1972), p. 125.


[6] When Paul says that there is no transgression without law, he does not intend to say that there is no sin apart from the Mosaic Law. Romans 5:13 shows that sin existed before the era of the law. Thus the word transgression is used technically to describe the violation of commandments that are specified and written. Romans 2:12-16 indicates that God’s wrath is also inflicted on those who do not have a written law (cf. 5:13-14). We should not conclude from 4:15 that the wrath is experienced only when a written commandment is violated. Nevertheless, transgression of the law involves greater responsibility since the infraction is conscious and therefore involves rebellion against a known standard. Cf. T. R. Schreiner, Romans” Baker Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament (Baker, 1996), p. 230.


[7] Rick Lusk of the Federal Vision adopts a decidedly Arminian understanding of perseverance all the while maintaining that he is actually improving the Reformed/Calvanistic position. In Lusk’s scheme some of the elect will lose their salvation. This cannot be squared with the historic Reformed doctrine. Aware that he is departing in a very significant way from the Reformed Tradition, Lusk has the arrogance to say, “American Reformed theology is like a bad cassette recording of the real thing. In this essay (and in this book as a whole), we are simply trying to recover nuances that were originally in the tradition, but have been lost.” (p. 297) cf. his “New Life and Apostasy: Hebrews 6:4-8 as Test Case” in The Federal Vision eds. S. Wilkens and D. Garner (Athanasius Press, 2004).


[8] I owe the major features of this analysis to the lectures of my former prof. the late S. Lewis Johnson Jr.

Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional

Freshly translated from the original German into today’s English, this book contains a treasury of devotionals taken from Luther’s writings and sermons (1513 to 1546), conveniently divided into daily readings to point readers to the Bible and a deeper understanding of faith.

Timeless insights from one of the most important people in church history. Resounding across the centuries, Martin Luther’s prolific writings as a pastor, theologian, scholar, Bible translator, father, and more, remain powerful and richly relevant. Faith Alone is a treasury of accessible devotionals taken from Luther’s best writings and sermons from the years 1513 through 1546. This carefully updated translation retains the meaning, tone, and imagery of Luther’s works.

Through daily readings, Luther’s straightforward approach challenges you to a more thoughtful faith. Read one brief section a day or explore themes using the subject index in the back of the book. Faith Alone will deepen your understanding of Scripture and help you more fully appreciate the mystery of faith.

“Some people value good works so much that they overlook faith in Christ. Faith should be first. It is faith—without good works and prior to good works—that takes us to heaven. We come to God through faith alone.” —Martin Luther

Hardback; 400 pages

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