The Faith that Justifies: Romans 4:17-25

The apostle has been exploring the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.  He has explained that everyone needs to be justified since we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God: our unrighteousness has exposed us to God’s just wrath.  He then unfolded for us the gospel of the grace of God, how that because of what Christ did on the cross in our place and in our stead, we are able to be freely justified and forgiven when we trust in Jesus alone as our Lord and Savior.  And he has argued that this gospel is not something he and the other apostles have invented, but that it is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise.  Christianity does not add anything to the Jewish religion; it completes it.  

But this leads naturally to the question: if faith is so important, what is it?  What does justifying faith look like?

Paul answers this question by looking again to Abraham.  This makes sense, because Abraham is the father of all who believe, who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12).  This makes it clear that the faith that justifies is a faith that looks like Abraham’s faith.

We see this point made again at the end of the chapter.  After the apostle spends several verses describing Abraham’s faith, he says this: “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (4:22).  In other words, because Abraham had this kind of faith, he was justified.  But then Paul goes on to apply this to his readers (and, by extension, to us): “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.  It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (23-25).  If you would be justified, you must have Abraham’s faith.

Now of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some differences due to salvation history.  It is true that, as our Savior put it to his interlocutors, “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad” (Jn. 8:56).  Yet it is also true that he didn’t see everything that we have seen in the fulness of the coming of Christ on earth.  Yes, it is true that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Gal. 3:8).  So in some sense Abraham had the gospel.  And he believed the gospel, and believing he was saved.  That is the continuity between his faith and ours.  But there is also discontinuity because Abraham clearly didn’t see all the contours of the gospel as it was revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We see more clearly.  And because of that, it is not enough for us simply to believe that God will show mercy to us in some generic fashion, but that he will show mercy to us in Christ.  Faith in the promise of God today means faith in Christ.  That is the point of verses 23-25.

In other words, this passage tells us that it matters how and what you believe.  It matters because without this faith, you are yet in your sins and exposed to the holy and just wrath of Almighty God.  Now I know to say that is offensive in our day, because we are constantly told (1) you can’t know what is ultimate truth, and (2) you shouldn’t force your belief on anyone else.  But neither of these claims will hold up to scrutiny.  For if you hold (1), then aren’t you claiming to know something about ultimate truth – namely, that there is no ultimate truth?  But if that’s not true, then what’s the point?  And if you hold (2), why would you argue with me that I shouldn’t force my belief on you?  Isn’t that what you are doing?  For isn’t it your belief that you shouldn’t force your beliefs on others – which is what you are trying to convince me to embrace?

Now it is true that we shouldn’t force our beliefs on others, if that means using physical force to buttress a certain worldview.  God forbid that we should ever return to the days when Christians imprisoned others (including Christians!) that didn’t agree with them on a particular theological point.  But it is not wrong to use persuasion to convince someone else to embrace what you believe to be true – in fact, it is loving, if that truth is connected to issues of eternal life.  And the gospel is tied to issues of eternal life.  

The point is that it is infinitely important that we embrace Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in the gospel – as the God-man who died for our sins, who was raised again and ascended to heaven, and who did this for the sake of our sins so that we might be forgiven and justified and accepted into the family of God and given eternal life.  And the way we embrace Christ is by faith.  So the question once again is, what is this faith that embraces Christ and with him justification from our sins and eternal life?  The answer comes to us in verses 17-25.

But before we take a more detailed look at the passage, I want to point out that the overall object of faith in every generation is God’s promise.  Abraham believed in the promise of God to him and was justified.  As we believe in God’s promise to us in the gospel we too will be saved.  And I think it is important for us to see that the object of justifying faith is a promise by God to keep not a project for man to do.  What we are called to believe in order to be saved is not a list of things to fulfill, but rather we are called to look to the saving acts of God for us.  The promise is God-oriented, not man-oriented.  It is based on grace, not works (cf. ver. 16).  We have to beware of the perennial temptation of turning the gospel into a self-help manual with God thrown in.  

Another aspect of the promise that is important to note is the fact that the promise is generally future-oriented.  When God gave the promise to Abraham, it was completely in the future.  And even after he had been given Isaac, there were elements of the promise that awaited fulfillment (Heb. 11:13).  Now, even though the key element of the gospel promise must cause us to cast our eyes back to the cross and the empty tomb, yet even the atonement points us toward the future.  In particular, it points us toward resurrection and the new heavens and new earth.  This is important because we will become easily disoriented if we think that by believing everything gets better.  We must yet await the fulness of the promise.  In the meantime, we might be called to see some hard things and to endure some hard things.  That was certainly the case with Abraham, and it should not surprise us when it is the case with us as well.

But what about the promise does saving faith perceive?  The text points us to three realities about this kind of justifying faith.

Saving faith is a persevering confidence in the power of God behind the promise.

This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, precisely because of the way God is described in verse 17.  There, he is portrayed as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  That is, the God who is the object of faith is the God of creation and resurrection.  This was especially relevant to Abraham because in order to believe in God’s promise he had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist, and that he could give life to the dead.  

Abraham certainly had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist because when the promise came that he would have a son and through him a family that would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, none of this existed.  This promise came to a relatively old man and to a woman who was barren.  Yet Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise, even though humanly speaking there was no hope that it could happen.  Note the apostle’s description of Abraham’s faith in verse 18: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should be the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”  I love that: “against hope he believed in hope.”  When everything around him told him that there was no chance it could happen, Abraham persevered and trusted that God would fulfill his promise.

Also, Abraham certainly had to believe that God could give life to the dead.  Now you might be thinking of the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac.  And you would not be wrong to think that because the author of Hebrews explicitly draws this connection in his portrayal of the patriarch’s faith: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:17-19).  Abraham had such faith in the promise of God that he knew that nothing, not even death, could prevent it from taking place.

But there is another reason Abraham needed to believe that God could give life to the dead.  This is given in verse 19: “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”  Here Abraham’s body is described as being “dead.”  In order for the promise to be fulfilled, this dead body had to be made alive again.  One-hundred-year-old men and ninety-year-old women don’t have children.  But Abraham was confident that God could do this since he had promised it.  For he is the God who can take what does not now exist and bring it into existence, and can take dead bodies and make them new again.

We need to reiterate the fact that this is not faith in ourselves.  This is faith in the God who is outside of us and who acts for us.  One of the tragedies of 19th century religious thought is that it gave birth to this attempt to make God immanent by replacing faith in the God who is revealed in Scripture with religious sentiment and faith in human progress.  We are living with the sad consequences of this kind of thinking in the present day.  What we need is not faith in ourselves, but faith in the God who is outside of us; not a God who is dependent upon us but a God upon whom we are dependent.  This was the faith of Abraham.  It may not be popular today, but it is the only kind of faith that God recognizes.  And it is the only kind of faith that will hold up against despair – which will remain hopeful in the face of hopelessness.  

My friends, we need to remind ourselves often of the power of God.  Think about the stars: our sun is a medium sized star, yet one of its solar flares can carry up to the same amount of power of many trillions of nuclear weapons exploding all at once.  That is inconceivable power – and yet God spoke stars like our sun into existence by his powerfully creative word.  There is no one who is powerful like God.  In our day with all our technological innovations we sometimes forget that we are mere creatures of the dust.  If we allow our arrogance to minimize the importance of faith and trust in the God of the Bible, we are the losers, not God.

But what’s really amazing about all this is that this is power for us.  God didn’t just reveal himself to Abraham as omnipotent in the abstract.  He revealed himself powerful in the behalf of Abraham (cf. 2 Chron. 16:9).  I love how the prophet Isaiah describes God in his mighty fortieth chapter: “Do you not know?  Do you not hear?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness” (21-23).  And he goes on like this.  But here’s the amazing thing: at the very end of this chapter, we read this: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (28-31).  The God who created the stars is the same God who works for those who trust in him, for to wait on the Lord is to trust in him and to believe in his word of promise.

God’s power is still operative for his people today.  The supreme act of God’s power of course is found in the resurrection of Christ from the dead: it was by this, remember, that he was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).  But what is so tremendously hopeful about that exercise of God’s power is that it is the precursor to our own resurrection.  As Paul puts it later in this epistle: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

Moreover, it is the power of God that raises us up from a death in sin.  In fact, it is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, so that it touches not only our bodies but our souls as well.  As the apostle puts it to the Ephesians, he wants them to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20).  Again, it is a mistake to think of regeneration and new birth purely in terms of its human response in conversion.  It takes the mighty power of God to rescue us from our sins.  But the implication from this fact is very comforting: the God who began this good work in us will not stop to complete it until the day when Christ returns and presents us before his Father with unceasing joy (cf. Phil. 1:6; Jude 24).

Again we are reminded that God’s power is operative all throughout our lives.  We are kept by God’s power through faith (1 Pet. 1:5), and it is God’s power which is perfected even in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10).  It is God’s power which makes the preaching of his word effective (Eph. 3:7; Rom. 1:16). 

I think the Christian life in many respects is like the condition of the Israelites with the Red Sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them.  People don’t walk on water, and untrained civilians don’t defeat the world’s best army.  There seemed no way out.  But then God did the unexpected and unimaginable: he parted the waves of the Red Sea and allowed his people to pass through.  They didn’t do anything; as Moses put it, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today” (Exod. 14:19).  The Christian life is like that; it is about being still and knowing that God is God and watching him work salvation for you.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have nothing to do.  God works in us to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).  But we need to understand that trust in God is not trust in ourselves, that we can do a better job, or be better people.  Rather, it is trust in the God who acts for those who trust in him, who wait for his power to work for them.

In my description of Abraham’s faith, I noted that it is persevering faith.  I say this because that is the only way to make sense of this passage.  If you know the OT narrative well, it seems strange at first that Paul would say that Abraham didn’t weaken or waver in his faith (Rom. 4:19-20).  He most certainly did on occasion!  The whole fiasco with Hagar and Ishmael was the result of a wanton lack of faith on both Abraham and Sarah’s part.  Or witness the multiple times Abraham lied about his relationship to his own wife in order to save his skin!  How then can the apostle say that Abraham never wavered? 

He can say this because he is describing the overall direction of Abraham’s life of faith.  Though there were times he stumbled through momentary unbelief, yet there was never a time where he wavered in the sense of losing all faith in the God of promise.  He always recovered.  In other words, Abraham persevered in his faith.  

In the same way, we can expect God’s people to have times of doubt and times when momentary unbelief seems to win the day.  But the power of God that gives us faith will keep us in faith.  With the recent well-publicized cases of apostacy of several sometime popular Christian leaders, we need to remember this.  If they were truly saved, they will return to the fold of faith.  But if they do not, it is not evidence that God’s power is insufficient to keep his people but rather that they were never saved to begin with (1 Jn. 2:19).

Saving faith is a full persuasion in the word of God that defines the promise.

Note the emphasis on God’s word to Abraham: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (20-21).  This points to the second observation I want to make about Abraham’s faith: it was faith in the truth of God’s word which was spoken to him.

Now to Abraham, this meant dreams and visions – and sometimes a visit from angels (and perhaps even the preincarnate Christ).  For us, it means the Bible.  What was said to Abraham, is written to us.  Justifying faith is faith in the promise of God – but the promise is inextricably connected to the word of God and for us the word of God is inextricably connected to the written Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

We can sometimes forget just how much of a blessing is the word of God in the Bible.  I was reminded of this not long ago when reading 1 Sam. 3:21, which reads, “And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.”  How does God appear and reveal himself to us?  He does so by his word, by the word of the prophets, words which are recorded for us in the pages of the Bible.  Do we value it like that?

My friends, without the word of God firmly recorded in the Bible, we are left with our own words.  If the Scriptures are just the words of men and no more, there is nothing to hope in and nothing to hope for.  Faith is not just faith in some generic God or faith in some generic hope that things will turn out well for us in the end.  Rather, the faith that justifies is faith in the sure word of promise which for us is recorded in the Scriptures.  

This is faith in all of God’s word.  Abraham didn’t just believe in some of God’s promise; he believed all of it.  Like the apostle Paul himself, who was able to say, “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:14-15).  Do we also believe everything laid down in the Bible?

Note also that this is how Abraham glorified God: he gave glory to God by believing in his word, by “being fully persuaded that what he had promised he was able also to perform.”  We can talk all day long about being “God-centered,” but you simply can’t be God-centered unless you are also Scripture-centered.  God is glorified when we take him at his word, even when that word seems hopelessly remote or impossible of fulfillment.  This is hard because we all want to be in control.  We want to know what is going to happen next.  We want to be able to see the end before then end comes.  But that is not how we glorify God.  We glorify God when we give up control over our own lives and leave them completely in the hands of God, trusting in his good and gracious providence.

It seems to me that this is why we are so prone to unbelief.  We are not prone to unbelief most often because of a lack of evidence, though that is the excuse that many give.  We are prone to unbelief because the alternative is letting go of self-sovereignty and we don’t want to do that.  However, when we do, God is glorified because now he is truly at the center of our lives.  What might be surprising, however, is that the walk of faith is also far more fulfilling and joyful than thinking that we are the captain of our fate (which is a mirage anyway).

Saving faith is humble trust in the gospel of God in the promise.

The word of God in the promise directs us to the mercy of God – to God the Father who delivered up his Son, and to the Son who was delivered up for us.  This faith involves three elements: (1) that I need to be saved, (2) that I cannot save myself, and (3) that God saves sinners.

The last two verses in our text (24-25) highlight the fact that our salvation is wholly outside of ourselves and entirely a work of God in Christ, just as Abraham could not of himself fulfill the promise of God to him.  “It [righteousness] will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”  For the forgiveness of our sins and justification are fruits, not of our doing, but of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

Of course we must believe, and this is something that we do, but we must also remember that faith is not the righteousness that justifies but the means by which we receive the righteousness that justifies, the hand that receives the free gift.  The call to have a faith like Abraham’s is not a call to make ourselves better, but a call to trust in the God who through Christ makes us perfect and brings us into fellowship with him entirely upon the basis of grace.  It is a call to look away from ourselves and to the God who saves.

What kind of effect should this have on us?  What kind of people will we be when we with Abraham trust in the God of promise?  I think it will create in us the following attitudes.

First, as people who have confidence in the power of God, we will be increasingly freed from despair and more and more defined by hope.  And this hope does not shame us in the end (Rom. 5:5).  It will increasingly bring freedom from slavery to circumstances.  I think it is interesting that in verse 19, the text says that Abraham “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”[1]  True faith does not stop us from considering our circumstances.  But it also does not enslave us to them.  Faith sees that God is over all and that the wind and the waves do not have the final word, but the one who can calm them with a single word does.  Faith brings boldness and courage in the face of fear.  One thinks of the three Hebrew children who refused to bow to Babylon’s idol.  That is what faith in the power of our sovereign God can do.

Second, it will bring our lives more and more in conformity to the will of God for us in his word.  It will produce the peaceable fruit of holiness in our lives.  For it is impossible to bind ourselves in faith to the promise of God in his word and not also bind ourselves to the precepts of God in his word.  Faith and obedience go together.  There is no such thing, Biblically speaking, as a life of faith that consistently produces the poisonous fruit of unholiness.  It is not without reason that the word for “faith” in Scripture can also be translated “faithfulness.”

Finally, it will beget joy in the mercy of God that we enjoy through faith.  Faith apprehends the gift of God and brings it home to us so that we really enjoy it.  Now it is true that we don’t enjoy it as we ought.  We are too often filled with doubts and fears.  Thank God that we are not saved by the amount of our faith but by the object of our faith.  But those who believe cannot but be hopeful and hope is always pregnant with joyful confidence.  One thinks of that description in Hebrews of “our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6).

May God make it true of all of us, more and more.

[1] There is a textual question here, as some manuscripts include the word “not” – so that Abraham “considered not his own body now dead, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (KJV).  This doesn’t change the overall meaning of the paragraph or the point that the apostle is making.  If this is the correct reading (though it seems that external evidence favors the omission of the word “not”), it would just be saying that Abraham did not allow his external circumstances overwhelm his faith.


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