What does it look like for God to judge a person’s worth simply for what they believe? Oftentimes, we hear in our church circles that faith alone saves us, but what does that actually look like?
Paul helps us understand this nugget of truth by taking us back to the life of Abraham in Romans 4. Before the law existed and was written down, Abraham was living in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans. God called Abraham, gave him some directives, and promised to bless him if he obeyed. This call on Abraham’s life set the stage for a new people to be established. Because of our sin nature inherited from Genesis 3, God knew that man was prone to worship well loved things that gave comfort due familiarity, so he needed to call someone out. God called Abraham out of his comfort, his people, and his culture for the sole purpose to set apart a new people for God's glory.
Romans 4:1 informs us of the significance of leaving land and culture. Abraham was no longer going to be considered a man from Ur. He was going to be given a new identity, a new people group, a new culture, a new way of life, and most importantly, a new God (Romans 4:1-2, Acts 7:1-4).
What made God choose Abraham out of all the people living in Chaldea? Was Abraham a righteous person from the very beginning?
A quick reading of Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 20 tells us a different story. It may seem that Abraham “simply” said a little white lie in order to save his own life, not once, but twice. In the grand scheme of things, a “little lie” should not be that significant.
Abraham lied out of lack of trust in God. Two decades separate the first lack of trust incident and the second lack of trust
incident. Yes, Abraham had some redeeming moments where he seemed to trust God most of the time, so why didn’t Abraham trust God all of the time? Why put his own wife’s life and her fidelity to her husband on the line to save his own skin? Abraham took matters into his own hands and tried to do things his way, quite possibly the way they had always done things in his former Chaldean culture. However, when Paul was writing about the righteousness of Abraham, Paul was not referring to moments of Abraham’s lack of trust, but the totality of Abraham believing God.
Abraham had an imperfect faith, but God saw him as righteous simply because he believed God (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3). Before God gave the law, before God gave him a son, before Abraham was willing to sacrifice that son, Abraham believed God with an imperfect faith. Through that imperfect faith, God determined that Abraham was righteous...righteous enough to build a whole new people group that would exist solely to make God known throughout the world.
This is what Paul was talking about in Romans 4:3. He goes on to explain that if Abraham obeyed perfectly, trusted perfectly, acted perfectly, then surely God would/should reward him with a payment or blessing that is due for perfect obedience to a law not yet written (Romans 4:4). But that is not what Paul is saying. God gives Abraham a gift of being called righteous simply for believing God with an imperfect faith (Romans 4:5). This gift goes so far as to call the ungodly justified, for no other reason than believing God.
Paul then pulls David into his argument. David speaks from experience when he reflects on his own sin and reminds himself, through song, that a man whose sins are forgiven is blessed apart from works of obedience (Romans 4:6-8, Psalm 32). In vs. 9-12, Paul reflects on the fact that God calls Abraham righteous before he was circumcised. According to Hebrew law, circumcision was a pretty big deal. In Genesis 17, God ordered all Hebrew men to be circumcised, which was to reflect an outward sign of being chosen by God. Anyone not circumcised was supposed to be cut off due to not adhering to God’s covenant. However, Paul reminds us that God called Abraham righteous (Genesis 15:6) prior to the covenant of circumcision that was established by God in Genesis 17 several years later.
Since nothing is accidental or coincidental with God, there was grand purpose in calling out Abraham, setting him apart and calling him righteous, before the law was written and significantly before the convent of circumcision was established. God had determined Abraham was going to be the father of both the circumcision party (Jewish believers) and the uncircumcised (all the rest of us Gentile believers). This reality can give us all comfort, that from the very beginning, when God called Abraham, the final kingdom of God was going to be made up of Gentile and Jewish believers. This flies in the face of what traditional Jewish history says about Abraham. Jews regarded Abraham as a model father of the Jewish faith. They teach that Sarah was abducted to absolve Abraham of any culpability. They refuse to acknowledge that Abraham failed in trusting God. Jewish history wrongly asserts that Abraham perfectly obeyed an unwritten law, naturally inferring that God blessed Abraham and called him righteous because he obeyed the law perfectly and trusted God fully all of the time. Romans 4:13-25 tells us a different story.
Paul gets real about Abraham’s faith. He does not push a rose colored glass narrative about the life of Abraham. God’s promise (covenant) to Abraham that he was going to bring about world wide righteous heirs into the kingdom of God did not hinder on perfect obedience to the law, but rather in believing God. The law does not have the power to save (v. 14). Believing God makes believers righteous. God did not take into account Abraham’s unbelief (v. 20) or moments of doubt, but Abraham kept growing stronger in his faith as he continued to glorify God through those moments of doubt, which in turn helped him to become fully convinced that God was going to do what He promised (vs. 20-21). This is why Abraham’s faith was considered righteous in the eyes of God (v. 22).
Paul exhorts that in spite of Abraham’s imperfect life, through moments of unbelief, God determined Abraham’s faith was a righteous faith. Paul reminds New Testament readers and believers that it was for “our” sake God called Abraham’s faith righteous (v. 24). If Abraham believed that God was going to give him as many heirs as their are stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5), then what are we supposed to believe today?
Romans 4:24 succinctly tells us that those who believe God raised Jesus from the dead, crucified for our sin, our unbelief, our doubt, and our disobedience and raised to make us justified before a Holy God (vs. 25), then we are also called righteous by God - and this is not just good news...this is great news.
About the Author
Ariel Gonzalez Bovat is a Mexican-American (Latina), wife to Paul, mother of 4, and currently homeschooling her two youngest ages 12 and 17. She is an advocate for women to deeply study God’s word. She has taught women’s Bible studies on and off for the last 7 years and enjoys discipling younger women one-on-one. She has a BA in English and is currently pursing two masters degrees, Counseling and Theological Studies, from Midwestern Theological Seminary. She is co-founder of Kaleoscope, a website for Christians of color to share their church and faith experiences and perspectives.