What is faith? I’ve seen answers that range from another religion (for example “one of many faiths”) down through some sort of fairy-tale opinion that stands opposed to science.
In the Bible, we’ll see all sorts of usage on “faith” and “belief”—sometimes even referring to when someone adheres to the doctrines that make up Christianity. One of the best usages of faith is the one that is tied to the concept of justification.
Faith is just an archaic word for trust. What I love about seeing faith, or trust, tied to justification in texts like Romans 4 (see more of the Romans study), that it explains the nature of the concept even while using, basically, case-law. No more fuzzy lessons grounded in someone’s personal trust issues, but rather taking the structure of Hebrews 11:1 where it says “faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” and garnishing it with doctrinal meat.
One: Faith Isn’t A Work
In Romans 3:27-4:8, Paul argues that faith isn’t a work and therefore excludes bragging. When you work, he says, you expect to be paid but you shouldn’t expect anything for simply trusting; anything given is sheer grace.
Faith is more like a trust that results in giving up which God turns around and credits with his own foreign righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Here Paul uses an example of Abraham who did a whole mess of work like moving from his home country (Gen 12) or letting his nephew get his pick of the land (Gen 13).
Yet, Abraham’s works were never credited with righteousness. That occurred only when God decided to take Abram’s weak trust, in spite of the physical evidence before him, and credit it with God’s own righteous standard. As Moo (best commentary on Romans) quotes Chrysostom as saying:
For a person who had no works, to be justified by faith was nothing unlikely. But for a person richly adorned with good deeds, not to be made just from these, but from faith, this is the thing to cause wonder, and to set the power of faith in a strong light.
Two: Faith Has Historical Priority
In Paul’s day there were serious issues with folk who were trying to add stipulations to salvation by grace alone. Christians had to be circumcised, or drill down and follow the Law, if they really wanted to be part of the people of God. Back in his letter to the Galatians 3, Paul dealt head on with those problems. Here in the letter to the Romans 4:9-15, he didn’t have those same issues but he did want to highlight the key point that faith has historical priority: it came long before both the Law and circumcision.
Of course, nowadays we don’t have a problem with getting circumcised to add to our salvation. What we do is see faith as not enough while adding all sorts of stipulations for spirituality. Maybe it’s using the right version of the Bible. Or being a young earth creationist. Or an old earth creationist. Or managing to go to church every Sunday. Or wearing a suit. The list goes on. Sometimes it’s even on a daily basis as we struggle with how we feel and we ask ourselves “would a real Christian feel like how I do right now when I’m doing so much wrong?” We have to remember that Abraham was credited with righteousness by faith and not by any works that came later.
Three: Faith is Tied to Grace by Promise
We often underestimate the extravagance of grace by adding things that must be done. Paul highlights God’s empowering promise to Abraham (You will be a father of many nations). The same God who is able to create the universe by command and bring the dead back to life with a word, is the same God who made such promises.
Not only that, says Paul, the people who follow in Abraham’s faith prove to be his true sons. That’s an entire article on it’s own about functional sonship or you can just Google what DA Carson says about it.
In Romans 4:16-18 we see that the avenue of grace through faith is driven by the fact that God made a promise that he didn’t have to. No one is rewarded salvation for believing; they believe because it is the Living God who graciously promises salvation.
Four: Faith’s Object is God
Too often we applaud the spirituality of people of faith. The Bible never applauds a person for simply believing in anything; that’s worthless. People are commanded to believe in God so that having the right object of faith is actually an act of obedience. That’s actually pretty freeing. We’re never judged on the strength or the weakness of our faith but rather on whom we have placed our faith. That’s massive.
Abraham in Romans 4:19-20 shows that it was God he aimed to glorify, it was God who empowered him, it was God who made the promises and it was God in whom he entrusted his future.
Five: Faith Results in Action
I love how Romans 4:19-21 also shows the dynamic element of faith that James talks about in James 2. Abraham didn’t simply let go and let God, but Paul says that Abraham “did not waver in unbelief” and “he grew strong in faith”. Abraham, says Paul, winds up giving “glory to God” in opposition to the folk who refused to give glory to God by giving thanks in Romans 1:21.
Six: Faith is For Us
All of this which had happened back in Genesis 15 was written for our sake, says Paul in Romans 4:22-25—but I like how he says it “to whom [righteousness] will be credited. That makes the passage extend out not only to the believers who are reading the text but the people who have not yet believed but will believe. They now have the confidence of coming near in simple faith because that’s the channel where God has promised to act through.
You see, says Paul, God has acted in Christ in history by having him die for our transgressions and rise again for our justification, so that when we do believe he does credit His righteousness in our behalf.