In the courtroom of the book of Romans, we find the defendant’s lawyer, Paul, showing more evidence. Men are judging God (the defendant) and bring the unjust claim that He has no say in their actions and is in fact faulty in His ruling. Paul’s argument then is to defend God’s righteousness and we have already mentioned that this defense consists of four major movements.
The first line of defense is God’s righteousness in the very fact that He judges. We noted God’s right to judge in the future and even His present judgments. We subsequently found that all of mankind is guiltily under God’s righteous judgment for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God and they know it.
We do see several sub-themes running throughout the book of Romans and one of these is actually the basis for the major part of the defense’s evidence?the fact that “the just shall live by faith” (1:17). We discussed some matters of interpretation in light of the usage of terminology in the thought-flow of Paul’s argument and now find ourselves looking at this solution of the problem of the first section currently asking, “How is God righteous in Justification?” Questions, Questions.
It is an excellent question then, and I’m sure one that some Roman official posed to Paul over dinner while discussing matters of state and religion (Rom 24:24,25).
“So Paul, ” says Felix while taking an olive “You say that your God is righteous, yes?”
“Surely.” Answers Paul, seeing the shift and preparing to pounce with the Gospel.
“And you say that all have sinned, yes?”
“Indeed.” Here it comes, thinks Paul, nows my chance!
“How is it possible for a righteous God who judges sin to not judge you…a sinner?”
How would you answer the charge? Do you simply write off the question that it is on the basis of God’s grace and His predetermined councils? Do you say it is because you made a mental decision for God in the present and now He can’t judge you? To adhere to one of those answers may make God’s righteousness mere face-play and the other makes God’s righteousness fleeting. It is a legitimate question.
- Firstly we must realize that Paul’s answer lies in God’s infinite grace via the work He did on the cross through the Son (3:21,22). This work isn’t man’s work and in fact, not even man’s idea or plan?it is completely and wholly found in the Sovereign God (3:25) to implement this plan.
- Secondly, this grace is not given as a payment for any action. Underline Paul’s use of belief and faith. He is not saying that God’s grace is what forces a persons belief nor is he saying that a person’s belief forces God to bestow grace.
- We are left at a crossroad; how is God’s grace which justifies the ungodly Jew or Gentile is appropriated without besmirching God’s character? Paul does the wisest thing at this point in time by offering up a piece of evidence from case law.
In serious trials the first thing that any lawyer who’s worth his salt will do is research other cases or rulings which can effect the current law. Sometimes it’s a case exactly like the one in court which will either force the court’s hand or it casts the entire process to a higher court of appeals. Case-law sets precedence.
We must be incalculably careful then when reading these verses to not jump to the conclusion that Abraham’s belief resulted in a payment. We must be equally careful not to warp the text to make it read that Abraham’s belief was mere face-play by God. Let’s proceed then with great care.
What of historical Abraham who was declared righteous?(4:1) Was it by something he did? Note the usage here of works which is put in contrast to Abraham’s belief.
- Point 1 is that Abraham did not receive a payment of righteousness for his works but God credited to him righteousness through belief. (4:2)
- Point 2 is that the contrast is not only that of works versus faith but also payment versus credit. In one case the person does the action that merits payment in the other case a person relies on the only one who can make payment. (4:2-5)
Abraham wasn’t forced to believe like a mindless puppet nor was Abraham doing such a good work by believing that God was compelled to reward him. The fact is that he trusted on God who had all these things ready for Him and He relied on His word, seeing the end goal in adhering to the word of God (Heb 11:13).
Forgive me for the momentary tangent but some might then quote Ephesians 2:8 saying that “Yes, Abraham’s faith was a gift by God!” to which I freely agree: but what is faith? Is it something that’s kept in a lockbox, given to a person to be opened so that they can have eternal life? Is it something like a key given to puppets who will surely open the door because they can’t help it? Surely not, faith is that trust which is found in a person but not of the person’s own accord but of the one who is trustworthy.
You men out there who married your wives; I ask you “Do you trust her?” and you say “surely”. If I ask you how you came about that trust you definitely wouldn’t say that you just came up with that trust from the blue or because you’re that type of trusting person. In fact, you would say that you saw how she was before you were married, how she was faithful in all she did and devoted to the work and how ceaselessly she would do her work that you could count on her: you trusted her. She gave you that trust by her faithfulness!
How does faith come? By hearing the very words of God (Rom 10:17), the only faithful one.
This is why case-law brings tangential evidence in David himself, the man who proved faithless in a serious situation. David didn’t credit himself for his restoration or grace but he credits God for that righteousness apart from works! Note the words of the Psalm “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, whose sins are covered, the one to whom the Lord will never count sin!”
We also see that this blessedness is not only for the circumcision, but for the uncircumcised as well. Paul holds up the actual event of Abraham’s credited righteousness by shining light on the timeframe of this event. It occurred when Abraham was not circumcised reflecting the fact that circumcision was not the cause of the credited righteousness. (4:9-12)
You may say “What does circumcision have to do with justification at all?”. Yes, that is a good question in that Paul doesn’t seem to be writing to a main audience of Jews but rather to Gentiles and although such a point is important in the context of Judaizers how does it bear import at this portion of the letter?
If you remember, the point is still the case-law of God justifying people who don’t deserve justification based completely on his promise ( 4:12-21) that he will do as such. The promise to Abraham and to his future generations was not brought to fruition by the merit of the people nor by their continued belief nor their adherence to the law but rather by the very word of God. If they were to become inheritors by the keeping of the Law, God’s spoken promise to Abraham would have been mere fluff (I speak as a man).
So then this faith was not something that merited God’s righteousness but the conduit to the riches of God’s grace (4:22)! There will always be failure in man’s work to try to achieve the perfection and glory of God?it is inevitable. But for a person to completely give up on anything they can possibly do and hate the sinful position they’re in and pinning all their hope and faith and trust and dependence on the God of Abraham who promised that He is just and able to justify the ungodly by the death of his Son then the very goodness of grace is available to this believer. It is not a result which merits, it is a reliance on credit.
Abraham’s faith was not an empty belief but a dynamic dependence that resulted in this old man, physically dead in the sense of reproduction, continuing to perform with his spousal duties towards his wife convinced of God’s promise! (4:16-22)
So then, looking at this completed picture we have how grace is credited. It is not by the merit of works nor by the merit of belief…if that were the case it would be by law, which only brings death. This crediting is given to those who pin their hope on God’s promise, a living hope, which looks at the One who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. God’s righteousness remains intact for it was by His Son that our transgressions were paid by an actual work of His own accord. It was for the sake of our justification that Christ was raised from the dead, man’s decision over-turned but the wrath and work already poured out on the cross. (4:23-25)