Throughout the Bible, Abraham surfaces as one of the most important characters in the story line of redemption. When he first arrives on the scene, he is the son of a pagan idol worshiper (see Gen 11, cf Joshua 24:2). The text in Genesis 12 presents nothing special about Abram, that God would choose him above others. It simply says God called him. In fact, the remainder of Abraham’s narrative doesn’t hide the fact that he struggled to live out this calling. He lied about his relationship with his wife in order to protect himself. He undermined God’s providence by taking his wife’s servant in order to conceive a son. He doubted—and even laughed at—God’s promise to give him a natural son with Sarai at her ripe old age.
Why then does the rest of the biblical narrative speak so favorably about this man who clearly struggled with pride, doubt, and even cynicism? Paul gives us the answer in Romans 4.
In the middle of the lengthiest didactic passage of gospel literature known to the biblical corpus, the Apostle Paul puts forth Abraham as the test-case for the all-important doctrine of justification by faith alone.
From this dissertation, we learn three life-altering truths about the biblical doctrine of justification.
- Justification comes by faith alone.
At the end of Romans 3, Paul lays out the worldview-shattering (at least to his Jewish audience) truth that righteousness does not come through the law, but rather by faith. Abraham, the biological progenitor of the Jews becomes case-in-point.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”(Romans 4:1-3)
Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, in the context of God’s covenant with Abraham. God promises Abraham an heir. In fact, God—the master illustrator—points to the stars and assures Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as those celestial orbs which undoubtedly guided him during his sojourning. God also promises Abraham land for his own possession. When Abraham asks how he could be sure of God’s promise, something strange takes place.
Actually, though the severing of various animals and a flaming pot passing between them seems strange to us, this kind of ceremony was common in the Ancient Near East. It was a sign by which covenants were sealed. The party passing through the severed animal halves was effectively saying, “May I end up like these animals if I break the covenant.” Note that the text in Genesis says nothing about Abraham passing through. God alone was making a promise. He Himself took on the responsibility for the fulfillment of this promise. All that was left for Abraham was to believe the promise. That is why Paul tells us he had nothing to boast in.
- All of God’s people are justified by faith
A natural question arises for Paul and his immediate audience. If Abraham, the fleshly father of the Jews, was justified by faith, then isn’t this blessing of justification only for the Jews—the circumcised? Paul has an answer.
He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well
Here, Paul’s point is that circumcision was God’s gracious way of reminding Abraham of the initiative God Himself took in the covenant. Circumcision was important, and certainly very meaningful. But it did not bring about Abraham’s justification. It merely signified it. This means that, while Abraham is certainly the father of the Jews in the biological sense, he is more importantly the believing father of all those who have faith in God’s promise.
Paul makes this point throughout his writings. In Galatians 3, he calls Abraham the father of all who believe (Galatians 3:7-9). In Ephesians 2, he explains how the cultural and ethnic divisions between Jews and Gentiles have been abrogated by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Elect Jews and Gentiles, by virtue of their union with Christ through faith, now comprise one new man in Christ.
Simply put, all God’s people are justified by faith. This mystery was kept hidden for ages, but is now revealed to us. Because of the true offspring of Abraham (Christ), we are made partakers of God’s promise to Abraham through faith! And we are part of the church, the living organism through which God is making his manifold wisdom known throughout all creation.
- The promise of God to Abraham is fulfilled in Christ.
All of this naturally finds expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul continues,
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.
In other words, the very promise God made to Abraham is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ—his perfect life, his death in our place, and his glorious resurrection.
Elsewhere (see Galatians 3), Paul argues that the fullest expression of God’s promise to Abraham is Christ himself, the true Offspring. And because believers are united to Christ by faith, we are heirs according to that promise.
To put it another way, according to Paul, believers are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:17). Jesus Christ earned for us an inheritance that was promised to Abraham long ago. It is only by virtue of his righteousness, his acceptance of God’s punishment of our sins, and his resurrection, that we are united to him by faith! This, as Paul labors to remind us throughout Romans, rules out all boasting on our part!
One more note about faith….even the ability to exercise that faith is a gift from God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)
So, why do we see Abraham so often portrayed in the story line of Scripture? Because through Abraham, the man of faith, God proves that He is a promise keeping God who takes initiative in saving His people and granting them the faith to believe in this saving work—all to the praise of His glorious grace!
Soli Deo Gloria.