What is saving faith, and how do you know if you have it?
Paul answers that question by looking at the life of one of the most important figures in the Bible: Abraham. Abraham is the most important father of the faith in the world: Christians, Jews, and Muslims all point back to Abraham as an essential religious figure. (And you thought it was only in your church that you learned the catchy song, “Father Abraham had many sons; many sons had Faaaaaather Abraham.”)
Paul says something about Abraham that many of the Jews of his day found scandalous: Abraham was justified by faith. And if the father of our faith was justified by faith, Paul says, then we should be also.
What then will we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 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 credited to him for righteousness.’– Romans 4:1–3 CSB
That last line of that verse is a quote from Genesis 15:6, which tells us Abraham believed God’s promise that God would bring salvation to the world through one of Abraham’s sons. That belief was credited to him for righteousness.
Paul goes on to show us the inner logic of faith: “Now to the one who works, pay is not credited as a gift, but as something owed” (Romans 4:4). This is the premise behind every job: You perform a certain job, and then you are paid for it. When the boss pays you, he’s not giving you a gift. You don’t say, “Oh, wow, this is so generous of you! You’re so thoughtful. Thanks for thinking of me!” At least, I hope you don’t.
No, you don’t gush over the mercy of your boss, because your wage is what you are owed for working. That’s how many people approach God. If we do good things, then God is supposed to pay us with heaven. Most religion works off of this kind of premise: I obey, therefore I am accepted.
The problem is that good works done to earn salvation are not really done out of a love for God; they are done out of love for ourselves. It reminds me of those tip jars at coffee shops. Have you ever put in your tip just at the moment the barista turns away from you? What do you do? Do you put more in when they can see it? Do you try to pull it out and put it back in … this time when they’re looking? And what if they turn around right when you are pulling it out?
The gospel works off of a different premise: “But to the one who does not work, but believes on him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). When it comes to establishing our rightness with God, instead of working for it and expecting it as a reward, we believe on him who declares the ungodly to be righteous.
Note that faith here is not just believing in God or Jesus in general. Specifically, you believe he paid your debt and lean your weight on that. All of us are leaning on something to justify us. But the only crutch strong enough to hold us up is the finished work of Christ. With that crutch and that crutch alone, we can limp into heaven. Or, more aptly, we can be carried into heaven.
The only kind of people in heaven are sinners. Deeply flawed, broken, guilty-yet-forgiven sinners.
Paul knows this, which is why the next example he gives in Romans 4 is about David:
Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless acts are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the person the Lord will never charge with sin.’– Romans 4:6–8
No one in the Old Testament better encapsulates the role of a forgiven sinner than King David. He demanded another man’s wife—and because he was the king, he got her. Then, when it was clear and he couldn’t hide this heinous abuse from the husband, David had the man killed.
David was a man of “lawless acts.” And yet, when David confessed, Nathan the prophet told him God had taken away his sin. Right away. Without working them away. No wonder David wrote about the freedom and blessing of forgiveness. Do we sense the scandalous wonder of forgiveness, like David? Do we understand the costly-yet-free gift of justification, like Abraham? Or are we still trying to impress God with a few tips in his tip jar?
This content originally published here. Used with permission.