The Purpose and Perseverance of Faith
Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. 23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
I said last week that I would take up three questions that arise in these verses. But I can only take up two, and one reason is that they are so tremendously relevant this week in view of some responses in the StarTribune yesterday to the article about Jewish-Christian relations that appeared the week before. I'll talk about that in a moment. Let's take the two questions one at a time. And perhaps we will take the third one next week.
Question 1: Why Faith?
Here's the first. Notice at the beginning of verse 22 the word "therefore." "Therefore, it [faith] was also credited to him [Abraham] as righteousness." So Paul wants us to know why faith is credited to Abraham and to us as righteousness. What is the meaning of "therefore" at the beginning of verse 22?
Remember the larger context. From beginning to end, Romans 4 has been about Abraham's faith as the example of justifying faith. The fact that Paul would devote a whole chapter in this letter to helping us see that Abraham was justified by faith shows how crucial the Jewish question was for Paul. Christianity is not a separate religion from Judaism in Paul's mind. There must be continuity and harmony in the way of salvation for Jews and Christians. So he labors for a whole chapter to show that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works of the law.
Now in verse 22 he wants us to think once more about why faith is the way God has chosen for sinners like us to get right with him. So he quotes Genesis 15:6 one more time and introduces it with "therefore." "Therefore, it [faith] was also credited to him [Abraham] as righteousness." So, why was it faith that God chose to make the instrument of Abraham's being counted as righteous?
First, faith is the way that God chose for Abraham and us to be justified because it glorifies God: "[Abraham] grew strong in faith, giving glory to God" (v. 20) "Therefore," it was credited to him as righteousness.
Second, God chose faith as the way to justification because faith accords with grace and grace is the free and sovereign work of God that makes the promise certain. Verse 16: "For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants." God means to justify us by faith because it gives us strong assurance. God's free and sovereign grace is what guarantees the promise of salvation and makes it sure. And faith is the one condition of the heart that accords with grace in justification. Faith says yes to grace and is glad that God will save us that way and rests in that wonderful work of grace.
Third, God chose faith as the way to justification because it excludes boasting: Romans 3:27, "Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith."
So we can sum up the answer to our first question like this: The reason God chose faith as the way that we get right with him - the way to be justified - is that he wanted to base the whole thing on his almighty, all-glorious grace, so that our boasting would be excluded and his glory would be exalted and our salvation would be certain. Our pride is put down. God's glory is lifted up. And salvation is made sure. Therefore, rejoice that your justification is by grace through faith.
Relevance to Current Jewish-Christian Relations
I said that this feels all the more relevant and urgent in view of some responses in yesterday's newspaper. Remember that several weeks ago I referred to the lead editorial in the StarTribune that said it was arrogant to pray for or to try to persuade Jewish people that Jesus is the Messiah and thus lead them to faith and salvation. I said I would try to write a response and I asked you to pray. Well, you must have. Because I wrote the response and they published it Saturday a week ago (October 2), and the responses were published yesterday. (The articles are posted at www.startribune.com.)
The most remarkable thing about the two letters and one article that responded is that they show the astonishing relevance of the New Testament to our present situation in Jewish Christian relations. One letter said, "The truth is that Jews cannot accept Jesus as Messiah because they have never seen Jesus as having fulfilled the basic ancient Jewish requirements for the Messiah, who was never supposed to have died the ignominious death of a criminal. Observant Jews have believed that 'anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse' (Deuteronomy 21:22)."
This is astonishing because it is the very objection Paul heard and responded to in his day. He said in Galatians 3:13, "Christ [=Messiah] redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us - for it is written, 'CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.'" So Jesus remains a stumbling block to many Jewish people for the very same reason he was in Jesus' day. The popular view was and is that Messiah is not supposed to die on the cross.
But the Jewish Bible itself says in Isaiah 53:5 and 12, "He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. . . . He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many." And not only do you have the prophecy of a suffering and dying Messiah who bears the curse of his people (not his own curse), but you even have the teaching in Isaiah 53 that this is the basis of our justification. "As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11).
The article that responded yesterday showed how badly misunderstood the doctrine of justification by faith is and how desperately it is needed in this world, including the Jewish community. The author misrepresents and then rejects the teaching that salvation is by faith in Jesus the Messiah; and then says this: "[This teaching] is absolutely antithetical to Judaism, which holds that people are judged by their creator on the basis of their actions in this world." Here again Romans 4 is utterly relevant and up to date. Is salvation on the ground of the moral performances of our lives (the author refers to a woman who saves a drowning child), or are we justified by faith alone with morality a fruit of this justification? If you care about the Jewish community the way Paul cared about it and you read Romans 4 alongside Saturday's paper, you will marvel and be thankful for how relevant and contemporary Paul's teaching is.
O, that we would all learn how God saves Jew and Gentile alike and put our trust in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, and open our mouths and teach these things every chance we get - to Jew and Gentile!
Question 2: What Sort of Faith?
Now the second question I raised last week was: What sort of faith is credited to Abraham and to us as righteousness? Was it the first act of faith when God first spoke to Abraham and told him to leave Ur of the Chaldees, or the faith of Genesis 15:6 when he promised to make his descendants like the stars, or the faith of Genesis 17 when God promised him a son in the next year in spite of his age and Sarah's barrenness, or the faith of Genesis 22 when he offered his Son Isaac? Are we justified in the very first twinkling of faith or by a lifetime of faith?
There are two facts in Romans 4 that point to the answer. Romans 4:3 quotes Genesis 15:6 where God promises Abraham that his descendants would be as the stars of the heavens (Genesis 15:5) and says, "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness." That faith at that time was the way he was justified. That's the first fact. The second fact is that in verses 19-21 Paul describes Abraham's faith that he exercised at least 13 years later in Genesis 17 when he was 99 years old. Verse 19: "Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old." And after this description of Abraham's faith when he was 99, Paul says in verse 22, "Therefore it was credited to him as righteousness." Because of his earlier faith and later faith, Abraham was justified.
So here's the upshot: the faith Abraham exercised in Genesis 15 was credited to him as righteousness; and the faith he exercised in Genesis 17, at least 13 years later, was credited to him as righteousness. What then shall we conclude? I conclude that we are justified on the very first act of saving faith - justification is not a process. It is a verdict. It is a singular act of counting someone righteous and acceptable to God on the basis of the righteousness of another, namely, Christ. But this first act of saving faith is the kind of faith, as God designs it by his grace, that will persevere. In fact, we could say that all the subsequent faith is contained in the first faith like an oak tree is contained in an acorn.
Here's the way Jonathan Edwards said it, "God, in the act of justification, which is passed on a sinner's first believing, has respect to perseverance, as being virtually contained in that first act of faith; and [persevering in faith] is looked upon . . . as being as it were a property of that [first act of] faith. God has respect to the believer's continuance in faith, and he is justified by that, as though it already were, because by divine establishment it shall follow" ("Justification by Faith Alone," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974], p. 641). I think that is right and follows from what Paul has written.
What does this mean for us? It means three very practical things:
Implication 1: Justification Comes All at Once
It means that full and unshakable justification is given to us through one simple act of faith; and assurance of eternal life is possible from the very beginning.
Justification does not come to you in pieces, one piece on one day and another piece on another day. It comes all at once through the first act of genuine faith in Jesus. You don't accumulate pieces of justification with each new act of faith, and hope that you have enough pieces collected when you die. There are no pieces. The verdict, "not guilty," is indivisible. And the work of Christ in whom we have our righteousness is a complete and perfect work. It does not get better with time. And we are united to Christ at once, through our first faith, not progressively. No one is half in and half out. And if we are in Christ, all that he is he is for us - from the very first instant of faith. This is wonderful news for sinners who face a long haul in becoming in life what we are in Christ.
Implication 2: God Will Make Sure of our Perseverance in Faith
It means that God himself will make sure of our perseverance in faith - not perfection in faith, but perseverance, persistence. How do I know this? Romans 8:30 says, "These whom [God] predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified." That last clause is crucial. It says that those whom God has justified, he most certainly will glorify. It's as good as done. That is, he will certainly bring them into everlasting life and glory with himself in the end. Now if that is true - if God will certainly and eternally save those who have been justified - and if our justification comes through faith which perseveres, then God will see to it that we certainly persevere in faith.
This is a very precious truth: that God himself is committed to keeping his own sheep and not letting them forsake him utterly. They may stray for a season. But he will bring them back. Clouds may gather and faith may falter, but those who are justified will not stumble so as to fall utterly. They will persevere in faith. Our hope for glorification is not in our own willpower to believe. It is in God's faithfulness that he who began a good work in us will complete it unto the day of Christ (Philippians 1:6).
Implication 3: Perseverance in Faith Is Evidence of Eternal Security
Finally, the fact that we are justified by faith which perseveres means that all of us who have made a start in the Christian life, by trusting Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and for the fulfillment of his promises to us, must be vigilant to fight the fight of faith and lay hold on eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12). We must not think that justification and glorification are unconnected with our ongoing, persevering faith. "Once saved always saved" is true, if you understand it to include: "God will work sovereignly to keep you trusting him." The great truth of our eternal security is based on the even greater truth that God keeps us secure by keeping us believing.
Eternal security for all God's justified, sinful saints is true and precious. And the evidence of being eternally secure is perseverance in faith. Oh, there will be struggles and doubts and loss of assurance from time to time. But the justified children of God never forsake Christ utterly. God keeps them.
1 Corinthians 1:8, "[God] will confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."
2 Corinthians 1:22, "[God] sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge [=down payment]."
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, "May the God of peace Himself sanctify you enti rely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass."
Romans 8:30, 35-39, "Those whom he justified, he also glorified. . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
If you are not enjoying this security and this peace with God, then either you have never trusted Christ, or a dark cloud is temporarily concealing the face of Christ from you. In both cases my urgent plea is the same: consider Christ. Fix your mind on Christ. Look to him. Consider that his righteousness may be yours freely through trusting him. And in your baby faith or in your season of darkness, consider that God Almighty pledges in faithfulness to keep you and to bring you back to himself again and again (James 5:20) until you are safe in heaven forever.