Summary: Abraham didn’t have much to go on - God’s promise. But what Abraham did, when he did it, and through what agency speaks volumes to the Jew and Gentile alike how to have trust in a God you cannot see.
Despite the good news that God gives new life free of charge, we humans have a hard time accepting such a gift. We, by nature want to earn or buy what we get. For the Roman Christians reading Paul’s letter, that would also have been true. In fact, many of them were Jewish Christians, and thinking about all that Paul has said about the inability of the Jewish system to bring about salvation must have put lots of doubts about their heritage in their minds. “Salvation by trusting God?” As Paul has just said “a righteousness from God apart from the Law”.
Some of them might even have started thinking back to the beginnings of Judaism, to the patriarch of them all, Abraham. Surely Abraham earned his blessing before God by obedience and Jewishness, right? Wrong. Has God now nullified Abraham? No, not at all. Grace gives us a new understanding of just what happened with God and Abraham.
So Paul takes this entire chapter to paint a picture of two of Israel’s most famous men: Abraham and David, and how their relationship with Yahweh, and ours, is based solely on faith. It comes down to: what did Abraham do, when did he do it, and through what did he do it.
Abraham was “our” forefather Paul says. He is not just the forefather of the Jews, but of all believers. The Jews believed that Abraham was chosen by God because he was the only righteous person alive at the time. In Genesis 26:5 God remembers Abraham as one who “obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” But he was not a superman. In fact, Abraham had quite a journey of faith and testing of his faith—a journey not all that dissimilar from what we face—and that’s why his story is so encouraging to someone learning to trust God without earning anything!
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To understand Abraham’s journey of faith we need to go back to Genesis 11. Abram was a rank pagan when God found him. He was living in Ur, a Chaldean city near the present city of Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad in Iraq. For an unstated reason, Abram’s dad picked up the family, including Abram’s wife Sarai (who it says was barren), and started towards Canaan. When they reached Haran, which is near the border of Syria in modern day Turkey, they stopped and Terah, Abram’s father, died.
It was then that Genesis records God speaking to Abram about going “to the land that I will show you.” It says “The Lord said to Abram,” but it can also mean “had said.” So it may be that God actually spoke to Abram in Ur and it was he that convinced Terah to pack up and leave. The journey of faith starts with an invitation without full explanation.
After a series of travels and trials, God promised Abram “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth.” (13:16). God also told him “your reward shall be very great.” (15:1). He questioned God, “what will you give me, for I continue to be childless…?” God replied, “your very own son shall be your heir.” He then took Abram out into the night, “Look toward the heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
For some reason, Abram had the audacity to take God at his word. Verse 6 says, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted to him as righteousness.” Following this encounter, God has Abram prepare a “cutting of the covenant” ceremony, where a formal agreement is made – but it is God who is the only one who performs the ceremony. This has tremendous symbolism—namely that God is the only one that can fulfill his promises and if one party fails on the agreement it means death—in this case we failed to live up to God’s righteousness but he’s the one who paid for it with his own life (that’s why at the end of the chapter it says Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses”).
The Jews believed that Abram was blessed for his obedience to the covenants. Paul says that belief may have allowed Abraham to boast before men, but not before God, who is the one who made and performs on his promise.
Being “counted” as righteousness is not from obedience but from the sincere affirmation and acceptance that God can and will do what he promised. The word is also sometimes rendered “credited” or “reckoned.” The righteousness was not from works of obedience but from faith and trust.
This is absolutely key for us understanding how a relationship with God starts and continues. We desperately want to “do” something that will cause God to bless us. We go to church, we carry a big Bible, we tithe faithfully, we cajole God and even demand things based on a “contract” that we have with him where he is obligated to bless us according to our desires. It doesn’t work that way. God owes us nothing because we did no work to earn his favor.