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Faith, Works, Justification, and Abraham

Romans 4:1–3

What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

We now go back to the beginning, as it were, to “justify” justification by faith, or on the basis of faith.  Remember that justification is an act of God.  No man can justify himself.  We must always remember that in Romans 3:24 we find the root cause of our justification, and the root cause is that we are “justified freely BY HIS GRACE through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”.  Justification does not find its root cause in us, the sinners who need it, but in God.  We find the root cause of our justification in God’s grace, frankly, because He wanted to do it;  because He is gracious.  We are justified freely, without a cause in us.  The cause is in Him, as we read in Ephesians 1:9, “according to the good pleasure of His will which He hath purposed in Himself”.

Now, the Apostle Paul, as a Jew addressing a Jewish question, brings up the question that the sons of Abraham might have, especially on the heels of the previous discussion of “no difference,” and God’s act of the justification of the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.  But what about the covenant that Almighty God made for Abraham to keep with Him?

In Genesis chapter 15, the Word speaks of a covenant that the Lord JEHOVAH unilaterally confirmed with Abram.  There was nothing that Abram added to the covenant, and nothing that the the Lord required from him.  The Lord made a promise to Abram,  “And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).  With that gift righteousness, the Lord confirms the promise that He made in chapter 12, and makes it a covenant.

Genesis 15:18 — “In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates…”

When we come to Genesis 17, at the age of “ninety years old and nine”, Abram receives again the appearance of the LORD, revealing Himself as Almighty God.  Here first, Almighty God gives to Abram the name by which we know him — Abraham.  And with this change of name, Abraham is to keep his end of the covenant, terms which Almighty God makes for him, that he is to wear a token in his flesh of the covenant:

Genesis 17:9 – 14 — “And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep My covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.” 

Serious business, is it not?  Make no mistake in reading these chapters of Romans to think that God never required circumcision from the children of Abraham.  For one to not have token in his flesh, he would be cut off from his people.  He would have no part in the covenant that God made with Abram, now Abraham.

But the Apostle Paul takes us back to chapter 15, more than 13 years earlier (see Genesis 16:16 and 17:1), to see how it really was that Father Abram was reckoned righteous…

Genesis 15:4 – 6 — “And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And He brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.

And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.”

Abram had done nothing to warrant righteousness.  The LORD counted his faith as righteousness.  If he were justified by works, as the Apostle argues, he could glory in himself.  But God will allow no such boasting in His presence.  There was another man, somewhat contemporary with Abraham, with the witness that he was “perfect and upright”, and that he “feared God and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1).

As the book of Job progresses, we see that this man does boast in his own righteousness, but in 9:2, he has to ask the question, “how should a man be just with God?”  As he continues to argue and defend his righteousness, the LORD answers Job (not his friends, but Job, 38:1; 40:1), discussing the creation of the world through His own eyes, and at the end of this, Job comes to the place where he understands his own “righteousness”:

Job 42:6 — “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job came to where the Gospel of Grace meets us:

1 Corinthians 1:29 — “That no flesh should glory in His presence.”

Ephesians 2:9 — “Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

No one will be allowed to glory before God.  Not even Abraham.  Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, brings us back to the question that we should always ask ourselves before appealing anywhere else:


Appeals may have gone to the traditions, or to the rabbis, but “what saith the Scriptures?”  Abraham BELIEVED GOD, and it, his believing God, was counted to him for righteousness.  Justification by faith … as old as the first book of the Bible.

It is to the Scriptures that we must make our appeal.  Not to our favorite teachers or traditions.  Not to the word of man, but to the word of God.  What saith the Scriptures?  The Jews in the synagogue of Berea, in Acts 17, were called more noble, because they received the word from Paul, and searched the Scriptures daily to determine whether or not the things that Paul and Silas were saying were so.  And the results of their search?

Acts 17:12 — “Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.”

What things did the Jews of Berea search out in the Scriptures?  The same which the Apostle reasoned with the Jews in Thessalonica, in the same chapter:

Acts 17:2 – 3 — “And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, Whom I preach unto you, is Christ.”

Whatever more the Apostle may have spoke to them we do not know.  But they must get this far, especially as Jews, before coming further to the word that we receive in Romans, of justification by faith (faith + 0), and the Gospel that Paul preached by revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11 – 12).  Paul’s epistles make clear that he was given to reveal “the mystery of Christ”, things that were not made known in other ages to the sons of men, as they are now revealed.  This “fellowship of the mystery”, Gentiles as fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel was “hid in God”, and these are “unsearchable riches”.  And it is not only the fellowship that is mystery, it is all of these riches of grace that we as Gentiles and Jews in one body are able to partake of, which were not made known unto the sons of men in time past, but now are revealed to us.  Read carefully Ephesians 3:1 – 12, as an exercise in searching the Scriptures to determine if these things are so.

I’m sure that some also will go to James chapter 2 and say look, Abraham was justified by works.  James tells his readers, in James 2:24, that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”  Many like to use this to argue against faith plus nothing justification, and some, seeing the seeming contradiction, go so far as to say that one or the other should not be in Scripture.  Martin Luther, the great reformer. called the Epistle of James a book of straw, because he could not reconcile James 2:21 – 26 with Romans 4.  There are also those out there who will reject Paul because of what James says.  Those should think critically, because without the witness of the Apostle Paul, and of Luke in the Book of Acts, with one exception, in Acts 12:17, every reference to “James, the Lord’s brother”, are from Paul or in relation to Paul.  Search the scriptures to see if these things are so.

So how do we reconcile them?  They are not meant to be reconciled.  Things that are different are not the same.  Calling them “two sides of the same coin” may sound good, but this answers nothing.  They are two different coins.  The Word of God spoken through James is not the same as the Word of God spoken through Paul.  Paul, in Romans 4, brings us to Genesis chapter 15, to uncircumcised Abram, and justification by the faith that he had while still uncircumcised.  James brings his readers (read carefully James 1:1 until you get it) to Genesis 22, to Abraham under the covenant of circumcision that we find in Genesis 17.  James speaks to Jews under the covenant (not the New Covenant, for this covenant, while the blood of the covenant was shed at the cross, is not even mentioned in James) to express their faith by their works, works that are consistent with those revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures (“that which decayeth and waxeth old”, and is “ready to vanish away”, Hebrews 8:13).  This is consistent also with John the Baptist’s ministry to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”.  James picks up where the Baptist leaves off to make ready a people prepared for the Lord the second time (James 5:7 – 8).  Paul speaks to Gentiles, never under the covenant of circumcision, and to Jews who are concluded under sin (Romans 3:9, 11:32;  Galatians 3:22), that are reckoned righteous through faith alone.  They must simply “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31), to receive complete forgiveness and complete justification (Acts 13:38 – 39, Colossians 2:13).  The Jew and Gentile reconciled in one body by the cross is part of that mystery revealed to Paul to reveal to us, and “the dispensation of the grace of God” (Ephesians 3:2) is the “house-rule” that we are living under today.

Now to you, dear reader, have you received God’s gift of righteousness by grace, given to all that believe the gospel, of first importance, how that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures?  That gospel is found in the first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses three and four.  Search the Scriptures to see if these things are so.

All who are saved today are saved by God’s grace, freely, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  All that is required to enter in to this great redemption and justification is to believe God, as Abraham did.  God sent Paul as His apostle to preach this word, and your only part is to believe it.

Romans 4:5 — “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”


Romans Study

Charles Miller View All

Husband, father, engineer...Enjoys fishing, archery, guitar, running, and lifting, but most of all reading and studying God's Word.

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