September 3, 2017
DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT TEACH JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE?
(13 of 44 in a series through Romans)
Earlier this spring, Wilfred McClay, who is the Blankenship professor of the history of liberty at the University of Oklahoma, wrote an intriguing essay titled, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” He was examining the west becoming ever more secular with the effect of modernism and move away from belief in God. And he noted that Nietzsche had argued that the more a culture moves away from God, the more a culture would be able to free itself from notions like “guilt” and would, in fact, experience “’a second innocence,’ a regaining of Eden.”
The problem, McClay notes, is that this simply hasn’t happened. Instead, we have, as he puts it “the strange persistence of guilt.” In other words, we were told that if we pretend God doesn’t exist, then there need be no burdening categories of right or wrong and no one before whom to feel guilty. So, ignore the presence of God, pretend he doesn’t exist, and guilt is gone. However, as McClay noted, guilt hasn’t gone away. And this has produced a quandary.
The problem is that when you ignore God and what he has revealed in the Scriptures, then you lose categories like real forgiveness, redemption, and atonement. And you’re happy to lose them, right? After all, you’re trying to get away from all those “religious” elements associated with the God you’re denying exists. The problem is that guilt doesn’t go away too easily. It’s like trying to get static cling out of a pair of pants you’re wearing. The more you do to try to pull at your pants, it just seems the worse that it gets. So, you can’t shake guilt. It just persists.
But no one wants to live with guilt, so everyone is constantly seeking a way to be justified. We want our guilt taken away. But like trying to get rid of static cling in a pair of pants, nothing seems to work. McClay notes, “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never . . . give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.”
The end result is a society that knows sin and guilt well, desperately longs to be justified, and is tirelessly scheming and working to figure out how to achieve it, with no success. And I would add to McClay’s essay that this is not unique to the present-day west. This is the history of mankind in their refusal to bow the knee to Jesus Christ. Because God has written his law on the human heart, mankind will always know their sin and guilt. And because man wants to get rid of guilt, all people long to be justified, while refusing to bow the knee to the Lord to do so. Instead they head down numerous other paths. Some people give money to the poor, while others do suicide bombings, but all are looking for the same thing: being declared righteous, that is, being justified.
But the good news that we’ve seen in Romans to this point is that though no man will be declared righteous on the basis of good works that he has done (because we can never do enough good), God has made available to all people who will believe in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ a gift of perfect righteousness that can be credited to us in our standing before God. That is, instead of relaxing God’s standard of perfect righteousness that he demands of all people, God has made available that very righteousness as a gift through faith. And this gift is available to all men, Jew and Gentile, if they will only believe.
And this is what we get to announce to the world. We can say to our neighbors weighed down with sin and guilt and doing everything to justify themselves that they can be justified by faith. They can know what it’s like to go to bed at night and not have to feel and know their guilt. They can go to bed at night knowing that sin is not being credited to their account so that they will be damned at the judgment. They don’t have to walk around with a shroud of guilt hanging on them, or in McClay’s words “with a strange persistence of guilt” in their lives no matter how much they try to convince themselves that God doesn’t exist.
But before we get too excited about this, let’s ask this question, “Is Paul right in saying that we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law?” Is this what the rest of the Bible teaches? After all, if Paul is arguing that we’re justified by faith alone and not by the works of the law, surely this isn’t a completely new teaching of the NT so that in the OT people were justified one way and in the NT we’re justified in another. So, let’s ask this basic question: Does the OT teach that justification by faith alone?
And the main reason I want to ask and answer that question this morning is because that seems to be the question Paul is dealing with in Romans 4:1-8. In these verses, Paul launches into investigating the nature of Abraham’s justification before God back in the book of Genesis and then considers David’s remarks on the nature of justification from Psalm 32, and I believe the reason he most likely looks into this is because consistent Jewish teaching up to and including Paul’s day was that Abraham’s relationship with God was based on his works. That is, the idea was that Abraham was justified by works. And if Abraham was justified by his good works, then it serves to reason that David was most likely justified by his works as well, and if each of these men were justified on the basis of their good works, then the same should hold for us. So, Paul takes this issue on in chapter 4, and in our text this morning we see Paul arguing that not only does the OT teach that Abraham and all others are justified by faith alone but that it could be no other way.
Let’s look then at how Paul makes this argument. First, he notes that:
The OT and logic teach that Abraham was justified by faith
Paul begins his conversation about Abraham in verse 1, asking, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?” Paul’s not afraid to bring up the very issue that they think undercuts his argument. What about Abraham? But the way Paul approaches it is by first considering the implications of what it would mean if Abraham were justified by his works and then ruling out that possibility. He writes, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (v. 2).
Paul’s argument is that if Abraham were justified on the basis of having performed sufficient righteous acts (done the works of the law), then he would have something to boast about before God, and Paul finds that notion inconceivable. But why would Abraham be able to boast before God if he were justified on the basis of his works? Paul explains in verse 4. There he writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”
In other words, if Abraham had indeed obeyed the Lord perfectly, meriting his justification before God, then his justification would simply be what he had earned, what was due him. God would be obligated to give the righteous judgment to Abraham based on what Abraham had earned. He would be under compulsion to give this just judgment to Abraham as his due.
For example, imagine that I were to say, “If you can pick up every leaf that is on our property, then I will give you $1,000.” And, amazingly, you went around and picked up every leaf so that I walked about our property, inspected every single area, and found that, without exception, every leaf had been picked up. Then, imagine I were to say to you, “I tell you what, I’m going to be very gracious and give you a gift of $1,000.”
You, of course, would respond that I was not being gracious and was not giving you a gift. Rather, I was giving you your due, what you’d earned. In fact, you could rightly note that if I were not to give you $1,000, then I would be failing to fulfill my obligation because you’d met the conditions that put me in debt to you. And you’d be right.
Paul’s point is that God never relates to his creatures in this way with regard to their justification. They will never find themselves in a place of boasting before God, and God will never find himself in a place of obligation or indebtedness to them so that he is under compulsion to give them their due. But that would be exactly the relationship between God and Abraham were Abraham to be justified before God by works. Thus, logic rules out the conclusion that Abraham was justified by works.
But it’s not just logic that shows that Abraham was justified by faith. The Scripture itself teaches that Abraham was justified not by works but by faith. Paul writes in verse 3, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’”
Paul here quotes Genesis 15:6 where God made a promise to Abraham that he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Does the text then say that Abraham then proceeded to obey all of the Lord’s commands and earned a righteous standing before God? Of course not. It merely says that Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
The phrase “counted to him as righteousness” is the very reality of justification. God credits us with righteousness, counting to us that which was not earned by us. And the text explicitly says that God credited Abraham with that righteousness in response to his faith, not his works.
Then, just as Paul expanded on verse 2 with his comments in verse 4, so he expands on verse 3 with his comments in verse 5. In light of the declaration of Genesis 15:6, and in contrast to the idea of being justified by works and earning one’s due, Paul writes, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Within that verse, there are multiple crucial elements that Paul notes. First, faith is contrasted with works. Paul says, “To the one who does not work but believes.” Here Paul isn’t talking about someone who claims to believe and then never walks in obedience to God’s commands. That’s not his contrast. Rather, he’s describing the one who does not depend on or look to his works as a basis for his righteous standing before God but instead merely believes, trusting in the gift of righteousness available to us through the work of Christ. Faith is not a work. As we’ve noted in the past, instead of doing, faith merely trusts in what has already been done for us.
Second, thinking through Abraham’s justification, Paul notes that God justifies the ungodly. Now, could Paul possibly mean that he considered Abraham to have no righteous standing on his own merit before God? Could he really mean that Abraham, apart from justifying faith, fell into the category of the ungodly? Absolutely Paul would say that. In Joshua 24:2, the Lord noted that he called Abraham out of a family that “served other gods.” Abraham didn’t bring his perfect righteous to the table before God. He is an example of God justifying the ungodly.
Finally, Paul notes that his faith is “counted” as righteousness. That is, God credited to Abraham a righteousness that Abraham did not possess, and he did it on the basis of Abraham’s faith.
So, is it true that Abraham was justified by faith alone? Absolutely. Otherwise, he would have had reason to boast before God, putting God in a place of giving him what he was due. Moreover, the Scripture explicitly teaches that Abraham was justified by faith alone so that he is an example of one who does not rely on his works but believes and is justified so that though he was ungodly, he is credited with a gift of perfect righteousness.
But I feel like I’d be ignoring the elephant in the room for those who know their Bibles well unless I addressed what James writes in James 2:21-24, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
That seems to say exactly the opposite of what Paul has been saying. So, first, let’s just confirm briefly that we understand Paul rightly. I mean, although he’s continued to say that we’re justified by faith apart from works, maybe he doesn’t really mean “apart from works.” Well, first, I’m not sure how Paul can say it any stronger. But if he ever did say it stronger, it was probably in Galatians 2:16 where he wrote, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” I don’t know how he could say it stronger. So, then, what is James saying when he says that Abraham was justified by works and not by faith alone?
Well, first, it’s helpful to understand that James doesn’t use the word “justified” in the same way that Paul does (which is common with biblical authors). Paul uses “justified” in our text to refer to God’s declaration of righteousness for us. For Paul to say that we are justified by faith means that God declares us righteous on the basis of our faith in Christ and not on the basis of our good works. James, however, seems to be using “justified” to mean something like “to vindicate in judgment” or prove something to be true or shown to be genuine. For example, jumping off the roof of this building would vindicate your claim to believe that you could jump off this building unscathed. Your work of jumping would vindicate (i.e. justify) your claim. And, if you understand that James uses “justified” in this sense, then his argument makes perfect sense in his illustration with Abraham.
Like Paul, James quotes Genesis 15:6 because he wants us to remember when God made a promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a multitude of descendants that Abraham went out looked up at the stars that God said were equal to the number of his offspring, and the text says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Ok, so we know that. Well, what happened in Genesis 22? We probably know that story as well. God told Abraham to go and kill his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice.
Now, this was the only son through whom God said the promise would come. It was his beloved son born miraculously to Abraham and Sarah when they were 100 and 90 years old, respectively. So, how did Abraham respond? Did he say, “Are you crazy, God? I would never do that.” No. He took his son and made a journey to kill him and offer him as a sacrifice.
Why would he do that? It’s because he truly believed God just like Genesis 15:6 said. I mean, think about it. If God said you’re never going to be physically harmed a day in your life and then he told you to run your car off the Grand Canyon, and if you really believed God, then you would get in your car and go, wouldn’t you? I mean, if you really believed what he said to be true, you’d be thinking as you’re racing your car to the edge of the canyon, “I’m really curious how God is going to keep me from being physically harmed.”
Well, Abraham was thinking something like that when he took Isaac to kill him. We read in Hebrews 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
Do you see? Abraham was thinking, “God promised to provide offspring through Isaac, and I believe his promise. So, I’m willing even to kill him if God says so because I’m so certain that God will keep his promise that he’ll raise him from the dead if he has to in order to fulfill his promise.”
Abraham’s action proved that Genesis 15:6 is not a verse that tells us that Abraham believed God’s promise sounded nice but didn’t think would happen. No. Abraham had true faith. He really believed God, and it was clear that he had faith when he raised the knife ready to kill his son. As James says, that kind of faith produces works and those works fulfilled his faith or completed it. In other words, that work vindicated that his faith was real. And you can’t vindicate a claim to faith without works, which is why James says, “You see that a person is justified [i.e. vindicated] by works and not by faith alone.”
Merely saying you believe doesn’t prove faith. It doesn’t vindicate you as having real faith. Works on the basis of that faith do vindicate genuine faith. James is simply showing us what real faith looks like. Faith alone is the basis for our justification before God, but that faith will be proven true by the works of obedience that come about in our lives as our hearts are transformed by the Lord. Thus, all NT writers agree that Abraham was declared righteous before God (i.e. justified) by faith alone. They just want us to see that saving faith will bear the fruit of obedience in our lives. So, yes, the OT and NT teach that Abraham was justified by faith alone.
But Genesis 15:6, a text dealing with Abraham, isn’t the only OT testimony to the fact that God justifies his people by faith alone.
David also testifies that God justifies apart from works
In our text, Paul continues, writing in verse 6, “Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.” Then he quotes from Psalm 32. But before he does let’s pay careful attention to what Paul is setting out to show from this quotation.
Paul is arguing that David speaks of the blessing that is possessed by the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works. That is, he wants to show the full glorious benefit of being one who is justified by faith, credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ. And so he quotes from Psalm 32:1-2 where David says, “Blessed are those who lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Clearly David is not talking about a person who has obeyed God perfectly and is thus justified by his works in this text because Paul notes that this person has committed lawless deeds and sins. Consequently, if this man is justified, it is apart from his works.
But what blessing is it that this man receives? Paul says that his lawless deeds are forgiven and his sins covered as the Lord does not count against him his sin. In other words, Paul wants us to see that the blessing of being justified by faith alone doesn’t include only the Lord counting us as righteous but also dealing with our unrighteousness. The reason our sins are covered and our righteous deeds are forgiven is because the Lord has determined that he will not count them against us.
In other words, our problem is two-fold, and the solution to each part is the same. On the one hand, we have not been perfectly righteous in our actions, and we need the positive standing of perfect righteousness. Therefore, as we believe, the Lord credits us with the perfect righteousness of Christ, counting Christ’s perfect life for us. On the other hand, we have committed numerous sins and been unrighteous. However, as we believe, the Lord does not count our sins against us.
Thus, both the forgiveness of sins and imputation of a righteous standing before God by faith alone are taught in the OT and in the NT. And both of these things are rooted in the work of Christ. Apart from Jesus living, dying, and being raised for us, our faith would have no object. This is why we say that our faith looks to the finished work of Christ for us. And this is why we remember and give thanks for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection each week, even as we do now as we come to the table. Amen.