Abraham, My Friend
The Making of a Praying Man
Chapter Four: New Beginnings
particular responsibility and a look at the accounts
This weeks devotional is a little more technical. We are going to see how Paul expounds Abrahams experience. Please dont be put off by that; these are vital truths which will more than repay your having to think a little.
Did you notice that our verse has two hes? And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Gen 15:6 KJV) So we have two named individuals who each perform an action. There is no confusion between the individuals; the first he is Abraham, the second he is Jehovah. There is no confusion either between the different contributions that each he makes to this statement. (If you are tempted to think that this is pedantry gone mad please accept my apologies.) I want to make clear beyond all possibility of confusion that in this verse Abraham had a responsibility which he fulfilled, and Jehovah had a responsibility which He fulfilled. Abraham believed and that was his part done. From that point onwards the responsibility switches in its entirety to Jehovah.
Let me state this in a negative form. Abraham did not contribute any righteousness to this process, and Jehovah did not contribute any faith. We have said before that God needs nothing, other than what He has committed Himself to use. In the earliest verses of the Bible we find that God spoke and it was done. Think in terms of the links of a chain; the first link is Gods word; the second is Gods action. There is no intrinsic need for any further link in this chain. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Gen 1:3 KJV) But there are times when God has decided to separate the two links and then another link becomes necessary, the link that God has determined must be in place. The necessary link is often a human contribution; God does not need it but He has decided that this is how the process must now move from its beginning to its end. Lets repeat the statement that Abraham contributed no righteousness towards this process; his contribution was his act of believing, his faith.
In our verse we are told that the first he, Abraham, believed in Jehovah. Abraham had had earlier experiences with this god called Jehovah; Abraham knew who was speaking to him, and he knew who he was putting his faith in. Jehovah could not move from the spoken word to the completed action until Abraham provided the missing link, because God has decreed that Abraham will be saved by grace, through faith. As you North American folks like to say, awesome! Thomas Newberry drew some interesting thoughts from the way the Hebrew tenses are used. He describes the word believed as an Aoristic action. Properly speaking Hebrew does not have an Aorist tense, but Newberry sees an Aorist mood in the word believed. The Aorist tense is a tense that is often used in Greek to give a sense of a completed act; in this sense Abrahams believing was a single act in which he looked away from all other considerations and fixed his gaze upon the god he knew as Jehovah. It was a response complete in itself; the act was done!
But Newberry also observed that the verb used of God, reckoned/counted, was not in this single act mode, but in a mode which indicated the permanence of the action. This is all a little bit complex, but let me cut to the chase by saying that Newberry saw the verse as giving the implication that a single act of Abraham resulted in a permanent response from God; Abraham believed God in a moment of time, and God permanently changed the way He thought about things and changed the record. The KJV version is often anxious to translate words as fully as possible by using different English words to translate the same Hebrew or Greek word; this is good but it sometimes loses the power of simple repetition. The best all-round single word translation here would be reckoned. If you are able, try to trace the Hebrew word chashab (Strongs Number Hebrew 2803) through your Old Testament. It is used to describe the way in which someone thinks about something which then affects the way they behave. Their way of seeing something alters their judgement about something.
The great theme of Romans is really found in its earliest verses; For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Rom 1:16 KJV) Salvation is not conditioned by racial history; it is available to both Jew and Greek. It is not achieved by merit; is the result of Gods power made available to every believer. It is not difficult to identify Pauls focus. He uses the word faith 40 times and the word believe 21 times. To illustrate from his letter to the Ephesians; For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: (Eph 2:8 KJV) God has determined that the human link will be faith. Romans 4 is a vital foundation in New Testament teaching. Paul asks the question what was Abrahams experience? His answer is simple; Abraham found that when he believed God-wards, his faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. (Rom 4:3-5) Abrahams only contribution was his faith.
In fact to make the point beyond any confusion Paul refers to God as Him that justifieth the ungody (Rom 4:5) It is an audacious statement that excites me every time I read it. The construction is one which describes someones characteristic behaviour; the god we are referring to is the god who is The Justifier of the Ungodly. Abraham life story comes before the Law of Moses so his sin was not quantifiable; sin cannot be reckoned when there is no law. Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. (Rom 4:15 KJV) For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed (reckoned, put to the account) when there is no law. (Rom 5:13 KJV) It is a interesting confirmation of the precision of God revelation in scripture that the narrative of Abrahams life never charges him with sin. However,the fact that sin was not recorded does not mean that sin did not occur. It is just that before the law there was no measurement of sin; it could not be scored. Abraham, for all his greatness, was not a godly man. He had not acquired righteousness that could be put to his account. If he had Gods acceptance of him would not have been on the basis of grace but of merit. But Abraham has no merit with which he can earn Gods acceptance; he believes. The same construction which gave us The Justifier of the Ungodly describes Abrahams characteristic behaviour; he is not a worker, but a believer on The Justifier of the Ungodly. His confidence is not in his achievements but in God alone. God alone will provide the righteousness, Abraham must provide the faith.
As Paul continues to expound what Abraham found he repeats this important truth his faith is reckoned for righteousness (Rom 4:5 KJV) He uses the Greek word logizomai which Thayer defines as to reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over. We are using the language of numbers, the language of the account-ant. Where Abrahams account should have shown a massive overdraft it is found to be infinitely in credit. Where has the overdraft gone and where has this immeasurable wealth come from? This is the ongoing miracle of justification by faith. An amazing two-way transfer of funds has taken place; the debt has gone and a credit Abraham never earned has appeared in his account.
The Roman Catholic church teaches that its saints have not only provided sufficient righteousnesses for their own acceptance but have acquired an excess which can be used to off-set the debt of others; these righteous works of the saints are known as works of supererogation. These credits are administered by the Roman priesthood as a means of reducing time spent in purgatory. This was the theological basis of indulgences offered on payment of cash by the Roman priesthood in the middle ages. It was Luthers rediscovery of Gods own righteousness reckoned/imputed to our account on the occasion of our faith that triggered the Reformation. If our acceptance with God were based on personal righteousness, the saints would not have had sufficient to repay their own debts; there would have been no surplus for others. In any case, why would I need the righteousness of Saint Francis when the righteousness of God has been credited to my account?
There is another important point that Paul draws from Abrahams discovery; Abraham was not in covenant with God when this amazing transfer took place. In Bible language he was uncircumcised. Circumcision came to be one of the covenant signs of Gods people. The natural descendants of Abraham came to rely upon their historical connections. They were sure that they were accepted with God because they were Abrahams descendants. Paul makes another audacious statement; God reckoned Abrahams faith as righteousness before Abraham had been circumcised. In simple terms, while he was still Gentile.
The implications of this were far-reaching. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (Rom 3:21-25 KJV) There is no difference, says Paul, on this level between Jew and Gentile (Rom 3:22, 10:12) Acceptance with God is entirely on the basis of faith on our part, and God reckoning that faith as righteousness on His part.
How can God do this thing? His love is a holy love; He cant close His eyes and pretend He cant see. How can God, at one and the same time, be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus? (Rom 3:26 KJV) Is it important to know the answer to such questions? Do we need to understand such things before we are accepted with God? Yes, it is important to know because God has revealed the legal basis on which He has procured our salvation. And no, we dont need to understand before we are accepted. As far as we know Abraham did not understand and that certainly did not prevent his discovery that God had reckoned righteousness to his account. However, the scripture does speak of the full assurance of understanding (Col 2:2) so in the next couple of devotions we will see how God has worked and its implications for the way we live our lives, and pray that God will use our meditations to settle us in a full assurance.