The preacher was sincere and well-intentioned. He was passionate in his presentation. He fervently appealed to his congregation to fully surrender themselves to God, to renounce the world and its attractions, and to be willing to pay the price and count the cost of what it means to follow Jesus.
As I listened, I could not help but wonder whether he was calling the congregation to salvation or to discipleship. He seemed to blend the two themes together in a mishmash of duty, good works, obedience and faithfulness to Christ. It almost seemed he believed in salvation by works.
I sat there wondering: “If my obedience to Christ and good works are essential to salvation, how could I ever be sure that I am saved? How could I know if I had done enough? What good works could ever help me achieve eternal life? How could I know if I am as fully surrendered to the Lord as the preacher wants me to be?”
Then I remembered Abraham. He was the great patriarch of the Hebrew nation, He was, by any standard, an example of good works and faithfulness to God. He left his home in Chaldea in response to God’s call. He worshipped God among the idol-worshipping Canaanites. He submitted to the rite of circumcision as a sign of his covenant faithfulness to God. He was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God’s command.
But Abraham was not justified by his good works. In his letter to the Romans, Paul used the ancient story of Abraham as an illustration of the fact that people are justified by faith alone. He quoted Genesis 15:6 to emphasize that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).
“Credited” is a word taken from the business world. It is a financial term which could be used to refer to wages that are earned, or to a gift that is applied to an account freely, without a cost. Paul used the word to teach that justification before God is a gift of grace, not an earned wage. This leaves no room for boasting (v. 2).
Thus, Abraham is a pattern of faith for all of us. He believed God. That is what faith is. In the Greek language of the New Testament, the words translated “faith” and “belief” are the same word. They both mean the same thing: to take people at their word, to have confidence in the reliability of a person, an idea or a thing, to trust, to accept as true. Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith in God and his trustworthy word.
This means that everyone who, like Abraham, believes the promise of the gospel, is pronounced righteous because of the death of Christ and his resurrection. We are told in some of Paul’s other writings that Jesus was made sin for us “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus has “become for us . . . our righteousness” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Those who believe the gospel are said to be given “the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9).
Abraham was declared righteous by faith alone. His faith was in the power and character of God, not in his own works. In the same way, we who trust in Jesus for salvation are saved by faith, not our attempts at doing good. I am aware every day that my assurance of salvation cannot be based upon the fervency of my faith, or on the depth of my surrender, or on the extent of my obedience. All of these are faulty, and weak.
I am encouraged by what I read in Romans 4. “However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Salvation is either a reward for works or a gift through grace; it cannot be both. Abraham’s life is a testimony to us that people are justified by faith, not by works.
Good works and faithfulness to God are evidence of our faith to other people (James 2:14-26). The preacher’s exhortations to self-denial and faithfulness were appropriate if they were a call to obedient discipleship. The Bible teaches that there will be rewards for believers who serve Christ in this life. But if the call to obedient service is mistaken as a condition for receiving salvation, the result is confusion.
Romans 4 and the story of Abraham are in the Bible for me, and for you. We are to trust the same God who was faithful to keep his promise to Abraham. “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness — for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:23-25).
Warren Wiersbe summarized the message of Romans 4 very well. Justification is by faith, not works. It is by grace, not law. And justification is by resurrection power, not human effort.
Pastor Randy Faulkner