So far we’ve seen at least two separate occasions when the LORD appeared to Abram: Initially in the opening verses of Genesis 12 when the LORD promised to make of Abram a great nation;[1] then a second time at the end of chapter 13 when the LORD reiterated that he would give Abram the land as far as he could see and offspring more than could be counted, like the dust of the earth.[2] This morning we’re going to focus upon the first part of a third time when the LORD appeared to his servant Abram.

As stated in the opening verse of Genesis 15, “After this”—the “this” would be after Abram rescued Lot when he was captured along with the King of Sodom as recounted in chapter 14—“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’” Faithful Abram was being asked by the LORD to continue to trust in him; to continue to recognize that the LORD was his protector, his shield, his King; to realize that materially rich though he may already have been,[3] nonetheless the LORD was the greatest reward, the greatest treasure, he could ever have. Therefore, he needn’t be afraid. As the LORD had given Abram victory in routing, with but 318 men, four kings who had defeated an alliance of five kings when he rescued his nephew, Lot, so would he continue to protect him.[4] And as Abram had been right not to accept any reward from the King of Sodom who had been rescued along with Lot, the LORD now reassured him that he was Abram’s greatest reward. What the LORD said to Abram here is reminiscent of and in keeping with what our LORD Jesus similarly taught in part of his Sermon on the Mount: “19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We should ever be mindful of the fact that our true good, our true treasure, lies not in any earthly possession but in knowing our Creator and LORD. For he is the one who rules the world; he is the one who protects those who are his; he is the one who will reward those who belong to him. Because God is our treasure, we should ever seek to line up our priorities with his.

Yet the fact that the LORD began by telling Abram not to be afraid suggests that Abram was afraid. He wasn’t afraid for his material provisions or safety but he was afraid about how the LORD was going to fulfill one particular aspect of his promise to him. As expressed in verses 2–3: “But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? 3…You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’” That Abram addressed God as “Sovereign LORD” indicates he did believe God was his shield, protector, and very great reward. Yet given that Abram was 75, the question he posed was a fair one for he was married to 65-year old Sarai who was not only was beyond the years of child-bearing but was also barren.[5] Therefore, how could God possibly fulfill his promise to make of Abram a great nation with countless descendants if he did not yet have a son? If he did not yet have an heir? The possible solution Abram posed in verse 2 reflects the custom at that time. Childless couples could adopt a slave as an heir.[6] Given his and Sarai’s age and circumstances, it was reasonable for him to assume that Eliezer, one of his servants, might be the means God would use to fulfill his promise to him.

But God had other plans. By way of response, we see that “the word of the LORD” came to Abram and declared, as recorded in verses 4–5, “‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your seed[7] be.’” This vision, this word from the LORD, having come at night, God had his servant look up to the stars. He yet again condescended to Abram’s concern by reassuring him that Abram’s own flesh and blood would be his heir, not Eliezer of Damascus. God reassured Abram by providing him yet another analogy of how many descendants he would one day have. Whereas last week we saw God state that Abram’s descendants would be as many as the dust of the earth, this week he told Abram that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky, “if indeed [he could] count them”—which obviously he couldn’t. And need I point out the obvious? Those of us who have come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ are part of the innumerable dust promised by God; we are part of the promised uncountable stars in the sky that have descended from Abram.

Now in Abram’s response to this encounter with the LORD, we find the heart of Protestant theology. As stated in verse 6, after the LORD thus reassured his servant, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Here we find the heart of Scripture’s teaching that our justification, our being made right with God, is based upon believing in him even as Abram did. There’s nothing we can do to earn our justification except to trust in God and his promises. Again verse 6 clearly states, “Abram believed the LORD.” At this point he had done nothing but believe in God. It is his belief in God that was “credited to him as righteousness.” It is his belief in God that God regarded as righteous. Human works can never earn God’s favor for they are but are an expression of faith, of our belief in him. Yet as one commentator notes, “Abraham had kept no law, rendered no service and performed no ritual that earned credit to his account before God. His belief in God who had made promises to him, was credited to him as righteousness.”[8]

And with this I want to turn to the Apostle Paul so that we can better understand the import of Abram’s words for in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul essentially exegetes, he teases out and explains, the importance of Abram believing God and having that belief credited to him as righteousness. Now in Romans 3 Paul makes three points that provide important background to Romans 4:

First, Paul goes out of his way to point out that God is faithful. And not even our unfaithfulness can nullify God’s faithfulness. To use Paul’s own words, “Let God be true, and every human being a liar.”;[9]

Second, Paul  makes clear that everyone, both “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.”[10] He turns to various Old Testament Scriptures to underscore that, “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”[11] We get the point: God is faithful to his image-bearers whereas they are faithless to their Maker;

Third, Paul teaches that the only way for faithless, unrighteous humans to become faithful and righteous is by believing in the faithful God who made and seeks to redeem them. Again, using Paul’s words, God’s “righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”[12] Therefore, Paul concludes, believers have no reason to boast for we have been purchased by God in Christ; we have been justified by God in Christ; and we have been made righteous by God in Christ. What God requires of us to become righteous is that we have faith in him.[13] So justification has both a negative and positive side. On the one hand, to be justified in God’s sight means that guilty sinners are now declared “not guilty;” on the other, to be justified in God’s sight means that guilty sinners are now declared righteous by God. Justification means both that our guilt is taken away and that we are declared righteous by God.

With this brief background, we have sufficient context to understand better what Paul is arguing in Romans 4. Starting with verse 1: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?” The “this matter” being referred to is whether Abraham was justified by works, as many Jews in his day believed, or whether his righteousness was through faith in God. The apostle Paul, expert in the Hebrew Bible—our Old Testament—and the law,[14] sought to explain how believers can be justified, can be declared innocent by God and become righteous in God’s sight. And in chapter 4 he sought to teach on this by using none other than father Abraham as his “exhibit A.” Therefore we read the beginning of his case in verses 2–3: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” Paul is quoting Genesis 15:6 from our passage[15] to make clear that Abraham’s justification, his being declared righteous, was due not to his works; it was due not to his obedience. For if Abraham’s right standing before God had been due to his obedience, then he would have grounds for boasting. But Paul makes it clear that Abraham—as he said was the case with all believers in chapter 3—had nothing to boast about. For, again, his justification, his right standing before God, was due not to his obedience but solely to his believing God.[16] Abraham’s belief in God, not his works, was what was “credited to him as righteousness.”

To bring this point home, Paul uses the analogy of wages in verse 4: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.” Anyone who has ever held a job knows that the weekly or biweekly or monthly paycheck received is definitely not a gift. A paycheck is an indication of wages owed and earned for work that has been completed. Wages are an obligation owed the employee by the employer. They are not a gift. Similarly, if we could be justified in God’s sight by our works, then we would have cause to boast: “I earned my right standing before God by being a super-Christian. I earned my right standing before God by my hard work.” If this were the way a right standing with God worked, then God would merely be giving us our due in declaring us “not guilty”; in declaring us righteous before him.

But Abraham’s—and our—justification before God is nothing like this for we could never perform sufficient works to pay off the debt we owe. Even assuming that we were willing to work hard to pay off the debt of sin in our hearts, we could never do so for our fallen nature; our sinful nature; our faithless nature; our nature which chooses to serve ourselves rather than God would make it impossible for us to be justified; would make it impossible for us to be declared “not guilty;” would make it impossible for us to become righteous. This is why the Scriptures teach that believers are recipients of God’s grace, his unmerited favor, for we could never by our works be justified; we could never by our works be declared “not guilty;” we could never by our works be declared righteous in his sight. And so verse 5 contrasts wage-earning that attempts to earn righteousness with righteousness that is granted by God: “However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” Abraham, like us, was ungodly—recall, for example, how he twice lied about Sarah being his sister rather than his wife. Like us, Abraham was a sinner in need of a Savior who would rescue him. Therefore, Abraham, like us, could never be justified on the basis of his work. He, like us, could never sufficiently obey God to be justified. The only way that Abraham, or we, could be justified was by believing, by trusting “God who justifies the ungodly.” In other words, the only way that Abraham, or we, could ever by justified is by believing, by trusting, that God justifies us. For we are the ungodly. We are those who by our fallen nature are not righteous. We are those who by our fallen nature are guilty—and in need of God. We are those who by our fallen nature never do right, no not one. Therefore, if we want to be righteous as God is, we must believe God, as Abraham did, so that our belief in him might similarly be “credited to [us] as righteousness” even as it was to him.

Now at the end of Romans 4, Paul further teases out the content of what Abraham believed. Namely, he believed that God would do what he had promised. Starting in verse 18 we’re told, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” Abraham believed God’s promise to him: The promise we saw stated initially in Genesis 12 that he would make of him a great nation through whom all nations would one day be blessed; the promise we saw again at the end of Genesis 13 that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth; the promise that we see again this morning in Genesis 15 that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky. Abraham believed God would do this. This is why Paul states that he is the father of all who believe[17] for all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles, are children of Abraham.[18]

And in case we’ve forgotten how unlikely Abraham’s belief in God was given his circumstances, Paul goes on to underscore those circumstances in verse 19: “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.” With this statement, we’re reminded that though Abraham may have been 75—and Sarah 65—when God first made these promises, it would be another 25 years before God made good on this promise; it would be another 25 years before Isaac, the son of promise through whom Messiah would come; the son of promise through whom all the nations of the world would one day be blessed, would be born. Clearly, this was a work only God could do. God made this promise to an aged Abraham and Sarah; and God kept this promise to an even more aged Abraham and Sarah so that all would know that this birth was God’s doing, not Abraham and Sarah’s. For as Paul not so delicately stated, by the time Isaac was born, Abraham’s “body was as good as dead” and Sarah’s “womb was also dead.” Therefore, any physical intimacy their good-as-dead-bodies engaged in couldn’t possibly have resulted in a bouncing, living baby—but for God’s doing.

Another way to look at this is to note that the living God specializes in bringing life from death. He brought life from the good-as-dead bodies of Abraham and Sarah. And belief that God would bring to fruition, against all odds, what he had promised was the content of Abraham’s faith. As the author of Hebrews similarly testifies, “11 …by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”[19]

Paul goes on to emphasize starting in verse 20 concerning Abraham, “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’” From the time the LORD first appeared to Abraham when he was 75 years old to the time that Isaac was born when he was 100 years old, Abraham “did not waver through unbelief” regarding this promise. As we’ll see, he had moments of stumbling, but over the course of those 25 years, Abraham’s faith in God continued to grow. Over this period of time, he “was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God” because he was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” God received the glory because what he had promised was, humanly speaking, impossible. God received the glory because what he had promised was beyond human ability. Yet Abraham believed that God would bring about what he had promised and this is why his faith “was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s faith was a true faith, not a perfunctory one. He wasn’t paying lip service to God but actually believed that God would do as he had promised.

Next Paul goes on to apply these words to us beginning in verse 23, “23 The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness.” If justification by faith was true for Abraham, then it’s true for all believers; if Abraham’s faith was credited to him for righteousness, then so will God do for all believers. But since God hasn’t promised to make of us a great nation or to give us a son in our later years, what promise from God are we to believe? What promise from God will similarly allow us to have faith for which God can credit us righteousness? As stated in the closing of verse 24 the promise God gives us to believe is this: “for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” The promise we are to believe is that God raised our Savior and Lord Jesus from the dead. Specifically, verse 25, that “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” As Abraham believed God could provide a living son from out of the dead bodies of him and his wife, so we’re to believe that God brings us life through raising his Son, Christ Jesus, from death. Do you want to know how we can be justified in God’s sight? We can be justified, as Paul also states in Romans 10, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”[20] This is how we can be justified in God’s sight.

For our heavenly Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son as demonstrated when he raised him from death to life. And it is by believing in him that we are justified—that we can now be declared “not guilty” and become righteous in his sight. For Jesus is the one who paid our wages; he is the one whose death paid our ransom; he is the one who became the recipient of God’s wrath against sin in our place. Because he paid the debt, we’ve no cause for boasting. And now all who believe in Christ are able to receive, along with him, God’s favor.

Now as we’ll go on to see, the faith spoken of in Scripture should never be mistaken for “easy belief-ism.” For our faith in God, our trust in his promises, is displayed by our obedience to him. Obedience ever follows a true declaration of faith. Works are an expression that we believe God will bring to fruition what he has promised. In the coming weeks we’ll continue to see ways in which Abraham’s faith in God was true—most dramatically and disturbingly when he made preparations to offer up his child of promise, Isaac, as a sacrifice to the LORD.[21] But as Genesis 15:6 states, it was before Abraham ever obeyed or performed any work that his belief was credited to him as righteousness, was regarded as righteous, by God who knew his heart; by God who knew that his faith was true; by God who knew that Abraham’s faith would be lived out in obedience to him, even as our faith should be lived out in obedience to him.[22] But our walk with God begins with our faith in him, with our believing he will keep the promises he makes.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, do you want to be declared “not guilty” in God’s sight? Then believe “in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (verse 24);

Do you want to be declared righteous in God’s sight? Then believe that Jesus our Lord “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (verse 25).

For we cannot justify ourselves. We cannot earn God’s approval by our works. We cannot earn God’s favor by our obedience. The only way you and I can be justified is the same way Abraham was justified. By believing, by trusting in God’s promise. For us that means believing that God who raised our Lord Jesus from death—our dear Jesus who took our sins upon himself and died in our place in order that we might not die; and rose from death in order that we might live eternally with him—now declares all who believe in his Son “not guilty” through his obedience to death and are justified and declared righteous by his resurrection from death. As Paul teaches in his second letter to the Corinthians, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[23] Therefore, now all who believe in Christ Jesus are united to him and our heavenly Father, and to all who believe in him, by the Holy Spirit he sends to seal and indwell us.[24] This is why Paul later proclaims in the eighth chapter of Romans, “1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,… 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”[25]

Let us pray.

[1] The opening of Genesis 12 presents two appearances of the LORD to Abram which I’m counting as one. See vv. 1–3, 7: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you….” 7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your seed I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

[2] Genesis 13:14–17: 14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring[Or seed; also in verse 16] forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

[3] Genesis 12:16: [Pharaoh] treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.; Genesis 13:2: Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.

[4] Genesis 14:14–16: 14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

[5] Genesis 11:30: Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.

[6] As stated in the RSV Study Bible note for Genesis 15:3: “The practice of a childless couple adopting a slave as heir is attested in the Nuzi texts (c. 1500 B.C.), a collection of over four thousand clay tablets found near Kirkuk in modern Iraq.”

[7] Or offspring.

[8] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Romans 4:3.

[9] Romans 3:3–4a: What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar.

[10] Romans 3:9b.

[11] Romans 3:10–12 referencing Psalm 14:1–3: The fool [one who is morally deficient] says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.; Psalm 53:1–3: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good. God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.; Ecclesiastes 7:20: Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.

[12] Romans 3:22–25a.

[13] Romans 3:27a, 28–30: 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded…. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.

[14] As he says with some sarcasm in Philippians 3:4b–6: “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” See also Acts 23:6: Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”

[15] Paul quotes this verse twice in this chapter. He also quotes it in Galatians 3:6: So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”; James quotes it in James 2:23: “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” In the case of James, he uses Abraham’s later offering up of his son, Isaac, as evidence of his belief in God. This willingness to offer up his son fulfilled and exemplified that Abraham’s initial belief in God was, indeed, true.

[16] The Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Romans 4:2 observes, “Many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries held that Abraham was justified by works (in the Apocrypha see Ecclesiasticus 44:21), but the fact is that he was not (see v. 3), and therefore all boasting on his part is excluded.”

[17] Romans 4:11: And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.

[18] Galatians 3:7–9: Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

[19] Hebrews 11:11–12.

[20] Romans 10:9–10.

[21] This is the example of lived out faith provided by James in James 2:21–24: 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

[22] See Jesus’ words in John 14:15: If you love me, keep my commands.

[23] 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[24] 2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

[25] Romans 8:1, 33–34. Emphases added.