I sometimes wonder why we struggle so much over the concept of salvation by faith. Is it a sinful pride that insists we must do something to earn our salvation? Or is it the strange and even ridiculous idea that merely believing God is sufficient to make us righteous before Him?
On a human level, if I am misbehaving and my mother says to me, “You are a totally depraved brat who cannot stop being bad,” and I say to her, “Yes, you are correct. I believe you and everything else that you say.” Then in her eyes, I am considered a good little child?
That does not make sense, yet the Bible says this is at least part of what it means to be justified by faith. No wonder it also tells us that God’s ways are not our ways!
Abraham is called the father of faith. He was not the first to simply believe God, but his example is given to show what faith is like. Note that circumcision was a sign to identify those who believe God, just as baptism is evidence today of faith (usually). But this or any other works like it are not able to save sinners.
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’
This passage goes on to explain that Abraham was considered righteous before he was circumcised, and that ritual was not his salvation but a sign or a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. In the same way, baptism does not save anyone. It is a sign or symbol of what has already happened.
God makes clear that salvation is not about circumcision, baptism, or anything we do. Righteousness is through faith, and God did it this way to make Abraham the father of those who walk in faith just as he did, circumcised or not. The promises God made to him were not about law-keeping, but about faith . . .
“For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring — not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’ — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:1-17)
There is a lot in this passage, but the main truth is that Abraham believed God and his faith counted as righteousness. He obeyed God, both in going where God called him and by being circumcised, but these actions did not make him righteous — believing God did. His actions were the proof of his faith.
If my illustration has any merit, saying I believe my mother would grant me righteousness only if that faith produced a new life in me, one that changed my heart so I no longer desired to run my own way, but became obedient — as she desired. This illustration falls apart because my mother, nor any other human including myself, can change a person’s life from self-willed childishness to living for the Lord. Only God can do that!
There is another element to righteousness. When anyone believes God, they are saying YES to God’s way of salvation. When Abraham’s faith was tested, he discovered that God provides a substitute, a vivid reminder that there would be a Sacrifice to come — the Lamb of God who would die for the sin of the world.
Old Testament faith is believing God’s promise that a Messiah would come as their Lamb of sacrifice and ours. They looked forward in faith, trusting the Word of God, just as we look back in faith, trusting God who did what He promised in Jesus Christ. Not only are we to believe God, but put our faith in Christ as our Substitute, our Savior for sin. In believing, we are counted righteous in God’s sight.
Jesus, Lamb of God, worthy is Your name. You died for me. You live for me. I believe all that God says — about my sinfulness, about Your powerful redemption, about all that You have done and will do. I also believe that in myself there is not good thing, but because of faith in You, I am made righteous. You are an awesome God, full of mercy and grace, worthy of faith, worthy of all my praise.