Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Following the first chapter of Genesis, which tells of the creation of all things by the eternal and self-existent God, and the third chapter, which tells of the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the next great pivotal chapter of the Old Testament is Genesis 15. By many standards it is the greatest, for it tells of Abram’s justification by grace through faith and records the official covenant established with him by God, through which his posterity was blessed.
In the middle of this chapter occurs what is perhaps the most important verse in the entire Bible: Genesis 15:6. In it, the doctrine of justification by faith is set forth for the first time. This is the first verse in the Bible explicitly to speak of (1) “faith,” (2) “righteousness,” and (3) “justification.” We know that faith existed before Abram; for Abel, Enoch, Noah (Heb. 11:4–5, 7), and the other godly patriarchs were saved by it. It was through faith on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ that God justified these Old Testament figures, as Paul says clearly in Romans 3:21–26. But up to this point in Genesis, we have not had this truth taught explicitly. Here the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and hence the theme of the entire Bible, is set before us.
Martin Luther, whose rediscovery of the truths about justification in the sixteenth century launched the Reformation, considered this the doctrine by which the church stands or falls: “When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen. … This is the chief article from which all other doctrines have flowed. … It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.” It is “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines.”
John Calvin—who followed Luther in the early development of the Reformation and whose Institutes became the systematic theology of the Reformation—said the same. He called it “the main hinge on which religion turns.”
Thomas Watson observed, “Justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity. An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation. Justification by Christ is a spring of the water of life. To have the poison of corrupt doctrine cast into this spring is damnable.”
These statements are not hyperboles. They are simple truth because justification by faith is God’s answer to the most basic of all religious questions, namely, how can a man or woman become right with God? We are not right with him in ourselves; this is what the doctrine of sin means. Sin means that we are in rebellion against God, and if we are against God, we cannot be right with God. We are transgressors. Moreover, we are all transgressors, as Paul says: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The doctrine of justification by faith is the most important of all Christian doctrines because it tells how one who is in rebellion against God may become right with him. It says that we may be justified, not by our own works-righteousness, but solely by the work of Christ received by faith.
Is Faith a Substitute?
This doctrine occurs in the Bible for the first time in Genesis 15:6, as I have said. So we must take time to study this text carefully. The passage says that after Abram had asked his question about God’s promise to give him numerous descendants and God had responded by repeating the promise and linking it to the stars, Abram “believed the Lord, and he [that is, the Lord] credited it to him as righteousness.”
What does this verse actually mean? Some have read it as if it were saying that because Abram did not have any righteousness by which he could become justified before God, God therefore looked around for something that he could accept in place of that righteousness and, finding a bit of faith in Abram, took that. Putting it even more outrageously, others have suggested that God was in heaven looking around for someone to save, knowing that all were ungodly but hoping against hope that he might find someone in whom some little bit of good might be found, on the basis of which it would be possible to save him. At last he found Abram. He was ungodly like the rest. But he did have this one little thing: faith. So God said, “Even though this little bit of faith is not righteousness, it is at least something I can work with. I will take it instead of righteousness. I will consider it righteousness and thus save Abram.”
Even to put it like that shows the absurdity of this interpretation, for God is not a juggler of truth. God does not pretend a thing is something it is not. Consequently, if God counts Abram as being righteous, it must be on the basis of a true righteousness—either his or someone else’s—and not on the mere fiction of substituting apples for oranges or pretending that a sow’s ear is actually the silk purse of salvation.
There are several reasons why we should be warned against this interpretation. First, when the text says that “he credited it to him as righteousness,” what does “it” refer to? What is its antecedent? The view I have been describing would have to maintain that the antecedent is the fact that Abram believed God or the faith involved in that belief. But this is a very difficult thing to justify grammatically. “It” demands a noun (or at least a verbal noun) as an antecedent, but this antecedent is missing. This fact alone suggests that we should probably look further for what was in fact reckoned to Abram as righteousness.
Again, one must consider the way faith is referred to throughout the rest of the Bible. It is never said that people are saved because of their faith or on the basis of their faith. They are saved by faith, which means “by faith as a channel.”
The Greek preposition dia, rendered “by” in the phrase “justification by faith,” can mean “because of” or “through.” If it means “because of,” faith would indeed be both the ground of salvation and a substitute for righteousness. But it does not mean this, because whenever dia means “because of” its object is the dative case, and this never happens when “faith” is the object. When the Greek word for “faith” occurs with dia, it is always in the genitive case, and that is the case the object should be in when dia means “by” or “through.” So the phrase dia pisteos means “through” or “by faith,” indicating that faith is a channel but not the grounds of salvation.
In order to spend a twenty-dollar bill you have to have faith in its purchasing power. But it is not your faith that is the basis of the purchase. It is the value of the money. So also in the spiritual dimension.
The third reason why this verse does not mean that God picked out a man who had a little bit of faith and saved him because of his faith is that this is not the meaning of the word “credited” that occurs here. In Hebrew, the word is hashab, in Greek logizomai. Both are properly translated “reckoned,” or “accounted.” The important thing about these words is that they refer to an accurate kind of record keeping, as in financial accounting. Accounting is an exact science. It is a field in which the worker has to be one hundred percent right. If the accountant is not one hundred percent right, the person is not a good accountant. Suppose I am walking around with a dollar in my pocket, and I am aware that this is not very much money. I would like to have more. So I get out my little pocket accounting book and “reckon” ten dollars more. According to my book I now have eleven dollars. But what does this mean? Nothing at all. If I want to reckon ten dollars to my account, I must have ten dollars. So, reckoning, accounting, or crediting is an acknowledgment of what is actually the case.
It is the same in justification. What truth is involved in the statement found in Psalm 32:2, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count [reckon] against him”? Does God just subtract sin from the account book of our lives and forget about it? Not at all. He removes it from our book, but this is only because he has transferred it to the book of Jesus Christ. Jesus paid sin’s penalty when he died on the cross. In a parallel action, God reckons Christ’s righteousness to us. This is what happened to Abram, and it is what has happened to everyone who has ever been saved. There are different degrees of understanding concerning what God has done in Christ for our salvation—the Old Testament saints understanding less, the New Testament saints understanding more. But always, what is understood is believed and what is imputed to us is the righteousness of Christ.
A Legal Term
Justification is not only a bookkeeping matter. It is also a legal matter, for it involves the pronouncement of God, who, in this case, appears in the role of judge. What happens when a judge justifies, rather than condemns, a person? He does not make him blameless. Rather, he declares that in his judgment the person brought before him is not guilty of the accusation that has been made and is instead in a right and proper standing before the law. Justification is a declaration that the person involved is upright before whatever law the judge is appointed to administer.
Justification means the pronouncing of a person righteous before God. But here we are confronted with a problem. Men and women are not right before God, yet God justifies them. It cannot be denied that God’s judgment is always according to truth and equity. It cannot be denied that we are ungodly. It cannot be denied that God nevertheless justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5; cf. Rom. 3:19–24). But how can this be? If we were to justify the ungodly, that is, if we were to declare a person who is guilty to be innocent, our act would be an outrage before both God and man. Yet this is what God does. How can he do it? How can he justify the ungodly and at the same time be just?
In answering this question we note that the Christian doctrine is justification by faith, as Genesis 15:6 shows, and not merely justification. Alone, justification means to declare righteous, as we have indicated. But the Christian doctrine is not only that. It is justification “by faith,” and this latter phrase means faith in Jesus as God’s provision for our sin. The Christian doctrine of justification is therefore actually God’s declaring the believing individual to be righteous, not on the basis of his own works or irrespective of works, but on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. In God’s justification of the sinner, there is a unique factor that does not enter into any other case of justification. That unique factor is the combination of Christ’s atonement for our sin and God’s provision for our need of a divine righteousness through him. In justification, God declares that he has accepted the sacrifice of Christ as the payment of our debt to the divine justice, and in place of sin has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us.
This is the argument that Paul develops in the latter half of Romans 3:21–26. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
The significance of these verses may be illustrated in this way. Quite a few years ago in America a society for the spread of atheism prepared a leaflet on Old Testament characters, including half a dozen sketches as well as lurid descriptions of their misdeeds. The sketches were ugly, and no efforts were spared in describing their sin. One of the persons included was Abraham. The leaflet pointed out that he was willing to sacrifice his wife’s honor to save his own life. Yet he was called “the friend of God.” The atheists asked what kind of God this is who would have a friend like Abraham. Another figure was Jacob. He was described as a cheat and a liar. Yet God called himself “the God of Jacob.” Moses was portrayed as a murderer and a fugitive from justice, which he was. Yet Moses spoke with God “face to face.” David was shown to be an adulterer who compounded the crime of adultery with the murder of the woman’s husband. Yet David was called “a man after God’s own heart.” The atheists asked what kind of a God could be pleased with David.
The remarkable thing about this leaflet is that it had hit upon something absolutely true, which God himself acknowledges. God calls himself just and holy. Yet for centuries he kept justifying human beings such as these. One might say that for centuries there had been a blot on God’s name; for, as Paul says, he had indeed been passing over “the sins committed beforehand.” Is God unjust then? No. For, as Paul shows, in the death of Christ, God’s name and purposes are vindicated. It is now seen that it is on the basis of his death that God had justified and continues to justify the ungodly.
Paul’s conversion illustrates these points. In Acts, Paul relates his experience from a historical perspective, telling what happened as he went to Damascus to arrest and persecute Christians. But in Philippians 3:4–8, his account is theological, showing how his thinking about God and God’s way of salvation changed when he met Christ: “If anyone else thinks he has 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 legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
What Paul is saying in this paragraph is that in the days before he met Jesus Christ, he had viewed his life as something like a balance sheet. It had assets and liabilities, and he thought that being saved consisted in having more in the column of assets than in the column of liabilities.
Moreover, as he looked at his life then, he thought there were considerable assets. Some he had inherited and some he had earned. Among the inherited assets was the fact that Paul had been born into a Jewish family and had been circumcised according to Jewish law on the eighth day of life. He was no proselyte—circumcised in later life—nor, was he an Ishmaelite—circumcised at the age of thirteen. He was a pure-blooded Jew, born of Jewish parents (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”). He was also an Israelite, that is, a member of God’s covenant people. Moreover, he was of the tribe of Benjamin. When the civil war came that divided Judah from Israel after the death of Solomon, Benjamin was the one tribe that remained with Judah. The northern tribes apostatized from God’s revealed religion and set up schismatic altars; blood sacrifices were performed in violation of Leviticus 17. But Benjamin had remained loyal, and Paul was of that tribe.
Then, too, Paul had advantages that he had won for himself. In regard to the law, he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the most faithful of all Jewish sects in their adherence to the law, and Paul had chosen to be among their number. Moreover, he had been a zealous Pharisee, which he had proved by his persecution of the infant church.
From a human perspective, these were real assets. But the day came when Paul saw what these amounted to in the sight of the righteous God. It was the day Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Before that time, Paul thought he was attaining righteousness by keeping the law. But when he saw Christ, he discerned that these acts of righteousness were actually like filthy rags. Before, he had said, “As touching the righteousness that is in the law I am blameless.” Now he said, “I am the worst [of sinners]” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15), and he stopped trying to justify himself to God, who on the basis of Christ’s death freely justifies the ungodly. So far as his balance sheet was concerned, Paul recognized that what he had accumulated was in reality not an asset at all. It was a liability, for it had kept him from Christ. He called it “loss.” Then, under assets he entered “Jesus Christ” alone.
This has always been the heart of Christianity and Christian experience. One hymn puts it this way:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
It is the glory of the Christian gospel that God has graciously worked in the lives of all those who, giving up trying to do good works in order to earn or merit salvation, instead, by faith, receive the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior; he makes them spiritually alive (that is, they are regenerated), declares their sins to have been punished at Calvary, and imputes to them the righteousness of Christ.
What Did Abram Believe?
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15:6 is one of the most important verses, if not the most important verse, in the entire Bible, for it tells for the first time how a sinful man or woman may become right with God. In ourselves we are not right with God. We are alienated from him by our sinful natures and by deliberate sinful choices. We are under God’s wrath, and apart from him we are destined to perish miserably. If it is possible that we can become right with God once again—as this verse says we can—thereby passing from sin to holiness and from wrath to blessing, this is clearly great news, and the verse that tells us how this can happen is of supreme importance.
We may put it another way. Genesis 15:6 says that “Abram believed the Lord” and that “he [that is, the Lord] credited it to him as righteousness.” What was it Abram believed? If we can find out what Abram believed, then we can believe it too and can also be counted righteous, as Abram was.
But a problem develops. The text says that Abram “believed” God, but strictly speaking it does not tell us what Abram believed. We have the object of his faith, that is, God, but we are left in the dark as to the specific content of God’s revelation. What had God told Abram and what did Abram understand by that disclosure? Was it God’s promise to be his “shield” and “very great reward” (v. 1)? Was it God’s assurance that he would have an “heir” coming from his own body (v. 4)? Was it the prophecy of numerous posterity, like the stars of heaven (v. 5)? Or does the content of the promise and of Abram’s faith go back even farther to the prospect of a homeland, a name that would be great, and blessing to come to others through Abram’s blessing (Gen. 12:1–7)? Was it all of these? Or was the promise something greater and deeper even than any of the things already mentioned in this early period of the patriarch’s pilgrimage? If we had no other part of the Bible than Genesis to go on, we would have to conclude that all these promises were involved and that Abram was justified before God on the basis of a trusting attitude toward him in all things. We would not be far wrong in thinking this, but there is more to say.
The interesting thing about Genesis 15:6 is that it is repeated three more times in the Bible (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; James 2:23), each time within a different context. One of these—Galatians 3:6 and the surrounding verses—gives us the specific answer to our question. It tells us what Abram believed and sets his example of faith before everyone.
Paul and the Galatians
The Book of Galatians has an important context, and we must be reminded of it to see where the verses regarding Abram fit in. Paul had preached to the Galatians of southern Asia Minor on his first missionary journey from Antioch (Acts 13–14) and had established churches there. He had taught the Galatians that salvation from sin does not come from keeping the law, or from any other form of moral rearmament, but from the work of Christ. In his death, our sin is punished, and through the channel of faith in that sacrifice, God now imparts the righteousness of Christ freely to believers. The Galatians had believed this gospel, were baptized, and had begun to live in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, who apparently began to work miracles among them (Gal. 3:5).
Some time later—we do not know exactly when—Paul received word that the Galatians were in the process of departing from this faith previously received. They had been visited by Jews who had come from Jerusalem as, so they said, official representatives of James, the Lord’s brother. They had come to straighten out the “wrong” theology of the Galatians. According to these men, Paul was teaching heresy. He taught that faith in Christ was enough for salvation. But this was not right, they said. Faith in Christ is not sufficient. The Gentiles also have to come under the law of Moses to be saved. They can have Christ, but they must have Moses too. They can have grace, but they must have works. Faith is all right, but one must also add the rite of circumcision.
There must have been three parts to this argument, for Paul seems to answer each in turn. The Jerusalem delegation accused him of not actually being an apostle, though he claimed to be one. Paul answers this charge in Galatians 1 and 2. They accused him of being unbiblical in his teaching, for it was clear (so they said) that all the Old Testament figures had been saved by keeping the law and by circumcision. Paul answers this in Galatians 3 and 4. Finally, they accused Paul of producing lax living or outright immorality by this teaching. Paul answers this charge in Galatians 5 and 6.
The most important part of Galatians is the central section, where Paul maintains not only that his teaching is biblical but that his is the only true teaching. Therefore no one, not even Abram, has been saved in any other way than by faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.
The Faith of Abram
When Paul appealed to Abram in Galatians 3, he was not appealing to just any historical example, important though that would be. No, Paul was pointing to one who was the acknowledged father and prototype of Israel. God had called Abram from a pagan ancestry (Josh. 24:1–2). He had established a covenant of salvation with him (Gen. 15:7–21). All Jews, even Paul’s opponents, looked back to Abram as their father in the faith and as an example to follow. How then was this important figure saved? How was Abram justified? Paul answers by quoting Genesis 15:6, showing that Abram “believed God” and that “it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6).
But what did Abram believe? It is at this point that Paul’s handling of the Galatians’ problem has bearing on the question we are asking from Genesis. Paul’s opponents would have claimed that Abram believed precisely what they believed, namely, that a person is saved by works—that is, by keeping the law. Or again, they would claim that Abram was saved by circumcision. If Paul should claim, as he does, that Abram was justified by God before the giving of the law or even before the giving of the rite of circumcision (Gal. 3:17; Rom. 4:9–12), they would claim that he was also said to be justified before the coming of Christ. So if an argument from a sequence of events is valid in the case of the law or circumcision, it is valid in the case of Jesus of Nazareth too. Abram could not have been saved by faith in Christ, because he did not know Christ. Therefore, Christ is not essential for salvation.
Paul replies that, on the contrary, Abram did look forward to the coming of Christ and did trust him as his personal Savior from sin. He makes three points.
First, he says that Abram was justified by faith in God’s word regarding spiritual things, that is, by faith in the gospel. We find this in Galatians 3:8–9: “The 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 have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Paul’s quotation “All nations will be blessed through you” is from Genesis 12:3, which is part of the promise that came at the very beginning of Abram’s pilgrimage. He is saying that this blessing believed in by Abram was no mere material thing, as if God were promising land or prosperity or peace to the world’s pagan nations. God was doing nothing of the sort. He was promising a spiritual blessing, salvation, to people from every nation, and he was saying that this promised salvation would come to them through Abram. Paul calls this “the gospel” announced in advance.
So when we read the record of Abram’s life we must not suppose that his faith was always operating on the same level as our faith. Often we think only of the material things God can give us. Abram was operating on the highest level from the start. He heard the promise of the land, of course. But what was uppermost in his mind was the spiritual promise of salvation to all nations. In seeing this, Abram was not a pygmy in faith but a giant. It was for the sake of this blessing that he was willing to live without personal possession of the Promised Land. “He was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
Second, Paul says that the spiritual promises received and believed by Abram concerned redemption. That is, they concerned not merely some vague promise of salvation from worldly ills but salvation from sin’s curse by a coming work of redemption. He calls this “the blessing given to Abraham.” “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:13–14).
Earlier in this volume, when we discussed Genesis 12:3 in detail, we saw that the promise of redemption is quite rich. It is a concept drawn from the world of commerce, according to which something that has been held in bondage is set free by the payment of a price. We use the term in referring to pawn shops. If you need extra money, you can get it by hocking an object at one of these establishments. You exchange the object for a fraction of its worth in money. Later, when you are better off and want to retrieve the object, you can do so by repaying the money you borrowed, plus interest—assuming that the item has not been sold in the meantime. We speak of redeeming the mortgaged item. The word was used like this in ancient times with special reference to the redemption of slaves, a major item of commerce. Slaves could be bought; but they could also be set free by paying the price of redemption.
This is what Jesus did for us in salvation. Jesus delivered us from the bondage of sin at the cost of his own life—because he loved us. Did Abram really foresee and believe that? We can suppose that Abram did not know as much as those who have lived after Jesus’ coming and are aware of the facts concerning his birth, life, death, and resurrection. But we must not be too ready to assume that Abram was entirely ignorant of what was involved in salvation. Paul says that Abram’s faith was in God’s promises (“the gospel,” Gal. 3:8). What is more natural than that he looked forward to some work of God in delivering the fallen human race from sin’s slavery?
Finally, Paul says that in addition to looking for a spiritual blessing to be achieved by a redeeming work of God, Abram also looked forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ especially. How do we know? Because, says Paul, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say, ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). This is easy to check out. If we turn back to Genesis, we find that God uses this word “seed” in speaking of the promise (12:7; 13:15; 24:7 kjv). Paul is saying that Abram picked up on that, realizing that it was a promise, not merely of a vast number of descendants—another promise made to Abram, though elsewhere—but of a particular descendant, Christ, who would bring salvation and thus be the ultimate source of spiritual blessing to the whole world. Abram did not yet know Jesus’ name. But he was looking forward in faith to the coming of this individual, and it was on the basis of this faith that God justified him from sin and reckoned him righteous.
Old Testament Examples
This significant point may be expanded in this way: it was not only Abram who was justified by faith in Christ but all who have been, are being, and will be saved—all the Old Testament figures, all the New Testament figures, and all believers since Bible times.
Let us ask the Old Testament figures about it. Here is Jacob, the first of those we shall interrogate. Jacob was the grandson of Abram. He was not a very admirable character, since he seems to have been somewhat of a momma’s boy and was not above cheating his brother out of his birthright and deceiving his aged father in the process. Still, we know that Jacob was saved, because God calls himself “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:15). “Jacob, on what basis were you saved? We know it was not your character because your character was nothing to boast about.”
“No, it certainly was not,” says Jacob.
“Perhaps you were saved on the basis of your ancestry?”
“No,” says Jacob, “it wasn’t that. It was my faith in the Savior. I didn’t know much about him. I’m sure I didn’t have as much understanding in these things as my grandfather Abram. But if you read the account of the blessing I gave my sons as I lay dying, you’ll find that I looked forward to this Savior, saying, ‘The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his’ (Gen. 49:10). My faith was in this ruler who was also the Savior.”
Next we turn to Moses. “Moses, you were one of the greatest leaders Israel ever had. You were the great lawgiver. You were the one who went up into the mountain of the Lord to get the law. You brought it down to the people and then ministered it to them for forty years. If ever anyone was saved by the law, it was you. Tell us, weren’t you accounted righteous on the basis of your literal obedience to the law and your good works?”
“Oh, no,” replies Moses. “You know about my life. I was a murderer; I killed an Egyptian. I was saved on the basis of Christ’s work, not my obedience to the law. I knew the promises. I knew that he would come to be my deliverer. What is more, God revealed some specific things to me about him. The Lord told me, ‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him’ (Deut. 18:18). I looked forward to that prophet and was saved by faith in him.”
Our next witness appears in kingly garb. His name is David. What an impression he makes! “Tell us, David, you were called ‘a man after God’s own heart,’ weren’t you?”
“Yes,” says David.
“That means you tried to think as God thinks and act always as God would have you act, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose it does,” David answers.
“Then that is why you were saved, isn’t it? You were saved because of how you thought and acted.”
“No, that is not right,” David replies. “No one is saved by what he does. A person is only saved by faith in the Savior. Don’t you remember that when God promised me that my house and my throne would be established forever, I protested that this was not the way of mere men (2 Sam. 7:16–19)? If my throne was to endure forever, it would be through the work of one who is more than man—through God’s true King, who is also the Savior. I believed that and trusted in his work. I am in heaven because of what he did and through faith in him.”
We talk to Isaiah and find that he was looking forward to the coming of that “man of sorrows” who should take our sorrow and suffering upon himself. Isaiah said, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6).
Daniel prophesied concerning “the Anointed One” (Dan. 9:25).
Micah knew that he should be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2).
John the Baptist, the last of the great biblical figures before Jesus—of whom Jesus said none was greater—looked for the coming of this Savior. John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11–12).
What is Your Right?
Now I ask the question of you. On what basis do you expect to have salvation? On what basis do you hope to enter heaven?
Many years ago a former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Donald Grey Barnhouse, devised a way of making this matter clear to people who were confused about the gospel. It has since been picked up by D. James Kennedy of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and been incorporated into his program “Evangelism Explosion.” Barnhouse would say, “Suppose in the next few moments you and I should both be killed and we should find ourselves before the gate of heaven and God should ask, ‘What right do you have to enter my heaven?’ What would you say?” Barnhouse found as the result of dealing with many people that only three possible answers could be given.
Some people would talk about their good works: “I’d say that I’ve been a pretty good person. I’ve never done anything very bad. I give to charitable causes. On the whole, I’ve done the best I can.” Barnhouse would take such persons to Romans 3:20 to show them that “no one will be declared righteous … by observing the law,” mentioning that, far from procuring salvation, their works are actually what got them into trouble in the first place.
Other people would answer, “I suppose I wouldn’t have a thing to say.” Barnhouse would show that these were actually quoting Scripture, for in the day of God’s judgment “every mouth [will] be silenced” (Rom. 3:19).
The third answer and the only acceptable one is that which Abram, Jacob, Moses, David, and all the other saints of both Old and New Testament times have given. It is: “My right to heaven is what Jesus Christ has done. Jesus died for me. He died in my place. I trust him. I trust his work on my behalf. I stand before you, not in my own sin and unrighteousness, but in the person of Christ.”
Is that your answer? It should be; for if you come in that way, you are coming in the only way God will accept, and you can be sure that he will accept you. As one of our hymns puts it, “He cannot turn away the presence of his Son.” If that is your answer, you can know that the day is coming when you will enter in through those great gates of heaven to join the company of the redeemed of all ages, the company of those reaching back to the very beginning of the race—to Adam, Eve, Abraham, and all who trusted in Christ—and stretching forward to all who will yet believe in the Savior.
No Boasting Before God
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Years ago, when I was just a boy learning my first lessons in the Bible, I was influenced greatly by Donald Grey Barnhouse, one of my predecessors at Tenth Presbyterian Church. I remember many of the stories he told to illumine Bible truths. One of them was about a young man who had been brought up in a New York City slum but had risen to fame and fortune in the theatrical field through his songwriting talents. He bought a yacht with his new wealth, and although he did not know the first thing about yachting, he hired men to sail the boat for him and assumed the title “Captain.” Then he invited his mother, who had come to the United States from eastern Europe and had more common sense than her son, to go sailing with him.
The young man seated his mother in the stern of his yacht and went below to change into his captain’s uniform. When he appeared on deck a few moments later, he was resplendent. His uniform was white, and it was liberally decorated with gold braid and brass buttons. The young man struck an appropriate pose and said, “Look, Momma, I’m a captain!”
The old woman calmly surveyed him, then, like one used to deflating the ego of her bumptious children, answered, “Sonny, by you, you is a captain, and by me, you is a captain, but by captains, you is no captain.” After telling this story, Barnhouse would apply it to good works and our lack of standing before God. He would say, “By you, you’re good; by me, you’re good; but by God, you’re no good. In his sight you have no goodness at all.”
The Example of Abram
In the last two chapters, we have been looking at Genesis 15:6, a verse which occurs in the record of Abram’s life and is perhaps the most important verse in the Old Testament or even in the entire Bible. It is important because it is the first verse in the Bible that tells how a sinful man or woman may become right before God. The interesting thing about this verse is that it is not only found in Genesis. It is repeated, as we might expect of a verse of such importance, elsewhere in Scripture: Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23. In each of these instances, at least one aspect of the original statement is expanded and applied.
In chapter 77 we looked at the second citation: Galatians 3:6. Here we look at the first, Romans 4:3, and as we do we understand how our text fits into the story about the gentleman captain and his mother. Romans 4:3 occurs in a passage that warns people about boasting before God. Paul uses Abram as an example. Abram was a man of great character. He was a person that his physical descendants, the Jews, might well look back to and in whom they might take great pride. But although Abram was great before men, he was not great before God and was therefore not justified on the basis of anything he ever was, did, or might do.
Paul puts it like this: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:1–3).
Paul is saying that even if Abram possessed something about which he could boast—and Paul is not admitting even this; it is only a hypothetical possibility—even then Abram’s boasting could only be before men. In the terms of our story, Abram could say, “Look, boys, I’m a very good man!” But God would reply, “By you, you’re good; in the eyes of your physical descendants, the Jews, you’re good; but by me, you’re no good.” Abram could boast before men, but he could never boast of salvation.
God Hates Boasting
In stating things like this, I am afraid that even yet we do not quite do justice to this matter of boasting. For our story almost suggests that, although we cannot boast before God, it is actually all right to boast before other human beings. It would be a great mistake to think this. We will never think rightly about boasting until we realize that God hates boasting in all matters and has set his face like flint against pride.
Why does God hate boasting? There are several reasons, but the first, as the link between “pride” and “boasting” shows, is that this is the original sin and therefore the source of all other transgressions. This was Satan’s sin. According to Ezekiel, Satan was “the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezek. 28:12). He was “blameless” in his ways until “wickedness” was found in him (v. 15). What was that wickedness? Ezekiel explains in verse 17: “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.”
Isaiah describes the boasting that followed:
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
If there were no other reason for God to hate boasting, that would be enough all by itself. God hates boasting because it is the first of all sins and thus the sin that has brought all other sins upon the race.
There is a second reason also: boasting before God is unjustified and totally ineffective. This is the burden of Paul’s argument in Romans. We have looked at Romans 4:1–3, in which Paul speaks of Abram’s potential for boasting. But this is not the first time Paul has spoken of boasting in this letter. As a matter of fact, boasting is mentioned more in Romans than in any other New Testament book, with the sole exception of 2 Corinthians, where similar points are made. The idea is found in Romans 1:30; 2:17, 23; 3:27; 11:18; and 15:17.
In Romans 2, that is, just before verses that mention Abram, the New International Version translates the word as “brag.” It is in reference to those who brag about keeping the law. These were the religious people of Paul’s day. In Romans 1, Paul has eloquently exposed the sins of the heathen, including the sin of boasting. But at this point these religious figures would undoubtedly pull their magnificent robes about them and conclude that although Paul’s indictments might be true of the heathen peoples, they were certainly not true of themselves. After all, they had inherited a special relationship to God just by being Jews. And if that were not enough, they had the law. There was nothing greater than this upon the face of the earth; this was their possession. If anyone could boast before God, it was they.
But what does Paul say? He admits their advantages but denies their conclusion, saying that although they did indeed have advantages, they had forfeited these by their disobedience. He writes: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ ” (Rom. 2:17–24). Paul’s point is that no one can boast. Whether we admit it or not, each of us commits the same sins we see in others.
The third reason why God hates pride is that it is harmful to us personally. Pride keeps the sinful creatures he loves from the only way of salvation. So long as we think we are somebody and can fend for ourselves, we will never submit to God and believe that he has done everything needful for our salvation. We will still want some part of his glory for ourselves. It is only when we are humbled to the dust—as the helpless, needy sinners we are—that we will come to Christ.
The Snake in the Desert
I began this chapter with a story from the ministry of Donald Grey Barnhouse. It is fitting that I also end with one. It concerns two verses (John 3:14–15) and the incident, recorded in the Book of Numbers, that they refer to: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The question is: How does the example of Moses lifting up a snake in the wilderness illustrate the doctrine that God saves us through the work of Christ apart from human merit?
During their desert wanderings from Egypt to the land of Canaan, the people of Israel grew so rebellious against God that he sent venomous snakes among them. Many people were bitten and died; others came to Moses, asking him to intercede between them and God. When Moses did this, God commanded him to make a snake out of bronze and erect it on a pole in the midst of the Israelite camp. The heart of the episode lies in God’s promise that in order to be cured, anyone bitten by the fiery snakes needed only to look to the bronze snake on the pole.
It goes without saying that, in itself, the remedy proposed by God and enacted faithfully by Moses was absurd. In our day especially, with our knowledge of illness and the cures effected by the various drugs and antibiotics available, we are aware that there was not the least bit of therapeutic value in the bronze snake. At best, it could have been a warning to avoid the venomous snakes. Actually, the snake was a way of pointing the people’s faith back to God. There were all sorts of things the people could do—things in which they would inevitably take a full measure of pride—but these would not help them in that situation. They had to let go of their pride and trust God entirely.
Think of what God did not command for their deliverance. First, the people were not encouraged to invent medicines to offset the poison. Barnhouse writes of this idea: “The brewing of potions and the making of salves would have given them all something to do and would have satisfied every natural instinct of the heart to work on behalf of its own cure. [But] there was nothing of the kind mentioned. They were to cease from human remedies and turn to a divine remedy. The fact that they were not told to make a human remedy is indicative of the greater fact that there is no human remedy for sin. Men have been bitten by the serpent of sin. How are they going to be cured of its bite? There is nothing but death awaiting them as a result of their wound unless God himself shall furnish a remedy. Men rush around in the fury of human religions seeking a palliative for sin. They perform all sorts of rites, chastising the flesh, humbling the spirit. They undertake fasts and pilgrimages. Like the man in Israel’s camp who refused to look at the brazen serpent, but spent his time brewing concoctions for ameliorating his own conditions, they are carried off to spiritual death through the poison that is in their being. The man who trusts in religion instead of looking to Christ will be eternally lost.”
Second, the people who had been bitten were not encouraged to follow any path of self-reformation. We might imagine them acknowledging that they had certainly gotten into a bad area of the country and had been exceptionally foolish in giving the snakes an opportunity to bite them. “Henceforth,” they might have said, “we shall be more careful. We shall see that this will never happen again.” Obviously, even if they had been able to do this, there would still have been no cure. The poison was in them, and those who had been bitten died.
Third, the dying were not told to band together and fight the deadly snakes. Barnhouse says,
If the incident had been met after the fashion of our day, there would have been a rush to incorporate the Society for the Extermination of the Fiery Serpents, popularly to be known as SEFS; and there would have been badges for the coat lapel, cards for district workers, secretaries for organization of branches, pledge cards, and mass rallies. There would have been a publication office and a weekly journal to tell of the progress of the work. There would have been photographs of heaps of serpents that had been killed by the faithful workers. The fact that the serpents had already infected their victims would have been played down, and the membership lists would have been pushed to the utmost.
Let us accompany one of the zealous workers as he might take a pledge card into the tent of a stricken victim. The man had been bitten and the poison has already affected his limbs. He lies in feverish agony [for the phrase “fiery serpents” refers to the effects produced in the ones bitten, not in the color of the snakes], the glaze of death already coming to his eyes. The zealous member of the Society for the Extermination of Fiery Serpents tells him of all that has been done to combat the serpents, and urges the man to join—as a life member if possible (fee $10,000), a sustaining member (fee $1,000), contributing member (fee $25), or annual member (anything the organizer can get). The dying victim fumbles in his pocketbook for money and then takes a pen in hand. His fingers are held by the worker who helps him form his signature on the pledge and membership card, and the man signs in full—and dies.
Fourth, those who had been bitten by the snakes were not told to pray to the snake on the pole. You must not misunderstand me here. Prayer is a good thing, but prayer is not a way of earning salvation. Rather, salvation comes by belief. The Bible says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10:9–10).
Finally, those who were bitten were not commanded to buy some relic of the bronze snake or possess some fragment of the pole on which it had been erected. The notion that salvation can come by relics is perhaps the most absurd and totally pagan idea ever associated with Christianity, and yet today there are millions who believe that they can come closer to heaven by adoring a piece of the cross or the bones of a saint. History should illuminate such folly. During the Middle Ages, those who traveled to the Holy Land were asked to bring back souvenirs of Christianity, just as a visitor to Europe or the Far East might be asked to bring back souvenirs today. The Arabs, who were good businessmen, quickly supplied the demand—so well, in fact, that it is said the Middle Ages possessed enough particles of the true cross to build several cathedrals. Unfortunately, the possession of such relics eventually gave way to the worship of them and the belief that a person could be saved by touching or possessing them.
It is interesting to note that the same thing happened with the snake erected by Moses in the wilderness. Someone apparently preserved the snake, and it remained in Israel for hundreds of years, gaining more and more worshipers. At last, upon becoming king, Hezekiah “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it” (2 Kings 18:4).
Look to Jesus
By this time you will have understood that the only thing required of the dying Israelites was that they believe God’s word about the snake and look to it as he commanded them. So also are we to look to Christ for salvation.
We are to do what Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that great Baptist preacher of the nineteenth century, did the day he was saved. He was only a boy at the time, but he had gone to a service in a Primitive Methodist chapel where a layman, not the regular minister, was preaching. The man had little learning and little to say. But the result was beneficial, for he stuck closely to his text, which was: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isa. 45:22 kjv). As Spurgeon remembered it, the man did not even pronounce the words properly, but that did not matter. The layman launched into his text, and his message went like this: “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It just says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a great deal of pain. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand pounds a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Ay! Many of you are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ ”
At this point he noticed Spurgeon and—fixing his eyes on him as if he knew the struggle going on in the boy’s heart—continued, “Young man, you look miserable, and you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text.” Then lifting up his hands as only a good Primitive Methodist could do, he shouted, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” And Spurgeon did.
Have you looked to Jesus? If you have not, is your pride keeping you from it? Those things of which you are proud may be all right before others, but they are nothing before God. Can you see that? If so, then you can also see that if they are nothing with him, they are worse than nothing for you because they are keeping you from the way that leads to life and are dragging you to eternal death. Forget them. Look to Jesus. Find Jesus, and know that in finding him, you will be justified before God and he will be pleased.
 Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 539–559). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.