This morning I had a sweet time reading the opening chapters of Romans. This is Paul’s masterpiece. The apostle builds precept upon precept; from our condemnation under sin to our justification by God’s free grace through faith. The one thing that stuck out to me this time was the faith of Abraham in chapter 4. I had read this chapter dozens of times before and even preached on it. However, today, something looked really different. It was how I understood the faith of Abraham; really how I had misunderstood it in the past. I realized that I had inadvertently treated faith like a work.
Paul painstakingly spends the first 8 verses of chapter 4 explaining that Abraham’s faith had made him righteous “apart from works,” and then Paul just keeps going to explain how it all happened before Abraham was circumcised, which was an outward (and painful) demonstration/symbol of his faith. The interesting thing though is that God had already declared Abraham righteous (Gen 15:6) before he displayed any outward signs of faith: before circumcision (Gen 17:11), before patiently enduring decades of bareness by Sarah (Gen 15 – 21), before he was asked to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22). Abraham was offered righteousness as a gift of free grace from God without any merit on Abraham’s part; before he took his first step of faith.
That means, it was the goodness of the gracious offer that sparked faith in Abraham; it wasn’t the faith of Abraham that initiated God’s grace. Abraham didn’t experience the goodness of God because of his faith, rather he had faith because he had experienced the goodness of God. It’s so important that we don’t get this backward, because when we do, we tend to see Abraham’s exploits of faith and think, “Wow, look at Abraham go. What a man of faith. He was the right man for the job. Maybe one day I’ll have that kind of faith. And when I do, God can really use me too.” That view makes Abraham and his faith the initiator and God the responder. It leaves me focused on myself and my faith rather than my gracious Lord – the very thing that would stir my faith. It makes me the key cog in the engine of God’s plan for my life. It depends more on me and my performance than on God’s grace and Christ’s performance for me. No way! God leads with the offer of free grace, based on what Jesus did for sinners, and then we respond with faith – both for our conversion and our ongoing walk with Him. Abraham was looking forward to that glorious event by faith, just as we look back on it.
When I have read this section of scripture in the past, I have been challenged by Abraham’s faith and my lack of it; as I should be. Unfortunately, to remedy my lack of faith, the approach I took was all wrong. I wanted faith like Abraham, so I tried to stir it up. I was determined to have enough faith to make me worthy of God’s blessing and power in my life. I tried and tried to “get under the spout where the glory comes out.” What I didn’t realize was, by taking that approach, I had turned faith into a work. I was trying use it to earn something from God; or prove something to Him. That’s wrong on two levels. First, it reveals the wickedness of my sinful motives for faith (believing to get something), and secondly it falsely accuses God of being stingy with His blessings – only dishing them out to those who prove they are worthy – the antithesis of His grace.
Faith is not a work that I do, or even an object or feeling I pursue. It is confidence in the One who has already done the work for me. Faith is an expression of belief in the One who is faithful, who offers us freely His mercy and grace, who loves and accepts us because Christ did something for us that we could never do for ourselves – made us righteous before a holy God. God’s goodness and free grace was and is the igniter of Abraham’s faith and ours. As I set my heart on the truth of God’s amazing grace, something glorious happens – I am stirred to faith. And this faith is not some mushy passive mental state. It’s active – like Abraham’s. Real faith is not a work, but when it’s fueled by free grace, it certainly works.