Abram Father of the Faithful
A curious phrase, appears ten times in the Bible, nine of which concern Abram. We discover it first in Genesis. It’s a small, subtle, one line blessing for the man of faith, which will go on to rock the centuries of the religious world! Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
This important statement identifies a core ingredient of all religious faith, “belief.”
We look to Abram as our spiritual model, progenitor of the tithe, father to three world religions and a friend of the Almighty.
Armed with Abram’s “belief,” we climb mountains. The goal? A righteousness like that of the Patriarch!
We admire Abram’s faith as we surmise, Abram believed God and received righteousness. It is for this type of faith, we all strive!
As always, at A Faith that Obeys, we are compelled to define our terms before we begin our journey of discovery, striving for deeper understanding on that smooth, winding, country road of life and doctrine.
Buckle up. We’re gonna go for a little ride!
With Abram by our side, let’s jump onto the scriptural byway to righteousness! What is “righteousness?”
Let’s first make a quick stop at a fascinating old diner, the 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s Dictionary.
If you are ever hungry for a rich, meaty definition along the way, a stop here offers delicious rewards. Unlike our modern dictionaries, you will not find quick, nutritiously empty, bite-sized morsels here. Get ready for a warm hardy sit-down meal. Here’s what Webster said about righteousness.
“Purity of heart and rectitude of life; conformity of heart and life to the divine law. righteousness as used in Scripture and theology, in which it is chiefly used, is nearly equivalent to holiness, comprehending holy principles and affections of heart, and conformity of life to the divine law. It includes all we call justice, honesty and virtue, with holy affections; in short, it is true religion.”
Wow, let’s get some desert. What was that other fancy word he used? “Rectitude?” What’s that?
Webster says, “rectitude of mind is the disposition to act in conformity to any known standard of right, truth or justice.”
So, righteousness is something deep within a person… a sort of character quality of the soul. It is not something which a person can grasp on their own, we know that. It must be bestowed by God. It is that special divine spark within, which causes a person to conform with, “any known standard of right, truth or justice.”
Because of man’s fallen nature, the prowess to avoid the misdeeds of the flesh is not something which comes by way of earth. All men are separated from God by sin and no man can attain righteousness on his own merits. But when God gives it, the man is completely and utterly changed… for eternity!
In the New Testament, God provides a way for the sinner to attain righteousness; it happens through the sacrifice of his son. All of our sin is placed on Christ and we are declared righteous by God.
Now, this righteousness, found in the New Testament, is not something we will receive some day, No! The Bible, in speaking about the affect of Christ’s blood, shed on the cross, speaks about complete forgiveness of sins, no condemnation for the believer, thorough stain removal, a death to our old life and a new birth into sinless righteousness with a seat… right now… in Heaven… with Christ.
New Testament righteousness is a declaration prepared before the beginning of the world and it is given freely to those who are willing to follow Christ by lovingly obeying his commands. If we do this, we are in full possession of this righteousness and no one can ever take it away from us.
A Credit of Righteousness
Back on the road, let’s return to Genesis. In this famous, incredible historical event, God bestows upon Abram a credit of righteousness. As we have seen, righteousness is required in the relationship between God and a person. No one can have a relationship with God who is not deemed righteous by God.
The thought of approaching a holy, pure God with even a hint of unrighteousness is absolutely unthinkable.
So, in order to have a little chat, God gives Abram a credit of righteousness.
Now listen carefully, I’ll bet we’ve have missed something.
In the New Testament, God declares us righteous when we are born again. This is a gift.
But God did not give to Abram, a “gift”. God gave Abram a “credit” of righteousness.
These are important distinctions.
For some reason, we make the assumption that God bestows actual “righteousness” on Abram, like he does for the Christian in the New Testament. The scripture never says that… at least not yet. Somehow, regarding Abram, we redefine “credit” to mean “ownership.”
But, what is a “credit?”
Pretty much everyone has a credit card, right? Credit cards offer easy access to financial loans. You get to use something before you actually pay for it yourself. The ability to possess something before you pay for it goes back thousands of years. In our illustration, it goes back to Abram. Credit is nothing new. When we have credit, we get to possess something we might otherwise be unable to afford.
Possession on credit is not ownership.
It may feel like ownership. But that shiny new car, purchased on credit is not yours, it belongs to the bank. Skip a couple of payments and see what happens! Having the credit to possess the thing is not the same as having the money to buy the thing or having something given to you as a gift. Possession does not necessarily imply ownership. In fact, one could be in possession of something which was not legally theirs.
Let’s be cautious that we do not carelessly change a word’s meaning. In our Genesis passage, credit, a word chosen by God, is credit. Ownership is ownership. So, while Abram is temporarily enjoying a credit, it will not be until sometime later that this scripture gets fulfilled, and we see Abram actually “considered” righteous by God.
For what was the credit given?
So, why does God extend this credit to Abram? Well, He does it in response to something Abram did first.
The scripture says, “Abram BELIEVED God.” And on this action of Abram we hang our hats of faith.
Let’s slow down a moment.
In order to believe God, God must have told Abram something first. What was that?
Typically to clear up a matter or to understand something better in scripture, we would go back a verse or two… just to the north of the passage we are studying and see what that says. We would put things in context, right? Since we’re studying verse 6, let’s go back to verse 2 through 5.
But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
God tells Abram he will be fruitful. He was going to have a son! It seems like it was about this one aching issue Abram was most concerned ;and God belays those concerns immediately.
So, when we read verse 2 through 5 we conclude, “Abram believes God about this issue and God credits righteousness to him as a result.”
But, this may not be the reason.
Let’s move north just a little bit more. Look at verse one and following!
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.”
Did you see that?
God just made a vastly more important statement which Abram heard and believed!
“I am your shield, your very great reward.”
Wow! How did we ever miss this one!
Do you think… just maybe… Abram believed this statement first?
It is the fist thing God says to Abram in the vision… “I am your shield. I am your exceedingly great reward.”
How long do you suppose Abram waited after God first spoke?
Do you think he instantly blurted out his complaint about inheritance rights, barely taking a breath to even consider… for just one moment… what the God of the universe has just said. Maybe he missed it, like we have.
Or, did he drink it in? Did he stop and reflect? This is huge.
“Abram believed God” is at the core of our entire religious DNA. And surely, it is not about DNA God credits Abram. It’s not kids! It’s something far, far better!
Do we believe God is our shield… our very great reward?
Isn’t that all He asks of us?
Doesn’t He just want a relationship with us?
Doesn’t He want to protect us and be our very great reward?
Like Abram, we so quickly turn to the flesh. “But I want a kids!”
I think, it makes far more sense, that the credit of righteousness is bestowed on Abram because of his acceptance of God’s first statement, not God’s response to Abram’s lament.
God is our shield and our reward. That’s awesome! If we have ever thought our joy, our hope or our happiness could possibly come from temporal blessings, we’ve probably misplaced real love and trust for God.
Abram believes God and it is credited to him as righteousness.
An Amazing Foreshadowing
I think it is important to understand that Abram did something, in order to receive this credit. He did not ask for it. He did not pray for it. He did not beg God for it. What Abram did was very simple, he accepted God’s word and received a credit.
The modern religious world looks at Abram’s belief and assumes he was… at that moment declared righteous. Then, they erroneously conclude… New Testament conversion is the same.
They read Genesis 15:6 like this: Abram believed God and he was declared righteous.” Well… that’s not quite what it says. It says, as we have so dramatically illustrated… Abram received a credit.
Remember when we first began our trip, I told you that the religious world looks at this passage and wishes to imitate the faith of Abram. That’s a wonderful goal. But, I think this story of Abram is in the Bible for a reason we might not suspect. I think this is a foreshadowing of John 1:12, another scripture about belief and acceptance.
And surprisingly, this Genesis passage is misunderstood in the same way John 1:12 is misunderstood.
For reference, remember, John 1:12 says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”
When we accept Christ we gain a right, not righteousness.
Hearing God’s word and accepting God’s word are the first two steps in the Biblical Plan of Salvation. At “A Faith that Obeys,” we have talked quite a bit about these first two steps and how the modern evangelical world claims; these two things lead to salvation… in other words… righteousness. Based on our previous lessons, we know this is not an accurate understanding of the Biblical Plan of Salvation.
The forgiveness of sins, a declaration of “righteousness,” is not given by God until we fully obey the Gospel. When someone hears the word and accepts the word, they have done exactly what Abram did. They have believed God. And you know what? I think God does the same thing for us as He did for Abram.
I think He extends a “credit of righteousness” to us. We are not yet considered righteous… we are not yet complete, but we are in a real good place.
God, giving us this “right,” as He does in John 1:12, is analogous to Abram’s credit. We are not in possession of righteousness but we have the means to move forward and eventually receive a full consideration of righteousness by God, if we will follow God’s instructions, just as Abram did. The bigger mystery now becomes, if Abram did not fully possess righteousness when he first believed, when did that actually happen for him?
Did God ever fulfill the scriptural credit and give actual possession? When was Abram’s faith activated and righteousness declared?
We do see it happen back in Genesis, but we don’t get the explanation. In fact, to find the answer, we need to wait… a few thousand years… and visit with the Lord’s brother, James.
This is amazing. Take a look at James 2:22-24
“Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?”
Whoah. Wait! This is a completely different event from the initial vision where God gave the credit. The declaration of righteousness does not occur when Abram first believes, it’s when he nearly sacrifices Issac!
“You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
James speaks about a fulfillment of scripture. Which scripture is fulfilled? The one we have been talking about… “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, Genesis 15:6”
It is so important to understand that the credit is a result of acceptance and belief and the fulfillment is the result of obedient faith.
Abram is not actually considered righteous until he receives a command and he obeys the command. And what a frightening command it was!
When we consider everything James has to say about this passage, it can really clear some things up regarding the delicate interplay of faith and deeds.
First, belief is not enough to be considered righteousness. It was not enough for Abram, it is not enough for us. Believing God is critical, that’s for sure, but more is required.
Next, James defines the rest of the process. Faith is made complete by what we do.
Finally, our actions are not fancy works of merit or arbitrary rituals. The actions we take can only be in response to commands God has given. This is why James can say that a person is not justified by faith alone.
It is only after Abraham obeys, not before, that James says the scripture was fulfilled and Abraham is declared righteous. In the same way, It is after we obey that we receive the declaration of righteousness, it is never before we obey.
Belief is not Biblical Faith
What we tend to call faith today is really intellectual belief. This is why we look at Abram… believing God… and think he was declared righteous right there on the spot. Faith, Biblical faith, includes action as a result of our belief. Simple acceptance of the message without a scriptural response, is not saving faith!
The modern plan of salvation, with its claim that we receive righteousness when we first believe and receive Christ, saves no one. It only provides a credit. There are also commands for us to obey which God gives us.
If, like me, you followed the modern plan, I would urge you to reconsider your understanding, as I did. If we have not obeyed the Gospel, we are still in possession of that right God gave us but we have not completed our faith. We are not yet an owner of righteousness no matter how sincere and dedicated we may be.
Let’s take one last U-Turn back into Genesis and look at that very specific time where God actually completes Abraham’s testing and considers him righteous as identified by James. Listen closely as the entire saga closes out. It is God who is speaking once again…
“…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
True biblical faith begins with belief but is completed with our obedience. Do we really want to have the faith of Abraham, a complete faith? Then we must have a faith that obeys!