Justification By Faith Alone

Genesis 15:1-6
Have you ever looked up at the stars in wonder? Have you ever thought that no one could ever count the number of stars out there? We have modern telescopes now which can see many light years beyond what the naked eye can see, and yet we are still discovering more stars, more galaxies, more planets. In fact, astronomers debate as to whether we are able to see the edge of the universe or not. There are billions of stars out there. So who would believe that Abram’s descendents would out number the stars? Abram himself did, and he was justified by his faith. We are also justified by faith if we believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, as Abram did.

Previous to our story here, Abram had just rescued the Sodomite kings, and had met Melchizedek. Probably Abram now feared that the four kings he had just defeated would come back to haunt him. It was certainly a possibility. He wanted to know from the Lord whether or not he was safe from attack. And so the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. This vision proves that Abram was a prophet. The Lord only showed Himself to prophets of the Lord. And in this vision the Lord says something very special to Abram. He says that Abram is not to fear, because he is Abram’s shield. You see, God knew exactly what was going on in Abram’s mind, and so He could speak directly to Abram’s state of mind. The Lord reassures Abram that He will protect Abram from anyone who dares to try to thwart God’s purposes for Abram.

But then the Lord says something rather strange to Abram. He says that Abram’s reward will be very great. Now, on one level, this is easily believed. Abram had just refused to be rewarded by Bela, king of Sodom, and so the Lord will reward Abram for his exemplary behavior with regard to Lot’s rescue. So far, so good. However, when Abram heard the word “reward,” he immediately thought of children. Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb reward.” Children are a reward from the Lord. So Abram immediately thinks of the promise that God has made to him. God had promised that Abram would be a great nation, and that his offspring would inherit the land, and that his offspring would be like the dust of the earth. However, the Lord had not yet told Abram HOW He would do this. Currently Abram is thinking that the heir Eliezer of Damascus would inherit Abram’s estate, and that the promise would be fulfilled through him. It is important to realize here that Abram’s questioning of God is NOT a matter of unbelief. Here Abram is actually calling on God to fulfill the promise that God had made. Abram is even hoping that the promise that God made is the fulfillment of the seed promised to Adam in Genesis 3 that would conquer the forces of evil in the world.

Notice that Abram lays it all out in front of God. He does not try to hide from God what he is thinking. He feels free to ask God why it is that the promise has not been fulfilled, and how it is that God will fulfill it. God already knows what is on Abram’s heart. Let me tell you that God does not appreciate your trying to hide from Him what you really think. He would prefer you to be honest. Take a good long look at the Psalms, checking for honesty. You will be amazed at how honest the Psalmist is when talking with God. Sometimes we have this view of God that He cannot be troubled with our sinful thoughts, because they are heretical, and we don’t want God to know about them. Well, of course, that is impossible. Instead, we should confess to God exactly what we are thinking. You will find that it is very freeing. Tell God that you are doubting His promises, if you are. He already knows it, but wants you to talk to Him about it. You won’t get answers to your doubts unless you tell God what your doubts are in the first place. That is what Abram does. But even his doubt is part of his faith. He knows that God will fulfill His promise to him. But since he doesn’t yet know how, he is wondering, curious, precisely because he already knows who he is (a sinner saved by grace through faith). So God answers Abram. Abram asks an honest question, and gets an honest answer. God tells him that a son born of his own flesh and blood, literally a “son born from his own loins” will be the promised son. This is new information to Abram. He didn’t know before how God was going to fulfill His promise. This tells us how. By a son born to Abram himself. He himself will be the father of this son. That rules out Eliezer, of course.

But now God does something very special. God takes him outside, and shows him the stars, and commands Abram to count them, if he is able. Of course, Abram is not able. But what is God saying here? God is telling Abram that the same power that made the stars out of nothing can bring life out of a seemingly dead body. And God brought countless stars into existence out of nothing. If God can do that, then is anything too hard for God? The answer is no.

But we must ask ourselves how it is that the offspring will be so vastly huge. This cannot have been referring merely to Israel. Israel was always described as the least of all nations. Time and time again they are counted in the OT. Their number is small. They never have more than a couple million people in the land of Israel, which hardly qualifies as being countless. The answer is that in Christ the promise is fulfilled. We who believe in Jesus Christ are the true seed of Abram. And truly, there have been many billions of people who have trusted in Christ, including the OT Israelites who believed in Jesus before He came, and the many Christians who have believed in Christ after He came. Either way, salvation was always be faith in Jesus Christ.

To believe in Jesus Christ means that we will be justified. That is what happened to Abram, and it is exactly what happens to us when we come to faith. It says here that Abram believed, and God counted it to him as righteousness. There is scarcely any more important verse in the entire Scripture than this. It is quoted no less than three times in the NT, and echoes of it go throughout Scripture.

How can an unrighteous man be righteous before God? Well, it certainly cannot be by works. There is no way for a man to be justified by works. Why? Because God is infinitely holy. The only way a man could be in the right before God on the basis of his deeds would be if they were perfect. That would mean that they perfectly matched up with God’s law. Only absolute perfection can be accepted before God’s holy throne. No other righteousness will do. However, Isaiah says that our righteousness is like filthy rags. That is, it is tainted with evil. It is not the case that our good deeds can ever outweigh our bad deeds. That is a very dangerous way of thinking. The only way then for us to be righteous with God is to have someone else’s righteousness clothe us. By faith, we lay hold of Christ and His righteousness. That means that we are united to Him by faith. We are married to Him, as it were. That means that what is His is ours, and what is ours is His. So our sin is laid on Him, and therefore done away with. But His righteousness is given to us, clothing us so that we can stand even now in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, and be perfectly holy, because His righteousness is perfectly holy.

Romans 4:13-25
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of 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. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

Notice something very key about this explanation of Paul’s. Resurrection is a key element in this faith that justifies. Christ was raised for our justification. We could not have justification, we could not be right with God unless Christ was raised from the dead. When Christ was resurrection, that was His justification, His vindication. And that was for our benefit.

Let it be known that we are justified our entire lives through faith, though this does not make justification a process. It is not faith itself that is our justification, for faith is an instrument that lays hold of Christ. Just as you would pick up something hot with tongs, those tongs are an instrument with which you can hold something hot. So also our faith is something that lays hold of Christ Himself. So faith is the instrument by which we lay hold of Christ. We cannot lay hold of Christ by works, since that would degrade Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death. In terms of taking care of our sin, it has all been done by Christ. We contribute not one jot or tittle to the taking away of our sin. Paul in Ephesians 2 says that even our faith is a gift from God. We cannot even take credit for that faith. We would have no faith unless God had previously regenerated our hearts.

Now this means for us that now that we have been regenerated and come to faith, and been justified, there is everything for us to do. If works play no part at all in our justification, they are essential to the life after justification. We were created for good works, as Paul says, the same person who said that works play no part in justification. So we are called to work for God who has worked so mightily for us. It is essential that we keep works out of justification. But it is equally essential that we recognize the importance of works for the Christian life. Works and justification are distinct, yet they are inseparable. That is what James tells us, who is the other author in the NT to quote this passage. He says that faith without works is dead. Is he contradicting Paul? No. Paul says that faith without works justifies. James says that we can tell if we have genuine faith if we work. As Martin Luther said, our faith is a busy little thing.

So there is no room in the Christian life for those people who say that they have been justified, and so now it is time to kick up their heels onto their desk and do nothing for Christ. There is no room for them in the kingdom of God. There is also no room for those people who say that God will let them into heaven because they have been pretty good people. Such people are going to have a rude awakening when they receive God’s sentence of condemnation. And so, as is so often the case, we must avoid both of these problems. That is what is means to be justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. We are the stars that cannot be counted.