Our goal here is to discover if there is one central truth that may be reduced down to one word by which God means to teach us through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Though the goal of this essay may be beyond reach because of disagreement on terms, let’s look for help from the NT writers to confirm us along the way. And as you read this author remember the words of Alexander Pope who wrote in 1711, An Essay on Criticism [cf. Norton’s Anthology of English Literature (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1968), p. 1007]
“In every work regard the writer’s end,
Since none can compass more than they intend;
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Abraham the Justified
And behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, this shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now towards heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness (Gen. 15:4-6).
There may be some debate, but righteousness is perhaps the most important word to the human race. Without it we won’t get into the gates of heaven. Our word ‘righteous’ is equivalent to the word ‘just’; to justify is to make righteous. And the Bible consistently will say that ‘righteousness’ (cf. Hebrew צְדָקָה or tsidaka) is a gift from God. So how do you get it? This is what Abraham teaches us.
The setting for this account is that Abram is old and so is Sarah his wife, well beyond the years of child bearing. And he’s wondering who is going to be his heir. Things are set up so far for Eliezar of Damascus to be his heir, but God said no to that arrangement. Rather, his heir would be one born from his own body. This would also be the case for Sarah, for no son of Hagar could be a substitute (cf. Gen. 16). Then the Lord took Abram out that night and asked him to behold the heavens. He said, ‘Look at the stars.’ This was a challenge not to just gaze but to ‘look with expectation and pleasure’ (cf. הַבֶּט־נָָא of the Hiphil stem) in v. 5. Something was causing Abram and inspiring him to observe with wonder like this. It was the Lord. Then God said, ‘So shall your seed be’ or ‘that’s how many descendants you’ll have’, and like the stars, the more you look the more you see.
Against all dashed hopes and dreams, Abraham ‘believed God’ (v. 6). To ‘believe’ (cf. וְהֶאֱמִן also of the Hiphil stem), as in ‘to look’, means something was causing Abram, something was inspiring Abram to have faith in God and his promise. The thought of having a son of his own had been a heart ache now for decades. But at this moment for the first time he was inspired to rely on God about this. This meant that for Abram, the Lord was both the object of his faith, and also the source of his faith. That he even had faith about this was itself a renunciation of human effort to make the promise happen, only to believe in the One who had promised.
God looks at faith like that and calls it ‘righteousness.’ And God justified or ‘delcared righteous’ Abraham for believing him. But when we speak of righteousness we’re not just saying you can enhance your self-chosen spirituality; that is what some of the monks did. Turn over to Romans 3:21-22 which says: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe”. The Scriptures are speaking about the very “righteousness of God” being applied to you by the Lord himself! That is really good news. If you can grasp this it solves all kinds of futile efforts to satisfy God, and you feel really good about yourself when all you did was believe God. Faith is to God a profound thing. To say it once more, Paul wrote of Abraham: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
‘God justifies the ungodly’: they have quit working to justify themselves but instead choose to believe God. All of us are aware of the word ‘forgiveness’. To be justified should be understood as part of forgiveness with God. Paul wrote, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Justification is free for us; no strings attached. Period. And now the whole universe swings into proper perspective.
It is interesting to note that God justified Abraham because he believed Him, even before he ever saw Isaac. This was the context of his justification. It wasn’t about the justification of Abraham the sinner, even though all have sinned. It was about his aching desire for a son. It wasn’t shame based, it was about a promise, which he believed, and God justified his life. So what are you trusting God to do? Biblical faith means that you bring this desire to God through His Son, the One “whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood. Jesus is our ‘propitiator’ for our sins, i.e. he makes us friendly to God again by taking the alienation out of our hearts by his Cross, so that we can believe him, not only for forgiveness but also everything else we need. Let God inspire that kind of faith in your soul.