Justification by faith is one of the central themes of Romans, which is a gem of logical reasoning in which Paul, step by step, works his way through the arguments that might be put up against the gospel of grace. In this passage he has just started looking at the role of the law in all seriousness (most of chapters 3-8 look at the role of the law in some shape or form). In the last verse of chapter 3 he has made the following statement: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” The argument is basically that we uphold the law because we are saved and justified, not in order to be saved and justified.
In today’s passage Paul is using Abraham as an example of the benefits of faith versus the ‘benefits’ of the law. He starts off with a question that can be paraphrased like this: “Did Abraham [the father of the Jewish faith] gain anything outside of faith?”. Then, quoting Genesis 15:6, he answers that with a wholehearted “No!”. Abraham was justified by faith; even David, in Psalm 32:1, states that justification by faith (i.e. apart from works) is a blessing. Then going back to Abraham, Paul shows that not even by circumcision did he gain anything, because that was just a seal of the justification he had already received by faith. In fact (v.13-15) the law is the opposite of faith. Faith brings the promise, which is blessing, and the law brings wrath. So though the law is good, it is not good for bringing justification. Trying to justify ourselves by keeping the law has the exact opposite effect of what we are trying to achieve.
I realise that this is a message that has been preached many times, but do you really get it? Do you really know that you are justified by faith alone? Is this something that is evident in your words, your thoughts and your actions? My experience is that very few Christians fully grasp and own this truth. Even in my own life, when I honestly look at my motives and actions, there is sometimes still that sense of entitlement, that sense that I have ‘earned’ some blessing; that God must be pleased with me because I did … (you fill in the blank). This is in some smaller or larger measure going back to the law. The truth is that God is always pleased with us, because we are His children. We do good, because we have been made good. We behave justly because we have been justified by faith in the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything we do flows out of who we are, and we are what we are (holy, righteous, justified, powerful, loving children of God) only because of His grace.
This whole concept gets summarised by Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10 better than anywhere else: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Going back to the end of chapter 3: yes, the law is good, but only as an expression of who God has made us. We don’t earn anything by keeping the law, if we try to use it like that it will condemn us. Instead we live out our identity by faith, saved and justified by faith, doing good works by faith.
I cannot encourage you enough to meditate on this truth, to make it part of your very being. Study this truth until you don’t just know it backwards, but study it until it starts pouring out of every area of your life. Salvation is by grace through faith, not by works. Hallelujah!