What does it mean to believe God? What does it mean to trust Him? How are we ultimately saved? These questions are questions that all of Christendom has asked over the centuries, and it is a question even the cults are obsessed with answering. The LDS gospel claims to hold to Paul’s teachings. But reading it’s own scriptures in the Book of Mormon, and even talking with LDS, you are hard pressed to find them truly confessing the truth of what the Bible had been teaching all along. What does it mean, therefore, to truly believe God?
The doctrine of Sola Fide (Faith Alone) is at the center of the Christian faith. Everyone wants to say they have faith in God, but who truly demonstrates it as Paul defined it in Romans 4? To truly capture the heart of this doctrine, it was no coincidence that Paul went to the Father of the Faithful, Abraham. Paul could not have picked a greater candidate to explain this doctrine.
For several reasons Paul goes to Abraham. One is as I stated above: he is the Father of the Faithful. Another reason is because Paul is dealing in Romans with Judiazers who are trying to teach Gentile Christians that to be truly followers of Christ, they must become members of the old covenant first, and adhere to the laws and statutes of the Jews. This is what Paul is responding to, and he does so by going all the way back to the beginning, before the Jewish nation even existed to prove to Jews and Greeks that his doctrine of faith alone supersedes the Jewish laws and customs. This is exactly what Paul is correcting in the Galatian church as well (Galatians 3:16-18).
A God of Promise
What it tells us is that the doctrine which Paul will be teaching us beginning at the end of Romans 3 and into 4 is not something Paul is inventing here towards the later half of the first century. It means that what he is about to explain to us began all the way back to Abraham himself. Before we can get into Romans 4, therefore, we should revisit exactly what it is Paul is pointing us to in order to understand the context of this chapter, which is the citadel of the doctrine of Sola Fide. Paul is pointing us to Genesis 15:
[After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.]-Genesis 15:1-6 (ESV)
This is the passage Paul is referring to specifically. However, I think Paul is hoping that you read further in Genesis 15 to see something amazing, which all has to do with trusting God over our own efforts. Abram (as he was known then) fell asleep and saw a vision. We read this in the passage:
[When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land…]Genesis 15:17-18 (ESV)
The three dots indicate that there is more to the verse cited, but what I want to focus on is in the nature of these two verses. This strange ritual that Abram saw in a dream represented Yahweh passing through the pieces of the dismembered animals as an oven, or a fire. The symbolism represents the reality that Yahweh had bound, not Abram, but Himself to this covenant He makes with Abram. Hence the burden of keeping the promise which God had given to Abram earlier in the chapter (verses 1-6) was not on Abram, but God.
If the promise rested upon God to uphold, how then could it fail? It could not. It was not what Abram was going to do, but what Yahweh Himself was going to do. That promise, as Paul tells us, is fulfilled in Christ.
Romans 4: By Faith Alone
He begins Romans 4 with a rhetorical question, iconic to Romans:
[What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?]-Romans 4:1 (ESV)
The question is meant to get the reader to think. Paul expands upon his rhetorical question in verse 2 that if indeed Abraham was justified by his works, then he had accomplished something apart from God’s own doing.
What Paul is doing here is contrasting a salvation by works and a salvation by faith. He offers no categories of some form of faith plus works–nor even faith with works. Either you work, in which case it is something owed, which means now God owes you according to your merits, and consequentially, your salvation is based on your merits, or it is by faith alone, in which you believe that God has earned the merits for you.
Paul then quotes Psalm 32:1-2, where David describes “the blessed man” who is the one whose sins are covered and their lawless deeds forgiven. How are they covered? How are they forgiven? Many of the cults love to talk about forgiveness of sins, but when you sit and talk with them, they will typically end up describing to you a gospel of works, of legalism in some fashion, and you can often tell when you cite a passage such as Romans 4:1-5, ask them if they believe it and they typically reply, “Yeah, but…” Once the ‘but’ comes in, then they’ve just removed faith from the equation. Remember, Paul does not provide any such categories here for faith with works. It is either by works, in which case faith is null, or by faith in God’s promise to do it for you, in which case it is a gift.
Hence, the Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Roman Catholics, as much as they might like to cheer on faith in Christ, none of them can follow Paul here without interrupting him in some way, indicating they do not truly believe in Paul’s doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, and why as Christian as they may sound, they have no gospel of salvation. How then are we saved by what Paul is teaching here?
Let’s return to Romans 4:3, where Paul takes us all the way back to Abraham. When Abraham believes God, it is counted as righteousness. What does Abraham believe? He believes what we just went through, God’s promise of salvation by covenant. It was when Abraham believed God that he was counted as righteous. What ‘righteousness’ was counted to him, then? Firstly, let’s consider the Greek word being used as ‘counted’ here. The word means to be accounted as, to be considered to be. It is the equivalent of providing to one’s account, such as their bank account, in our day in age.
Abraham’s faith, then, accounts a righteousness to God, and what righteousness is that? Paul just told us in Romans 3:22–the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ, acquired by faith. So it is the righteousness of Jesus Christ. How then does this work? When you consider the Old Testament, particularly in Leviticus, when God is going through the nature of the atonement, an animal is killed on behalf of the one being atoned for, by the high priest. The high priest represents this person in the sacrifice, offers the sacrifice as being the ‘sin-bearer’ on behalf of the person being atoned for. This is to appease the righteous wrath of God for that sinner.
Christ becomes the ultimate sin offering on the cross, bearing upon himself the sins of all those who would have faith in him, and in return, his righteousness he had acquired is given to the sinner Christ represents in his atoning sacrifice. This is what we call the doctrine of imputed righteousness. My sins are placed upon the sin-bearer; not some, not most, all of my sins. And in return, I attain his righteousness; not some, not most, all of it. Since Christ’s atonement is infinite in its value, it atones eternally on my behalf. What left is there for me to do? This is essentially the question Paul asks later in Romans 8:31. God has done this. No one can add to it, nor take it away. Not even my own sin.
Now Christ’s righteous account is made mine by grace through faith, and God has dealt with my sins on the cross. And so we return to Romans 4:7-8 and ask again, how are our sins covered? How are our lawless deeds forgiven? By repentance? No. Paul never mentions it here. Our sins are covered by the sin offering, our lawless deeds are forgiven by the atonement of Christ. When I put my trust in Christ, my sins have all been dealt with. There is nothing left for me to do. It is done and finished, and I can therefore say with Paul in Romans 5:1 that I have peace with God because I have been justified, not by my repentance, not by my works, but by faith in and through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is how Abraham was justified before God. And if Abraham is the Father of the Faithful, this then is how every believer is justified before God. They are not justified by any of their merits, nor their works, and to bring anything of our own to the cross is to blaspheme the cross and the work of God, claiming that Christ’s work was not enough on our behalf.
Paul continues his teaching of his doctrine of salvation in Romans 4:9, again by using Abraham as our model. He moves on to ask another rhetorical question, which is to ask if this justification occurred before or after Abraham began to work and live for God. This is another important point.
Take, for instance, in the Book of Mormon, in Moroni 10:32, where it says that once we deny ourselves of all ungodliness, and love the Lord with all our hearts mind and strength, then is God’s grace sufficient for us. It is after we have done these things do we have forgiveness. Interestingly enough, this contradicts what Enos says in Enos 5-8, where Enos is not forgiven after he has denied himself of all ungodliness, but rather by faith in Christ.
But for Paul, he goes in a completely opposite direction. Instead, Paul declares that Abraham was justified before he circumcised himself. In other words, before any works were performed by Abraham, he was justified and saved from all his sins. This is the significance of Paul’s use of Abraham. If this is how Abraham, who was the father of Israel, was saved, then that means all Israel is saved in this way (Romans 9:6), and that’s exactly what Paul says in the next set of verses.
To Believe God
This is how we are justified before God. Christ himself, when asked what the work of God was, answered that “you believe in him whom He has sent” (John 6:29). That is, to believe in the Son that the Father has sent. To believe with Abraham what God had promised to him thousands of years ago. Remember, when we go back to Genesis 15, it was not Abraham who walked through the parted animals to make an oath with God that he would do his part. It was God Himself passing through the pieces. It was God holding Himself to fulfill the covenant.
This God has done in Jesus Christ, and it is by this promise we are saved. I am not saved by my works, I am not saved by my obedience. Lord knows I cannot do this work. I have no ability to be perfect, as is demanded of me. Christ was perfect on my behalf, and when I trust in him, his life is for me. This does not mean that works are not involved. Indeed, James speaks of this in James 2. But the works flow out of justification, they don’t merit justification.
That is precisely what James was discussing, and indeed Paul’s doctrine, by implication, says what James also said of Abraham; that it was because Abraham was already justified and saved that he began to live in faith towards God. Abraham circumcised himself not to be just before God, but because he was, and he was trusting that God was going to do what He promised to do. It was because Abraham trusted God and His promise that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, the promised and beloved son of Abraham, because his faith carried him through the trial, it made him see that somehow, some way, God was going to get Isaac through this because He promised. That’s what it’s all about.
In Hebrews 11 (which I believe was a written sermon of Paul by Luke), he says this very thing as he goes through all of the patriarchs of Scripture. From Abel, to Abraham, to Moses, to Gideon, David and on to all the elect, that it was faith that drove them, not their works in or towards God. They were not driven by what they were going to do. They were driven by what God promised He would do. That is who our God is, a God of mercy, of grace, a God of promise. That is what it means to believe in God.