What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. Romans 4:1-5
What is faith? What does it mean to believe?
I believe that a parachute, when used properly, will allow one to float safely to earth. I’ve read about parachutes, and I’ve seen them in photographs and videos. I understand the physical principle of drag they employ. I know many people who have used them and I’ve listened to their stories. On occasion, I have seen with my own eyes men and women descend from the sky under a canopy of silk. But I have never personally used a parachute. There are no silver wings on the left breast of my dress uniform. If I ever find myself airborne, with a parachute strapped to my body and an open door in front of me, my actions will then reveal whether I really believe in parachutes. How I feel about parachutes or what I think about them is totally irrelevant. In that context, the only sense of “believe” that has any meaning is the one made real by my actions. Will I step off into the thin air rushing past the aircraft door?
It is this kind of belief that God “credits as righteousness.”
Abraham’s faith was made real in his actions. He left his home in Haran based on God’s promise of a new home. He trusted that God’s promise that God would give him descendants more numerous than the stars of the sky. He entered into a covenant relationship with this God based on this promise, and kept at the work of baby-making even though he was old and childless.
In Genesis 12:1-4, God promised Abram that he would become the father of a mighty nation in the land that God would show him. Abram believed God. How do we know? He exited the aircraft. He left his home. Many years later, in Genesis 15, God again promised Abram that he would be a father of a large nation. The promise has not yet been fulfilled, and from the human perspective, things are looking hopeless. But, Abram still believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Many more years later, Abram and Sarai were still childless and now very old. Still, God made the promise to Abram once more, and gave to him the sign of the covenant – the sign of circumcision. “Abraham (for now God gave Abram a new name), I know you are old, but believe me, you and Sarah will have a child. And as a sign that you believe me, I want you to cut off the end of your baby making equipment.” Once again, Abraham believed God and exited the aircraft. He performed the surgery, and shortly thereafter, in a great act of faith, this 99 year old man said to his wife, “Sarah, let’s make a baby.”
Abraham’s faith is found not in what he felt or what he thought, but in how he lived.
Now, Abraham’s actions weren’t consistently trusting of God’s promise. Twice he pretended that his wife was his sister, not trusting God to protect him from those who coveted her (Genesis 12:10-20, Genesis 20). Once, he and Sarah decided to rely on a surrogate (Hagar) to bear a child for them (Genesis 16) instead of trusting God to do just what he said. Still, the general direction of Abraham’s life took shape because of decisions that he made based upon God’s promises. Some episodes of his life with God were dramatic. Most were not. His whole life – the dramatic episodes in which he saw angels and talked with God, and the mundane episodes in which he tended his flocks and led to them to pasture – his whole life flowed from his belief in God’s word. Or put another way, the most significant events of Abraham’s life were those in which his choices showed what he really believed about what God told him.
In Abraham, we see that faith means trusting God’s word enough to risk living by it.
The conflict between faith and works arises only when we have an unbiblical understanding of faith. When we hear Paul discuss faith versus the law, we think inward versus outward, spirit versus action. That’s not at all what Paul means by the word “faith.” Faith is not a feeling, and it’s not an idea. Faith is not thinking right thoughts or having the right kind of inward experience.
And when Paul speaks of “works,” he’s not speaking about actions per se, but about work that earns payment. I have an agreement with the Army. I show up at the right place at the right time in the right uniform and do what I’m told, and they give me a check. It’s not a gift. Look in the left hand column of my Leave and Earnings Statement. That money is an entitlement.
Looking to God for my entitlement – that’s what Paul is fighting here in Romans. The godly life is not about earning and entitlement. Even from the beginning, it’s been about believing God.
When I was in high school, my youth pastor challenged us to live this courageous life of faith – the kind of faith Abraham exhibited – the kind of faith that Jesus himself demonstrated in trusting God enough to endure a Roman cross. It was in that church youth group that I first heard the words of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.
The members of our little group fantasized about becoming martyrs like those of ancient Rome, or missionaries who gave their lives for Christ in a foreign land, or pastors who could stand like Luther before the Diet of Worms. We saw the Christian life as a conflict between the forces of conformity and those who courageously stood for the truth.
Well, life doesn’t work out like youthful fantasies very often. As I grew older, I discovered that most of life was a lot more ordinary and mundane than we had imagined, and that I wasn’t nearly as brave as I once fancied myself.
It’s not that life doesn’t give us opportunities to act in faith.
You are aware, I imagine, that chaplains do not bear arms – not even a sidearm for self protection. When I first arrived in Kuwait in January 2003, many of the Soldiers were surprised to find that I didn’t carry a weapon. That discovery on their part became a springboard for several interesting conversations. I was able to tell them that I trusted them enough to go with them unarmed, but most of all I trusted God to be with me no matter what happened. I told them that when they saw me on the battlefield, it might remind them that they could trust in God, too, no matter what came their way.
Beginning in March 2003, I got to put my money where my mouth was. During the fight from the border to Baghdad, and then during the first days of occupation, there were occasions characterized by what Army types call “high pucker factor.” I discovered that, for me, trusting God didn’t keep me from being afraid, but it did let me buckle my chin strap and move out on whatever mission came next.
But even for Soldiers, most of life is not like this. Most of life is going to school when you’re young, and then going to work when you’re older. It’s making friends and getting married and having kids. It’s cooking supper and doing dishes and taking out the trash. It’s going shopping and paying bills.
Even in the routine, mundane events of life, we still have the opportunity to believe God. How we live our everyday life reveals what we trust, what we value, and what we believe.
Paul reminds us that Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness. And we have the word of Jesus himself that “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” followed by the promise” whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it.”
The godly life is all about believing God. It’s that simple. And that hard.