I was listening to a sermon yesterday (from several years ago), where the preacher was talking about justification. He talked about Romans 4 and Abraham, and made the claim that Abraham believed, looking forward to the death of Christ.
I don't think that's true. It is true that Abraham looked forward to Christ, rejoicing to see His day (John 8:56); but neither Romans 4, nor Genesis 15 refer to that. I think there's a real problem if you go down that path, and it's worth spending some time thinking about.
Genesis 15:6 is the one place in Scripture we actually see someone justified, so it's natural that Romans 4 would look back to it. The whole subject of Romans 4 is justification, argued from the Old Testament – of course it references Abraham's justification by faith.
But the fact is that Romans 4:1–5 makes the argument that Abraham was justified when he believed God. The point appears to be whom Abraham believed, not what he believed:
for what does the scripture say? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3)
Romans 4:16–22 does go on to give a description of what Abraham believed:
[Abraham] against hope believed in hope to his becoming father of many nations, according to that which was spoken (Romans 4:18)So Romans 4 credits Abraham with believing God about the promise that he would be the father of many nations. And the passage goes on to enumerate the barriers to his faith: he (Abraham) was too old to have children, and his wife had never been able to conceive (Romans 4:19). But despite what he knew to be true, he believed God.
Again, let's acknowledge that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ's day (John 8:56). There's no doubt that Abraham looked forward to Christ. But the simple truth is that Romans 4 doesn't mention this. It doesn't even hint at it. For that matter, neither does Genesis 15. The entire conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 15 (Genesis 15:4–12) is about Abraham's childlessness and his uncertainty about possessing the land God gave him. The fact is, Romans 4 quotes Genesis 15 (not Genesis 12 nor Genesis 17 nor Genesis 22) when it discusses Abraham's justification by faith. The crux of the argument is whom – not what – Abraham believed.
James quotes Genesis 15:6 too (James 2:21–23). James says when Abraham offered Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22:9–12), that "the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God" (James 2:23). That verse was very popular several years ago, when "Lordship Salvation" was popular. I objected then, that Romans 4:1–5 quotes Genesis 15, not Genesis 22. Indeed, it seems to me that James 2 makes it quite clear that Genesis 15 must precede Genesis 22, because James says that Genesis 22 "fulfills" Genesis 15.
Similarly, the promises to Abraham's seed are in Genesis 22:15–18. Now that might not seem significant, but it is Genesis 22:18 that Acts 3:25 and Galatians 3:16 quote. I don't doubt that Abraham had a revelation of Jesus Christ, but the New Testament quotes Genesis 22 to prove it. So my contention is, making Romans 4:1–5 about a faith in Jesus Christ's future [to Abraham] death for his sins is exactly the same error as "Lordship Salvation" – it's putting Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 together, when Scripture plainly doesn't. Indeed, one author claims that Genesis 22 comes as late as 40 years after Genesis 15.
So no, I don't believe that Abraham believed about Christ per se in the account in Romans 4:1–5. It isn't supported by the immediate context (Romans 4:13–22), nor by the context in Genesis 15:1–9. It doesn't align with James 2:21–23, nor with Galatians 3:16. On the contrary, Romans 4:13–22 explicitly tells us that Abraham believed God that he would have a physical heir. The point is not what Abraham believed, but whom.
Before we go on, let's reiterate that God justifies men and women who believe Him (Romans 4:5). He justifies them on the basis of the work of Christ (Romans 3:21–26). I am definitely not claiming that there is righteousness for us except in Christ Jesus, and only because He died for us.
Scripture tells us about the "everlasting gospel" in Revelation 14:6–7: "Fear God and give him glory". And this is so very important. If we say God only justifies those who understand and believe that Christ died for them, then we really deny the gospel. God isn't waiting for people to understand justification before He justifies. On the contrary, God merely wants men and women to believe Him. I am completely convinced that all who fear God and give Him glory are justified in His sight, regardless of how well they know and understand that Christ has died for them. Certainly it's only because of the work of Christ that God justifies, but an understanding of that work is not a barrier to God's justifying the one who believes Him.
And this comes back to my continued ranting about people equating "saved" with "justified" or "born again." They're not the same thing, and scripture doesn't ever treat them like synonyms. But when we treat them like they're the same, then we're forced to make some outlandish assumptions about Scripture. So in Acts 19:1–7, we find the disciples of John in Ephesus. Paul asks them, "Did ye receive [the] Holy Spirit when ye had believed?" (Acts 19:2). They respond that they don't know what he's talking about. But notice, Paul explicitly says they had believed. Were they justified? Of course they were! God justifies the one who believes (Romans 4:5). But they hadn't received the Holy Spirit: they weren't Christ's (Romans 8:9). They knew John's gospel, they had believed it, but they hadn't believed on Christ. The Holy Spirit seals faith in Christ (John 7:39). God justifies those who believe Him, but the Holy Spirit seals faith in Christ, not faith in God.
Remember, the children of Israel were redeemed when they headed out after the Passover, but they weren't saved until they saw the bodies of the Egyptians on the shore (Exodus 14:30).
Believing God justifies, but it's faith in Christ that brings us into salvation. Salvation isn't righteousness in God's sight: salvation is the possession of men and women in Christ. Justification is Romans 4, salvation is Romans 8.
If we go back to John's disciples in Ephesus, we realize that they certainly weren't saved, but they were justified. And Paul doesn't treat them like pagans. But if we confuse salvation with justification, then we have to put everyone we meet into one of two categories: either they're saved or they're lost. But scripture just doesn't support that idea. There may be many people we meet who have believed God (and are thus justified), but who are ignorant or confused then it comes to the work of Christ. We shouldn't treat them like pagans, we should treat them like Paul treated John's disciples.
Now, I don't believe that anyone God has justified can reject Christ. Or, to put it another way, someone who denies Christ certainly hasn't believed God. I'm not suggesting that God justifies the one who outright rejects Christ. But I am saying that there are many people who have been justified, but aren't yet saved. There are many who believe God, but haven't [yet] believed Christ.
On the other hand, when we fall into the trap of lumping salvation and justification together, we end up with churches full of people who are content to be justified from their sins, but who don't ever make it to Romans 8. If we feel we have to put people into one of two buckets ("Saved" or "Lost"), then we end up calling someone "saved" who is merely justified.
And that, I think, is precisely where evangelicals have gone so badly off track.