Saturday, July 27, 2019

What did Abraham believe?

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.


Robert said...


Thank you for another thought-provoking article. I agree with much of what you write but not with the conclusion.

" 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."

I completely agree but if we go a step further and ask who was the God that Abraham believed in, the context clearly shows that he believed in a God who can bring a son out of death. The thought of barrenness and the death of his and Sarah's body with regards to childbearing was clearly on his mind in ch 15 and 18.

Roman 4: 18-23 explains this in detail. Then Paul links the faith of Abraham with our faith by stating, ' but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead'.

Abraham was justified because he believed in the God who can bring a son out of death. We are justified because we believe in the God who brought a Son out of death.

However in Genesis 15, although Abraham did not look forward to the death of Christ it seems to me that His death was clearly before God:

'And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him'

Is this not Calvary in prospect? Therefore I would add to what you argue that while many people in the OT were justified without an understanding of the death of Christ, God credited, imputed, accounted, them with the death of Christ which was in the future. In NT
times, God credits those He justifies with a death that has taken place. The gospel today points men backwards - 'how that Christ died for our sins...' 1 Corinthians 15

So I would submit that while God does not require men to have a clear understanding of the death of Christ, for who then could be saved, the basis of His dealings with mankind is His own understanding and appreciation of Calvary. On this basis, He imputes righteousness to men.

With regards to your conclusion, I would only comment that I have never met a person who knows that they are justified but doesn't understand they are saved. I do however think I have met hundreds of people who know they are saved but do not know they have been justified!

Susan said...

"I have never met a person who knows that they are justified but doesn't understand they are saved. I do however think I have met hundreds of people who know they are saved but do not know they have been justified!

"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."
Mark, are you saying that someone today can believe God but not yet believe Christ and be justified?

clumsy ox said...


I absolutely agree that God had an eye, so to speak, on the death of Christ when He justified Abraham. From Adam down to today, it's only because God sees the blood of Christ that He can justify the one who doesn't work, but believes.

I tried to be clear on that point, but I like your explanation better.

One of my friends says that God only blesses with a view to the death of Christ: even the rain that falls upon the just and the unjust is really a result of the death of Christ. I don't have a verse for that, but I suspect he's right.


clumsy ox said...


I think it's pretty clear that was happening in Acts. Lydia, for example, had already turned to God from idols before she met Paul (Acts 16:14–15). Cornelius appears to be a similar case.

Certainly I'm not arguing that someone can actually reject the Lord and yet still believe God. If we reject Christ, we are calling God a liar. If someone says, "I believe in God, I'm not so sure about Jesus," then it's pretty clear they don't believe in either.

Of course the Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10). That certainly sounds like an all-at-once conversion from paganism to Christ. So it's not like I'm saying that never happens.

And of course I'm not advocating for a Christ-less gospel. That's not what the Apostles preached, and it's not hinted at in Scripture. If someone has already believed God, they certainly will believe on Christ (John 14:1).

But when we read about Lydia, or Cornelius in the light of Romans 4, we have to say that God justified them long before they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don't see why that would be any different today. I realize it seems hypothetical to a certain degree: who hasn't heard of Jesus Christ? But I remember reading about several people leaving the Watchtower: it was almost never because they began to believe in the deity of Christ (not at first). It seems to start with them grasping that God saves only by grace through faith. Clarity on the Person of Christ comes later. I suppose that would be an example.

We also hear missionary reports about encountering people in the bush with no external contact, no Bible, no Gospel. And yet there are those who worship the Creator God, apparently along the lines of Romans 1:20. It seems to me those are also examples of someone who believes God, not yet knowing about Christ.


Robert said...

It has never occurred to me to define Cornelius or Lydia as justified but I will have to think about them.

What do we think about this statement , taken from Romans verse by verse by Newall?

“Verse 7: The "patient continuance in well-doing" is not at all set
forth as the means of their procuring eternal life, [39] but as a
description of those to whom God does render life eternal. Well-doing
is subjection to and obedience to the light God has vouchsafed. [40] To
Abel, "well-doing" meant approaching God by a sacrifice, as a sinner,
as he had been taught to do. To Noah, "continuance in well-doing" meant
building an ark to save his house and preserve life upon the earth,
involving years of labor, and the ridicule of man. To Abraham, it meant
leaving his country, his relatives, and his father's house, and
becoming a stranger and pilgrim on earth. To Job, it meant his
God-fearing, evil-rejecting life; and afterwards, in the midst of his
great affliction, bowing before the presence of God in dust and ashes.
To Matthew the publican, it meant rising from his business and
following the Lord Jesus; to Cornelius the centurion, a life of patient
prayer and generosity,--and then believing the gospel at Peter's lips.
To Lydia, it meant humble and faithful attendance at "the place of
prayer" till Paul came and "her heart was opened" to give heed to the
gospel of grace spoken by the apostle,--whence followed her "obedience
of faith."

Susan said...

In the book of Acts, which describes the transition from the law to grace, Lydia was a worshiper of God but had not yet heard the gospel. My understanding is that she, like Cornelius, became justified and a believer when she heard the gospel and God opened her heart to believe and respond.

Joshua said...

Cornelius & Lydia were quickened (born again) before they heard the gospel through Peter & Paul gospel. They were safe, but not justified and saved.
I think they were justified after they believed.
While justified doesn't equals saved , it is more than quickening.
(RA Huebner's From New Birth to New Creation is a helpful book on this subject)
I think justification is always connected with faith in death and ressurection of Christ.
God always justified with a view to His Son's death and ressurection.

Robert said...

I think what Susan says about the interim positions in Acts is very important. I think we should be careful not to use Cornelius and Lydia as examples of what happens today in God’s dealings with a sinner. Personally, I am not happy with placing a gap between a person being born again and a person believing. I know it is a commonly held view but I cannot find any support in scripture for this position.

If I were pressed to describe in NT language what happened in the cases of Cornelius and Lydia, I would use the language of Peter:

“Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” 1 Peter 1:2

I believe that the prayers and devout lives of both were a result of the setting apart of the Spirit until they both heard the gospel and came into the good of the blood of Jesus Christ.

As a modern version of their story, I would tell of a young man in England who at the age of 19 was in a club dancing, drinking and taking drugs. He told me he stood still on the dance floor and looked at all that was happening around him and decided to leave. His friends ran after him and asked what was wrong. He said, ‘I don’t know what is wrong but I know I am not going to live this life any longer’. Was he justified? Did he experience new birth? No - he had been sanctified by the Spirit with a view to salvation.

The months went by and he continued to live a life separated from his past sinful companions until one day he was talking to his grandmother about what had happened to him. She said, “we are all worried about you and don’t understand why you have given up all your friends, but some people have read a book that has helped them understand themselves and I want to give you my copy as I have never really read it”. She gave him a bible and through reading it in his bedroom, he was brought to Christ. I know this young man because one day after his conversion, he arrived at a gospel meeting and asked how he could be baptised and received into the assembly as he had been reading the account of Paul’s early days after conversion. The brethren pressed him to explain how he was saved and as his story was clearly genuine and a work of God, they arranged to baptise and receive him into fellowship. His subsequent life proves beyond any doubt that he is born of God and justified but I don’t think it happened when standing in the club!

Robert said...

I have just read my post and realise that it seems contradictory!

When I said that we should be careful not to equate what happened with Cornelius and Lydia with circumstances to day, I meant that there are dispensational issues around them, as Cornelius was a representative Gentile and Lydia was a representative European. Sorry for any confusion.

Susan said...

I understand exactly what you're saying about Cornelius and Lydia and totally agree with you, Robert......and especially your comment on being "born again".

HandWrittenWord said...

Robert said:

"If I were pressed to describe in NT language what happened in the cases of Cornelius and Lydia, I would use the language of Peter:

“Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” 1 Peter 1:2

I believe that the prayers and devout lives of both were a result of the setting apart of the Spirit until they both heard the gospel and came into the good of the blood of Jesus Christ."


These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said,
Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee:
As thou hast given Him power over all flesh, that He should give eternal life
to as many as thou has given Him.
And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God,
and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.
(John 17:1-3)

"...that He should give eternal life to as many as thou has given Him."

" many as thou hast given Him."

Not one more. Not one less.

Anonymous said...


You mention that you have never seen a verse that demonstrates that new birth is a separate event that occurs prior to a person coming to saving faith in Christ. Here are a few.

1. 1 Peter 1: 2. The very verse you refer to shows the Scriptural pattern:
a) "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God" (chosen before the world's foundation); then
b) "through sanctification of the Spirit" (in time set apart by God's Spirit, the very act of new birth "by Spirit"); then with the view to
c) "unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ" (the word unto demonstrating a separate act, the end in sight being obedience to the Gospel and belief in it).

2. John 3: 3. "Except anyone be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God."
and John 3: 5. "Except anyone be born of water and of Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
Jesus tells Nicodemus that a man who is not born again cannot either see or enter into God's kingdom, that is to say don't expect a man who is not born again to be able to see, hear or understand or believe in the Gospel of God.

3. John 3: 12. " If I have said the earthly things to you, and ye believe not, how, if I say the heavenly things to you, will ye believe?"
Jesus distinguishes the earthly things he had spoken about (new birth), from the heavenly things he would then speak of (faith in a crucified saviour who brings in eternal life). That is not only are these things distinct, but if Nicodemus had not the first he could not have the other.

4. 1 Cor. 2: 14. "But [the] natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him; and he cannot know [them]."
Here is the crux of the issue. A natural man (not born again), cannot receive the Gospel. And not only is an act of the Spirit to stir them or set them apart only required (as you have said), but a new being as it were must be brought about (for the natural being cannot receive it), a spiritual being (by new birth).

5. There are many other verses.
- John 1. Those who believed HAD BEEN begotten of God.
- John 3. New birth as the wind blowing is characterised as an unseen and unknowable event with seen consequences.

Your example of the young man who had a 'change' in the nightclub is a vivid example, except for this fact: he was not born again on the dance floor, but that was the first moment HE WAS AWARE that something was different. New birth occurs through the word of God. Perhaps he heard a verse, statement or passing comment regarding God's things, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps on a billboard, perhaps from a stranger on the street. And the result was he was born again, and being on the nightclub floor brought it to his conscience.

I hope these thoughts are acceptable brother.