Making Sense of Faith

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the true meaning of biblical faith.

Faith is Only as Good as its Object: Romans 4:1-3,23-25.

[1]  What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? [2]  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

[3]  For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." [23]  But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone,

[24]  but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, [25]  who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

[1-3]  Typically Paul opens with a question, and his then links what he is saying with the previous argument. If it is true that he is establishing the law with his doctrine of salvation in Christ, then something must be said about Abraham. Forefather according to the flesh describes Abraham as the father of the Jewish race. Paul looks at the supposition that Abraham was justified by works. This is not a view he can accept, but it was widely held by Jewish teachers. They saw Abraham as an outstanding person who had kept the provisions of the law before the law was in fact laid down. If this view is right, then Paul is very wrong. But if Paul can show that Abraham was justified freely by God’s grace, the apostle will have gone a long way towards establishing his position. He begins by assuming for the moment that Abraham was justified in this way, and then asking what follows. In that case Abraham would have something to boast about. He would be able to take credit for having accomplished his justification before God by his own efforts. But Paul raises this possibility only to dismiss it. No man can boast before God. It is unthinkable that anyone, even Abraham, could have matter for boasting in God’s presence, so Paul exclaims but not before God. His language is highly compressed, and these words are exclamatory, giving emphasis to an utter impossibility. Paul is saying emphatically, as part of his argument, that Abraham had nothing to boast of before God. He will go on to point out that Scripture makes this clear and that the consequence is that no one is justified by his works (if Abraham was not, who could be?). Characteristically Paul turns from human suppositions to the teaching of Scripture as the authoritative source for his teaching. For Paul faith is not a good work; it is trust in God. To believe what God says means to trust Him, and Paul makes this clear as he develops his argument throughout this chapter. Abraham did not perform some great work of merit, but simply trusted God. The verb counted or credited is used in the keeping of accounts. It was set down to Abraham’s account that he was righteous. It is possible to put to one’s account what he possesses or what he does not possess. In the first case it is a simple act of justice; in the second, it is a matter of grace. The latter is Abraham’s case, since God reckons his faith to him for what it is not: for righteousness. Righteousness here clearly points to status. Nothing is said about Abraham’s deeds or the like. And a righteousness that is reckoned must be a right standing (an ethical virtue cannot be reckoned; it must be acquired by upright living). To say that faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness means that faith itself is not righteousness. Paul is not saying that, because sinners could not produce the good works necessary to merit salvation, God allowed them to substitute faith as an easier option. He is saying that God gives salvation freely and that faith is the means whereby we receive the gift.

[23-25]  The principle found in verse 23 is very important for Paul. In 15:4 he says that whatever is written in Scripture is written for our instruction. So here, while Abraham’s faith was obviously very important for him and his immediate circle, Paul writes that the words were not written for his sake alone. This means more than that what is written informs and edifies us. Paul is saying that the words laid down an important truth whose application was not limited to Abraham; it is relevant to all the saved. Righteousness will be reckoned to us in the same way it was to Abraham. Paul explicitly applies the words to all who believe. To believers God will credit righteousness just as he did to Abraham. The future tense (will be counted) points to the eschatological aspect of justification. In one sense believers are justified now; they have received right standing with God and this is their present possession. From another point of view the consummation waits till Judgment Day and thus may be referred to as still future. This crediting or counting is an activity exercised towards us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord. Since the resurrection of Jesus is of central importance, it is not surprising that Paul links it with faith in this way. Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Clearly Paul is affirming strongly that it was for our sins that Christ died and that He has perfectly accomplished our justification.

Faith Involves as Act of the Will:  Romans 10:9-13.

[9]  because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. [10]  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. [11]  For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." [12]  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. [13]  For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."  [ESV]

[9]  Paul proceeds to speak of confessing and believing. We should understand these two things to be closely related as the outward and the inward aspects of the same thing. Both the outward and the inward are important. No one is saved by the merely outward confession; the state of the heart is important. But Paul does not contemplate an inner state that is not reflected in outward conduct. If anyone really believes he will confess Christ, so it is natural to link the two. The verb translated confess has a wide variety of meanings, but confessing Christ is clearly a solemn religious act. It is a public declaration of commitment to Christ and of faith in Him. The content of the confession is Jesus is Lord. It points to the deity of Christ. This confession is important, for Paul tells us elsewhere that no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit [1 Cor. 12:3]. Anyone can, of course, utter the words. What Paul is saying is that to know that Jesus is the Lord is not a human discovery; it is something revealed by the Holy Spirit. With that confession Paul links believing in the heart. The reference to the heart points to the inwardness of faith; Paul is not referring to a superficial confession, accompanied by no more than a token faith. He is referring to a faith that takes hold of the whole of the inner man. Notice further that he speaks of believing that, indicating that faith has content. To Paul it matters that we believe, but it also matters what we believe. Here he speaks of believing that God raised him from the dead. The resurrection is of critical importance. It is at the cross that God did His saving work, but Paul does not believe in a dead martyr but in a living Savior. Not only did Jesus die for our sins but God raised Him, triumphant over all the forces of evil. If Christ is not raised, Paul holds, our faith is futile and we are yet in our sins [1 Cor. 15:17]. But where we have the confession and the faith of which he has been speaking, we will be saved. As usual, salvation is envisaged as future. Paul is looking to the end of this age and the coming of eternal salvation, the life of the world to come.

[10-13]  For introduces a reason, or more precisely a further explanation of the preceding verse. We should not treat the two verses as though they were detailing separate happenings. They belong together and are two modes of the same thing: the new divine life in the soul. Christian confession is as truly a gracious and holy act, as Christian faith. We now have them in the natural order: faith first, then confession. Paul connects believing with being justified. Once again we have this leading idea of Paul’s that righteousness is not a matter of law works; we attain it by faith. All that we can do is to believe. Here it is linked to confession which issues in salvation. As in the preceding verse we should not think of faith as leading to righteousness or justification and confession as a different act that leads to salvation. These are but two parts of the same saving experience. Once again Paul cites a scriptural passage that witnesses to the importance of faith [Isaiah 28:16]. He has already quoted these words in 9:33. It is in faith that Paul’s deep interest lies, and it is on faith that he constantly places his emphasis. For in verse 12 carries the argument along in logical sequence. Paul has been emphasizing the importance of faith as the one way to God. This in itself implies that Jews and Gentiles are saved in exactly the same way, but Paul now becomes explicit on this point: there is no distinction. Earlier he made the point that there is no difference in sin [3:22]; now he says there is no difference in salvation. For Paul the distinctions between Jew and Greek have been overcome. There is but one God, who saves people by the way of the cross, that is to say, by grace and through faith, and that means that distinctions like those between Jew and Greek are irrelevant. Jews and Greeks must have the one way of salvation because there is but one Lord over both. The Lord’s generosity (riches) is extended to all who call on him. Yet another for in verse 13 carries the argument along, and once again this is done by citing Scripture. Paul quotes Joel 2:32 for the thought that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is comprehensive; there is no exception. We must understand calls on in no mere formal sense; it is a calling on the Lord out of a sense of inadequacy and need and proceeds from a genuine conviction that the Lord can be relied on. It is significant that once again Paul takes words which in the Old Testament are used of Yahweh and uses them of Christ. Characteristically we have the future of the verb “to save”; it is salvation in the final state of affairs that Paul has in mind. The salvation Christ brings is adequate through eternity as well as in the here and now.

Faith is a Way of Life:  Hebrews 12:1-2.

[1]  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2]  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  [ESV]

[1-2]  Hebrews 12 begins with a moving appeal addressed to the listeners, urging them to endure in their suffering. The sentence opens with Therefore which indicates an emphatic relationship between 11:39-40 and 12:1-2. The former verses speaks of the vivid witness of so many faithful predecessors who fell short of perfection, while the latter draws the inference that the listeners must endure in their struggle like those who went before them. The goal towards which the catalogue of faithful men and women in Hebrews 11 was moving was not fulfilled. The indication to this effect in verse 39 and the glimmer of hope in verse 40 prepare for Jesus, the supreme example of faith, in 12:1-3. The author’s purpose in focusing on the examples of faith in chapter 11 was to urge his listeners to patient and trusting perseverance in spite of hardship. This intention now becomes obvious as he resumes the more direct mode of speech (we, us) and applies the appeal of the previous chapter to them. How they are to demonstrate faith and endurance is unfolded in the clauses that follow. In two earlier exhortations the author of Hebrews encourages his listeners to press on by identifying what they already have. At 4:14-16 they have a great high priest, and this undergirds the summons to hold fast to the confession and to approach the throne of grace with confidence. In 10:19-25 they have confidence to enter the sanctuary and a great priest over the house of God. These provide the basis for the threefold exhortation to approach, hold fast, and consider. Now the listeners have so great a cloud of witnesses. A cloud was a common metaphor for a great throng of people, while the demonstrative so great is emphatic and draws attention to the number and magnificence of that assembly. This throng of witnesses is the men and women of chapter 11 who received testimony from God in Scripture to the constancy of their faith [11:2,4,5,39]. Of particular relevance for the listeners are those who endured suffering and persecution by faith [11:35-38]. Two questions arise: (1) What is meant by the term witness? The word means “one who bears testimony,” particularly in a judicial setting. More generally, it refers to anyone who observes some activity or event and testifies to it. Then the term came to have the nuance of “martyr,” describing those in the early church who bore witness to Christ and suffered violent death as a result of their testimony. (2) How do the witnesses function in this exhortation of verse 1? In the context of chapter 12, it is natural to think of an amphitheater with ascending rows of spectators watching us from the grandstands. The participle surrounded by suggests that they are witnesses to our efforts. But from chapter 11, we see that they are far more than mere spectators. Instead they are spectators who interpret to us the meaning of our struggle, and who bear testimony to the certainty of our success if we strive faithfully. In this way they are intended to inspire persistent Christian discipleship. The author reminds his readers of this wonderful assembly of faithful predecessors who endured testing and abuse as well as every kind of indignity. They did so by faith, trusting that God would reward them. The parallels with the listeners’ lives are obvious and were meant to encourage them to endure faithfully. Like runners preparing for a race, the members of the community are urged to lay aside every weight that hinders running the race. This expression recalls the usual preparation of athletes stripping off their clothing for a race so that nothing will impede them. The verb to lay aside was used literally for the removal of clothes and figuratively of all kinds of habits and hindrances. What is removed is first anything that hinders one from doing something, hence a weight, burden or impediment. Further, well-prepared runners will also rid themselves of the sin which clings so closely that it prevents them from running the race. Our author is not referring to some specific sin but to sin in general. Every sin hinders us in running the race because it clings to us or entangles us while we are running. Sin slows us down, it trips us and gets us off course. Therefore we must lay aside or put off every sin so that we can run with endurance the race that is set before us. The key verb of the exhortation in verses 1-2 is let us run. It is expressed by an exhortation rather than an imperative. The author is not commanding us but rather exhorting as he adopts a pastoral tone and identifies himself with his listeners. He too needs to press on and persevere. The race that is run is an endurance race as indicated by the present tense of run. We are to run this race and keep on running this race with endurance or perseverance which requires resolute determination. It is a race that is set before us indicating that the race course has been designed for us. Thus we can be sure that it will bring us to the final goal if we stay on course and finish the race. There must be firm resolve not to drop out of the contest but to exert every effort to cross the finish line despite hardship, exhaustion, and pain. Athletes competing in a race must keep their eyes fixed on the goal towards which they are running. The author’s appeal calls for concentrated attention that turns away from all distractions, with eyes only for Jesus. Looking or fixing our eyes upon has the meaning of relying upon or looking to someone for support or inspiration. If the first encouragement for believers to press on in faith and endurance towards the final goal is that they have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding them, then the supreme encouragement to persevere comes from Jesus. The use of the name Jesus emphasizes His humanity, particularly His endurance of pain, humiliation, and the disgrace of the cross. Jesus is described as the founder and perfecter of our faith. Faith here, in light of the preceding chapter, should be understood absolutely of the believing response to God shown by the cloud of witnesses and especially by Jesus Himself. In His earthly life He was the crowning example of trust in God. He is thus the perfect example of faith that we are to express. At the same time He is the author or founder of true faith. He is also the perfecter of faith which means that He brings faith to a successful conclusion in that He shows the goal of true faith. His own faith was demonstrated in endurance and suffering. He endured the suffering and shame of the cross for the joy that was set before him. It was the joy of accomplishing the plan of redemption for which He became man that sustained Him on the cross. Jesus’ assumption of the position at the right hand of God represents the joy set before Him for the sake of which He endured shame and death. It is the prize that came to Him at the end of His race. His session at the right hand is the guarantee of the absoluteness of Christ’s exaltation and the utter security of those who have placed their hope in Him. When believers, who are still running their race, fix their eyes on Jesus and rely on Him for support and help, they know that He is the perfecter of faith who is seated at God’s right hand, having endured the cross and shame for them. His exemplary fidelity is underscored so as to encourage them to persevere in faithfulness.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the relationship between faith and righteousness in Abraham? What does this relationship tell you about the nature of your salvation?

2.         How is confessing and believing related? Can you have one without the other? What does Paul mean by confessing that Jesus is Lord: what role does the Holy Spirit play in our confessing [see 1 Cor. 12:3]? Why does Paul focus on the resurrection of Jesus as the content of our faith?

3.         List the three ways we are to run the race (let us … let us … looking). What do you think the author means by set before us? Who has set before you the race you are running? What encouragement or comfort do you derive from this truth? What does it mean to look or fix our eyes upon Jesus? What have you discovered that helps you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus? What joy is set before you that can motivate you to endure and persevere? [see 2 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 3:20-21.]


The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, John Stott, Inter-Varsity.

A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philip Hughes, Eerdmans.

The Letter to the Hebrews, Peter O’Brien, Eerdmans.

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