If I said to you that no number ending in 7 can be divided by 2, you’d have trouble proving me wrong. Seven can’t be divided by 2. Seventeen can’t be divided by 2. Twenty seven can’t be divided by 2 either. They are all odd numbers. In fact, you’ll never be able to find a number ending in seven that can be divided by 2. Because there isn’t one. Because my original statement was true.
But if I said to you that no number ending in 7 can be divided by 3, you won’t take long to prove me wrong. Because although 7 can’t be divided by 3 and 17 can’t be divided by 3, 27 divided by 3 is 9. In fact 27 is 3 time 3 times 3. If there was ever a number that could be divided by 3 it is 27.
In this case we call 27 a counter example. A counter example is something that proves that a statement is false. The statement, “No number ending in 7 can be divided by 3” is proven false by the counter example of 27. Its existence runs counter, it is against the original statement.
Counter examples are useful because there are many assertions in maths or science or philosophy or politics or history that are hard to prove true. But if a counter example can be found then they can easily be shown to be false. “No one can climb Mt Everest.” Um, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Even just one example would show that the statement was false.
In Romans chapter 4, the apostle Paul considers whether Abraham is a counter example. In chapter 4 verse 1, Paul writes,
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?
Or to put that question in other words, Does the experience of Abraham show that what Paul has been saying about faith is false? But that question presupposes another question, What has Paul been saying about faith? And that question is easily answered by a quick recap of the story of Romans so far.
In Romans chapter 1 Paul lays out the heart of his message, the gospel. Jesus Christ is Lord. The purpose of sharing this message with others is to create the obedience that comes from faith. Because God’s wrath is being poured out on the wickedness of people. They suppress the truth that they know about God. They worship created things instead of their creator. They burn with passion for each other. They indulge in all kinds of depravity and cruelty. They are senseless, faithless, heartless and ruthless.
And in chapter 2 we see that religious people are no better when they condemn other people for doing the wrong thing but do the same things themselves. They are hypocrites. So in chapter 3 Paul concludes that there is no one righteous. No one who seeks God. Not even one. All are under the condemnation of sin, the good and the bad, the religious and the non-religious. No one will be justified by the law. No one will stand right before God by the things they do.
Instead, a righteousness has come from God that has nothing to do with the law. All have sinned, and are justified, stand right before God, by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus because of the salvation that is offered to us in his cross. In this way, God not only puts us right with him through faith but he has also done it the right and fair way. This doesn’t mean that we make the law useless. Instead, we who believe uphold the law and fulfil its true purpose. True obedience, Paul says, comes from faith.
The question is, though, is this true? Can it be proven to be true? Well, many things are hard to prove. It might be quicker to see first if it can be proven false, if a good counter example can be found. Someone whose experience in life runs against what Paul has been saying. And that’s why in chapter 4 Paul brings up the name of Abraham.
Because Abraham is in many ways the best first example to consider. For Abraham was the great ancestor of the Jews. God called him to leave his homeland and to go to the land of Canaan.
To you and to your descendants I will give this land.
And Abraham went. There were a few problems. Abraham didn’t have any children and he was old, so having any descendants to leave the land to was going to be tricky. And when he got to the promised land other people were already living there. But Abraham was obedient to the call of God and when he was circumcised, he became the first Jew. And maybe the greatest of them all, with maybe the possible exception of Moses. And maybe except Elijah as well. And Joseph and Daniel were pretty remarkable too. But at least in the top 5, if not in the top 3 greatest Jew of all time. And the first.
So what also makes Abraham a great example for Paul to bring up is that he was also a non-Jew. A Gentile. I mean, you can’t be the first Jew without being alive when there were no Jews. He wasn’t circumcised as a baby but as a grown man. He didn’t have the ten commandments to keep. They came hundreds of years later. And if he kept the food laws, it was a matter of custom, not of observing a law written in stone. So if a Gentile, like Abraham was before God called him, if a Gentile can please God and be blessed by God, it goes a long way towards showing how any Gentile can please God and be blessed.
What this means is that Abraham will be more than just a good counter example. He might in fact be a good example. Someone to follow. Someone whose experience can be our experience too. It means that Paul can not only use him to test if what he is saying is false. But he might also be able to use him to show that what he is saying is true.
So what does the scripture say?
as Paul put it in chapter 4 verse 3.
Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Quoting Genesis chapter 15 verse 6. Two crucial facts are established here. Abraham believed God. He believed him. God said go, and he went. God said,
Look up at the heavens and count the stars, if you can. So shall your descendants be.
And Abraham believed him. This is faith at its heart. Believing God’s promise. Believing that what God says is true and acting accordingly. When God said, “You will be the father of many nations,” Abraham believed him even when he didn’t have any children yet.
It’s not that Abraham never struggled with the idea. At one time he adopted his servant and made him his heir. At another time, Abraham fathered a child with a servant girl and hoped the boy would be his heir. Abraham struggled just like any old, fatherless man would and each time he was forced to face the consequences of his actions. But at crucial times, when it mattered the most, Abraham trusted God and his word. He didn’t just believe in God. He believed God.
And the second crucial fact is that that faith in God was credited to Abraham as righteousness. Credited to him. Counted as righteousness. Considered to be righteousness. And Paul makes an important logical point in verses 4 and 5.
Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
When a person has a job and puts in the hours and fulfils their duties, they get paid wages. It’s not a gift. They’ve earned them. They can put the money in the bank and be proud of what they’ve achieved by their own efforts. The wages are not credited to them. They are not considered to be theirs. They are not treated as if they are theirs. They are theirs. And if the wages aren’t paid, the worker has the right to demand them because the employers is under an obligation to hand them over.
But that would not be a good way of describing Abraham’s experience. Abraham didn’t have a faultless track record. He didn’t receive God’s blessing as an obligation for services rendered. Instead, despite his flaws and his very human struggles, Abraham trusted the God who had called such an unworthy person as himself, and that faith was credited as righteousness. And the flawed man Abraham was blessed and in his old age he received the promised child by a miracle of God. And his joy was so complete he named the baby boy Isaac, which in his own language means he laughs. He laughs. What an astonishing, unexpected, and undeserved gift of joy. All because God kept the promise that Abraham believed.
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.
And in verses 6 to 8, Paul proposes that another way of saying the same thing would be to quote David’s words in Psalm 32. That’s right, David. Like David and Goliath. Like David and Bathsheba. A flawed man who trusted God. And join him with Abraham and you’ve got two of the top six, if not the top two people of faith in the whole Bible. What did David say?
Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.
So another way of saying that faith is credited as righteousness, counted as righteousness apart from works of the law is forgiveness, all our flaws, all our struggles forgiven so that our sin is never counted against us.
This is grace. The blessing of God is not something that we earn, that we achieve by our own efforts, that we have the right to demand if it is not paid on time. But the blessing of God belongs to God and it is given to Abraham, to David, to us as a gift. Not because of what we have done. But despite what we have done.
If faith is counted as righteousness, it means the same as our sins not counted against us. It is forgiveness. It is free and undeserved. So that even when the blessing becomes ours, and we enjoy it, it will always be and will always remain God’s blessing. So that everything good in us is only a gift from him.
And who gets this gift? Or as Paul puts it in verse 9,
Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?
Is the blessing of righteousness, of forgiveness, only for Jews or for non-Jews too? Well, what does Abraham’s example show us? Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. But when?
Under what circumstances was it credited?
Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It wasn’t after, but before.
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Genesis chapter 15 verse 6. And then he was circumcised later in Genesis chapter 17. A lot of strange things happen in the book of Genesis, but simple mathematics is a reliable constant. Fifteen comes before 17. Even if 17 can’t be divided by 2 or 3, it still comes after 15. So the man in chapter 15, the man who believed God, the man to whom his faith was credited as righteousness, wasn’t a good Jew at all. He was an ordinary, fallible, very human Gentile. Just like me. Just like you. Not a superhero of faith. But one of us.
In this sense, Abraham is not just the father of the Jews, who are all related to him, who can call him their ancestor, and his DNA flows in their veins. But he is the father of us all. Our ancestry may come from different lands. Our struggles, our flaws may be different. But if Abraham, the first Jew, born a Gentile, pleased God with his faith and received God’s blessing as a gift because God keeps his promises, then we can too. As Paul says in verses 11 and 12,
He is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
It’s just another way of saying that all have sinned and are justified freely by God’s grace. The very thing that Paul was trying to show.
Abraham has turned out to be a terrible counter example. Paul brought him up, just like Paul’s enemies must have brought him up all the time in the hopes of quickly proving him wrong. But if even Abraham, the first Jew, maybe even the best Jew, or at least in the top 5 or 6, if even Abraham could not stand right before God because of what he did, then neither can we. On the contrary, if Abraham, the non-Jew, the flawed, fallible human being could stand right before God despite what he did and his sins not held against him, then maybe so can we.
Abraham is our father too, the father of us all, if we follow his example of faith and then God’s blessing is ours not because of what we do but despite it.