Paul has written that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth about God by their wickedness. His wrath is revealed in the way he lets us fall deeper and deeper into sin and into the misery our sin causes. However, in the gospel God reveals to us that there is a way for sinners to become right with God. But it’s got nothing to do with keeping the law, because no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law, because all the law does is reveal our sinfulness to us. Instead, we’re justified — pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in God’s sight — we’re justified by grace alone and through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
And, of course, we’re to trust in Jesus Christ, because the Lord Jesus gave up his life to redeem or to deliver us from the condemnation we deserve. And we’re to trust in Jesus Christ, because he suffered the punishment we deserve when he offered himself as the sacrifice for sins.
Since verse 27 of chapter 3, Paul’s theme has been faith. In verses 27 to 31 of chapter 3, he introduced this theme. And then, in verses 1 to 8 — which we looked at the last time — he contrasted faith and works, using Abraham as an example. Whereas the Jews revered Abraham for his obedience, nevertheless Genesis 15:6 tells us that Abraham was declared right with God because of his faith and not because of his works. Abraham believed God and so God counted him as righteous in his sight. In other words, he was justified through faith and not by works.
And Paul went on to quote from Psalm 32 where David spoke of the blessedness or the joy we experience when God pardons our transgressions and covers over our sins. Instead of treating us as if we’ve done everything wrong, he treats us as if we’ve done everything right. And he does this for us, says Paul in verse 6, apart from our works. God’s willingness to pardon us has nothing to do with what we have done. So, Paul is trying to persuade us that we’re justified through faith in Jesus Christ and in what he has done for us and not because of anything we have done.
Having contrasted faith and works, Paul goes on in verses 9 to 12 to contrast faith and circumcision. And then in verses 13 to 22 he contrasts faith and the law. And then, in verses 23 to 25, he returns to Genesis 15:6 again and points out that that verse was not only written for Abraham’s benefit, but for ours as well, so that we would know that sinners are justified by faith in Jesus Christ who was delivered over to death for our sins and who was raised to life for our justification.
So, we’re justified through faith and not by works. We’re justified through faith and not by circumcision. We’re justified through faith and not by the law. So, having already covered verses 1 to 8, we’re going to spend our time today on verses 9 to 25.
Verses 9 to 12
Back in verse 7 Paul quoted David who wrote about the blessedness of having our sins forgiven. And in verse 9 Paul asks whether this blessedness is only for the circumcised or is it for the uncircumcised as well? Is it for circumcised Jews only or is it also for the uncircumcised Gentiles as well? Is it possible for Gentiles to experience the joy of forgiveness or must they be circumcised first? Must they become a Jew before they can know God’s forgiveness in their lives?
Once again Paul turns to Abraham and uses him as an example. Under what circumstances was his faith credited to him as righteousness? In other words, when did God declare Abraham righteous in his sight? Was it after he was circumcised? Or was it before he was circumcised? If it was after he was circumcised, then someone could argue that Abraham was justified by circumcision. That is, he underwent circumcision; and because he was circumcised, God pardoned his sins and accepted him. God looked at his circumcised body, and declared him righteous in his sight. That’s what someone could argue if Abraham was circumcised first. And, in fact, that what the Rabbis taught the people: in order to obtain this righteous status before God, you have to be circumcised. And, of course, just think about what we read in the book of Acts and one of the early controversies in the New Testament church. Do you remember? In Acts 15, some people came from Jerusalem to the church in Antioch and said that unless you’re circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses you cannot be saved. The Jews held on to this belief so strongly that many of the first Christians believed you still need to be circumcised in order to be justified.
So, what do we read in Genesis about Abraham? Well, it tells us that Abraham was declared righteous in God’s sight before he was circumcised. God declared him righteous in chapter 15 and he wasn’t circumcised until chapter 17 and between those two chapters there was a period of perhaps 14 years. Abraham was not justified by circumcision; he was justified by faith.
So, why was Abraham circumcised? That’s the question Paul is dealing with in verse 11. His circumcision — which we read about in Genesis 17 — was a sign and a seal, or it was sign in order to seal and to confirm his righteous status, the righteous status which he had received from God through faith. By this sign, God was saying to him that he regarded Abraham as righteous in his sight. But it wasn’t his circumcision which made him right with God. It was his faith.
That means, Paul goes on to say, that Abraham is the spiritual father of all who believe but who have not been circumcised; and he is the spiritual father of all who who believe and who have been circumcised. He’s the spiritual father of believing Gentiles and he’s the spiritual father of believing Jews. The important thing is not whether we have been circumcised or not. The important thing is whether we believe. It’s not about relying on ourselves and anything we have done. It’s about relying completely and only on Jesus Christ and on what he has done for us when he died and rose again.
Circumcision is not so much of a hot issue for us. However, there are people who believe that we’re justified by baptism. If we’re baptised, then God will look on us with favour and pardon us and accept us. In other words, some people believe that baptism makes a child a Christian. But no. What God is looking for is faith. Do we believe in the Lord Jesus and are we relying on him and on him alone for peace with God. So, it’s not baptism, it’s faith. However, just as circumcision was a sign, so baptism is a sign; it’s a sign which confirms for us God’s willingness to pardon all who believe in the Saviour.
Verses 13 to 22
Having contrasted faith and works and faith and circumcision, Paul goes on in verses 13 to 22 to contrast faith and the law. And, once again, he uses Abraham as an example. So, God made certain promises to Abraham and his descendants. Here Paul summarises those promises by saying that he would become heir of the world. It’s not altogether clear why Paul summarises God’s promise to Abraham like that, but perhaps he’s referring to the way that God’s promise to Abraham to give him the land of Canaan points forward to the new heavens and the new earth where all of God’s people will dwell for ever and ever. In any case, the main point Paul wants to make is about how we receive the promised blessing from God. Do you receive the promised blessing by means of the law? That’s what the Jews thought. They boasted that they had the law. They alone, of all the nations of the world, possessed the law. And therefore they expected good things from the Lord.
However, what does the law bring? Look at verse 15: the law brings wrath. The law brings wrath because no one is able to keep the law perfectly. And so the law show us that we’re lawbreakers who are liable to God’s wrath. The law shows us our sin and guilt and it makes clear that we deserve to be condemned. So, the law doesn’t bring blessing; it brings wrath, because we’re all sinners who break God’s law.
So how do we receive the promised blessing? Look at verse 16: the promise — and he means the promise of forgiveness and eternal life in the new heavens and earth — comes by faith. We receive what is promised through faith in Jesus Christ and not by means of the law.
And this has two important consequences. First of all, this means it’s by grace. So, we don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. It’s not about us, climbing up to God by our good deeds. No, it’s God’s gracious gift to sinners. It’s as if he bends down to us and says:
Here it is. Take it from me. Here it is. Forgiveness. And eternal life. Take it. And we receive his gracious gift through faith.
And secondly, since the promise is received by faith, then it’s guaranteed to all of Abraham’s offspring. Do you see that in the middle of verse 16? But what does he mean by Abraham’s offspring? Well, he mentions two kinds of offspring: those who are of the law and those who are of the faith. Those who are of the faith are believing Gentiles who share Abraham’s faith. Those who are of the law are not so easy to identify. Some commentators think he’s referring to all of the Jews; to everyone who is physically descended from Abraham. However, it’s probably more likely that he’s referring to believing Jews. Abraham is the father of everyone who believes: Jews who follow the law, but who have faith; and Gentiles who do not have the law, but who have faith.
Paul goes on to discuss Abraham’s faith in the following verses. Look at verse 18: against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations. Paul can say ‘against all hope’ because it seemed hopeless, didn’t it? Abraham was an old man. Sarah was an old woman. And she was barren. Though God had promised to make them into a great nation, it seemed utterly hopeless, because they couldn’t even have one child, let alone many. But even though it seemed hopeless, Abraham still believed. He was still hopeful that God would keep his promise. He was still fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised.
And God saw his faith and credited it to him as righteousness. God saw his faith, and regarded him as righteous in his sight. Though he was a sinner, who had fallen short in so many ways, nevertheless God saw his faith and accepted him. And God could do that, because we receive the promised blessing not by means of the law but through faith.
Verses 23 to 25
Paul concludes this section by teaching us that Genesis 15:6 was written not for Abraham only, but also for us and for our benefit. God wanted us to know that we’re justified through faith in Jesus Christ who died for our sins and who was raised for our justification. So, for some people, that means realising that though we have lived a terrible life of sin, nevertheless we can know for sure that God is prepared to pardon our sins and he’s prepared to treat us as if we’ve done everything right. He will pardon and accept all who believe in his Son. And that’s great news for those who know they’re sinners who deserve God’s wrath.
However, for some people this is very disturbing news. You see, there are some who think that they deserve to receive God’s promised blessing because of their good deeds and because of their good life and because of the things they have done. And this message means that all of their good deeds count for nothing in the sight of God, because what he’s looking for is faith in the Lord Jesus. What he’s looking for is someone who knows they have nothing to offer to God, and nothing to boast about, but who are ready to receive from Christ the salvation he won for us on the cross. And so, it’s through faith in Christ, and not by our good deeds. It’s through faith in Christ, and not by our circumcision or baptism. It’s through faith in Christ and not by means of the law. We’re humbled. But Christ is exalted. And that’s the way it should be.