Abraham Justified By Faith
Abram was the father of the faithful, the example or pattern of all future believers; and perhaps no man, upon the whole, had greater faith. It seems to have been the design of God, in almost all his dealings with him, to put his faith to the trial. In most instances it appeared unto praise, though in some it appeared to fail him.
Ver. 1. Several years had elapsed, perhaps eight or nine, since God had first made promise to him concerning his seed; and now he is about eighty years old, and Sarai is seventy, and he has no child. He must yet live upon assurances and promises, without any earthly prospects. He is indulged with a vision, in which God appears to him, saying, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” This is certainly very full and very encouraging. If, after having engaged the kings, he had any fears of the war being renewed, this would allay them. Who shall harm those to whom Jehovah is a shield? Or if, on having no child, he had fears at times lest all should prove a blank, this would meet them. What can be wanting to those who have God for their “exceeding great reward?” Abram had not availed himself of his late victory to procure in Canaan so much as a place to set his foot on; but he shall lose nothing by it. God has something greater in reserve for him: God himself will be his reward; not only as he is of all believers, but in a sense peculiar to himself: he shall be the father of the church, and the heir of the world.
Ver. 2, 3. Who would have thought, amidst these exceeding great and precious promises, that Abram’s faith should seem to fail him? Yet so it is. The promise, to be sure, is great and full; but he has heard much the same things before, and there are no signs of its accomplishment. This works within him in a way of secret anguish, which he presumes to express before the Lord, almost in the language of objection: “Lord God, what wilt thou give me?” “Thou speakest of giving thy servant this and that … but I shall soon be past receiving it … I go childless. This Eliezer of Damascus is a good and faithful servant; but that is all … Must I make him my heir; and are the promises to be fulfilled at last in an adopted son?”
Ver. 4–6. God, in mercy to the patriarch, condescends to remove his doubts on this subject, assuring him that his heir should descend from his own body; yet he must continue to live upon promises. These promises, however, are confirmed by a sign. He is led abroad from his tent in the night time, and shown the stars of heaven; which when he had seen, the Lord assured him, “So shall thy seed be.” And now his doubts are removed. He is no longer weak, but strong in faith; he staggers not through unbelief, but is fully persuaded that what God has promised he is able to perform. And therefore “it was imputed to him for righteousness.”
Much is made of this passage by the apostle Paul, in establishing the doctrine of justification by faith; and much has been said by others, as to the meaning of both him and Moses. One set of expositors, considering it as extremely evident that by faith is here meant the act of believing, contend for this as our justifying righteousness. Faith, in their account, seems to be imputed to us for righteousness by a kind of gracious compromise, in which God accepts of an imperfect instead of a perfect obedience. Another set of expositors, jealous for the honour of free grace, and of the righteousness of Christ, contend that the faith of Abram is here to be taken objectively, for the righteousness of Christ believed in. To me it appears that both these expositions are forced. To establish the doctrine of justification by the righteousness of Christ, it is not necessary to maintain that the faith of Abram means Christ in whom he believed. Nor can this be maintained; for it is manifestly the same thing, in the account of the apostle Paul, as believing, (Rom. 4:5,) which is very distinct from the object believed in. The truth appears to be this: It is faith, or believing, that is counted for righteousness; not however as a righteous act, or on account of any inherent virtue contained in it, but in respect of Christ, on whose righteousness it terminates.*
That we may form a clear idea, both of the text and the doctrine, let the following particulars be considered.
1. Though Abram believed God when he left Ur of the Chaldees, yet his faith in that instance is not mentioned in connexion with his justification; nor does the apostle, either in his Epistle to the Romans or in that to the Galatians, argue that doctrine from it, or hold it up as an example of justifying faith. I do not mean to suggest that Abram was then in an unjustified state; but that the instance of his faith, which was thought proper by the Holy Spirit to be selected as the model for believing for justification was not this, nor any other of the kind; but those only in which there was an immediate respect had to the person of the Messiah. The examples of faith referred to in both these Epistles are taken from his believing the promises relative to his seed; in which seed, as the apostle observes, Christ was included, Rom. 4:11; Gal. 3:16. Though Christians may believe in God with respect to the common concerns of this life, and such faith may ascertain their being in a justified state; yet this is not, strictly speaking, the faith by which they are justified, which invariably has respect to the person and work of Christ. Abram believed in God as promising Christ; they believe in him as having “raised him from the dead.” “By him, all that believe (that is, in him) are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses.” It is through faith in his blood that they obtain remission of sins. He “is just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.”
2. This distinction, so clearly perceivable both in the Old and New Testament, sufficiently decides in what sense faith is considered as justifying. Whatever other properties the magnet may possess, it is as pointing invariably to the north that it guides the mariner; so, whatever other properties faith may possess, it is as pointing to Christ, and bringing us into union with him, that it justifies, Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9. It is not that for the sake of which we are accepted of God; for if it were, justification by faith could not be opposed to justification by works; nor would boasting be excluded; neither would there be any meaning in its being said to be by faith, that it might be of grace: but, believing in Christ, we are considered by the Lawgiver of the world as one with him, and so are forgiven and accepted for his sake. Hence it is that to be justified by faith is the same thing as to be justified by the blood of Christ, or made righteous by his obedience, Rom. 5:9, 19. Faith is not the grace wherein we stand, but that by which we have access to it, Rom. 5:2. Thus it is that the healing of various maladies is ascribed in the New Testament to faith: not that the virtue which caused the cures proceeded from this as its proper cause; but this was a necessary concomitant to give the parties access to the power and grace of the Saviour, by which only they were healed.
3. The phrase “counted it for righteousness” does not mean that God thought it to be what it was, which would have been merely an act of justice; but his graciously reckoning it what in itself it was not, viz. a ground for the bestowment of covenant blessings. Even in the case of Phinehas, of whom the same phrase is used in reference to his zeal for God, it has this meaning; for one single act of zeal, whatever may be said of it, could not entitle him and his posterity after him to the honour conferred upon them, Psal. 106:30, 31, comp. Numb. 25:11–13. And, with respect to the present case, “The phrase, as the apostle uses it,” says a great writer, “manifestly imports that God, of his sovereign grace, is pleased, in his dealings with the sinner, to take and regard that which indeed is not righteousness, and in one who has no righteousness, so that the consequence shall be the same as if he had righteousness, and which may be from the respect which it bears to something which is indeed righteousness.”* The faith of Abram, though of a holy nature, yet contained nothing in itself fit for a justifying righteousness: all the. adaptedness which it possessed to that end was the respect which it had to the Messiah, on whom it terminated.
4. Though faith is not our justifying righteousness, yet it is a necessary concomitant and means of justification; and being the grace which above all others honours Christ, it is that which above all others God delights to honour. Hence it is that justification is ascribed to it, rather than to the righteousness of Christ without it. Our Saviour might have said to Bartimeus, Go thy way, I have made thee whole. This would have been truth, but not the whole of the truth which it was his design to convey. The necessity of faith in order to healing would not have appeared from this mode of speaking, nor had any honour been done or encouragement given to it; but by his saying, “Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole,” each of these ideas is conveyed. Christ would omit mentioning his own honour, as knowing that faith, having an immediate respect to him, amply provided for it.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 61–64). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.