Romans 4:2-3 “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’”
Some spiritual people indulge in hero-worship as a way of holding out hope for salvation by personal goodness. A friend once told me he thinks Gandhi lived such a good life that God will have to take him to heaven, even if he wasn’t a Christian. In the middle ages some churchmen found the writings of pagan Greek philosophers so moral, so profound, they were convinced these men would be saved. I suspect something similar is going on in a movie like Disney’s Pocohontas. Grandmother Willow looks deeply into John Smith’s eyes and declares, “Oh! He has a good soul!” If we can convince ourselves “good people” like these were good enough to pass muster with God, then maybe there is hope I can be good enough, too. Then I can hold onto the belief that I am a good person. I can avoid the painful and humbling realities of repentance and confession.
Abraham was the Father of the Jewish people. Because the idea had become so ingrained that God saves those who are good and keep his law, the rabbis developed a set of legends around Abraham to emphasize the point. Abraham was said to have passed through ten trials successfully. Because he so faithfully obeyed God through all ten, God accepted him as good and righteous. Abraham’s merits were so great that he had done more than he needed for himself. This “extra-credit” could even be shared with his descendants.
“But wait a minute,” Paul says, “What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” The legends about Abraham may have been interesting, but they did not agree with the evidence from his life. For all the good things that could be said about Abraham, he was still a sinner. He was capable of rather astounding lapses into immorality. Twice he passed his wife Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin. He committed adultery with a servant girl to have a son. God could have condemned Abraham for any or all of these.
Instead, God claimed Abraham for himself and declared him righteous. But not because Abraham had been so good. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham trusted God’s promises. Through that faith he received God’s grace and love. The Lord gave him credit as though he had lived a righteous life. Abraham’s purity and holiness before God was a divine regard he received by faith.
We may be tempted to find Paul’s conclusion about Abraham disappointing. It spells the end for our hopes to win God’s approval for our own attempts at righteous living. But being regarded by God as righteous as a matter of credit instead of actual performance is better. I am inclined to slip and fall. My record is full of examples from the past. I can be certain more of them lie in my future.
But the Lord doesn’t change. His grace is a constant where my behavior is unsteady. His promise is dependable where my commitment is uncertain. This is salvation we can count on. Receiving righteousness Abraham’s way may not make us heroes. But it makes us children—children of Abraham and of the God who declared him just.