How we are justified by faith is one of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. It is a mystery because the scriptures appear to be saying different things depending on the writer.
In his Roman letter Paul says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28)
He then referred back to how Abraham was justified by faith. He says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." (Romans 4:2-3)
He shows us how Abraham was given credit for righteousness apart from works when he asks, “How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (Romans 4:10-11).
James said something that appears to be in conflict with what Paul said. He refers back to how Abraham was given credit for righteousness and says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS," and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:21-24)
If there was ever a mystery with regard to what our requirements are to receive credit for righteousness it is how Paul and James can both be speaking the truth. That apparent conflict has caused some people to doubt that what James wrote is inspired scripture. Like most Christians, I believe that James wrote inspired scripture and that all scripture is inspired of God.
Paul says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
If all scripture is inspired by God and can be used for teaching and training in righteousness, how do we teach the same message of how we are justified by faith from what both of those writers said?
Let’s look at what those men said and see if they don’t actually agree with each other, rather than disagree. We heard Paul say that Abraham was given credit for righteousness before he was circumcised.
circumcision was God’s covenant
requirement for Abraham and his descendants. God’s covenant
to give to Abraham and to his descendants the
He told Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Genesis 17:9-11)
God told him that every male in his household was to be circumcised when they were eight days old. God also told him, “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Verse 14)
Abraham and his descendants would receive the covenant promises if they met God’s covenant requirement of circumcision of the flesh. Abraham believed that God meant what He said and he met his covenant requirement and was circumcised that very day.
He met his covenant requirement that day but he had already been given credit for righteousness because of his faith many years before that.
God had called Abraham and asked him to leave his country and his father’s house and go to a land that He would show him and God would bless him and make him a great nation (Genesis 12:1-2).
obeyed God and he went to that earthly
He was obviously concerned about how God would keep His promise to him and we can see that in what happened when God later appeared to him in a vision. In that vision Abraham appears to be complaining about the fact that God had given him no offspring to be his heir.
Scripture says, “And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6)
We heard Paul refer back to that event and say that, "ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." That happened many years before Abraham met his covenant requirement and was circumcised. It also happened long before Abraham offered Isaac as a burnt offering.
Abraham had already been given credit for righteousness before he offered Isaac but James referred back to Abraham offering Isaac and said that his faith was working with his works and his faith was perfected by his works.
We can begin to see a connection with what Paul said when we hear James say, “and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS".
We ask the question, “How was that scripture fulfilled when Abraham offered Isaac?” That scripture has to do with how one receives credit for righteousness by believing God’s word. If that scripture was fulfilled then it was prophecy of what was to come when Abraham offered Isaac.
It appears that God foresaw Abraham perfecting his faith with his works when He first gave Abraham credit for righteousness because he believed God.
Is that why God called Abraham in the first place? Scripture says, “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10)
Abraham believed that God would keep His promise but he would come to know the true promise was never for that earthly land. He lived like an alien in that earthly land because he came to understand that the only everlasting possession had to be a heavenly land. He was looking ahead to God’s city in that heavenly land.
God’s true covenant promise was for a heavenly land and the promise is to Abraham’s descendants by faith.
was speaking of those descendants when he
it is not as though the word of God has failed. For
are not all
Abraham’s descendants by faith are God’s children and they are heirs to that heavenly land. Has God foreseen those who are of faith and is He calling them just as He called Abraham?
He called Abraham and justified him (Gave him credit for righteousness) by faith before he obeyed God and met his covenant requirement because God foreknew that he would obey His commandments.
If God called Abraham because He foreknew his faith, then He is also calling Abraham’s descendants by faith because He foreknew them. We can hear Paul speak of that calling in his letter to the Romans.
Paul says of that calling, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30)
Paul is speaking of how Abraham’s descendants by faith are being called and justified just as Abraham was called and justified. Paul did not mention faith in the above scripture, however, he mentioned love.
God is calling all who will choose to love Him (Our choice) to become His children, having become conformed to the image of Christ.
Remember, the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being (Matthew -38). One must obey the greatest commandment to receive the covenant promises.
Jesus explains what it means to obey the greatest commandment when He says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)
A little later He will expand on what it means to love God when He says, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.” (John 14:23-24)
Christ is speaking the Father’s word. God’s promises are to those who believe in Him and who will choose to love Him and show their love with obedience to His word. Anyone who refuses to keep His word does not love God and they are not being called by Him.
Abraham was called by God because of his faith but it was a faith that not only believed that God was, but that He would also reward Abraham because Abraham believed that God would do what He had promised.
As the Hebrew
says, “- -he who
comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a
rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Hebrews
Based on what Jesus said about what it means to love God, that gives new meaning to what we heard Paul say about God having foreknown those who would choose to love Him and He is calling them (Romans 8:28-30).
If only those who are obedient to God’s word really love Him then God is only calling those whom He foresaw confirming their love with obedience.
God called Abraham and justified him before he did his works of obedience because He foresaw Abraham showing his love for Him by being obedient to His commandments. We can see that being confirmed in what God later told Isaac.
Remember, Abraham’s descendants were to come through Isaac (Genesis ). Speaking of God’s promise, God told Isaac, “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” (Genesis 26:4-5)
God would keep His promise to Abraham and to Isaac because Abraham obeyed God and kept His commandments.
Abraham believed that God existed and he believed that God meant what He said and he was therefore obedient to God’s word when he heard it.
That is the kind of faith that justified Abraham and it is the kind of faith that will justify us. We must believe that God means what He says and we must show our belief with obedience.
God foreknew that Abraham would be obedient and He called Him and justified him long before he obeyed God and offered Isaac on the altar. When it happened, the scripture was fulfilled that spoke of how Abraham was given credit for righteousness.
God also foresaw him obey his covenant requirement of circumcision before Abraham heard God give him that requirement. God foresaw him perfecting his faith with his works.
That sounds like what God told Abraham after he passed the testing of his faith and offered Isaac. Abraham was ready to kill his son Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering when the angel stopped him and told him not to stretch out his hand against Isaac.
He told Abraham, “- - for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Genesis 22:12)
He then told him, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:16-17).
Again, that was the same promise that God had made to him before he had any offspring and Abraham was given credit for righteousness because he believed God’s promise. Now God tells him that He will keep that promise because he had done that thing and offered Isaac.
If God told Abraham that He would keep His promise because he had done that thing and offered his son, then it is obvious that God would not have kept that promise if Abraham had refused to obey God. God would have foreseen Abraham’s disobedience and he would never have been given credit for righteousness in the first place.
If God justified Abraham because of his faith before Abraham met his covenant requirement of circumcision because He foreknew that Abraham would obey God and perfect his faith with his works, will the same thing hold true for Abraham’s descendants by faith?
That is exactly what we heard Paul say. Paul said that God has called those whom He foreknew and He justified them and predestined them to become His children.
If we are predestined it is only because God foresaw us choose to love Him and perfect our faith with our works long before it happened. The choice is ours to make but God foresaw what choice we would make. God will keep His promise to those who choose to love and obey Him.
Abraham knew that God would keep His promise to him even if He had to resurrect Isaac from the dead. The Hebrew writer says of Abraham’s faith, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.” (Hebrews 11:17-19)
Abraham’s faith believed that God would keep His promise even if He had to raise the dead to make it happen. We must believe like he believed. We must believe that God will resurrect us from the dead to make it happen.
If we really believe that it will happen, we will be living our lives on this earth like aliens living in a foreign land as we keep looking for that city built by God.
We must obey God and keep our covenant requirement to be saved because scripture says of Christ that “He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:9).
Our covenant requirement is spiritual circumcision of the heart. Paul speaks of that requirement and says, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)
Paul spoke of that spiritual circumcision of the heart in his letter to the Colossians. He said that, “- in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Col. 2:11-12)
Baptism is circumcision of the heart when one repents of having lived for their sinful body of flesh and makes the decision to meet their covenant requirement and become buried with Him in baptism so that their body of flesh can be done away with in those waters.
Christ gave that covenant requirement of spiritual circumcision to His disciples when He gave them the Great Commission.
Remember, He told His disciples to, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
That sounds like what God told Abraham. He said, “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
We must do the likeness of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Paul says of that likeness, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:3-7)
We must be set free from slavery to sin in this world so that we can receive the new covenant promise of that heavenly land. We do that when we repent of having lived for our body of sin and make the decision to be buried with Christ through baptism into death.
We will have become united with Christ in baptism in the likeness of His death and we will certainly be in the likeness of His resurrection.
Abraham’s earthly descendants were heirs to that earthly land. That included all males because only males were heirs under that earthly covenant. Females were not heirs but they shared in the inheritance by being a part of the family of an heir.
Under our new covenant all who believe Christ’s word and obey Him and become spiritually circumcised have become sons of God with Him and they are heirs to the covenant promise with Him.
Paul speaks of that covenant promise and says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29)
Whether male or female, all who have met their covenant requirement of spiritual circumcision belong to Him and are sons of God and heirs to the covenant promise with Him.
John was speaking of those heirs when he wrote how Jesus came to His own but they would not receive Him, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
Many people know that if they receive Jesus they have the right to become children of God but Christ was the Word. Unless we receive His Word we can’t receive Jesus and have that right.
We can see how some received the word when the gospel was preached on the Day of Pentecost. After the apostles received the Holy Spirit, they began speaking the gospel message in tongues.
Some of those Jews who heard the message believed it and they asked the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” “Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts )
Scripture says, “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.” (Verse 41)
Those who received the word in faith had received Christ. Having received His word they obeyed Him and were baptized to meet their covenant requirement of spiritual circumcision. When it happened they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
That sounds a little like what Jesus once told a crowd. He told them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. "Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (John 5:24-25)
One must hear Christ’s word and believe that He means what He says to receive eternal life. Those who receive His word will obey it and they will receive eternal life when they receive the Holy Spirit because the Spirit gives life (John 6:63).
If we don’t believe that Jesus means what He says then we will not have received His word and we will not receive eternal life. From what we just heard Jesus say, however, it sounds like they may receive eternal life before they obey His word.
How is that possible if we must obey Him and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Just as God foresaw Abraham’s life of faithful obedience He foresaw us. For those whom He foresaw make the choice to believe His word and obey His voice He is calling them to become His children and heirs to the promises.
It sounds like God may have already given us credit for righteousness when we first believed if He foresaw us later perfecting our faith with our works. Those works will not have saved us; we will have been saved by our faith but God will have foreseen our faith being perfected by our works.
We can see that in a question that I once heard someone ask. They asked the question about a man who heard the gospel message and believed the message and he asked to be baptized for the forgiveness of his sins.
Someone asked, “What happens if he failed to meet that requirement because he died in a car wreck as he was on his way to be baptized?” Was that man condemned because he was never baptized?
I believe that the scriptures are clear. True circumcision is circumcision of the heart. It appears that a person is given credit for righteousness before obedience if God foresaw them making the choice to love Him and to show their love with obedience.
I believe that man who made the decision to obey in faith but God took him before it happened had met his covenant requirement. He will have been saved by grace through faith and not by his works.
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