In reading Romans 4, I noticed that it explains the kind of faith that is counted for righteousness (that justifies). Romans 4:17b-21 describes the faith of Abraham. The verses that follow then state that this is why Abraham was justified and that we can be justified through the same sort of faith. Verses 17b-21 also tie closely to other NT passages that help us understand faith.
Here is the text of 17b-21 (NASB)
in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist. 18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your [s]descendants be.” 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.
The word “waver” (diakrino) points us to James 1. We are to bring our requests to God in faith without wavering. James describes the one who wavers as like a wave of the sea, and as double minded and unstable. Faithful Abraham, by contrast, was assured that God could perform him promise even though both Abraham and Sarah were dead in terms of reproductive ability. Faith steadfastly relies on God. (Let us be thankful, though, that Jesus can work with faith the size of a grain of mustard seed and can help our unbelief.)
When Paul references God’s ability to give life to the dead and call into being the things that do not exist (4:17). He likely refers not only to Isaac’s conception and birth, but also to the time when Abraham received him back alive from the altar of sacrifice. Hebrews 11 describes the role of faith in both incidents. Sarah received the ability to conceive seed because she considered God to be faithful and relied on his promise. (Note: the beautiful reminder that Sarah’s faith was involved in the promise to Abraham.) God called into being that which did not exist. Abraham offered up Isaac, the son whom God had promised would make him a father of many nations, because he believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead. Faith steadfastly relies on God.
Romans 4:22 attributes Abraham’s justification to this steadfast reliance on God: “Wherefore (dio) it was counted to him for righteousness.” This is to teach us, Paul says, that all who similarly rely on God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead can be justified, just like Abraham who relied on the fact that God could raise Isaac from the dead.
Discussions of the nature of faith can quickly become contentious. Is faith purely passive? Or is active? How sharply should we distinguish between faith itself and the things that are done by faith? Is that even a helpful distinction? Without wading into a philosophical-psychological-theological morass we can observe a few things based on how the NT handles the story of Abraham. Romans says Abraham was justified by faith in God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations. Hebrews says he offered up his son “by faith” (pistei, dative case). James connects the dots. James says that Abraham’s faith was completed when he put Isaac on the altar and that this fulfilled the earlier statement (before Isaac was born) about Abraham’s faith being counted for righteousness. On this basis, James asserts that a person is justified by works. He does not mean that one can be justified by keeping Torah or by any supposed method of putting God in his debt. He is referring to the actions that complete one’s steadfast reliance on God.
For some practical direction for our own faith, consider the words of Hebrews 10:32-39. This is the preface to the famous “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. Paul calls them to remember the difficult days when they were first enlightened. They are to remember the suffering and hardship, the mockery of others, their fellowship with those who suffered, their willingness to lose their property because of their confidence in better things to come. They are to remember this and not throw away their confidence. They need endurance to continue this path, “that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised.” The Lord is coming and the one who righteous from faith (justified by faith) will live. The one who “shrinks back” will not experience the pleasure of the Lord, but rather destruction. The readers are urged to remember their past and continue steadfastly in living out their identity as people of faith.
The choice before us is between shrinking back in fear or laziness and pressing on in faith running the race before us with steadfastness. Let us present our mustard seeds, and let us pray “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”