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Why Is Abraham the Example of Justification?

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Covenant Reformed News


April 2020 • Volume XVII, Issue 24

 

Why Is Abraham the Example of Justification?

Why is Abraham cited as the great example in the Word of God of one justified by faith alone? Out of the many characters in the Bible, there are two main reasons why he was selected by Paul through the Holy Spirit in Romans 4.

Reason 1: Abraham was chosen in order to counter the anticipated Jewish objection to the rich gospel teaching of the preceding verses in Romans 3: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (22); “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (24); “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (26); “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (28). Clearly our justification or righteousness before God is all of grace, by faith and not works, and only in Christ crucified and risen!

However, the legalistic Jews would contradict this with their own ideas regarding Abraham. The following are some of their nomist claims. “Abraham was the only righteous man of his generation,” referring to inherent righteousness. “Because of his merits, he was chosen to be the ancestor of the Jews.” “Abraham began to serve God at the age of three” (though Joshua 24:2 describes him as an idolater in Ur of the Chaldees before Jehovah effectually called him). “Abraham kept all the precepts of the law, which he knew beforehand by a kind of intuition.” “He was the first of seven righteous men who brought back the Shekinah which had retired into the seventh heaven, so that in the days of Moses it could take up its abode in the Tabernacle.”

Thus Paul, the former Pharisee who was trained “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), sets forth the biblical view of Abraham to answer this common Jewish objection to the gospel truth of justification by faith alone.

Reason 2: The Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, refers to Abraham in Romans 4 because he is a particularly good illustration, example, demonstration, proof and pattern of God’s gracious justification, as set forth in the previous verses (Rom. 3:21-31).

Various factors are involved in this. First, instead of merely quoting an Old Testament prophecy that people would be justified by faith alone in the messianic age, Abraham is given as a concrete individual in the Bible. Second, unlike a lesser figure, say, Baruch, Jeremiah’s assistant, Abraham is a “big” character in Scripture. Third, unlike a foreigner, someone like Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, Abraham is of the line of the Israelites or Jews. Fourth, unlike a later figure, say, the prophet Malachi, Abraham is foundational to the Israelites or Jews, as their great forefather. Fifth, God had inspired a clear Old Testament text stating that Abraham was justified by faith alone (Gen. 15:6).

Thus Romans 4, that amazing chapter on justification through faith only, opens with Abraham and returns to him often. He was a concrete individual, a great figure in the Old Testament, someone as Jewish as they come, yea, a founding father of Israel! Paul opens the chapter with these words: “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?” “For what saith the scripture?” the apostle asks, before quoting this unequivocal text: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

This appeal to the example of Abraham is Paul’s typical approach when proving justification by faith alone in Scripture. This is not only his method in Romans 4 but also in Galatians 3.

The phrase “as pertaining to the flesh” in Romans 4:1 has been understood in two different ways. First, it could modify “our father,” the immediately preceding phrase: “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?” Then it would refer to physical descent, as it does elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Rom. 9:5). Romans 4:1 would be stating that Abraham is the father of Paul, first-century Jews in Rome and, indeed, all Jews. This interpretation is orthodox, makes sense in the context and has support among commentators, such as John Calvin and William Hendriksen.

Second, others, including Charles Hodge and Robert Haldane, reckon that “as pertaining to the flesh” in Romans 4:1 modifies “hath found,” the immediately succeeding phrase: “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?”

According to this reading, “flesh” refers to that which is outward or external, as in Philippians 3:4-6: “Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” In other words, what did Abraham find or discover, by divine wisdom, when he considered his standing before Jehovah “as pertaining to the flesh,” that is, in light of his outward or external circumstances or qualifications? This understanding of Romans 4:1 is also within the boundaries of orthodoxy and fits with the context.

For our purposes, we do not have to choose between these two interpretations of “as pertaining to the flesh.” But we do have to answer the question of Romans 4:1: “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?” So what did Abraham find, discover, learn or come to know regarding his legal status in the eyes of God? To that we turn next time, DV! Rev. Stewart

Last modified on 18 April 2020
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Additional Info

  • Volume: 1
  • Issue: 1
Stewart, Angus

Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)

Ordained - 2001

Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001

Website: www.cprf.co.uk/

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    7 Lislunnan Road
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    Ballymena
  • State or Province
    Co.Antrim
  • Zip Code
    BT42 3NR
  • Country
    Ireland
  • Telephone
    (01144) 28 25 891851

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