A Voice in the
Faith vs Works. Law vs Grace. Circumcision or not (Jew vs Gentile). Where does all this discussion begin? How do we know what's what? How can we be sure? While many of these dichotomies existed since Cain and Abel, a firm 'official' demarcation came into being with Abraham. And more specifically with Moses. The "Jew" came into being, and yet we learned that -being- one has no advantage regarding eternal life. So, if we can sort out what happened with Abraham, perhaps we can get this all figured out...
This chapter is about "faith". The great "faith chapter" (Hebrews 11) speaks of Abraham. He "obeyed" and "went out" (vs8) 'works'. He "lived in the land of promise" (vs9) 'works'. He "offered up Isaac" (vs17) 'works'. And our study here begins with "if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast; but -not- before God." (Rom4:2) Does Scripture contradict itself? Was Abraham righteous before God, or not? Did he 'work' or 'believe'?
God made some promises to Abraham, and then commands him to be circumcised, along with everybody in his household. (Gen17:11) This 'work' which Abraham performs is a covenant on behalf of God, and -God's- promises to Abraham.
In many ways, circumcision before Christ's death was like the "seal[ing] with the Holy Spirit of promise" (Eph1:13) after. They are, both, about God's promise of eternal life to come in the future. Something which does not now -yet- exist, but it's as good as though it -did- exist because God promised it (vs17), and seals the matter with circumcision/Holy Spirit. Faith is "being fully persuaded that what God [has] promised, He [is] also able to perform." (vs21)
Is Abraham, thus, 'accepted' by God because of this circumcision? You know; later, the Jews would consider this act to be -the- single most important aspect of their collective identity as God's "chosen ones." Just as many today seek a 'special dose' of the 'spirit', and equate the resulting -demonic- spiritual manifestations with God's Holy Spirit. Both; looking to the -physical-.
What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness." (vs3)(Gen15:6) Notice which came first. Abraham -believes- in ch15. Circumcision happens in ch17. The offering of Isaac, in ch22. We see that "faith" came first, before the works. Faith was "reckoned" prior to circumcision.(vs10) This term "reckon" is an accounting term. To "calculate, compute, count, weigh and determine the results." It was 'entered into the ledger' on Abraham's account.
God made promises: "in you shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen12:3) This blessing (which included the message of Salvation due to the resultant "Seed" -Gal3:6,29) was further proclaimed in the promise of a -son- from his "own bowels shall be your heir". (Gen15:4) This, to a man almost 100 years old, and his wife waaay past child-bearing age. (vs18-20) God made the promise, and -this- is the point where Abraham "believed in the LORD. And He counted it to him for righteousness." (Gen15:2-6) Abraham's account had "salvation" written into it, when he "paid" -nothing-. When there was no -substance- or -visible results- of the promise. Abraham's faith was the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Heb11:1)
Thus, Abraham is the "father (first in a succession) of all those believing...for righteousness to be imputed to them also." (vs11)
This 'imputation' is to those who are -not- circumcised. Gentiles. Because Abraham's faith was -prior- to circumcision. Thus, salvation is not through Law, but through faith. This also proves it is of "grace". (vs16) Since it was not works, there was no substance yet from Abraham's part; it came -from- God. It was a "gift of God" (Eph2:8) for Abraham having -done- absolutely 'nothing'.
However, people -of- the Law come to God also. David, a -Jewish- king was the man "after [God's] own heart." (1Sam13:14) According to the Law, David should have been stoned to death. He committed adultery. Lied to cover the sin. And when that didn't work, murder. Adultery and murder carried the death penalty. And yet he proclaims, "Blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered....the man to whom the LORD does not charge iniquity.." (Ps32:1-2)(vs7-8) Did such forgiveness come from the Law? No. It came from repentance and confession. "O God...according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me completely from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Against You, You only, have I sinned...Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me...create in me a clean heart, O God...the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.." (Ps51)
David understood God's mercy and grace, and his own utter depravity. He came to God totally 'empti-handed'..'without works'. (vs6) Like the song says, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling."
If a person could keep the Law, then, faith would be nullified (vs14) because the Law is the basis for Wrath. (vs15) While we learned in ch2 that 'conscience' is given to each person, and existed before the Law was given; simple conscience gives no 'teeth' to judgement. If a person was pulled over by the Montana State Patrol for going 100 mph in the day-time, there is no basis for writing a ticket. Montana doesn't have a day-time speed limit. Technically, a person can drive as fast as they wish. The patrol might 'think' the person is going too fast, beyond his capabilities to do so safely. But he cannot issue a citation for "speeding" because there is no law which declares judgement for doing so. The driver's -conscience- might tell him that he is not safe...and he 'knows better'. As a result of driving too fast, he could have an accident and die. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom6:23) But he will not stand before a judge for "speeding". The driver crosses over into Idaho, continuing along at 100 mph, the patrol pulls him over and he gets a ticket. He stands before the judge, and receives a 'judgment' of, typically, a stiff fine. Idaho -does- have speed laws.
Again, -if- a person could keep the law, Faith would be void. Can righteousness be attained through the Law? Yes. "All the commandments which I command you this day shall you be careful to do, that you may live.." (Deu8:1) As Jesus affirms, "..do this and you shall live.." (Lk10:28) Trouble is, as David realized, we are "conceived" and born in iniquity. (Ps51) "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked..." (Jer17:9) We are NOT -capable- of keeping the Law. Thus, in many ways, Paul talking about the Law "voiding" Faith is an academic hypothesis. The Law -cannot- be kept by sinful man. Thus, the only thing that -is- possible, is "Faith".
However, many people attempt to keep the Law. They try to 'appease' God out of guilt. They hope that -if- they can somehow accumulate enough good deeds, that the ledger will balance out on the 'plus' side. They see this big "debt" (vs4) that is owing. So they approach God like they do their banker. Try to consolidate all their credit cards, mortgages, car payments, etc. into something that they can pay on the 'installment plan'. Trouble is, they're only making $10,000 a year, and their 'debt' with God is in the "Billions" of dollars. The ledger doesn't have enough spaces for all the zeros on their 'debt' side.
The only 'person' who can pay such a debt is God, Himself. He did so when Jesus died on the cross. And even though we do not see Him, we believe in His work of "imputation". (vs22-23) Thus, Abraham is lauded for "believing" in the "Seed" that would come from his loins. (Gal3:16) David, in the middle of that lineage, still 1000 years before Christ, "says of the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness without works." (vs6) Jesus said, "..blessed are they who have not seen and have believed." (Jn20:29)
What does "impute" mean? Same as "reckon" above. Something like a loan contract to buy a car or piano on the installment plan. Initially the papers are drawn up with the "terms" of the contract printed and filled in. Typically, often, the lending institution will provide a payment coupon book. As each payment is made, a coupon goes with it. Now, the "-WORKS- of the Law" (3:20,28) is the faithful payment each month with those coupons. You miss a payment, there is a penalty. Late payment...same thing. But ultimately the loan is paid off. Either for the full term, or early with a lump sum. When the loan is fully paid, the contract is signed and/or stamped, "PAID IN FULL" All this time you've been driving that car, it has technically been the property of the bank. But once you see that "PAID IN FULL" stamp, the title is now "free and clear". If a third party came along and paid your loan, the contract would be stamped "Paid in Full". The third party paid, and the matter was "imputed" to your account...even though you did not make the payment. Once the 'contract' has been thus stamped, the coupon books have no value. You might gloat in showing off your coupons and how you faithfully paid them along the way; but your book still has unpaid coupons in it. In the end, what 'counts' is that stamp or signature on the contract.
The debt that we could not possibly pay, Jesus paid with His blood. (1Pt1:18-19) That is "grace." (vs4) His blood stamped that contract in the -Book of Life- (Rev20:15) "RIGHTEOUS of GOD in CHRIST." (2Cor5:21) With our names in the Book of Life, what has been 'imputed' to us is "Righteousness". God looks at the 'contract' and sees "Righteous" stamped on there, and allows us into heaven. He cares not about the payment coupons.
Faith believes this as being true. It receives (Jn1:12) the gift. (Eph2:8) Not only did Abraham believe; in him "all families of the earth" (Jew and Gentile) are blessed. Those "believing on Him who has raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offenses and was raised for our justification." (vs24-25)