A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on August 15, 2021.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 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 counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Romans 4:1–12).
Think back with me to Abraham’s biography in Genesis. What was it about Abraham that led the Lord to call him and bless him? Was it because he lived in the land of Mesopotamia and among the Chaldeans (Acts 7:2-3)? Was it because he came from a family of idol worshipers (Josh. 24:2)? Actually, the Bible is silent on the issue, but it is safe to say that it was nothing innately in Abraham nor anything he did. According to God’s sovereign purpose, he called him and blessed him.
In leaving his land, people, and family, what God gave Abraham was a promise: The Lord said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3). Now, think about this promise: Abraham was called to leave his homeland for what? An unknown but “great nation”? A “great” name? Abraham was called to leave his family for what? To be a blessing? To be blessed? What hope was there of the fulfillment of such a litany of promises? The answer depends upon who makes the promise, not the one who receives it.
We are not told of Abraham’s introduction to the Lord. We are not told how he called Abraham. What we are told is that it was a definite, sure, and effectual calling. God called, Abraham went, everything changed. And yet, the promise that God made continued unfulfilled: no child, no heir, no people, no nation, no blessing.
But he who made the promise also provides the means, revealing the unimaginable to aged and childless Abraham: “your very own son shall be your heir” (Gen. 15:4), God promised. In fact, not just a son, but the Lord told Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. …so shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5). And in that moment, he who had left his land, people, and family by faith, he who had not one child nor a country to call his own, “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
Believing the Promise
Therefore, Paul directs us to Abraham not as a display of his works but faith. In fact, Paul is not alone. Abraham’s faith is referenced also by the Prophet Isaiah, the Apostle James, the Deacon Stephen, and the epistle to the Hebrews. Consistently we are reminded “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” But what does “counted to him as righteousness” mean?
The word translated “counted” may also be translated “credited,” a word of financial accounting. Closely related is the word justified or justification. When it says that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted [credited] to him as righteousness,” the implication is that he previously didn’t have righteousness, but it was credited to him. He who was not previously righteous was justified as righteous by faith.
What then does it mean to be righteous, in this sense? Does it mean that from that point forward he lived a perfect, sinless life? No, it is a matter of standing not deed. While we may be tempted to put men with feet of clay upon pedestals of gold, before God “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). Before God, Abraham had nothing to boast about. But God justified him as righteous by grace through faith.
To explain what it means to be credited with righteousness, Paul incorporates a psalm of David, the thirty-second to be specific. Paul translates it this way: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Note several defining words here: “blessed,” “forgiven,” “sins covered.” What is Paul drawing from this psalm? The one who is credited with righteousness is not the one who works the hardest to win God’s favor and receive his wage but is one who is blessed by God’s grace through faith with forgiveness of sins—not just forgiven but covered. “As far as the east is from the west”, David sings in Psalm 103, “so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). God forgave Abraham’s sins past, present, and future, justifying him as perfectly righteous by faith.
While God never promises us our best life now, he does promise us a forgiven one: “blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count sin” (Rom. 4:8 NET). True blessedness transcends the mundane to the throne room of heaven where a sinner like Abraham (and you and me) is counted as righteous through faith in the promise. And the promise that Abraham believed looked toward its ultimate fulfillment in the fullness of time, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). It was a promise fulfilled in the perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of the promised seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), Jesus Christ the righteous. And he who is righteous secured our righteousness, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Receiving the Sign
While our righteousness is secured in the heavenly realm, God has chosen to give us earthly signs signifying his Covenant of Grace. The example that Paul gives is the covenant sign and seal of circumcision that God gave Abraham and his descendants. It was one of the defining characteristics of Jewish identity though often misinterpreted. At the heart of the misunderstanding is the question: Is the one who receives the sign and seal of the covenant righteous before God and eternally assured of salvation? Does a sign secure eternal divine favor?
Paul answers this question, again, with the example of Abraham: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. Circumcision did not justify Abraham as righteous before God. He was justified by faith before it. To argue otherwise is to confuse the sign with the substance of Abraham’s justification.
Yet, from that point onward every descendent of Abraham received the sign and seal of circumcision before faith. Why? Why would God not require that circumcision follow faith for Abraham’s descendants? Because it set them apart from the world as a community of the covenant, a family of faith, children of the promise that Abraham believed. Circumcision was not given to secure righteousness but to point back to God’s mercy and grace, his covenant made, his gift given. And as Abraham believed God’s promise and it was credited to him as righteousness so all who follow in his footsteps of the faith will be justified by faith including people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
As God promised Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), so Peter preached on Pentecost, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). Just as Abraham was called and counted as righteous by faith so too are all who put their faith in Christ, the promised one. Like Abraham before us we too receive the sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace, not with the Old Covenant sign of circumcision but the New Covenant sign of baptism. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” Paul and Silas told the jailer; “and he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:31, 33). And like Abraham’s descendants, our children receive the sign and seal of baptism, marking their inclusion in the covenant community, the family of faith, the children of the promise.
Of course, we must guard against the same mistakes of our Old Covenant ancestors. While a sign and seal, baptism like circumcision does not save. Baptism never has nor ever will credit you with righteousness before God. Let Abraham continue to be an example to us all: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Therefore, all who trust in Christ “walk in the footsteps of the faith that Abraham had.”
Living the Faith
The metaphor of walking is used often in Scripture to describe the Christian life, which is, like walking, active rather than passive. We do not passively walk; walking does not happen to us. Walking is active and implies both movement and direction. Therefore, “footsteps of the faith” implies following in a particular direction. To take it a step further, John Murray says, “To ‘walk in the footsteps’ is to march in file. Abraham is conceived of as the leader of the band and we walk, not abreast, but in file, following in the footprints left by Abraham.” Whether Paul’s intention is this direct, the reference does encourage reflection on Abraham and living the faith.
Think with me again about Abraham’s biography and what it teaches us about faith. First, we may think about Abraham’s calling. God called him to leave his land, people, and family, and go. Such an effectual calling was not in response to anything in Abraham or anything he did—only God’s sovereign grace.
Second, we may think about what we learn from Hebrews, that “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Abraham heard the Word of the Lord and his call, and Abraham obeyed. We are told that it was “by faith,” as obedience is always a matter of faith.
Third, we may think about what we might call Abraham’s pilgrimage. Hebrews says that Abraham “went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents…” (Heb. 11:9).
Abraham, the man of faith, “a friend of God” (James 2:23), lived a nomadic life, trusting the Lord for his daily provision. What we see in Abraham is not a selfish individualism or protective isolationism but rather a faith that transcends the here and now, which is precisely what Hebrews reveals: “[Abraham] was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10 NET). Abraham walked by faith as a sanctified sojourner whose home is the heavenly city of God.
Abraham is not alone. There is a covenant community, a family of faith, who walks in his footsteps. From our calling to the obedience of our faith, we trust in Christ, God’s promise fulfilled. And it is in Christ and by his Spirit that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:17), living as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11), in the world but not of it (John 17:14-19).
Like Abraham, there is nothing in us or anything that we have done that would persuade God to bestow his saving grace upon us, but he has. It is only by his grace through faith in Christ that “we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). And as God’s children, the life we live in the here and now we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20). As sojourners and exiles we are faithful to preach this good news to ourselves and share it with others near and far, not living as those who have no hope, knowing like Abraham that by faith “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Though “here we have no lasting city,” by faith “we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).
So, we are a people of faith, like our father Abraham, not trusting in the false promises of a land or the faithless practices of a people but looking toward a heavenly land with the people of God. We live not alone but as a family of faith, sojourning together as the children of Abraham, and rejoicing together in the promise given and fulfilled.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 139.