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Faith Counted As Righteousness

May 30, 2010 Series: Genesis

Topic: Justification Passage: Genesis 15:1–6

Today we’re continuing in our study of the book of Genesis so go ahead and open your bibles to Genesis chapter 15. We’ve been looking at the life of Abram and learning what it means to live a life of faith. His most recent adventures include chasing down and defeating the 4 allied armies that had just defeated the 5 armies of the Sodom and Gomorrah region and captured Lot and his family. After defeating these armies and rescuing Lot, Abram was blessed by Melchizedek and gives a tithe as recognition that all he has is from God. And then he refused to take any of the spoils of his military victory and instead was content to wait for his blessing from the hand of God. That brings us to chapter 15, let’s read through verse 6.


There’s a lot going on in this passage; a lot we could talk about: God’s unrelenting encouragement and comfort, Abram’s concern or doubt about God’s promise to give him a son, God’s patience with Abram, The cultural importance of the day to have children as a legacy and a heritage and more. But today we’re going to spend our time looking at verse 6: “And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”

This isn’t the first time that we read about this connection between faith and righteousness and it certainly won’t be the last. The author of Hebrews tells us that Able, Enoch and Noah-who all lived before Abram-were all counted righteous because of their faith. And throughout the New Testament, this is a resounding doctrine that gets to the very heart of the gospel itself. As a matter of fact this verse is quoted in 3 different books in the NT: Romans 4, Galatians 3 and James 2. What we can glean from the pervasive teaching of faith being rewarded with righteousness that this is Gods heart; it always has been and it always will be. Our God is a God of grace and He will have a people who worship Him in spirit and truth; a people who put all their trust in Him and lean not on their own understanding; a people who have died to themselves but are alive in Christ; and a people whose only hope is in the free gift of salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ.

In February, Siobhan and I were in Hawaii celebrating our 20th anniversary early (it’s in August). On our last day we woke up around 4:30am to the sound of WW2 bomb sirens followed by an emergency announcement giving us tsunami warning instructions. There had been an earthquake on the coast of Chile the day before and there was a tsunami on its way and we were in its path. A tsunami is a series of large waves (^90ft,500mph) caused by an underwater earthquake that travels like a ripple in every direction.

While we waited for the tsunami to hit I watched the harbor adjacent to our hotel, as boat after boat set sail for sea. Everything from cruise liners and battleships to small, personal sailboats were heading out to deep water. It turns out that, for a boat, that’s the safest place to be because in the deep water, even though the wave is massive and fast, the boat can roll right over it or the wave can even go undetected. I found out later that the word tsunami is a Japanese word that means "Big wave in the port" or “harbor wave”. The term was coined by fishermen who returned to their ports in the evening after their villages and cities had been devastated by a giant wave even though they had not seen any waves on the open sea.

This morning we’re looking at a tsunami sized verse that is the basis of a tsunami sized doctrine. This verse is a massively powerful doctrine that might only seem to create a ripple right here, but will gather force and power throughout the storyline of the Bible. A word we use to describe this doctrine is “justification”. You might be thinking, “What tsunami? What’s the big deal?” You might be like the fishermen in the boat, unaware of the magnitude of the massive theological waves passing under us right now. But this doctrine is foundational to our relationship with our God. In this passage, God is crediting Abram’s account with righteousness (right standing with God) in response to Abram’s believing His promise. Listen to what these smart guys have to say about justification:

Martin Luther: “The Doctrine of Justification must, as I frequently urge, be diligently learned; for in it all the other articles of our faith are comprehended, and when that is safe, the others are safe too.”

John Calvin: “The doctrine of Justification…is the principle ground on which religion must be supported, so it requires greater care and attention. For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment [is] which He passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which piety toward God can be reared.”

J.I. Packer: “The doctrine of justification…was a major concern of the apostle Paul. For him it was the heart of the gospel shaping both his message and his devotion and spiritual life.”

Because this is such an important element in our life of faith I want to take a little time to explain and break this doctrine down as well as talk about some of the more common errors that can cause us to stumble when justification is not properly understood or applied.

**Just a warning: this message will be a little more theological than normal. That’s not bad, just different. I want to encourage you to fight the temptation to check out; the doctrine of justification may not seem like a relevant topic but in the same way that the waves of a tsunami eventually ripple across the entire ocean, it affects every area of your life of faith down to the most practical issues.

Let me start with a definition: Justification is a onetime legal judgment whereby God removes the sinner’s guilt through the forgiveness of his sin, declares him to be righteous based on the merits of Christ alone, and is received by faith alone.

1. Justified by Faith Alone

Verse 6: “He Believed the Lord”. Abram believed; he believed the promise of God, specifically, he believed that Sarai would bear him a son even though she was barren and they were both past the age of being able to conceive. Abram simply believed the promise and trusted God for the means to receive the promise. Instead of fearing that he would die of old age or maybe in battle he chose to believe that God would not forget his promise.

It’s interesting to note that after all that Abram has done, this declaration of righteousness comes to him with simple belief. It’s not announced after he leaves his country for an unknown land; not after he defeats the 4 kings and rescues Lot; not after he was blessed by Melchizedek and gave his tithe or after he turned down the spoils of his victory. No, it was in the wake of an internal struggle about the promise of God that God came to him and spoke to him and assured him of his faithfulness that Abram believed. You see, even our faith is a gift from God.

What would our bible look like if God had not come to Abram? Pure speculation, but we can assume that Abram would have spiraled downward. Where would you be right now if God had not intervened into your life; if God had not come to you and spoken to you and assured you of His faithfulness? When we believe the promise of the gospel we’re justified by faith in Christ alone. We’re not justified because of our faith. That would be a work; something that we could boast in. It is the kindness of God that He reveals himself to us and opens our eyes to see the truth so that we can believe.

Paul drives this point home in Galatians 2:16- “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. “

2. Removal of guilt/Forgiveness of sin (won’t spend a lot of time on)

The reason we have a need to be saved and justified in the first place is because God is holy and we are sinful. We, like Adam, have rebelled against God and sought our own glory instead of His which makes us His enemy. And because God is holy He must punish sin which makes us the object of His wrath. So the sinner stands before God, guilty. So if we are to be reconciled to God our sin must be atoned for.

There’s no mention of forgiveness or atonement in this account with Abram but we have to remember that there was nothing in place yet that would atone for Abrams sins; the law and the sacrificial system haven’t been given yet. But we do know that Abram looked ahead to Christ and that God, “in his divine forbearance…passed over former sins [in order to display His righteousness].”(Romans 3:23-25) So Abram looked ahead in faith to Christ but we look back in faith to Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross. And by faith we have been forgiven of or sin; declared not guilty.

It’s important to understand that this is a declaration regarding our status; we were enemies of God, we were guilty before God, we deserved the wrath of God poured out on us for eternity as our punishment for our sin. But because Jesus took our punishment on the cross, drinking the full cup of God’s wrath, by faith we are declared not guilty.

Believe it or not, as amazing and glorious as this is, it’s not enough. It’s not enough because even though we’ve had our guilt removed we still have a stained record. God’s standard and requirement is moral perfection. Even if we only ever committed one sin we still have nothing to offer that would be acceptable to a holy God. Somehow we need perfection. What we need is righteousness.

3. Declared righteous, “He counted it to him as Righteousness”

This is the result of Abrams faith. “He believed the Lord, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” The term “counted” is synonymous with credited, imputed or reckoned. Anthony Hoekema describes this concept simply as righteousness being credited to the account of another. This is a foreign righteousness; it didn’t come from Abram and it doesn’t come from us. It had to come from someone who was righteous; morally perfect. That would be Jesus.

We’re not only justified by the death of Christ, which we just saw was the provision for our forgiveness, we’re also justified by the life of Christ, which is the provision for our righteousness. Through His perfect obedience Jesus earned the merit of perfect righteousness, not only for himself but for all those who put their faith in Him. This doesn’t mean that Abram was made righteous; it means he was credited with righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5:21 and John Piper might help us understand this exchange a little better: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This verse contains a double imputation of sorts. Not only is Christ’s righteousness imputed to the sinner (in him we might become the righteousness of God) but man’s sin is first imputed to Christ (he made him to be sin who knew no sin).

John Piper: “Christ is ‘made sin’, not in the sense that He becomes a sinner, but in the sense that our sins are imputed to him. We ‘become’ God’s righteousness in the way Christ ‘was made’ our sin. He did not become morally sinful in the imputation; we do not become morally righteous in the imputation. He was counted as having our sin; we are counted as having God’s righteousness. This is the reality of imputation.”

This imputation of righteousness is so important because the righteousness of Christ is the only way to be accepted by God. Jesus is the only way to the Father. His was the only acceptable sacrifice. And through faith we receive His righteousness. And therefore, through faith we will stand before the judge one day and be accepted on account of the righteous of Christ credited to us.

Gospel message

The last aspect of justification is that the act of being justified (which is believing the promise and provision of God to remove our guilt and credit the righteousness of Christ to our account) is not a process but a onetime event.

4. Justification is an act, not a process

Justification is a onetime legal judgment; it’s a declaration; a permanent finished act. Righteousness was counted to Abram (past tense, a finished transaction). Abram doesn’t have to maintain his righteousness account-he can’t. First of all it didn’t come from his works in the first place and secondly he couldn’t earn it if he wanted to; all our works are like filthy rags. Romans 8:30-“Those whom [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” These verb tense used for “justified” in the Greek indicates action completed in the past. It’s done.

And Abram’s faith wasn’t a perfect faith. And Spurgeon agrees: “The faith which justified Abram was still an imperfect faith, although it perfectly justified him. It was imperfect beforehand, for he had [lied about] his wife… It was imperfect after it had justified him, for in the next chapter we find him taking Hagar, his wife’s handmaid, in order to effect the Divine purpose, and so showing a lack of confidence in the working of the Lord.” Listen, Abram’s faith wasn’t perfect and our faith isn’t perfect either, but it perfectly justifies us in Christ.

Now, the most common and damaging error that we make regarding justification is to mix it with sanctification; finished event with a process. Sanctification is the process of being made holy through the removal of remaining sin…as a result of having been justified. On one hand, if we approach God with a sense of success in our battles with sin, we attempt to add something to that which God has already deemed righteous-namely Christ. On the other hand, if we approach God with an acute awareness of our failures and sin motivated by guilt or fear we act as if the righteousness of Christ is not enough. Either way the gospel is diminished and our sanctification is hindered.


Have you ever questioned your salvation? Have you ever avoided God because you were ashamed or knew that God had had enough of you? Whether you know it or not, you have an understanding of justification. It can be defined by the way you approach God; your disposition toward Him; the way you respond when we’ve done well or when you’ve failed miserably. Do you feel that God is more pleased with you today because you were obedient or do you live with a persistent feeling of guilt, believing that God is disappointed and dissatisfied with your life because of your sin and failure? Are you more aware of God’s favor and blessing or your sin and failure?

How do you treat other people when they sin? As a fellow sinner who has been given the free gift of forgiveness and the righteousness of Christ even though you know you deserve the wrath and punishment of God?

This is where my illustration of the tsunami falls apart. A tsunami effects everything around it just like the doctrine of justification effects the very core of our lives. But because of the destructive power of a tsunami, the best place to be is in a boat in the middle of the ocean where you can’t feel the effects. With justification, we want our feet on the ground; we want to understand the power, freedom and joy of being declared not guilty and receiving the righteousness of Christ. And if we don’t understand justification, we want to know it; we want to be able to identify the signs of an unhealthy grasp of our standing before God so that we can receive grace and change.

Abram believed God. He believed that God would give him a son, even though He and Sarah were (as Paul puts it) as good as dead. Abram’s confidence was in the Lord. He never gave up; he didn’t assume that because he failed God would abandon him. And he didn’t approach God with added confidence after a victory. Because of his faith, God made a commitment to him from the beginning.

We too believe God for a Son even though we were dead in our sin. And through our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the one through whom all nations will be blessed, God has made a commitment to us. We are sons of Abraham and heirs of the promise; the promise of rescue from our sins; the promise of grace and mercy; the promise of adoption as sons and daughters of the Most High; and the promise of our inheritance-eternal life with our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Through your faith in Jesus Christ you have been justified.

“The moment a man truly trusts his God he is justified. Yet many are justified who do not know their happy condition—many to whom, as yet, the blessing of justification has not been opened up in its excellency and abundance of privilege. There may be some of you here today who have been called by Divine Grace from darkness into marvelous light. You have been led to look to Jesus and you believe you have received pardon of your sin, and yet, for lack of knowledge, you know little of the sweet meaning of such words as these, “Accepted in the Beloved” “Perfect in Christ Jesus” “Complete in Him.” You are doubtless justified, though you scarcely understand what justification means. And you are accepted, though you have not realized your acceptance. And you are complete in Jesus Christ, though you have, today, a far deeper sense of your personal incompleteness than of the all-sufficiency of Jesus.” Spurgeon

If this is you today, please don’t stay in this place. If you’ve found yourself in a place of unbelief or self-righteousness, repent. Study the word, read, pray. Justification gives comfort, peace and joy since, by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). This is truth, unconditional truth. As we end by singing this new song about the Fathers love, allow these truths to penetrate, celebrate the goodness of God in your life.

More in Genesis

November 27, 2011

Forgiveness (text)

November 20, 2011

Grace for Change, Mercy for Reconciliation

November 13, 2011

The Right Ambition for the Right Promotion