On Easter as we call people to repent of sin and believe on Christ, it is worth our time to consider the essential nature of saving faith. Therefore, from Romans 4 I have gleaned eight truths about saving faith. I am sure this list is not exhaustive, but I pray it will help you think about the kind of faith you have in Christ.
1. Saving Faith responds to the one, true and living God.
Verse 3 says, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.'” In context, this citation of Genesis 15:6 is the driving force for Paul to appeal to Abraham. In Romans 3 Paul wrapped up his argument that every Jew and Gentile has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (v. 23); the wrath of God stands to condemn all men for their sin (1:18; 2:5; 3:18), unless they have faith in God.
Thus as Paul explains what saving faith is in Romans 4, he quotes or alludes to Genesis 15:6 at least nine times (vv. 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24). Paul’s point is to show that those who believe in the God of Abraham will find legal pardon—i.e., God will reckon them righteous by means of faith in him. What follows are the stipulations attached to that justifying faith, but first foremost saving faith is faith in God.
2. Saving Faith trusts in the promises of God.
The idea of Godward belief comes again in verse 17. And like before, saving faith is Godward in orientation, but now we can also see that saving faith does more than trust God in abstract ways. Saving faith trusts in God’s promises. In Abraham’s case, he believed that God would make him “the father of many nations.” This promise was issued to Abraham in Genesis 17:5 and was part and parcel of the whole Abrahamic Covenant.
More exactly, God promised Abraham a “seed” through whom all the promises would be fulfilled (see Gal 3:16). Indeed, to speak most clearly and with the light of progressive revelation, all promises have found fulfillment in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1:20). Therefore, what God offers to sinners today is not a shadow of things to come; it is the very substance. Jesus is the promise of the gospel, and all who believe in him will be saved.
3. Saving Faith depends on the Word of God.
Not only is saving faith oriented towards God and the gospel of his Son; it is equally dependent on God’s inspired word. At least two verses directly appeal to Scripture as a source for faith. First in verse 3, Paul asks the rhetorical question: “For what does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.'” In keeping with Paul’s understanding of how Scripture functions to engender hope and faith (Rom 15:4), Paul points to Abraham as a model of faith in order to test and improve (i.e., strengthen) the faith of those who read this letter.
Then again, in verse 23, Paul says something similar. He reiterates the point that the Old Testament is not just for those who lived before Christ. Rather, the words spoken to the patriarchs are for the sake of the church (v. 24). Altogether, faith depends on the word of God. This was true for Abraham, of whom God spoke personally (but sporadically), and this is true for new covenant believers, of whom God speaks continually by means of his Spirit and his Word.
4. Saving Faith repudiates any notion of meritorious works.
Verse 5 reads, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Paul makes a strong disjunction between faith and works. He says in verse 4 that “the one who works, his wages are . . . his due.” In such a case, faith is eliminated, because God’s gracious gift is replaced with some measure of meritorious work. Paul himself had learned the folly of earning his own righteousness (cf. Phil 3:3-8) and in his letter to the Roman church, he equally indicted the Jews for seeking to establish their own righteousness (10:3).
Therefore, saving faith not only trusts in God’s gracious faith, but it abhors the thought of meriting salvation. Saving faith extols grace and delights to repudiate any personal contribution to salvation. For this reason, the doctrine of election and the idea that faith is a gift from God are fuel for faith (see Romans 9–11). While some believers reject the doctrines of grace, those who understand them as Paul did find a greater sense of grace which humbles them and fuels their worship and passion to share the gospel with others.
5. Saving Faith refuses to trust in religious actions.
Similar to the last point, saving faith not only repudiates any sort of moral performace to earn salvation, it also refuses to trust religious service as a means establishing righteousness before God. Verse 11 says of Abraham, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of righteousness that he had by faith while he was still circumcised.” Paul’s point is that Abraham became the father of Jews and Gentiles, because he was counted righteous before his circumcision—the boundary marker that designated Jewish males. Therefore, his righteousness depended solely on his faith. His circumcision “sealed” his righteousness, i.e., it signified what he had already been given.
Just the same, saving faith is not dependent on any kind of religious service or ordinance; it is the free exercise of the will that comes when a man has been made alive by Christ. In other words, when the God who is able to bring life out of nothing (Rom 4:17) calls a man from his spiritual death, he gives him the resurrection life of his son, which includes a new nature that is inclined to believe in God and turn from sin.
While the old man was dead in his trespasses (Eph 2:1), enslaved to his sin (Rom 6:16), unable and unwilling to seek God (Rom 3:10-13), and hostile towards God in heart and mind (Rom 8:7), the new man is alive in Christ and desirous of believing in him. This man does not trust in his religious works, rather as a child of God whose heart cries “Abba, Father,” he rests in Christ’s merits and believes that he need not add anything to them.
6. Saving Faith grows over time.
Verse 19 indicates that Abraham “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was a good as dead . . ., or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Rather, his faith “grew strong” as he trusted in the promises of God. Verse 21 says that Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” This obviously reflects the mature faith of Abraham, not the wavering of faith that prompted him to sire Ishmael at the behest of his wife (Genesis 16).
Paul’s evaluation of Abraham commends the active, growing faith of this patriarch. In fact, in one place Paul calls true believers to walk in the footsteps of Abraham (Rom 4:12), implying that saving faith is active, not passive faith. In the end, saving faith is a kind of belief that grows stronger with age and that finds its source of strength in the word of God that overcomes contrary circumstances—which is our next point.
7. Saving Faith believes contrary to the circumstances.
The penultimate point to be made is that saving faith believes against contrary circumstances. Verses 17-18 indicate that Abraham believed despite his old age and his wife’s barren womb that God could create life from nothing. Indeed, Abraham had to reckon that God had the power to create something that did not exist and did not seem probable at all. To say it differently and reiterate points already made: Abraham’s faith depended solely on God’s promise.
The same is true today. When God calls us to believe in him, he demands that we turn away from every other source of security and hope. Saving faith not only hopes in God, it hopes exclusively in God. And while our faith depends on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which is more than the bare promise of Abraham, we are still called to believe in a God who is invisible and worship a Lord who (to date) we have not seen. In a world filled with devils, toils, and snares, our faith must endure against the odds. And indeed, because saving faith is God-given faith, it will endure.
8. Saving faith delights in the glory of God.
Finally, because saving faith grows stronger as it is afflicted, God gets increasing glory in the lives of his saints. Verse 20 says that Abraham glorified God as he continued to believe. Actually, it puts the emphasis on God’s glory: “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” In truth, genuine believers live for the glory of God and by so doing they purify and strengthen their faith. Faith for them, that is faith that is really faith, puts the glory of God first and thus can endure all threats, loses, and assaults because ultimately is not my life that matters; it is God’s glory that is supreme.
In this way, saving faith unites and purifies the heart of the believer. Whereas the man of the world is afflicted with dozens of desires, lusts, and interests, the man of faith is singular: He loves Christ and longs for him to get the glory. This was evident in Abraham and it is everyone who truly believes and has saving faith.
On this Easter Sunday may we examine our heart to see what kind of faith we have, and may we by God’s grace believe on Christ with saving faith.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss