For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Romans 4:13-25 (ESV)
The apostle Paul (who had formerly been the Pharisee, Saul) was dealing with the Judaizers, who were Jews who had become Christians and who expected Gentile converts to Christianity to adopt the Jewish laws, including being circumcised and living as a Jew.
It became necessary for Paul to teach to the Gentile churches that obeying the Jewish laws and adopting Jewish customs are not required to follow Jesus or to be saved.
Our salvation and justification (being made right in the eyes of God) comes through faith alone in Jesus. Paul uses the example of Abraham to set the precedent- Abraham was justified by faith before the covenant, before he was circumcised, because God gave Abraham the gift of faith.
Today the premise of faith alone (sola fide) is challenged in many Christian traditions. If any preacher or teacher tries to say faith plus anything is required of us to follow Jesus, know that is not the truth. We are not required to follow the Mosaic Law, or to wear specific clothing, or to observe specific rites or rituals. Even if we did do these things, it would not save us or justify us in the eyes of God. None of us are in any way able to fulfill the Law completely, which means the one who tries to earn his or her way to God is doomed. The apostle James teaches us that if we break one teeny tiny piece of the Law we violate all of it. (James 2:10) The scandalous, almost unbelievable, simple truth is that the only requirement for salvation is faith that Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves – He kept the Law perfectly and became the perfect sacrifice to cover our sins.
One might say, “That’s cheap grace, because we don’t do anything or earn anything. Just believe? That’s nuts!” That’s exactly the point, that our faith is what justifies us before God, though grace is anything but cheap. Grace, salvation, forgiveness, eternal life- Jesus bought and paid for all of these- which we cannot do- with His suffering and with His precious Blood. We respond to and reflect His amazing love and grace by serving our neighbors, by learning His word, and by partaking of the Sacraments. All of these are gifts from God to us. God is the action hero in this story.
The good works that Christians were created to do (Ephesians 2:10) are not ways to earn brownie points. They are an answer to the prayer Jesus taught us: thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our good works are the end result of having the faith (which is a gift from God) to confess our sins to God, knowing that in Christ we are forgiven, and trusting Him for what we need to live in a way that honors Him.
Some communities may pass out projects and to-do lists, which are not bad things in and of themselves, but we cannot earn our way into heaven based upon how many items we check or don’t check off of a list. What sets Christians apart is our love for Jesus. Our motivation to serve others comes as a result of wanting what God wants for others and for the world around us- not to earn points or to stroke our own vanity, but to follow Jesus’ example.
Abraham was justified by his faith. His faith, which was a gift from God, brought forth amazing fruit. Faith is also what justifies us- not that we are able to live 100% perfect lives, or even to have 100% perfect faith.
Do we trust Jesus enough to rely on Him alone? Even that is a tricky question. Every one of us struggles with a degree of unbelief. At times we also need to pray as the father of the boy with the unclean spirit (see Mark 9:14-29) prays- “I believe, help my unbelief!”
God was faithful to Abraham even though Abraham wasn’t perfectly faithful. The fact that Abraham, when he was still called Abram, had a son, Ishmael, that was conceived outside of the promise comes to mind as we learn in Genesis 16. Even though Abram and Sarai acted according to their desperation for a son rather than in response to God’s promise, He was still faithful to His promise to give them Isaac, a son born of Sarah, the son of His promise.
We can only be saved, justified, and made right with God by faith alone. Yet even that faith is a gift that God gives us. God worked great things through Abraham by faith- not because Abraham was entirely faithful, but because God made Abraham able to believe. God works in us by the gift of faith today as well without brownie points, no checklist to check off. By the sacrifice of Jesus alone, He covers us, He adopts us. In baptism we are marked with the Cross of Christ, and named and claimed as God’s own. In the Sacrament we are given the very Body and Blood of Jesus to give us strength and sustenance for our toil here on earth. Jesus fulfills God’s promise from long ago to Abraham, the promise that extends to us as well- because of faith.