“Abraham Believed God,” Genesis 15; Romans 4

Some of you, well, one anyway, know that I am privileged to teach a Bible study on Saturday night, and wished that you could be here.  So do I.  The following, including the questions, is the latest study, edited slightly from having written it once already.  The blog and the lessons have worked together well, since we’re going through Genesis on our way, Lord willing, through the Bible.

In Bible study, there is something called “The Law of First Mention.”  This simply means, sometimes, that the “first mention” of a word in Scripture has special significance.  For example, the first mention of Satan, energizing and working through a snake, is first mentioned in Genesis 3, where we learn of the craftiness of the devil and that his main goal is to destroy faith in the Word of God and to turn people away from it.  The first mention of “peace” is in Genesis 15:15, and refers to Abraham going to his fathers, that is, dying, in peace.  People want to “live” in peace, and that’s certainly worthwhile, but it’s more important to die in peace.

Genesis 15:6 gives us the first mention of “righteousness,” a verse Paul quotes in Romans 4:3, where he teaches how righteousness is attributed to us.

Genesis 15.

The events in this chapter happen after Abraham’s victory over the 5 kings and after his rescue of Lot, recorded in Genesis 14.  He had had dealings with the king of Sodom, turning down a rich “reward” from him.  He had encountered the king of Salem. Melchizedek, the king of Salem [Jerusalem], had given him a tithe, and been blessed by him.  We probably should have said something about him, as he prefigures the priesthood of the Lord Jesus, Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 7:1-4, especially v. 3.

After all these happenings, perhaps a reaction set it.  We don’t know for certain, but, based on what God said, perhaps he began to be concerned about how the 5 kings might retaliate.  After all, he was only one man, with a very small army, trained though they might have been, 14:14.  Maybe he thought of the riches he had turned down, and, perhaps, a tinge of regret began to creep in?  We really don’t know, just surmise all this from God’s promise to him.

Anyway, God granted him a vision in which He said, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield [against the kings?], your exceeding great reward” [because of his turning down the king of Sodom?]

However, something else had been gnawing at Abraham, and it came bursting out:  “what will you give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  I don’t think this was unbelief, but frustration, or perhaps a feeling of futility.  He had no son to inherit, so whatever God might give him wouldn’t stay in the family; it would go to his steward, according to the law at that time.  Indeed, if Abraham died without a son, there would be no family.

God wasn’t caught off-guard; nor did He rebuke Abram for this outburst.  He just brought him outside.

The interpretation of this passage. 

It’s usually pictured as God leading Abraham outside, and Abraham looks up at the starry sky.  He thinks, “Whoa!  That’s a lot of stars!”  The trouble with this is that men HAD counted the stars, or so they thought.  Even as late as 1627, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler had catalogued only a little over a thousand stars.  That’s a few less even than the ancient Egyptians had listed centuries before.  Perhaps the difference may be explained by where Germany and Egypt are on the planet.  Still, that doesn’t seem to agree with God’s previous promise that Abraham’s seed would be like the dust of the earth, Genesis 13:16.  It wasn’t until the invention of the telescope, and its development into the powerful one we have today, that men discovered that the stars really are as innumerable as “the dust of the earth.”

So Abraham believed God in spite of what the “science” of the day might have said, like Noah before him had believed God saying a flood was coming when it hadn’t ever even rained.

A second difficulty with this interpretation is found in a couple of phrases elsewhere in the description of this event.  V. 12 says, Now when the sun was going down, and v. 17 says, when the sun went down and it was dark.  This would indicate that it was daylight when God told Abraham to count the stars.

There are several lessons to learn from all this.

The instruction in this passage. 

1.  Atheists and skeptics are always asking for “tangible, verifiable proof” of the existence of God, or Jesus, or of the truthfulness of Scripture.  However, Scripture tells us of things not seen, Hebrews 11:1.  True, Abraham had the “evidence” of God, because God was talking to him, nevertheless, the stars weren’t visible.  Even if they had been visible, he would still have had to believe God, because “science” said that there weren’t really all that many of them.

2.  Sometimes, it’s necessary to believe God in spite of the situation, or even what science insists is true.

3.  The world thinks all this is foolish and stupid, but Scripture says that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, 1 Corinthians 1:25.

4.  This is an unconditional promise.  It doesn’t depend on Abraham, which is a good thing, as Scripture demonstrates his weakness.  He was fallible and sinful, just like the rest of us.  To demonstrate this “unconditionality” even more, God performed what seems to be a bizarre ritual, though it was known later, Jeremiah 34:18.  He told Abraham to bring several animals and divide them into two, placing the parts in two rows on the ground.  Then a smoking oven and a burning torch passed between the pieces. Two people making a covenant or treaty would pass between the pieces.  This meant that they were calling down on themselves the curse of dismemberment, like the animals, if they violated the terms of the covenant or treaty.  However, only God passed through the pieces this time.  Only He is responsible for the fulfillment of the promise.  It is unconditional.

5.  Abraham was a shepherd and had spent a lot of nights under the stars.  However, God said, “Look now….”  Granted, some of the newer versions don’t include “now,” but the interpretation is valid.  So Abraham couldn’t go on past experience.  Further, no doubt he expected to spend more nights under the stars taking care of his flocks.  But God said, “Look now….”  He couldn’t rest on future expectations.  Likewise, we Christians can look back at many times God has blessed us, and, by His grace, look forward to an eternity of fellowship with Him and His people.  But sometimes…the “now” gets us.  Since the “now” is really all we have, may we learn from Abraham to trust God when it’s in the “in spite of…,” times, as well as when things seem to be going well.

Romans 4

Romans is an exposition of “the Gospel,” 1:11, 16.  In chs. 1-3, Paul shows the need for the Gospel because of the condemnation of all men, regardless of ethnicity, 3:19.  In 3:21, he begins his teaching of “justification,” and the righteousness of God apart from the law.  Romans is the answer to the age-old question posed by Job in Job 9:2, “…how can a man be righteous before God?”

In his explanation of the Gospel, Paul tells us what it’s all about.  In Romans 1:17, he writes, for in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…. If modern Christians had written this verse, they probably would have written, “for in it the love of God is revealed….”  But the Gospel message isn’t about “love,” cf. 1 John 1:5; it’s about “righteousness,” that standard of holy living that God requires if we’re to stand in His presence uncondemned.  That’s why the early church never preached “the love of God.” Neither did the Lord Jesus.  John 3 records a private conversation, designed to counteract the narrow view of a Pharisee.

Apart from the Lord Jesus, no one has any claim on or participation in “the love of God,” John 3:36; 1 Timothy 1:14.  The Gospel isn’t about telling people how much God loves them, but about how much God has against them, and what’s to be done about it.

In Romans 3:11, Paul quotes Psalm 14:2, There is none righteous, no, not one.  The result of that is in 3:19, all the world may become guilty [accountable] before God.  In v. 21, Paul introduces the righteousness of God.  This really is nothing new, because the law and the prophets, that is, the Old Testament, foretold a time when God would intervene in man’s sorry state and do something about it.  To demonstrate this, he turns to Abraham.

The testimony of Scripture, vs. 1-8.

In this portion, Paul quotes two Scriptures, Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:1, 2. Genesis 15 has to do with Abraham’s believing God “in spite of,” as we’ve seen.  The Psalm has to do with David’s praise of God for His grace in forgiving sin and “covering” with the blood of OT sacrifices.  David learned something about “grace” in the aftermath of his own sin with Bathsheba.  There were no sacrifices for adultery and murders, both of which David was guilty of.  Yet, in 2 Samuel 12:13, the prophet Nathan said to David, “The LORD has also put away your sin; you shall not die.”  Neither Abraham nor David “earned” righteousness.  Nevertheless, there were severe consequences throughout the rest of David’s life.  You see, God may forgive sin without cancelling its temporal consequences.  

The time of Abraham’s justification, vs. 9-11.

The Jews made a big deal out of circumcision.  To them it had become almost an inviolable guarantee of God’s blessing.  No Jew, no matter how wicked, could ever be condemned for his sin.  No Gentile, no matter how “good,” could ever escape condemnation, except by becoming a Jew or at least a proselyte.  The early church had trouble with this, as well.  Paul, who had a great deal to do with the settling of this controversy in Acts 15, points out when Abraham was declared righteous.  It was before he was circumcised, v. 10.  Circumcision had nothing to do with it.

Like the Jews of Paul’s day, some today make a big deal out of this “sign of the covenant,” except that they say it’s been replaced by infant baptism.  Circumcision meant inclusion in the Abrahamic family.  In our day, infant baptism has pretty much come to mean salvation itself, if not explicitly, then implicitly.  That is, paedobaptists deny baptismal regeneration, yet their teaching about infant baptism almost certainly leads in that direction.  However, infant baptism is no more the means of being born into the family of God that circumcision was the means of a Jewish boy being born into the line of Abraham.  It was a sign that he had already been born.  Likewise, baptism is meant to signify that one has already been born again, or born spiritually.  There is no NT evidence of anyone being baptized apart from their own profession of faith.  There were males in the OT who were circumcised:  Ishmael, the sons of Keturah after the death of Sarah, Esau, to whom the rite meant nothing.  They weren’t part of the covenant because they had the wrong birth.  Likewise, baptism without the personal faith of the one being baptized is meaningless.

Besides all that, even circumcision had to do with “righteousness by faith.”  Paul writes that circumcision wasn’t just about the Abrahamic Promise itself, but it was really a seal of the righteousness of the faith which [Abraham] had while still uncircumcised, Romans 4:11, also v. 12 (emphasis added).  It was intended to be a continual visual reminder of blessing by faith, not by works, not by ritual, and certainly not a guarantee of continual blessing.  The Jews pretty much ignored this aspect of the rite.

The inclusiveness of justification, vs. 11, 12.

This doesn’t mean that everybody is justified, but rather that it’s available to everyone, not just Jews.  In v. 11, Abraham is called the father of all those who believe.  That’s us. Without going through the rite of circumcision, all who believe have righteousness imputed to them also.  It isn’t just limited to Jews.

In  v. 12, Abraham is also called the father of circumcision.  Note very carefully how Paul put it:  to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised (emphasis added).  See also v. 16.  These are ethnic Jews who also have faith like Abraham.  In other words, they are “spiritual Israel.”  I know that term is used of “believers” in general, but if anything, we’re “spiritual Isaac,” Galatians 4:28.  However, see also Galatians 3:26-29.  Ethnicity has nothing to do with it, naturally or spiritually.  Nor ritual.

The triumph of faith, vs. 13-25.

1.  with regard to Abraham’s posterity, vs. 13-18.  God’s promise wasn’t based on Abraham’s performance, nor on the works of the law, because the law brings wrath, v. 15.  If blessing were through the law, Paul wrote, then faith is made void, and the promise made of no effect.  In other words, if the Promise is conditional, then it’s effectively canceled.  We saw this in the Mosaic Covenant and Israel’s repeated failure to live up to its conditions.  It’s of faith, that it might be of grace.  In other words, it’s of God, not of man.  The result is that it’s certain to all the seed, v. 16.  This means something to us.  If we’re believers, we’re part of that “seed.”

2.  with regard to his person, vs. 19-22.  Indeed, there was nothing Abraham could do to bring this promise to pass.  Though Paul is here referring to Genesis 17 (17:5, where God changes Abram’s name to Abraham), it’s still true.  There was nothing Abraham could do.  Hebrews refers to him as being as good as dead, Hebrews 11:12.

3.  with regard to ourselves, vs. 23-25.  In Galatians 3:16, Paul uses a play on the word “seed,” which is singular.  Because of this, some people teach that “the seed” is only Christ, so that the Abrahamic Promise is “fulfilled in Jesus,” and so there’s nothing left to be fulfilled.  The OT is all done.  And truly, Christ is the Seed (or the descendant of Abraham) as our Representative, but what He did makes the Promise certain to all the seed.  Righteousness is imputed to those who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.  In other words, we believe in the same God that Abraham did.

Notice that Paul wrote that Jesus was raised because of our justification, v. 25 (emphasis added).  I used to have difficulty understanding what this meant, since I believed with most others that Jesus only died to “provide” salvation, not actually to secure it for those for whom He died.  Since we weren’t “justified” until we believe, how could Paul write what he did?  Paul could write this because in His eternal decree, God has already “justified” those whom He chose, and even “glorified” them.  I can look in the mirror and tell I’m not “glorified” yet, but in God’s mind and purpose, it’s as good as done.  The difficulty with justification is that we’re all sinners.  How can God call us “righteous”?  He can do this because Jesus was first of all delivered up because of our offenses (emphasis added).  His death paid the price for our sins and His life provided the righteousness God imputes to believers, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus, Romans 3:26.

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I own.
Sin had left a crimson stain;
He washed it white as snow.


1.  What’s the significance of God’s telling Abram to “count the stars”?
2.  What was Abram’s main concern?
3.  What is “faith” about?
4.  What was significant about “now”?
5.  What is the Gospel about?
6.  Was Paul introducing something “new” into his teaching?  Why, or why not?
7.  What did circumcision have to do with Abram’s being declared “righteous?”  Why or why not?
8.  Beside the covenant itself, what was circumcision about?
9.  What is the “triumph of faith” with regard to Abraham?
10. What is it with regard to ourselves?
11. How can God declare sinners to be “righteous”?