There was a Bible and theology professor at my college who was idiosyncratic to the max. He was famous for certain repeated expressions that were delivered with great pound-the-pulpit fashion in a fit of passionate verbiage. Often these rants seemed to be fully into the “rabbit trail” category relative to the topic at hand, and students would often sigh and drop their note-taking pens at that point until the verbal fit passed.
But over time, I came to understand that the best material that Dr. McGahey had to offer was the stuff that sent him into a theological rage about explaining the genuine truths of Scripture. I learned more from him than from any other prof at either Philadelphia College of Bible or Dallas Theological Seminary. Personally and privately, he was among the gentlest and godliest people I’ve ever known. He was extraordinarily kind to me and to Diana as well , and in fact we asked him to officiate our wedding in 1977. He is with the Lord now, having heard the Father say to him, “Well done James, you got more theology correct than anyone else down there!”
One of his famous lines he oft repeated was this: “Salvation has always been the same, it has always been grace through faith; but the content of faith has changed from dispensation to dispensation (meaning from one age to another in God’s dealings with mankind).”
A central passage to this understanding is our text today in Romans 4, looking back at the faith of Abraham and declaring that it was his faith in God’s promise that saved him, not any deeds that he performed.
4:1 — What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
This verse 3 is a quote from Genesis 15 and the story of Abraham’s life. He had been given a promise from God that his name would be great, that he would be the father of a great nation, and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him (which would be in Jesus – not that he understood that at the time). And as we wrote about this yesterday, the only problem was that he had no offspring, and time was not on his side. In baseball terms, it was about the 20th inning of the game.
Abraham had nothing to rest in for hope or confidence, other than the promise of God. But he believed that promise, and as it says in both of these passages: “It was credited to him as righteousness.” In other words, he was given — credited (a banking term) — at that moment of faith and belief the stuff he needed for salvation … righteousness.
Paul writes more about this, saying that the principle is a timeless one; it was not just a one-time thing for Abraham. David had the same experience ….
4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.
Wages are not given as a gift, but are earned. Faith is another matter; it is about what comes as a gift …
5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
This is from Psalm 32, one of David’s penitential Psalms extoling God’s gracious forgiveness for his great sin.
So, who can experience this blessing of credited righteousness? Is it a thing for the Jewish people, the nation that came from Abraham? Or is it for everyone?
9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.
This issue of circumcision was a big thing for the Jewish people, and if righteousness — having what was needed to be right with God — was only for them, it would surely be tied to that issue. But Paul asks …………
10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!
The distinctive mark of circumcision was not given until a number of years later than this crediting of righteousness to Abraham, after Isaac was born (so this was at least 13 years, and probably a few more). So, the issue of salvation was certainly apart from this ritual. Rather, the mark was a sign of a relationship with God, but was not the action that made the relationship.
11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
So declared or imputed righteousness was not something just for the Jews, it was for any who would fully trust in God’s promises and revelation of truth.
I attempted to illustrate this concept on Sunday with the two teenage girls I called up front. To recount the event for those who missed it, I told both of them that if they would trust me, I would reward them with a candy prize, even though it may seem nonsensical.
I told the first girl to leave the room, circle through the back hallway and come into the auditorium and return to the stage from the opposite side. And as soon as she walked out the door, I pulled candy and a receipt for the purchase of it out of my pocket and showed the second girl … then telling her to run and catch the first one.
As they both came back to the stage, they both were rewarded for trusting me in faith that I would do what I said I would do. The second girl had more reason to believe, for she had seen the payment and evidence of the reward, whereas the first girl went only on a promise.
Girl number one was like Abraham — the content of faith being a promise. Girl number two is like a person in the church age (our time after the work of Christ), seeing the payment and the evidence of the reward. The content of our faith involves belief in the payment of Christ and the proof of life — the receipt — in the resurrection of Christ.
See, salvation has always been the same – grace through faith; but the content of faith has changed. But really, how difficult is it to believe and trust in such a good and gracious God who has done it all for us?