Genuine Christians have an old nature and a new nature.
My old nature is my dark side. I was fairly affected by Romans 1 and 2… not so much by thinking about the wicked world “out there” or about the universal sinfulness of mankind; but because I was ashamed when I considered the world of wickedness within myself.
Through Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit concludes us under sin, and leads us to the dreadful realization that, “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” [2:8]
I am speechless and undone. How can I open my mouth to justify myself before Holy God?
Then again, Paul isn’t dragging us through this most convicting part of his letter without offering a glimmer of hope. In chapter 1, he refers to the gospel of God, and the righteousness of God through faith. In chapter 3, he speaks of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” and the concept of being “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
In chapter 4, the apostle takes us deeper into the gospel. There are three themes in this chapter.
Theme 1: We are Abraham’s Children
The first, and most significant theme, is that we, as believers, are Abraham’s children, and so are rightful heirs of the promise.
Abraham is the prototype of redeemed people. A stunning covenant promise was delivered to him, and he was counted righteous through his faith. The last three verses in this chapter summarize the primary theme: the imputation of righteousness is not just a story about Abraham. It is our story, as those “who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.”
How is there such an explicit connection between us and Abraham? We have faith, like Abraham.
That’s true. However, to say only that would miss the gravity of this powerful fact: the Seed of Abraham is Jesus Christ, the very object of the faith we speak of, and the One who purchased our right to be called the children of God. The covenant promise to Abraham and the Christian’s faith are bound in a glorious circle. We are partakers with Abraham, because we believe the promise to him, and the promise is the One in whom we believe.
Theme 2: The Timing of the Covenant Sign
In the company of Judaizers, we might be criticized as not fully identifying with Abraham as our father, for we are the uncircumcised. Apostle Paul demolishes this argument by pointing out that the promise of Genesis 15:6 described Abraham before he was circumcised.
Genesis 15:6, from the Holman translation, says, “Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.”
This is the second theme of chapter 4: Paul’s dramatic assertion about the timing of the covenant sign.
This same apostle was the one who associated circumcision with baptism in his letter to the Colossians. For fun, if you check thesaurus.com, you will find that the first suggested synonym for circumcision is “baptism.”
Let’s ponder this circumcision/baptism analogy.
Our unborn children were not yet baptized. However, according to Paul’s gospel, these children were counted as righteous because of our faith, as parents, before they were even born, much less baptized.
Let us never negate God’s amazing work of imputing righteousness by supposing that it hinges on water baptism.
This is a controversial subject, because, of course, baptism is holy and imperative. Yet, it stands that a child of God is a child of God, even before he has received the sign and seal of baptism.
Rest your hearts, brothers and sisters who have lost children before they were baptized. The Holy Spirit has just now informed us that our children were already in the covenant and already justified by our faith, before they received the sign and seal of baptism. The same may be said of the criminal who died on the cross beside our Lord.
Is baptism then meaningless? Of course not! We are commanded to baptize our children in observance of the declaration that God has already made about them. Calvin says this of the corresponding sign: “[circumcision] was not the cause of righteousness, it indeed tended to confirm the righteousness of faith, and that already obtained in uncircumcision.”
This topic is best understood if we acknowledge that there is a difference between covenant children and elect children.
The Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years… were they children of God or not?
Yes, they were children of God—covenant children of God. Their circumcision testified to this.
This means that the promise belonged to them. Yet, scripture says that with most of them God was not pleased—their bodies were slain in the wilderness. How can this be said of God’s children? It’s not so difficult to understand when we distinguish between the covenant children and the elect children.
It’s not our business to pry into the question, “who are the elect children of God?” Nevertheless, election is still a reality.
What occurs at our baptism? Simply this: we receive the sign and seal that we are the covenant children of God. This means that, as Joshua and Caleb did, we are entitled to believe and lay claim on the promise of God—the promise to Abraham. It’s ours for the taking.
However, baptism does not confirm us as God’s elect. If that were the case, then we’d necessarily fall into one of two errors. We would either conclude that the removal of dirt saves us—in other words, the water baptism saves us—or, we would conclude that God’s elect might lose their salvation, which is a denial of the doctrine of the Preservation of the Saints.
Let us renounce the idolatrous high view of the removal of dirt from the body, which tempts us to doubt that God preserves his elect. If we really do have the Holy Spirit, then we shall not fall away.
If we are infants, then we are justified by the faith of our parents, not by our baptism.
As adults, we are also justified by faith.
Theme 3: Works Undone?
So now, let us consider the third theme in this chapter: justification by faith alone.
In verse 5, the apostle makes a seeming ridiculous statement. He says, “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” It sounds like he’s saying that good works are not relevant in the Christian life. No wonder his contemporaries accused him of antinomianism.
However, in chapter 2, Paul had warned that those who practice wickedness will not escape the judgment of God. He had even said that God “…will render to each one according to his works.”
Is the Holy Spirit confused? Or, rather, is this an example of the things “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”? [2 Peter 3:16]
I can’t find the quote; it’s embedded in some YouTube clip that I watched years ago when I was learning the Biblical gospel from Southern Reformed Baptists. Paul Washer, of all people, made some bold observation that if any preacher will effectively teach the true gospel of grace, he will necessarily be accused of teaching lawless Christianity, because grace is so profound that the righteous human mind cannot abide it. Nevertheless, the preaching of grace does not undo the doctrine of works.
The interaction between grace and works is fascinating, and worthy of our lifelong study. Reformed Christians, with the Bible, confess a doctrine of grace and a doctrine of works. There is no either/or; it’s both.
We confess that the Law of God was delivered in the context of the grace of God: “I am the LORD your God,” He said, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
I’ll conclude with a comment about one of my favorite topics. The Sabbath commandment is a commandment to rest. It’s a beautiful thing to rest in the completed work of the Righteous Man, Jesus of Nazareth, the One who justifies us, and who gives us motivation and power to live thankfulness before our Creator God, for His praise.
Work, brothers and sisters—work for the glory of God and for the assurance of your salvation, but rest in the justification granted to you by our Redeemer, the Man who bought us and included us in the covenant, as Abraham’s sons.
Related readings: Psalm 32; James 2:14-26; 1 John 3:1-10; CD V