In Romans 4, Paul tells us that if we want to know how salvation works, we only need to look to Abraham. His story was recorded for our sake (vv. 23–24). How God worked with Abraham is how God works, period. And how did God work salvation for Abraham?
We cannot overstate the importance of faith. As Paul wrote in verse 16, “it [the promise] depends on faith.” The ESV supplies that word “depends,” but it certainly underscores the sense Paul is after—literally, the promise “comes through faith.”
Why? Why is faith so important? Why does it matter so much in God’s plan of redemption? Here are three reasons.
1. Faith keeps the promise gracious.
That’s what the text says: “It is through faith so it can be according to grace” (v. 16). Substitute any other word for “faith” and the sentence becomes absurd. If salvation is through works, charity, service, church attendance, activism, intuition, or intellect then it cannot be “according to grace.” Faith—which itself is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8)—is what makes the gospel truly good news. God requires faith from us so the labor of the covenant of grace might remain squarely on Christ’s back. He works. Faith receives. As John Stott helpfully explains,
The fixed point is that God is gracious, and that salvation originates in his sheer grace alone. But in order that this may be so, our human response can only be faith. For grace gives and faith takes. Faith’s exclusive function is humbly to receive what grace offers. Otherwise “grace would no longer be grace.”
To ask why faith matters so much is like asking why we need hands on Christmas morning. Faith is the way we receive God’s gifts.
2. Faith keeps us God-focused.
In faith, we’re not simply looking away from ourselves. We’re also looking to God. Faith is required when the promises are so big that only God could make them. Today, we need to know what Abraham knew and believed: only God could change him and his circumstances. Only God could bring salvation and redemption to an otherwise dismal situation.
God requires faith from us so the labor of the covenant of grace might remain squarely on Christ’s back. He works. Faith receives.
No one else can do that for you today. Your spouse can’t. Your employer can’t. Your favorite political candidate can’t. Only God can. As Martin Luther once wrote:
You should consider that what the Lord promises Abraham . . . is altogether impossible, unbelievable, and untrue if you follow reason, because it cannot be seen. He was . . . old, [and] Sarah was . . . barren. How, I ask you, do these facts agree with this promise: “I will make of you a large nation”? Where are the descendants to come from since Abraham’s marriage is childless? These huge masses of unbelief and these high mountains, which could suppress his faith completely, the holy patriarch overcomes and crosses by faith. He simply clings to this one thought: Behold, God is promising this. He will not deceive you, even though you do not see the way, the manner, or even the time of the fulfillment of this promise.
3. Faith makes the gospel global.
Faith eliminates any ethnic, geographic, or cultural barriers to the gospel. In Romans 4:16–17, Paul states that it’s by 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.’” If the promise was exclusively based on genes and ancestry, inevitably some people would be excluded. That would give Abraham’s line a reason to look down their noses at the rest of the world. But when the promise is received by faith, the promise is opened to the whole world.
Faith eliminates any ethnic, geographic, or cultural barriers to the gospel.
Faith in Christ makes us children of Abraham, heirs of the amazing covenant promises: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28–29). It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter what your background is. Anyone and everyone can believe. Little boys and girls can believe. Skeptical and disillusioned young adults can believe. Even hardened and stubborn lifelong doubters and deniers can believe. The promise is open to all. It’s open to you.
God promises that through simple faith in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son, you will be saved. He guarantees you a place in that new Jerusalem, that fair and far-off country that Abraham looked toward (Heb. 11:10). He guarantees your rescue from this world of sin. He will not deceive you, even though you don’t see the way, the manner, or even the time of the fulfillment of his promise. As Charles Wesley once penned,
Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees
And looks to that alone;
Laughs at impossibilities
And cries: It shall be done!