November 4, 1984
We read in Genesis 15:6 that “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” How can sinners by nature have any relationship with a holy God? Apart from the person of Christ and His redemptive work on our behalf, ours is indeed a hopeless case. Alistair Begg explains the doctrine of justification and the necessity of faith as the channel through which we receive God’s grace in salvation.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Let’s take our Bibles this morning and turn to Genesis chapter 15. Genesis chapter 15 and the first six verses. Let’s read them together:
“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’
“But Abram said, ‘O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You[’ve] given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’
“Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’
“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
Now a prayer together before we look at these verses:
O Lord, take my words and speak through them, please. Take our minds and help us to think clearly through them. Take our hearts and stir them up with love for the Lord Jesus Christ. For his name’s sake we pray. Amen.
In our study this morning, in these moments before we break bread together, we tackle what could justifiably be referred to as the question of the ages. Almost since the beginning of creation, differing personalities and subsequent generations have faced the perplexing question “How can I be right with God?” “How can I be right with God?”
Now, the Bible tells us in quite categorical terms—and I quote here from Romans 3:10 and could do from many other verses—“There is [none] righteous, not even one.” The Bible says that Jesus Christ alone lived as a man without sin; that we as men and women this morning, by nature, are transgressors of God’s law. We have broken his law, we are actively rebellious, some of us are passively indifferent, we have missed the mark, we have failed to reach the standard that God has set, we are stained in our lives by sin, sin spoils our lives, and sin spreads like weeds running rampant in a garden. The Bible says all of that.
On account of that, the Bible then goes on to point out that the implications of sin, which all of us face, are far-reaching. The implications of sin can be seen in relation to our interpersonal relationships with one’s neighbor. The reason for the conflict that we face with our neighbors, the reason for the exploitation of man by his fellow man—whether personally or in family life or nationally or internationally—may be traced to the same root. The fear that hinders us in our dealings with one another, the misunderstandings that are part and parcel of our everyday existence are all, the Bible says, to be traced back to the fundamental problem of human existence, which is the problem of sin—our rebellion, etc., as we’ve noticed it.
In the same way, the implications of sin are clear in our individual lives. Why is it that we know inner conflict? Why is it that many of us are not even at peace with ourselves? Why is it that we face confusion even about our very existence? How is it that we manage to deceive ourselves so skillfully, to overlook our faults, to excuse things that are part of our lives? How is it that we face shame, and we face guilt, and some of us cannot lift our eyes to meet the gaze of another as we trudge through life, restless and wandering? The Bible says the problem is sin. If we try and deal with restlessness or if we try and deal with the symptoms, then we may be partially effective in offering a palliative cure, but we will never deal with the issue till we come to the root.
In the same way—and this is the most important implication of sin—is what sin means in relation to God. The God who today is in heaven, the God who today is present everywhere, the God who today created us and gives to us the breath we breathe, allowing us to be part of this worship hour, is the God from whom we are separated by sin. Now, we could take many moments to develop this, but let me give to you four actual facts of our existence in relation to the problem of sin in terms of God.
Because we are in this predicament, one, we are insensitive to God’s Word. Sin makes us insensitive to God’s Word. That is why, you see, people can listen and listen and listen and do nothing about it. It goes, as it were, straight past their earholes. They hear just enough to be rendered inexcusable for their unbelief.
Secondly, because of our sin, we are unrighteous before God’s law. The law of God condemns us. Who will stand this morning and say that we are not a lawbreaker?
Thirdly, we are unable to do God’s will because we’re sinners. “He who sins is a slave to sin,” Jesus said to the Pharisees one day. “You say that Abraham’s your father, and you think because you have a heritage such as you have that you can walk around and just parade that before men?” Jesus said, “I tell you, you got a fundamental problem. You are a slave!” They said, “Slave? We were never anybody’s slave! We are free! Abraham is our father.” Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave to sin”—therefore, unable to do God’s will. We can’t even if we should want to.
Fourthly, we are therefore unfit for God’s presence. Insensitive to God’s Word, unrighteous before God’s law, unable to do God’s will, and unfit for God’s presence because of sin.
You say to me this morning, “Boy, this is bad news so far.” You’re right! This is bad news! This is the bad news about our human existence. Many psychologists, from a humanistic perspective, would listen to this and turn and walk right out of the building: “Who does that young fool think he is to stand there and suggest for one moment that the great, perplexing problems of human existence may be analyzed in such simplistic terms?” Well, the almighty God has written in his Word concerning these things, and on the basis of that, I feel a measure of authority to speak in this definitive fashion.
God says that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. And unless it is dealt with there, we face this incredible perplexity: “How can I be right with God?” So already some of us, as we sit in this building this morning, are getting a very uneasy feeling. We’re beginning to sense within us that that which we thought was the key to being right with God somehow isn’t going to prove to be. And therefore, we sit in this building not right before God. So the question is fundamental to our existence.
Turn back a few chapters, would you, to Genesis chapter 3, and notice that Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden, and Eve’s, resulted in them being banished from the presence of God. And here in verses 23 and 24, we have this almost geographical expression of the spiritual separation from God which we as men and women know today: “So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” He didn’t say to them, “Now, go out, and if ever you feel like coming back into the garden, if ever you change your mind about things and fancy a little time around the Tree of Life, don’t worry!” He didn’t say that. He drove them out and placed a fiery sword at the entrance to that very garden, to that very tree, signaling the fact that now there was the necessity for a new way to that Tree of Life. That which man had enjoyed in the intimacy of God’s presence and being fit for God’s walk he now no longer enjoys. And ever since that time, man as man has been unable to come before Almighty God without that there was a supreme way to make that entry.
Now, what we find there is then expressed throughout the Bible in terminology that, frankly, is alien to many ears and is long removed from many sermons. And the reason for people responding to half a gospel with half a faith is because they’ve only had half a gospel preached to them. And the missing link is right here, where I now share with you. Turn to Romans chapter 1. And keep in mind that fiery sword. It’s a strange picture, isn’t it?
Romans chapter 1. And here Paul begins his great theological treatise, and he wants to show, first of all, the need for man to be made right with God. And so he begins with the bad news. If there’s no bad news, there’s no need for good news. If there’s no sin, there’s no need for a Savior. If there’s no separation, there’s no need for reconciliation. So much preaching is telling people to do something without ever giving them the absolute fundamental necessity as to why they need to. I want to show you this morning why you need to—why man by his nature isn’t right with God, why to continue through life and to die that way will mean eternal hell! “Well,” you say, “this is kind of eighteenth-century stuff, isn’t it?” No! This is just Genesis-to-Revelation stuff. They just decided it would be good to emphasize it in the eighteenth century. But in the twentieth century, people want to have a nice time. Well, I want to have a nice time too. But I want to find out how to have it.
Romans l:18: “The wrath of God…” “Oh, don’t tell me you believe in the wrath of God.” Uh-huh. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against” what? “Against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
Now turn back. We’re going to turn back and forward, and if you like to, do. If you find it a distraction, then please just listen. Matthew 3:7—John the Baptist, the one who is preparing the way. And people were coming to him, we’re told, “from Jerusalem … Judea … the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Matthew 3:7: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them…” Now, listen to this, would you? This is a nice greeting for sort of first thing on a Monday morning: “‘You brood of vipers!’” (“You bunch of snakes!”) “‘Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” And his condemnation of them was so devastating because these people were offering a way to be righteous before God which couldn’t and cannot and will never work. So he said to them, “You come with your long robes and your pious looks and all your folderol, and people follow in your wake, and you lead them as blind men would lead blind men.”
Revelation 6. Just so you know, we’re not quoting proof texts here. We could go throughout and throughout. Revelation 6:16—John’s vision and the opening of the seals, where God would speak to men in their predicament. And then we read in the final few verses of Revelation 6, “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’” “The wrath of the Lamb”? Have you ever seen a wrathful lamb? It’s the great thing that people cannot get! So they go for “Jesus is the Lamb of God,” “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” So they get one half of the thing. Or somebody else gets over here and presents God as some unfeeling, dreadful picture of wrath and all kinds of things, when in point of fact, what the Bible does, and without any embarrassment at all: it puts the word “wrath” and the word “Lamb” right in the very same context—that the Jesus who died, who was “the Lamb … who takes away the sin of the world,” did so because of God’s wrath. There’s no need for the substitute unless there is sin to be paid for.
I think you’re getting the picture now. And let me give you just one other verse. First Thessalonians 1:10. (This finds out whether you did those learning the books of the Bible off by heart in Sunday school, doesn’t it?) One Thessalonians 1:10. (Some of you are still looking for Romans 1:18.) And here, Paul speaks of Jesus. And what is Jesus like, and what has Jesus done? What have these people done as they’ve preached the gospel? He says, “[They’ve been telling you]”—verse 9b—“[how to turn] to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who” does what? “Who rescues us.” From what? “From the coming wrath.” If you’re sitting next to somebody who can’t believe that this is coming out because they don’t have a Bible, nudge up next to them and show them your Bible. Let them see it’s in there: “Jesus, who [saves] us from the coming wrath.”
Now, my dear friends this morning, what this means is that the question “How can I be right with God?” is not something for a drawing-room debate. It’s not something for a theological student’s treatise. This is something that affects my life and affects my death. If I am not right with God this morning, I want to be. I need to be. And if I am, then it ought to create in my heart such a longing for others to be made right with God. For this is a day of good news, and we hold our tongues! Do you remember that story? How the lepers found all that stuff there in the Old Testament—2 Kings, I think it was. “This a day of good news, and we hold our tongues.” I can’t get the picture out of my mind of Revelations 6 that we just read: “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” The people are going to cry out in that day for the mountains to come and crush them into pulp rather than to face the inevitability of God’s judgment.
And the psalmist said, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.” So if I am a sinner, as the Bible says, and if I remain in my sin, I am not right with God. And if I go to eternity not right with God, then I will not be made right with God in those moments. And there is only one place to which I may look, and it is that place which provides the answer to our question.
Now, you say to me, “How did we arrive at this this morning? I thought we were doing studies in the life of Abraham, you know?” Well, we are. And the reason we’re here is very clear: it is because God’s dealings with Abraham are typical of his dealings with all who are brought into a right relationship with him. And Genesis 15:6 is the source of what we’re going to share in these final moments, introducing us to the doctrine of justification by faith—a verse quoted in Romans 4, Galatians 3, James 2 and alluded to again on many occasions in the New Testament. Abraham is the father of all who know what it is to be justified before God and accepted by him as righteous. And when in verse 5 he says, “So shall your offspring be,” he is referring to all who will come by faith to God even as Abraham did.
Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to set aside the first point in our outline: “The Revelation with Which He Was Confronted.” You may read of it there in the first five verses as God spoke to him. And I want, because of time, to deal only with “The Righteousness with Which Abraham Was Credited.”
Look at this crucial statement in verse 6: “Abram believed the Lord.” Now, clearly, people speak very loosely about belief. And if we conducted a survey and went around and asked somebody—said, “Do you believe in God?”—then many would say they do. But what we’re dealing with here and what we deal with in the word belief throughout the Scriptures is not merely giving an intellectual assent to certain facts. It surely involves the use of our minds, but it means much more than that. It has to do with trust, and it has to do with the idea of committal. And so when we read to you that “Abram believed God,” we have a picture now of him saying, “I do not rest in myself to see these promises fulfilled. I do not rest in what I may do. I rest solely on what you are saying to me, Lord, and what this means as what your words have to do with focusing now on through history to the Lamb that will come.”
Now, let’s turn forward to a crucial passage in Roman chapter 4. Because this is where Paul picks up the fact of justification by faith. In fact, he does so in chapter 3, but I want you to notice the questions he tackles in chapter 4, which are very important questions for today. Because Paul uses Abraham as an example of what it means to be justified by faith. You see, some people were asking—and that’s the context of the first two verses of Romans 4—some people were asking, “Paul, are you not sure that you’ve got it wrong and that Abraham is really an example of someone who has been justified by his works?” This is the kind of reasoning they were using. They were saying this: “Abraham is godly. Abraham is God-fearing. Abraham was a pious man. Abraham delighted in doing what God told him. And because of all of that, God dealt with him in this particular way.” In other words, he looked at all the goodness in Abraham, and so he said to him, “Fine, Abraham. You can be justified before me, and I’ll make you righteous.” But that is not what happened. And that is not justification by faith.
And as much as it may surprise some of us, that is the notion which many people carry, even in many places that you would not expect to find it. The reasoning goes like this (and it is a delusion): “We are saved, somehow, because we’re good, because we’re pious, because we say our prayers, because we’re religious, because we’re not like other men. And on account of all of that, God looks down and sees how different we are and therefore justifies us before him.” That is justification by works and not by faith. And if that were the case, a man could boast. And that’s the very point that that Paul is making. He says, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by [his] works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.” You see, we could go out from here and say that while the majority of people aren’t interested in God at all, never say their prayers, never go to a place of worship, we are interested in God, we say our prayers, we go to a place of worship; therefore, we are right with God. Whoa, oh! You better be very careful with that last jump. It’s not what it says.
Now, what people were saying was this: “Abraham was declared righteous because of what he did to please God.” Paul answers this, interestingly, by referring to the Scriptures. In Romans 4:3, he asks the question, “What does the Scripture say?” That’s always a good sign. Someone asks you a question, say, “Well, let’s get our Bibles out and look at this.” So Paul gets his Bible out, and where does he go to? Genesis chapter 15. Now, we could pause there and digress, but we won’t. Because much liberal scholarship will tell us that the patriarchal narratives are just nonsense: “They’re certainly not history, and you might get into things a little later on after Kings and Chronicles, but you can can all that early stuff. Whatever it was, don’t lay a lot of store by it.” Well, they’re a lot different from the apostle Paul. He said, “Let’s quote from the Bible,” and he turns right back to Genesis 15 and uses the sixth verse as the means of his justification. And he shows that it is those who believe that are the true children of God.
Some people were saying that it was because of circumcision. Paul points out that circumcision came afterwards. That’s what he’s dealing with in verses 9–12: “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We[’ve] been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it [credited] after he was circumcised, or before?” Answer: “It was not after, but before!” And people say, “I’m a Christian because I was baptized as a baby.” That’s what the people are saying here: “Abraham was righteous because he was circumcised.” Paul says, “No, you’re wrong. His faith preceded the act of circumcision.”
“Okay,” they said, “we’ve got another one for you. Abraham was righteous because he kept the law.” Paul says, “No, you’re wrong there. The law wasn’t given until 430 years after Abraham was declared righteous before God. So how in the world could he be declared righteous by keeping a law that hadn’t even been given?” So why, how, was he made right with God? He trusted himself to God alone and relied on all that God was going to do in the fulfillment of the ages. Faith means that I totally depend upon another. Faith is not a compartment of my life. Faith is all of my life. And faith is the channel through which the grace of God comes to us in salvation.
J. C. Ryle, who was the bishop of Liverpool in a day when the majority of bishops in England were actually born again and evangelical, and he wrote in a book called Old Paths this statement. And listen to it carefully:
True faith has nothing whatever of merit about it, and in the highest sense cannot be called “a work.” It is but laying hold of a Saviour’s hand, leaning on a husband’s arm, and receiving a physician’s medicine. It brings with it nothing to Christ but a [man’s sinful] soul. It gives nothing, contributes nothing, pays nothing, performs nothing. It only receives, takes, accepts, grasps, … embraces the glorious gift of justification which Christ bestows, and by renewed daily acts enjoys that gift.
Now, there’s someone else sitting in here, saying, “Well, what is this ‘justification’? I can’t even find the word ‘justification’ in Genesis 15:6.” Well, it is there—not the word but the phrase: “Abram believed [God], and he credited it to him as righteousness.” That’s justification.
Are you still with the early part of the argument? We are all sinners before God. We take our statement of our lives like a bank statement, and we hold it up, and we look at it, and in the debit column is my rebellion, and my sin, and my shame, and my indifference, and all that condemns me. And in the credit column, some of us have begun to scribble in a few things: “church attendance,” “always was kind to my grandmother,” “help old ladies if I see them,” “attend the prayer meeting,” “deacon,” “choir member.” And God comes right across that, and what he takes is, if you like, a stamp, and he stamps right in the middle of it, and he stamps the cross of Jesus. And justification means this: it is a legal term meaning “to acquit.” He takes the debit column, and he clears it completely.
Now, that would be good enough. But you know what else he does? He takes the credit column, and he contributes to it totally, so that I didn’t just come before God and realize that I got 32 percent out of 100, and my sin bowed me down, and God came in Christ, and he said, “I’ll deal with your 32 percent,” so now we’ve kind of broken even, and we’re back to square one again. Not at all. I have no longer got 32 percent. You know what I’ve got now? I’ve got 100 percent! There are no degrees in justification. You’ll never be more justified before God than you are today. The apostle Paul was no more justified than you and I are this morning, believer. There is a very real sense in which you will never be more acceptable to God than you are right now. Oh, you may become more like Jesus. You may grow in grace. But what is it that is credited to your account? It is the righteousness of Christ, by his mercy and by his goodness.
Now, what does this do when it takes root in somebody’s life? I tell you what it does: it humbles them. It humbles them. It makes us realize that we have everything to be thankful to God for and we have nothing with which to commend ourselves. Jesus, when he spoke—in an interesting verse that needs a lot of study to delve into it—but John 8:56, this is what he said: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” Now, I don’t know how he saw it, and I don’t know all that took place in those moments when God revealed himself to Abraham. But frankly, I don’t know all that took place in my own heart that I might be here today to speak on these things!
I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
[And] creating faith in him.
I don’t know!
But I know whom I have believed,
And [I] am persuaded that he is able
To keep that [to] which I’ve committed
[To] him against that day.
Do you ever know what that phrase “against that day” means? Against the day of God’s wrath, when those outside of Christ will cry for the mountains to fall on them.
Oh, my dear, dear friends, religion and its bells and its smells and its routines and its rituals and its rigamaroles has obscured the message of the cross of Jesus Christ beneath layers of all kinds of things. Do you hear the simple thing this morning? The Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross. He had no sin. So why did a sinless man die? Because I had sinned. So he who knew no sin became sin—became sin—so that I and you, who have no righteousness at all, may become righteous in Christ.
So when Old Smutty-Face, the devil, comes along, and he accuses you, Christian, and he tells you the things in your life that you know need to be better, what do you say? Do you say, “Yes, I’m working on that, and I’m sure if I get it fixed, the Lord will accept me”? If you do, you don’t understand what’s happened to you. And maybe it hasn’t happened to you. You say this:
Because the sinless Savior died,
My guilty soul is counted free,
For God the just was satisfied
To look on Christ and to pardon me.
You see, the doctrine of justification by faith is the doctrine of a rising or a falling church. And many of us this morning have come from backgrounds where we have never had it shared with us how we may be right with God. And we are going through hell to find the way to heaven. And God in Christ has come and endured hell that we may know the way to heaven.
There is no second assize of God before which I must stand. The judgment that we should receive on that day of his wrath has been brought forward. Did you know that? It has been brought forward, and it has been borne by Jesus, so that on that day when we stand before him in faith, we may be complete in the righteousness of Christ.
Can I ask you today: Is that your assurance? May I ask you today: Are you right with God? And may I ask you today: If you’re not, are you brave enough to walk away from the Lord Jesus, who died that you might live, that you might be forgiven, and face life and face death without ever having come to that place where you said, “Lord Jesus Christ, here is my sin, and I receive from you the gift of your righteousness, and I pray you’ll help me to live for you”?
 John 8:33–34 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 3:5–6 (NIV 1984).
 Revelation 6:15–16 (NIV 1984).
 Charles Wesley, “Gentle Jesus” (1742).
 John 1:29 (NIV 1984).
 2 Kings 7:9 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 6:17 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 1:5 (NIV 1984).
 See Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:6.
 Romans 4:2 (NIV 1984).
 Galatians 3:17 (paraphrased).
 J. C. Ryle, Old Paths: Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity, from the Standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman, 2nd ed. (London: William Hunt, 1878), 228.
 Daniel Webster Whittle, “I Know Whom I Have Believed” (1883).
 See 2 Corinthians 5:21.
 Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.