The Anatomy of Faith


Title: The Anatomy of Faith
Text: Romans 4:1–12
Winnetka Bible Church, April 17, 2016

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I’d like to begin with a story—a true story. It’s a story you all know, but I am going to tell it in a different way than you are used to hearing it, because I want to highlight a couple of threads woven into the tapestry that will help us make sense of our text in Romans 4 this morning.

Once upon a time there was a great King whose reign was as far as you can imagine. The King created a palace in one corner of his kingdom and in the palace he put his prince, telling him to reign over it and guard it with wisdom and honor. The King also gave the prince a wife to be his princess, and together they were the highest in the land over all the creatures except for the King himself. In the palace, they had provision, and could walk and talk with the King. He was their source of wisdom and guidance. The only prohibition he gave them, was that they continue to trust him, and not attempt to rule without depending on him for the knowledge of right and wrong.

One day, one of the very subjects under the prince and princess’s rule slid into the palace and began to whisper treasonous ideas into the ear of the princess. The dragon told the princess that, the King had played her as a fool. She would make a better Queen than a princess. She should seize the throne for herself, all of the words of the King that she must trust him were a lie, and that she could reign by herself, apart from her husband and the King. She was tricked, and the dragon succeeded in recruiting his first slave to his rival kingdom of death and destruction.

The woman invited her husband to join her. And knowing fully the choice before him: to listen to his wife or to listen to the King, the prince walked out from the Kingdom of Life into the tyranny of sin. The man and the woman were now enemies of the King. They were the slaves of the serpent. They were dead.

And in the very moment the intoxicating lies of their slippery deceiver had succeeded in their task, his spell lifted and he left them to wallow in their shame. Their eyes were open and they knew they must hide. They hid from each other. And they hid from the King. They knew they were naked, and so they covered themselves.

But the King knew what they had done, and so he went looking for his enemy children. He called to them, to bring them out of their hiding. And as they came out to him, he asked them questions until they confessed their treason.

And the Lord God cursed the serpent, and made a promise to him in the presence of the woman and the man. “Your rebellion will not succeed, you cursed snake. Your days are numbered, and you will eat dirt all your life. The woman you have deceived will not remain in your slavery, you wretched dragon. I declare that a war has begun between the two of you. I am making a promise that she is going to have a Son, and this Son will crush your head under his heel. I will restore my children to my Kingdom through this promise. I will have them back.”

And the man heard the promise of God’s Word and looked at his wife and said, “Your name is now Eve, because you are the mother of the living. God has promised it. He will do it.” And hearing this declaration of faith in the Word of Promise, the King cast aside the loin cloths Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with, and he covered their shame through blood of an innocent—the first picture of the cost of their redemption.

Not even a generation has passed when we see this promised warfare taking place between the serpent’s slaves and the line of promise. Cain rises up to slay his brother Abel. And yet again, God keeps his promise to provide a righteous son who will end the warfare: God gives Eve the son Seth to replace his murdered brother.

And Seth fathered Enosh, who had Kenan, then Mahalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech. And Lamech fathered Noah. And at the time of Noah, the world had so joined forces with the rebellion against God that he wishes to blot them out entirely. But God made a promise back in the garden. And God always keeps his promises. Noah was a righteous man. Noah walked with God.

But for all our hope that this might finally be the deliverer, Noah would not be the one to crush the head of the serpent. Shortly after God saves him through the ark, Noah find himself in a drunken stupor, laying naked and uncovered, like Adam and Eve generations before him. Noah needs to be covered, and so while his son Ham leers at his shame, Shem and Japheth walk backwards and cover the nakedness of their father.

And Noah fathered Shem, who had Arpachshad, followed by Selah, and then Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. And Terah fathered Abram, whose name would later be called Abraham.

I tell this story, because in our text this morning, Paul takes us to Genesis 12 to show us the anatomy of faith. And when Paul drops the needle into the life of Abraham, we are entering a story 11 chapters in. In retelling those 11 chapters, I have been trying to draw out three different themes. I wonder if you noticed some of those themes with me?

Three themes in Genesis become crucial for us to understand how Paul is using the story of Abraham are: First, we saw that God makes promises. Second, we see that promise is for a Son to be born. And third, we see God’s insistence that we are covered by a righteousness provided by another.


In this series, we have gone through what Pastor Keith called the “guts of the gospel.”

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are 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.

We have seen how in the wonder of the cross, God simultaneously upholds his justice and extends grace and mercy. By the power of the cross, God is just and justifier. Praise be to God! Our question now is: How do we receive God’s Glorious Gospel? Paul’s answer is: by faith. Paul has already given that answer to us in seed form: God put Jesus forward as a propitiation, “to be received by faith.”

Here is one of my burdens this morning. For many, that phrase has become white noise, especially for those of us who have spent years in the church. Do we really know what “to receive by faith” means? Thankfully, Paul anticipates that very question, and spends most of chapter 4 answering it for us. We’re only going to take the first half of chapter 4 today, which I am titling “The Anatomy of Faith.”

Do you remember your high school biology class? One memory has been seared in my mind: when we would do dissection labs in anatomy. It’s really quite hard to forget (especially the smell!) Why do we do that? The joy of the dissection lab is not found on the stainless steel table and the stench of formaldehyde. We dissect so we can be amazed when we see a living animal in the wild! So when Paul takes us into the laboratory of scripture to show us the anatomy of faith, it’s not so that we can leave it on the table like a cold lab specimen. We want to see the anatomy of faith to marvel at it “in the wild”—in our lives, and in the lives of our brothers and sisters.


For those of you who like to have roadmap of where we are going: here it is.
First, we will see the heart of faith: the promises of God.
Second, we will see the heartbeat of faith: trusting, clinging, relying on those promises.
Third, we will see the circulation, or lifeblood, of faith: walking in the steps of Abraham.

1. The Heart of Faith: God’s Promises

First, we turn to the heart of faith: God’s promises. When I speak of the heart of faith, I mean the substance, or the object, or the thing without which faith cannot exist. Let’s see what the text tell us about the heart of biblical faith. In 3:30, we saw that God will justify the the circumcised (that is, Abraham’s biological children) by faith, and the uncircumcised (that means, Gentiles) also by faith. Let’s look at 4:1-2.

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

Look carefully here: If Abraham was justified by work, then he would have something to boast about. But Abraham was not justified by works. That’s Paul’s whole point! Paul already said God justifies the circumcised (as a group) by faith (3:30). Now Paul gives us a reason why Abraham was justified by works either. He gives that reason in verse 3:

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

A. The Object of Faith: God

So Paul is taking into the anatomy of faith. He’s telling us something about the heart of faith. At the heart of faith, we find God. Biblical faith isn’t vague fuzzies, no matter what you hear on Oprah. Abraham was not justified simply because he had “deep faith.” Righteousness was not credited to Abraham because he was a “man of great belief and conviction” in some kind of abstract way. What does the Scripture SAY? It says “Abraham believed GOD.”

This is so important for us to hear today. Faith in the abstract doesn’t do squat. Faith is not a superpower that certain really spiritual people have. That is not what the Bible means when it talks about faith. Faith must have an object, and that that object must be God. Abraham gained something, and he did so because he believed God.

B. More Specific Object of Faith: God’s Promise

But I think we can dive one level deeper into defining the heart of faith. The heart of biblical faith must have an object, and that object is God, but it’s even more precise than that. The mere fact that God exists is not enough for the kind of faith Abraham has. James says this so pointedly when he says, “You believe that God is One, you do well! Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) We talked about the danger of Oprah-like faith, and now I want to warn you of the danger of demon-like faith. Your faith must have an object beyond the mere existence of a God, your faith must be pointed at the promises of God, the words of God.

Paul hangs his argument that Abraham was justified by faith, not works with: “What does the Scripture say?” Okay! Let’s do our homework. What does it mean when the scripture said that Abraham believed God?  Keep one finger in Romans 4, and flip back to Genesis 15:6. There’s the verse Paul quotes: “And he {Abram} believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” But notice what just happened: God made a promise. Back up one verse:  And [the LORD] brought him [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Then Moses writes, And he believed the LORD.

So what is the heart of biblical faith? Yes, at the heart of biblical faith we find God. But even more specifically, we find God’s promises. The thing without which faith is impossible—the thing that makes faith faith possible—is a God who has given us his word that he will do something. If God hasn’t promised, there’s no faith.

C. Abraham and… the Gospel?

But if you are paying close attention, at this point, you might ask: What does a promise to Abraham that he is going to have a lot of kids have to do with the gospel of God? Genesis 12 comes after Genesis 1-11, and Abraham is the great, great, great (x19) grandson of Eve! The promise of offspring is about the promise to crush the serpent. Abraham joins the hope of a promise that God intends to reverse what was lost in the garden. Genesis is a story about waiting for sons—for a son; Genesis teaches us to look for a messiah.

But how does this connect to the gospel for you and me? Back to Romans 4, lets look at the next verse, v. 4: Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. With the word “Now” Paul is moving from the story of Abraham to application for the reader. In v. 4 Paul takes us to school on “Gift-Giving and Receiving 101”—You don’t work for gifts. If you work for it, that nullifies its gift-ness. So if God has promised a gift, and you start working, you don’t get a gift. You get a wage instead.

Alternatively, in v 5: And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. Here we see the heart of faith at work again. We’re not working for a gift, we are believing in a promise, namely that God justifies the ungodly. Where does that promise come from?

Back up a few verses to Romans 3:23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (That means we are ungodly) v.24: And are justified by his grace as a gift. There’s your promise. Get this: Justification is a gift. So don’t try to earn it. You don’t earn gifts. If you try to earn something from God, you won’t get the gift of justification. You will get a wage. You do not want to get a wage from God. The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)

So we have seen that the heart of faith are the promises of God, but how does that work? What is the heartbeat of biblical faith? That brings us to point 2.

 II. The Heartbeat of Faith: Trusting

The second point is that the heartbeat of faith is trust. Or perhaps better, trusting. I could use several different words here: believing, embracing, appropriating, clinging. The heartbeat of faith encounters the promises of God and trusts them, stands on them, throws oneself onto them.

It’s the heartbeat of faith that separates biblical faith, like Abraham’s, from what even demons have. If I were to sit you and a demon down for a multiple-choice test about God, his nature, and what he has or has not promised, the demon would probably score higher. The difference is, demons don’t trust God.

So you can know who God is and what his promises are, and have a flat-line spiritually. What is the heartbeat of faith? Trusting God. What was the problem in the garden when the serpent came and tempted the woman? She didn’t trust God! How did Adam fall from glory? He didn’t trust God! Faith has a heartbeat when it clings on to the promise.

Let me illustrate for you in a single word, the heartbeat of Christian faith in Jesus:


  • Faith is not a work, faith is repenting from works.
  • Faith is not something you muster up, faith is the act of admitting you can’t muster a thing.
  • Faith is not a baby-step on your way to a more righteous life, faith is falling completely on the promise of a God who justifies the ungodly through the blood of his Son.
  • God must justify you, you don’t justify yourself. You are naked and uncovered and filthy before a holy God.
  • Faith surrenders to a God who covers your sin with the righteousness of his perfect Son.

A. Paul’s Illustration of David

Paul illustrates this for us with another example, this time not with Abraham, but with David. Look with me at verses 6-8.

Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Paul does something remarkable here, and I wonder if you caught his rhetorical sleight-of-hand. He introduces the quote by saying David tells us of a blessing of someone to whom God counts righteousness. That is a blessing of addition, not of subtraction. There’s a blessing to be had, and that blessing is righteousness.

But the reality at play in Psalm 32 is subtraction, not addition. David is talking about blessing indeed, but the blessing is not righteousness credited to your account, but the blessing is your sins NOT counted against you. It might seem like an insignificant detail, but there’s glory to behold in how Paul is making his case.

Justification does not leave you neutral, neither is it lipstick on a pig. It doesn’t take away sin and leave you naked, and it doesn’t add righteousness to rags. It’s better news than that, so let’s enjoy it together.

B. Two Halves of Justification

The good news of the gospel, the gift of justification, is that in the exchange of the cross, the transaction is complete. Nothing is lost, nor are there any remainders. In the first half, all of your sin: sins past, sins present and sins future, are lifted from your back and put on the cross of Jesus Christ. Your law-breaking and your self-righteous law-keeping are stripped from you in an instant, as you throw yourself on God’s promise, and God places it on the back of his Son, as the infinite wrath of a holy God descends upon his beloved Son.

Psalm 75:8 says, For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.

Matthew 26:39: And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

If you trust in Christ, he has drained God’s cup of wrath from you. Your filthy rags have been taken away, and placed on the Lord Jesus. Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! 

But that is only half of the exchange! Blessed are those whose sins are covered. Remember in the Promised Beforehand series, in Zechariah 3? When Joshua the high priest stood before the angel of the Lord in filthy, sin-stained rags, the Lord did not simply remove his dirty clothes, but clothed him in clean garments, and put a clean turban on his head.

All of Christ’s faithful obedience, all of Christ’s trust in the promises of his Father, have clothed you in his righteousness. You have been washed, but not left naked. Your sins have not only been forgiven. The news is better than than them not being counted against you. They have been covered, just as Adam and Eve were covered. Just as Noah was covered.

This is the gospel, the good news of the gift of justification. It is a blessing, and I am jealous for you to have it. It is a blessing of the subtraction of sins, and it is a blessing of the addition of righteousness.

We could take another sermon to talk about the importance of this in the phrase, “faith is counted to you as righteousness,” but that’s what verse 23 is for, and I don’t want to steal Keith’s sermon from him.

We’ve seen the heart of faith: God’s promises.
We’ve seen the heartbeat of faith: Trusting those promises.
Now we will close our our time this morning with our third point: the circulation, or the lifeblood of faith: Walking in the steps of Abraham.

III. The Circulation/Lifeblood of Faith: Walking

With all of this talk of not-working, you might start to get a little nervous. Is God trying to grow a bunch of vegetables? Is this kind of talk going to make us a bunch of floppy rubber chickens, who just kind of throw ourselves around in the name of “throwing ourselves on God”? Should we just “let go and let God”? Skip over verses 9-10 for just a moment and lets look at verses 11-12:

[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Let’s notice three quick things about these verses.

A. Circumcision as a Seal

First, circumcision was a seal of Abraham’s righteousness by faith. We don’t use seals as much anymore, but I bet many of you have, or maybe aspire to have a diploma on your wall. On that diploma you usually have a big seal. What’s that for? It’s a mark of authenticity. Maybe it’s made by a special imprint, or a special wax or foil. The seal is there to communicate to everyone who sees it: this is not a fake. (Or at least, someone worked REALLY HARD to forge this!)

Circumcision, this marking of Abraham’s line in the flesh of their reproductive organs, was not their righteousness, but it was a visible marker that these were a people trusting in a promise. This particular sign becomes so virtually synonymous with the entire Jewish people. It marked them off.

But Paul goes to great lengths to make something plain: Circumcision wasn’t how Abraham received righteousness. Trusting God’s promises were how Abraham received righteousness. Circumcision was simply an expression, and a proof that it already happened. Look at the end of verse 10: How then was righteousness counted to him? Was it before of after he was circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.

B. The Sequence Matters

Second, Paul says that the reason this sequence—of faith before circumcision—is important is that Abraham could be the father of all those who are now trusting in the promises of God, even without that particular sign. The promised offspring has already come, so the sign of circumcision does not mean we are waiting for the messiah any longer. And God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, not just the Jewish nation. Now that Jesus has come, and not for the Jews only, but for the Gentiles also, Abraham-like faith in God’s promise can be ours.

Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had father Abraham.
I am one of them, and so are you!

Apparently this is more than just Sunday-school aerobics! That’s actually good theology. All those who trust in that Great Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, who are adopted into the family of God, may now call Abraham their father, even without the sign of circumcision.

C. Circumcision Does Not Make You A Child of Abraham

Third, Circumcision was never what really made someone a child of Abraham. Faith is. See that in verse 12? He is the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who walk in the footsteps of the faith. That means you could have a counterfeit seal, like physical circumcision, but if you don’t walk in the footsteps of faith, you are not a child of Abraham.

Paul’s not making this up, he got this way of thinking from Jesus. The Jews said to him,

“Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. (John 8:39-40)

The children of Abraham do what Abraham did. The children of Abraham walk how Abraham walked. What did Abraham do? How did Abraham walk? He heard God’s Promise, and he trusted it. This is not floppy Christianity; this is walking by faith. When the heartbeat of faith encounters a promise of God, it trusts it and walks accordingly. When the heart of faith is beating, clinging on the promises of God, life courses out and circulates into the organs and the limbs. You can’t walk your way into a beating heart. We walk by faith because our heart is beating!

Listen to how the author of Hebrews describes this walking in the life of Abraham. This is the opposite of floppy:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, (Hebrews 11:17-19)

Abraham lifted the dagger, trusting God that the promise of a messiah would be fulfilled through Isaac. He was ready to pierce his son, and let God raise him from the dead. But when the angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand, it was not the end of the story, but the intermission. The promised offspring did indeed come from Isaac, and he was indeed pierced by his father, and God did indeed raise him from the dead, for your justification. His name is Christ Jesus, and he is the conqueror promised to the woman. He is the Son who will reverse the fall of Genesis 3. He crushed the head of the dragon under his heel, and all of his righteousness is now yours. Take it!

The only thing you must do to receive this gift of righteousness is repent of your silly attempts to do what he has already done. It is a gift! Don’t spoil it by trying to earn it! Believe in God’s promise like Abraham, and God will remove your sins! He will cover you like Adam and Eve, like Noah, like David. He will cover you with the righteousness of his Son. Lay claim on this gift, this blessing of justification through faith, and through faith alone.



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