How can a Holy God "Credit" Sinners with Righteousness? (Gen 15:1-6)


"Abram believed the LORD, and he (God) credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6). "Credited" has also been translated "counted" or "reckoned." 

How can a holy God "credit" a sinner with righteousness? This seems to contradict the Bible, which says that God "does not leave the guilty unpunished" (Exo 34:7), and that God's "eyes are too pure to look on evil" (Hab 1:13). 

Yet, through out the OT, God rescues his people and establishes personal relationships with those who continually fail to meet his standard of righteousness (Gen 15:1-6). Also, God refuses to credit sin to sinners (Ps 32:1-2; Rom 4:7-8). On what basis can a just and holy God do such things?

Also, how can we be truly humble when we are blessed and successful? How can we be bold and confident when we fail? In Gen 15:1-6, Abram "failed" to have a son, yet God gave him boldness and confidence by giving him an impossible promise to believe by faith. Let's think of the "impossible" teaching of a Holy God crediting sinners with righteousness in 5 parts:
  1. A very tough teaching
  2. Why biblical faith is confused with traditional religion/Christianity
  3. Why faith faces facts
  4. How God can justify the wicked
  5. How true transformation happens
I. A Tough Teaching

Gen 15:6, a "key" verse in Genesis, is quoted and cited at least 6 times in the NT (Rom 4:3,5,9,22; Gal 3:6; James 2:23). This is really a "tough" doctrine and biblical teaching to swallow because it flies in the face of what we expect. It is like regarding something bad as though it is good. We don't mind it when God "credits" us with something good when we don't deserve it. But we're very upset (like Pharisees) when someone else is "credited" with something good which they do not deserve. This is the comical fallen contradiction of our sinful selves.

II. Biblical Faith is not Religion (it's not "Conservative Christianity")

Religion and "traditional Christianity" says 2 things:
  1. When we live right, God accepts us and blesses us. 
  2. When we live wrongly, God rejects us and curses us. 
But this passage says that God accepts and blesses Abram (and us) on the basis of his faith alone, while Abram was full of doubt (Gen 15:2-3) and unrighteousness. In fact, God "credits" (logizomai) him as though he was righteous, even though he was not. 

Martin Luther's famous phrase is that Christians are simul justus et peccator -- "simultaneously righteous and sinful." Those who do not understand this "unique status" invariably do 2 things:
  1. They are proud and self-righteous when they do well.
  2. They despair in self-pity when they do not do well.
But "understanding" this enables a Christian to always be humble (because he is a sinner, no matter how well he does), and also bold and confident (even in failure, because God accepts him with warts and all).

III. Faith Faces "Facts"

Gen 15:1-6 is the passage that Paul uses to prove the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone. This is the 1st time in the Bible that the ideas of faith & justification are linked together and combined. Abram’s believing involved looking at the facts of his own experience, recognize his age, recognize the age of his wife, Sarai, and then he believed that God was going to be faithful to this promise, "despite" all the evidence to the contrary.
Thus, faith faces the facts, but it also faces the fact of God. Abraham’s faith was not one that said, "Well, I’m going to be optimistic that this is going to turn out for the best. I’m just going to hope that things sort of turn out in the end." That was not Abram’s faith. Abram looked at the facts, and he said there is absolutely no way, but my God is also one of the facts of this experience, and He has been faithful to me. I will trust Him despite all the other evidence to the contrary. This is a glorious example of saving faith.

IV. God Justifies the Wicked (Rom 4:5)

Rom 4:5 says, "However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness."
The word translated "ungodly" (NIV 2010, ESV) or "wicked" (NIV '84) is from a word that means literally "one who refuses to worship." This boldly states that when a person receives "credited" righteousness ("justifies"), he or she is still wicked and ungodly. How can this be?

Only the cross of Christ answers the question. Without understanding or accepting Jesus' claims, "crediting righteousness" is simply nonsense and unfair. Paul explains how this is so most concisely in 2 Cor 5:21.

V. The Way to True Transformation

Why are Christians often self-righteous and critical, instead of loving, patient, kind, forgiving and forbearing? Partly, it is because our transformation is partial, and incomplete, and still "under construction" as a major "work in progress." But perhaps a major reason is the constant default of our own hearts toward works and performance as the basis of our innermost sense of value and significance, while desperately needing unconditional love.

Christians often complain about proclaiming grace that is freely given, and that is not based on works (Eph 2:8-9). They insist that "Grace must be balanced with works." Otherwise, people will abuse grace. They reason, "If people think that they can never lose God's favor or salvation no matter what they do, then why should they (I) live a holy life? Why should I struggle to deny myself and work hard as a Christian?" The most fundamental answer is that if when we lose all fear of God's punishment we also lose all incentive to live a holy life, then the only incentive we ever had was fear.

Only "credited righteousness" through beholding Christ (2 Cor 3:18) brings about true inner transformation of motive, if the wonder of such a grace is mixed with deep conviction over its cost.
  • The wonder is that I no longer need to achieve or perform in order to know that I am loved and accepted.
  • The cost is that Jesus loved me so much that he willingly endured the uttermost punishment for me.
This creates a new, non-fear based motivation for holy living. My gratefulness to him has no end or limit. Then all I truly want from my heart is to delight and please the one who already has given me everything (Rom 8:32).

The above reflections are from:
  • a sermon by Ligon Duncan {The Cutting of the Covenant [Gen 15:1-21]}, 
  • the ESV Study Bible, and 
  • Tim Keller's Genesis Leader's Guide {What were we put in the world to do}, The Oath of God [Gen 15:1-21], 109-117

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