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Justification in the Old Testament

September 7, 2017

Bryan D. Estelle

Bryan D. Estelle
Professor of Old Testament

“We are situated as Abraham was; we are called upon to believe in the Almighty God.” 1

The way in which Charles Hodge expressed justification in the Old Testament (OT) seems like a strange way of putting things. Usually we tend to express the matter the other way around: OT saints were justified by faith just like New Testament (NT) saints.  

However Hodge has grasped the reality of Abraham’s faith and his justification, “being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. That is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Rom 4:21-22, NIV). From this we infer what the true method of justification is in the Old and in the New: it is essentially the same.

Abraham believed God’s word. Abraham believed that God would fulfill what he had promised.  Not only did God tell him that his very own son would be his heir, even in his and his wife’s old age, God told him his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of heaven.  Indeed, God took Abraham outside and through a wonderful act of accommodation, told him to look up to the heavens so he could see what his descendents would be like, through physical symbols, the stars of sky. And Abraham believed God’s word. Through this OT saint we observe the nature of saving faith and justification. Abraham’s faith had no merit in it just as our faith has no merit in it. Salvation is by grace through faith. Faith was not the ground of his justification. The fact of the matter is that Abraham did not doubt God’s word; he believed that God could and would do what he had promised.

"Abraham’s faith had no merit in it just as our faith has no merit in it. Salvation is by grace through faith."

That is why the Apostle continues in verse 22 to say that “Therefore also it was imputed to him for righteousness.” 2 That faith of Abraham was not the ground of his justification, it was the condition of his justification, “He believed, and God accepted him as righteous; just as now we believe, and are accepted as righteous, not on account of any merit in our faith, but simply on the ground of the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to us when we believe; that is, it is given to us, whenever we are willing to receive and rest upon it.” 3

This, as J. Gresham Machen declared years ago, is the greatest personal question that any human being can ask: “How shall I be right with God; how do I stand in God’s sight; with what favour does He look upon me?” 4 Abraham becomes a representative person. What is true of him in this case is true of any human, at any time. Humans are always justified by grace, through faith in a Messiah. Faith in the word of God is the crux. That is why the Apostle Paul goes on to say that the words “it was credited to him” were not written for him alone, but for those of us who believe.  Specifically, it is for us who believe in him “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24-25, NIV).

No wonder the WCF (11.6) says, “The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.”

1 Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1886; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 126.
2 Hodge’s translation.
3 Ibid., 128.
4 J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925), 163.

View entire Justification blog series