Romans 4 is the essential passage to understand justification by faith. The main character of Romans 4 is Abraham. In fact, when the Bible talks about justification by faith, Abraham is The Guy the Bible uses as Prime Illustration.
“Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness.” Paul and James, who many imagine disagree on justification by faith, both use Abraham as their prime example of justification.
Seems to me we should understand the character of Abraham’s faith, since it’s an example for justifying faith.
There are four main tests of Abraham’s faith, four big times when Abraham showed faith.
Move—Abraham had riches and social position. Then God showed up and told him to move. Leaving was a turning of the back on what he had attained to follow God. He didn’t know where he was going, or even why. God just said “move,” and Abraham moved.
Settling in—Abraham took his possessions and flocks, but he was detached from them and didn’t let them cause friction. This was shown when Abraham let Lot choose land first. Lot picks the best land. Abraham moves into a land that is not suitable for flocks and herds rather than fight for the good land. Abraham’s faith is detached from worldly means of success.
Promise—Since Abraham renounced the better land on his own, he receives the promise that his inheritors would possess the good land. Abraham trusts God for provision, to expand his family and inheritance, not by common sense, human means, but by faith in God. Abraham will only take substance from God, not anyone else. When he is offered reward by nearby kings, Abraham refuses lest they think they made Abraham rich.
Inheritor—Abraham, despite a little bit of weakness and goofiness, finally gets an heir. So then God asks Abraham to sacrifice his heir! Abraham shows ultimate faith when offering his son, his heir, the one who would possess the land Abraham was promised. Abraham is turning his back on all earthly means, all possessions, in his demonstration of faith.
Each major area of Abraham’s faith has to do with earthly things.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Earthly things are the opposite of faith.
Faith means turning on earthly things, instead setting your affections on things above and laying up treasure in heaven.
Faith is the opposite of living for this world and this life.
The sooner you understand this point, the more sense justification by faith will make to you based on everything the Bible says.
James hits the rich hard. He hits respecting persons because of their appearance hard. He hits this stuff hard right in the same passages he talks about justification by faith, which certainly includes the work of letting the things of this world go–like Abraham did when he went to sacrifice his heir.
Faith or riches. You can only live for one.