Was Abraham a believer prior to Genesis 15:6 when it says, “He believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness?”
There are multiple reasons to conclude Abraham was a believer prior to Genesis 15:6. The words of Stephen in Acts 7, in combination with Genesis 11-12, teach us that “the God of glory appeared” to Abraham when he still lived in Ur of the Chaldees. It was “the LORD” that spoke to him there and told him to leave his country, and the LORD would bless him and make him a blessing. It was at that same time that Abraham was told all the families of the earth would be blessed in him. Genesis 12:4 says, “So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him,” but Hebrews 11:8 adds a key piece of information: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out … obeyed.” Abraham’s obedience to the Lord’s command stemmed from faith – he was a believer prior to Genesis 15:6. Then, four times in Genesis 12-13, we see Abraham calling on the Name of the LORD at an altar – he was a worshipper prior to Genesis 15:6. In Genesis 14, Abraham encounters Melchizedek, the king-priest, who blesses Abraham with a blessing from the most high God. At the beginning of Genesis 15, the LORD tells Abraham He is his shield and reward. After that, the LORD gives Abraham another promise about his seed, “and he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.” It is possible (though not certain) that Genesis 15:6 is a summary statement looking back over Abraham’s life, but it remains clear that Abraham was a believer before the statement is recorded.
If Abraham was already a believer, the logical question is, why is Abraham’s experience in Genesis 15:6 used by Paul in Romans 4 to teach justification by faith? If Abraham was already right with God, does Genesis 15:6 have any application to an individual’s salvation today? Yes, it does. Genesis 15 is crystal clear testimony to the principle Paul is teaching in Romans: righteousness is by faith. The Holy Spirit guides Paul to pick up the clearly established principle of Genesis 15:6 and apply it to our need for a righteous standing with God. In Genesis 15, Abraham’s faith is mentioned because it was essential for the covenant God was making with him. In Romans 4, the context is the justification of a sinner. But the principle is the same – in God’s eyes, righteousness stems from faith.
There is another reason why Paul, a careful student of the Old Testament Scriptures, goes to Genesis 15 – it is the “law of first mention.” Although “righteous” or “just” is used as an adjective to describe Noah, Genesis 15 is the first mention in the Bible of righteousness and faith (“believed”). That same chapter also provides us the Bible’s first mention of peace (Gen 15:15). This forms a solid foundation to Paul’s teaching in Romans 4 and the conclusion of Romans 5:1: “Therefore being justified [declared righteous] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
– Matthew Cain