Genesis 15:6 (ESV)
And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
This verse is quoted in Romans 4, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23. If you’re familiar with how the NT uses it, you may find it difficult to see how the verse functions in its original setting.
Genesis is not talking about Abram’s personal salvation. YHWH is not making an eschatological judgement about Abram’s righteousness. Abram isn’t dead, and Genesis isn’t talking about the afterlife. We really must read the OT in its own context first, before we wrestle with what the NT makes of it.
Noah was the first person called righteous:
Genesis 6:9 (ESV)
Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.
Noah was righteous because he submitted to YHWH’s authority and obeyed his instructions, even when the rest of his generation were being disobedient and rebellious. Noah cooperated with God in saving the animals (the very role God gave people in the beginning). Noah walked with God, i.e. he collaborated with God, taking the path his sovereign was taking.
Abram did the same. YHWH called Abram to leave the political struggles of Shinar to go to a land where YHWH would establish his own nation. Abram went. He partnered with YHWH. This partnership required Abram’s family to do righteousness, so that YHWH’s promises could be realized. That’s Abram’s calling as YHWH described it:
Genesis 18:19 (ESV)
For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.
But Abram has some difficulty in trusting YHWH. He has heard the word of the Lord about his offspring, but he has no children. So YHWH gives him a picture: just like the stars filling the sky, Abram’s descendants will fill the land. Abram gets it. He believes YHWH, and YHWH says (in paraphrase), “That’ll do; I can work with that.” In other words, YHWH attributing righteousness to Abram is YHWH’s affirmation of Abram as his partner.
Because he trusts YHWH, Abram partners with YHWH in restoring his righteous rule to the earth. In that sense, Abram is counted as an agent of righteousness.
Actually, Abram’s faith is still very wobbly. YHWH has been Abram’s faithful partner since the very start of this venture, but Abram is still unsure:
Genesis 15:7–8 (ESV)
7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
Don’t you love it? Abram—the great example of faith—is not yet sure he can trust his sovereign.
YHWH doesn’t tell Abram off because of his doubts. Instead he volunteers to enter into a unilateral commitment, pledging himself to his partner Abram with a covenant. It’s as if YHWH says, “What, my promise isn’t enough? You need some kind of pledge? Okay, I’ll give you a pledge.”
The faithfulness of God is the foundation for faith. When we trust him, God deems us to be participating partners in the restoration of his righteous reign.
What others are saying
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 422, 431:
In summary, Genesis 15:6 should be seen as the premise on which the covenant is ratified. Because Abram takes God at his word, God credits him with a legacy on the basis of the “rightness” of this faith. He accomplishes this by formally establishing the covenant with him. Recognized righteousness becomes the basis for blessing. …
In conclusion, it is misleading to think of Abram as having a conversion experience in chapter 15. It is also misleading to think of God as providing justification for Abram of the same quality as that provided to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. It is too simplistic to say that Abram was saved by faith in the same way we are saved by faith, or that he was saved by anticipating in faith the work of Christ on his behalf. The text does not offer us this information.
Read Genesis 15.