It’s Friday and this week we had begun a week of readings in the book of Romans in our quest to read through the New Testament in a year. Today our reading is from Romans 4:1-25. It’s a passage with lots of Old Testament information. If you’re not aware of all Paul is writing, you’ll definitely want to come back and join me as we go through it again.
We just finished what many theologians call one of the greatest chapters ever written in the Scriptures. Paul gave a great defense of why he was “not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”. Why wasn’t he ashamed? In summary form, two reasons: 1) We’re all in the same shipwrecked boat. No matter our race, color, religion, gender, political affiliation, etc...we are “all under the weight of Sin” (3:23). The result of that is the not-good-news aspect - that God hates Sin, will judge Sin, and it makes no difference how good any person tries to be - they cannot be good enough to escape God’s wrath. Let that sink in for a second. In a world that does not talk about Sin or Judgment, how could the people we live among ever understand the Wrath of God? Yet that is exactly where Paul led us down through the revelation that God HAS to do something if anyone is to be saved.
2) God did something about our shipwrecked soul by sending His Son - Jesus - as an offering, a sacrifice for our own Sin (3:22, 24). God’s righteous requirements needed to forgive the Sinner are fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s atoning death, and our only requirement is to fully trust in Him as our Savior (3.:25). It’s not only “good news”, it’s Great News.
Now, the Gospel is proclaimed, and how could anyone misunderstand both the effect and the extent of what God has done to make a way for us to escape condemnation because of Sin? Well, some didn’t understand, and even though they heard it, they didn’t receive it.
Romans 4 is a full-on argument for the logic and proof that justification by faith in Jesus is the only way to receive God’s righteousness - i.e, to be declared to be right before Him. The argument is built off of two Old Testament characters - Abraham and David. His target reader is the many converted Jews in the Roman church - “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, according to the flesh, discovered in this matter (this issue of justification by faith)?” There are three key things Abraham demonstrated in the course of his life before God that proved the necessity of faith.
First, Abraham “believed” God apart from any works that contributed to his faith. When Abraham placed his trust in God's promise, his "believing by faith" became the grounds for God declaring him (“credited”) righteous (4:2-4). The word credited (reckoned) is an accounting term. It literally means that even though the debt was clearly present, God paid it. Abraham had been called by God to leave his country, his people, his home, to go to the land that God would give him. It was a promise by God that Abraham had to choose to believe or reject - he believed. Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6 to prove that Abraham’s response to God - in faith, believing, trusting, and even acting upon what God promised was the grounds upon which God declared Abraham righteous.
Abraham was not a righteous person in himself. He was not without his doubts and misgivings, or fears, but God treated him as though he were. If we think that having “Faith” is to be perfect, we will never have faith. Faith is the work of God in our hearts and minds to believe what is unseen, just because God promised - or said it. Our faith doesn't work itself in the vacuum of our spirituality apart from our humanity. When we respond to God by faith, trusting, believing, acting upon what God says, we do so even though we still contend with our sinful nature. It is always there lurking in the background in doubts and fears. Faith responds in believing we are loved and accepted by God even though we ourselves are still sinful and imperfect. Martin Luther once said that Christians are “simul justus et peccator” — we are at the same time both righteous and sinful.
Paul’s proof? In anyone’s works, they get what they earned, but Faith doesn’t work, but instead, faith chooses to believe, or trust in the promise. In Faith, we receive what we don’t deserve... “God justifies the ungodly...” (4:5).
Secondly, it wasn’t just Abraham who discovered this, so did King David. David messed up badly. At the zenith of his power, he failed miserably in committing adultery with Bathsheba. He was according to the law, a condemned man. Make no mistake he suffered greatly as a consequence, but before God, he made confession of his Sin - he didn't say it was a mistake, but a grievous disobeying of God's word - a Sin that defied God’s word, and as thus David "confessed his sin". God’s response to David’s faith? He forgave him, covered over his Sin, and didn’t count (credit) it against him (4:6-8). It is God's work of Grace that does not "count" our sins against us. We know it and he obviously does too. He chooses not to keep a record of it.
Paul used two powerfully important figures in Israel’s past to point to the necessity of responding to God by Faith. It is Faith that is apart from works. There is no “earning” faith (4:4). It is Faith also that preceded any obedience to the law, or to circumcision as an identifying covenant mark (4:9-14). Jews proclaimed their unique standing before God based on two things - God had given them the law, and they had the mark of circumcision to separate them from the rest of the nations. Paul’s main point is clear - God established the principle of Faith before Abraham received the rite of circumcision, and long before the Law was given by Moses.
We in the church must not think there are two ways described in the Scriptures whereby people were to come to God. The law never superseded the principle of Faith - even “grace through faith” (4:13-16). God has always worked in humanity by grace through faith - it didn’t start in the New Testament. The problem for Israel emerged as they sought to replace that principle of grace through faith with obedience to the outward forms of the rite of circumcision and the rituals. Similarly, the church moved from this principle towards its own religious rites and rituals and adopted a similar “works” orientation - something clearly at odds with Paul’s point - “we can’t be saved by the works of the law” (3:28 & 4:13-16).
Lastly, having established the historical record, there’s one more main point to make - Abraham is “the father of us all” (4:17) and as thus established the principle of Grace alone and Faith Alone for both Jews and Gentiles. The point of Paul’s argument now shifts to the necessity of Faith.
What is Faith? Faith is God's work to shift our focus from our circumstances to God - who gives Hope.
Abraham had been told by God he would be a father of many nations - yet at age 98, he was still without a child. How can you be a father of many nations and not have any children? God came to him promising him that even though he was old, it would still happen.
Paul reminds us: “I have made you the father of many nations—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (4:18).
Abraham believed the humanly impossible thing - a 98-year-old man married to a 88-year-old woman, cannot have a baby. God said, “you will” and Abraham believed it to be SO, not just possible. Abraham believed God’s word as truth - when everything said impossible.
Here is where we get a great definition of faith. It comes from Paul’s commentary on Abraham’s belief:
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:20-21).
What is faith? It is not wavering from God’s promises in his word. It is giving glory to God for his promises. It is being fully convinced that God is able to do what he promises.
Paul reminds us that this is where his argument had begun, and now where it ends: “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (4:22). In the end, Faith is the most important response to God’s grace. It was not only to Abraham that this was made, but the same principle of how we respond to God is still in force today (4:23-25). When we respond by faith to what Jesus Christ has done, we do so apart from any thought of our own works contributing to what Christ has done. We respond to the finished work of Jesus who died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. What happened to Christ Jesus is what happens to us when we put our Faith in Christ alone.
What does it all mean? What is the point of Faith in a world of circumstances of doubts and fears? Chuck Swindoll in his commentary on Romans records this account to help us think about what this all means:
“Robert Dick Wilson is mostly remembered for his outstanding achievements in linguistics at Princeton Theological Seminary. He learned more than forty-five ancient languages in his quest to understand the Scriptures more accurately. But his students remember him more for his unique approach to evaluating their preaching. He didn’t critique their ability to parse verbs or dissect ancient turns of a phrase; he didn’t analyze their scholarship or pay attention to their charisma. Instead, he listened for another, more crucial quality. After hearing one particular student preach, the professor remarked, “I am glad that you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.”
That’s a good stop-off point in our journey of reading the New Testament. Where are we when circumstances lead us daily to doubts and fears...to cynicism and despair? Do we have a “big-godder” mentality or a “little godder” one? Can God take people from their doubts and fears to full-on faith and trust? Yes...nothing is impossible...nothing. Join the “big godder” group and you can rest a bit from the world’s noise.