MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 23 1998 FROM ROMANS 4:1-25

 

          This morning we move into the fourth chapter of Romans.  In chapter one, Paul declares in verses 17, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, the righteous will live by faith.”  In the rest of chapter one, he makes a case that this righteousness from God by faith is absolutely necessary for a pagan world if they are to escape the wrath of God.  Paul powerfully argues that these Gentiles  are held totally captive to the tyranny of sin.  They are rebellious to the core and spend their lives spitting in God’s face, literally “inventing ways of doing evil.”  In chapter two, Paul broadens his target to include the Jews, who, although possessing the Law and circumcision, can never, through those entities ever stand as righteous before a holy God.  He powerfully concludes this first section in chapter 3:9-19 by placing the Jew and the Gentile in the same boat--a boat which could be christened “CONDEMNED UNDER THE REIGN OF SIN.”

          Paul, having painted this dark backdrop of sin and its universal condemnation, in chapter 3:21-31, shifts gears and brings into focus the flaming, glorious light of the truth of the gospel.  That though there is nothing the Jew or Gentile can do to stand before God, God has done it all through Christ, providing a righteousness which is apart from works.  A righteousness which is the very righteousness of Christ--given to us freely by his grace.  Believers have been justified, redeemed from the power of sin, and released from the wrath of God all because of Christ-there is NO room for boasting-God has done it all from start to finish.  We are justified--made righteous in His sight by grace alone through faith alone.

          Having said that, let’s read all of chapter four beginning with verse one.  

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God. 3What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." 4Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7"Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  8Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him."   9Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.  13It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless,  15because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.  16Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.  18Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 19Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead--since he was about a hundred years old--and that Sarah's womb was also dead. 20Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22This is why "it was credited to him as righteousness." 23The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone, 24but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness--for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

          As Paul moves into chapter four, which he directed mainly at the Jewish believers in the church, his main point in all 25 verses is to communicate that his teaching that sinners are made righteous in God’s sight by faith alone is not a new idea for God.  That a sinner may be declared righteous by faith apart from works is not a novel thought--its is not a theological innovation for God in salvation history.  It may have seemed that way to the Jews, but that is not the case at all.  In fact, to be justified by faith is not only NOT new, it goes all the way back to Abraham.  Abraham, the father of the Jewish people was rightly related to God, NOT because of anything he did, but because of what He believed.

          Again and again Paul stresses that the only approved way to relate to God has always been through faith and not works.  In verses six and seven, he stresses this continuity of righteousness through faith in salvation history by quoting David who speaks of the “blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.”  In verse 11 Abraham is called the “Father of all who believe.”  In verse 12, he is called the “father of...those who follow in the footsteps of faith.”  In verse 16, he is called “the father of us all,” including believing Gentiles.  Believing Gentiles can call Abraham their spiritual father just as much as the Jews because his fatherhood is not based primarily in his race, but in his kind of faith--the faith of Abraham.  You are a child of Abraham if you have the faith of Abraham.  The righteousness needed to rightly relate to God has always come through faith.  The idea which some Christians have that in the Old Testament, people worked for their salvation, but now in the New Covenant we are given it freely by grace through faith is a horrible distortion.  The way to please God, the way of salvation has always been through faith.  In Hebrews chapter 11, the text in the New Testament which salutes the giants of God’s Old Covenant people, they are honored for their faith--not their works.  They had works which sprung from their faith, but these are Old Testament heroes of faith.

          Another striking line of continuity here which links the Old Testament faith with the New Testament is seen in the object of faith.  The object of faith as Paul explains it in verse 17 is “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”  In the Old Testament, God gives life to the body of Abraham which Paul unflatteringly describes as “as good as dead” and Sarah’s womb which, in the NIV  Paul says is “also dead.”  Out of the deadness of these two old bodies, God brought life--Isaac, in response to the faith of Abraham.  The New Testament example of God as the one who “gives life to the dead” is in verse 24 where he says, “to God...who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”  The object of faith is God who, out of death brings life, whether it be the deadness of Abraham and Sarah’s body or the literal deadness of Jesus’ corpse.  The proper object of faith is the God who alone can do the impossible.  Faith is the key to relating to God in both testaments, not just the New Testament.

          In this text in Romans four, there are at least seven times in these 25 verses where Paul links righteousness to faith.  In verses 3, 5, 9, twice in verse 11, verse 13 and verse 22 Paul explicitly connects righteousness to the presence of faith and God’s dealings with Abraham are presented as “Exhibit A” to support this connection.  Paul never claims  that faith is equal to righteousness.  Its not as if God looks at a person to whom He has given saving faith and says, “look at all that righteousness--I guess I’ll have to save that person.”  No, faith is nothing more and nothing less than the conduit, the channel through which his righteousness flows to sinners.  This text, through rapid fire repetition of one main idea, links righteousness and faith in an unbreakable way.  The question answered here in this chapter, with its account of Abraham’s faith is this one:  Why does God give righteousness through faith?  What is so special about faith?  Of all the spiritual virtues treated in Scripture, why is it that faith alone, is the essential channel through which righteousness flows to sinners?

          The first reason is:  Faith preserves God’s glory by making salvation his work alone by grace alone and therefore nullifies all boasting.  God’s central motive in everything He does is to preserve His own glory.  This is not because he is some sort of egomaniac (as we would be if we were to work to preserve our own glory.)  The reason God’s ultimate goal is to preserve his glory is, as John Piper says in Desiring God, “God would be unrighteous (just as we would) if he valued anything more than what is supremely valuable.  But He himself is supremely valuable.”  Because the glory of God is more precious, more glorious than anything else, God, because He is righteous must work to preserve that which is supremely glorious.  To do otherwise would be idolatrous--to pursue and preserve something which is NOT supremely valuable--that is idolatry and God is not an idolater!  Salvation which comes through grace by faith nullifies all boasting and frees God to receive all the glory for His redeeming work.

          Paul makes this point in verse two when he asks the question, “If in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God.”  Everyone Paul was writing to had a lofty view of Abraham’s spiritual position. When Zaccheus is gloriously converted, Jesus refers to him as a “son of Abraham.” In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus has Abraham speaking to the rich man in Hades, interpreting God’s judgment of him.  Abraham is God’s spokesman in heaven.  When you also have people like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Samuel, Moses, Elijah hanging around, to be God’s spokesperson is a high honor!  This is a lofty position and it is expressed on the lips of Jesus.  Both Jews and Gentiles had a deep appreciation of Abraham’s position with God.  Paul uses this vaunted, spiritual figure to make the case that even Abraham has nothing to boast about because his much heralded righteousness was not tied to works, circumcision or the law, but it was a gift of grace, through faith.

          In verses 1-8, Paul explains that Abraham’s righteousness was not a result of his works.  If Abraham’s righteousness was not tied to works, he has nothing to boast about.  In verse four, Paul lays out the difference between working for something and being credited with something because of faith.  Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”   If Abraham was righteous by virtue of what he did, then God was under obligation to him--God owed Abraham something.  Could God be worthy of glory if He, as the infinite, holy Creator were to stand in debt to one of his finite, sinful creatures?  That is a disgusting thought.  We get just a faint glimpse of this disgusting picture when we go to the mall and see a three year old (hopefully not our own) stand in the toy store in mid tantrum, shaking his fist at his parent who brought him into the world, who feeds and clothes them, and he is standing there insisting that if they are under some sort of moral obligation to buy them this expensive toy.

          Some of us had parents who, when they told us to mow the lawn and we asked them what they, (out of a sense of moral obligation) would give us in return, responded by saying, “I’ll let you eat dinner tonight.”  They were not in debt to me!  And the same is true for God on an infinitely grander scale.  He is not obligated to anyone--He is debtor to no one!  As ludicrous as that suggestion sounds, this is what most of the world believes--that God owes them salvation on the basis of what they have done.  This is precisely what is being said by anyone, be they Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or so called Christian who believes that God will let them into heaven because they are nice people who do good things.  That places God in the role of a debtor who owes them heaven.  They have purchased it with their so called good life and He is obliged to reserve a room in heaven for them.  Forget about their sin which is under his wrath!

          Abraham’s righteousness was not connected to works, it was a gift, just like our righteousness is.  In verses 9-12, Paul shows that Abraham’s righteousness was not connected to circumcision.  He does this by pointing out that God declared Abraham to be a righteous man before he was circumcised.  Circumcision, rather than establishing righteousness is, according to verse 11, simply an outward sign that God had already given Abraham the gift of righteousness.  Circumcision pointed to the fact that God had made Abraham righteous in His sight, but the circumcision did nothing to make Him righteous.  If circumcision compels God to justify someone, then salvation is ripped from a context of grace and made nothing more than a product of a simple surgical procedure.

          In verses 13-17, Paul gives two reasons why the law did not give Abraham his  status before God.  First he says in verse 15, “law brings wrath.”  In other words, the law was never intended to produce righteousness in a person--that wasn’t its purpose and it certainly didn’t do that for Abraham.  Second, if Abraham’s righteousness came through the law, then the promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations would be invalid.  Because the law was given only to the Jews, not to many nations.  If the promise comes from the law instead of faith, then how could Abraham be the father of the many nations who do not have the Jewish law?  But as it is, God can give faith to anyone of any nation.  Faith is not limited to the Jewish people and that enables Abraham to be the “father of us all” in some sense.  The first reason why God gives righteousness through faith is; faith preserves God’s glory by making salvation his work alone by grace alone and therefore nullifies all boasting.

          A second reason why God chooses to save people through the conduit of faith is faith uniquely glorifies God because it displays confidence in His integrity to keep His promises.  When Abraham left his homeland in Genesis 12 because God had promised to make a great nation out of him it showed that He trusted that God was the kind of God who had the power and integrity to do what He had committed himself to do.  In chapter 15, when he looked into starry sky and believed that there would come from his then 85 year old body as many offspring as he could see stars just because God promised him that, that was a phenomenal display of confidence that God was the kind of God who would keep his word and perform whatever miracle was necessary to do it.  In Genesis 22, when Abraham raised the knife to the son of promise, Isaac, he was displaying the same kind of confidence in God.  This faith uniquely glorifies God because it trusts in His integrity and frees Him to display his mighty power in fulfilling his promises. 

          But faith also glorifies him because this sinful world we live in conditions us to doubt.  The power of sin covers this world with a black shroud of unbelief in at least three ways.  First, the sin in the world conditions us to doubt everything we cannot see.  Second, this sinful world compels us to take the paths of least resistance and live with as little risk as possible.  If you take risks you may get hurt.  Third, the power of sin pushes us to trust first and foremost in ourselves and to doubt that anything will happen to us that is outside of what we are able to bring about ourselves.  The power of sin works to make us all doubt all the time.  We are conditioned to doubt and Abraham’s world was no different.  Yet Abraham, by God’s grace--in the midst of this black shroud of unbelief which hung around him, trusted God to do far more than he could ever see--a nation of people were going to come from a dead body?   “Yes, I’ll believe that...Why, because God promised it!”  Abraham, in a world filled with doubt by God’s grace trusted God to take enormous risks--leaving his homeland for a land he knew not...raising a knife to the son of promise?  Abraham, with doubters at every side, by God’s grace trusted God to do enormously more than he, with his decrepit old body could do.  Faith enabled him to transcend the doubt-fueling power of sin in this world and he glorified God by showing that someone believed God was not limited to what could be seen, that He was worth risking everything on, and that he could bring into being that which would never be possible by himself.  Abraham staked his entire destiny on God, on His integrity to keep his promises, His character, his power to do what He said He would do.  That brings glory to God.

          When we place our trust in Christ to save us we are saying to God, you are able do what I can not see--make this person, dead in sin, live spiritually.  When we have faith in Christ, we are saying that we will live with the risk of living a radically transformed, different life than those around us and suffer for it because our God has promised and is able to make it all worthwhile.  When we place our trust in Christ, we are saying that God alone can do something we could never do, make us fit for heaven and worthy of His name.  All this faith, God’s gift to us, enables us to transcend the power of sin in this world which stokes the fire of our doubt and stand confidently on the character of God, trusting in His promises to us. 

          Two quick points of application.  First, God saves us--He gives us his righteousness through faith so that HE may be glorified.  The whole salvation process is centered around HIS glory--to show forth his “manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”  Are we living as people who have been saved for the purpose of bringing glory to God, or are we living as people who have been saved for the purpose of not having to go to hell?  The way many so called Christians live their lives, you are forced to conclude that they think God’s purpose in saving them was to save them from hell and very little else.  Ultimately, the whole point of salvation is to bring glory to God. Often, so called Christians pray to receive Christ solely for the purpose of not having to go to hell.  There is nothing wrong with not wanting to go to hell and it is one reason to initially place your trust in Christ.  But if it doesn’t progress beyond that with an increasing desire to live a life is worthy to God, for His glory, then we’ve missed the whole point and saving faith, which is intended to glorify God by pointing to His integrity and power, has been reduced to that which keeps us out of the fire box.  Do you regularly pray that God would be honored in your life and do you see His glory, NOT your eternal safety as your purpose in being a Christian?

          A second and final point of application is this:  Are we living as children of Abraham displaying the faith of Abraham?  If we have placed our trust in Christ to save us from the power of sin, then we, by God’s grace have exercised the faith of Abraham, but are we living in it day by day? We, like Abraham live in a world which seeks to train God’s people to doubt Him.  When was the last time you did something in obedience to God that, if God didn’t provide miraculously, you would have made a fool out of yourself?  When was the last time you took a real, tangible “here’s-what-this-will-cost-me-if-God-doesn’t-deliver risk in trusting God?  I’m not talking about recklessness, but obedience.  I’m convinced that God calls his people on a regular basis to trust Him and step out in faith.  If we are not experiencing this, its not because God has stopped doing that, its because either we are not listening or because he has stopped wasting his breath on people who refuse to listen to Him.  Are we giving sacrificially financially to the kingdom of God?  Are we risking relationships in obedience to God by sharing our faith in Christ?  Are we regularly bringing your treasures before God--your family, our possessions and offering them back to God, knowing that He has a right to take them anytime He wants them?  Do we trust Him with them?  What would our response be to Him if He did take them from us?  Would we trust Him?  Do we practice the faith of Abraham?  That is our birthright!  That is the gift we have through Christ?  May God give us grace to glorify Him by trusting in His integrity to keep his promises.

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