Justified through faith
Preached Sunday morning, July 17, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ
In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul pounds the idea home that every one of us, every man and woman, is guilty before God. Whether we are Jews convicted by the Law of Moses or Gentiles convicted by God’s imprint on our consciences, we have sinned. And sinning means being in darkness. In Chapter 3 we began to see the way out of that darkness. Now, in Chapter 4, that way comes clear. This chapter focuses on the patriarch Abraham, who was counted as righteous before God around 2000 years before the letter to the Romans was written. And as we learn here, the way Abraham was counted righteous in 2005 B.C. is the same way we may be counted righteous in A.D. 2005—through faith.
We see at the outset that Abraham had no grounds to boast of his righteousness, either before either man or God. If the letter to the Romans were a work of music, the idea of boasting would be the "melody line" of this section.[i] Bear in mind that Abraham was one of the most respected figures, not only among the Jews, but in all the ancient world. All through the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of Abraham. God had promised to bless Israel and the whole world through Abraham and his descendants. Indeed, during the first century tales of Abraham were told throughout the known world. By being a well know figure of the ancient past, Abraham was one of the Jews' biggest "claims to fame" in the first century. He was so well known, in fact, that even the Spartans in Greece claimed to be his descendants[ii]. If Paul, then, could show from the Old Testament that Abraham himself had no grounds to boast about his righteousness, then no one else would have any grounds to boast, either.[iii]
First-century Jewish rabbis taught that Abraham was saved by his obedience.[iv] Even the idea of faith in Abraham's life was interpreted as faithfulness, and thus was considered a good work. The common perception among Jews of the day was that justification before God was the result of good works, and thus justification was grounds for boasting. That idea, however, is mistaken. In reality, faith in God brings us justification, which bears fruit in our obedience.[v] The Jews, being fallen humans, preferred to think they had something to boast about—namely being direct descendants of Abraham. They had already boasted to Jesus about their relationship to the patriarch (Mt. 3:9, Jn. 8:33ff), and they kept detailed genealogies showing their descent from Abraham. In effect, they tried to rest on the laurels of their multi-great grandfather.
Should this kind of behavior surprise us? Many of us today, even if we aren't Jews, take pride in our genealogies. And it seems like everyone who traces the family tree back far enough sooner or later finds a king or prince or some such big shot in the family line. My mother's side of the family takes pride in our Italian ancestors—the Medici, princes of Florence. Several years ago while gathering family records I came across a family history written by my great-great-great-grandfather, who came to the United States from Scotland in the late 1700s. As I was copying his hand-written account, one of my aunts, from the Medici line, asked me to leave out the parts about my ancestors being buried in the potter's field, the poor folks cemetery, of Philadelphia. That little detail just didn't do much for our family reputation. We preferred the princes of Florence to the paupers of Philadelphia.
What's more, even as I was preparing this lesson, I felt a twinge of envy that, like today's Jews, I couldn't claim ancestry from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Much more snob appeal there than in Lorenzo de Medici. I'll admit that I sometimes feel the pull of snobbery in my own life, and I don't think I'm alone. Isn't it funny how a man will act the snob over something he has no control over—like who his great-grandpappy was? Snobbery is usually like that. Ironically, though, Christians can boast about something over which we have no control, you might say. We'll look further at that idea next week.
Yet even the illustrious Abraham was justified not through his good works, but through faith. Faith was the source of his righteousness. In verse 3, Paul uses the Jews' own scriptures to make this point when he quotes Gen. 15:6 — "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." That word for "reckoned" can be translated different ways: imputed, counted, credited to his account. All these choices depict the idea that Abraham's righteousness was something not earned, but given to him by God. If we have any doubts about verse 3, the next two verses reinforce the idea of unearned favor through faith. Faith was the source of Abraham's righteousness before the Law of Moses was instituted. We see also that faith was the source of righteousness in David under the Law of Moses. The implication, then, is that before, during, and after the Law, faith is the means by which a person becomes right with God.
I recently heard it put this way: "Faith itself is not righteousness....It is only the vehicle by which God's righteousness reaches us. However, it is the only vehicle by which it reaches us."[vi] This is the central message of Romans, and in fact of the whole gospel—that salvation is a gift from God that we access through faith. This knowledge also sheds light on the Old Testament. If Abraham and David—the two most prominent and blessed men of the Old Testament—were justified by faith and not works, then why should we think we can be?[vii]
Probably because we're geared toward performance. We prefer to earn what we have, not have it given to us. Some people may not have this problem—praise God if you don't. If you're like me, though, your natural response is something like, "Wait a minute. Are you telling me you're blessing me not because I'm good but because I'm bad? Are you saying I haven't done anything to deserve this justification, this condition of righteousness and eternal life?" We want a right standing with God, but it's painful to think we don't deserve it. We'd rather earn it. Isn't it a little insulting to be given something we don't deserve?
But that's grace. It's a gift, a blessing, willingly given by God to people who don't deserve it.
"But wait a minute!" the Pharisee in us exclaims. "Doesn't this idea of being counted righteous when we aren't fly in face of God's own teaching? After all, Proverbs 17:15 says, 'He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.' So why would God do such a thing?"
The answer is that God loves us. He loves us better than we love ourselves, and he treats us better than we treat ourselves or each other. He gives us unearned righteousness because it is the only way we can be righteous once we've sinned, polluted ourselves, disqualified ourselves forever from holy fellowship with God. Only a perfect sacrifice could save us from the hell we chose by our own sin. That's why Jesus died to pay our sin debt. Now it's paid. And if we have faith in God, then "He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:13, 14).
That's a wonderful place to be. If we have redemption, forgiveness, righteousness, then we don't have to keep trying to justify ourselves or to impress God. Sad to say, some Christians still try to do just that, to win God's approval by working hard. But it won't work. "You cannot earn the gift of love, but it is yours to take in faith in Christ, fresh every morning"[viii]. God loves us and counts us as righteous. Although God does want Christians to grow in righteous deeds, no amount of good work on our part will make us any more righteous or make God love us any more. That's worth spending some time thinking about in quiet contemplation.
It's worth thinking about because it's hard for many of us to accept, if we're honest with ourselves. How about you? Do you have trouble accepting the wonderful, gracious gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ? Are you too proud to accept it? I hope not, because it's absolutely essential for justification with God to accept that our righteousness comes only from God, by grace through faith. As someone once described the Christian life, "The Spirit of God makes us clean and whole and delivers us from drowning before we can swim a stroke."[ix]
This passage in Romans 4 ends with some happy thoughts:
Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.
Another translation for "blessed" is "happy." I like those words, because nothing could be more blessed or happy than having our sins forgiven by God and being in fellowship with him. Next week, we'll look at Romans 5 and "unwrap the package" of those blessings.[x]
In the mean time, the point of this week's passage is what God credits us with. "What do you want credited to your account? Do you want God to credit you with what you are owed according to your works or do you want Him to credit you with righteousness for your faith."[xi] The choice is yours.
1. Bob Deffinbaugh,“The Basis and Benefits of Justification (Romans 3:27-5:1-21),” on-line study at www.bible.org.
2. First Maccabees 12:21
3. Hampton Keathley IV, “Justification by Faith: The Case of Abraham and David (Romans 4:1-8),” on-line study at www.bible.org. See also Bob Deffinbaugh, “Abraham: The Faith of Our Father (Romans 3:27-4:25),” on-line study at www.bible.org.
4. Thomas Constable, Notes on Romans. On-line commentary at www.soniclight.com, p. 42.
5. James P. Sweeney, Review of Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1‑5, Review of Biblical Literature 4 (2004), on-line copy at www.bookreviews.org.
6. Constable, 43.
7. John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, on-line copy at www.ccel.org.
8. Ray C. Stedman, “The Father of Faith,” on-line sermon text at www.pbc.org.
9. Richard Lischer, "Pick It Up, Read It," Christian Century, 17 Feb 1999, p. 179. On-line copy at www.religion-online.org.
10. Deffinbaugh, “Benefits and Bases.”
11. Keathley, p. 3.
Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley