(Gen 15:1-6; Ps 119:65-72; Mark 7:1-8)
In most of the first three chapters of Romans Paul concentrates on persuading his readers that since we are all under power of sin a right relationship with God is impossible by any human means.
Then towards the end of chapter 3 he explains the good news of how God has provided a way to be right with him through the sacrifice of Christ (21-26).
Suddenly at the start of Romans 4 he shifts the focus to the life of Abraham. This shift would not surprise a large part of his audience. Talking to a lady on a plane last week she described a conversation she overheard at the Jewish museum in Melbourne. A group of schoolchildren were visiting and at one point the tour guide asked, “Who is the leader of the Jews?” one of the kids replied, “Jesus”. To which the guide said, “Jesus was a Jew but our leader is Abraham.” For the Jews Abraham is the turning point in human history, to be descended from the great Abraham is counted as an immeasurable privilege. Paul upholds the significance of Abraham but in a bold counter stroke against those who see “doing things” as a way to gain acceptance by God shows that Abraham’s fatherhood is one of faith.
vs.1 “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? vs.2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
“What was gained by Abraham” is a question about the cause of Abraham’s friendship with God (2 Chronicles 20:7 ESV; Isaiah 41:8 ESV cf. James 2:23 ESV). If Abraham pleased God by what he did then salvation by not by faith alone. Paul out-rightly rejects the possibility that anyone, even the great Abraham, could be confident before God on the basis of what they had done. To prove this point he quotes from one of the most crucial passages of the whole Bible (cf. vv. 9, 22; Gal. 3:6 ESV; James 2:23 ESV).
vs.3 “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.””
After waiting decades for God to fulfil his promise of giving him a son and heir, when he and Sarah are very old, the LORD speaks again to the patriarch in a vision saying, “Fear not” (Gen 15:1 ESV) then shows him all the stars in the sky and promises his descendants shall be more numerous than them all.
Then we are told “he believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”” In a situation that was humanly impossible when understood he could contribute nothing to change things Abraham exercised a whole-hearted trust in God’s promise. This is true faith, to acknowledge you can’t do anything to be saved and it’s all up the Lord.
Arrogant human beings, which are all of us, hate the humbling power of the free grace of God. The Jews twisted the story in Genesis to say God accepted Abraham because of his great faith. Instead of God graciously treating his faith as righteousness Abraham’s faith earned him merit with God.
Christian people commonly think about the things of God in this slanderous way. I remember listening in on a conversation about rewards in heaven when someone remarked they couldn’t expect to be as close to God as Abraham. What’s wrong with this way of thinking is that our understanding about God’s ways has shifted to moral/spiritual self-evaluation. We so readily leave out of our understanding the only one who is the centre of understanding of all the things of God…. Jesus (Col 2:3 ESV)!
Hudson Taylor rightly said, “You do not need a great faith, but faith in a great God.” And the greatness of God is revealed to us in what Jesus has done to save us.
vs.4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. vs.5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,
If you earn salvation by what you do then it is not a gift. But the gospel offers eternal life as what Paul repeatedly calls a “free gift” (Rom 5:15-17 ESV; Rom 6:23 ESV).
Perhaps you are someone, like lots of other people, who get embarrassed, or suspicious, when offered something for nothing?
Do you know that being right with God is the gift of everything when you have done nothing to deserve it?
To accept this brings a comfort that is immeasurable a gratitude that is illimitable and an assurance of eternal life that’s unshakeable.
Paul says Abraham had a faith which was “reckoned/counted” by God as righteousness.
This was a gracious undeserved divine decision whereby Abraham was legally declared “not guilty” (cf. Lev 7:8 ESV; Lev 17:4 ESV).
Paul proceeds to say something which must have scandalised many of his Jewish readers, God “justifies the ungodly/wicked” (Rom 4:5 ESV).
The Lord had categorically said in the Old Testament, “I will not acquit the wicked” (Ex 23:7 ESV cf. Ex 34:7 ESV). Here we are told that beyond any legal reckoning, even God’s, “the wicked” are accepted through faith; this includes Abraham and anyone else. Paul presses on to highlight the benefits of righteousness through faith by referring to a notorious Old Testament sinner.
vs.6 David…speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: vs.7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; vs.8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
In Psalm 32 David records his life was in a state of misery, “when I refused to confess my sin, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” (v.3), then by faith he entered into a state of blessedness through being forgiven. As a forgiven sinner David revelled in the restoration of his relationship with God because when his sin was covered he knew he would not be punished for his rebellious acts.
Forgiveness and justification are powerful transforming events.
After sharing at a meeting the other week I was given a book about a man who after coming from a humble background, living with deafness and losing a daughter in infancy went on to establish an international network of Christian businessmen (FGBMFI).
This is the book and you can see the title. Here is his testimony, “no matter the condition of the world around us, we will be the happiest people on earth.” (Demos Shekarian).
The gospel message of full free and unconditional forgiveness is at the heart of such happiness. What is our problem if we don’t look like the happiest people on earth? ….. We don’t have faith in the gospel.
The rabbis of Paul’s day taught that submission to circumcision was a condition to being forgiven and blessed by God. Paul however pronounces (vv.9-12) that the faith-based blessing Abraham enjoyed in being right with God came years before he was circumcised. Circumcision, as with baptism in the new covenant, was a sign of being already in a great relationship with God.
If you have never been offended by the gospel you have probably never understood its truly revolutionary nature (cf. Rom 6:1 ESV). That God “justifies the ungodly/wicked” (4:5) is offensive to our natural moral sense.
It really is very difficult to live by faith alone without taking things into our own hands. In the very next chapter of Genesis after God has declared him righteous through faith Abraham felt he had to do something to make God’s promise come true.
He went and had a son, Ishmael, by his Sarah’s slave girl. His unbelief has proved disastrous for human history. Have you ever wondered why Muslims hate Israel so much?
It’s because in their version of the story its Ishmael not Isaac who’s the child of promise and through Mohammed a descendent of Ishmael God’s promise that Abraham was to be the father of many nations has come true.
This however isn’t the main point. Whether it’s the ungodliness of Abraham or of David their sin did not cause God to change him mind about his relationship with them.
For when they believed all their sins were forgiven, including his future ones. No-one in the Bible is ever said to be “unjustified”. But these marvellous truths don’t fit together unless we bring Jesus front and centre into the picture.
Martin Luther famously said a Christian is “at the same time righteous and a sinner”/simul justus et peccator”. This is because the sin belongs to us and the righteousness reckoned to us by faith belongs to Jesus (1 Cor 1:30 ESV; 2 Cor 5:21 ESV).
Some people feel the need to say about themselves, “I’m not a bad person.” This may very well be true of most people but it is irrelevant to how God saves.In preaching last week Dale brought up the example of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as someone who could have been forgiven, if they asked. When in was in Uganda some years ago one of the local Christian leaders talked about his conversation with a high ranking soldier from Liberia.
He used to have 7 year old boys picked up off the streets, killed, cooked and their body parts fed to his soldiers. In coming to Christ this man became as righteous in the sight of God, as Abraham, as David, as Paul, and if you understand the gospel, as righteous as Jesus.
Isaiah 1:18 (NIV)
18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
All insane to ordinary human thinking but put in proper perspective by the way Paul concludes Romans 4; vs.23 “And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded vs.24 for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.vs.25 He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.” (Rom 4:23-25 ESV). The righteous loving death and resurrection of Jesus completely covers any sin any person could ever commit so that anyone who puts their trust in Christ is made completely right with God.
If you’re lacking assurance with God, if you are not 100% sure you have eternal life, if you are experiencing spiritual dryness, dissatisfaction and distance between you and God, or struggle with guilt then your foundational problem is clear.
Stop trying to do things, anything, to win acceptance with God. Turn to Christ and trust exclusively in his sacrifice.
Then your spiritual state will be unshakeable and knowing sins forgiven will have a blessedness that is inexpressible. LET US PRAY.
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 26th August, 2018
Author: Dr. John Yates
MESSAGE YouTube or PODCAST: N/A