"The Benefit of Abraham's Unwavering Faith"
Apr.10, 2011 Romans 4:(1-12)13-25
WITHOUT FAITH - NOTHING
We live in a very pragmatic culture. A scientific society. As a result, matters of faith may get pushed to the sideline. To quote a computer term, "WYSIWYG" - 'what you see is what you get'. If people can't see it, if it's not tangible, people are more likely to doubt it.
But many early scientists were Christians who saw no conflict between faith and science. Today internationally we measure air pressure in units of "pascals", named after the famous scientist Blaise Pascal, who also happened to be a profound Christian writer. Pascal wrote: "Faith declares what the senses do not see, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them, not contrary to them." Faith is above the senses - somehow more profound, more fundamental.
Others may minimize faith as less important than humanitarian action. But without faith, often good works lack motivation. We've been enjoying seeing the early spring flowers and bulbs emerge as the snow recedes. Richard Whately observed: "As the flower is before the fruit, so is faith before good works."
Right now, elements are in a vicious contest to win the faith of Canadians. Will you put your trust in the Conservatives to form the next government? The Liberals? NDP? Bloc? Green Party? During the campaign we can expect to hear harsh criticism of various parties as each tries to convince you only THEY can really be trusted to do what's best for the country. They're vying to win your faith, with a single outcome in view: persuading you to cast your ballot for them on election day. If they don't succeed in convincing you, you'll be less motivated to take the time to vote. Here again, faith precedes action.
In Romans 4, Paul takes us back to a very famous Old Testament patriarch to show us how Abraham, by his faith in God while uncircumcised, became our spiritual 'ancestor' if we trust in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
SALVATION IS EARNED BY WORKS...THE POINT IS, WHOSE WORKS?
Man-made religion, that of the 'natural' unenlightened person, is like a ladder we try to climb towards some impossible height. It works like this: "Something tells me there's Something out there bigger than me, because all this didn't just happen, and I certainly didn't make it. I know I'm not perfect, compared to even a very basic definition of the good. But maybe, just maybe, if I try harder and compete better and make the right sacrifices and outdo the next person at apparent righteousness, I'll earn my way into eternity if anyone does."
The problem is, that never works. Those who succeed at keeping a law-based approach become intolerably proud and self-righteous like the Pharisees Jesus criticized. And for those who don't become proud and overconfident, there's always the question of whether I tried hard enough, whether my most recent failure will keep me out of the realm of the perfect. It's a ladder to despair. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, went way beyond his fellow monks in trying to attain righteousness by his own efforts. He said in essence, "If ever there were a monk who won salvation by his monkery, it would be me." He climbed the steps of St.Peter's on his knees. He went to confession regularly, sometimes spending 6 hours confessing every little sin he could think of. But it was maddening to his religious superiors! Although Martin excelled at the medieval monastic system, he found he still came up short.
The Bible tells us Salvation IS earned by works; does that sound heretical to you? After all, Luther's motto after he discovered real Christianity was "Sola fide, sola gratia" - faith only, grace only. Yet I say again: Salvation IS earned by works; yet the point is, WHOSE works?
The apostle Paul in Romans 4:2 says, "If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about-- but not before God." Abraham's works could never earn him a 'righteous' badge before a holy perfect God. Compared to the standard of Jesus, not one of us sinners would ever be able to boast about the goodness of what we've done.
Could works ever merit eternal salvation? 4:4 says, "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation." Yet our fallen condition means that even our greatest works, if done from fleshly motivation, would be hopelessly tainted by self-interest, competitiveness, egotism, ignorance, and vanity. 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death..." That's the most we could earn by works manufactured apart from faith - apart from trust and responsiveness to God's revealed direction.
I say again, Salvation is earned by works: but WHOSE works? God's works, not ours. Who's the star in this chapter? V17, "...the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were." Can any human come close to matching THAT kind of works? Who of us can bring the dead back to life and create new things out of nothing?
Or consider vv24f, which speak of "...him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification." Jesus is the only perfect human who ever lived, the sinless Lamb of God, who fulfilled all the prophecies and submitted to an excruciatingly painful death to cover the debt of our trespasses. God the Father is the Almighty One who raised Jesus from the dead - not just resuscitated, but re-made in an eternal glorious spiritual body. Have you ever tried that? Only God could do that! Salvation is earned by works, but the work is totally God's, not ours.
Contrasted with the wonderful things God has done - to make some self-justifying statement like, "I've done good works, I've lived a pretty good life" as if THAT would qualify you for heaven - is lame; worse than that, it's blasphemy. As if you could add anything to what God has done already "for our justification" (v25) - that was His purpose. You think YOUR works look pretty admirable compared to God's? You think you've just been rackin' up the points by some legal system, earning your way? V14, "For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless." Your attitude nullifies faith, makes it of no value, empties or guts it; and tramples God's promise like trash, makes it worthless, abolishes it. You're excluding God's provision from your puny religious system. V15, "Law brings wrath": truthfully, your self-effort would only store up wrath from God for rejecting Him and trying to make it on your own, as if you get to play God and decide the rules. Law brings punishment on those who try to obey it as a means of elevating themselves. It's like a ladder that breaks when you're up in midair 50 feet off the ground. Look out!
FAITH THE EXCLUSIVE ENTRANCE
Fortunately, God's revealed another way - a better way that's both do-able for us and that brings Him glory. Faith is the exclusive entrance by which we appropriate the gift and benefits of all God has done for us.
What's Paul's main thrust in this section? V5, "However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." The word 'credited' is an accounting term, as when the bank transfers something into your account. It's chalked up in your favour, as yours. People are declared righteous NOT because of their work but because of their faith. Or, v13 - how did Abraham receive the promise that he'd be heir of the world? "It was not through law...but through the righteousness that comes by faith." V9, "Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness"; the 'works' of circumcision came over a dozen years later.
Again, vv21-22: "...being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.This is why 'it was credited to him as righteousness.'" Being 'fully persuaded' connects with having faith, believing unswervingly. God notes that and interprets or declares it to be righteousness.
Was this a one-time thing, exclusive to Abraham? No, it's a general spiritual principle, as Paul points out in vv23-24: "The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead." If you want to receive this 'God-kind of righteousness' - it only comes from accepting and trusting in what God was doing in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Because only Jesus is infinitely capable of atoning for your muck-ups.
In the spirit-realm (and God has fashioned YOU as a spirit-being, much more than just a GI tract with appendages) - in the spirit-realm, faith or trust is how we connect, become joined to God. Hebrews 11 (the great 'faith' chapter) says in v6, "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." Faith is what God looks for and rewards.
Helen Roseveare was speaking recently at Prairie Bible College's "Global Connections Conference". Helen in her early years as a missionary doctor had been concerned about racism and segregation that existed in the churches in Africa. She had been praying for God to break down the walls somehow between whites and blacks. Then she shared about her experience during a violent uprising in Congo, when rebel soldiers treated expatriates brutally and murdered some. In her case, they raped her and beat her very badly, then put her on mock trial, a process which usually ended in the prisoner being executed. But when the people she'd been serving medically saw her there, condemned, bruised, instead of crying out for her execution, some men started weeping. Then they overwhelmed the soldiers and freed her, shouting, "She's one of us! She's one of us!"
In retrospect, Helen feels God was using even those painful circumstances of her rape and beating to bring about His good purpose - blacks claiming a white person as one of their own. The Lord delivered her from death and healed the division of racism in His church, as she trusted in Him to achieve His goals through her. That's strong faith that brings real benefits.
OUR RESPONSE: JOYFUL TRUSTING OBEDIENCE
Our works cannot save us; that glory only belongs to Jesus. Yet genuine faith does result in good works. Thomas Wilson observed, "Faith is the root of works.A root that produces nothing is dead." What are some effects or outcomes that should grow out of bona-fide trust in God through Christ?
A) Guard your joy at having your sins forgiven and receiving God's free gift. How's that sound for a 'work' that's not too onerous? "Be joyful! Rejoice!"
The word 'blessed' or 'blessedness' occurs repeatedly in vv6-9, as Paul quotes David in Psalm 32: "the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works"; "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him." The word translated can mean 'blessed, happy'; as one translation expresses it, 'what joy!' Our sins are covered; v16, the promise comes 'by grace', as a free gift. Shouldn't that keep us rejoicing? Ought we not feel and act 'blessed' to have such a loving God that provides our deepest need so we can enjoy forever fellowship with Him?
Recently Yvonne and I watched video adaptations of the Jane Austen novel Jane Eyre - first the 2-hour version, then the 4-hour BBC version. If you're familiar with the story, you'll recall Jane's early years are very unhappy, as a poorly-treated orphan. One of the happiest moments occurs when she discovers she's inherited 20,000 pounds from a batchelor uncle she never met. But what makes her happy is not the money but discovering the people she's been living with are actually her first cousins! She splits the inheritance 4 ways to provide for them, too. The money matters little to her compared to having family. She insists on sharing her bounty with them; she's just happy to have dear ones to share with. Likewise, God delights in sharing His generosity with us because through faith we become His family, His children.
B) While joyful, we also ought to realize our 'deadness' in our fleshly capacity, our lack of potential solely on our own steam, apart from God's empowerment and direction. V2, Abraham had nothing to boast about before God. And v19, "Without 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." The verb 'faced the fact' translates a word meaning "to perceive, remark, observe, understand; to consider attentively, fix one's eyes or mind upon." Truly take note of this reality - our 'good as deadness' or impotence without God's help. Nothing of our own effort to be proud of - a reality check.
C) Trust God's potential to do miraculous things in your life - including your personal transformation. V18, "Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations..." Abraham trusted God to make His promise come true, even though frankly it seemed utterly impossible. At age 100 he was way too old to be a father, and Sarah was 90 and had been barren all her life; yet he did become father of a multitude - not just Israel, in a physical sense; in a spiritual sense, as Paul notes in vv11&16, Abraham "is the father of us all", father of all who believe, whether circumcised or not. Who'da thunk it?!
D) Allow your faith to express itself in obedient works for God's glory. Not to earn salvation, but to express it. If it's real - if you're sold out to Jesus and the Holy Spirit has taken up residence inside you - there are going to be some big changes that others are bound to notice. He'll be prompting you with His love, compassion, goodness, and kindness. That's just part of the package. V20, "Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God..." Abraham was strengthened in his faith, literally en-dynamoed, empowered; as a result, God was glorified, as God-things started to happen.
And v11, after more than a dozen years had elapsed (to emphasize it wasn't a condition or means of earning righteousness) - "he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised." It was a sign, an outward expression of inward grace; a 'seal' - like the old-time signet-rings that proved authority, it confirmed it, this is the real deal. For Christians, baptism is one sign by which we express our obedience, as Christ commanded it as an external witness; Peter said, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." (Ac 2:38) Ananias told Saul, "And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'"
That's an initial sign, at the start of your Christian walk. What about now, if it's been some time? What signs do others see of faith in your life? What would they say from external observation that you're trusting in?
Salvation is a gift we receive through faith, not by works - yet there remains a definite role for good works in a believer's life. Yet even then it's an expression of God working in us. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:12f) - "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." Work out what He works in.
Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's restaurants, maintains: "Faith must be positive.Live your faith.Don't wear it on your sleeve; roll up both sleeves and do something about it."
THE DIFFERENCE FAITH MAKES
In the truly religious life, faith is key. "Abraham believed God...being fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised." (3,21)
Trusting God strengthens, empowers us, for His glory. Can the difference faith makes be documented? Dr Koenig, a pioneer in the scientific study of faith's healing potential, comments: "By praying to God [religious patients] acquire an indirect form of control over their illness." They believe they're not alone in their struggle, and that God is personally interested in them. This safeguards them against the psychological isolations that batter so many people with serious disease. In a study of 455 elderly hospital patients, for example, Koenig found that people who attended church more than once a week averaged about 4 days in the hospital. People who never or rarely attended church spent about 10-12 days hospitalized.
Faith makes a huge difference! Let's pray.