Romans 4:1-5,13-17 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about-- but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. … 13 It 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. 14 For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, 15 because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 Therefore, 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. 17 As 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.
If you’ve ever taken a world history class or studied civilization and its development, you will notice a couple common threads throughout all of recorded history. First of all, you will see that nobody lives forever; every famous person had their day in the sun, but no matter how great a warrior, or how brilliant a writer, everyone has died. You will also see that just about every society that has ever been around has had an idea of God, and a good part of their lives, writings and action revolved around their god or gods and how to please them. They tried to answer the age old question that everybody has their own answer to; how do you get to heaven?
Deep down, everyone acknowledges that there is more than just this life, and that we are not worthy of heaven. We see this reflected in all the false religions of the world. Even today in this post-post-modern world where the almighty “me” is supposedly the only absolute truth, there are hundreds of religions and they all focus on doing good. Buddhism’s goal is to reach nirvana by following the Buddha’s eightfold path of good works. Islam mandates that its followers strictly adhere to the five pillars. Mormons are required to spread their religion by mission work and require membership in their church to have any hope of heaven, along with a lot of other rules. Even Catholics are required to DO things to earn the forgiveness of sins, like penance, saying the rosary, and after death, to suffer in purgatory for their sins.
All religions have their own methods to reach the next life or heaven. All of them are based on doing what their god says is “good.”
This idea of doing good works is the exact issue St. Paul was addressing in his letter to the Romans: How do we human beings get ourselves right with God so that we can get to heaven? Paul answers that question: We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. What he is saying is this:
God gives righteousness by faith alone
The Jewish members of the Roman congregation would have been shocked by these words from Paul. All their lives they had assumed they could get right with God by keeping the OT law. This is what their leaders had been teaching them. So Paul takes them to the founder of their nation, the man they consider to be the epitome of pious living and asks the question: What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?
Abraham was a “good” person: he did what God wanted him to do. The first time God spoke to him, God told him to leave his home and everything he knew and go to a strange and distant land. And he did! When there was bickering between his nephew Lot’s family and his own, he treated Lot fairly by letting him choose where he would settle instead of taking advantage of him. Later on, when Lot and all his family were captured, he took his own men and rode down to save Lot and his family. He saved Lot’s life again by begging God to relent from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and to allow Lot to escape. He trusted God would keep his promise to give him a child, even though his wife Sarah didn’t and even laughed at God. When God did give him a son, he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. He did all these good things and more. If anyone merited heaven it was Abraham, as Paul says: If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about.
But in God’s eyes it was not enough. Paul tells us that next: but not before God. God tells us that elsewhere through Isaiah: All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. When it comes to things humans do to try to please God, we fall very short of what could possibly please him.
If the good Abraham did wasn’t enough to please God, why would we think it is enough for us? If we tried to get right with God by going good, all we could ever do is not enough. Where does that leave human race? Dead . . . It isn’t just an injury we have that inhibits our ability to do good in God’s eyes. Everything we as humans try to do to please God is tainted by selfishness, hoping to get something back.
Where does that leave human race? It leaves us in a place that God did not leave us.
Last week we heard about the second Adam, the “one man” who became our righteousness. This righteousness that he gives to us is the same one that “was credited to Abraham.” Paul reminds his reads: What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This righteousness comes because Jesus lived a perfect life as a man, and he fulfilled the entire Law of God. He lived the holy life that our Holy God demands. And because he did that for the human race, his righteousness, his perfection is transferred to us by God’s decree. God says we are perfect in his sight. This righteousness from Jesus means that God declared that Abraham was no longer guilty of sin.
And it was not Abraham’s works that earned this righteousness for him. It was because of his faith in God and in God’s promise. Paul tells us: It was not through the 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. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless. The good Abraham had done had nothing to do with his new status before God. If it was, as Paul says, the promise would be worthless. If doing good by trying to keep the Law was enough to earn what God’s promise gave, that is, salvation, there would be no need for the promise because Abraham would have been able to earn it like a worker earning a paycheck. It was not through the law or the keeping of the Law that Abraham was declared righteous, but through his faith.
It’s the same for us. We receive this same righteousness in the same way. All the manmade religions search for a righteousness that comes from inside by doing works. That is not how you and I receive righteousness. God gives righteousness to us by faith alone. God gives it to us not as something he has to give to us, but because he loves us.
This was all pretty unsettling to most of the Jews that Paul was writing to: the idea that even Abraham couldn’t be justified by his deeds but only by faith. But Paul has more to say about this, and what he says is going to be even more shocking to these Jewish people.
God showed his love to Abraham, by giving him righteousness and he gave Abraham a large family, through whom the Savior came. The Jews of Paul’s time had a superiority complex. They claimed they were the true descendants of Abraham.
The Jews thought they were of the faith of Abraham. After all, Abraham was the father of the Jews and God renamed his Jacob, his grandson Israel. The religion, the faith was Judaism. The Jews were the ones who had been given the Law. They had the Law to keep them separate and to keep them from falling into the vile sins of the nations around them.
But the Jews had twisted this separation God had put in place through the Law of Moses into something God had not designed it to be. Because of the sinful human nature, God knew that the Jews would fall into sin without the Law, and even with it they did. The Law code which was meant for protection, the Jews turned into an exclusive club’s code for achieving righteousness: for Jews only. We see this in the way they treated all other people at Jesus’ time. Samaritans, who were non-Jews were outcasts. They hated the Romans so violently because they were non-Jews ruling over the Jews. Anyone who was not a Jew was a lower class citizen. This is not the way God had established. In fact the Jews were supposed to bring the nations into their faith.
You know, we do the same though. . . God has given us the command to spread the good news of the Gospel to all nations, to everybody. Everybody includes your unchurched neighbor that always has liquor bottles all over their porch. It includes the unwed mother who you know that is dating yet another guy. All nations includes the drug abuser, the coworker whose laziness gives you a lot more work to do. When you think about the Samaritan woman in the Gospel today, do you compare yourself to her and think, “Well at least I don’t have 5 partners.” We Christians separate ourselves from people just like the Jews did, who held themselves to be better.
Now, Paul says to the Jews that there are OTHER descendants of Abraham: Therefore, 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.17 As 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.
He points out two groups: those who are of the law (the Jews), and those who are of the faith of Abraham. . .the father of many nations. Those who are of the faith of Abraham are those who believe like Abraham did; the faith through which God gives righteousness. This is a distinct group from the Jews. Yes it included Jews, but it also includes Gentiles! It includes us. It includes ALL who trust in God for the forgiveness of sins, as Paul says, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. God who gives life to the dead; those who were dead in their sins, which is everybody, and also in Paul’s context, the Gentile nations who were for so long separate from God’s promise of salvation. They were a dead nation.
This is how Jesus was able to offer the Samaritan woman at the well His living water. He knew the promise of salvation was “for all Abraham’s seed,”: those who believe, both Jews and Gentile.
Through Paul, God tells the Jews AND us that lineage and heritage and our lives are not what he will view when he separates the sheep from the goats on the last day. God looks at the heart of faith that trusts in Jesus. God gives righteousness to all by faith alone.
Knowing this, we too will show Jesus’ love to the people we know by sharing the message that Jesus died and rose for them too. Amen.