Why the Old Testament agrees - Romans 4

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 4th November 2001.

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A missionary working with children in the Middle East was driving her jeep down the road when she ran out of petrol. She had no jerrycan in her car. All she could find was a potty. So she walked a mile down the road to the nearest petrol station and filled up the potty with petrol. As she was pouring the petrol into the tank, a very large Cadillac drew up occupied by wealthy oil sheikhs. They were absolutely fascinated as they watched her pour the contents of the potty into her jeep. One of them opened the window and said: "Excuse me! My friend and I, although we do not share your religion, we greatly admire your faith."

Well if you have been here over the last few weeks you’ll have seen from Paul’s letter to the Romans two facts. First that every human being in the world is under the judgement of God. Each person has rebelled against God and rejected his rule and no-one is without excuse. But secondly, as we saw last week, God has not left us in that dilemma, but has provided a rescuer for us to get us out of the situation. And we saw that God’s plan of rescue is through his Son Jesus Christ dying on a cross. On the cross Jesus took the punishment we deserve for our sin against God. But the next question which Paul tackles is how do we receive the benefits of Jesus’ death? Is it just automatic? Is every person in the world now free and forgiven, no longer under God’s judgement? Well the answer is no. Rather the way that we receive God’s gift of rescue is by what Paul calls faith. Actually he’s already told us about it in verse 22 of chapter 3: "This righteousness from God, which means this way of getting right with God and being forgiven, comes through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe." And that is the point of chapter 4 which we’re we are looking at tonight. Paul’s is at pains to show us that it is by faith that we receive all the benefits of Jesus’ death. And nor is this some new fangled way that God has made up now Jesus has come. It’s actually been God’s way all the way through the Bible.

You see I guess many of us are tempted to think that the Bible is made up of two parts. Plan A which is the OT shows how God wanted people to obey his law and that was the way people stayed friends with God. The trouble was that didn’t work and so God had to send Jesus to sort everything out, which is the NT, Plan B. Well Paul will tell us in Romans 4 that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible’s story. Rather, he’ll say, there was one plan all along, that God’s people trusted in God’s promises, which is faith. Abraham was saved by faith in God, so was Moses, so was Elijah, so were all the OT heroes of the faith. It’s always been by faith, never by doing good works. So Romans 4 is about faith. How do we receive the benefits of what Jesus has done? By faith alone. And this chapter will be a huge relief to those who think that in order to get to heaven we need to do lots of good things to impress God. We’ll see that this won’t work. God has done it all. He simply asks us to accept his gift. And we’ll see also that this chapter serves as a wonderful boost to us to keep going in the Christian life, because Paul’s example from the OT, Abraham, is a great example of someone who lived by faith, trusting in the promises of God.


What is faith?

But before we turn to look in detail at this passage, we need to ask ourselves "what is faith?" because there is a lot of confusion about what faith is. Now I guess many of us here will have had a conversation where the other person ends up by saying: "Oh, I greatly admire your faith, but it’s just not for me." Or they may say: "Oh if only I had your faith." But faith today is really a very wishy washy word. This was confirmed to me when I looked in the Oxford English Dictionary. I now no longer recommend this as a starting point for preparing sermons! For a start the entry two above was "fairyland" which didn’t inspire confidence and then when I got to the definition, I read: "Faith: A firm belief, especially without logical proof." And I guess many people think that faith is simply believing something which you know is not true, taking a huge leap from reality and reason, believing something when you are flying in the face of the evidence. It’s like someone saying "I have faith that Anne Widdecombe will be the next Prime Minister", or "I have faith that Hull City will win the FA Cup." But Christian faith is very different. Faith is defined by the person or things you have faith in. So everyone has faith, it’s just what you place your faith in. For some it may be yourself, for others your family or your work. But for the Christian it is God. We could define it like this: "Christian faith is a firm conviction that God is trustworthy." Or to put it another way, faith is believing that what God has said is true. And as we’ll see this is not flying in the face of the evidence- it is basing your life on the sure evidence of God’s promises. So Martin Luther, the sixteenth century Reformer, said: "Faith is a living and unshakeable confidence, a belief in the grace of God so assured that a man would die a thousand deaths for its sake." So faith is our topic tonight from Romans 4. And we’ll look at it under three headings:


1) The Role of Faith (vv 1-8)

2) The People of Faith (vv 9-17)

3) The Life of Faith (vv 18-25)

1) The Role of Faith (vv 1-8)

So first, then, we see the role of faith from verses 1-8. And in these verses Paul shows from the OT two examples of faith. Both were big heroes for the Jews- Abraham was known as the father of the Jews, and David was the best known King. And Paul appeals to them to make his point. First, there is the example of Abraham. Verse 1: "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather discovered in this matter, that is about being justified, or being right with God. If in fact Abraham, was justified by works, he had something to boast about." If, says Paul, Abraham became friends with God and got his ticket to heaven by being good and doing great things, then he’d have every reason to boast about it, wouldn’t he? But that’s not what happened. And Paul takes us back to the OT to find out why. He quotes Genesis 15 v 6: "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness." Now the background to that passage is that God had promised wonderful things to Abraham- many descendants, a land to live in, wonderful blessings from God. Did Abraham earn that promise? Not at all. He simply believed God, in other words he had faith in God and God credited it to him as righteousness, that is he declared Abraham to be friends with God, right with God.

Now the word ‘credited’ is an accounting word. Now if you imagine your bank account, which I realise may be painful for some, then there are two ways of being credited. First is if you work for a living then your account will be credited with your wage at the end of the month. Your employer is under obligation to pay you. But your account could also be credited if someone wishes to give you a gift. It might be the bank, in a fit of rash generosity, or it may be your friend seeing that you need some extra cash. You are not owed that money, it is simply put into your account as a gift. You are credited with that money.

Now consider another sort of account. This account is God’s account of our lives. He has in heaven a huge ledger, or it may well be computerised now. But on one page is an account of Abraham’s life. It could be ours as well. And on one side of the ledger there is a debts column. It is very long, because Abraham was a sinner. And every sin he has committed is counted against him. He owes God a debt he cannot pay. And the penalty is death, permanent separation from God, far worse that what banks do to those in debt. But Paul is telling us that God has done something incredible. He has written on the credit side a word which says ‘righteousness’, right with God. And not only is that so, but on the debts column, under all those sins that Abraham committed, is the word ‘Paid’. How can that be? Has Abraham worked off his debts? Well no. Someone else has paid for them with his life. Someone else has written the cheque with his own blood. And that of course is Jesus Christ. Have a look at verse 5: "To the man, or woman, who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited with righteousness." What’s Paul saying? Is he advocating laziness? No. What he is saying is that none of us can work our way to God. None of us can work off the debt that is in our life’s ledger. But what God offers through the cross of Christ is the possibility that the debt can be written off, and we can be given righteousness, we can be declared right with God again, free, clean, forgiven, not guilty. And how do we get that gift? By faith, by trusting that what God has said he will do he has done. By trusting that the death of Jesus is sufficient to cleanse our sins. Do you believe that? Do you accept that? Then God has credited the account of your life with righteousness. You are right with him. The books are balanced. But you’ve done nothing to earn it. It’s a gift received by faith, trusting the giver.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He also uses David as an example. Paul quotes from King David’s psalm about forgiveness, Psalm 32. Verse 8: "Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not count, or reckon against him." So here again we see the same process at work. God will not count our sins against us. Rather, as David says later on in that Psalm, "I acknowledged my sin to you….and you forgave my guilt…. The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts (i.e. has faith) in you." So from Abraham and David we find two things: First God does not count our sins against us, as he rightly should. And secondly he positively gives us forgiveness and friendship with him, which Paul calls righteousness. And all of that is a free gift received by faith. Can you believe it? Can you believe that God could be so generous? Well believe it. Trust that God is so generous as to wipe away your sin and give you a fresh start. Because that’s the kind of God he is. And it’s received by faith.

Now before we move on, we mustn’t think that because we have faith then God rewards us with righteousness as if it was something we deserved. It’s like receiving a gift. I have just had a birthday and one of the handful of presents I received was a picture from my mother. Now that present was given purely out of grace. I had done nothing special to earn it. It is simply because she loved me that she gave me the gift. All I needed to do is receive it. I cannot boast in the taking of the gift. I simply accept what has been graciously offered to me. And Paul’s point is that there is nothing we can do to earn salvation, nothing to earn God’s mercy. But wonderfully it is on offer. God’s pierced hand holds out to us salvation. All we need to do is to receive it, trusting, having faith, that God’s word is true. When he promises forgiveness, he means it. That’s the role of faith. Not that we have done something great. But that God is a great God to be trusted and his forgiveness is on offer. So Christians don’t trust their faith. Rather they trust the God who has promised to forgive them and rescue them. That’s why it is a misunderstanding to say to a Christian I wish I had your faith. Because you can. By trusting in the same amazing God. By faith in Christ alone. That’s the role of faith.


2) The People of Faith (vv 9-17)

But then secondly Paul shows us the people of faith in verses 9-17. And really Paul’s point in these verses can be summed up by saying that the sort of people that God wants as his own are not determined by any religious markings, but are simply those who have put their faith in him, those who have trusted the promises. Now for the Jews two markers in particular were very important. Circumcision and the law. Surely you needed these two things to be a true Christian, they were arguing. Paul says no. In verses 9-12, he says that righteousness does not come by circumcision. Now circumcision was the mark of being a Jew. It was the marker of being part of the people of God. But Paul says that circumcision was given to Abraham after he was justified by faith, after he was declared right with God. It’s the difference between Genesis 15 and Genesis 17, which is about 15 years, and possibly longer. So God declared Abraham forgiven and righteous fifteen years before he received any religious symbolism. And as it was, verse 11, circumcision was just a sign on the flesh of what God had already done in the heart. So circumcision cannot be the most important thing. Rather justification by faith is the most important thing. And it means that God’s people are not determined by religious acts, but by their faith in God. So Paul says Abraham is our spiritual father. He had faith in the promising keeping God, and so do we.

And nor does righteousness come by obeying the law, verses 13-16, because verse 15, the law brings wrath. Paul tackled this in chapters 1-2. Failure to keep God’s law means we are law breakers and must answer to God for it. None has kept the law, so we’re all under wrath. So there’s no point making obedience to the law the marker for the people of God, because none of us can keep up. Rather the mark of the people of God is that we trust God, having faith in him, and accept his righteousness, his forgiveness and cleansing.

Now you might think that this debate that Paul was having was an old one, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen nowadays. But I tell you that more often than not I meet people who because they have been baptised believe they are Christians solely for that reason. Simply because they have had water sprinkled on them, be it as a baby, or as an adult, they believe they are right with God. But listen to the apostle Paul. No symbol, even if it is given by God, can make us right with God on its own. Don’t confuse the sign with what it represents. It is faith in God’s rescuer Jesus that gets us truly clean. The waters of baptism are an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality. By faith alone, says the apostle, not by circumcision, and not by baptism. Or perhaps you think that by upholding God’s law, by being a good citizen or a noble person you can get into heaven. Don’t be deceived. Paul says here that the law only brings wrath. Each of us fails in its perfect standards. We just cannot achieve it on or own. Only by faith in God’s rescuer. Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to people becoming Christians and seeing what an amazing thing God has done for us in Jesus is that they believe that good is good enough. It’s not. Perfection is good enough. Nothing else will suffice. That’s why we must look to God to provide us with what we need. God’s people are people of faith, people who know that religious symbolism and moral uprightness won’t help a jot. It’s by faith in Christ alone.


3) The Life of Faith (vv 18-25)

But then finally we come to the life of faith and this is Paul’s concern in verses 18-25. Paul shows us how Abraham is a model of someone who took God at his word.

Verse 18: "Against 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.’" God had said to Abraham and Sarah his wife that they would have a child, even though they were both in their nineties. Now can you imagine how that would have gone down at the hospital. Sarah walks in for a check up at the ante natal clinic and the receptionist just takes one look at her and laughs. "I’m sorry madam, I think you need the geriatric unit! Down the corridor, turn left." But what does Paul say? Verse 20: "Abraham did not waver in his faith but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God." The simplicity of this is that Abraham just took God at his word. He believed that God could give life to the dead. He could open a barren womb and give this couple a child. Humanly speaking it was impossible. Divinely speaking it was part of God’s plan. And through that child would come the Saviour who would save many. And that’s the way of faith. It is taking God at his word, it is believing him when he says things.

And it’s the same for us. God has raised his Son Jesus from the dead, and so we too trust in the God who gives life. But of course in this life it is hard. There are struggles, there is mockery, people thinking we’re mad. Do you think your faith is small? Do you think you’re unable to keep walking by faith, trusting the promises of God? How do you think Abraham felt when God gave him this promises about the child? We know that Sarah at least didn’t believe it. And yet God strengthened Abraham’s faith. The question is not how big is your faith, but how great is your God? The God who has kept his promises throughout the centuries is perfectly able to keep you and me walking with him. It’s he who has given us new life in Christ and its he who will keep us going. Make no mistake. God is faithful and he will do it. Take a leaf out Abraham’s and trust in this promise keeping God.

You may have heard of a man called Polycarp who was a Christian martyr in the second century. The story of his final weeks and hours is very moving and what strikes you as you read it is Polycarp’s absolute confidence in his King and Saviour Jesus Christ. When told that if he renounced his faith he would be set free, Polycarp replied: "For eighty six years I have been Jesus’ servant and he has done me no harm. How can I blaspheme my King how saved me?" And as Polycarp was tied to the stake on which he would be burnt, he prayed this prayer: "O Lord God Almighty, … I thank you that you have given me this hour so that I might share with the martyrs with the cup of your Christ looking forward to the resurrection to everlasting life… And may I today be received among them before you, as a rich an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the God who does not lie and is truth has prepared beforehand." It is incredible confidence. But it is not that Polycarp’s faith is amazing, but that he serves an amazing God who kept him strong right up until his dying breath. And that is how God works. He doesn’t ask us to prove ourselves before he takes us on. He knows we are weak and sinful, and he knows we’ll never make it without him. The life of faith is a wonderful adventure in learning to trust God. That’s what Abraham found, that’s what Polycarp found. And it’s what God calls you and I to. Yes we may be weak, but God is strong. And it’s a life of trusting him, a life of faith that is the Christian life.

So that’s faith- everyone’s got it. The question is what is your faith in? Well the Christian has faith in the God who keeps his promises. That is how we are saved by faith alone in the work of Christ. It is how God brings his people together, trusting in the promises of God. And it’s how God keeps us going strengthening us so that we can live by faith walking with him each day. By faith in Christ alone. That’s the message of Romans 4. That’s Paul’s gospel. Is it yours?


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