Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Romans 4.1-5, 13-17, 8 March 2020
As we noted last week, Lent is the time when we are called to reflect on ourselves, our church, and our world. As we reflect upon our world at the moment, we might find ourselves becoming despondent and pessimistic about much of what is going on.
And perhaps our reflection upon ourselves and how we have likely fallen short of God’s righteousness might lead to a deep sense of failure, or even despair.
Verses 1 and 2 of the Psalm for today (Psalm 32) indicates that this should not be so! This psalm tells us that we should be ‘happy’ or feel ‘blessed’. Why? Because, God imputes righteousness to us, or to rephrase according to the Liturgical Psalter in our Prayer Book, blessed are those to whom the Lord imputes no blame.
Now let’s pause here a moment and see if we can define this word ‘righteousness’.
Righteousness is a characteristic of God.
By the term ‘God’s righteousness’, we mean God’s right and just character, actions and judgements – including his right judgement of people and the salvation and mercy that he extends to those who believe and trust in him.
The Ancient Israelites understood that this action by God was part of the promise, or covenant, that God made with Abraham. But they also thought that this promise was only for those who were subject to and obedient to the Law, or for those who were circumcised.
In Romans Chap 3, the Apostle Paul argues that this blessing of God’s righteousness, that is, God’s action in not counting our sin against us, is available to all who believe and trust in God.
It is Paul’s arguments that have led to the doctrine of justification (or salvation) by faith. In Romans 3:22 Paul writes, ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’
Now, when some people learn that they are saved by God through faith, they start to worry, “Do I have enough faith?”, “Is my faith strong enough to save me?” For these people ‘faith’ becomes something that they have to work at, something that requires effort on their part.
Others worry that they are failing in maintaining the level of obedience that they think necessary to demonstrate a required level of faith.
It is people such as these who might feel that they have failed when during their Lenten reflection they recognise that they have fallen short of God’s righteousness. But they’ve missed the point!
In Romans 4, Paul continues his argument that justification (or salvation) is received by faith and not works. There are two lessons that we can learn from the passage, and the first of those is that …
I. It is faith in God, not in ourselves.
The secular world values self-determination, positive thinking, and the concept of the ‘self-made man’. But when we worry whether we have enough faith to be able to achieve salvation, we are misunderstanding the gospel of salvation by faith.
Achieving salvation by faith is not something that we can do through our own efforts. Faith is not something that we have to work at, or something that requires effort on our part. If our Lenten reflection results in a sense that we have failed, or despair over the actions of others who may have contributed towards the failings of the world, then I suggest that we are putting too much faith in ourselves and in our fellow men and women.
It is Jesus who saves us, not our feelings or actions; and he is strong enough to save us no matter how weak our faith is and no matter how much we may fall short of some imagined level of faithfulness.
What is required of us is to believe and trust in God. This is what is meant by putting our faith in God - believing and trusting.
The example of someone who had great faith, that Paul chooses, is Abraham. Referring back to Abraham who first received the promise of God, Paul points out in Rom 4:3 that Scripture says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
The essence of Abraham’s faith was that he believed that God could make the impossible possible. You will remember the situation where God asked him to uproot his family and travel to a distant and unknown land, and promised that Abraham would have as many descendants as the stars in the sky, despite the fact that both Abraham and his wife were very old and well beyond child bearing age.
All of this makes Abraham’s faith much more wonderful. He did not have a Bible to read: he had only the single promise of God. He was almost alone as a believer, surrounded by heathen unbelievers. He could not look back on a long record of faith as we can; in fact, he was the first entry in that record. Yet Abraham believed God - he believed that God could make the impossible possible, trusted God, put his faith in God, and ‘it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ (Rom 4:3, NRSV).
By the way, the NIV bible translates verse 3 as, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ I suggest that translating God’s action here as ‘reckoning’, rather than ‘crediting’ is a much better understanding of Paul’s point – and is also consistent with Psalm 32, verse 2 where the word ‘imputes’ is used.
‘Crediting’, in my view, has a sense of obligation on the part of the giver, and merit or pride attached to it – you receive something because it is owed to you, or you deserve it.
‘Imputes’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, ‘regard something… as possessed by’, or ‘ascribe to a person by virtue of a similar quality in another’ – in this case God’s quality of righteousness is seen by God as being possessed by the Christian.
The difference here lies at the heart of the point that Paul goes on to make in verses 4-6 as he argues that Abraham was justified, not by works, but by faith.
Paul would have us understand that the righteousness that God reckons, or imputes, to those who trust in him is a free gift provided to those who otherwise have all sinned and do not deserve to receive it. There was no obligation on God’s part to offer salvation to we who have sinned. And it is not something that we earn through maintaining a certain level of faith.
If it had been about us maintaining a certain level of faith, then that would have required effort, or work, on our part. And the resulting righteousness would then be something that had been earned, something that one could feel pride in having achieved, and something that the person could boast about. There’s a word for this, isn’t there … it’s called being ‘self-righteous’. And I’m sure you have met some self-righteous people.
To think that the unrighteous can establish their own righteousness before God by maintain some level of faith is totally contrary to the Gospels which indicate that it’s not what we have done, but what God has done through Jesus, that provides salvation.
So, this leads to the second lesson that we can learn from the Romans 4 passage and that is that …
II. It is salvation by grace, not by obedience.
Paul commences this passage with the question, ‘What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, …?’ And responding to his own question, Paul then argues that Abraham was not ‘justified by works’.
The question in his readers’ minds would have been, “If salvation is by faith, then what about the law?” The teachers of the Old Testament Law had led them to believe that it was by obeying God’s law that people became beneficiaries of the covenant that God had made with Abraham. And this included the requirement for males to be circumcised.
Paul answers this question by pointing out that Abraham's faith and salvation took place before he was circumcised! He had been declared righteous fourteen years before he was circumcised according to the NIV study notes. And it was Abraham’s circumcision that introduced this Jewish practice.
Likewise, the Law was not given until some 430 years later when Moses came on the scene; so how could Abraham have been saved by the Law? And Paul also argues that, to say that obedience to the law was necessary for justification would be to say that the introduction of the law cancelled out the covenant previously established by God – which is not what we read in the rest of the Bible.
Today, we understand that circumcision was merely an outward sign of a spiritual relationship - just as baptism is today. No physical ceremony can produce spiritual changes; yet the Jews of Paul's day (like many ‘religious’ people today) trusted in the ceremonies - the outward signs - and ignored the saving faith that was required of them.
This is not to say that we should not have any ceremonies and rituals. They do have value in that they serve as a reminder of our faith, and they instruct new and younger believers. But we should not think that they give us any merit with God. They are outward signs and seals that demonstrate inward belief and trust.
And of course, we do accept that as Christians we are to endeavour to live a life that is consistent with the righteousness that God imputes to us. But, again, we must never lose sight of why we do this. It is not for the sake of some heavenly reward or to avoid some ultimate punishment but out of gratitude to God, in whom we believe and place our trust.
Paul concludes in v.16 that justification comes by grace, through faith; which means that all people, Jews and Gentiles, can be saved!
Justification is not by works, circumcision, or by the law. Abraham simply believed and trusted God and was justified.
So friends, this Lent, as you answer the call to reflect upon your life as a Christian, I encourage you not to fall into a sense of failure, or despair as you recognise how much you (or others) have fallen short of God’s righteousness.
God graciously offers us salvation as a gift because he loves us, not because we have earned it through our powerful faith or obedience to the law.
As the Rev William Barclay said back in the early 1900s, ‘It is the supreme discovery of the Christian life that we do not need to torture ourselves with a losing battle to earn God’s love, but rather need to accept in perfect trust the love which God offers to us. True, after that, we are bound under the life-long obligation to show ourselves worthy of that love. But we are no longer in the position of the criminal seeking to obey an impossible law; we are, through love, able to offer all that we are to one who loved us when we did not deserve it.’(Barclay)
Rev William Barclay, The Message of Romans, p.78