“What then can we say that Abraham, our physical ancestor, has found? If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to brag about — but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness. Now to the one who works, pay is not considered as a gift, but as something owed. But to the one who does not work, but believes on Him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness. Likewise, David also speaks of the blessing of the man God credits righteousness to apart from works: How joyful are those whose lawless acts are forgiven and whose sins are covered! How joyful is the man the Lord will never charge with sin!” (Romans 4:1-8 HCSB https://www.bible.com/72/rom.4.1-8.hcsb)
My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.
Have you ever approached anything that way? I’m sure we all have, though we might be reluctant to admit it. It is easy to get into the mindset that you already know the answer about an issue and you close your mind to any other possibilities. But as I’ve pointed out before, we are prone to errors, mistakes, misunderstandings and sin and these things can easily slip into our thinking about God, scripture and even our relationship with God. We are all impacted by our past, our presuppositions and assumptions about God and even about ourselves. That’s not to say we can’t discover the truth, just a realization that it can be elusive and not easily identifiable or, at least, distinguishable from the noise of our past. Please, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting truth is necessarily relative or only personal but I am suggesting that our understanding and perception of the truth is often clouded by our history and assumptions.
For example, I’ve often shared personal anecdotes and stories on these posts about my life, my family, and my experiences. I’ve also mentioned that my brothers often read these words or listen to my Facebook live-streams of my sermons and I have little doubt that though they probably agree with my general perception of our childhood, but they probably remember some things a bit different from how I remember those same events. Our personal bias, assumptions, history and beliefs all impact our view of life and how we respond or react to events and people around us.
In a very real sense, that is the issue Paul is addressing in Romans. Up to this point, Paul has been establishing a baseline of man’s inherent sinfulness and universal failure at godliness and he didn’t limit that to the Gentiles but included his fellow Jews in his assessment. Now, he moves into the practical application of that status and gives two classic examples for his Jewish readers to consider, Abraham and David. If you’re going to give examples that might sway the opinion of a good, religiously orthodox Jew then you can’t select better examples. Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation and religious faith and David is their greatest and most beloved King.
What did Abraham find? He found that bragging would be unwise, especially before God. Bragging? Unwise? (I can tell you, as a father and grandfather it just seems to come naturally. Not about myself, but about my kids and grandkids – so I guess it is a little about me, they got all of their brains from me and all of their good looks from their mother.) But Paul is not referencing Abraham’s tendencies to brag about his son or family, but the tendency to brag about personal piety and righteousness. If Abraham were to brag about his personal piety and righteousness, he would be silenced before God. Stop for a second and let that thought sink in. Abraham. THE man upon whom three of the worlds major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) trace their religious heritage through and base much of their religious beliefs upon. He’s called the “father of faith” for a reason, but he would be silenced before God regarding his personal piety and righteousness. Why? Because his personal piety and righteousness are not based upon his moral goodness and obedience to the law. Abraham believed God and God’s word/promises. THAT trust, faith or belief in God was the basis for God to “credit” righteousness to him.
“Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then He said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.” Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:4-6 HCSB https://www.bible.com/72/gen.15.4-6.hcsb)
Now, pay close attention to this. God didn’t “reward” Abraham for his righteous obedience, He “credited” Abraham with righteousness because of his faith. Paul didn’t make this idea up to fit his theology, he quoted Genesis 15:6 directly from the Greek Old Testament. That quote comes from the story of when Abraham is visited by the Lord and is told that he would be the father of many nations and then the Lord sealed the deal by enacting a covenant sign with him. Abraham believed the Lord’s promise to him and God counted that (or credited it to his account) as righteousness. In fact, Paul makes a point that Abraham didn’t deserve to be called righteous any more than we deserve to be called righteous. We’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, including Abraham. Just go back a few verses (to Rom. 3:23) for clarification, if needed.
Abraham had no basis upon which to brag. His bragging would be silenced before God by the humility of a guilty conscience and the memory of his spectacular failures. If you wonder what failures I reference, let me simply remind you of the most glaring… the name God instructed him to give to his son – Isaac – which translates as “he laughs.” Ouch. After years of living without seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise that Abraham would have an heir, he and Sarah took matters into their own hands. Sarah’s slave girl bore him a son, an heir, whom he named Ishmael – “God hears.” But God said, “I have heard you but Ishmael is not the fulfillment of My promise. Sarah will bear you a son,” and Abraham laughed. But God delivered on that promise and then told Abraham to name him “Isaac – he laughs.” A gentle but daily reminder to Abraham, don’t laugh at my promises – trust ME. So you see, Abraham had no ability to stand before God and brag about his righteousness. Neither do we…
However, God credited righteousness to Abraham because of his faith. What exactly does that phrase mean? Credited him as righteous. It means that Abraham was NOT inherently good and righteous of his own accord. But it also means that Abraham was NOT righteous because of his faith. Wait? I thought you just said he WAS righteous because of his faith? Nope, go back and read that statement. God CREDITED righteousness to Abraham because of his faith. That doesn’t mean he was righteous, it means he was given credit for someone else’s righteousness because he had faith in God’s word and the fulfillment of His promises. That’s just semantics. It means the same thing. No, not really. In fact, Paul goes on to address that very question…
Paul says that if Abraham had worked and deserved it then God was obligated to honor Abraham’s righteousness as wages earned. Instead, Paul says that when God declares the ungodly to be righteous it is a gift of God’s grace and not something that’s earned. Did you catch that? When God declares the ungodly to be righteous then his faith is credited to him as righteousness and cannot be earned. In fact, God would be unjust if He simply forgave someone or declared them righteous and that’s not what happens. God doesn’t just say, “That’s ok, no big deal. All is forgiven.” To ignore sin is to be unjust, and even unloving. Unjust? Unloving? We live in a culture in which we tend to view our personal failures as insignificant, irrelevant or no big deal. I call it the “So what?” response. “Do you know what you just did? Who, me? So what? Who cares? No big deal!” But, our actions have a ripple effect and we’re living in the midst of a huge ripple.
If we fail to appreciate the moral problem involved in Gods forgiving grace, ‘it may be because we have not yet considered how serious a thing is sin.’ (Anselm to Boso in Cur Deus Homo)
As an example, when a deep ocean earthquake occurs the most dangerous result is not from the actual earthquake itself but is from the effect that quake has on the surrounding ocean and the tsunami that may result. We’ve seen this happen several times and the most recent example was the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. The earthquake was centered about 40 miles east of Japan and 18 miles deep, but the resulting tsunami had waves that reached 133 feet high, traveling at speeds up to 435 mph and reached 6 miles inland. The greatest impact of this tsunami was the nuclear reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Powerplant. The full effect of that tsunami and resulting nuclear accident have yet to be seen or measured.
I believe the same can be said of sin. The initial consequences might be unseen, but the power and force of those actions will come to the surface and begin to have unexpected results and far reaching devastation. One such example is the breakdown of marriage in our modern culture. Some see access to an easy divorce as a needed and necessary freedom. I see it as a devastating blow to the basic fabric of society, the family. In fact, a headline I saw for an article gave me cause to pause and lament the state of marriage and family in modern culture. The headline? “What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?” In the article, the author tells the story of one young woman who informed her boyfriend that he was not her “No. 1” and never would be. She stated, that position belonged to her best friend. The author goes on to suggest that this might be a better model for our “significant relationships” than marriage. To me, it is very revealing as to the state of marriage in our culture and one reason marriages are languishing and many young people are reluctant to marry.
Back to our passage, Abraham was “credited” with righteousness because of his faith. The word suggests a transaction in which God changes Abraham’s account from being in a deficit status to being in a positive status. Abraham was guilty of sin, he had not earned righteousness but God “marks down” that he is righteous. Now, anyone who has ever properly balanced their checkbook with their bank statement knows that your deposits must be equal to or greater than your expenses for you to remain in good standing with your bank. In accounting terms, balance equals credits minus debits. For Abraham to receive credit for righteousness, someone must be able to provide a sufficient balance of righteousness. Paul says that our “work” can’t do this simply because it is insufficient – not enough credits to overcome the debits. Our only option, putting our trust in someone who can provide sufficient credit to overcome our negative balance.
“Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You took away the guilt of my sin. Selah” (Psalms 32:5 HCSB https://www.bible.com/72/psa.32.5.hcsb)
Paul’s next example is King David and he quotes Psalms 32:1-2. While I could spend time breaking down Paul’s quote of David’s Psalm, the result would be the same – we need grace from God because of our sin. Instead, I want to end with a brief review of how UNBELIEVABLE this is. Paul has taken great pains to establish our universal guilt, nobody is exempted. All have sinned, all guilty, all fallen short… but he’s not finished. He has also gone back and pulled in the great examples of Abraham and King David and shows how they were also guilty, but aware of and submissive to God’s plan of redemption – by faith. Yes, our Old Testament patriarchs were well aware of the need for God’s grace and forgiveness upon their sin. They recognized their own sinfulness and inability to “earn” forgiveness, so they trusted God’s goodness and had faith in His desire to redeem and use them for His purposes.
God, who created the universe by His Word, knelt down in the dirt and formed man with His hands and then breathed into him life. God got His hands dirty with the creation of mankind because of His love and desire for relationship with us. But here’s the really unbelievable part, He did it knowing full well that we would rebel and He would have to sacrifice Himself to redeem us and provide our righteousness. How did Abraham and David learn and know of these things before the coming of Christ? They were able to see past their biases, push aside their assumptions because of their desire for an intimate relationship with God. They longed to know Him deeply and God responded to their longing and in the process they discovered His love, grace and forgiveness. David describes this well in his song, Psalms 32.
“How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How joyful is the man the Lord does not charge with sin and in whose spirit is no deceit! When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat – Selah. Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You took away the guilt of my sin – Selah. Therefore let everyone who is faithful pray to You at a time that You may be found. When great floodwaters come, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; You protect me from trouble. You surround me with joyful shouts of deliverance – Selah. (Then God responds:) ‘I will instruct you and show you the way to go; with My eye on you, I will give counsel. Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding, that must be controlled with bit and bridle or else it will not come near you.’ Many pains come to the wicked, but the one who trusts in the Lord will have faithful love surrounding him. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones; shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” (Psalms 32:1-11 HCSB https://www.bible.com/72/psa.32.1-11.hcsb)
Unbelievable! God longs for the same relationship with you and with me. Do not be like the horse or mule, without understanding and unwilling to come near God unless forced. The one who trusts (has faith) in the Lord will have faithful love surrounding him!
Let me end with a word of encouragement. When you trust the Lord and really seek to know Him and His will through His Word, you will discover more and more ways in which you fail to obey and honor Him. As you draw closer and become more familiar with Him, His righteousness will begin to reveal those areas of sin that you have covered up, forgotten or grown comfortable with in your life. As this happens, you will understand David’s words more and more and become even more amazed by His grace and love. You won’t find peace by hiding from Him, only by running to Him. It can be tempting to turn away because facing your sin and owning your failures is hard but forgiveness and joy are just around the bend, don’t quit. Mark that Psalm and go back to it, again and again. Read it, pray it, memorize it, meditate on it, and TRUST Him!