Romans – Digging Deep: Faith Alone

Faith Alone
Romans 4:1-12


In his novel The Testament, John Grisham paints a picture of one man’s surrender to God. Nate O’Reilly is a disgraced corporate attorney plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse. After two marriages, four detox programs, and a serious bout with dengue fever, Nate acknowledges his need for God. Grisham describes the transformation this way:


With both hands, he clenched the back of the pew in front of him. He repeated the list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough burdens to crush any three men, and when he finally finished Nate had tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to God. “Please, help me.”


As quickly as the fever had left his body, he felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean. He breathed a massive sigh of relief, but his pulse was racing.[i]


What an incredible description of a dead soul finding new life in Christ. To think that a terrible human being, rotten to the core, rightfully and justly sentenced to death by a holy God can go from an eternal death sentence to a brand new life in an instant. It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. It’s the amazing grace that we love to sing about. I can’t earn it. I don’t deserve it. Paul is clear about that. No matter how good I am, and sometimes I am pretty good, not Becky good but I can be pretty good, I am still sinful enough to stand condemned. We all are.  But I CAN receive it. And that’s incredible. That’s amazing.


So how do I receive this gift? Is it by saying a prayer with all the right words in it? A sinner’s prayer … “Thank you … I’m sorry … please.” Many do enter into this new life by praying a prayer. But many pray all the right words without really meaning them and don’t. And many enter into their new life in Christ without praying a specific prayer. So how DO I receive this gift? I can’t DO anything to get it. Paul gives a very simple answer – faith.


So what is faith? It’s believing the right things, right? It’s knowing all of the right stuff about God. Believing all the right doctrines. Well, kind of. Faith involves the mind – it includes knowing the truth, but remember, Jesus describes HIMSELF as The Truth, as ultimate reality. Faith is more than just an intellectual thing.


Faith is not doubting, right pastor? It’s just knowing with every fiber of my being that God can and will do something. It’s not thinking any negative thoughts ever. Only positive ones. Nope. That’s not faith. That’s just positive thinking. Or worse, magical thinking. If I have even one teeny tiny little pin prick of doubt, I won’t receive. Sadly, a lot of Christians have this view of faith. It really shows up when we’re praying for someone to be healed. If I have any doubt that God will heal me at all, I won’t be healed. That assumes that if I have absolutely no doubt at all, I will be healed. There’s a huge problem with this kind of thinking, and believe me, it’s prevalent in the church. It’s everywhere. If this is my view of what faith is, who is responsible for my healing, for answered prayer? Not God! Me! And God becomes a genie in a bottle who has to grant my wish if I ask in the right way, under the right conditions. Who’s in control? I am. Viewing faith in this way is really just masked salvation, or healing, by works. If I do everything right, God HAS to heal me.


In Romans 4, Paul gets to the core of what faith is, what faith looks like, and what happens when we place our faith in Christ. We’re going to spend the next two weeks in Romans 4. Today we’re looking at Romans 4:1-12. Let’s start by looking at Vv. 1-5.


Sometimes we read the stories of these giants of the faith, people like St. Paul, or St. Peter, or Moses, or Noah, and we’re both amazed and intimidated. Amazed because of the incredible things God did in and through these obviously flawed people. But also intimidated because we just don’t think that God could do anything like that in us. Well, at the top of the list of amazing and intimidating characters in the Bible is a man named Abraham. This guy’s life was amazing and miraculous. Just incredible. And it is to Abraham that Paul turns to make some important points about faith. Abraham is kind of synonymous with faith in the Bible. I mean, two major sections of Hebrews 11, the Bible’s “Hall of Faith” so to speak, are about Abraham and his wife Sarah.


So I want to go all the way back to the beginning of Abraham’s story, because I think there are some assumptions we make about Abraham that aren’t true. Abraham, who would be the father of the people of Israel, first appears in the Bible as Abram. Abram means “exalted father.” God changed his name to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude,” later. And Abram first appears at the end of Genesis 11. “Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.”


But what I want you to pay close attention to is the very next verse. So far we’ve gotten a brief snapshot of Abram’s heritage and where he was living. That’s about it. But we so often assume that God found in Abram a worthy, deserving individual upon which to build his people. We make all of these assumptions about what Abram was like before God called him, that he was a good, upright, God-fearing man of great faith. But that isn’t the picture the Bible paints of Abram. In fact, the Bible doesn’t paint much of a picture of Abram at all before God called him. We know that he was descended from Noah through Seth, that he had a wife named Sarai who couldn’t get pregnant, and that Abram’s father had planned to move the whole family to the land of Canaan, but they stopped in Haran instead and set up shop there. No mention of anything at all about Abram’s character, or even his actions. Nothing about his being a worshipper of Yahweh. In fact, it’s likely that he worshipped the false gods of his people, the gods of the Chaldeans, since he was Chaldean.


But here’s the very next verse: Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” What evidence does the Bible give that Abram deserved any of this? None. Absolutely none. We’ve always made this a story about Abraham, when it’s really the story of God. Who is the initiator here? God. And from the start, God chooses someone for whom there is absolutely no evidence of worthiness. Abram’s call had nothing to do with Abram. It was grace, and it was all about God. This isn’t Abram’s story. It’s God’s story.


Look at Romans 4:4. Salvation, grace, isn’t God’s reward, God’s payment for good behavior. Wages are owed to a worker who performs well, based on an agreement between an employer and an employee. Grace isn’t owed. Grace is a freely offered gift. God doesn’t owe us anything. But God offers us everything.


Fast forward a few chapters in Genesis and you’ll find Abram, having done exactly what God had already asked him to do, doing a very godly thing – complaining. God, you said you make of me a great nation. But I’m getting older. And Sarai is getting older. And she still can’t get pregnant. Believe me, I’ve tried.” This time, God gets a little more specific in his promise. “Your offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky.” And then the verse that St. Paul quotes in Romans 4: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”


Not just an intellectual exercise. Not positive or magical thinking. “Abraham believed God …” In other words, he trusted God. That means he based his life on God’s promise to him. He lived as if the promise were true, because it was, even though it hadn’t come to fruition yet. He still had no heir. Genesis 12:4 describes Abram’s faith in this way, when God first called him, telling him to go to Canaan: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him.” Belief that acts. Belief that trusts. The head believes; the heart trusts; the will acts; and the body goes somewhere. That’s faith. To have faith in Christ is to place your trust in him, in what he has done, in what God has promised us in Christ, even as we walk through this broken world.


Now I need to be clear here. Grace and salvation are not God’s reward for faith. That’s still salvation by works. Faith is simply the conduit by which God brings salvation to us, allows us to enter our new life in Christ. Faith is our relationship of trust with God through Christ. My faith isn’t anything. But the one in whom I place my faith is everything. My faith, in and of itself, has no value. But when it is placed in the faithful one, when my trust is placed in the one who is trustworthy, I find life, beginning here and now and stretching on into eternity.


My faith in the one who calls me and offers me life even though I don’t deserve it is the conduit by which I actively receive that new life. I believe, and act as if, God makes good on His promise, because he does. He is true. He is trustworthy. He is faithful. My faith is the conduit through which God pronounces me, who happens to be very guilty, as not guilty.


There’s a word that shows up 8 times in these 12 verses. In the ESV, which I preach from, it’s translated as “counted to.” It’s an accounting word that has to do with making a deposit in someone’s account. And what is “counted to” those who place their faith in Christ? Righteousness. Now, we are talking about righteousness as a position, a status, not an existing condition. It is my legal status before God, not necessarily my character. It means I am proclaimed “not guilty” by a righteous judge. It has nothing to do with my character at this time. The transformation of my character by the Holy Spirit does happen over time. But the declaration “righteous,” not guilty, happens in an instant. It means I am considered righteous because of Christ, even though in this world, I am not. Justification by faith. Declared not guilty, even though I am, by faith in the Faithful One.


Now look at Romans 4:6-8. Paul switches from Abraham to another well-known Jewish ancestor, King David. Outside of the powerful story of David and Goliath, the most well-known event in David’s life is probably his incredibly dark failure with Bathsheba. And Paul quotes from one of David’s psalms, Psalm 32, in which he praises God for his undeserved forgiveness offered to those who repent. A forgiveness that David knew well as he experienced it over and over again as he continued to fail and fall into sin even as he tried to walk faithfully with the Lord. The worst thing a person can do in a marriage is have an affair, and the worst thing one person can do to another is to murder them, and David did both and he drew Bathsheba in too. But David also knew full well that his sin could not cancel God’s action. Our sin cannot cancel God’s forgiving love. God’s grace wins. Did God just ignore David’s sin? Absolutely not! Because of his sin with Bathsheba and his failures as a parent David was for a time run right out of the city as he abdicated, and then later re-won his throne. Sin cannot cancel God’s grace. But sin does have its consequences. The criminal can find grace, but he may also serve his prison sentence.


So how does this lustful, scheming, conniving, adulterous murderer become known as someone “after God’s own heart” in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, before he had even become king, and in the New Testament long after he had died and his actions, both good and evil, had been recorded for all to read. Because David repented. When he realized what he had done, when it really sank in what he had done with God’s grace, his heart broke, and he repented. He turned away from his sin.


I cannot earn God’s offer to count Christ’s righteousness to my account, no matter how hard I try. And having received that gift of grace, sin cannot cancel it in my life. But now, to bring his point home, Paul returns to Abraham’s example. Look at Vv. 9-12. The circumcision of men became the symbol by which people’s trust in God was made visible. It was intended to be an outward sign of an inner, heart-based reality, much like our sacraments of baptism and holy communion. But over time, as is so often the case, the religious observance, the outward sign, became more important than the inward reality, until the outward sign replaced it and there was no more inner reality at all. If you were circumcised, you were good. They had forgotten that all the way back in Deuteronomy, the people had been told “Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers (beginning with Abraham, not because they deserved it, but because they didn’t) and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (10:15-16). That circumcision men and women can both do, because it is an inner condition, an inner submitting of the will to God, of which the outward sign in men was just that, a sign. Just as sin cannot cancel God’s loving offer of grace, so no religious observance, even those commanded by God (circumcision and the sacrifices in the Old Testament, baptism and communion in the New) can guarantee God’s grace. Baptism and communion are essential to a living faith. They are also outward signs, reminders of an inner grace.


I cannot control God’s grace in any way. My salvation is, from beginning to end, the undeserved gift of a just and loving God. It is HIS story. Not mine. It is HIS work. Not mine. And HE is in control, not me. Nothing I do can earn it. Nothing I do can destroy it. That is what it means to be justified freely by faith. Let us pray.


[i] John Grisham, The Testament (Random House, 1999), p. 374