Preached by Pastor Jeff Owens at Cornerstone Church in Cascade on December 17, 2017
In the Apostles Paul’s letter to the Romans so far, we have spent a few months in Romans Chapters 1-3, and several weeks in chapter 3 alone. Paul is systematically breaking down the Gospel and making clear that all are guilty both Jew and Gentile. Paul begins to summarize this argument by using the Old Testament citing Psalm 14:1-3 in our previous memory verses from Romans 3:10-12 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
Romans is full of such deep and clear Gospel truth that not only convicts us and changes hearts - it helps us understand who God is, who we are and what God has done for those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I hope you are practicing the memory verses we have highlighted from Romans at home and here at church. Many of the kids in my Wednesday and Sunday classes have been practicing and some have most of these verses memorized. But as I tell them, the purpose is not just to memorize, but to store them up in your heart to strengthen, to encourage, and to share with those who do not know Jesus Christ.
The last three weeks we have been focused on what many have described as the greatest paragraph in the bible. We have seen Paul begin to unpack that God, the Father, put forward Jesus Christ as the propitiation or payment that satisfies God’s wrath because of the blood of Jesus Christ that is received by Faith. Last week we saw how God is both the Just and the Justifier. Only God himself could do what sinful humanity could never do.
Last week we ended chapter 3. The last paragraph of Romans 3 starts with a series of questions that we will see Paul continue this style of writing through our text today. Paul seems to be taking the approach of the objections that a Jew and/or Gentile might have to this idea of faith alone and does it in the form of questions that they might have. Paul would be familiar with these type of questions, because he has probably dealt them with them time and again, whether Jews or Gentiles that he has encountered in his various journeys.
While Paul has already answered some of these questions in a general sense in the first three chapters of Romans and really summed them all up in that greatest paragraph in Romans 3:21-26 that we spent 3 weeks on. Next Paul begins to break it down using questions at the end of Romans 3 that might be going through the readers mind so that he can begin to make it more real by way of example. Here he begins his defense of salvation by faith alone.
In chapter 4 of Romans, Paul is about to reach back 2,000 years to give the example of faith alone that saves, that will help give Paul’s audience then and now see the answers to these questions he is posing by a concrete example that this plan of salvation has always been God’s plan. Paul helps us see the answers to these questions by the example of Abraham starting in chapter 4 today.
Will the congregation please stand and follow along as I read God’s Word.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
The title for my sermon today is Abraham, the father of all who believe. Paul is going to be expanding on justification by faith that he started in chapter 3 of Romans and will continue in chapter’s 4 and 5. Really, he has begun to unpack our 2nd memory verse from a couple months ago, Romans 1:17 For in it (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Paul has dealt with the law and its righteous demands that no one stands innocent under the law, there are no good works we can offer to God that can save ourselves. The Gospel, the good news, is that God has done everything that God’s law and God’s justice requires in Jesus Christ, and that faith alone in Jesus saves. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
But 500 years prior to Moses and the giving of the law there was Abraham. If Paul is going to explain that God’s plan for salvation has always been faith in Jesus Christ then he is going to have to go to the heart of what it means to be a Jew, to be a descendant of Abraham.
Here in chapter 4 Paul introduces Abraham into the argument for faith alone. But before we get into the argument it would be helpful for us to look at Abraham. Who is Abraham? And why does Paul, led by the Spirit, see the importance of introducing Abraham into the argument for faith alone?
For a Jew, Abraham, which means “father of a multitude”, is the physical father of the Jewish people. But before he was called Abraham, his name was Abram, which in Jewish tradition means “exalted father”. The story of Abram begins in Genesis at the end chapter 11, where we learn that his father is - Terah, and also that they came from Ur of the Chaldeans and that Sarai, Abram’s wife was barren and she had no children.
God first speaks to Abram in Genesis 12:1-2 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. 2And 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. Here we see God’s calling on Abraham’s life to leave his family and homeland and the book of Joshua gives us further information about the practice of serving false gods that Abraham’s family practiced before the one true God called him out of his homeland Joshua 24:2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods.
Abraham’s story is the beginning of the story of God’s chosen people of the Old Testament. Abraham’s life is told in 15 chapters of the book of Genesis ending in chapter 25 covering almost 1/3 of the book of Genesis. Abraham was indeed blessed when God fulfilled the promise to provide him a son by his wife Sarah, despite Sarah and Abraham trying to take matters into their own hands with Sarah’s servant Hagar, who bore Abraham a son named Ismael.
Although Abraham sojourned in the land God promised him he would only own the grave where he would bury his wife Sarah. God would indeed make Abraham’s name great.
Today three great religions of the world claim Abraham as their father:
1) Jews through Isaac the son of the promise by Sarah, and Isaac’s son Jacob who was the father of 12 tribes of Israel.
2) Muslims, also claim Abraham as their father though Ishmael by Sarah’s servant Hagar and Easu, Jacob’s brother.
3) Christians who by faith in Jesus are blessed as spiritual descendants of Abraham as Paul makes his case in our text today.
To a Jew, being a child of Abraham had become a symbol of pride and entitlement. As descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people had become falsely secure in their salvation because of their physical birth as a child of Abraham, a member of God’s chosen people.
We see this throughout the history of Israel. In fact, just before Jesus begins his public ministry, when the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to see John the Baptist, whose baptism was of repentance, John warned them and said in Matt 3:9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. In John’s warning to the religious leaders of Israel, he was telling them that their confidence in being a physical descendant of Abraham by birth was misplaced.
For the audience that Paul was writing to in Rome we know that it is made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians and Paul has gone to great lengths to explain that they are on equal footing in regards to their sin, but now he wants to make sure they have a right understanding of salvation.
If God’s plan for salvation by faith has always been the plan, then Paul is going to have to reach back to make the argument that Abraham was not justified by works, prior to the law being given by Moses, then he will be making an argument most Jews had either never heard or more likely had lost sight of in their zeal towards their Jewish identity and seeing themselves as having some special exemption to this idea of faith alone.
So where does Paul start with this argument? With posing an idea in our text for today in verse 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. Now here he could have said because Abraham was a sinner like everyone else, a fact that he has well established in Romans 3, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that includes Abraham. Jewish teaching, today and even in Paul’s time, taught that Abraham was justified by his works though. Some go as far to say Abraham anticipated the law being given and lived a righteous life deserving of God’s favor.
But in the Old Testament we see clearly from Joshua 24:2, that Abraham and his father Terah and their family were idol worshipers from Ur, their homeland. They, like the rest of humanity were sinners and Abraham could not boast before God of anything that he has done to save himself, before or after he believed.
But Paul doesn’t use Joshua’s description of Abraham to make the point, in verse 3 he goes right to the Covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis, he wants them to see the truth that has been the basis for the Covenant and been written by Moses for all to see. Paul begins teaching what Genesis 15:6 actually says when God makes his Covenant with Abram.
Let’s turn to Genesis chapter 15 starting with verse 1 through 6 to help us remember God’s covenant with Abram. Genesis 15:1-6 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Since calling Abraham out of his home, God has blessed him in many ways. But Abraham still has no offspring, no heir, no son. But God brought him outside and showed him what that blessing would look like for him. God showed Abraham what he would do for him. Then in Genesis 15:6 - the whole point Paul wants his readers to see - Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15:6 is the first use of the word believed in the bible. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was not justified before God by works of his own flesh, but by faith in God and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Now some may say sure he had faith in God, but how does Abraham have faith in Jesus Christ and his righteousness? Jesus tells us in John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” And the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Abraham looked forward to what God would do in Jesus, just as we who believe today, look back on what God did in Jesus.
Back to Romans 4. Now to leave no definition lacking, Paul by the power of the Spirit, is going to make sure to put - faith counted to him as righteousness - into more practical terms so there is no misunderstanding what this means. Another term that is used to describe this, is the word imputed, probably not a word most of us use very often. I am sure these first century Christians appreciated Paul’s simple logical explanation as much as I do.
Paul uses a practical example to explain this faith, counted as righteousness. Paul is comparing one who works and the wages or payment that is due him with one who does not work and is given a gift.
Let’s take the first example. Everyone here understands the concept of working for wages or payment. But when we try to apply this to our salvation there is nothing ungodly people, which is everyone – including Abraham, can do to save ourselves. There are no works of the flesh, that we can do that would make God, who is perfectly holy to be in our debt, because the works of our flesh are always marred by sin. In other words, there is nothing the ungodly can do to obligate a perfectly holy God to do, period.
If you think of it as counting in math, everything we do in the flesh will always have a negative sign in front of it. In fact, all we are left with is a debt that we have no way of paying. Everything we do keeps making a larger negative number, the debt just keeps getting bigger and bigger. No matter what we do we can’t turn our negative numbers positive - or gain righteousness of our own doing.
Now let’s look at the second example, the one who does not work, but instead believes. Paul qualifies the belief here – as the one who believes in him who justifies the ungodly. Pastor Phil preached on this last week, that God is both the Just and the Justifier, for those who believe in Jesus Christ and his righteousness.
If we look at this with math again, Jesus lived the perfect life – having never sinned. He submitted perfectly to the Father’s will and plan and this was to show the righteousness of God. Christ has only positives or righteousness, no negatives or sin in the math analogy.
For the ungodly, who do not work for their salvation, but believe in what Jesus has done, they are justified by faith receiving the free gift of Christ’s righteousness.
Now Paul has brought Abraham into this argument for faith alone, but now in the middle of this argument he introduces King David, you might wonder why? But if you are a 1st Century Jewish Christian and are having trouble understanding - Paul knows he needs to make the case complete - and who better to add to the case than David.
Here Paul takes us to Psalm 32:1-2 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Now you might ask why Psalm 32 though? It doesn’t even use the word righteousness. But, Paul wants them to see the connection with the not counting as it pertains to iniquity, or sin, in Psalm 32. This is important for the Jew to understand that the blessing here that David speaks of, while it does not use the word righteousness, it tells us that David understood the blessing, of God not counting our sins against us, even though we fully deserve to have the counted. This displays God’s mercy in not counting our sins, even though we have sinned and deserve hell. All those negatives of our works, by the flesh.
Paul is drawing his audience of Jewish and Gentile readers into Old Testament Scripture to explain what Justification means, in God not counting our sins against us, for those who believe that Jesus Christ made the payment with his blood our sins our forgiven. Justification by faith is not counting our sin against us and the counting of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ to us.
For God to be just, our sin has to be paid for, and it is, by the blood of Jesus Christ whom God put forward as the propitiation to make the payment to satisfy God’s wrath – for all who believe.
Now Paul wants to bring in another part of the Covenant with Abraham to make this point about faith. He poses another question to help us get the point in verse 9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.
Here Paul introduces circumcision into his argument for faith. By pointing out if we agree that the scripture says Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness – then, is faith for the circumcised Jew and also the uncircumcised Gentile?
To see the answer in scripture Paul reminds them that the counting of the faith as righteousness was not when Abraham was circumcised. It was when Abraham was uncircumcised in Genesis 15:6, which we already read. Now just like some of Paul’s early audience in Rome, you might be not remember the timeline of the Covenant in Genesis 15, but God commands Abraham some 14 years later in Genesis 17 to be circumcised, he and every male who is eight days old. Circumcision was to be a sign and a seal of the Covenant and of what God has done in the heart of the believer. The circumcision of the heart spoken of in Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
Paul has just used Scripture to point out the obvious - Abraham was saved by faith long before he was circumcised in the flesh. So Abraham’s circumcision was not a condition of his justification, it was a result of his faith. This was to show that Abraham is the father of all who believe.
Many Jewish Christians in Rome may have been thinking that they still had some special privilege or status because of their Jewish heritage. But Paul wants them to see that they are on equal footing, in regards to sin, and no footing to stand before a holy God except faith, whether Jew or Gentile.
The church has been fighting this since Paul’s day, through the 16th century reformation and still is today - to proclaim that faith in Christ is the only thing that saves. Jesus says I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me. Luther, Calvin and the other reformers fought 500 years ago to stand on the truth that we are saved by faith. We are to proclaim that truth to all who do not believe in Jesus, whether Jews, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhist, and all other works based religions, which is everything except faith in Christ - even those who claim Jesus but still think they add something to their salvation.
Satan wants to twist God’s word just enough to get people to doubt, to think there is something they have to do to earn salvation. Some of you may think - going to church, taking communion, or being baptized as an infant saves. We are called to point all to Jesus and have faith in him. Just as Paul tells Timothy, we are also to fight the good fight of faith. To point people to God’s plan of salvation from the beginning, from faith for faith displayed by Abraham, the father of all who believe.