Throughout history people have sought to please a Higher Power, a Supreme Being, or some Deity by trying to do what is right, by making sacrifices, living lives of devotion, by secluding themselves from a polluted world, or through some other means. It doesn’t matter which time period in world history you visit. It doesn’t matter which culture you examine. People have sought to please God, or whatever they deemed to be god, by some means, in some way.
As we have seen during the past few weeks, as we have studied Romans 1-3, it is impossible to please God by doing “good” because we are sinners to the bone. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament testify to this fact. David wrote in Psalm 53,
2 God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. 3 Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 53:2-3 NIV)
This is not a one-time occurrence of this truth in God’s Word. Paul quoted David’s Psalm in the book that we are now studying, in Romans 3:12. You may be wondering how I can say that throughout history people have sought to “please” God while Scripture says that there aren’t any who seek God? That’s a great question and I think Isaiah 29:13 can shed a little light on the question for us this morning. Read along with me.
13 The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. (Isaiah 29:13 NIV)
Oh, there is the key for us! There is the insight that we’ve been looking for! The Lord says, “Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” All of the ways that I mentioned in the beginning of our study in which people have tried to please God are merely cheap substitutes for humble trust and confidence in what God says is true.
In Romans 3:20, Paul said that no one will be declared righteous by merely doing the law. Then, in Romans 3:21, Paul says that now a righteousness from God has been made known. In the next three verses, Paul writes,
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24 NIV)
Paul says that we are justified “freely” by God’s grace. We are made right with God, by God, not by doing what is right. We’ve already discussed this so I won’t belabor the point. I do want to refresh your memory. We do right because we have been made right. We are not made right because we do right. Did you notice the order? God makes us right so that we can do right, live a godly, righteous life, through His empowering. This is where humanity, and religion, has gotten confused. The vast majority of people believe that we must do right so that we can be right with God. This is an impossibility.
In our study for today, Paul pulls out of his back pocket the greatest test case of all for the Jews, Abraham. Let’s read our Scripture and then we will dig into God’s Word.
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about– but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Romans 4:1-5 NIV)
Why does Paul go all the way back to Abraham to try and prove his point about humanity being justified by grace through faith? That’s a great question. I have an answer for you. When you go through the great “Hall of Faith,” listed in Hebrews 11, you will meet the giants of faith. You will read the accounts of people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Samson, and David. There is one name that takes up more space in the “Hall of Faith” than any other person, Abraham. (Hebrews 11:8-12; 17-19) In the minds of the Jews Abraham stands heads and shoulders above all of the giants of faith.
When the Jews were in exile after having been almost destroyed by the Babylonians, there were lots of questions in the hearts and minds of God’s people. Had God forgotten them? Had the faithfulness of God run out? God spoke to His people in exile and told them to remember. Remember what? Remember who? Read along with me.
1 “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many. 3 The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. (Isaiah 51:1-3 NIV)
“Look to the rock from which you were cut.” Look to Abraham. Was I faithful to Abraham? Did I provide for Abraham? Remember, for I will not forget you anymore than I forgot Abraham, your father.
The Jewish rabbis held Abraham in the highest esteem. They believed that Abraham was justified because of his works, his perfect life. They held that Abraham was the “friend of God.” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) The Mishnah’s third division, Kiddushin (4.14), interprets Genesis 26:4-5, let’s read the Scripture together.
4 I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.” (Genesis 26:4-5 NIV)
The rabbis comment on these verses by saying, “and we find that Abraham our father had performed the whole law before it was given, for it is written, ‘Because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.'”
In the fictitious writing which is part of the Old Testament Apocrypha, the Prayer of Manasses, which was written to reflect the times of the reign on King Manasseh found in 2 Chronicles 33, we read that Abraham never needed to repent of any sin. Verse 8 reads,
8 Therefore thou, O Lord, God of the righteous, hast not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against thee, but thou hast appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner. (Prayer of Manasses 8)
You have to remember that what we just read is not Scripture; Abraham needed to repent of his sins just as you and I need to repent of our sins. My purpose in sharing this with you is to show you how highly esteemed Abraham was, and is, in the eyes of the Jews. Paul takes this giant of the faith, one in whom the Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike look to as the father of their faith, and he uses him as the test case for what he has been teaching concerning justification by grace through faith. Let’s take a look at Romans 4:1-3 and see what we can learn.
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about– but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3 NIV)
Paul asks, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about.” Abraham may have had something in which he could have boasted in comparing himself to other people, but Paul doesn’t end the verse allowing Abraham to compare himself only to other people. Paul goes on to say, “…but not before God.” Last week we talked about all of the things that we people like to use to somehow place ourselves above all of those around us. We boast and brag about all kinds of things, but God’s Word says,
23 This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23-24 NIV)
Abraham didn’t boast, he didn’t brag, he didn’t try and gain the upper hand on those around him by extolling his own righteousness or piety. Paul says that even if Abraham did have reason to boast before people, he sure didn’t have anything to boast about in the presence of God.
At this point there is a very good lesson for us to take to heart. Paul doesn’t use logic, intellect, or his highly honed debating skills to win the Jews over; he asks them to search the Scriptures. Paul asks, “What does the Scripture say?” then he quotes Genesis 15:6. 6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6 NIV)
This is the first place in God’s Word where we find the word for “believed.” The Hebrew word which is translated “believed,” means, “to trust, to believe, to place confidence in something or someone.” The word is used 52 times in the Hebrew Bible and it’s Greek equivalent, “pisteuo,” is used some 241 times in the New Testament. Abraham believed God. He didn’t believe in his inherent goodness. He didn’t believe that God had called him because he was somehow better than the other people of his day. Abraham believed God. What did he believe God about? Well, let’s take a look. John R.W. Stott says that there are four primary episodes in Abraham’s life where he was given the opportunity to trust God, to believe that what God was saying to him was true.
The first episode occurs in Genesis 12:1-3, where God calls Abraham to leave his father, his country, and follow God to the land where God will lead him. God also promises to make Abraham’s name great and to make him into a great nation. Abraham was seventy-five years old at the time. Read along with me.
1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3 NIV)
The second episode, according to John Stott, is found in Genesis 13 and 15, where God makes His promises more specific to Abraham. God tells him that He is giving him the land as far as he can see and that his descendants will be more numerous than the dust of the earth or the stars in the sky. Read along with me.
14 The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD. (Genesis 13:14-18 NIV)
5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars– if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6 NIV)
There it is again. Did you see it? “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
The third episode in the life of Abraham where he was given the opportunity to believe God was when he was ninety-nine years old and his wife, Sarah, was ninety. God confirmed his promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a son. God changed Abraham’s name from Abram to Abraham, which means, “the father of many nations.” God also gave Abraham the sign of circumcision as the sign of His covenant with Abraham.
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2 I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” 3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:1-7 NIV)
10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner– those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. (Genesis 17:10-13 NIV)
The last episode in Abraham’s life has to be the most difficult time of Abraham’s life, when he was called upon to trust God, to believe God, in the most difficult of times. In Genesis 22 we read where God called Abraham to sacrifice his promised son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah. On the way up the mountain Isaac asked his dad, “Where is the sacrifice?” Abraham told Isaac,
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. (Genesis 22:8 NIV)
Abraham believed God. He trusted God. Paul said, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” God had promised Abraham that through his son, Isaac, his descendants would outnumber the stars of the sky. If God was calling Abraham to sacrifice his son, the promised son, then how would God increase Abraham’s descendants? Great question. Abraham didn’t have the answer as to how things would work out, but he trusted God. Just as Abraham was raising the knife to sacrifice his son, God stopped him and showed Abraham the ram that He had provided for the sacrifice in Isaac’s place. Genesis 22:14 tells us,
14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:14 NIV)
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. I want to spend the rest of our time on trying to understand what “it” is that was credited to Abraham. Was it Abraham’s “faith” that was credited to him as righteousness? Was it the fact that Abraham was a good man, a godly man, that caused God to credit his goodness to him as righteousness? This is a most important point for us to understand.
James Montgomery Boice says that there is a misunderstanding of this verse that many evangelical believers hold, but which is far from Paul’s teaching of justification by grace through faith. Boice says,
It goes like this: Since Abraham did not have any righteousness in himself by which he could be justified before God, but since God wanted to save him, God looked for something he could accept in place of righteousness. Since Abraham had faith, at least a little bit, God said, “Even though this little bit of faith is not righteousness, it is something I can work with. I’ll treat it as righteousness and so save Abraham.” (James Montgomery Boice, Romans Vol 1. pg. 431)
Abraham was not righteous because of his faith, but he was counted as righteous by God, by God’s grace. Abraham trusted God. He believed that what God was saying was true. Boice says,
In order to spend a twenty-dollar bill you have to have faith in its purchasing power. But it is not your faith that is the basis of the purchase. It is the value of the money. So also spiritually. (James Montgomery Boice, Romans Vol. 1. pg. 434)
You can take a $100 bill from your Monopoly set and go down to the grocery store to try to buy your groceries for the week, but I’ve got news for you, you won’t be able to buy a thing. It doesn’t matter how much faith you have, it doesn’t matter how much you pray that the Lord will give you “favor” with the cashier, your Monopoly money won’t buy you a thing. There is no power behind the piece of paper, even if it does say $100 on it.
Abraham trusted in God that God would deliver on all of his promises. Abraham believed God, whatever God told him. Abraham is an example for you and me. Will you believe God? You may ask, “About what?” About all that we’ve had the opportunity to learn over these past many weeks that we’ve been studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. Will you believe God that we are sinners? That we’ve been given more than enough evidence of God’s eternal power and His divine nature and yet we’ve chosen to deny the truth about God? Will you believe that? Will you believe that our good deeds, our being more righteous than our neighbor (if that were the case) will never save us, never reconcile us to God? Will you believe that God has provided a righteousness of His own, a means of having a right relationship with Himself, that has nothing to do with our goodness? Will you believe that having a right relationship with God comes through confessing your need, your trust, in Jesus? Will you believe that? Will you trust God that everything He has said is true? Paul wrote to the brothers and sisters in Galatia and said,
6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6-9 NIV)
Paul urges the brothers and sisters in Galatia, as I want to urge you who are here this morning, to have faith in God, put your trust in the truth of what God says. It is not your goodness that you need to put faith in my friends. It isn’t your ability to get the job done that you need to put your faith in this morning. It isn’t your knowledge, charisma, or connections that you need to put your faith in this morning. Many do. Many of us are misled into believing that we are all right, we are just fine, surely God will appreciate us as those around us appreciate us.
This past week I had lunch with a friend and he was telling me about going to “family week” with his son at a drug treatment center. He said that one day the counselor who was working with the families and kids had the fathers and sons in a room together. He asked the dads to write down on a piece of paper what they regretted. The men took their pens in hand and began to write. They folded up their pieces of paper and passed them around to the counselor. The counselor said that he would read each one and he wanted the boys to try and guess which one their dad wrote. The counselor read the notes and there were many different regrets that the dads shared. The counselor then opened one of the pieces of paper and it read, “I have no regrets.” The counselor asked, “Who wrote this.” One of the dads didn’t hesitate. He said, “I did.” The counselor asked, “You don’t have any regrets?” The dad said, “No, I don’t have any.” The counselor said, “You are the perfect dad? You’ve never done anything wrong?” The dad said, “I don’t have any regrets.”
I’ve thought about that all week. What if the dad had done everything right in raising his son? Well, he might have had reason to hold his head high in that room with the other dads who were willing to acknowledge that they hadn’t done everything right, but I’ve got news for you, he would hang his head in the presence of God–the truly perfect Father. The truth of the matter is, whether or not the man wanted to admit it, he was far from perfect, he was just unwilling to admit it.
I want to urge you this morning to admit your failures, admit your regrets, and lay down your pride. You, and I, need to put our trust in God, not in ourselves and our abilities. He has never broken a promise, He has never once been unfaithful, and He has provided a way for you and me to be forgiven for all that we’ve done. He alone can reconcile us to Himself and He has already taken care of the means to do this–it is through placing our confidence in Jesus. I want to invite you this morning place your faith in Jesus and what He has accomplished for you through His life, death, and glorious resurrection.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
August 13, 2013