The Gospel of Godís Grace #8

Justified by Faith!

October 26, 1997 / Romans 3:27 ó 4:25

A thousand years before Christ dwelled among humankind, the following proverb was already known: "[The Lord] mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble" (Prov. 3:34). James knew, believed, and quoted it in the New Testament: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (Jas. 4:6). And Jesus illustrated it in his story about two men who prayed at the Jerusalem Temple; one offered a self-justifying prayer about his right behavior, and the other confessed his sinfulness and pleaded for right-standing with God on the basis of divine mercy alone (Luke 18:10-14).

The issue of pride versus humility, self-exaltation versus self-emptying, confidence in ourselves versus confidence in God is at the heart of a spiritual life. My pride tells me to try ó and when Iíve failed to try again, only harder this time; humility asks instead that I trust the love of God and the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ to meet my needs.

When I was in college, I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor. But I remember how hard it was for me to learn to swim. A cousin in Alabama finally got the critical message through my thick head. I assumed that to swim I had to constantly struggle to keep from sinking. One day Philip said, "Rubel, stop fighting the water and trust it to hold you up." He was right. Under his guidance, I lay flat in the water without moving my hands or feet. To my surprise, it held me up! Why hadnít somebody told me that before? It is the first lesson I offer anyone I take into the water to teach to swim. Itís critical to the process.

I confess that my spiritual life has gone through a similar process. I struggled so conscientiously and seriously to be saved, to have confidence about heaven. Finally, the Word of God got its central message through my thick skull. "Rubel, stop flailing about and trust Christ to hold you up! He does the saving." And it is the first lesson I try to impress on anyone with whom I am trying to share the gospel. Have you been attempting to save yourself? If so, stop trying and start trusting.

Who Can Boast of Himself?

To this point in Romans, Paul has been explaining the need and nature of the gospel he preaches. We are in the very heart of the epistle here. He has just explained how God has been both just in honoring the judgment of sinners under law and the Justifier of all who will trust his method of paying the penalty against sin by the death of Christ Jesus. For a work so great that only God could devise and carry it through, we must praise him and give him all the glory. We must abandon our pretenses, swallow our pride, and trust Christ alone for the right-standing we desire but can never have through our own flawed obedience to law. "Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith" (3:27-28a).

Although I cannot document it, I ran across this quotation attributed to D. L. Moody. If he didnít say it, somebody should have! So here it is:

I'm certainly glad a man cannot save himself; otherwise you'd never hear the end of it. Why, in this world if a person happens to get a little ahead of his fellowmen and scrapes a few thousand dollars together, he'll go around telling everyone how he's a 'self-made man.' I've heard so much of this sort of boasting that I'm sick and tired of the whole business. I'm glad we shall not have men bragging through all eternity of how they worked their way into heaven.

There can be no strutting and bragging before the God of heaven! Boasting is appropriate only in a works-based system where merits are being earned. But it is our faith in the righteousness which God bestows as a free gift ó not our good works ó that is the basis of Christian hope. Pride has no place in such a system. Indeed, Paul summarizes all he has said about justification to this point by saying, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" (3:28b).

In his German translation of Romans, Martin Luther sought to emphasize the priority of faith in Romans 3:28 by adding the word "alone." He has been severely criticized for "tampering" with the text at this point. In fairness, his intention was not to teach a doctrine of faith which excludes such holy behaviors as repentance and baptism and godly living. In his view of faith, all these items are both included and necessitated by faith. He sought only to stress that salvation is exclusively by faith as opposed to law, good works, or holy behavior. Yet many have taken his term (i.e., "faith alone") and have interpreted it so as to contradict both Luther himself and such biblical texts as James 2:24.

While we are justified by faith alone, the faith that justifies is never alone. It is "faith expressing itself through love" (Gal. 5:6). It is faith looking to obey, not faith offering pious pronouncements as an alternative to obedience. It is faith that goes to the Word of God not to be inspired but instructed, not to find a feeling but to discover the path to holiness, not simply to hear but to obey. Paul will have much more to say on this point later in this epistle. For now, his point is simply to emphasize that salvation centers not on what we are doing but on what God has already done. And because there is only one God, he will save both Jews and Gentiles the same way, by faith (3:29-30).

"But if God saves Jews and Gentiles alike by faith," someone insists, "has the Law of Moses not been nullified?" (3:31a). Paulís answer is emphatic: "Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law" (3:31b). This question and answer may be understood in either of two ways. Most likely, we are to understand both. One the one hand, Paul may be saying that justification by faith is a fulfillment of all the Law of Moses had anticipated and predicted. On the other hand, he may be looking at law in a larger sense to deny that his emphasis on the primacy of faith in any way negates human responsibility to honor whatever law God chooses to establish; faith will always "uphold" divine law and become the greatest guarantee of oneís obedience to it.

Justification by Faith Exemplified

Paul knew it would be difficult ó if not impossible ó for some to accept the doctrine of justification by faith. This would be true especially for Jews educated by legalistic rabbis and taught to trust in their law-keeping. Like the Pharisee praying with a publican nearby, they had been taught to trust their obedience and personal righteousness for salvation.

We should also admit that some of Paulís argumentation has been abstract and hard to follow. Knowing a picture is worth a thousand words, he wisely chooses to put the issue of justification by faith in simple form with a test case. If Abraham was justified by his obedience to law, the opponents of Paulís gospel were correct; if he was justified by faith, Paulís message stood vindicated. "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast aboutóbut not before God. What does the Scripture say? ĎAbraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousnessí " (Rom. 4:1-3).

Referring back to Genesis 15, Paul reminds his readers of Godís promise of a great reward for Abraham. Yet Abraham complained that he was childless and without the prospect of an heir. Yahweh brought the patriarch outside his tent, told him to look toward heaven, and promised that his offspring would be aa plentiful as the stars. The text says: "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6).

In spite of the unlikeliness that such a promise could be fulfilled, Abraham trusted God for its realization. At times his faith was weak. At others, it was compromised by sinful behavior (e.g., the Ishmael episode, Gen. 16). But his faith had been placed in the promise of God, and the Lord vindicated his faith with the birth of Isaac.

Abraham obviously did not understand how God could bring about the birth of a son in his old age, but he trusted that he could. It was neither Abrahamís understanding nor virility that brought Isaac into the world. It was Godís wisdom and Godís activity which produced the fulfillment of the promise. Abrahamís ability to trust God to do what he had promised is what justified him (i.e., gave his right-standing) in this episode. Had it been otherwise, he would have been justified by works and would have received his reward as the payment of a divine debt to him (4:4-5).

My father knew about a car I wanted when I was seventeen years old. He did some things behind my back and made arrangements with a car dealer for a transaction to take place. Then one afternoon he gave me an envelope and told me that I could take it to that dealer and pick up the car I had been wanting. I trusted him that the arrangements were made. I drove sixteen miles, gave a man the keys to my old car, and claimed what my father had promised. It was a glorious day.

I didnít show that car to anyone and boast of my ability to carry envelopes, drive sixteen-mile-long stretches of highway, find car dealers, and swap keys. My boasting was ó and continues to be ó about the generosity of my father. That car came to me by grace through faith and not of myself!

That is how our dealings with God go. Whether Abrahamís justification in the matter of Isaacís birth or your right-standing from sin, claiming a free gift through obedient faith leaves no room for personal boasting. Right-standing with God in any matter is always and only by grace through faith and not of our doing. "Saving is all [Godís] idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. Itís Godís gift from start to finish!" (Eph. 2:8-9, The Message).

Going further, Paul insists that God not only credits right-standing to sinners by faith but also declines to enter sin in the record of believers so justified. So he writes:

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

"Blessed are they

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the man

whose sin the Lord will never count against him" (4:6-8).

The blessed person "whose sin the Lord will never count against him" is the same person John describes at 1 John 1:7. It is not the perfect Christian whose right-standing comes from flawless behavior (cf. 1 John 1:8,10); it is the imperfect one who continues to walk in the light of Godís truth, receive constant cleansing from the blood of Jesus, and freely acknowledge his personal sinfulness (cf. 1 John 1:9).

Then Paul makes a point that would offend many Jews. He reminds his readers of the chronology of Abrahamís justification. Abraham was still uncircumcised when he was put right with God by faith. Circumcision had not put him right with God. It was given him as a "sign" and "seal" (i.e., branding mark) of his right-standing (4:9-11a). This means that he is "the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them" (4:11b). This is an elaboration on Romans 3:29 and serves to drive home the point that all who "walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised" ó whether Jews or Gentiles ó are heirs to the right-standing that comes by faith (4:12-13).

The Great Divide

Verses 14-16 recapitulate the entire section that started at Romans 3:27. It is as if Paul wants to paint a word picture of the great divide separating the human approach to justification and the divine approach.

Law, works, and merit stand together on one side of the great divide; grace, faith, and promise stand together on the other. Anyone who chooses to stand on the former (i.e., human) side, stands under condemnation, for anyone seeking right-standing with God through performance can only fail. Where there is law, there is inevitable transgression. Where there is transgression, there must be wrath (4:14-15a).

Only where there is no dependence on law can there be no transgression, no wrath (4:15b). That one place of security is found by those who stand on the divine side of the great divide. It is for those who stand with grace, faith, and promise.

The Great Divide . . .
(Romans 4:14-16)

*Works are key
*Merit is goal
*Transgression is inevitable

*Faith is key
*Promise is precious
*Transgression is impossible
*No Condemnation

One becomes an heir through faith in the divine promise when he or she ó following the steps of Abraham ó trusts Godís redemptive process rather than human counterfeits of it. Whether Jew of Gentile, all and only those are true believers who can trace their spiritual lineage to Abraham, "the father of us all" (4:16-17a).

Abrahamís Faith

Having identified Abraham as the "father" of all who believe, Paul spends some time describing the character of his faith. For our purposes, we will focus on two ideas that are central to his discussion.

First, Abrahamís faith was placed in the right person. He did not trust himself or his ability to figure out a system for fertility. He simply put his trust in God and his ability to keep his promise. "He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believedóthe God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ĎSo shall your offspring beí " (Rom. 4:17b-18).

Yes, the Bible speaks of "little faith" and "great faith." And Paul will say that Abraham was "strengthened in his faith" (4:20b). But the most important thing about faith is not how much of it you have or how strong it is; the critical issue is the one in whom it is placed. I much prefer my weak faith in the one true God and his ability to give right-standing through Jesus than to have strong faith in anyone or anything else. One writer puts it this way:

The object of faith is that which really matters more than anything else. Some people who had strong faith in thin ice never lived to tell the tale but died by faith. Others who had weak faith in thick ice were as safe as if they stood on concrete. Abrahamís faith is not exemplary because of its strength or lack of it, but because its object was God.

Abraham believed in a God who could give life to the dead and summon non-existing things into being (4:17b), who could justify hoping for an end which all human hope had already abandoned (4:18), and who could cause two people well beyond the age for child-bearing to have a child (4:19). "Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why Ďit was credited to him as righteousnessí " (4:20-22).

Faith is not wishful thinking. It is being "fully persuaded" of Godís power to do anything he promises to do. And this is what leads to Paulís final comments in this section on Abraham.

Second, Abrahamís faith is the model for ours. The Abraham story is not in Scripture simply as a personal tribute to that man of God (4:23). It is there for us as well, to encourage us to pattern our faith after his (4:24a).

More than believing in Abrahamís God, however, we are called to believe in the God who "raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (4:24b). These are not two different deities, mind you. But the latter is a more fully revealed God than even Abraham knew. He has shown his face in human form. We are called on to believe that God acted through Jesus Christ. We are called to believe that Jesus was "delivered over to death for our sakes and was raised to life for our justification" (4:25). When heaven raised him from the dead, all the claims Jesus had made for himself were validated. When heaven raised him from the dead, our faith was given its ultimate security.


The bold print on the mailing he received said: "RICHARD LUSK HAS WON IT ALL AND WILL DEFINITELY RECEIVE $12 MILLION CASH GUARANTEED!" So the 88-year-old Californian couldnít wait to get his money. His wife is sick and bedridden, you see, so he needs the money. And he was sure this time that he had won it. After all, he had gotten at least six notices of his good fortune. And he had faithfully returned each one. Since he still hadnít gotten his money, he thought his tickets were getting lost in the mail. So he decided to carry this one to Tampa personally, hand it to American Family Publishers, and pick up his check.

So Mr. Lusk spent $2,000 last week, only to discover he had won nothing. When he returned home empty handed, the story broke of the manís misplaced faith. He has been playing the magazine sweepstakes for years now ó spending at least $50,000 according to the estimates of his children. His house is littered with magazines he doesnít read. Many of them are duplicate subscriptions, some running through 2010.

I read the story and thought about misleading advertising, the exploitation of elderly people, and one manís personal desperation. I also thought about all those people ó ancient and modern ó who have been misled about God. They have been told that God is a scorekeeper. They have been taught to see him as angry, aloof, and impossible to please. They have been ordered to try to win his favor by good behavior and good deeds. They have been exploited by hucksters for their money. No one has been able to communicate the beautiful truth of Godís love and grace made known through Christ to them. So they keep trying rather than trusting. They frustrate themselves in hopes of "winning the jackpot" through their good works rather than simply accepting Godís free gift.

When Mr. Lusk got home from his fruitless trip, he put the entry form he had carried to Tampa in an envelope. He attached stickers ordering copies of two more magazines ó both of which he was already receiving. He wrote a check for the right amount and put his entry in the mail. "I expect to hear something from them by Friday," he said.

You know the human side of the "great divide" is hopeless. Law, works, and merit can only lead to transgression, condemnation, and wrath. Itís time to take your stand on the divine side of grace, faith, and promise. No more games. No more false gods. No more "winning the jackpot" with your goodness. No more frustration.

You can stand on the divine side of the great divide. Live under grace. Walk by faith. Receive the promise. Give God the glory!

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