Anyone involved in sports knows that you have to practice the fundamentals of your sport over and over and over again. The infielder must always practice fielding ground balls the correct way; the basketball player must continue to practice freethrows; the field goal kicker must practice kicking properly; a runner must consistently work at getting out of the blocks in the most efficient way. These fundamentals must be practiced every single day because they are the foundation on which everything else is built. If you get the fundamentals wrong, you will never be successful in that sport.
This is not only true in sports. A musician must practice day after day after day. They can’t simply read a book or watch a tape. They must develop the dexterity and at times, the “lip”, to play. If you stop practicing, your skill will diminish. The same can be said of the typing skills or computer literacy of an office worker, the voice of a vocalist, the “touch” of a surgeon, the military skills of a soldier, the listening skills of the counselor, or the speed of a person on an assembly-line.
This is also true of our spiritual lives. We must know the basics of the faith well so that we can build on a solid foundation. This is why Paul is laboring for such a long time on the issue of justification by faith in the first four chapters of Romans. If we don’t get this right, everything else will be off-center.
Paul has been arguing that we are made right with God, not by our good deeds (because we have none) but by God’s gracious act in sending His Son as a payment for our sin. People resist this notion of grace because they have learned the wrong way of salvation. All their lives they have had it drilled into them that you have to “do good to get to Heaven”. We grow up believing that if we are “good enough” we will get to go to Heaven.
Paul is laboring to show that no one can be “good enough” and therefore we can only be saved by a gracious act of mercy on God’s part. In order to prove his point, Paul suggests we look at the patron saint of the Jews; a man known for his faith and his righteousness before God. This man is Abraham. Paul asks the question: How was Abraham made right with God?
Abraham was not Justified By His Good Deeds
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.”
Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 where we are told that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Paul’s Jewish friends would have been well aware of this verse. Paul suggests we look at it closely.
The first thing Paul wants us to see is the wording . . . “it was credited to him . . .” Paul observes, “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.(v. 4). The word for “credit” argues Paul, means to be given something as an undeserved gift. When you get paid at the end of the week for working, you don’t consider it a “gift” . . .it is the payment for work that has been done. It is a wage, not a gift!
Paul argues that Abraham was not justified because of what he did, but because he trusted God. Note verse 5: “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” It is not the one who works, but the one who trusts God, that is justified or declared “not guilty”. The New Living Translation misses this significant statement that is in the Greek. Notice that God justifies THE WICKED! Normally, you would think of God justifying the godly or the good. However, there are no such people in the world. God makes sinful people right with Him.
We see a similar statement in Romans 5, which we will look at in two weeks.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Paul quotes Psalm 32:1,2 to show that David understood that we are blessed when our sin is forgiven. In other words, we are blessed when we are forgiven and DON’T get what we deserve. Notice the great words in this quote, “Blessed are those whose transgression (sin) is forgiven. By God’s grace, our sin is not held against us. “Whose sins are covered.” They are covered by Christ’s blood. They are removed from God’s sight! And then notice the best words of all, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will NEVER count against Him.” Never, Never, Never!
Suppose you had cancer. After the treatments the Doctor says, “The cancer is taken care of. The treatment worked and the cancer is eliminated from your body and It will NEVER appear again!” That would be incredible news. In fact, you would think that the news was too good and the Doctor was being presumptive. It is impossible for him to know if the cancer will appear again. However, when God says, “Never” He speaks with a surety that is unmatched.
Abraham was not Justified by His Religious Acts
The second question asked by the Apostle Paul is, “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” In other words, “Could this righteousness have been granted because of Abraham’s religious actions (in this case circumcision)? Today we would say, “Did Abraham have to be baptized before he was declared righteous?”
Paul answers with a resounding “No!” In fact, says Paul, the record of Abraham being declared right with God is in Genesis 15 and the rite of circumcision doesn’t even come on the scene until many years later when Abraham was 99 years old as recorded in Genesis 17! Abraham’s right relationship with God is not because of His good works or because of His religious observances. His righteousness is not even because of the Law because the Law wasn’t in existence until Moses.
Paul summarizes his argument in verses 13-16. Abraham was declared righteous by faith. In fact, if we aren’t saved by grace through faith, then we are in deep trouble because the law will bring wrath because we are sinners. The only way to avoid our sinful nature would be to have no law . . . or to say nothing is wrong (Paul is showing the absurdity of such a notion.)
But what then is the point of circumcision? Or, for that matter, what is the point of baptism if it doesn’t make us right with God?
Paul answers the question in verse 11. He calls circumcision a sign and a seal. A sign is something that points to the reality. A sign that says “Burlington 25 miles” is not Burlington, it only points to Burlington. Circumcision was an outward act that pointed to an inward reality. When a Jewish man was circumcised it was to point to his standing as a “chosen one of God”. It was an act of claiming God’s promise. But it was also a seal that reminded that man every day that he belonged to the Lord.
The same is said of baptism today. We’re not saying that baptism is not important. It is. It is a rite that is commanded by God and we should obey that command. Baptism is a sign in the fact that when we come to be baptized we are declaring to others that we are identifying with Jesus. We are looking to Him for salvation and new life. It is a seal because every time we begin to doubt our faith and our relationship with God we can look back to our baptism and remember that we put our hope in Him. It is a seal of authenticity.
What is Faith?
Paul has one more question: He doesn’t state it, but I think it is apparent, “What is the nature of this faith that leads to salvation?
18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.
Paul tells us that Abraham showed his faith by believing God’s promise. Back in Genesis 15, God told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations even though he was childless. Abraham believed God and even tried to help God accomplish this task by suggesting that his servant be given a child that would carry Abraham’s name. God told Abraham that he would have his own child.
When Abraham was 99 years old he was told that the promised heir would soon be born. Abraham had one son Ishmael, through a servant girl Hagar. (When he tried to help God again!) Abraham assumed that this was the son God was talking about. God told him the son that would be an heir would be born of Sarah, who was now 90! Abraham didn’t argue, he believed God even though the promise seemed ridiculous.
This son born to Abraham and Sarah under these incredible circumstances demonstrated that it was a supernatural work of God and not something that Abraham accomplished in his own strength. The delay was to demonstrate God’s glory. In Genesis 21 we read about the incredible birth of this baby whose name means “laughter”.
In Genesis 22 when Isaac, his “miracle son”, was getting close to his teens (most likely, since in 22:6 we are told that Isaac carried the wood) God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain in the region of Moriah (where Jerusalem is today). This request seemed absurd. How would God fulfill his promise of making Isaac into a great nation of people if he was killed as a sacrifice? But, there is no record of an argument from Abraham. There is simply the straightforward account of Abraham binding and preparing to sacrifice his son.
But in the midst of this story in Genesis 22 we see the glimmer of faith. When Isaac and Abraham left their servant, Abraham said, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham fully believed Isaac would return with him.
When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham spoke words that were more prophetic than he realized, “God himself will provide the lamb”. Was Abraham deluded? Was he getting senile to think that he could sacrifice his son and yet return home with him? No. He simply believed God.
17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.
Do you see the reasoning of Abraham? God made a promise. God always fulfills his promise. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son so: either a) he will stop him before he actually does so, or b) he will raise Isaac from the dead. In Abraham’s mind, God was able to do either.
Abraham’s faith then had several characteristics,
- Abraham trusted God’s character
- Abraham believed God’s promises
- Abraham lived on the basis of those promises
There are a couple of conclusions we should be drawing from this text. First, salvation is by grace and not by human effort. Even Abraham shows that salvation has ALWAYS been by God’s grace. This is basic Christianity. This is the most fundamental of the spiritual fundamentals. Salvation is the result of God’s intervention on our behalf. It is the result of what Christ has done rather than on what we can do.
We are called to believe that when Jesus died on the cross and rose again He paid for ALL of our sin.
- The horrible deeds of our past that we wouldn’t tell anyone
- The rebellious choices and the painful consequences of those choices
- The hatred, manipulation, and pettiness that we have shown toward others
- The times we took advantage of (used) others for our own sake
- The sins of selfishness, greed, and dishonesty
All of these things are paid for in the death of Christ! When we trust Christ our sin is forgiven, covered, and will NEVER be counted against us.
Second, we are reminded that faith is not a one time event . . . it is a way of living. This simple passage calls us to trust God in the day-to-day circumstances of life. Abraham trusted God when it seemed he would never have a son. He trusted God when he was called to sacrifice that son born of miraculous means. The book of Hebrews records the faith of many,
I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others [who are unnamed] were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Obviously, this passage shows that having faith is not the same thing as not having problems! We show that we believe God when we trust Him even we are overwhelmed with problems. These people believed God was in control, that He loved them, and that He never, ever, makes a mistake. They took the idea of Romans 8:28 to heart: “And we know that in all things God is working for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”
You and I can trust God as well. What God has promised in His Word, He will deliver. We are called to have faith that,
- God will meet our needs even though our financial problems seem overwhelming and He may have to deal with our materialism first.
- God will bring us through the time of sickness; leading us either to new health, a new opportunity to glorify Him, or He will take us to His heavenly home
- God will give us strength in the midst of our relationship problems, either healing the relationships or comforting us, loving us, and helping us grow through the pain.
- God will lead us in the times of decision to make decisions that will honor Him and bring new strength to us . . . and even if we make a wrong decision He will help us grow even as He leads us back to the narrow road of His will.
- God will sustain us in the lonely times when we feel no one knows us or cares about us. The Lord knows those who are His and even though the rest of the world doesn’t seem to notice . . . He never loses sight of us and never stops loving us.
These are God’s promises to His people. Perhaps as you look at your situation, things seem hopeless. Perhaps you have been waiting and praying for years, but nothing seems to be happening. God is faithful! He will fulfill His promise. Don’t give up! Hang on! Believe God!
Maybe you are here today and you are worn out from trying to be good enough. You feel like the harder you try, the more spiritual debt you incur. If that’s your story . . . hear the great news of the gospel! We are not saved by our works, but by faith! You can get off the treadmill that is getting you nowhere and is merely wearing you out. You can know forgiveness. You can be set free and made new. All you need to do, is believe God’s promise, and receive His grace.