Lent 2A

March 10, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 3:1-17

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 12:1-4a

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 121

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 4:1-5; 13-17

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    As I began to reflect on this text for the second Sunday of Lent, I must confess that I didn’t see the connection to Lent. After all, Lent is all about the suffering and death of Christ, and our response to that passion. But Romans 4 is focused on a couple of ancient history lessons elicited by Paul to support his argument that justification is by faith alone apart from the law. Then I read beyond the Lectionary lesson on Romans 4 and I saw the connection to Christ’s death and resurrection in the very last verse of Romans 4. So, to mine the Lenten depths of this text, I’m going to comment on the entire chapter rather than simply the lectionary selection. Then we’ll see that this chapter is all about the results or benefits of Christ’s passion.

    This is a hard text to preach. Only a hardcore Bible student could get excited about Abraham, David, circumcision and law. To any normal person, this must seem like the most boring stuff in the world, until we realize that it’s all about the most important stuff in the world, namely, how sinners are saved. The key to “getting” this chapter lies in understanding that Paul shifts his dominant image. In Romans 3 he has talked about salvation using the language of the courtroom, while here in chapter 4 he uses the language of business. Eight times he speaks of credit, and particularly the idea of getting the credit without doing the work. If I were to preach on this text, my title would be “Getting the Credit without Doing the Work.”

    That sort of thing happens all the time in the real world. You and your colleague work on a project together. You do the lion’s share of the work, but when your combined report comes out, somehow her name is first and she gets the promotion and the raise. Or you knock yourself out all year long while another salesman does next to nothing. But when it’s time for the year-end profit sharing, he gets more than you do. It even happens to kids in school. You are a diligent student. You stay home from football games. You never do anything fun. You earn your high marks. So when you hear that the class goof-off, the kid who never studies, also gets A’s, it doesn’t seem fair. Getting the credit without doing the work—it’s the kind of thing that can drive you crazy.

    Well, that’s exactly how certain Jewish teachers felt about Paul, as he went all over the Roman Empire preaching the message of Romans 3:28. “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” That sounded for all the world as though Paul was saying that you could get the credit for keeping the law without ever doing the work of obedience. That made those Jews furious, because it seemed to violate everything they had ever been taught in God’s law about God and humanity and the way of salvation. Paul was nullifying the holy law of God.
    Here in Romans 4 Paul answers those charges by giving an extended history lesson drawn directly from the law—not the 10 Commandments, but what the Jews called the Law and the Prophets, the entire Old Testament revelation. He says to his Jewish critics, “You’re right. I am teaching that you can get the credit without doing the work. But that’s not a new idea. Indeed, it is found right here in the law.” He proves it with the stories of two of the greatest figures in Israel’s history—Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, and David, its greatest king. He ends with a simple history lesson about two defining events in the history of their nation—the giving of the sacrament of circumcision and the giving of the Law.

    What, asks Paul, did Abraham discover in this matter of law and circumcision and justification? The Jews had long used Abraham as the classic example of a man who was justified by his works. They were fond of pointing to Gen. 26:5, in which God says that he will bless Isaac, “because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees, and my laws.” Doesn’t that prove that Paul’s gospel is wrong?

    Well, says Paul, let’s look at this a bit more carefully. Those words of Genesis 26 refer to Abraham’s later life, after he became a believer. What does the Bible say about his earlier life? Gen. 15:6 says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” He kept no law, rendered no service, and performed no ritual. He had done no work that earned him the wage of righteousness. He had simply responded in faith to the God who had made fantastic promises. God credited that faith to him as righteousness, treated him as though he had done the work of obedience when in fact he hadn’t.

    Sound outrageous? Then look at David, the man who committed a great sin with Bathsheba, but found forgiveness from God. What did he write afterward in Psalm 32? “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” The word “count” is the same word that is translated “credited” 8 times in this passage. David is talking about the flip side of justification. The God who credits faith as righteousness will not consider sin as a debit. It won’t count against the one who believes.

    Ah, responded Paul’s Jewish opponents with a knowing smile, but notice that both of those men were Jews, people who had already been circumcised. We will perhaps acknowledge that God credits faith as righteousness, but only for those who have been circumcised. Many of the Jews had come to believe that circumcision was a prior condition for salvation. They were convinced that there is something you have to do, a work you have to perform, before God will credit your faith to you as righteousness.

    Well, says Paul, in verses 9-12, let me ask you one simple question. Was Abraham circumcised when God credited his faith to him as righteousness? The answer was a clear “no,” because circumcision wasn’t given until 14 years after God declared him righteous. Circumcision has nothing to do with salvation, except as a sign of the righteousness that has already been given through faith. So, Abraham is the father of all who believe, whether they have been circumcised or not.

    “OK, but don’t you have to keep the law?” repeated Paul’s Jewish critics in utter frustration. “How can you not say that keeping the law is crucial to salvation, when it is so critical to our history?” Well, let’s talk history, replies Paul in verse 13. When was the law given? Four hundred and thirty years after Abraham was justified. How can you say that keeping the law is necessary for salvation? If that were true, then the whole covenant initiated with Abraham is null and void, because there wasn’t any written law to keep yet. No, the law of God doesn’t bring salvation; all it brings is the knowledge of sin and the wrath of God.

    Indeed, Paul concludes in verse 16, the entire law of God teaches that if salvation is to be gained, it will have to be by faith. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law [the Jews] but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [the Gentiles]. He is the Father of all.” So if you want to be saved, declared righteous, get the credit without doing the work, you must have faith.

    That, then, raises the natural question, “What is this faith of which you speak so glowingly.” Interestingly, although Romans is always talking about justification by faith, this is the only place Paul really defines faith. The cynical Mark Twain once defined faith as “believing what you know ain’t true.” There is a slightly less pejorative, but equally wrong notion out there that faith is believing in something without any evidence that it is true. How does Paul define it? What is this faith that gets the credit without doing the work?

    In verse 3 Paul gives the kernel of it when he says that Abraham “believed God….” Not in God, in the existence of God. Indeed, James says that even the devil believes in God, has a correct doctrine of God. But that is surely not saving faith. Abraham “believed God.” What does that mean? Well, think back to Genesis 15. God has just promised a childless old man with a barren wife that he will become the father of many nations. And Abraham believed God when he said that. As verse 5 says, “he trusted God,” trusted that his promise would come true, in spite of how unlikely that seemed.

    Indeed, the idea of impossibility is central to Paul’s definition of faith here. Listen to the way he identifies God in verse 17—“the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” Now, that is unlikely. Indeed, that’s impossible, humanly speaking. But then the God in whom Abraham trusted does things that are humanly impossible—like give a baby to a barren old woman, or a young virgin.

    In verses 18-22 Paul delves deeply into that old story of Abraham and Sarah to show what it means to trust God’s promise. Such trust is always a balance of hope and hopelessness. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said.” When faith looks at the human facts of life—a body as good as dead and a womb that had long since ceased to ovulate—it looks hopeless. Faith is not a rejection of the hard realities of human existence, a kind of head in the sand pretending that everything is all right. No, saving faith looks sin and suffering and death and hell right in the face, sees the hopelessness of it all, and keeps trusting God.

    Because it hopes in the God who makes promises. The hopelessness of Abraham’s situation did not create unbelief, because he was looking at more than his situation. Verse 20 says that Abraham did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God. And says verse 21, he was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” With one eye on the power of God and the other on the promise of God, Abraham was actually strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God. In hope Abraham believed that the power and grace of God could do what looked hopeless.

    That brings Paul at last to Jesus Christ. The God in whom we must trust is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. That’s where this old history lesson touches our lives. Verse 23 puts it this way. “The words, ‘It was credited to him,’ were written not for him alone, but also for us to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sin and was raised to life for our justification.”

    In other words, saving faith finally focuses on the person of Jesus Christ and his saving work of death and resurrection. That is where the ancient power and grace of God intersected to do once and for all what seemed impossible—namely, declare guilty people righteous. Here’s a Lenten application of this ancient history lesson. Saving faith is not merely believing in your head that all of these things happened long ago. It is primarily trusting in your heart that in Christ’s death you have actually been delivered from your sin and in his resurrection your justification has been accomplished. Saving faith is believing that God through Christ did everything that had to be done, fulfilled all righteousness, so that your simple trust in Christ is credited to you as righteousness. You get all the credit, even though he did all the work. Does that seem unfair to you?

    It seems like grace to me.

    Illustration Idea

    On December 12, 2013, a man walked into a Walmart store in central Florida and paid off more than $20,000 worth of layaway bills for people he didn’t know. His name was Greg Parady, a local financial planner. He had heard a lady out in one of the aisles talking about how she needed to pay off her layaway but she didn’t think she would be able to take care of it all this year. So Parady walked back to the offices, pulled out his credit cards, and paid off one bill after another. “I can’t believe his cards didn’t melt, he was running them so fast,” said assistant manager Deb Davis. He used his credit to take care of their debts. They got the credit without actually paying their debt. Many wept in gratitude at the action of that “layaway Santa.”

    It’s a great story that provides some modern parallel to what Paul explains in our text. But there is a significant difference (apart from the fact that we’re talking a few dollars in comparison to a life time of sin). Parady didn’t pay the entire bill for those folks. He used his credit cards to pay half of every layaway balance above $200. While that added up to $20,000, it still left those debtors with half of their debt to pay off on their own. That was still very kind, and no one complained. But it falls far short of the Gospel.

    Frankly, that’s how some people understand the Gospel. Jesus did part of what it takes to save us, but we have to finish it off with our own works. The incredible good news Paul proclaims here in Romans 4 is that we get all the credit without doing any work, because Jesus did all the work and gave us all the credit. When he said, “It is finished” on the cross, one of the meanings of that saying is, “The debt is paid.”