March 10, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In John 3 Jesus does something quite unexpected: he reaches back to Numbers 21 from the Old Testament and evokes the image of that bronze serpent Moses lifted over the people as a cure for snakebites. The Israelites had to look at an image of the very thing that was afflicting them, and somehow doing so helped.
So also, Jesus says, the Son of Man will be lifted up and if you look at his death, your problem with death will be solved. It is, as Neal Plantinga has said, a striking biblical example of the principle that sometimes like cures like. One of the greatest medical innovations in recent centuries is the development of the vaccine: if a doctor injects your body with a small amount of the disease you want to avoid (either an inert version of the disease or a sufficiently weak amount to prevent you from getting the full blown affliction), then your cells will produce the antibodies that will ward off the disease should you later come into contact with the real deal version of it.
So in the gospel: Jesus is raised up on a cross in death. The wages of sin is death, and so death is our problem as sinful people. Somehow when we cast our eyes on Jesus’ death, we receive the gospel vaccine, as it were. But what that means is that the way a person gets “born again,” as Jesus has been describing this to Nicodemus, is precisely by being crucified with Christ. This, then, is the direct set-up for John 3:16. We all love the promise of eternal life, we all are drawn to the promise that we will not perish, and we like the apparent simplicity that all we need to do to get these good things is “believe.”
Seen in its proper, wider context, those famous words of verse 16 assume a far more startling, almost chilling, profile. Because a main thing you need to “believe” to be born again is that Jesus’ death helps you. We need to dispense with the idea that we can help ourselves, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, earn salvation, or in any way get by on our own.
Nicodemus had to believe this, too. But that may not have been easy for a man like this. To riff on Frederick Buechner’s description of him, Nicodemus was a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm. He had advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who’s Who. If you were a Jew living anywhere near Jerusalem in those days, you knew who Nicodemus was–you’d recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk.
But even Nicodemus had to dump the notion that his high-falootin’ religious credentials cut any ice with God. Nicodemus had to die to all that. But the funny thing about being dead is that the dead person is, by definition, completely unable to do another blessed thing. If you’re dead the way Jesus was dead on the cross, your only hope is that someone will resurrect you, raise you back to new life. As the undertaker and well-known author, Thomas Lynch, often points out: when it comes to dead people, you really just have to do everything for them! They are of no help at all.
The way into God’s kingdom leads through death. That’s scary in a way the isolated version of John 3:16 seldom conveys. But if you can follow Jesus to the cross and believe the scandalous idea that somehow his horrible death helps you, then already in this life you get the gospel vaccine–an inoculation that will keep you safe when your own death arrives one day. That’s what Jesus lays out for Nicodemus, and now for us, in John 3.
He wraps it all up with a discussion of light and darkness, saying that the main problem with people in this world is they like the dark. People think that living in God’s light might be harmful to their health, like baking in the sun too long on a hot summer day. “People like the dark because they don’t want their deeds to be exposed in the light,” Jesus says. And you have to wonder if Nicodemus, who had used the cover of darkness for his clandestine visit with Jesus, squirmed a bit at Jesus’ words about people loving the darkness!
But we don’t know if Nicodemus chaffed under that rhetoric because oddly enough, after verse 9, Nicodemus drops out of the picture altogether. We don’t have a clue as to how he reacted to Jesus’ words.
Isn’t that ironic?! We don’t know what happened to the very first person ever to hear John 3:16! Did Nicodemus’ hard Pharisee heart melt right then and there, or did he leave in a huff because of Jesus’ stinging words about loving the darkness? We don’t know. But perhaps that is because John knew that what matters is what John will later write at the end of John 20: John has written all the things he wrote about Jesus so that you, dear reader, might come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Most people are so overly familiar with John 3:16 that we think it’s a simple, straightforward text. But it’s not. It was properly disorienting (and then, hopefully, RE-orienting) to the first person who ever heard these words. Lent is a time of disorientation for all of us who live like we have it all figured out. Lent knocks us sideways to remind us that all our dieting, fitness, and age-defying make-up products will not keep us alive. We are dust and ashes and to dust and ashes we will return. And Lent reminds us that for all our self-help, get-rich-quick schemes and for all the ways we self-aggrandize ourselves for being self-made individuals, we are finally helpless. We need a Savior to do it all for us. We need a Savior to die for us. Sin is that serious.
Lent is a time of disorientation. But it is also, thanks be to God, a time of reorientation to a new perspective!
As Scott Black Johnson points out in Volume Three of “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001), the well-known question “Are you born again?” comes from John 3. Yet today people ask this as though being born again is a decision WE make. Ironically, however, Johnson points out that almost everything in John 3 conspires to make it clear that this business of getting born again is something with which we have very little to do. This is something that comes from God’s side of things and from the Spirit sovereign operation. Babies don’t decide to get born, they just GET born. Nor can babies decide that all things being equal, they’d prefer to stay in the womb. Nicodemus was right to suggest that this born-again thing sounded tricky, if not downright impossible, from the purely human side of things. We likely over-extend the image of getting born again if and when we make it too much about personal decisions and the like. This is an act of God for which we can but be eternally grateful!
Nicodemus makes two more very brief, cameo appearances in John’s gospel. The first comes in John 7 when the Sanhedrin begins plotting against Jesus. At that juncture, Nicodemus speaks up to ask that they all make certain to follow the letter of the law in investigating Jesus. Nicodemus’ final appearance is in John 19 when he is said to have helped Joseph of Arimathea embalm and then bury the dead body of Jesus.
We don’t know, though, if either incident indicates he had become a disciple of Jesus after all. Commentators and preachers across the centuries have been divided on this matter. Some say that Nicodemus’ words in John 7 and his actions in John 19 indicate only that he remained fixated, Pharisee-like, on the finer points of the law: he buried Jesus according to the law’s burial requirements but he was not crucified with Jesus in the way Jesus said was necessary. Others are more hopeful that the first person ever to hear John 3:16 found life in those words.
Maybe it did happen that way for old Nicodemus. We should hope it did. And if so, maybe it went something like the way Frederick Buechner fancifully imagined it. Maybe as Nicodemus listened to Jesus in the flicker of the firelight on that long ago night, maybe he found his pulse quickening. Hearing the words of what we now call John 3:16, maybe Nicodemus felt a spasm of joy the likes of which he’d not felt since his first kiss–a thrilling jolt like what you get when the doctor says that you don’t have lung cancer after all but just a touch of the flu.
If so, then perhaps some time later when he buried this quirky rabbi, maybe Nicodemus recalled that image of the snake on a pole. And if so, then maybe, two, three days later, when Nicodemus heard the report that this Jesus had risen from the dead, maybe that old senior citizen Nicodemus found himself inexplicably weeping–crying and carrying on like . . . well, like a newborn baby.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
The author of Genesis assumes you already know him. How else can you explain the bare-bones manner by which this shadowy figure named Abram suddenly appears in the biblical text with so little fanfare? At the conclusion of Genesis 11, Abram is mentioned for the first time but as no more than yet one more entry in a rather dry genealogical listing of the descendants of Noah’s son Shem. We find out about Abram’s father, Terah, and his two brothers, Nahor and Haran. We find out who these three boys married and where they ended up living in Ur of the Chaldeans. But that’s it. There’s nothing particularly striking about any of this material and nothing that would catch the reader’s eye . . . unless you already knew how important Abram was. In that case, he was a man who needed no introduction.
Genesis 12:1 startles us with the announcement that Yahweh himself cleared his divine throat one day and spoke somehow to Abram. And nothing has ever been the same since in this world. What became the nation of Israel started that long-ago day. The Hebrew peoples, later called Jews, started that day. We Christians believe that the line leading up to Jesus started that day, and from there the lines that get drawn clear down to 2014 and the Season of Lent, during which this passage is appointed as a reading in the Year A Lectionary cycle.
Abram. Abraham. He’s not even introduced to us as being a particularly good, moral, or righteous man. We assume all that, but we’re not told. Earlier in Genesis we were told that Abel found favor in God’s sight. Noah alone out of all the earth was found to be righteous, and the text told us this. But Abram receives no such tag. He’s simply called out of a clear blue sky. “Get going,” Yahweh told him. So Abram left. Flying off on the wings of a promise too grand to take in and almost too good to be true, Abram left. He did what people in the Ancient Near East often feared to do, which was to leave behind the land of your father. Many people back then believed that to die away from home, away from your ancestral territory, was to be lost in the afterlife. Nevertheless, Abram left.
His swift obedience speaks volumes. If Abram asked any questions of Yahweh at this juncture, they are not reported to us. If he had any doubts, we are not told about them. Nor are we told if he and Sarai argued about this hare-brained idea of going to an as-yet unspecified place where the two of them would somehow form a nation (despite their inability so far to form even a family). They just go. They spent however much time it took to pack up and then they go.
Verses 6-9 read like a kind of travel itinerary. They go here and there, stop now and again. Finally they get to a place called Canaan only to discover, not surprisingly, a goodly number of people known as the Canaanites. As Abram surveys this new land, Yahweh whispers into his ear yet again, “It’s theirs now but it will belong to your descendants later.” God keeps using the words “offspring” and “descendants” like it’s already a done deal. He obviously knows something Abram and Sarai don’t know yet because of all the things they packed up and loaded onto camels in Ur, a baby buggy and crib were not among them. They’d never had use for one before and didn’t have use for one now, either. Yet God keeps talking about a family–one so large it would need a large land like Canaan to contain it.
That’s the promise anyway, and that’s all they have to go on. So far they’ve been shown a land that already has plenty of people in it (folks who won’t take kindly to the idea of being displaced some day). They’ve been told about a family, and even about an extended family, that has not begun yet (and won’t any time soon, either). To top it all off, verse 10 tells us that the land to which God brings them has a famine! You can almost hear Sarai saying to Abram, “Nice place your God brought us to! You said he promised us a family one day by and by, but did he mention anything about food for tomorrow!?”
Abram is one ordinary man caught up in the extraordinary saga of God’s cosmic salvage operation. In some ways, it’s easy to see the opening of Genesis 12 as a kind of new beginning in the Book of Genesis. We leave behind the broad strokes of God’s dealings with the whole world to focus on the origins of Israel in specific. But it’s a mistake to do that. We need to see Genesis 12 set in the cosmic context of creation. The same God who created everything, as told in the twin-creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, is now working to reclaim that creation run amok, and he’s doing it through the hapless figure of the lone man called Abram–a man who could not possibly have grasped the full scope of what was going to end up happening through him. “All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you,” God promises. But who among us could imagine how such a thing could happen?
But that’s the promise. God vows to make blessings available all over the place if only Abram will do as he’s told. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament. Scattered throughout those books, the Hebrew word for “blessing” crops up 310 times. But Genesis alone contains 28% of those occurrences–talk of blessing clusters in great clumps around the story of Abram because if God’s greater blessing is ever going to come to the world, it will be because of what happens to this man and his long-suffering wife, Sarai.
Abram is going to have to relinquish his present for the sake of a future he will never live to see. Abram will live to see Isaac born, but he’ll die many generations before anything resembling a “great nation” appears on the face of the earth. If, in the end, Abram could look at that and yet still somehow believe the promises to be true, then it required of him a faith that can be described only as sacrificial. In Genesis 12, Abram ends up trying to save his own life and feather his own nest so that his present moment would be better, not worse. Before his life is over, however, he will learn that if God’s promised blessing is ever going to come at all for this world, it will be because people like him renounced the comforts of the present moment so as to open himself up for a future destination toward which he would travel but at which he would never arrive in this life.
As Elizabeth Achtemeier has pointed out, in terms of narrative, the call of Abram in Genesis 12 follows directly on the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. In that story, the people cook up a plan to make a name for themselves. “Come, let’s make a name for ourselves.” But the end of that story is confusion and scattering. By contrast, in Genesis 12 Yahweh comes to Abram and says, “I will make a name for you!” Yahweh himself will be the one to make Abram’s name great, and the result will be a new in-gathering of all the peoples of the earth under the canopy Yahweh’s singular blessing.
But it’s not going to come easily or quickly. The journey of faith cannot be fast-forwarded and there are no short-cuts we can cook up for ourselves to speed things up or to accomplish anything better than God himself will accomplish in his own good time. The journey toward cosmic blessing, like Abram’s own journey of faith, will have its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, its strong leaps forward and its woeful stumbles backward. But once God’s promise is spoken in Genesis 12, one thing is certain: it will happen, it will come to fulfillment.
“So Abram left,” Genesis 12:4 starkly tells us. Abram left, and he never stopped traveling really. Abram left and he never did return, never did settle down again as he had done once upon a time in Ur. Indeed, leap forward a dozen chapters in Genesis and you will discover that in his lifetime, the only plot of ground Abraham ever managed to secure was the little piece of real estate he bargained for in order to bury Sarah, the love of his life.
That’s the way of it when God calls you: you are summoned to a journey whose destination is glory yet the path to that glory is long, dangerous, frustrating, and always fraught with the temptation to chuck the whole thing in favor of just looking out for good old #1 in the here and now, the same way Abram did in Egypt. Thankfully, God’s faithfulness toward us is more constant than ours toward God, and so by grace God keeps yanking us back onto the path of discipleship. As we now know only too well, that path meanders straight into a cross. If ever there were a gruesome reality in the teeth of which the promises looked null and void, the cross was it.
From that cross the Son of God shouted, “It is finished,” but by saying that, Jesus did not mean to convey that he was finished, washed up, done in and defeated. He meant that something was finished in the sense of being completed. What was finished? The blessing once promised to that man called Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans. “I’m going to bless the whole world through you,” God told Abram. A couple millennia later a man named Jesus said, “Done!” And that’s where the story of Abram leads for us Christians. We’ve got promises to hold onto through a faith that believes God will keep those promises. But we have to hold onto them in a world intent on kicking the stuffing out of our faith some days. That’s not easy.
“So Abram left.”
So must we. May God give us the grace to journey with Abram and all who followed him. God give us the grace to follow our Lord in Lent and beyond.
Years ago I read a sermon by someone who lamented the fact that many Christians today treat the characters we meet in the Bible casually, as though they are people just like us, as though someone like Abraham could just as well be the older guy who lives next door. Yet the stories of the Bible, especially stories that go as far back as Abraham’s tale, are ancient. Some years ago there was a cover story in National Geographic magazine was about Abraham. The article’s author re-traces the steps of Abraham’s journeys through the Ancient Near East by taking a modern trip along that same path. He notes along the way the varying ways by which the Abraham story has been used and interpreted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. As is always true of National Geographic, the article was accompanied by some impressive photography.
The pictures swiftly remind one that these events took place nearly 4,000 years ago in a place and at a time as different from our world and times as can be imagined. Indeed, pictures of even the present-day Middle East reveal a terrain and a culture quite foreign to us. Much of the landscape around ancient Ur and other locations Abraham is said to have visited resembles the hard-bitten, mountainous areas of Afghanistan with which we have become so familiar in recent years. Another photo shows the slaughter of sheep at a temple on Mount Gerazim where a small group of Samaritan Jews continues to follow the Old Testament’s laws governing animal sacrifice. It’s startling to see blood-spattered priests presiding over this ritual next to a large burning pit. It most certainly does not look like anything we typically associate with church, religion, or spirituality!
These stories are ancient, yellowed with age, nearly brittle and fragile by now. We need to enter into them accordingly and appreciate all the wonder that can come when we see these narratives aright.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
I have often used this psalm during pastoral visits to various members of congregations I serve. On one particular visit early in my ministry I read it to and with a family that told me they read Psalm 121 before they left on each trip. They found great comfort in its rich promises of God’s protective care during their travels.
Journeys, of course, include a wide variety of experiences. They can lead from anything to a new home, a new beginning or a vacation destination. Journeys involve both daunting or even frightening destinations, as well as returns home.
Often, however, the joy of journeys is found neither in the destination nor home, but in the movement itself. In fact, perhaps ironically, few parts of our journeys produce more joy than various “mountains” (1) to which the psalmist lifts up his eyes.
Most scholars link Psalm 121 to Israelite pilgrimages to Jerusalem and its temple. Such journeys were at best strenuous and worst dangerous. Water along the way was a scarce commodity. The hot sun beat down mercilessly on pilgrims. Some scholars suggest that banditry also posed challenges to pilgrimages.
The psalm has liturgical elements. Some scholars suggest that the pilgrims themselves spoke verses 1-2, while verses 3-8 were spoken by perhaps a priest, travel leader or worshipers who remained at home. The voices of the first two verses and last six both insist that God protects faithful pilgrims on their journeys.
To western Christians such “travelling mercies,” as we sometimes call them, seem largely unnecessary. Our modes of transportation are generally safe. We often attribute safe travels to skilled driving or piloting and favorable conditions.
But to the psalmist’s deeply religious world, safe travel was a matter of the favor of the gods. In fact, even as pilgrims travelled to Mount Zion, they passed by mountains that were topped with shrines and Asherah poles at which people sought various gods’ favor.
It raised a question that’s no less pressing today than it ever was. From where does our help come? Does it come from the puny gods of materialism, technology, the state, military or economic might, or science? Does our help come, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, from those who help themselves? That’s the conclusion to which many of our contemporaries have come.
From where did the pilgrim to Zion’s help come? From the gods of the various mountaintop shrines? Or “from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth”? (v.2). If the question is just as pertinent today as it ever was, so is the answer. The pilgrims’ source of help was the same as modern worshipers’: the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
This God, insists the poet, protects God’s beloved. She uses the Hebrew verb samar, which we generally translate as “keep” or “watch over” no less than six times in the psalm’s eight verses. While it’s a word that can be applied to both human and divine watchfulness, here God is clearly the “keeper.” Because God creates all that exists, the psalmist insists travelers can rest in God’s sustaining protection in every part of God’s creation.
This protective God is vigilant. Israel’s “neighbors” assumed that their gods slept or even died during the winter months, awakening or coming to life only in response to spring prayers and sacrifices. The psalmist insists, by contrast, that the God of heaven and earth never even takes a nap. So God can keep a constant watch over Israel and her pilgrims.
In verse 5 the poet cites the “sun … by day, [and] the moon by night” as threats from which God protects God’s children. Yet those planets threaten travelers with more than sunburn and dehydration as well as lunacy which ancients linked to exposure to moonbeams. Israel’s neighbors thought of the sun and moon as representing Ra, the Egyptian sun god and Nanna, the Mesopotamian moon god. So the poet suggests that God protects God’s people not only from the elements, but also the threats posed by other gods.
Yet as one scholar notes, while it’s comforting enough to know that God watches over travellers as we move from one place to another, it’s even more comforting to know that protection also extends throughout worshipers’ lives, from one circumstance to another. Not only does the Lord protect God’s adopted sons and daughters from “all evil” (7). That protection lasts the whole lifetime … and beyond, “both now and forevermore” (8).
In the season of Lent during which the Lectionary appoints it, parts of this psalm take on special poignancy. For example, verses 1’s “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?” alludes to the ancient practice of people climbing mountains in order to meet their deities. In the Jesus Christ whom we follow to the cross during Lent, God has come among God’s people. God’s people don’t have to climb anything, including mountains, to meet the Lord. God, in Christ, has “climbed down” to meet us.
The March 11, 2013 “Huffington Post” (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/nap-benefits-national-napping-day_n_2830952.html) invited readers to celebrate the unofficial holiday of National Napping Day. It lists six healthy reasons to “slumber” for even as little as just 20 minutes.
Napping, first, boosts alertness. The Harvard Men’s Health Watch suggests that even just a 20-minute nap perks up shift workers. Second, napping improves memory and learning. MRI scans suggest brain activity in nappers remains higher all day than in people who who don’t take a rest. Napping, third, increases creativity. Researchers discovered a burst of activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, the side most closely linked to creativity, after naps.
Fourth, napping boosts productivity. Short power naps can be just the right pick-up for sleep-deprived, worn-out employees. Napping, fifth, lifts spirits. Quick naps are well-documented mood boosters. Napping, finally, zaps stress. Even just a short time of resting in bed can be helpful.
Yet God never even “slumbers or sleeps” (4).
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.
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.”