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Romans (Series 1)

Learning from Your Father

Romans  4

{This session begins with an exercise. Each person is given a 3 by 5 yellow sticky note, and asked to write down “the most important thing my father ever taught me.” If the relationship with the father is sufficiently bad, “the most important thing I wish my father had taught me.” These are then posted in two locations: one for those things taught by word; the other, for those things taught by example}

“... Abraham ... discovered.”

(Rom 4:1-8 NIV) 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. {6} David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: {7} "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. {8} Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him."

Verbs are the action words of the English language. I have bolded the two words for this section: “Abraham discovered.” For indeed Abraham discovered how faith works by putting it into practice; it was not by instruction but by practical discovery that his faith was developed. There are three prime examples:

1.    He emigrated to the land of Palestine at God’s command (Genesis 12). I wonder very much how many of us would pack it up to go to (for example) Chile at God’s command.

2.    He trusted God that a son would be born to him and Sarah (Genesis 17) -- at a time of life when most of us would be telling God that Medicare doesn’t cover pregnancy.

3.    At God’s command he attempted to sacrifice that only son (Genesis 22). This was God’s great test of his faith. It’s interesting to note that the sacrifice as commanded is contrary to the Old Testament Law of Moses.

Such an example of faith to us seems beyond reach. Let me suggest that one reason for this (there are several) is that we do learn from our experience -- we learn what we are exampled. We look at other people around us, see their failings and (in the style of “me and Jesus in the telephone booth”) conclude that God somehow must have the same failings. Of course, the conclusion is an unconscious one. Look at it this way:

·         People cannot be trusted like that because they change their minds. People are in time, but God is eternal; His purposes never change.

·         People cannot be trusted because they do not have the power to carry out their intentions; but God is omnipotent.

·         One reason God allows such failings in others is to drive us to trust in Him alone.

Our reaction to such a world is to “hedge our bets.” We’ll trust God -- to a reasonable point, of course. We’ll also rely on our good deeds to build up a nice, healthy balance of brownie points where God “owes us.” Paul points out the fallacy of such a hedge. We can see that this method is false:

·         As he points out, if you work, you get wages. Wages are proportionate to the value of the work (somehow). If you have faith, what you get is totally disproportionate. It is a gift. How do you “work” to obtain a “gift?” The two are mutually exclusive.

·         They are also mutually exclusive because righteousness can only reside on one side of you -- the inside or the outside. Either you are confident of your inner righteousness (and therefore are outside a sinner, namely a hypocrite) or you are confident of your inner sinfulness (and therefore a repentant sinner on the outside, and thus justified).

·         Is it just possible this is why our faith is so weak?

Claiming the promises vs. Working a Claim

(Rom 4:9-17 NIV) Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. {10} Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! {11} And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. {12} And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. {13} It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. {14} For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, {15} because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. {16} 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 but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. {17} As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.

We come now to a curious error in human faith: the idea that somehow the ritual we undergo is a “work” of righteousness. We should have disposed of this idea in the last section -- for works obtain their proportionate reward, and the reward here is all out of proportion. It is important to remember that baptism (like its predecessor, circumcision) is an outward symbol of the inward transformation. Paul makes this clear here by pointing out that God credited righteousness to Abraham before circumcision (about fourteen years earlier, to be specific).

Process Analysis

Paul now engages in what might be called process analysis today. To see why he needs to do this, I give you one hypothetical example: suppose you encounter (as you stand in the bread line at the Union Rescue Mission) two men. One, a thorough legalist whose pride is the spur to his legalism, pours the soup. The other, a man who loves Christ and therefore helps his brothers, hands out the bread. Can you really tell which is which? It is almost impossible in others to distinguish between works as the cause of righteousness (i.e., self righteousness) and the effect of love. Paul gives us the distinction here in terms of the process of each:

·         Start with the law; it yields transgressions (you can’t run a stop sign that isn’t there). Transgression yields punishment, the wrath of God.

·         Start with faith; it yields repentance. Repentance yields grace.

Permit me an analogy. Many Christians begin with the idea that they must learn “the rules of the game.” It’s as if they expected the church to be a locker room. They walk in thinking, “If I see pads and helmets, it’s probably football. Look for a bat -- that means baseball. The thing then is to choose the right game.” In fact, you walk in and see pads and helmets on one side --- and an artist’s palette, brushes and canvas on the other. The choice is not “which game” (i.e., which set of rules) but choosing between “playing the game” (legalism) and creating a work of art -- a life pleasing to God.

Paul talks much here of “the promise.” The word is interesting in the Greek: Epaggeliaia. It means a promise which is unconditional. God does not change; his promises are unconditional. For us to “claim the promises” is to take God at His word. In short, we are to say “yes God, I believe you will do what you say you will do -- and I’m going to act upon that belief.” I propose to you three simple tests of this in your life:

1.    What do you say about God’s promises? “God can do so little with me; I’m such a sinner” sounds so humble. It really says, “I don’t believe God’s promise that he can make me great in the kingdom -- it’s just too tough for Him.”

2.    Do our actions show such confidence in Him -- or are we hedging our bets?

3.    Do our worries show a lack of confidence in Him?

(Mat 6:28-34 NIV) "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. {29} Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. {30} If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? {31} So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' {32} For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. {33} But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. {34} Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

On Hope

(Rom 4:18-25 NIV) 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. {25} He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Hope has one key characteristic: it appears to be impossible. If you can see it coming, it’s not hope. Abraham understood it well:

(Gen 17:15-17 NIV) God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. {16} I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." {17} Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?"

He knew it was absurd; he laughed (and by the way, Sarah did too, in Genesis 18). But God did as He said. The Hebrew word for “laughter” is Isaac. So with all that, how is it that Abraham kept his faith? I submit it was by the discipline of obedience; Abraham trusted God and therefore obeyed Him. There are, I think, three key points to this:

·         “Only those who believe, obey. Only those who obey, can believe.” (Bonhoeffer). If you are not in a relationship of obedience to your Lord (a relationship of love) how can you believe?

·         Disobedience cuts the line of trust. “You cannot cheat an honest man” also implies that a dishonest man trusts no one. If you are disobedient to Him, you naturally suspect He will betray you.

·         It’s OK to ask for help. (Luke 11:13 NIV) If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

And what is the “impossible” for which we hope? Paul outlines it in the last two verses. First, that Jesus was “delivered over to death for our sins”--

·         As such, He became our substitute (II Corinthians 5:21).

·         In such, He changes our lives (I Peter 2:24)

·         For such, He is coming again (Hebrews 9:28)

Next, that Jesus was “raised to life for our justification.” His resurrection is our guarantee of our eventual resurrection, as Paul puts it:

(1 Cor 15:17-22 NIV) And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. {18} Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. {19} If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. {20} But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. {21} For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. {22} For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

There you have it:

·         Faith means an absolute trust in God.

·         It is shown in what we say and do.

·         Its hope (and I submit result) is in the return of our Lord and our resurrection.

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