“Being accepted.” We all want to be accepted by others, especially those whom we like and respect. Some go to great lengths in order to be accepted. Teenagers are very concerned with their peer group and will do whatever it takes to be accepted by them. For some that means wearing the right clothes; for others it means getting involved in alcohol or drugs. Some adults work hard at their jobs so that their peers or bosses will accept them. We want to be accepted by others.
How badly do we want God’s acceptance? We work very hard so others will accept us. Are we as concerned about God accepting us? And if so, what do we have to do to gain God’s acceptance? Do we have to work exceptionally hard at being good in order for God to accept us? That is why the teaching of justification by faith that Paul talks about in this part of Romans is so important. We will read Romans 4:1-25 but we will focus on verses 18-25.
I. Paul explains justification by faith by first looking at Abraham’s hope and faith.
In verse 18 Paul says, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” Now how can one not have hope and still have hope? There are two different kinds of hope here. The first hope is that which is based on our past human experiences. For example, a number of years ago Claire was talking with a woman next to her on a plane who had a daughter who had been seriously injured in an accident. The daughter is a wife and mother of 5 children but her mental capacity has now been reduced to that of a 5-year-old. Doctors said that humanly speaking, all hope was gone for her recovering.
The second hope is hope based on God that takes over when human hope is exhausted. This hope says, “There is no human hope, but I believe that God can do all things, and therefore I do have hope.” God had promised Abraham that he would become the father of many nations. This would become a reality when a son would be born to him and Sarah.
The problem was that Abraham’s body was as “good as dead,” being almost 100 years old. It was humanly impossible now for Abraham to father a child. Moreover, Sarah was barren and also very old. They were in the time of life when they were thinking more about death than creating a new life. There was no basis for human hope; it was a lost cause.
But “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed!” Verse 20 says, “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.” In spite of the loss of all human hope, he still had hope that God would act. In fact, he “was strengthened in his faith.” The worse the situation became, the more confident he became that God was going to keep His promise.
How could he do that? The answer is in verses 20-21: He “gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” “Gave glory to God” means he accepted God for who God was. Abraham believed God had the power to do whatever God chose to do. So we get the picture of Abraham wondering in awe at how in the world God was going to do what was humanly impossible but still he was following God in faith.
A television program preceding the Winter Olympics several years ago featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing, impossible as that sounds. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting, “Left!” and “Right!” As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course, depending solely on the sighted skier’s word. They had to have complete trust or face potential catastrophe. Abraham couldn’t see as well, but he followed God and believed his promise. But what is important to note is what this faith gained for him from God.
II. Abraham’s righteousness was the result.
In verse 22, Paul simply states, “This is why, ‘It was credited to him as righteousness.’” It was because of Abraham’s powerful faith, his willingness to believe in spite of all evidence, that he received or was credited with righteousness. What does faith have to do with righteousness?
Righteousness must be seen in its Old Testament setting of the covenant. In the covenant, the people could expect certain things from God. They could expect God to bless them and care for them. They could expect God to be their God in every way. Also in the covenant, God expected certain things from His people. They were to obey Him and keep His commandments. They were to love God above all and their neighbor as themselves. So generally speaking, a “righteous” person is one who has done everything that has been expected of him in the covenant relationship; he has perfectly obeyed God’s law. It was this righteousness that Abraham was credited with in spite of his sin. Because Abraham believed in God’s promises, God said to him, “I now view you as one who keeps my law and fulfills my covenant perfectly! You are righteous!”
What is crucial for us to see is that the same righteousness can be for us as well. We too can be declared righteous by God Himself. Verses 23-24 state it very clearly: “The words, ‘It was credited’ 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.” What was true for Abraham can also be true for us.
Our being “righteous” means the same thing as it did for Abraham. God wants us to be in a special relationship with Him. He wants us to live with Him and love Him in all we do. We know that sin makes it impossible for us to do what God expects us to do. So we are in a hopeless situation for it is humanly impossible to please God.
What is God’s answer to our problem? Last week we saw how God gave us Jesus Christ to be our atonement. Jesus took on himself all our sins and thus removed them completely. But more than that, because of Jesus, God now declares us to be “righteous.” Not only does God not view us as sinners any longer, but now as people who always do the will of God in every part of their lives.
Paul says that this perfect righteousness is also credited to us. How? Verse 25 says, “Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” We get to take the credit for Jesus’ obedience and apply it to ourselves. This marks one of the greatest exchanges or trades of all times. In the sports world, there are often trades between teams.
What is the key? The same thing that happened with Abraham: We must have faith. Article 22 of the Belgic Confession says, “We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him... And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”... And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with “all his benefits.”
IV. What should our faith be like?
Faith for Abraham meant that he knew the promise would not come from himself. That is where our faith must begin as well. The song “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady has this powerful line: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” That is the beginning of faith: we have no hope in ourselves.
That is something that we must continually emphasize for ourselves. We tend to think that we can bring things to God and help with our righteousness. If you ask a long-standing member of a church why he or she should be allowed to enter heaven after they die, you will often get the answer that they have tried to live a good Christian life and be the best Christian they could be. Now if you press you will also discover that they really believe it is only what Jesus has done for them that makes the difference. But that common answer betrays the tension that we often have. We feel that we need to do something to help God accept us. We can bring nothing to God; if anyone is going to save us from the mess of sin that we are in and receive the gift of righteousness, it is going to have to be God alone.
If we are to receive the gift of righteousness as Abraham did, then it must be complete full faith in the Lord alone and nothing else right now as well. We tend to think of faith as something that we will need when we die and in the meantime we will take care of ourselves. So we have faith for our eternal future, but for now we also try to have the right clothes and body to go in them so that we feel good about ourselves. A good retirement program and good bank account to fall back on. These are the things that the world bases its hopes on.
We have to place our trust in the right person or the right place. It was likely one of the epic fails of my many years of doing children’s sermons. I was trying to teach the children that they could trust me by doing a trust fall. I had a girl standing in front of me and encouraging her to fall and I said that I would catch her when she fell. Well, as some of you may well remember, I forgot one key word: “backwards,” and so when she fell, she fell forward and face-planted. God is saying that he will give us righteousness, but we must not fall on anything other than faith in Him for if we do, we will fall on our face with tragic results. Instead, we must fall back completely on his grace and he will not only catch us; he will give us credit for Jesus’ perfect life and obedience when we stand before God.
But let us also hear a positive word of comfort from this teaching. This should help us not to be overwhelmed with the trying circumstances of our lives. There are so many things that can overwhelm us. Our jobs and the frustrations that go with it. Our problems with family relationships and tensions. Our concerns with our own health or the health of a loved one. These and other problems seem to abound in the world around us. There are so many things around us that can cause us to lose hope. We may begin to wonder about the promises that God has made to us.
The lesson here is keep on believing that God will save in the future but also help us in the present as well. Abraham had no reason for believing in God’s promise. Yet he believed anyway and God richly blessed him. We have no human reason to believe that we will be forgiven and spend eternity with the Lord. We have no human reason to believe that things will get better for those with greatly pressing problems in their lives. Yet we keep on believing anyway because our belief and trust is in God the Creator and Redeemer of all. Keep on believing and this faith will be richly rewarded. You will be rewarded in the future with eternal life. You will be rewarded in the present as well as we live in confidence and joy knowing that God will help us.