[Bible study on Romans – post 5]
“I shouldn’t be doing this.”
“I should be doing ______.”
“Why did I do that?”
“I’d better start ______.”
“When am I going to stop ______?”
There’s no getting away from thoughts like these, is there?
The fact is, every single one of us lives with a set of rules. We don’t necessarily follow them (at least not all the time), but they’re still there.
We also don’t agree with each other on what those rules should be. And so we all-too-often argue and start wars and split churches and sever marriages…
…even though Paul dedicates an entire chapter of Romans to proving that God does not label us as “good” or “bad” according to whether or not we keep the right set of rules.
Put that way, it sounds almost blasphemous, doesn’t it? Aren’t we all supposed to do what’s right? (yes) And don’t we have to know what’s right in order to do it? (If that isn’t a loaded question I don’t know what is.) And yet…
Let’s look at Romans 4. In it, Paul begins to explain exactly how this grace thing works.
For the Jews, the foundations of all their beliefs and identity are in Abraham. So that’s where Paul begins, by saying (v. 1-3, my paraphrase), “So what about Abraham? Was he justified because he kept all the rules? Nope!”
He reminds them when and why God said that Abraham was righteous. It was back in Genesis 15:6 when God gave Abraham the promise that his descendants through an as-yet-unborn son would be as numerous as the stars. God called Abraham a righteous man for one reason… because he believed that God could and would fulfill that outlandish promise He’d just made.
I find it so easy to just skim over those verses without really thinking about how remarkable this statement really is.
What if it had been you… not receiving a promise, but making a promise?
Suppose you had won the lottery and not told anyone at all. For all they’d seen in the past, you were just an average Joe with a factory job, living paycheck to paycheck. As you looked around at your family and friends, you made plans for what you were going to do for each. During a private conversation with one couple, you asked how much they owed on their medical bills because you were going to pay them all off for them. They looked at you like you’d found a new and somewhat odd way of joking around and never did give you the total. Then another’s car blew the engine, so you told him to go pick out a new car. But he didn’t see how you were capable of buying anything, so he never went and picked one. But let’s say you have stressed-out widowed mother who had recently lost her job. Let’s further say that, unlike the other two, it was her fault that she’d lost her job. Her bills were a mess because she was extremely forgetful and never paid bills on time, so the late fees and overdraft fees compounded. But you went and told her not to worry about looking for a new job. You were going to pay off the rest of her mortgage and take care of her bills from then on. She looked at you, saw the seriousness in your face, took a deep breath… and relaxed. Then she went and gathered up her bills and her checkbook and handed them to you.
She took you at your word. And even though she didn’t see how, she trusted that you wouldn’t have said it if you didn’t have the means to do it.
That’s what God said Abraham did. And that is why Abraham was righteous in God’s eyes.
But that seems strange, too! To us, “Righteous” means doing what’s right. Whereas, according to these verses, God thinks of righteousness as something totally different… something that is somehow simpler yet almost more difficult. All we’ve got to do is believe what God says. And everything we have to do must come from the foundation of everything God has said. Simple, complete, and not easy.
Abraham’s debt of sin wasn’t made right because he paid his bills on time and never let his account go into overdraft. It wouldn’t have been made right if he had quit lying to kings about who his wife was. (Gen. 12:11-20 and Gen. 20) It was made right because he believed what God said.
Paul expands on it a little more in verses 18-22 if we jump ahead a bit:
18 In hope against hope Abraham believed, so that he might become (A)a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “(B)So shall your [a]descendants be.” 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now (C)as good as dead since (D)he was about a hundred years old, and(E)the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, (F)giving glory to God, 21 and (G)being fully assured that (H)what God had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore (I)it was also credited to him as righteousness.
4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.
In other words, if anyone did manage to know and remember exactly what every single last one of God’s laws were, and if that person also managed to perfectly keep every one of them, then his wage–being labeled “righteousness”–would certainly be owed to him.
5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,
But all the rest of us who cannot perfectly and successfully fulfill the works necessary for earning righteousness that way (ie: all of us since no one is able to take advantage of option #1, see Romans 3:23 and this post.)… we’ve got another way of becoming righteous. We can believe that when and how God says we’ve been made righteous, we are. That faith–that belief–is what makes us righteous. (Later in Romans, we’ll get into what kind of belief this really is, for it must be deeper and more complete than just a mental agreement that Jesus died for us. This is very important for anyone reading just this post and tempted to take it out of the context of all of Romans.)
In verses 6-8, Paul then points out some more Old Testament proof:
6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7 (F)“ Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,
And whose sins have been covered.
8 (G)“ Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Ephesians 2:8 says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Finally, in verses 9-10, Paul points out that God called Abraham righteous before Abraham was circumcised. In other words, this pivotal change in status from unrighteous to righteous happened before God entered into the covenant with Abraham. This also happens to be long, long before God gave Moses the law.
This is very, very important for all of us who aren’t Jews. The rest of the chapter explains why, but I’ll save that for the next post.
Please leave a comment if you have anything to share!