Scripture: Romans 4:1-8
We use the word “faith” a lot in Christian teaching, but do we understand what it means and our part in faith?
In my journey I have seen faith expressed in many different ways, and in many different denominational biases. Let me explain what I mean:
In my early days I believed faith was an action of obedience. You see in the Salvation Army the term obedient faith was critical in understanding your security in salvation. By being obedient to Jesus, doing all he said we are to do and serving Him actively we evidenced and proved we had faith. In a sense faith was action from conviction, and evidenced your place in Jesus.
I had a close friend when I was a teenager who was a strong high Anglican. Now days he if a “brother” of one of the celebrant groups in this denomination. To him faith was expressed in the sacraments, living a good moral life and obedience to the cloister he assigned himself too.
When I was an older teen ager I went at times to the AOG fellowship. Here faith was as much an emotional experience as a thinking exercise. They believed that if you believed it should be a vibrant experience that feels close to God. A constant sense of God walking near.
Later I served in the New Life stream as a youth pastor. To some their faith was an exercise to see how much they could believe God for. If you were sick then faith was the act of convincing yourself that you are well so you could “seed” your faith and be healed.
I encountered the hyper-faith group here also who believed faith was the act of claiming what you desired and if you did not doubt but held to your conviction, living it out even though you had not received what you claimed, you had faith and that would open the doors of heaven and life would be joyful and prosperous.
In RBC I met some people who believed faith was a mystical force that you linked into with the right frequency and right words – a kind of spiritual mystical higher power that is like water requiring you to turn the tap on for the “divine encounter” to happen.
Finally, there are those who I have met who have reduced faith down to simply a set of belief statements – as long as you believe right, and know right, you have faith in what is right.
But what exactly is faith according to Paul?
At least, how did he see faith working and what is the purpose of faith?
A strange question to ask is “What is the opposite to faith”? this might surprise us too.
Our lesson today is the relationship between faith and grace – between our action and divine action when it comes to salvation and living right before God.
Part 1: The story of Abraham:
Romans 4:1-3 (NIV) 1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, 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 Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
The story of Abram, who became Abraham, starts in a most startling way. We have this unknown man, from an unimportant place who we know very little about, other than his family line and that he was reasonably wealthy.
He certainly doesn’t come to us as a priest or prophet, merely a man about his business. In some encounter that is not fully explained to us God says to Abram “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12)
God then promised Abram the following:
Genesis 12:2-3 (NIV) 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
It is the next statement I find most telling:
“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (verse 4)
In the new testament Jesus speaks of such faith when he taught of the person who for the sake of his calling on their lives would be willing to give up all for the sake of the Gospel. Such a person would be blessed in the life to come in a very special way (Matthew 19:29). I wonder if he is reflecting back to Abram who did exactly this. He left his home and country, his culture and comfort and his heritage and became the father of all who believe in the salvation God offers through faith?
Over some time, they arrive in the land of Canaan, that would one day become Israel. Here the Lord told him that he would inherit this land, and his children and their children would come to know this as their home.
Over a period of time, and a few complicated events requiring Abram to stand up for what he believed to be right, God appeared to him again and in Genesis 15 we have the statement Paul quotes in Romans 4:3. Let’s unpack this a little and see how Abram’s faith was declared to be righteous:
God appears to Abram again as his “shield” and “great reward”.
Abram talks of being childless, and therefore the promise God made to him about his future children looked a bit thin on being fulfilled – he was old, and his wife no longer able to have children.
God promises him a child through his wife.
God then also told him that one day his children will number like the stars in the sky.
What happens next, I will quote from the Bible:
Genesis 15:6 (NIV) 6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Back to Paul's comment in our section:
Romans 4:3 (NIV) 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
It was God who called him, God who made the promise and God who went with him to guide and assist him. All Abram did is went and trusted – even though this trust at times was a struggle and imperfect. But it wasn’t Abram who declared himself right or good enough, it was God – and there is a key to understanding faith.
Faith is a response to what God has done, and what He has promised.
Faith is not ourselves convincing ourselves to believe harder or more profoundly, it is the conviction that God is and that He is faithful to Himself. It is not that I chased down God and wrestled Him to the ground in getting all the answers, but simply a belief that God is who He claims to be therefore we trust Him to know what He is doing.
Faith is a conviction that God is worth trusting in spite of our fears, doubts and unworthiness because we understand that He called us, not that we were good enough. Faith is a response towards God simply because He is what He is.
Abrams faith started with an “unknown God” who over time revealed Himself to Abram in life and circumstances – and this lead Abram to be determined to trust God even more deeply and profoundly as time went on.
Faith is the journey towards knowing God and discovering how good He is towards us. You see the opposite to faith is not doubt, in fact facing our doubt can strengthen our faith dramatically; the opposite of faith is rebellion. Faith is the walk towards God, rebellion is always a walk away from God. Doubt reminds us we don’t know everything, rebellion is the act of saying to God we will do it our way not His.
Point 2: Faith and grace – the key and door.
Romans 4:4-5 (NIV) 4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
Paul shifts to an everyday way of thinking about faith and grace. The illustration of a worker who earns a wage, and a person who receives a gift.
In the first idea we have an employer and employee. A person would go to work and does their responsibilities and then get paid for their effort and labour – such a person is morally and legally entitled to payment. The employer may well define what job needs to be done, but they are obligated to pay up.
The one who works is entitled – their wage is a merit for the work they have accomplished, and therefore to be expected.
But we can not come to God for salvation with that thinking, this would interfere with God’s purposes in Jesus Christ.
The second idea is the way of faith and grace. In this concept we have one who recognises the inability to earn the wage or earnings of “justification” by their own self righteousness and efforts. Such is Babel again – Elevating humanity to deity and then worshipping the self. And no matter how high we might build ourselves up we always remain at ground level when our sin is measured against our efforts to prove ourselves.
Paul links the second idea to salvation, or more accurately “justification” – the legal term for saying “not guilty” and “no penalty required”.
Here is where faith and grace collide together and create the work of “rightness” before God.
Think of it this way. There is a door that leads to a forgiveness, but it is a big door whose handle is so specialised that only the maker of the door could possibly open it. It is a handle so special that all who would try to force it open merely seal the door tighter and find themselves frustrated and more aware of futility.
But there is a door man before the great door who has knowledge of the door, skill to open it and a desire to allow people through – all that is required is to believe and accept that he will open the door for you – think of the door man as not merely the only authorised person to open the door, but the key to it as well.
Think of justification as the door wide open, the door man as faith and the door as grace. You come not believing in the door, nor the handle but rather in the door man to do as he has promised – to open the door.
Jesus, the door man, has through his suffering, death and resurrection earned the right to manage the door. He is the handle that opens the door and the source by which grace is swung wide open to humanity.
Faith is the trust and confidence not in your ability to open the door, impress the door man or demand and jump at the handle in futility – it is simply towards the door man to do what he has promised to do – let you through the door.
The door is swung open as a gift of love – of care and concern by the Divine for your wellbeing. This is what grace is, a gift of love towards us.
That is why when you come to Jesus, trust in His accomplishments and ask Him to open the door your faith is united by His ability to open the door for you, and the freedom to experience what is on the other side.
Faith is not a work, nor an effort. It is a realisation that unless God turns the handle the door remains shut, and the handle is turned when one places trust and confidence in the Lord of the Door – Jesus Christ.
If Jesus is raised back to life he certainly can open the door.
And what is through this door?
Point 3: Blessed assurance.
Romans 4:6-8 (NIV) 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
‘The only thing of my very own which I can contribute to my redemption is the sin from which I need to be redeemed’ (William Temple – Zondervan Bible Commentary).
Here Paul quotes a Psalm where David recognised how sinful and rebellious he had been, how his lust and power came together to do a great evil that hurt others he was meant to protect and serve. Such shame eventually hit him that he repented, really repented. He was sorry for what he had done, sorry for the effects on others and it impact and final sorry enough to not want to do it again. Such repentance did lead him to experience forgiveness through God’s grace.
This Psalms 32 talks about how when he refused to accept the sin and bad that he had done he felt crushed with guilt and worn by the effects of guilt. But when he owned up and found forgiveness from God he understood that he was Blessed.
Paul first uses Abram, the father of the nation to show faith and grace. Now he turns to the great king David to show the effects of faith and grace when experienced in the depth of sin – “Blessed”
And what is blessed?
What does this word mean?
Blessed means fortunate and privileged.
And why is someone fortunate and privileged?
Sin, its effects and condemnation, its terror on our souls and its eternal consequences is dealt with once and for all. The door man opens the door of grace through faith and all our sin, all its consequence are dealt with:
Our breaking of God’s law is forgiven.
Our failure to do what is right and what is good is covered over.
The second mercy seat of God, Golgotha, perfectly deals with our missing the mark, so perfectly that God no longer sees them nor weighs them against us.
One might say that God loving us is fortunate, and that is true. But Divine love has purpose and produces an effect that is so fortunate and beneficial for us – total forgiveness of all sin, and the freedom to be seen by God as completely right before Him. In every sense of the word we are sinless because the door man who we trust and have confidence in paid the price and became the only one who can let us in – and when He does we enter in His invitation, as his guest and as his family in faith.
We enter in as Abrams family – the promised from the many nations. God faithful to Himself.
So, what is faith?
Faith is in the person of Jesus and our response to Him. It is the realisation that you don’t have to be good enough, you merely have to recognise He is good enough to be the doorman, the door handle and the door all at once.
You need not have faith in yourself to be good enough.
You need not have faith in the Church and its dogmas.
You need not have faith in another man’s teachings.
You need merely know Jesus, through the gospel, and trust in Him.
We are not called to have faith in our faith, nor trust in our own ability to convince ourselves.
The only question we need to really answer to experience God’s gift of sin, evil, bad behaviour, breaking the law and rebellion being forgiven is this “Do I trust Jesus to be the Mercy Seat for my sin?”
Start with who is Jesus, why he came, what he did and is he worth trusting?
You need not prove yourself good enough to God, He is fully aware of your inability to open the door of Justification. That is why He sent Jesus His divine door man – He opens what is shut, and He forgives what seems unforgivable and this is a gift, not a labourer’s wage.
So then, what is faith?
Trust and confidence in Jesus to do what He has promised – to forgive you. Faith is in a person, not in my competence or goodness, but in his competence and goodness.