Dr. Richard L. Strauss
November 11, 1990
Purpose: To see from the experience of Abraham that a right standing before God is obtained through faith alone.
"You have just won a three-day Hawaiian holiday, all expenses paid. Just call this number and claim your prize." Ha! You've heard that story, haven't you? It sounds wonderful, something you've always dreamed of. Your hands are shaking with excitement and anticipation as you dial the number. "Yes, it's true. All you have to do is come and listen to our two-hour time-share presentation, and then, of course, you will need to pay your own transportation costs to and from the islands. The gift only includes accommodations and meals in Hawaii." Your heart sinks because you know there's no way you can scrape together that much money.
There's always a catch to it, isn't there? We keep biting on these supposed giveaways, only to find out that they're too good to be true, and that the old saying is right: "There ain't no free lunch." And it happens so often, we get brainwashed and even begin to doubt what God says about His free gift of eternal salvation.
In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul has established beyond all doubt that the whole world is guilty before God--both Jew and Gentile--and deserving of God's wrath. But we saw in the last part of chapter 3 that God in His grace has provided a means by which mankind may be declared righteous and acceptable in His sight, and escape His righteous wrath against sin. That means of escaping God's wrath and judgment is none other than simple faith in the sacrificial death of His Son.
Romans 3:21-24, 28. "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God, the right standing before God, which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
A right standing before God is a free gift? It has nothing to do with keeping God's law? That sounds too good to be true, and Paul knows it. He realizes that he has to do more than just say it. He has to demonstrate it from the Old Testament Scriptures. And he chooses the very best illustration there is: Abraham. You see, Abraham was the father of the Jewish nation. As a matter of fact, he's a man revered by three major world religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Jewish rabbis claimed that he was perfect in all his deeds, all the days of his life (Hendriksen, 145). If anybody could have made it on works, it was Abraham. And if Paul could show that Abraham was declared to be right with God on the basis of his faith alone, rather than his good deeds, his religious rites, or anything else he could offer God, then he could rest his case.
Justification by Faith Apart from Works
That's what Romans 4 is all about, and the case is awesome. Abraham was justified by faith, ALONE! Faith, first of all, apart from his own good works. And that's the emphasis of the first eight verses of the chapter.
Romans 4:1. "What then shall we say that Abraham our father is found according to the flesh."
Let's find out what Abraham, our human forefather, discovered about this matter of how a person gets right with God.
Romans 4:2. "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God."
Now you understand that. Good deeds always give us something to brag about. We like to tell people a little about our accomplishments and then hope that they will ask us some more so we can elaborate and they can be duly impressed. Well that may work pretty well with people, but not with God. He's not impressed.
Romans 4:3. "For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness."
That's a direct quote of Genesis 15:6. God had just promised Abraham the impossible, that he would beget a child from his own body who would be his heir, and that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens--that, in addition to earlier promises that in him and his seed--that son--all nations of the earth would be blessed. What a fantastic promise! We assume on the basis of other passages such as John 8:56. There, Jesus said, "Abraham saw My day and was glad." He saw My day. We assume from that that Abraham understood--at least had some understanding--that his seed referred to God's Son who would die for the sins of the world and rise from the dead to impart righteousness and life to all who would trust Him. Abraham saw Christ's day.
And Abraham believed that. He believed! And God accounted that to him for righteousness. It was "reckoned" to him (NASB). It was "credited" to him (NIV). That's a bookkeeping term meaning to enter in an account book. When God looked a Abraham's books, they were heavy on the debit side, in spite of what the Rabbis claimed. There were sins, shortcomings, faults and failures. He deserved God's wrath, just like everybody else. But God saw Abraham's faith in Him and His promises, and in an act of amazing grace, God cancelled all those debts. He wrote on the credit side "RIGHTEOUS," and closed the book forever. Abraham was declared righteous because he believed God.
God could do that without being unjust because He knew that Messiah would come and pay those debts for Abraham, and for everybody else with Abraham's faith.
The Genesis account doesn't mention anything that Abraham did to deserve that, only that he believed God. Genesis 15:6--he believed God. And Paul goes on to explain the implications of that.
Romans 4:4. "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt."
When you put in a week's work, you expect to get paid for it. If you were to give your employer your very best for the week--you give him everything you've got--and he comes up to you at the end of the week and says, "Out of the sheer goodness and grace of my heart I want to give you this check freely, which you have done absolutely nothing to deserve," how would you feel? Like cramming it down his throat, right? You earned that pay check. It's not a gift at all. He owes it to you.
But on the other hand, if he comes to you before you ever lift a finger, just when you've been hired on, he says to you, "I'm thrilled that you want to be part of our team. Before you start to work, I'd like to give you this $1000 bonus." That's pure grace. He doesn't owe it to you. You have done nothing to deserve it. You just reach out and take it and say a hearty, "Thank you." Grace.
And that's the way it is when it comes to a right standing before God.
Romans 4:5. "But to him who does not work"--he hasn't even started to work yet, see--"to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted to him for righteousness."
That's God's word. Now Paul's not knocking good works. But when it comes to making ourselves acceptable to God, they have absolutely no value whatsoever. That's what the Bible says: no value whatsoever. As a matter of fact, we must be willing to repudiate any value we ever thought they might have. That's what it means when it says "to him who does not work." We simply believe on Him. Then He, in His grace, justifies us, declares us righteous, credits His righteousness to our account, makes us acceptable to Him. It worked that way for Abraham, and it works that way for us.
And by the way, it worked that way for David, too. Abraham is the major subject of the chapter, but Paul slips in a quick mention of David from Psalm 32.
Romans 4:6-8. "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works."
Psalm 32:1-2. "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit."
There wasn't anything David could do to get rid of his burden of guilt except cast himself in simple faith on God's mercy and grace. And that's all we can do.
This may be one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented truths in the whole Bible. People simply don't want to believe it because it sounds too good to be true. Even people who otherwise seem to understand the gospel sometimes discredit this great truth by parroting derogatory labels they have heard others use, such as "easy believism."
Read Romans 4:5 again. "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted to him for righteousness." It is faith that brings salvation. It is faith that makes us right with God. Not anything we can contribute to it.
Please, dear Christian. Don't garble the message. Be careful to maintain the purity of the gospel. Don't mess up the message with human ideas. Salvation is simply by faith, apart from any good work. To insist on anything else is to proclaim another gospel. Another gospel. You know what Paul says about that in Galatians 1:6-9? Anybody who proclaims another gospel, let him be accursed. Those are strong words. Are you getting the feeling that I'm exercised about this?! Well, I'm glad, because I am exercised about this. This is the word of God, dear friends. Let's not confuse it or distort it in any way.
Abraham was justified by faith apart from human works. I find it so difficult to understand how anybody can read the Scripture and say they're going to get into heaven because they were such nice folks and did so many good things. They obviously don't believe the Bible. They may say they do, they may go to a Bible-preaching church, but they don't believe it. "Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness." By faith apart from works.
Justification by Faith Apart from Rituals
But it was also by faith apart from religious rituals. And that's the emphasis of verses 9 to 12. You see, there were lots of Jewish believers in the church at Rome, and they had a difficult time dissociating one work in particular from gaining a right standing with God--and that was circumcision. They were wondering whether it was really possible for Gentiles to be saved without submitting to the rite of circumcision? Abraham's experience answers that question as well.
Romans 4:9-10. "Does this blessedness come upon the circumcised only or upon the uncircumcised also? For if we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness, how then was it accounted? While he was circumcised or uncircumcised? Not while he was circumcised, no, while he was in his uncircumcision."
You see, God did command Abraham to be circumcised, and He expected him to obey. But if you go back and check the story, you will find that the command was not given until Genesis 17:10-14, more than 14 years after Abraham had already believed God and been declared righteous in His sight on the basis of his faith (Genesis 15:6).
If Abraham was justified while still uncircumcised--I mean, 14 years before he was circumcised--then circumcision obviously had nothing to do with his justification. Nothing to do with his being declared righteous and gaining a right standing before God. Nothing. It happened 14 years before he ever heard of circumcision.
Paul goes on to explain that circumcision was a sign and seal of the righteousness Abraham had received by faith (verse 11a), that he might be the father of all who believe--circumcised or uncircumcised (verse 11b-12). It makes no difference.
Now as you well know, there are those today who insist that baptism is the New Testament counterpart of circumcision, and some of them--not all, thank God--cannot seem to distinguish it from salvation. I've asked folks when they came to know Christ as Savior, or when they entered into a right relation with God, and they've gone on to describe to me when they were baptized, as if it were their baptism that made them acceptable to God. Some have mentioned other religious rites to which they have submitted, like confirmation or first communion, as if they had something to do with their salvation.
Friends, it may sound too good to be true, but it is the indisputable word of the living God: Salvation is by faith alone, apart from any religious rite or ritual we could ever engage in. And we must believe that! Because that's God's word.
Justification by Faith Apart from Law
Now you say, "All right, all right. Maybe religious rituals can't save anybody, but surely a person cannot be saved if he doesn't keep God's law." Well, Abraham's experience addresses that question as well, and Paul is about to explain it. Abraham was not only justified by faith, apart from works, and apart from rituals, but he was also justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
He has already made this point eloquently in chapter 3, particularly Romans 3:28. "Therefore, we conclude, that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law."
It should be clear enough. But now he wants to illustrate it from the life of Abraham, just so we're sure we understand it.
Romans 4:13. "For the promise that he would be heir of the world was not to Abraham or his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith."
The promise to be heir of the world which God made to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) is part of the promise of our salvation as well. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "For all things are yours...whether...the world or life or death or things present or things to come--all are yours" (1 Corinthians 3:21b-22).
You see, we as believers are promised to be heirs of the world as well as inhabitants of heaven. That's part of our salvation. Now how do we get that? Well, the same way Abraham got that promise. The law wasn't given until 600 years after that promise was made to Abraham. How then could its fulfillment possibly be based on law-keeping?
Romans 3:14. "Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness."
If God made a promise, and then 600 years later added a condition to it, that would make the promise empty and void. That would be ridiculous.
That would be like promising your 8-year-old son that you're going to take him to Disneyland next Saturday. Then you wake up Friday morning and you say, "Oh, by the way, before we go to Disneyland, I want you to paint the whole house today. And I want you to do it perfectly, too. I don't want any missed spots, or any drips on the ground, or any smears on the windows." Why, that's absurd, you see! It's ridiculous. He can't do that. That makes your promise of Disneyland a farce.
God would never do that--make a promise, then add a condition to it 600 years later that is so immense that nobody could possibly keep it perfectly. And that's the way the law is. Nobody's ever kept it perfectly except Jesus Christ, and nobody ever will. It's impossible. We human beings with sinful natures can't do it. And you think God's going to add, now, this condition--make us obey His law to get His promise, when 600 years earlier, he just gave the promise to be received by faith? My friend, that's ridiculous. That's what Paul is trying to tell us: That's ridiculous.
Romans 4:15. "Because the law brings about wrath. For where there is no law, there is no transgression."
The law, which demands perfection and which we cannot possibly keep perfectly, turns our sin into a transgression against God, and therefore incurs His wrath. If salvation is by faith plus law-keeping, then none of us will ever be saved. We might as well pack up, go home, and forget the whole thing, and count on hell for eternity if it depends on law-keeping. Who of us loves the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves? None of us. We can't do that. If that's what it takes to enjoy God's promise of heaven, none of us will ever make it. That would make God's promise meaningless. The whole thing would be a farce.
Consider another example I've used before. God's law says, "You shall not commit adultery." It's one of His ten commandments, and it is His standard of holiness for all time. And yet, polls show that 60% of the American population, married couples, are unfaithful to their spouses. That is horrible! One of God's commandments is, "Do not commit adultery." It's never changed. It's repeated in the New Testament for our warning. And He seems to put special emphasis on sexual sins as particularly destructive to our person, damaging to the individual with whom we are involved, and hurtful to many others whose lives we touch: our families, our close friends, our fellow believers.
It deeply grieves God's heart and He hates it passionately. If you claim to be a believer but continue to live in adultery, you had better examine yourself to see if you are truly in the faith; heed 2 Corinthians 13:5. You may not even understand the vileness of sin and the meaning of salvation. Trusting Christ as Savior means trusting Him as Savior from sin. From sin. It means acknowledging that He is Lord and Master and has a right to rule every detail of our lives. When we trust Him as Savior from sin, He's going to make some radical changes in our way of living--including giving us victory over immorality.
Now am I making that strong enough? Do you understand what God says about sin? And if you have truly been born again, and you continue living in sin, you can expect God's disciplinary hand on your life. You can count on it. He does not go on blandly tolerating our sin. He will deal with it decisively. You can count on it. Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap. If you are living in adultery, you are living on the dangerous edge, and God's message to you is "Stop it! Turn from it, without delay!!"
And that goes for any other disobedience of His word. If you're stealing from the government, or stealing from your employer, or stealing from your customers; if you're taking God's name in vain; if you're coveting your neighbors' Mercedes; or any other one of God's commands; you need to begin to obey Him. That's what salvation is all about: to bring us into a relationship of love with almighty God, that causes us to submit to Him in gratitude for all that He's done for us.
But that does not alter this truth of Scripture. Let's keep the Bible in balance. Let's not over emphasize one truth in order to correct an error on the other side, either way. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we receive God's salvation by grace through faith plus not committing adultery, or plus keeping any other law. Nowhere. It is by grace through faith alone.
Remember Romans 3:28: "Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law."
If you are putting one ounce of trust in any act of law-keeping for your acceptance by God, then you are not putting your complete trust in the finished work of Christ at Calvary. Listen to Paul drive it home.
Romans 4:16-17. "Therefore, it is of faith, that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all who have received; not only to those of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is father of us all, as it is written, 'I have made you the father of many nations in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did."
It may sound too good to be true, but it is the clear and unmistakable promise of the living God. God's promise of salvation is received by faith, apart from the law, as well as apart from works, and apart from rituals.
Justification by Faith Apart from Personal Adequacy
But there is one more aspect of this great truth that is illustrated from the life of Abraham. It is by faith apart from personal adequacy.
Did you notice the last thing Paul wrote in Romans 4:17? He called God the one "...who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did." In the context of Genesis that referred to His ability to give a child to Abraham and Sarah when the reproductive capacities of their old bodies had long since died, and His ability to give them descendants as numerous as the stars of the heavens when as yet there were none. Paul wants to elaborate on that story.
Romans 4:18-21. "Who, contrary to hope"--he's talking about Abraham--"in hope believed so that he became the father of many nations according to what was spoken: 'So shall your descendants be.' And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body already dead, since he was about 100 years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb, he did not waiver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God and being fully convinced that what God had promised, He was able also to perform."
That isn't to say that Abraham didn't struggle with his faith at times, like we all do. He was human. On one occasion he actually fell on his face and laughed at the prospect of him and Sarah having a son (Genesis 17:17). Can you imagine this 100-year-old man hobbling around on his cane, stooped and weather-beaten, his long white beard dragging on his knee caps? And there's old Sarah, bent over, wrinkle-faced, sunken-eyed, with thin, straggly white hair. And God says they're going to have a son? Contrary to that derogatory label some people hang on it, true belief is not always easy, is it? "Easy believism" doesn't really ring true. God's promise does sound too good to be true and we resist believing it, lest we find that it's just another hoax that leaves us disappointed and disillusioned, like that Hawaiian vacation.
But Abraham kept remembering that it was the living, eternal, all-powerful God He was dealing with, and what He had promised He was able also to perform. And the more He thought about that, the stronger His faith became. He believed that God could even accomplish the impossible, specifically bring life from the dead. It didn't depend on him or Sarah and the condition of their bodies or the deadness of their reproductive capacities. It had nothing to do with their own personal adequacies or inadequacies. It depended solely on the promise and power of God. And when he believed that, his faith was credited to him for righteousness. His faith alone gave him a right standing and acceptability with God. There it is again in verse 22.
Romans 4:22. "And therefore, it was accounted to him for righteousness."
And God didn't put that story in the Bible just to tell us how He dealt with Abraham. He put it there to tell us how he deals with us as well.
Romans 4:23-25. "Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us," who do what? Say it together with me. "Believe in Him." Believe in Him. In Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses and was raised because of our justification.
The same God who did the impossible for Abraham--that is, bring life out of death--and who did the impossible for His own Son--that is, raise Him from the dead--can do the impossible for us--that is, bring us from spiritual death to spiritual life and credit to our account His perfect righteousness. And He does that, not on the basis of our personal adequacy or inadequacy, but on the basis of our faith in His Son.
It may sound too good to be true, but it's right there--the unmistakable, inviolable Word of God. It's free to us, but that doesn't mean it's cheap. Not in the least. God can justify us freely by His grace because Jesus Christ paid in full the awful debt of our sins. It was an awful price He paid. He was crucified because of our offenses, and raised from the dead as proof that His death was totally sufficient to provide for our justification--our right standing with God. So the only question is whether we believe it. Do you believe it?
Believing it means more than just agreeing to it with our heads. It means entrusting ourselves, our righteous standing before God and our eternal destiny completely to the Lord Jesus Christ and what He did for us when He died and rose again. We commit ourselves to Him in faith.
I can remember the time I visited Elizabethan, Tennessee, where my youngest son--my baby--was in flight training. He said, "Dad, I got permission to take you up! ...You think I can fly this thing, don't you?"
"Sure, Tim, you haven't crashed one yet. I guess it's OK."
"Well, hop in."
Shwoooo! You see, that's the committal part. Entrusting myself to my son. That's faith.
There is a familiar story of a famous tight-rope walker named Blondin who strung a rope across Niagara Falls and promised to walk to the other side. A huge crowd gathered to watch as he took his long pole, and slowly but expertly started out. The crowd watched tensely, knowing that one false step would plunge him to his death. But not only did he walk across safely, he returned as well. And then he made an astounding offer. He would do it again carrying someone on his back. Nobody rushed forward to accept his offer, you can be sure.
He approached one man and asked, "Do you believe that I can carry you across?"
"Yes," came the reply.
"Then let's go," said Blondin.
"Not on your life!" was his answer.
And so it went. One after another said he could do it, but no one was willing to let him try with them. Finally, one young man moved toward the front of the crowd and Blondin put the question to him. "Do you believe I can carry you across safely?"
"Yes, I do."
"Are you willing to let me?"
"As a matter of fact, I am." The young man climbed on Blondin's back and the great tight-rope walker stepped onto the rope, paused momentarily, then moved across the falls with no problem. There were many in that crowd who agreed he could do it, but there was only one who was willing to entrust himself to him. That's faith.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
That's not easy. To entrust yourself fully to somebody else and what He did for you, not what you can do for yourself. To entrust yourself to Him, Jesus Christ, for eternal salvation. And faith is what releases God to make us acceptable to Him. Faith alone! Apart from good works, apart from religious rites, apart from the good deeds of the law, apart from personal adequacy or inadequacy. Faith alone. That's the way it was for Abraham, and that's the way it is for us. And it may seem too good to be true, but it's the word of the living God.
Have you put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone as your Savior from sin? Have you entrusted yourself to Him for your eternal salvation? If you haven't done it, oh, do it today. It will change your life. It has to change your life if it's real. Put your trust in Him.
Let's bow together in His presence prayerfully. With our heads bowed and eyes closed, may I ask you if you have placed your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for your eternal salvation? Maybe you've heard this message before, and maybe you've resisted it or disbelieved it or dismissed it because it sounded too good to be true. You let God worry about that, will you? You just take Him at His word. Will you entrust yourself and your eternal destiny to the One who paid for your eternal salvation? Right here and now you can make that decision.
"Lord, I believe you went to Calvary for me and paid the debt of my sin in full. And now I turn from my sin and put my trust in You. Lord Jesus, come into my heart and save me from sin."
Oh God, I pray that by Your convicting power and Your immense marvelous grace, You will draw those to you who have never yet made this decision and put their trust in You, their faith in You as their Savior from sin. May they be born anew today and forever. In Jesus' name, amen.
Continue to ROM 06: Can Faith See Us Through?