St Barnabas and St Michael’s 4th November 2012
Reading – Romans 4:13-25
If you stood before the throne of God, and He asked you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” how would you reply?
I never did anyone any harm. Really? Are you absolutely, positively sure about that? Do you know the effect that careless remark had on your friend for the rest of her life? What about when you lost your temper that time? Or when you decided you couldn’t be bothered to help your schoolmate who was in need?
I went to church every week. Every single week? And how exactly did your churchgoing make you a better person than anyone else? Do you think God keeps a giant attendance record of who goes and who doesn’t?
I prayed and read my Bible. Well, God’s glad you kept in touch. But did all this prayer and Bible reading actually make much of a difference to the way you lived your life? Or was it the odd ten minutes over a cup of cocoa when you managed to stay awake?
I gave to charity. How much? Did it really cost you anything? And why did you give anyway? Were you genuinely concerned about helping others or did you simply have an attack of guilt?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly right and proper that you love your neighbour as yourself, that you go to church, that you pray and read the Bible, that you give to charity. These are all the sort of things that Christians should do. But none of these activities in themselves will get you into heaven. You see, there is one problem with all the statements we’ve just heard. They start with the little word “I”. When I say God must be pleased with me because of what I do, then I’m starting to tread on very dodgy ground. Because the shocking message of the Christian faith is that there is nothing I can do to please God. God weighs our every action, our every thought, our every motive, and every time He weighs them, He finds them wanting.
So if you are reading today thinking that being a Christian simply involves trying to be good, then my message to you is to think again. There is one religion that believes at the end of time God will weigh up our good deeds against our bad deeds. But that religion is Islam, not Christianity. The message of the Christian faith, as we heard last week, is that if we want to get right with God, we need to turn to Christ, and to put our faith and trust in Him.
Now on one level that’s a profoundly simple statement, and it really isn’t too difficult to understand. But on another it is deeply, deeply challenging. Because there’s a little streak of pride in all of us that still believes God is pleased with us so long as we try to live a good life. Oh yes, I might sometimes slip up, but if I am truly sorry and make amends, then surely everything’s going to be OK, isn’t it?
That was the attitude Paul confronted almost every time he preached the gospel. Because the Jewish religion as understood at the time was based on following the law and making sacrifices when you slipped up. By observing the Law of Moses and the traditions of the elders, and by offering the correct sacrifices, you could aspire to get right with God. Indeed that was the very teaching which Paul had himself followed until the Lord Jesus so dramatically appeared to him on the Damascus Road.
And what so upset Paul’s opponents was the fact this one time Pharisee seemed to be saying that the law no longer mattered. After all, the law was given by God through Moses to the people of Israel. The law wasn’t something a group of Hebrews made up in the desert. It was a revelation from God which came with the promise that the man who obeys it perfectly shall live (Lev 18:5, Deut 4:1). So how dare anyone come along and say that very words of God no longer mattered! The very notion of a righteousness that comes by faith must have seemed to many of Paul’s hearers nothing less than blasphemy.
Now to us today these first century debates about law and faith can at first appear rather academic and historical. But the more you look into them, the more you realise that in fact they are extremely relevant. Because if, as is sometimes claimed, the Old Testament is about law, and the New Testament is about faith, then you no longer have one Bible divided in two. You have two Bibles badly joined together into one. And more seriously than that, you are saying that God changed His mind, that He was a different God in the Old Testament than the one you find in the New, and love and worship today.
So although Paul’s argument in this passage may be rather dense and difficult to understand, can I urge you to hang in there for the next few minutes? Because by the end I hope you will see just how relevant are his words for our Christian life today.
But first of all, let’s go back to the beginning of the chapter and see how Paul begins to answer his critics. He could have gone back to Jesus and talked about His attitude to the law. He could have gone back to Moses and talked about the Ten Commandments. But instead he goes back even further, to the very roots of the Hebrew people, by talking about Abraham. Because, you see, the Jewish people of Paul’s day prided themselves on being children of Abraham. In their eyes a good child of Abraham was someone who both obeyed the law and followed Abraham’s example of circumcising their children.
Paul of course was well aware of this argument. But he had found a verse from Abraham’s story, in the book of Genesis, which completely undermined his opponents’ case. It came from an incident in Genesis 15 where Lord appears to Abraham and promises that His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – even though at that time there was little or no prospect of Abraham having children. And what is Abraham’s response? Paul tells us in Rom 4:3 – Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. In other words, Abraham was made right with God not because of anything that he did, or because he was anybody special, but simply because he trusted in the promises made to him.
As Paul goes on to say at the start of our reading: 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. What an earth-shattering, and revolutionary truth! It reveals that the message of Scripture, in both the Old and the New, is fully and totally consistent. Right from the outset, God has established one way of getting right with Him, and that is by faith and faith alone.
But that does mean that the law doesn’t matter? That at least is what Paul’s critics were alleging. Yet that isn’t Paul’s message at all.
Think for a moment about a country where there are no speed limits. Clearly people would still sometimes speed. The actual offence of speeding wouldn’t have been abolished, even though there would be no law to catch speeding motorists, and no-one would get points on their licence. However even the most careful driver would still be unclear of the right speed to drive according to the type of road or the weather conditions. There would be all kinds of chaos and confusion, and not a few accidents. After a while, you’d imagine that popular pressure would lead to limits being introduced so that right and sensible rules could apply, and safety improved. However the speeding motorists would still speed, although perhaps less often. The law would catch people out, but would not be able to change their behaviour.
I am not sure that there were speed limits in Paul’s day, but it seems to me that’s a good illustration to explain what he means when he says in verse 14 that the law brings wrath and in verse 15 that where there is no law there is no transgression. God gave the law so that we would become aware of where we fall short, and realise just how far we fail to meet His good and holy standards. And to that extent the law is still important to us today as believers. It’s not that by perfectly obeying the Ten Commandments we can please God, although that’s what many people think. Rather the Ten Commandments are there to show us how we fall short, and why we need to turn back to God in penitence and faith.
Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. So what exactly did Abraham believe and why is it relevant to us?
Let’s go back to that story in Genesis 15 where the Lord appears to Abraham and promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. When the Lord made that promise, Abraham and his wife Sarah were both well past the age for starting a family. How old is a matter of debate, and it depends how far you take ages and numbers in the Old Testament literally. But the main point is, that from a human point of view there was no way the Lord’s promise could be fulfilled. Yet Abraham did not look at himself and his own circumstances. He looked to God the creator of heaven and earth and trusted that He would fulfil His word. As Paul says in verse 21 of our reading: He was fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised.
And the key point that Paul makes here is that the real children of Abraham are not those people who can claim their ancestry from Ancient Near-Eastern nomad about four thousand years ago. The real children of Abraham are those who follow his example of faith and are similarly able to believe God has the power to bring life out of death. Paul goes on in verse 23-24: The words “it was credited to him” 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.
In other words, our way of getting right with God, of being credited righteous before Him, is exactly the same as it was for Abraham. It is by faith alone in God’s resurrection power. The only difference between Abraham and ourselves is that this resurrection power has now been finally, fully and gloriously demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ who – as Paul has already said in Romans 1:4 – was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead. Abraham peered into the future to see the first glimmer of God’s promises come to pass. We stand in the glorious light of the promises fulfilled. And to that extent we have the differences between the Old and the New Testament. One is promise; the other is fulfilment. But both attest to the one way of getting right with God, which is through faith.
So why is this so relevant to us? Very simply, because the way that we are included within the people of God is now by faith. You do not have to have a certain background to receive the good news of God’s salvation. You do not have to have the right ancestry. You do not – despite the impression the Church of England sometimes gives – have to be white and middle-class. You do not have to reach a certain level of understanding or the right educational background. It may be all I’ve said over the last fifteen minutes has gone right over your head. That’s fine – just remember this one thing. God accepts you as you are. All you need to do is to believe Jesus died in your place for your sins. That’s something you can do no matter your age, your class, your background. Put your faith in Jesus, and let Him be Lord of over your life.
And when that time finally comes and God asks you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?”, then you will know how to reply:
Because – as Rom 4:25 says – He (that is, Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. I have nothing to offer God, no good work to please Him, no achievement I can boast about in His presence. But Jesus took my sin, so that I stand in His righteousness before God. Thanks to Jesus I am declared fit to stand before the very throne of God Himself, and a child not only of Abraham, but of my very Heavenly Father. And when I look not to myself, but to Jesus, I find the gate to heaven always open, and I am free to enter with reverence, worship and praise. What wonderful good news!
So the question I leave you with is: do you believe?