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Gospel: John 3:1-18 (NIV)
- Gathering Rite “Remember Your Love”
- Hymn CW 550 “Lamb of God”
- Hymn CW 570 “God Loved the World So That He Gave”
- Hymn CW 523 “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”
There are only two ways to get the things we want. We either work for them or we are given them. Think about the rich. Some invent great things or work for hours and years to get what they have. Others become rich and famous because their parents were rich. Now which group do we generally respect more? Those who work for it, right?
Anyone wanting to spend eternity with God in heaven must be perfect and righteous. In my personal Bible reading this past week I came across Psalm 15. It says, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart.” Righteousness is defined as perfectly doing the right thing before God, always. And we need that to enter a perfect heaven. In fact, that’s ultimately the point of every faith system on earth. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity – you name it. Its most basic goal is to answer the question of how we can become righteous before God, and by that find a good end to this life.
The difference between religions though, and the difference between Biblical Christianity and so much of what claims to be Christianity, is that only the Bible teaches that righteousness is God’ gift, rather than our work. If you’re sitting there thinking, “I know that,” consider what it a blessing it is to know this. The rest of the world lives under the burden of trying to satisfy God. To make up for our mistakes. To earn a good judgment from him. But we know, out of all the people in the whole world, that perfect righteousness is not earned, but given. I wanted to preach on all three texts this weekend, but this section of Romans speaks to the very essence of what we believe – we are saved by God’s gift, not by our works. And maybe you know that already. Then I say, good! Let’s thank God for the gift by learning even more what a blessing it is, for us and for others.
In the verses before these Paul had been talking about being saved through faith instead of works. Now he asks, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?” We know Abraham as one of the great heroes of faith from the Old Testament. Basically, the father of the Jewish people. What did Abraham know about faith? For one, Abraham learned again and again that he could trust God’s promises. Abraham was 75 years old, childless and married to a woman who could not have children, when God first told him he would be the father of a great nation. But it took 25 years until God opened the womb of his wife Sarah and they had a son, Isaac. Think of that the next time God doesn’t answer your prayers as quickly as you want. All that time Abraham trusted and waited. He believed God always does what he says, in his time.
Our text here in Romans 4 describes Abraham’s belief not as a work he was responsible for, but as a gift that God had given him. Paul says here that if, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he “had something to boast about.” And indeed, a surface reading of Genesis shows us how obedient Abraham usually was. But Paul says Abraham would have nothing to boast about “before God.” It wasn’t Abraham’s obedience that saved him; it was God who saved him.
In order to explain this, Paul uses the example of work and wages. Paul writes in verse 4, “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.” We understand this clearly enough. If we put in hours of our time to work at a job, we don’t consider the payment for that to be a gift, right? We earned it with our time and our sweat. Wages are not gifts, practically by definition. But look at how God describes Abraham’s faith. “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Faith is a gift, and so is God’s righteousness. Not a wage he had earned but a gift credited to his account, unearned and undeserved.
In the second half of our text Paul talks about just why righteousness can’t be something earned. “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.” We know from all of Scripture that the second part of his statement is false. God’s promise of a Savior is anything but worthless. Jesus was the goal of all human history, from the time of Adam on. If people could live by the law and become heirs of heaven on their own, God wouldn’t have needed to make the promise to send a Savior. Jesus wouldn’t have had to take on human flesh. Suffer. Die. But you already know – faith does have value. And the promise of a Savior is not worthless.
What’s worthless is our claims to be righteous before God. The greatest things we might hold up to God and say, “Here it is, I have served you!” are still tainted by the sinful heart they flow out of. Scripture tells us that all those righteous acts are like filthy rags. Ask me in a Bible study sometime what those filthy rags actually refer to and you’ll know that God sees no value in our imperfect motivations and self-righteous claims.
Even if we could keep part of the law, that’s not good enough either. The book of James tells us: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” So you can keep commandments 1-9.5, but stumble at just one bad thought, one bad word, and it’s all over. And you know that we don’t just break half a commandment – we break them all. All the time.
Understand this: The law cannot save us. As much as we admire those who work for what they have, and as much as our sinful nature tells us that we ought to be able to please God with who we are and what we do, the damning truth is that we will never be righteous in this life. Even the best of us could never stand before a perfect God and expect a home in heaven. So why do we rejoice to face this perfect Judge? Why do we gather every week to worship him?
Because the righteousness God demands is righteousness he gives to us as a free gift in Christ. We have a place in heaven, guaranteed not by what we do, but by what He has done. That is what Abraham believed, and Paul tells us that is why Abraham was saved. Abraham lived 2000 years before the birth of Christ. He didn’t know about the miracles, the disciples, even the cross or the empty tomb. But he knew the promise that God would send a Savior from sin. He trusted that God would do it, however it needed to be done. And that’s faith.
Abraham wasn’t saved by sacrifices or obedience or devotion. He was saved by the same faith in the same Savior we trust. The only difference is that he looked ahead to a Savior yet to come while we look back at one who already came. We are told here that Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Faith connects us to our Savior, and specifically connects us to the righteous life he lived for us. This is how God saves us. He gives us credit for the life Jesus lived.
It seems too good to be true, doesn’t it? The one thing God demands from those seeking heaven is righteousness. And instead of having to work hard for it, God just gives it to us. Through faith, God covers our broken lives of sin with Jesus’ life of perfect righteousness. I know not everyone loves a pastor wearing robes, but this is the reason we wear them. A weekly reminder that Christ covers us.
Paul ends this section of his letter with these words, “He [Abraham] is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” That last phrase is an interesting one. God “calls things that are not as though they were.” Do you recognize how key that is to our salvation? We are not righteous. Not by a long shot. We still sin every day. We do terrible things to each other and to God. Yet he calls us unrighteous sinners, righteous in his sight for the sake of Christ.
This is why we consider Abraham our spiritual ancestor. Not because we share the same blood but because we share the same faith. We are saved in the same way he was. Gifted with faith to trust God’s promises. Only we have even more blessings. Like him we are connected to Christ by God’s promises. But we also have baptism, where we are buried with Christ into his death and new life. We have Holy Communion, where we are connected again and again to God’s new covenant of forgiveness and grace. And we have God’s Holy Word where we see not just the overall promise, but the details of what our Savior did for us. We thank God not just for the gift of Christ. Not just for the gift of faith. But also for the means of grace that he uses to connect us to those things. May we never tire of worship and Word and sacrament and fellowship.
Leave today knowing that the work of righteousness is done. You are covered by and connected to your Savior Jesus. Now thank him for the gift in joy. And in love. And serve the one who saved you. To God be the glory in Christ and for Christ. Amen.