Text: Romans 4
There is much concern about ‘radical’ religion these days. But what does radical Christianity look like?
Previously (3:21-31): humanity’s perilous plight – ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’, v23; God’s drastic solution, v24f – ‘God presented Christ Jesus as sacrifice of atonement’; and the means by which we experience this: v28 – ’a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law.’
Justification by faith is
1. Radical in its antiquity
3:21 – the gospel no novelty; the law and the prophets testify to it.
But do they? What about Abraham, the first and greatest of the patriarchs?
V3 quotes Gen 15:6 – ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’
Drive along the A2 (Dover-London), or A5 (London-Shrewsbury) and you seem to be on a modern road. You might not realise that underneath the tarmac is a much more ancient highway – Watling Street. In the same way, the apparently new route taken by Paul follows the ancient route taken by Abraham.
Justification by faith is not a doctrine dreamed up by the Reformers, nor by Paul. Nor is it an afterthought of God: ‘plan B’ after ‘plan A’ failed.
2. Radical in its simplicity
We are justified by faith, pure and simple. ‘Sola fide’.
Many Jews of Paul’s day would have held that Abraham ‘deserved’ to be justified:-
The Mishnah: ‘Abraham our father performed the whole law before it was given’
The Book of Jubilees (circa B.C. 100): ‘Abraham was perfect in all his deeds, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.’
The Prayer of Manasses: ‘Thou, therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the righteous, hast not appointed repentance unto the righteous, unto Abraham.…Abraham … did not sin against you.’
But Gen 15:6 says that he was credited as righteous not because of any good that he had done, but simply because he believed God.
Abraham had no room for boasting before God, and neither do we. We tend to say, or at least think, ‘God will accept me if I try my best. After all, God helps those who help themselves’?
V5 could not put it more boldly: God counts as righteous ‘the man who does not work, but trusts God’.
Why do you think God will accept you? Beware of any explanation beginning with, “Because I…”.
3. Radical in its universality
‘Well’, responds Paul’s objector, ‘maybe this does apply to Abraham. But he was the father of the Jewish nation. What about everyone else?’ V10f asks, When was Abraham justified – before, or after, he was circumcised? It was before, while he was still a Gentile! And, we might add, it was long before the law of Moses was given. So Abraham blazes a trail for both circumcised and uncircumcised; for those who have the law, and those who do not; for all who have faith, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Paul calls a second witness: David, v6-8. Psa 32:1f is quoted:-
“Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
It is for sinners (David had committed adultery and murder). It is for everyone (David generalises it – ‘they…the man’).
Justification by faith is open to all. No one is more justified or less justified than anyone else.
4. Radical in its incredibility
‘So extraordinary as to seem impossible’.
This becomes clear when we turn from faith itself to the object of faith:
- v17, the supernatural God, who gives life to the dead and brings non-existent things into being;
- v25, the rescuing God, who delivered his own Son over to death for our sins and raised him to life for our justification;
- v5, the scandalous God, who justifies the wicked and credits as righteous that person who does nothing except trust him.
Such a God inspires confidence: V21 – Abraham was ‘fully persuaded’. V16 – God’s promise is ‘guaranteed to all’.
If salvation depended on anything that we had done, we could never be sure that we had done enough. But since it depends entirely on what God had done, we can have complete assurance. It depends not on your weak hold on him, but on his mighty hold on you.
Such a God inspires gratitude. Paul will show, in subsequent chapters, where faith in such a God leads to. It will lead to peace and joy, ch 5. It will instill a hatred of sin and a longing to live for God, ch 6. It will bring us into step with the Holy Spirit, and give us a hope that conquers death itself, ch 8.
This is Christian faith: radical in its antiquity, its simplicity, its universality, and its incredibility.
May we be strengthened in our faith, as Abraham was, and give glory to God, as he did.