Why Paul Can't Move On To More Practical Things
by James Lincoln on April 3, 2005
In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul's goal has been to show us that we all need a righteousness that comes to us from outside ourselves that will make it possible for us to stand before God with joy and peace instead of judgment and shame. He argues that the need for righteousness is universal. Everyone-pagans and pious alike- needs a righteousness that we can't provide for ourselves. Any righteousness of our own making will ultimately be an illusion just like the emperor in Anderson's story about the king who had no clothes. The king thought he was covered. The boy knew that he wasn't and blew the whistle. Paul says the same thing in the gospel.
The short answer to the question, "Why does everyone need to be saved?" is that God is offended. Or to put it positively, God is righteous. When Paul mentions God's wrath he is referring to God's righteous or just response to the human race that has disregarded, disbelieved and dishonored the Creator of the universe by whom and for whom all things have been created (Romans 11:36). We have all put ourselves in the place of God. And unless His wrath is justly removed it will rest on each of us for eternity. That's why God put forward His perfect Son Jesus who takes away our sin and puts himself in our place.
The most glorious thing about the gospel (at least from our vantage point) is that God chooses to deal with us NOT according to our sins, which David said, are "higher than our heads". Instead, God has chosen to deal with us according to His grace through faith.
I was reading through the Koran on Thursday and I was struck by the difference between its message and that of the gospel. Through the gospel God rescues us by a power and a righteousness that comes to us from outside of ourselves. However, by nature we all try to manufacture our own. Every religion outside of Christianity promotes this. The Five Pillars of Islam, the 10 commandments of Judaism and the Eight-fold path to Enlightment in Buddhism all resemble the Tower of Babel. In every other religion you have these steps. They say, "Go do this and you will ascend to heaven." With Christianity, God comes down from heaven and rescues us. In every other religion it's the principles and your determination that save you. Christianity says that God in Christ is the source of salvation. Jesus saves! In every other religion it's your actions and your record that saves you. In Christianity it's the merit or the record of Christ that saves you.
Now I want to ask a question raised by a commentary1 I read on what Paul is up to here in chapter four. After hearing me preach these last few months on Romans, you might be asking the same question. Here's the question,
"Why is Paul so riveted on the truth that God's righteousness is credited to people by faith alone apart from works?"
In 3:21 Paul says that the righteousness of God has been manifested by faith apart from works of the law. OK, Paul, we get it. Then again in 3:22, he says that the, "righteousness of God comes through faith for all who believe." Again, Paul, we hear you and we get it. In vs. 24, he says that all are "justified by his grace as a gift" That of course means that these blessings can't be earned or purchased. Once again, Paul, we get it. In 3:26, he says, "Jesus is both the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Him." Or Rom 3:28, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." Paul we get it! We got it from the story of Abraham in 4:1ff. We got it from the reference to David.
Paul, why do you keep hammering this point? For crying out loud, why don't you move on to something new? When are you going to get on with how to live and say something relevant and practical?
Let me try to answer this question with four reasons imbedded in Romans 4.
First, this doctrine or teaching is the only way we can discover true humility (It eliminates boasting.).
Outside of this gospel we will think that we had something to do with our own righteous record. In other words, this reality is the only reality that can drive the death nail into our pride and the boasting in our hearts. In 4:2 he says, "If Abraham had something to boast about it could not have been boasting before God." Instead, he says that he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Ge.15:6). In 3:27 he asks, "Where then is the boasting?" The answer is that there is none if righteousness is received as a gift. Without grace we will find something in ourselves to boast about. And that something, whatever it is will be a feeble and vulnerable substitute for the righteousness offered in Christ. Look, a hope that rests in ourselves is a shaky foundation. Paul wants you to lean on the rock of His grace that is unshakeable and unassailable.
You remember the story (Lk.18) of the two men at prayer. The Pharisee was resting on his record. What did it produce? It produced pride and comparing. He said, "I thank God that I am not like this sinner over there." The sinner, (tax collector) who recognized that he was a sinner and exposed before God, stood at a distance, beat his chest and said, "God be merciful to me a sinner." Jesus said, "I tell you this man went to his home justified, not the other man. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Paul is saying, "Look, I'm gong to drive this point home over and over because it is the only theology/truth in the world that will strike the death blow to our pride and boasting and create in us the humility that is necessary for heaven. Also, It's the only theology that gives God the glory that is His due in saving us. Look at 4: 20-21: Paul says that "Abraham grew strong in the faith giving glory to God." If it's not by grace through faith then we end up sharing the glory. Paul says, "No, if your rest on the rock of God's grace and trust Him for the gift of righteousness then you will have nothing at all to boast about."
Have you ever gotten credit for something you didn't do? Let me ask you this,
Does the number of traffic tickets you have accurately reflect the truth about your driving or your true driving record? How many times have you driven over the speed limit and not gotten a ticket? Can you legitimately boast that you have a stellar driving record? Most of us, even though our record may look pretty good, regularly and consistently break the law. In other words, in reality there is nothing for us to boast about. This is what Paul is saying. In reality there is nothing for us to boast about.
This year Valentines Day fell on a Monday. So I had the day to plan it. Here's what I did. I bought some flowers and some of those heart candies with the juicy love messages on them. I hid a box in Debby's purse and another under her pillow. But for dinner, I ordered two prime rib dinners from Jarbo's in Canby. But I made it look like I had cooked that meal myself. For a moment (although it was ever so brief), she thought I had cooked this fabulous dinner. But, of course, that thought didn't last. She quickly figured things out. I think the Styrofoam containers in the trashcan gave it away. But for a moment it was tempting to take credit for something I didn't do.
Look, the fact that our lives have been credited as righteous is all of Grace and this is so that you would not boast in something less worthy and glorious than God's work and not your own. This message of grace through faith alone destroys any ground for boasting outside of the glory and wonder of God in Christ. Therefore it gives God the glory that is His due. Therefore it is the only message that will produce genuine humility and give all the glory to God in Christ.
The second reason why Paul hammers this message of grace over and over is because it is the only grounds and guarantee of our forgiveness and the gift of righteousness. OK, this is found in his quote from David in 4:6-7. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
"Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him."
John Piper says that the point of taking away your boasting is not to take away your joy. It's to point you to a joy that eclipses any joy you can manufacture on your own. It's to preserve for you the blessing of forgiveness of sins and the gift of his righteousness. If becoming right before God was a matter of our record of works then the blessing would be taken away. The solid and unshakable basis for your acceptance with God is not your own righteousness. Paul is jealous for us that we get this acceptance the only way it can be gotten, by faith apart from our record. Also, if it is all of grace then our forgiveness and acceptance is guaranteed. Rom 4:16-17:
"Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring-not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all."
Paul wants us to have assurance of our acceptance and forgiveness. Paul wants us to have a guarantee. If it's dependent on my record I will not be guaranteed. But, if it's dependent on the record of Jesus Christ it must be!
The third reason why Paul hammers this truth that our righteousness comes to us as a miracle of grace is in his section on circumcision, beginning in verse 9. And his reason is that,
Grace apprehended by faith is the only thing that can produce an obedient heart.
Paul says that it is all of grace so that we might see the proper relationship between faith and works. He illustrates this with the relationship of circumcision to grace.
"Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised."
(Romans 4: 9-12)
"Are these blessings just for ethnic Israel who have followed the ceremony of circumcision or are they also for the Gentiles who are not part of ethnic Israel?"
Paul answers the question by again turning to Abraham. Was Abraham considered righteous and accepted before God before or after he was circumcised? Of course he was considered accepted by God, BEFORE he was circumcised (17 years). So Abraham -the most prominent believer of the Jewish faith -was considered righteous while he was yet uncircumcised. Isn't Paul's point that the blessings of being counted as righteous before God didn't come by means of the ritual of circumcision but rather by faith a number of years before he was circumcised? It came by faith apart from works. By pointing this out to us Paul is showing us the proper relationship between faith and works. Again many will wrongly conclude that 'because it is all of grace then what we do is irrelevant.' But here Abraham's obedience -his obedience to become circumcised- is not considered irrelevant or unimportant. He uses two words to describe the relationship of works of obedience to grace and faith. Abraham's obedience is considered the sign and seal of a genuine faith.
"He received the sign of circumcision a seal of the righteousness of faith which he had while uncircumcised. "(11a)
Paul is putting our obedience and works in their proper place to faith and justification. He's not at all interested in throwing out works of obedience. He just wants us to know how they relate to each other. In 1:5 he writes, "The aim of his whole ministry is the obedience that comes from faith."
When your heart is changed by the gospel of grace --you find yourself believing it, rejoicing in it, leaning on it and resting in it. You begin to conform your life to the will of God. When you do this Paul says that it's a sign. It's a sign and seal that your faith is real and your heart has been changed. The act of circumcision didn't make Abraham acceptable. His outward obedience was a sign and a seal that he believed God already. Acts of obedience that flow from faith in Christ are signs and seals that your faith is real. They don't cause your faith...they are a sign and seal that you really do believe. Your baptism, giving, membership and obedience doesn't cause your faith...but when you are obedient -as a response to grace- it reveals that you are trusting God and have faith in him.
Look, here's what faith is. One theologian put is this way, faith is to grace what seeing is to light and what hearing is to sound and what waking up is to the alarm clock. Faith corresponds to grace the way tasting sweetness corresponds to honey on your tongue.
If you see the light and hear the gospel, taste its sweetness and glory and wonder and wake up to its beauty and blessing then your life changes in ways that corresponds to what you now find, beautiful, wondrous, glorious, sweet and right. If you see Christ in His glory and as your Savior and you see that He came to give you His record of righteousness for your record of sin and you see Him as God with us crucified for you and raised up for you...if you see these things and hear these things and taste these things and believe these things ---then you will want to obey him. However, you must first believe these things to be true about Him. Because Paul knows that you will not honor, cherish, value and prize in your heart and behavior things you don't' believe in your mind are true.
That's why moralism doesn't work. In time you will default to what you really do see in your heart as most beautiful, true and valuable in your mind and heart. So by showing us that Abraham's circumcision followed after God considered him righteous Paul is showing us that obedience of the heart is indeed an obedience that comes from faith not that which merits faith. In fact this grace apprehended by faith is the only thing that can produce an obedient heart. That's why Paul speaks of the obedience that comes from faith in chapter one. Obedience when anchored in grace is a sign and seal that our faith is real. I've said many times that you can't have an elephant in your apartment over the weekend without some signs that he was there. How much more so having the one who created the elephant in your heart?
Finally, this morning Paul's reference to the circumcised and the uncircumcised tells us another glorious thing about the gospel of grace.
And that is that it's the only message that OPENS THE DOOR FOR ALL PEOPLES TO BECOME CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM (4:11). Another reason why Paul has hammered the point that righteousness is credited to us by faith and apart from works of the law is that it is the only message that opens the door for Gentiles to become part of the family of God and have Abraham as their father.
This glorious reality of being made right with God, being forgiven, being considered as righteous in His sight is a missionary reality. It reveals God's heart for the nations. It's in vs. 11: Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised,
"SO THAT HE MIGHT BE THE FATHER OF ALL WHO BELIEVE WITHOUT BEING CIRCUMCISED. THAT RIGHTEOUSNESS MIGHT BE CREDITED TO THEM AS WELL."
His point in justifying Abraham by faith alone before his being circumcised is to make it clear that Abraham is the spiritual father of all who are justified by faith, no matter what people group or ethnic group people come from. What makes you a child of Abraham and fellow heir of the promises is not circumcision or any other Jewish custom. It is faith in the God who justifies the ungodly. That is what united Abraham to God and it is what will unite all others to God as well.
Notice the blessing for all who believe in Jesus in verse thirteen. Paul says that all who believe we will inherit the world. Can you imagine that? I wonder, can we live with a little less today knowing that someday we will inherit through Christ everything in the world? Can you believe this? We said last week that all the tangible and physical and material blessings of this world....all that it has to offer all put together will only amount to a piece of lint compared to the tangible blessings of living with resurrected bodies and having bodies like Christ's. All put together, they won't fill a thimble full compared to what will be ours in the new heave and the new earth. And all of this is offered to everyone. It doesn't matter who you are or what you have done or what your ethnic heritage is. God's promise to Abraham reveals that His heart is to bring together for Himself men and women, boys and girls from every tribe, tongue and nation (people group) to know about His grace and mercy and to be found righteous in His sight through faith in His son Jesus. Are our hearts big like this? Do you have a missionary's heart? Do I? We know from this verse that God certainly does.
Why is Paul so relentless with this theme of salvation by grace through faith alone? Why has he hammered this theme of grace over and over? It is because,
1. The miracle of grace is the only message that puts an end to boasting and creates the humility necessary for heaven.
2. The miracle of grace is the only grounds and certain guarantee of our forgiveness.
3. The miracle of grace is the only power that can create in us a heart to obey.
4. The miracle of grace is the only message that offers a certain hope that God will call unto Himself a people from every tribe, tongue and nation to bless. We can take a message to everyone that says, "This extravagant grace of having God count us as righteous was true for Abraham and can be true for us and them. But of course it can only come to us as a miracle of grace.
So, taste and see the sweetness of His grace today. Taste and see that His grace is good. Like Abraham, believe in Jesus and receive the gift of His righteousness as your own.
1I found this question in a sermon John Piper preached on this. It can be found on Desiring God Ministries website under sermons in Romans. I have borrowed much of what he says but added my own way of answering the question.