Romans 4:1–8, 13–17
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning's Epistle reading from the book of Romans is a hard text for us to work our way through. It has to do with Abraham, so that immediately puts a question in our minds. He lived about 4000 years ago. What does he have to do with us? Aside from being about Abraham, Paul talks in a very complicated way. His sentences are long and complex and not always clearly translated to us. He talks about deep and important theological concepts with big theological words, words that we use all the time without really thinking about what they mean, words like righteousness and justification and transgressions. Lump them all together, and it can be hard to read just one or two phrases before our minds just zone out. We even skipped over the hardest part of this reading. Those were the verses that talked about everyone’s favorite topic: circumcision!
On top of it all, aside from how Paul talks, the concepts and ideas that he’s trying to express are unusual. They’re difficult for us to wrap our minds around. He says that Abraham received by believing. He didn't work for the blessings that he received from God; he simply believed, and God counted it to him as righteousness. We’ve heard that phrase a number of times before, but it's not how this world usually works. I've told you before about one of my favorite sayings from my grandpa. He always used to say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Everyone has an angle. There's always a catch. The food you eat costs money to grow, money to cook, and money to serve, and someone is paying for it. Even when someone tells you it’s free, most of the time, it’s going to cost you one way or another. It’s what we're used to. You work, and you get paid. You don't work, and you don't get paid. If you want to do well you have to do a whole lot of work. There's a reason get-rich-quick schemes are called “schemes.” Getting something for nothing is just not how this world operates.
And yet that’s exactly how Paul says that God works. God’s way is the way of gifts, not the way of works. To show that it’s always been this way, Paul uses Abraham as his prime example. We don't get a whole lot of Abraham’s backstory in Genesis, but we do know that he was from the land of the Chaldeans. This is the land that later became the Assyrians and Babylonians and the Persians, the historic enemies of God's people. Throughout the Bible, they are shown as the example of wickedness and evil. Not only did they oppress God’s people, they worshiped false gods. Though Abraham was part of this people group, part of this pagan culture, God calls him to leave his homeland and go to what is now the land of Israel. God makes a one-sided promise, “I will make of you a great nation.” And Abraham goes. That's it. And when he gets into the land God makes yet another promise. Take a look in the sky and count the stars, if you can; so will your offspring be. God makes a promise to Abraham. End of story. There is no requirement that Abraham must fulfill. There are no checklists to complete, no laws to comply with. God simply promises. And it is.
But Abraham has a hard time with this idea too. That wasn’t the world that he lived in. It’s not the world we live in. How in the world will he know that God's words were true? In Genesis chapter 15, God made a covenant with Abraham. He made an official, physically enacted promise. But he didn’t say he was “making” a covenant. If we were to literally translate that word from the Hebrew, it would be to “cut” a covenant, like we cut a check or cut a contract. It's a legally binding way of making a deal. So God has Abraham cut a number of animals in half. He lines them up in a row and splits them apart, with the halves facing each other. The typical way a covenant was cut was that both parties would walk through these animals and make a promise to each other. The symbolism being, “see what happened to these animals? That's what you can do to me if I don't live up to my promise.” So Abraham cuts these animals in half, and a deep sleep falls on him. He passes out, God Himself shows up, and God alone passes through these animals. Abraham does nothing. He lays there and watches it happen. The only thing Abraham does is let God do His thing, to watch it happen before His eyes, to believe that God's Word is true. So Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
The law had nothing to do with it. Works had nothing to do with it. But that’s just not what we’re used to. It’s not how things work in our world. It’s not how they worked in Pauls’ world, and it’s not how they worked in Abraham’s world. When you work, what you receive is something you've earned. When you believe, that’s not a “work.” Believing is not something that you physically do; it’s a mindset, a way of thinking and feeling and relating to someone else. And when you trust in God, you don’t earn anything by it as if God owes you now that you’ve done what He wants. He simply gives a gift. And that gift counted as righteousness. In God's economy, in His way of working in this world, it's very one sided. God makes promises. God keeps his promises. God works. God gives the gift of faith. And that gift of faith that God gives rests on the grace of God that God gives. It's all His work. It's all a gift.
This is the heart and soul of the Christian faith. This is what it's all about. It doesn't depend on you. It doesn't depend on your obedience. You don't have to do everything right. In fact, you can’t do anything right. But that doesn’t even matter in terms of salvation. The historical, concrete fact is that Jesus Christ died and rose again so that you might live. God became a human being, so that you would be made righteous and holy by His work. You can’t get it any other way. You can’t keep enough of God’s laws to say that you’re perfect. You can’t do enough good to offset your sin. You can’t set yourself so far apart from the world as to make yourself holy. And even if you could, that’s just not how God operated. God’s promises don’t rest on the law, but on faith. You don’t get gifts because you’ve earned them, but because God loves to give gifts. You freely receive the gift of God's salvation because of His love and His mercy. Your sins are forgiven, not because you've done anything, but because He's done everything. You will spend an eternity with Him, because He loves you and wants to spend eternity with you. He has done and will do everything necessary for that to happen. You do nothing. God does everything. If you believe that, it's counted to you as righteousness. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell