Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 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. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. 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. 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.
Eren Tatari’s sister died at the age of 19. In her grief she asked her best friend what she thought it meant. Her best friend replied, “I am too young to think about it.” That stunning reply taught her something important. She learned, “that people are very skillful in self-deception and shunning the reality of their own death.” Then she went on to point out something very important about us. She said, “Yet, regardless of our age, gender, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status, we all have existential questions that beg answers. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? We can’t help but ask these questions, and it is literally impossible to shut them off.”
Call them life’s big questions. Call them existential realities that we need to discover. Call them whatever you want to call them. They’re questions we all have and they’re questions to which - as Eren points out - we need answers. It’s one of those big questions that God wants to address today in Romans chapter four. It’s this question: What makes me important? Or to put the question another way: what justifies my existence?
This question is so fundamental that it is the question that all religions attempt to answer. Interestingly all religions answer the question the same way. Except one. Ours. I know that sounds too easy and overly simplistic, but it’s true. An honest analysis proves it. Fundamentally, all major religions answer this question with a man-centered approach. They say, “If you want to be justified, be a better person for God.” And then the different religions lay out precepts and systems for how to do that. If you’re Muslim, you have the five pillars to obey. If you’re Hindu, you reach upwards by following the guidance of the Vedic scriptures.
Which is why when God shares the answer to that question, he proves his case with a fella by the name of Abraham. Think about it. Even in modern times, all three ancient monotheistic (one God) religions claim Abraham as their father: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. That makes Abraham the ideal choice. He is a person who stands at the crossroads for millions of people as the person who had the right beliefs about justification. He is the one who originally showed us all God’s way. He is our father. He has that kind of credibility with people all over the world. And because Abraham is positioned so beautifully, he becomes God’s go-to guy when it comes to helping people grapple with the truth of justification. Paul asks the question this way: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? (v. 1)” In other words, what did Abraham find justifies a person’s existence? What makes them important and right in God’s eyes?
The Jews thought they knew what Abraham’s answer would be. Their hero. He up and left his homeland because God told him to. He up and circumcised his entire household because God told him to. He prayed rightly and worshipped truly. Abraham did an awful lot of things right and it’s all right there in the Bible in Genesis. They thought Abraham was justified by what he did before God. They saw Abraham saying, “If you want to be justified, it can be done. Work hard. Keep your nose clean and you’ve got it made in the shade.” That was their religious approach to justification.
If you think about it, that’s no different from more modern, secular approaches. There’s a story about an author who was of the starving artist variety. He wrote and nothing seemed to take off for him. He talked about how it depressed him and it made him wonder why he mattered. This is what he concluded, “Then I looked at my two little girls and found out why I exist.” A friend of mine recently went to Phoenix to visit her friend. Her friend is over the age of 70 and can’t quit selling real estate there. She’s incredibly wealthy, but she just can’t quit. Why not? She wouldn’t feel worthwhile anymore. Maybe you remember the classic movie Chariots of Fire. Do you remember what the sprinter said? He said, “When that gun goes off I have ten seconds to justify my existence.”
Do you see what that says about us? There is a reason all religions, but one have it wrong. There is a reason why we can fall into very secular traps of false justification. We are hardwired to rely on our personal virtues, record, or performance for our justification. I can tell myself I’m an ok person if I can get a church started in Aiken. You can believe you’re doing alright because you’re a decent mom, an incredible employee for your company, have beautiful shots of yourself on Instagram, have academic achievements that make Bill Gates look normal, or athletic chops that make people swoon before you. In the end, all of those justifications are all the same. They are part of our hardwired attempt to stake our justification before God and people on our virtue, record, or performance.
And we can’t just write any of this off as a non-issue. What we believe justifies us has huge consequences in our life and on our eternity. Many of you know what happened on Black Tuesday back in 1929. The stock market crashed and people lost billions of dollars of wealth. Poof. Up in smoke. There were people who had built themselves on that money. They believed it justified them, made them important, etc. Then it was all gone on one single day. If you don’t know the history, I’ll bet you can still guess what happened. People who justified themselves with money lost their reason for existence. So what did they do? They jumped out of their skyscraper offices. False justifications devastate us. What happens when someone who builds their life on athletics gets a career ending injury? What happens to someone who builds their justification on being a mom, but then makes a big parenting mistake? And what happens when we get to God’s court in eternity and we tell God, “This is why I matter. I obeyed this system of rules. I am smart. I am good,” or whatever false justification we haul out, and we watch God show us that what we thought justified us is actually the cruelest self-deception and the ultimate house of cards?
There has to be a better justification. And there is. There’s God’s justification. It’s the justification that Abraham discovered and to which Abraham clung. “What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ (v. 3)” Abraham didn’t pull a Stuart Smalley. He didn’t wake up in the morning and say, “I am good enough. I am smart enough. And doggonit, people like me.” In fact, what’s stunning, amazing, and totally counterintuitive is that when it comes to Abraham’s justification there is no resume. There is no list. There is no performance record or personal virtue listed. It simply says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited as righteousness.”
God credits righteousness through faith. It’s that simple. What is righteousness? It’s not a word we use too often these days and when we do often it has kind of a negative connotation. Think of righteousness as right standing before God that gives you access to him and his gifts. There’s a club in New York City called the Harvard Club. Who can be a member, network with the powerful people there, and have access to all the privileges there? Harvard grads. Who can be a member of God’s family, have complete access to heaven, and have an audience with the most powerful being in the universe at any time? People who have righteousness. So, yeah, righteousness is nothing short of the most important gift on the planet. It’s right standing with God and membership in the heaven club. And you get it by graduating from God’s school of morality, right? Wrong. God gives it when you trust him for it.
Do you see how counterintuitive this is to us? Imagine if you showed up to a job interview and you said, “I believe you will give me this job and, therefore, you’re going to give it to me.” They’d think you’re a nut. You prove yourself with a resume. Imagine if you showed up to a beauty pageant in street clothes and said, “I believe I will win this competition and, therefore, I will get the crown.” They’d say, “Go and make yourself look pretty.” Or if you showed up to a spelling bee refused to participate and said, “I believe I will win and, therefore, I already have.” We don’t experience anything in life going quite that way. Except in the matter of justification. God comes along and says, “No, seriously. That’s exactly how it works.” “...to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.’ (v. 5)” We trust that God justifies the wicked and, in turn, we are credited as actually being righteous.
That’s the whole story of the gospel. It’s a story of wicked people who stopped trying and started believing that God would have to pull off salvation through the Messiah. Think of how that played out in Abraham’s life. He worried, wondered, and fretted. He caused massive family issues when he tried getting a son through his wife’s maidservant. He even almost messed it all up by pawning off his wife as his sister. Yet through it all he believed. He believed that somehow, someway God would bring salvation through his offspring. He believed that his ninety-year-old wife would have a son. He believed that when the knife was coming down on that miraculous son that God would somehow bring him back to life. Abraham believed that God would pull off his salvation totally through a son of his and that faith was credited to him as righteousness.
That’s the faith that justifies. When we say that God justifies the wicked, we’re not saying that God is making some unilateral decision about us that isn’t backed by salvation history. It’s not like God said, “You know what? I feel like letting people who trust me off the hook so I’m just going to declare it and make it so.” Believing that God makes us righteous is believing that God worked in human history to send one of Abraham’s kids to forgive people and give the entire world righteousness. That’s what Isaac was about for Abraham. He was another link in the chain that finally led to the Messiah. The difference between Abraham and us is that we now know who that Messiah is. Paul explains it like this: “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. (v. 23, 24)” When we say that we’re trusting God for righteousness, that’s just another way of saying that we believe Jesus’ work is totally ours. His performance, his virtues, his perfect record - all of it is credited to us as our righteousness through faith. That finally is the faith of Abraham. That’s what he believed. That’s what he clung to for his entire life. That’s what justified him forever.
Do you see it? It’s not that you’re to stand before God in eternity without a resume. You’ll have one. It’s not that you won’t have a whole list of achievements. You’ll have them. It’s not that you won’t have a whole bunch of virtues and merits that you can show God to make an ironclad case for why you should be in heaven. You’ll have all of that and they will belong to you. It's just that they will have come from Jesus. It's just that they will have been lived by him and then applied to you as righteousness through faith. Have you ever thought of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John like that? Have you realized that that historical record of Jesus’ moral performance there is your moral performance through faith? Have you ever taken to heart that you get to show up before God and point to Jesus’ love and virtues in those books - his entire earthly record - and make the claim that its yours by divine right through faith. Because that is exactly what this means and that is exactly what we’re saying today. All of Jesus’ righteousness is yours through faith.
There is a wonderful, freeing, and practical application to all of this. It’s this: Stop trying. If you’re on the religious treadmill, step off. It’s exhausting to confess, try harder, confess, try harder, and so on and so on. It’s no less tiring to try to find our reason for existence in some great work or some important role that we have. It’s time to stop trying and it’s time to believe. I heard a story recently of a money manager who finally understood God’s justification. He spoke about it back during the teeth of the Great Recession. You may remember that the stock market tanked and he lost millions and millions of dollars. When that happened he said, “I have never been happier.” He explained why. He said, “Before it was my life. Now it’s just wealth.” God’s justification is the end of trying. It’s the end of trying to make my professionalism, my mothering, my beauty, my smarts, or my morality my crown. It’s time to stop trying and to start believing. It’s time to believe that Jesus truly is my righteousness, my life, and my crown. Amen.