Righteous Through Faith Alone (Romans 4:1-25)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: Romans 4:1–25
I. A Failing Faith?
Over the past several weeks, we've been digging into history, specifically the history of what is known as the Protestant Refomation. Why this focus on history, and why now? October 31st, 2017 (a little over three weeks from today) will mark the 500th anniversary of what is traditionally thought of as the beginning of the Reformation. On a church door in Wittenburg, Germany, a monk named Martin Luther publically questioned the practices of the Roman Catholic church. And as we know, within a few years, the fires of restoration began to spread.
A couple of weeks ago, we also talked very briefly about what was happening in France and Switzerland, beginning in the 1530s, through the influence of John Calvin and others.
But what about England? Well it's fair to say that England had an interesting relationship with the reformation/restoration movement on the continent. One of the key figures of the English Reformation was a man named Thomas Cranmer. In 1532, he was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was eventually influenced by Lutheran leaders in Europe, and supported a translation of the Bible into English. He was the guiding force behind the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549.
In 1553, the Catholic Queen Mary assumed the throne of England and had many Protestant leaders jailed, including Cranmer. He spent several years in prison, long enough to see fellow Protestants executed for their beliefs. But in late February of 1556, a week and a half before his own execution, Cranmer signed a statement recanting his Protestant beliefs. He issued another recantation on March 18th. Sadly, in the end, Cranmer's faith appeared to fail.
This morning, faith is exactly what we want to explore. Turn with me to Romans chapter 4.
II. The Passage: "Counted to Him as Righteousness" (4:1-25)
You may recall that last month we began studying those precious truths which the Reformation helped restore to the Western church. As we've noted in previous studies, in general, these reformers emphasized five foundational truths on which they took their stand. More recently, these have been called the 'five solas'. Sola is a Latin word from which we get words like “solo” and “solely”. In this case, we would translate as “alone”.
For example, so far in this study, we've talked about truths like being guided by “Scripture alone” or being saved by “grace alone”. This morning, as I mentioned, we want to think carefully about an idea that I believe comes though loud and clear in Romans 4...the fact we are “righteous through faith alone”. Let's look at that chapter in four parts and see how the Apostle Paul lays out the importance of this idea.
Before we get into this chapter, we need to know that Paul has already laid out his case, in chapters 1-3, for the guiltiness of all mankind, both Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles). As 3:23 expresses, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, that is, the glorious presence of God”. So the big question then is this: if only the righteous can stand before God, how could guilty sinners like us have hope before the High Court of heaven? How could we be acquitted (justified)? How can unrigheous people like us be right with the Judge of all the earth?
Well, what we need is righteousness. And in 3:22, Paul has wonderfully announced that God has provided that very thing. What kind of righteousness: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Now, addressing a predominantly Jewish-Christian church in Rome, Paul is extremely eager to make sure they understand what this “righteousness...through faith” does and does not mean. He wants them to know what this includes, and the inclusiveness of the gospel. This is precisely why he takes these Jews back to their beginnings in chapter 4.
1. Abraham, Faith, & Works (vs. 1-8)
First, look with me at verses 1-8 of Romans 4. Before we read this, let me remind that for the Jews, Abraham was 'the man'. He was the father of their people and a pillar of righteousness. Keep that in mind as you listen. Paul writes...
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:  “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
So this isn't complicated, is it? Paul is simply showing them that Abraham, their biological father, was in a right relationship with God, not because he earned it through righteous acts. No, there was righteousness in his account because he trusted God.
Paul told them a few verses earlier (in 3:24) that we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. And this is what happened to Abraham. The quote in 4:3 is from Genesis 15, where God promised Abraham that, though he was childless, he would have a son, and ultimately as many descendants as stars in the sky. Did Abraham somehow earn that promise? No. He was not looking for a paycheck; he was receiving a promise. And that happens by faith.
Hundreds of years later. David would exercise this same faith. He was enjoying the blessing of God's forgiveness. You see, God covering our sin, God forgiving our sin also requires faith. It is not something we earn; it is something we receive. So think about this: Paul is tell his Jewish-Christian readers that no matter how far you go back into the OT, being right with God has always been about faith, about trusting Him. But Paul continues...
2. Abraham, Faith, & Circumcision (vs. 9-12)
In verses 9-12, he tackles another uniquely Jewish subject. Verse 9...
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.  How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.  He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,  and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Okay, one possible danger of using examples like Abraham and David is that your readers might think this an exclusively Jewish discussion. And that's precisely what Paul wants to clarify. This blessing of being right with God as sinners, of atonement, of forgiveness from God, this blessing that comes when we trust God, is available to all people, not just those who have been circumcised; that is, it is for both Jews and non-Jews.
How does Paul prove that? He reminds them that Abraham was not circumcised when his faith was counted as righteousness before God; that circumcision came after that, and was (v. 11) a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith. More than that, Paul argues that God ordered it this way so that “father Abraham” could not be used as a poster boy for some kind of ritual, works-based righteousness through circumcision. No, Abraham is the father of all who believe, whether Jew or non-Jew. But there's more.
3. Abraham, Faith, & the Law (13-17)
Look at how Paul continues to tackle these Jewish concerns in verse 13...
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.  That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,  as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Now Paul has already made it clear about the contrast between works and faith, between earning a paycheck and receiving a gift. But now he gets more specific about these works. Abraham lived before the Law was given through Moses. Therefore, some Jews may have believed that the giving of the law meant a new way to be right with God.
Paul will go on to say in 7:12 that the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. But as we Paul stated here, works and faith are not compatible when it comes to being right with God. It is either about your performance or God's promise. It can't be both.
But if it rests on our performance, there is one glaring, one gargantuan problem. Verse 15. The “law brings wrath”. Jews who were trying to earn a right relationship with God could never merit more than their daily demerits. Any good we attempt can never make a dent in scales weighed down with the weight of our sin. Living by “the law” would always, in the end, bring God's just sentence; His righteous “wrath”.
This is precisely why God's rescue had to be sola gratia, by “grace alone”. There is nothing we could or can bring to the table except the sin for which we need forgiveness. And if God's provision of righteousness is by “grace alone”, it must be (v. 16) sola fidei, by “faith alone”. Those are always two sides of the same coin! This is a promise to be received, not a position to be earned. All we can do is believe that God has done it all, just like Abraham.
4. Abraham, Faith, & Hope (vs. 18-25)
And that's exactly how Paul goes on to encourage them in the final verses, 18-25. We read...
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.  No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,  fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”  But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,  but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,  who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Notice where Paul goes with all this, where he ends up. He has worked very hard to show his readers that trusting God has always been the path to being right with God. He has labored to push aside human effort and religious rituals and even the commandments of God to point them to the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (3:22)
But Paul wants them to really, really grasp what God's word says about Abraham's faith. He didn't simply look at that starry sky in Genesis 15, with faith in his heart, and earn a heavenly hall pass. No, that same faith expressed itself in hope over the span of twenty to twenty-five years. Amazingly, as we see in vs. 19, 20, as his body was weakening, his faith was growing stronger. What is Paul saying? He is reminding his readers and his critics that we are not saved by works, but by a faith that works itself out in hope, and then hopeful endurance.
III. Growing Strong in Faith
But it's those last two verses that bring things back to followers of Jesus, including us here this morning. In spite of our sin, we can have a right relationship with God by trusting in His promises. This has always been God's rescue plan. The promise that Abraham clung to in faith is the very promise that was ultimately fulfilled by Jesus, the seed of Abraham. The Law of Moses never changed this. It simply helped us see how unrighteous we really are, and thus, how badly we need a righteousness that comes through faith.
Why did the Reformers have to fight for this idea? Because then, as is still the case today, the Roman Catholic church tied rightness with God to our obedience to a sacramental path. Several decades after Luther's initial protest, Rome issued this statement:
If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema [that is, cursed]. (Council of Trent, Canon 12)
And that reminds us of why sola fidei is important. In this world, we will always be tempted, through external influences and internal impulses, to take matters into our own hands; to look for assurance in our efforts. When our religious performance leads us to believe God is now happy with us, or when we believe our spiritual failures are frustrating God and jeopardizing our relationship with Him, we are drifting away from “by grace alone through faith alone”.
But the common attack against “grace alone through faith alone” is that it leads to a life of inaction or license. “Jesus did it all? Cool! That means I can do whatever I want.” That of course is not what sola fidei means. Sometimes as Protestants, we can be so intent on protecting this idea of “through faith alone” doctrinally, that we stop pursuing it practically. We begin to see our initial faith as that heavenly hall pass.
But remember what Paul showed us about Abraham. The faith that saved him, that brought Him into a right standing with God, faith in what God had done and would do, faith in God's promise, that faith was a hope-producing, endurance-inspiring faith. It was a faith that grew strong, even as Abraham's body grew weak; even as, from all appearances, the likelihood of him becoming a father was growing slim to non-existant.
Brothers and sisters, if you believe you have been saved by faith, then make sure you are giving attention to that saving faith. How can you feed it? What fights against it? Like a garden, are you watering it, pruning it, and pulling out the weeds? Is it your ambition to grow strong in saving faith, like Abraham? We need God's help in doing that, don't we. Remember, we don't have faith in faith. Our trust is in God, in Christ, and in the promise of the gospel. Let's resolve this morning, that by God's grace, we will make it our goal to grow strong in faith, to clear away the distractions, address the impediments, and savor God's precious promises.
Let's come full circle and return the Reformation in England. Listen to the words of Thomas Cranmer on this very subject...
“This proposition – that we be justified by faith only, freely, and without works – is spoken in order to take away clearly all merit of our works, as being insufficient to deserve our justification at God’s hands; and thereby most plainly to express the weakness of man and the goodness of God, the imperfectness of our own works and the most abundant grace of our Saviour Christ...” (Thomas Cranmer, “Homily of the Salvation of Mankind...”)
But did Cranmer really believe? Hadn't his faith failed him in the end? Even though he recanted under threat of death, Queen Mary would not spare his life. He was given the opportunity to make one final public recantation. As he was reading, he suddenly diverged from the prepared statement, and boldly recanted his previous recantations. He then stated that the hand that had signed his recantation, would be the first thing burned in the fire that awaited him. And it was, that same day. He was executed in 1556, strong in faith.