This morning we’re continuing our study of the amazing letter of Rabbi Paul, written to the believers at Rome. Last Shabbat Jerry completed chapter three. Therefore, this morning we’ll begin at chapter four.
Now, it’s important to remember that the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles weren’t there when these books and letters were written. The chapter breaks as we have them in our English Bibles were assigned in the 13th century AD, under the auspices of Archbishop Stephen Langton. The verse divisions didn’t appear until the 15th century. I say this because all too often we come to a new chapter and assume that it’s a new subject, and in so doing fail to connect what we read with what went before. The result is that a verse or a passage can inadvertently be divorced from the context of the book as a whole. This leads to misinterpretation.
So let’s get the big picture. The issue Paul is in the midst of addressing here, in fact the main point of the entire letter, is how a person is justified – and justification means to be made acceptable to God; to be in a right relationship with Him, so that we will be in Heaven with Him when our life in this world ends.
Paul has already made the case that the whole world stands guilty before God (Jew and Gentile alike). If your conscience doesn’t ‘get you’ the demands of the Torah will. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Torah; it is perfect. The problem is in us. Our fallen, sinful nature makes it, not just unlikely, but impossible for us to fulfill its demands. In chapter 3, Paul has made four important assertions:
- Nobody (Jew or Gentile) is made righteous through Torah observance
- Every single human being has sinned – failed to meet God’s standards
- Righteousness can be ours, but only through faith in God, and only as a gift
- Because it is a gift, nobody can legitimately claim they earned or deserve it
And now Paul, the once highly-respected, rabbinically-trained rabbi and Pharisee, now a learned and dedicated follower of Messiah Yeshua, and emissary to the Gentiles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, goes on to prove his point that justification comes by faith rather than by Torah observance; and he does so by looking to the quintessential example from Jewish history: Abraham.
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.
That’s a big “IF”. Now Abraham did a lot of good deeds. By the way, I will be using the words ‘deeds’ and ‘works’ interchangeably here. The point is that if anyone ever had a right to boast in their own merits, it would have been Abraham. The things Adonai commanded him to do, and with which he complied, were more difficult than anything any of us has ever been asked to do. So humanly speaking, Abraham’s walk, his halacha, if you will, was far superior to the rest of ours.
But Paul uses that conditional word “If…” to demonstrate that Abraham couldn’t in fact boast, because Abraham’s righteousness wasn’t being compared to ours. God Himself is the measure of righteousness – the standard – the basis of comparison. Good luck with that! Abraham would affirm along with the rest of us Mee kamocha b’elim, Adonai? Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty? Therefore, Paul tells us, he had no cause to boast. And if Abraham couldn’t boast before God, how much less do we have cause to boast? And now Paul wants us to remember how it was that Abraham came to be righteous.
What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Where in Scripture does it say that? It’s in Genesis. So let’s take a look at the passage from which Paul quotes. This encounter takes place in Genesis chapter 15. I’ll be reading the first six verses (and while you’re turning there, let me seize this opportunity to insert a shameless plug for our Wednesday evening Bible study, which is presently in Genesis, and within a week or so, will be studying the life of Abraham. If there was ever a good time to start attending the Bible study, this is it).
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.”
Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
For the sake of context, this exchange between Adonai and Avram takes place in the aftermath of the war between the nine kings in and around Canaan, in which Avram took 318 of his men, engaged in the battle, was victorious, and rescued Lot and all the captives. Now he has returned from battle, and is approached by two kings, each with an offer. The king of Sodom offers him the silver and gold plundered in the battle; while the king of Shalem (Melchizedek) offers him bread and wine and a blessing. Avram rejects the king of Sodom, knowing how wicked he and his kingdom are; which now means he has a powerful adversary. This is why God’s word to him is “Do not fear… I am a shield to you.”
And Adonai makes a lavish promise to Avram; great reward, and descendants so numerous that, like the stars, one could never count. But Avram is an elderly man, and he and Sarai (also elderly), are childless. So naturally he questions. But when God makes this promise, Avram takes Him at His word. And it is this complete trust, this confidence, in spite of all outward evidence to the contrary, that pleases God, who on that basis credits Avram with righteousness.
I don’t want you to miss the significance of what Rabbi Paul has done here. Think about this: where is it that we read about the life of Abraham? It’s in Genesis. Genesis is Torah! So even the Torah itself tells us that Torah observance isn’t the basis for righteousness. Abraham was declared righteous by God before there was even such a thing as the Torah. 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.
This isn’t a difficult concept. Yet it staggers the mind how many people who profess to be Christian don’t seem to get it. You find it out when you talk to people on the street and ask them if they believe they’re going to Heaven when they die. When you ask why they think they will go to Heaven they talk about the good things they’ve done and the bad things they haven’t done.
When an individual or a company hires you, you enter into a contractual arrangement, outlining the nature of the work you will perform, what the employer agrees to pay you for your work, and how often wages or salaries are paid out. When you have put in that work, the employer is obligated to pay you.
But Scripture is abundantly clear that salvation is a gift from God. It isn’t based on a wage or a barter or a system of merit. We can’t earn it; He doesn’t trade salvation for services rendered; and we certainly don’t deserve it.
Imagine the temerity of someone standing before the Most High God, and presenting Him with an invoice.
“Well, let’s see, I did that good deed last year, and I went to services three weeks in a row after Pesach, (I even put some money in the offering). I bought that raffle ticket for the ‘61 Corvette, and since I didn’t win, the $10 helped that children’s hospital. I haven’t lied… much. I don’t steal (I mean, that creative ‘deduction’ on my tax return wasn’t really stealing; I’m just paying less to the IRS). Well, God, I think I’ve done pretty well. Probably better than a lot of people. So here You go, here’s my invoice. You owe me.”
It sounds crazy, right? Yet that’s what it means to believe salvation is earned!
But even a most righteous man like Abraham could not have claimed to deserve God’s favor. In fact, not even the great prophet Isaiah, arguably the most righteous man on earth in his generation, not even he imagined that he deserved God’s favor. Listen to what this faithful prophet said when in a vision he saw God seated on His throne in all His glory: “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King – the Lord of Hosts!” If Isaiah’s righteousness wasn’t going to cut it in the presence of an infinitely holy God, what makes us think ours will?
In that vision, God graciously pardoned Isaiah’s iniquity and took away his sin, and the next thing you know, when there was a task to be done, the prophet was so grateful to have been forgiven and accepted by God that he eagerly volunteered. Isaiah chapter 6 is actually a thumbnail sketch of what salvation looks like. We stand hopelessly guilty before God. We have no merit; nothing with which to commend ourselves to Him. What we deserve is judgment and condemnation. And what does Adonai do? In His mercy, compassion and kindness, He forgives us.
But the basis of His forgiveness is that we believe Him; in particular, that we put our trust in and transfer our loyalty to Messiah Yeshua, who single-handedly paid the full price that our collective sin demanded.
And now Rabbi Paul goes on to make his case from the writings of King David.
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.”
What an enviable place it is to be – forgiven, atoned-for and in right standing before God. Here Paul is paraphrasing Psalm 32, a maskil of David. And what he does is point out that it is God’s gracious choice to forgive a man and give him a clean slate. It is exclusively God’s prerogative, and He alone has the authority to do so; which is why it was so startling for the Pharisees and Scribes to hear Yeshua declare to people that their sins were forgiven.
What Psalm 32 doesn’t say is that God forgives a man based on tzedakah – righteous deeds he may have done. This psalm, in fact, suggests only that David knew his sin, knew it was useless to hide his sin, and so confessed it and experienced newfound freedom and joy in the Lord.
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. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!
The passage of Genesis we read earlier, and to which Rabbi Paul alluded, was chapter 15. It is in Genesis chapter 17 that Avram is circumcised. What we are supposed to learn from this is that not only was Abraham declared righteous before the Torah existed, but even before he had been circumcised. And now Paul extends this fact to make the point that the blessing of justification is offered fully to Jew and Gentile alike.
So now that he has made the case for justification by faith decisively, Paul returns to his earlier contention; that there is no double-standard with God. Jews and Gentiles are welcomed to come to Him, on His one-and-the-same terms: FAITH.
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. 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.
Abraham – the father of every believer, whether Jew or Gentile. What good news! And this really has been the message all along.
It was God’s word to us through Isaiah: My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples (Isaiah 56:7).
It was God’s word to us through Yeshua: I have other sheep that are not of this (Jewish) sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16).
On another occasion Yeshua was asked by a group of zealous and religious men, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” His response to them – and to us 2,000 years later – was this, and it is crucial that we take it to heart: “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (John 6:28-29).
Regardless of your background; Jew or Gentile, if you have put your entire trust in Messiah Yeshua for salvation, you become a child of Abraham. What a wonderful thing! Yes, Jews are still Jews and Gentiles are still Gentiles, but we are now one in the Lord. Our identity is something so much greater than the circumstances of our birth. We are Abraham’s children, the road we walk is the way of faith in Messiah, and it is that faith in Yeshua that gives us good heavenly standing. Messiah’s righteousness is credited to us. That is a very secure place to be!