June 8, 2008
Proper 5 (A)
The Debt Is Paid
Romans 4:13-25

If we take an honest look within, we are each forced to say: “In me something is missing; something is desperately wrong.” Having arrived at that conclusion, the temptation is to think that we can make things right on our own – apart from God. But Scriptures teach that we must become righteous by God’s action – not our effort.

One day I was preparing to put a little Vaseline on the chapped lips of my 2-year-old granddaughter. Suddenly, she drove her index finger to the bottom of the jar, bringing out an enormous glob: “I do dat!” I am not so sure we change much as we age; we still think we can do it all ourselves.

Only God can make us righteous; only he can pay that debt we all owe for our sin. Apart from his grace, appropriated through faith in Christ, all humankind faces eternal condemnation (Romans 6:22-24). Though we stand condemned for our own sins, there is a sense in which we all trace our fallen nature back to Adam (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12-18). In Romans, Paul brings humankind to a point of utter helplessness and thereby prepares us for a new understanding of reality: We receive redemption through grace alone, by our faith in Christ.

Simply put, Jesus pays the debt for us, grants us his righteousness, and thereby sets us on a journey toward an eternity with God. Let us view Paul’s logic as he helps us appropriate the righteousness of Christ.

Faith Over Law (Acts 4:13-15)
Both Greco-Roman and Jewish debaters used individuals as examples to prove their point. In Romans 4:13-25, Abraham is the central figure through whom Paul argues for the preeminence of faith over law in bringing about our justification. Paul argues that Abraham is the spiritual father of both Jew and Gentile, for Abraham taught all believers to appropriate the promises of God through faith (Romans 4:13-17).

Chief among those was God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed – a direct reference to the universal availability of salvation through Jesus Christ, God’s Messiah (Romans 4:13; Genesis 12:1-3). It is true that God’s “sign” or “seal” of the old covenant with the Jews was circumcision. But Paul regards even Abraham’s circumcision as an indication of Abraham’s prior righteousness, which he appropriated by faith: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited [italics mine] it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

The word “credit” is a bookkeeping term; it was used in ancient business documents when one’s debt was paid. Paul’s reasoning in this passage is impeccable as he places:

Grace Over Works (Romans 4:16-17)
In Romans 4, notice the close connection between “faith” and “grace”: “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” (Romans 4:16). Abraham is the father of all believers, both Jew and Gentile (Romans 4:17-18).

I am familiar with a church that requires every new member to sign a covenant pledging not to participate in 32 specific activities. Sample items include the following: 1) “I will not go to movies.” 2) “I will not smoke.” 3) “I will not drink alcoholic beverages.” 4) For women: “I will not wear slacks.” I do not question the good intentions of the church leaders who compiled this list; they desire a congregation filled with godly, virtuous believers. But mature Christians are not produced by strict adherence to a list of laws or rules – the false assumption that was made by both the Pharisees and the Judaizers.

Here is a fair question: “If we are saved by faith, do our good deeds not matter?” Of course they do for “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). But we do good works because we are saved-not in order to be saved (Ephesians 2:8-9) – a theologically important distinction.

Christ’s Righteousness Over Our Unrighteousness (Romans 4:18-25)
Instead of acting like small children who can do everything ourselves, we should follow Abraham’s example and simply trust God. He and Sarah were too old to have a child, but God gave new life to Sarah’s womb, and Isaac was conceived. Later, Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac, the “son of promise.” Though it made no sense, Abraham was willing (Genesis 22). Is it any wonder that Paul writes of Abraham: “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God” (Romans 4:20)?

Just like Abraham, we must believe that God has “the power to do what he [has] promised” (Romans 4:21). Through Christ Jesus, our sin-debt has been paid in full; we have been credited with his righteousness (Romans 4:24). The Apostle says it best: “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

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