(before we start — Read the Passage)
Paul now starts referencing Abraham to push his point home. The Jews didn’t look back to David, or to Moses or to Judah (their very name Jew derives from Judah). They looked back to Abraham. They saw themselves as descendants of Abraham, which is significant for them.
The Jews saw Abraham as their father, as the father of Judaism, the father of the nation (which he was – God took Abraham outside, told him to look at the stars and said … “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Genesis 15:5), and it was this connection to him which they relied on as their special pass into heaven. We have mentioned this in previous weeks, and it might seem like we are playing a cracked record here, but I’ve always said, if something is worth saying, it’s worth saying more than once!
So, we’re settling again on Paul’s attention which is given to Abraham and exactly HOW he is declared justified. This is important because given that Abraham is the example for the Jews, the example of how to have a relationship with God, then they would follow that example.
Paul’s basic argument is that Abraham’s justification is not by works, but by faith because if he were justified by his work, then the Jews are able to use their works as a means of justification.
The Bible says quite a lot about boasting. Some translations use the term “bragging” here, but they mean essentially the same thing. Verse 2 tells us, 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.
Note that Paul is recognising that our deeds can be the source of boasting, but he says this is not something that hold sway with God. It is somehow wrong.
We instinctively understand this. No one likes people who boast. Everyone knows people who no matter the conversation, they seem to have the ability to turn it round to talk about themselves and no matter what you’ve seen or done, they’ve seen it first or done it better! When I was growing up, it was common to correct boasting, and my parents would stop us if our attitude even hinted at it because “no one likes a boaster!”.
There are two ways the Bible speaks of boasting, the first is almost entirely negative, it describes a self-image driven by and based in pride and self. In the Old Testament, it is a common description of those who oppose God in some way, so in Isaiah 65, he prophesies and includes such people who deserve God’s judgement – Isaiah 65:1-7, describes people saying: “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” (v5), he also prophecies against the king of Assyria, who was boasting of his own strength, thinking he was the one who was responsible for his power. The King of Assyria was a pagan king. He doesn’t acknowledge God, he certainly doesn’t worship him. The same is true of Cyrus, king of Persia, who God calls “my anointed” (Isaiah 45).
In the New Testament, we see this use again, Jesus speaks about a Pharisee and Tax Collector at the temple, and the Pharisee’s self assessment is entirely boastful. Luke 18:9-14 says, He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Paul’s primary use of the word boasting describes an empty confidence in adherence to “the law”. Which is what he had before he encountered Christ.
Philippians 3:4-6 (ESV), ’though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless”.
Paul makes an assessment of how valuable this is in the very next verse. “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ”. He is saying, whatever humanly speaking I could boast about is useless compared with what God has done for me.
The form of boasting that the Bible actually commends is this one …
Jeremiah 9:24 “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”
Paul quotes this Jeremiah prophecy twice. In 1 Cor. 1:31 and in 2 Cor. 10:17.
In a nutshell, Our boasting, if we MUST do it, is in the Lord, it cannot be anything about ourselves. For Christians, everything we are and everything we have comes from God. Our possessions, our health, our talents — EVERYTHING about us is a gift from God. So, it seems stupid to me to boast before God about something He gave us in the first place!
In short, our confidence, our boasting is not and should not be related in any way to ourselves. Whether it’s our abilities, our strength, the things we give, how nice we are, or even things we might see as good things, our faith, spiritual gifts stuff like that. All we should boast about is God himself. This fits right in with Paul’s instruction that “no one should think more highly of himself than he ought” (Romans 12:3).
Paul uses Scripture again to illustrate his point. Paul quotes 2 scriptures. Firstly, he references Genesis 15:6, then he quotes David in Psalm 32v1,2
One of the natural consequences of the invention of the printing press and the massive availability of books generally in our society is that books do not have the same status in society as they did then. Not only are they not nearly so precious as they were then (they are pretty much throw–away items today), their contents are not viewed in the same way either. These may be connected, if the cost of producing something is high, the quality of what it contains will also be high, you won’t waste money saying something not worth saying!
With blogs and social media, you have the ability to can say pretty much anything you want with no cost. No materials to buy, no publisher to convince to print, no need to convince networks of shops to sell it, no cost of advertising. Just ‘post it’ and you’re done.
One of the most common things I have had over the years to defend has been my view of Scripture, people seem to think the Scripture has no more value that a blog or opinion someone would write online. The truth is that before the printing press, in the ancient world, a scroll or papyrus would have immense value, and therefore people were very careful about what they wrote down, not because of the consequences of their words, but because of the cost of writing them down, so they would really make sure that what they were writing down was accurate truthful and beneficial. They would not even have considered writing down a ‘bunch of fairy stories’ which they knew to be untrue.
Evangelical Christians, by definition, have an extremely high view of Scripture. By that, I mean that we value Scripture’s voice in our lives. Quite frequently when we are considering something, our main “go to” is “what does scripture say on the subject?”
In our world, there is a very different attitude.
The Bible is seen by most people merely as a human book, and many are disinterested or even antagonistic about it. I have in just the last few days heard people describe it as promoting slavery, homophobia, misogyny, war and all sorts of other hatred, and therefore to be dismissed out of hand.
No longer does the phrase “the Bible says” hold any real weight with people who are outside of a very narrow worldview.
We, however, are people of the book. For my part, if someone claims Christianity, their beliefs SHOULD be directed by Scripture, not by anything else. This isn’t a preach on hermeneutics (HOW we understand Scripture), so I’m not saying anything more about this, except to say, allowing Scripture to inform us means we’re not following our own smart ideas, we’re following God’s plan.
Colossians 2:8 says “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”.
David makes a number of statements about God’s word in Psalm 19 and declares it (actually, I’ll read it)
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”,
The point is this … we need to take what the Bible says seriously, and if it is that important, we would do well to make sure we understand it properly.
Wages v Gift
Romans 4:4-5, ’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”
We talked a little about indulgences last week, this is connected.
The witness of the New Testament is overwhelmingly that the gift of salvation is something which is given above and beyond anything expected. God gives gifts to his people, Jesus talks to the woman at the well and says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
Paul has just talked about ‘being justified FREELY through His grace.
This will come up frequently as we go through Romans because it is SO important.
When presenting salvation, the New Testament writers took care to emphasise the significance of grace and freedom. The Bible could not be more clear—salvation is absolutely free, the true gift of God in Christ, and our only responsibility is to receive the gift by faith (John 1:12; 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9).
John 1:12 “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”.
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”.
WE are totally unable to contribute to our salvation, salvation comes through faith – and the only thing that we need for faith is to hear the gospel, so Romans later on says “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
The thing that brings us salvation is not something WE can do, it is something we hear and believe in.
Ephesians 2:8,9 again … “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”.
If we don’t grasp how important it is that our salvation is rooted in the grace of God and NOT in the deeds we perform in this life, there are a number of traps we can fall into …
We can believe our deeds qualify us for heaven.
Gideon was told as much when God skived His army down from 33,000 to 300:
Judges 7:2 The LORD said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, “My own hand has saved me.”
This is one of the characteristics of humanity throughout the ages, a belief that we can somehow by our own efforts earn our way into heaven.
Sometimes it might be by doing good deeds for others, sometimes it might be by adhering to religious ceremonies and practices.
Yet Paul is quite clear that such boasting is futile.
Ephesians 2:8,9 “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so that No one can boast” (emphasis mine).
We can believe our deeds place us in a pecking order.
Which will cause us to look down on others. Going back to Jesus’ talk of the pharisee and the tax collector, His assessment of the Pharisee’s self-image was that he felt he was better than the tax collector: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Note that the tax collector is, or appears to be, unconcerned about the Pharisee, all he sees is his position before God.
It is important to understand that our value is not dependent on any place we hold, real or imaginary, in some arbitrary pecking order.
And finally …
Grace B4 Law
Does it come BEFORE or AFTER the circumcision? Before, of course!
The Jews saw themselves as children of Abraham, in genetic terms of course, they were — through Isaac and Jacob. Paul’s point here is not about their physical connection with him though, it is the spiritual lessons we learn from Abraham which is important, and particularly HOW his justification doesn’t come through the law.
Justification for Abraham came before birthright, before law, before deeds. It simply came via his faith “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3 quoting Genesis 15:6).
This is probably the primary reason for Paul giving Abraham as an example, Moses epitomises the Law, Abraham is generations before Moses. He precedes the Law and he found grace. If God’s grace is given before the Law, then there is no point relying on the law.
If the law came first, we might fall into the trap of thinking that the grace of God came because of adherence to it, this is symbolised by circumcision. The opposite is true, circumcision came as a result of the grace of God.
So as the Jews were circumcised as a mark of the promise God made, the circumcision didn’t make them the chosen people, it was a mark that they WERE the chosen people. Likewise, nothing we DO makes us Christian, being baptised doesn’t make you a Christian, reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, meeting together — none of these things make us Christian any more than following the law and doing the work of the law gave the Jews eternal life. We do those things because we ARE Christian, not to make us Christians.
So, this morning, we have four truths to take home and meditate on.
- We should avoid all boasting, unless it is about what God has done.
- Scriptures is important and we should take it seriously.
- Works salvation flies contrary to the grace of the gospel, making salvation a wage and not a gift.
- God’s grace came BEFORE the law (symbolised by circumcision), so cannot depend on the law.
Salvation is not something we should boast about — unless we are boasting about God, we can be confident that the message of salvation in the Bible (in fact the message of the Bible itself) can be trusted, that there is nothing we can do to earn Salvation, because salvation comes first, not afterwards. It comes before law, and actions and obedience.
When Jesus talks about the relationship between our faith and our obedience, our actions and our salvation, we must get them in the right order!