Alfred Place Baptist Church

4:1-5 The God who Justifies the Wicked

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.
Romans 4:1-5

If I were seeking to win a group of Jews to believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, and that through faith in him they could be declared righteous then there would be one sure way of getting their attention. It would be to show them that Abraham their father – the father of the Jewish race – he himself believed in the Lord and he was declared righteous through that faith. “Be faithful to your father! Do what he did!” we’d be saying to them, in fact that is what we do say today to both Jew and Gentile.

So what did Abraham discover in this matter? There are various ways of translating those words and clauses in our text, but this N.I.V. translation seems to be as good as any, with much to commend it. What did Abraham find in reference to this matter being discussed of how is anyone declared righteous by God? What was the understanding and experience of justification that Abraham had? Notice Paul calls him “our father”, in other words, he is a patriarch in the estimation of the Gentile Christians in the church in Rome as well as the Jews. We all honour Abraham. The question then is whether Abraham was justified – declared righteous by God – because of the good works that Abraham did.

 1. HOW ABRAHAM WAS DECLARED RIGHTEOUS BY GOD.

There are men and women in the Bible and their virtuous lives are acknowledged by God. For example there is Noah and we are told of him, “Noah was a righteous man blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (Gen.6:9). There is also the patriarch Job and we are told of him, “This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Then there is Simeon; “There was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25). Or we are told about Hannah that, “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). And we might expect that God would bless and save such men and women because they’d lived such god-fearing lives. Let’s investigate the life of Abraham.

i] How did Abraham live before God spoke to him? Was it with Abraham as it had been with Noah and with Job? Old Abraham was living in a pagan atmosphere in a pagan city called Ur of the Chaldees. How is his life described in that place? Did Abraham stand out? Was he a holy and righteous man? This is what we are told about him. “Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there” (Gen. 12:4&5). We are told his age, and the name of his wife, and that he had servants, but we are told nothing at all about his moral character, nothing whatsoever about his religious convictions and integrity. Nothing. His age and his married status, and his servants. Then God had spoken to this man telling him to leave the city of Ur and go to the place where God wanted him to live, and Abraham did what he was told. That is all. In other words we are not told that God chose him because God had examined his life and considered that he was righteous. For years he was a typical ungodly man of Ur.

ii] How did Abraham live after God had spoken to him? Was he a blameless man, awesomely godly in his life? No, he wasn’t. He was certainly not a wicked man, but he didn’t have magisterial faith in the Lord. God had promised him and his wife that they would have a baby boy, but after years of trying they stopped believing that this was impossible and he and his wife agreed that he could sleep with his wife’s servant Hagar until she conceived a child, which she did. What a muddle. So worldly. Then, again, when Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt and the king of Egypt fancied his wife Sarah Abraham told the king that Sarah was his sister not his wife. He fearfully compromised his wife so that she ended up in the king’s harem. But God protected her. So it was not that Abraham lived a personal blameless life and so God declared him to be righteous.

iii] Did Abraham have something to boast about? Could he say wistfully, “It’s not been easy serving Jehovah . . . but I’ve lived a god-fearing life . . . I’ve always done the will of God . . . I suffered for it and so did my family . . . but we kept on worshipping the Lord . . . building altars . . . sacrificing to him . . . keeping his commandments . . . and so God blessed me with vast herds of cattle and sheep and hundreds of acres of land, but it’s been tough” looking off into the middle distance . . . No! Abraham had nothing to boast in. There was a second occasion when, this time, Abimelech king of Gerar fancied his wife Sarah and once again Abraham tried to wriggle out of the danger to himself by saying that she was his sister not his wife. Think of it! Twice he compromised his wife. Abraham had nothing to boast in. So the works of Abraham were a very mixed bag. Some things he did were horrible and worthy of divine rebuke. On the other hand he did display the most astounding faith when he was prepared to sacrifice his only son Isaac believing God could raise him from the dead. He had great faith but he also had great unbelief. They were there, the flesh and the spirit, in one follower of the Lord, just as it is in us true disciples today. So Abraham couldn’t be declared righteous by his works because some of his works were decidedly unrighteous.

More than that Paul writes here that if it were because of Abraham’s works that he’d been justified then Abraham would have “had something to boast about – but not before God” (v.2). “I am in heaven because of what I did!” No Abraham! If there was obedience in Abraham’s life, and there was, it was because God had bent Abraham’s will and made him willing to do that. God had made him obedient giving him the strength of mind and body to do good works. If there had been trust in Abraham’s heart, and there was, then that was a gift of God. If there had been love it was because God had first loved him. If he and Sarah had a marriage lasting 80 years then God had brought them together and kept them together all that time. We have nothing to boast in except a great merciful God.

It was our Golden Wedding last week and we had many cards and Emails and Facebook messages. Some said, “Congratulations!” but all we’d done was to keep breathing and eating. Many others said, “Thank God!” Of course it was God who decided that we would be together for these many years. It was he who has arranged our lives so that it’s been so. It has been the Lord’s doing. So it was with Abraham. And every virtue we possess and every victory won and every thought of holiness are his alone.

2. WHAT DOES SCRIPTURE SAY ABOUT ABRAHAM BEING JUSTIFIED?

What does the Scripture say?” (v.3) Paul asks. Now you can look at these verses in this book, in the letter to the Romans, and then you can read the life of Abraham in the same book in Genesis 12 and the next ten chapters, and there are two options before you. You can say what the modernist scholar C.H. Dodd says in his commentary on Romans, “These things have little interest and no weight for us. Paul’s scholastic and rabbinic argumentation makes the whole exposition seem remote and unenlightening.” That is one possibility; you can pass judgment on the apostle and on Scripture itself and choose what bits seem relevant and inspired to you, and what bits are unhelpful. That is a possibility and it was a position taken by most preachers in most churches in Wales in the last 19th and 20th centuries and as a result there was no authority in the pulpit. In the pew there was no knowing what the people were to believe or to reject, and consequently the land is full of empty chapels, some of which have been changed into pubs. Pub thinking triumphed in the pulpits. The other option is to ask the apostolic question seriously; “What does the Scripture say?”

Do you see the implication of that? The phrase ‘the Scripture’ refers to a written book, an enscripturated piece of writing. There are other phrases describing the same entity such as “the word of God” but that suggests something also dynamic, or even ethereal, a word that comes from the divine and zaps your heart – just yours. It moves you and motivates you and inspires you and so it becomes the word of God, a word from God to you. It may not touch others in the same way, but it has touched you. But that is not what you have here; “What does the written Scripture say?”

Leaders in the professing church, the hundreds of women who are now becoming preachers in the Established Church in defiance of the male headship principle of the Scripture, and the British bishops who are so anxious for them to join them as fellow bishops, all say that we preachers must find our unity not in what a book says but in Jesus Christ. I might agree, but the Lord Jesus Christ has given us a book, and he tells us that that Scripture cannot be broken, that Jesus came not to destroy the Scripture but to fulfil it. Heaven and earth will pass away but not the Scripture. When he is attacked by the devil he replies to him by thrice quoting Scripture from the book of Deuteronomy saying each time, “it is written.” Our Saviour did not think that what Moses wrote was remote and unenlightening, with little interest and no weight for his disciples. It was powerful to defeat Satan. Jesus urged us to search the Scripture because it testified of him. He told people that they were so mistaken in what they thought because they did not know the Scripture. To Christ the Scripture was true, authoritative and inspired. To Christ the God of the Scripture was the living God, and the teaching of the Scripture was the teaching of the living God. To him what Scripture said God said.

The Lord Christ quoted from every part of Scripture, the creation of man, the murder of Abel, the times of Noah, the flood, the days of Lot, the destruction of Sodom, the word of God to Moses, the rite of circumcision, the giving of the law, the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness, the profanation of the temple by the priests, David eating the showbread, the glory of Solomon, the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon, the famine in the days of Elijah, the sending of Elijah to a widow in Sidon, the healing of Naaman the leper, the stoning of Zechariah, Daniel’s prophecy of the abomination of desolation, Jonah’s message to Nineveh. In other words, Jesus was familiar with Scripture and he treated it all as history. Those parts of Scripture that men like Dodd are most likely to consider to be “remote and unenlightening” are the very ones Jesus seemed most fond of choosing as his illustrations and texts in his preaching

You want to know God? Read the Scripture and go to a church where Scripture is believed and taught. You want to understand Scripture? Than read and hear Scripture preached because what is unclear in one part of Scripture will be lucid in another. You want to live a happy and useful life? Then let the Scripture dwell in your heart with all wisdom. You want to see people helped and be delivered from their drug addiction and alcoholism and string of broken relationships? Then discover the power of the Scripture in your life by becoming acquainted with it. For Christ the Scripture was the communication of God to man and the very inspired word of God. The Scripture had divine authority. It could not be annulled, not even its minutest details. So this question of Paul in our text, “What does the Scripture say?” shows us that the apostle took exactly the same view of the Bible as his Master. He did not think that he was more clever and sophisticated than Jesus. This question, “What does the Scripture say?” is the fundamental question you must ask in order to know what you are to believe and how you are to live.

 3. ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD AND WAS JUSTIFIED.

The apostle tells us the answer to his question concerning what Scripture says about how Abraham was justified. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (v.3). Where does Scripture say this? It is in the book of Genesis chapter 15 and verse 6: “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” So here is a verse found in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis and it is repeated here in the letter to the Romans in the New Testament. Both verses say the same two things:

i] Abraham believed God. In other words Abraham believed God when he told him to leave Ur and go to a land that God had prepared for him and his descendants. He believed God when he told him that he and Sarah in their old age would have a son. God required the old patriarch to believe that this was a message from God. And so it is with us. We are to believe certain things about Jesus Christ, that he is the eternal Son of God, that he has added to his divine nature human nature by being born of the virgin Mary, growing in her womb and entering this world in the same manner as every other person. So in Christ are two natures wholly divine and wholly human in one person, the God man who is our Lord, Jehovah Jesus. He fulfils all righteousness as our covenant head, and he dies as our substitute under the condemnation of the law that we have broken, the Lamb of God who appeases the wrath of God and reconciles him to ourselves. God loves us and pardons us because of what Jesus has done. We must all meet him and our lives be evaluated by him, his own people being personally vindicated in that great Day. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” These are the foundational truths that we must believe. This is the first step in saving faith. But there are two more steps.

We have to assent that all this is true, that it is not a cunningly devised fable, composed by a group of evil plotters who invented the ancient stories of the patriarchs and others later invented the character of Jesus whom we come across in the four gospels and have explained to us in the letters. We believe that these things are the greatest realities of all time and history – Jesus Christ’s pure life and profound teaching and mighty signs and atoning death and historical resurrection are utterly uninventable. We might have a little niggling doubt about this small detail, or that but you don’t throw your cooked fish into a bin because you find a bone. You put the bone on the side of the plate. You can come back to that later. We make an affirmation that the good news of Jesus is true, that indeed he is the God-man and the Saviour by his teaching, and his atonement and his grip on his people. That is all true and that is why we believe it. But there is more still to saving faith, not only to know the content, and believe that it is true.

We have to personally trust and rely on Jesus Christ as the only name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. We receive and rest on him alone for salvation. In other words, it is not enough to believe the system of doctrine about Jesus Christ. It is not enough to have a grasp of the historical teaching of the Bible. The devils believe all of that but are devils still. For faith to be saving and effectual and life-transforming and eternity-changing we have to entrust ourselves, body and soul, for time and eternity, to Jesus Christ.

I was reading about the great tightrope performer, Blondin, who in June 1859 became the first person to cross a tightrope stretching for over a quarter of a mile across the Niagara Falls. The rope was fifty meters about the water and the rocks and he crossed it several times. Once he did it in a sack, on another occasion on stilts, again he did it on a bicycle in the dark. Once he carried a stove with him and he cooked an omelet half-way across the tightrope. One time he walked across blindfolded pushing a wheel barrow. When he asked the crowd who had rapturously applauded his arrival on the other side if they believed he could push a person across in a wheelbarrow, “Yes!” they shouted out to a man, but none of them would volunteer to put their lives in Blondin’s hands. Then later on his manager, Harry Colcord, having seen him going across the tightrope so many times, did entrust himself to Blondin, traversing the Falls sitting in a wheelbarrow.

That is like saving faith. Firstly we must know about Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done. So the Gideons help by distributing beautiful testaments and Bibles in schools and halls of residence and hotels. But hen we must also believe that this good news is true. Then the third step is also essential; we have to entrust ourselves body and soul for time and eternity to the welcoming Saviour. We give up all confidence in our works, and our attainments and we are convinced of Jesus’ all sufficiency, his power to keep us, his grace to forgive us for the most subtle of our sins and his willingness to take sinners like us to glory.

We see all those elements in Abraham. He believed that God had spoken, that it was true that Sarah and he would have a son in their old age, and that there was a land prepared for him and his descendants by God. He trusted God and showed it by selling up his business and his house and gathering together his family and his nephew Lot and his servants, and loading his carts, and putting sacks on the backs of his camels and donkeys, and waving good-bye to all his friends in Ur and setting out for an unknown place a thousand miles away. I wonder what the servants thought about it, and Lot his nephew saying good bye to his chums, and especially his wife Sarah being parted from her family for the rest of her life. We are not told that God had spoken to her, and I suppose that Abraham had to speak lovingly and earnestly to her very often to tell her why they were pulling up their roots and traveling far away where they knew no one. Abraham believed God and kept believing him that one day God would give Sarah a son in her old age. He had a hiccup at one time in this faith of his, but he got over it and returned to believing in the child to be born. Men and women we are all on a journey aren’t we? We are going to the grave; we are going to meet God; we are going to eternity. What a journey we are on. If we are Christians, if we have entrusted ourselves into the hands of Jesus Christ, then are we preparing for arrival in the presence of God for ever in that beautiful land above? Walk by faith, day by day, to glory.

ii]Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. God was looking at Abraham’s faith as the patriarch believed that God had spoken, God must be obeyed, and God had prepared a place for him and his seed. He trusted in God, and that real trust (of course shown in his actions), was reckoned to Abraham for the righteousness with which justification is concerned. Usually the ground of being credited as righteous is the righteousness of Christ, but here Paul is insisting that Abraham’s faith was reckoned by God as righteousness.

So God was monitoring all the years that Abraham had to keep trusting in God keeping his word and giving him a child in old age. Thirty long years Abraham kept looking to God, praying to him, reminding God, pleading his promises, crying to him, “How long O Lord. Sarah and I are not getting any younger. When will the child come?” That faith in God that Abraham had was credited to him as righteousness. He was justified by his faith in God. Abraham was freed from all the penalties, and entitled to all the rewards of God’s holy law. Paul’s insistence is on the impossibility of Abraham’s works making him righteous. Could Abraham and his servants and his wife and nephew drive out all the pagans from the land we know today to be Israel? Impossible! Would Abraham at 100 and his wife in her 90s be able to conceive a baby boy? Impossible! The works of Abraham could not make him a father or conqueror of the whole of Israel. He had to trust God and that faith of his in God’s promises was accounted to him as righteousness.

 4. TRUSTING IN GOD, NOT OUR WORKS, OBTAINS JUSTIFICATION.

Paul proceeds to give us a fascinating picture of how our salvation is not by our works but through our faith. This is what he writes, “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” (vv.4&5). I worked for a year for the National Coal Board as a wages clerk with special responsibility for the Cynheidre colliery, an anthracite mine near Llanelli. On Friday mornings I would be part of a team of pay-clerks who would go to different mines and pay off the miners. They were all paid in cash with special envelopes with open corners so that they could count their notes without opening the pay packets and then if they believed there was a discrepancy the envelopes could be opened in our presence. So they stood in line towards our little booths and they gave their numbers and we handed over the pay packets. The pay was poor; to get a good wage they needed to work double shifts of 16 hours. When we handed over their pay they never said, “O thank you so much, sir, for this money.” It wasn’t a gift from us that we were giving them. It was a wage, a payment for 8 hours’ work in the dust and noise and water and total darkness of labouring half a mile underground. A gift is something one person decides to give to another, while a wage is something worked for and his pay packet is a legal obligation. This is what Paul is saying here, “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation” (v.4).

By works is not how we receive free justification from God. Jesus’ righteousness is not something we labour to get. God is under no obligation at all to clothe us with that holy dress. We’ve done nothing to deserve it, in fact the reverse is true. We have been busy clothing ourselves with flashy, cheap, carnal clothes. Our clothes smell of the pigs we’ve been feeding, and yet in wonderful love the Father has welcomed us home, and told his servants to take the stinking clothes from us and clothe us with the holy garments of sonship.

How do we get such a glorious robe? Not by working for 16 hours underground. Not by our works at all but by trusting the God who justifies the wicked, our faith is credited as righteousness. Just like Abraham it is by believing God that our faith is accounted as righteousness. It is not by our labours of love; it is not by the good deeds that we have done; it is not that we worked on the streets of Calcutta for thirty years and helped the homeless and fed and clothed them – that because of that it was credited to us as righteousness. No. As far as divine justification is concerned, over against our works, over against our love, and over against everything else in what we do we have been justified by trusting in God. Why is that? Because faith means receiving something from someone else, not doing something, or even being someone.

We say that our faith saves us, and let us understand what we are saying. We are not saving ourselves, not in the slightest measure. God saves us, and we are connected to him and his great saving work by means of our trust in him. So the Bible never says that we are saved through our love because love labours, and love works, love suffers long and is kind, is not easily provoked, endures all things and believes all things. If we were saved by our love then salvation would depend upon some high quality of actions and deeds that we had done. We would have saved ourselves by our loving works, and that is what the New Testament, above all else, is very concerned to deny. The very centre and core of the whole Bible is the revelation of God’s amazing grace, that grace which doesn’t depend one whit upon anything that is in man, any action or any achievement of ours, but on wholly undeserved and unmerited and sovereign and resistless grace. We are saved by Jesus’ works, by his achievements, by his love for us that kept him on the cross in all its dark agony and anathema until he had finished our salvation. He achieved this all by himself.

What do we bring to God? Paul gives us this astonishing answer in our text, it is our wickedness, our ungodliness, not our works. You see his description of the Christian in \verse 5 as someone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked. And here is my awful dilemma as a preacher of free grace and free pardon, as a servant of the God who justifies the wicked, I cannot find in Aberystwyth any wicked men and women. I want to see people clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I want them justified and declared righteous by God, freely pardoned of all their sin and guilt, but it is only those who trust in Christ’s blood and righteousness who will receive a free justification. Nobody else! But I live in the midst of a town of people who think they are decent and good men and women who always do their best. They have no fear of meeting a sin-hating God. Their good works far outweigh their sins, they imagine, and they think they are going to heaven because they have earned it by being good neighbours. They don’t see that they have fallen short of the glory of God, that that is the standard for all who are to live in God’s presence.

Have you seen it? That you need to go to God openly acknowledging that you – like all men – have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that you are a wicked man, not as wicked as you could be or as wicked as one day you will discover yourself to be, but wicked enough, a person who needs mercy. You need to trust in God who justifies the wicked. Your life has left you clothed with dirty garments in God’s sight, and you need new clothes. You do not need to go to your washing machine and add plenty of detergent and wash your own clothes because you know that pretty soon, in a few days, they will be dirty again and need to be washed again, but here is the blood of Christ that can cleanse you from all your sin permanently, and here are the robes of the righteousness of Christ that can cover you, and it will be pure and clean and sweet-smelling for ever and ever.

 

This spotless robe the same appears when ruined nature sinks in years!

No age can change its glorious hue, the robe of Christ is ever new. (Zinzendorf)

 

What price must you pay for it? What must you do to have it? No price. It is free, absolutely free. It comes to us by the grace of God. What you must acknowledge is one thing, that you need it, that your own clothes are defiled and stinking. In other words you must see that you are a sinner in the eyes of God, that your verdict about yourself must be the same as God’s verdict on you, that you are a sinner, and that your prayer from your heart spoken with your lips with total sincerity is this, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” I cannot help you unless you have seen that you are a sinner. I have nothing to say to you that can be of any saving good until you have been convicted by God that you are a sinner. This is the invitation of the gospel:

 

Come ye sinners, poor and needy, Weak and wounded, sick and sore.

Jesus ready stands to save you,  Full of pity, love and power.

He is able, He is willing, doubt no more

 

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden, Lost and ruined by the Fall;

If you wait until you’re better, You will never come at all;

Not the righteous – Sinners, Jesus came to call. (Joseph Hart 1712-68)
27th July 2014   GEOFF THOMAS