A sermon by Rod Benson
Five hundred years ago – 500 years last Tuesday, to be precise – the Protestant Reformation began, and the world was changed.
Baptists rightly praise the great Reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and others, for their faith and courage, their zeal for truth and passion for change, while insisting that the reforms of the Reformation did not go far enough in addressing the shortcomings of the church and its beliefs, practices and structures in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Always the Reformation must continue, as we seek to closely follow Jesus Christ, as the Holy Spirit reveals the path ahead, step by step, and as God Almighty graciously enables fresh truth to break forth from his holy Word.
At the heart of the Reformation was the principle of reliance on Scripture, rather than appealing first to tradition or reason or experience, to shape and settle matters of faith and conduct.
And at the heart of Reformation was the theme of salvation by faith, and not by works, drawn from the teaching of Scripture, in contrast to the official teaching and practice of the church of 1517.
If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven,” what would you say? That is what the letter to the Romans is all about. That is what Romans 4 is all about. Last week, in my sermon on Jonah 4, I spoke about the wideness of God’s mercy; today I want to explore Romans 4, and talk about the richness of God’s grace.
The book of Romans in our Bibles is Paul’s long letter of introduction to the Christians at Rome. He has never seen them, and he has not yet set foot in the capital city of the Empire. In Romans 1-3, Paul has outlined what he believes about Jesus, about God’s plan of salvation, and the basis on which God saves people.
It is “by faith from first to last” (1:17) – trust in Jesus and reliance on the redemption he accomplished through his death on the cross. Paul makes this very clear in chapter 3:25-26:
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
But Paul imagines someone at Rome, on hearing this good news, arguing that Paul may have been saved through faith, but Abraham, the father of the Jews, the founder of the nation of Israel, was saved by active obedience to God – and it was his faithful actions that saved him, not his trust in God’s promises.
Paul responds to such a claim in chapter 4:3, with a statement that would have made the sixteenth-century Reformers proud: “What does the Scripture say?” Back to the sources! That was the catchcry of both the Reformation and the Renaissance.
Paul points out that Genesis 15:6 and 22 says, “ ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’.” There was nothing Abraham had to do, and indeed nothing he could do, to effectively commend himself to God and receive salvation.
As it is for us, so it was for Abraham. And not only that: “David says the same thing,” says Paul (v. 6a). When David exclaims the blessedness of “those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered,” in Psalm 32:1-2, David is “speaking of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Rom 4:6b).
This is the richness of God’s grace: all that matters for eternal salvation is saving faith. Hear again those majestic words of Augustus Toplady in the classic hymn, “Rock of Ages”:
Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Saviour, or I die.
In one sense Romans 4 is an argument proving Paul’s proposition in 3:28, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” It’s not about doing, or duty, but trust.
And in arguing as he did, Paul demonstrates that Abraham is not only the father of Israel and the Jewish faith, but also the prototype of Christian faith. We are called to follow, imitate and emulate Jesus, but we should also follow Abraham’s example of saving faith.
And what radical faith Abraham possessed! As James R. Edwards points out in his commentary on Romans, “Because Abraham trusted in God, God counted him righteous even before he was circumcised and before the law was given.” This is the richness of God’s grace.
And what amazing faith Abraham expressed! He’s now an old man, and his wife Sarah is well past the normal child-bearing years, and God speaks to them, announcing that they will be parents! That is a real test of faith, at their age! And at first they laughed, but them they believed God again (Rom 4:18-22; cf Gen 17:15-19).
At various significant moments – significant in hindsight – Abraham shows that he believes God, against reason, against experience, even as it were hoping against hope. He is a man of faith. He trusts God’s word. He holds onto God’s promises. He believes God. And God sees, and responds in overwhelming blessing.
But that is not all. We are not supposed merely to read these verses, and recount Abraham’s amazing story, and celebrate Abraham’s success, and go home happy in the knowledge that there have been people like Abraham in the world.
No! Paul has something at least as astonishing to declare to us:
The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Rom 4:23-25).
This is the richness of God’s grace.
God’s way of salvation, God’s plan of redemption, God’s method of bringing reconciliation and renewal and hope to broken people – to tired people, lost people, poor desperate empty rootless people, to people with every kind of need, lack, impediment and weakness – always has been, and always will be, conferral of the gift of righteousness on the basis of saving faith: nothing more, nothing less.
And once received, this salvation has several important implications, some of which appear here in Romans 4. Let me mention four of them.
First, there is no need for pride. There is no place for boasting about my good works. My righteousness is credited, received. It comes entirely from God. And I respond to God’s saving grace in my life not by drawing attention to myself but in giving glory to God, and cultivating a holy humility in myself (vv. 2f, 20).
Second, There is no need for shame. I know I am sinful, and I still commit sins contrary to my new nature in Christ. And this is not good, and it is not what I want. But all my sins are covered by the death of Jesus – past, present and future. They are not counted against me. And I respond in worship with grateful joy, and a deep sense of security (vv. 6-8).
Third, I have a new family who encourages and sustains me on the faith journey. I have a new identity shared with others of similar precious faith. We are all part of God’s great plan for the world, and for history, as children of Abraham who share the same faith he possessed (vv. 12-17). And this instils in us a great sense of purpose and a confident understanding of why we are here, and what we are to do in the world.
Fourth, I experience freedom from fear and anxiety. As it was for Abraham, so it is for me: I have complete assurance that God will keep his promises to me, and I continue to rely on his grace, his promise-keeping power, and not on my performance (v. 16). And so I live without fear of the future, and without despair at my failings, and with the confident hope all that God says he will do (v. 18).
This is the richness of God’s grace to us.
Sermon 752 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 5 November 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 James R. Edwards, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), p. 111.
 Adapted from a list in Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 for You (UK: Good Book Co., 2014), p. 107.
Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.