SERMON TITLE: Faith and Works
TEXT: Romans 4:4-8 (ESV)
SPEAKER: Josh Hanson
It’s good to be with all of you this weekend at Gateway Church. And one thing I want you to know is that God loves you and I love you too.
And we’re in week two of our series in Romans chapter 4 — where we’re looking at the relationship between faith and works when it comes to salvation — of being made right with God — what we’re looking at is how the Christian faith explains what must happen for someone to know that Heaven is their eternal destiny instead of waking up to an eternal nightmare.
ANNOUNCE THE TEXT
So if you have your Bible please turn with me to Romans chapter 4. We’ll be looking at verses 4 to 8 today.
Something you probably don’t know about me is that my first job was working as a bagboy at Publix — which is a grocery store in the south. I started working there when I turned 16 years old. It was a good company to work for — it’s kind of the Chick-Fil-A of grocery stores in the south — a company with good values that they instill in their employees.
One day — while I was working — I noticed that someone had tipped over a cigarette butt container — cat litter and cigarette butts were everywhere at one of the store entrances. I’m just a young kid, but I could see that something needed to be done — so I went and got a broom and dustpan — cleaned up the mess — got some cat litter and refilled the thing — and went back to work. Didn’t think much of it.
Now to understand the rest of this story — you need to know that I’ve got a natural respect for authority — one could call it a healthy fear of authority. There’s nothing I’ve done — as far as I know — to have this view of authority — it’s just always been part of who I am. So later on that day at work, when one of the managers calls my name and tells me to take a walk with him — well the first thing I think is, “Oh no. What in the world did I do wrong?”
The manager had me follow him to the back of the store. He’s not saying a word — just walking with a purpose. And he stops in front of the meat department. And he tells me to pick out a steak. Now I’m 16 years old. I don’t know the first thing about steaks. So I grab something cheap — because I definitely looked at the prices — I didn’t know what was going on and was still in a self-preservation mode — and he puts the cheap steak back and grabs a real expensive steak — like I’d have to work an entire day to afford this steak — and the he starts walking to the front of the store. And I’m just following him.
He goes to the register — and I’m just standing there — and he hands the steak to the cashier and she rings it up. And I’m like, “Great. I’m about to pay for an expensive piece of meat and I don’t know why.” I start to grab my wallet and he tells me to stop. And he pulls out his wallet. Gets out some cash and pays for the steak. He then puts it in a plastic bag — rights my name on it — and tells me to follow him again. I still don’t know what’s going on.
We go to the back of the store — the behind the scenes area — and he walks to the big fridge back there and puts the steak in it. And then he tells me, “When you leave tonight. Be sure to grab this steak. I saw when the cigarette butt container got knocked over. And I watched employee after employee walk right by it — most of them looked at it — and they just kept on going. And then I saw you. And you didn’t just keep on going. You cleaned it up. And no one had to tell you what to do. So this steak is your reward for a job well done. You did the right thing. You’re a hard worker and hard work deserves to be rewarded.”
Hard work deserves to be reward. Now last week, we took a look at our American culture and how it influences the way we view religion. And today we’re going see another way our culture affects the way we view the Christian faith. We’re going to look at our culture’s value of working for a reward.
I’m sure you’ve seen motivational posters that businesses put up for their employees. The posters that say things like, “TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.” Well there are also demotivational posters — for every positive Patty there’s a negative Nick — and apparently Nick wanted a piece of the poster market. And some of these demotivational posters reveal our love hate relationship with work. One poster says, “Hard Work: It pays off later, laziness pays off now.” (See http://www.fakeposters.com/posters/hard-work/) Another says, “Get to work: You aren’t being paid to believe in the power of your dreams.” (See: http://www.ebaumsworld.com/pictures/demotivational-posters/85495370/ )
Now something troubling about our culture — is how it equates what we do with who we are. When you meet someone new — what’s one question you almost always ask? “What do you do,” right? We live in a culture that values knowing what a person does because this tells us something about the person. What we do — how we work — is intertwined with our identity.
I mean, think of all of the things we work for.
We work to get good grades, so we’ll get accepted into the college of our choice.
We work hard at sports, so we’ll get noticed by a college recruiter or break a school record.
We work hard to get our dream job.
Some of us work hard for the approval of others — we focus on how we dress, what movies we watch or shows we keep up with, what music we listen to, and so on — because we want others to like us.
Some of us work hard at practicing an instrument because you want to be the best at whatever instrument it is that you play.
Some of us work hard to provide our family opportunities we didn’t have growing up.
And we’re passing this “I’m valued because of what I do” mentality on to our children because they’re busy, busy, busy. Soccer, football, baseball, basketball, cross country, track, hockey, dance, gymnastics, cheerleading, you name it — and someone’s in a minivan right now getting their kids to it.
And this “my work defines me” mentality has even found its way into the church. One pastor asked people in his congregation how many hours a week they thought he should spend on certain pastoral activities. Things like prayer, sermon preparation, evangelism, counseling, hospital visits, those kinds of things...His goal was to get a better understanding of their expectations of him. Do you know what he discovered? His congregation expected him to work about 114 hours each week! ( https://thomrainer.com/2013/07/how-many-hours-must-a-pastor-work-to-satisfy-the-congregation/)
And — for the record — Gateway Church — thank you for being a congregation that values your church staff beyond the work we do. There’s a real beauty in the relationship between the staff and congregation — here — that I think is part of the joy that’s in the air among us.
But let’s get to our passage in Romans, so we can discern how our culture — that teaches us to define ourselves by the work we do — how it’s influenced our understanding of the Christian faith.
And, if you’re a guest with us, something we like to do at Gateway is let you ask questions. So if you have a question during the sermon, you can text your question in to the number printed on the bottom of the sermon notes sheet or you can submit it on the Gateway app.
RE-ANNOUNCE AND READ THE TEXT
Here are the words found in Romans chapter 4. Beginning in verse 4.
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin."” (Romans 4:4-8 ESV)
I love what Paul’s saying here. He’s saying, “If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it — [because you know] you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked — well, that trusting him to do it is what gets you set right with God, by God. [It’s a] sheer gift. (Romans 4:4-5, The Message).”
Here’s what Paul is doing. Once again he’s confronting what we naturally believe makes a person right with God — what makes a person justified — which means to have a positive legal standing before God — Paul’s picking apart a commonly held core belief.
And throughout history, there’s always been two dominant views as to how we’re justified. Either we’re saved by works or we’re saved by faith — works or faith — which makes us right with God? Is it our work — something we do — that makes us right with God or is it faith — faith means trusting in the work that Someone else has done on your behalf. So that’s where we’re going — our works or faith in Someone else’s work — which makes us right with God? And then we’ll look at a blessing that Paul mentions.
In verse 4 Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” (Romans 4:4 ESV)
What’s something you took pride in earning? I told you my story about earning a steak — but what about you?
Was it the first car you purchased with your own money?
That first apartment you were able to afford on your own?
A scholarship you got to the school you wanted to go to, but knew you couldn’t afford?
There’s something in us — isn’t there — that loves to take pride in what we’ve earned. Now — hear me — I’m not saying that working hard is a bad thing. In the first chapter of the Bible, we read that we were created to work — so working hard is a good thing — it’s a biblical thing — and it’s to be rewarded. But our addiction to defining ourselves by what we do is directly linked to the American Dream that we looked at last week. Many of us believe that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. But how many of us have broken dreams — unfulfilled dreams — how many of us have experienced the loss of giving something all you’ve got and you didn’t achieve your dreams — you don’t even have a t-shirt or some cheap plastic trophy to show for your effort?
And in our verse — Paul says something that’s so simple that it’s easy to miss his point. He basically says, “If you work for something — what you get in return isn’t a gift — it’s earned.” Now he’s in the middle of a discussion about salvation — so — hang with me here — if salvation has anything to do with what you do — if your works — either the good things you do or the bad things you don’t do — if your works play any role in your being in a good standing with God — then your salvation isn’t a gift — it’s something you’ve earned. And if it’s something you’ve earned — it’s something you can unearn too.
But is salvation something you can earn? Not according to Paul and the rest of the Bible. Salvation is a gift.
In verse 5, Paul writes, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” (Romans 4:5 ESV)
Here’s what Paul is saying. “People are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners (Romans 4:5, NLT).”
Paul says it’s not our works that make us right with God — it’s faith in Someone else’s work that makes us right with God. Faith — think trust — faith — or trusting — in a God who justifies the ungodly is what is counted — or credited to us — as righteousness. And this leads some to believe that faith is the one thing we bring to the table then — faith is the one work you have to do to be saved. You may not have to work as hard as some people think, but you’ve got to work a little — is faith the work you have to do to be saved?
Well here’s a shocking truth — even faith is a gift. In another place Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV) .”
Even our faith — even our believing — isn’t a work we do — it’s part of the gift given to us — somehow our faith is wrapped up in God’s gift of grace. Now listen — we really do believe — we really do have faith — but our really believing is part of the gift given to us. None of what we call salvation — is based on what we do — it’s all based on grace — which is a complete gift.
And this goes against everything our culture engrains in us about work. Someone compared God’s grace to working in a business and he said, “No business could survive which simply gave away its stock or paid its employees for not working (James Dunn, Romans 1-8, WBC).” Yet God does just that — spiritually speaking. God rewards people with salvation — He gives people eternal life — He makes people right — who’ve done nothing to earn it.
Do you know the Parable of the Workers? Jesus tells a story about an owner who hires some workers early in the morning and agrees to pay them a full day’s wage. So the workers go out and get to work. A few hours later, the owner notices some guys standing around and asks them why they’re not working. And they say that no one hired them to work for the day. So he tells them to go and get to work — I’ll pay you. And they get to work. This happened again at lunch time — he sends out more guys to work who didn’t get hired by anyone else that day. It happens again at three in the afternoon. And then — at 5pm — just when the work day is about over — the owner sees some guys who didn’t get offered a job for the day. And he tells them to go and get to work.
Then the work day is over — it’s pay time. And the owner gives all of the workers the exact same pay — they all get a full day’s pay. And — as you can imagine — the guys who worked all day — were pretty upset. But the owner says, “‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. 15 Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?(Matthew 20:13b-15, NET)’”
The point of the parable is God’s generosity — and think of how generous God is when it comes to salvation. Is God not permitted to do what He wants with what belongs to Him — including the gift of salvation? Does God have the authority to save whomever He wants? Does He need our permission — or for us to do something — in order to save us?
Do rescuers wait for people who are trapped to agree that they need to be saved before they start the rescue process? No! They start acting — there may be survivors and we need to rescue them. And if they find someone trapped — they don’t have them sign a waiver asking their permission to rescue them — they don’t say “See that tunnel we’ve dug to get here — if you can climb out of it you’ll be saved — hope you make it.” They get them out of there — that’s what it means to be rescued.
Paul says there’s no amount of work that you can do to be justified — to be made right — with God. In fact, it’s those who know they can’t work hard enough — those who believe that God justifies those who don’t deserve it — who haven’t earned it — it’s people whose faith is in Someone else’s work — not their own — that are counted righteous. Because salvation — being made righteous — being rescued — is a gift.
As Paul says a few chapters later, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23, ESV).”
Eternal life is a free gift. And you don’t earn a gift — you’re given it. This is what the word grace is all about — grace means undeserved blessing — an unearned gift. And if you don’t deserve something — and if you haven’t earned it — then it’s a gift. And — this is key — everyone who is given the gift of salvation — then gets to work. Works are important — don’t misunderstand me — works are important — they just come after the gift.
Here’s how Paul says it in another of his letters. He writes, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for (so here’s the reason why we work out our salvation...for...) it is God who works in you, (and here’s what God is working in us...) both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12b-13, ESV).” God’s working in us — why — so we’ll work for His good pleasure.
Stop. Rewind. Let’s repeat that.
God works in us — His work comes first. And His working in us causes us to work for Him. And part of our work for Him — is our working out of our salvation — living in a way that demonstrates that we’ve been given God’s gift of grace.
The Bible says this over and over again — that it’s the work that God is doing in us that leads to our working for Him.
“He (that’s God) who began a good work in you will bring it (the good work) to completion (to perfection) at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6b, ESV).”
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, (Ephesians 4:1, ESV)”
So there is a work — a walking — a living — that we’re to do, but our work is in response to a work that God’s first done in us. That’s the radicalness of grace — of salvation — of God justifying us. God isn’t obligated to give the gift to any of us — yet the Good News of our Christian faith is that though God is under no obligation to give the gift — and though we cannot earn it — God gives us the gift of righteousness anyway.
And for some of us, we love the idea of a free gift — we love the idea of grace — but we think it gives us reason to do whatever we want. “If grace is a gift — if salvation is something I can’t earn — I might as well do whatever I want because what I do doesn’t matter anyway.”
Others agree with the idea of grace, but what I just said — people thinking that God’s grace means they can do whatever they want — scares you — so you put a ton of emphasis on works. You’ve got a long list of things that a “real Christian” does and you make sure you do them and you judge others for not doing them.
And many of us are caught somewhere in the middle. Life can be hard — maybe you’re in pain — emotional — spiritual — relational — physical pain — and it can become easy — in the midst of pain — to think “Hey God, how about You finish Your good work in me sooner rather than later? Because I don’t know how much longer I can hold on.”
You may relate a woman who described herself, “As a good Christian girl. I tried to witness to unbelievers...I went on mission trips, attended church often, helped with children’s choir, and had a daily “quiet time.” I did all of that out of love for Jesus, but also because I feared God and didn’t want him to be disappointed in me. But even though I knew God had forgiven me [of] my sins, I felt as if a gray cloud of guilt constantly hung over my head.
I spent over two decades trying to win God’s approval, as if it were a goal I could cross off my list. Evidently, I had heard this message: be as perfect as you can, and God will like — and reward — you more.
The harder I tried to be perfect, the more miserable I became. It took me almost having a nervous breakdown before I internalized the gospel truth that Jesus saves me by his grace — period. How [freeing] to realize that I couldn’t be good enough for him to love me more, or bad enough for him to love me less!” (See the full article at Dena Dyer, “Are You Trying to Earn God’s Love?” Theology of Work (by the High Calling). January 4, 2013,https://www.theologyofwork.org/the-high-calling/daily-reflection/are-you-trying-earn-gods-love)
A prayer that I pray for my wife and kids — even for myself — is similar to her words at the end. I discovered this prayer in a book (The Gospel by JD Greear) and knew it needed to be part of my prayer life. I pray that “in Christ, we’d know that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more than He already does.” And that “in Christ, we’d know that there’s nothing we can do that will make God love us any less.”
When that’s our identity — when that’s your identity and my identity — that because you trust Christ — God can’t love you any more or any less based on what you do — then — and only then — will your work not define you. God’s love for you — as displayed in Jesus — will be what defines you and you will live — you will work — in response to God’s love.
This is the only remedy to the pressure our culture puts on us to define our self-worth by what we do — this cultural pressure that leaves all of us exhausted and in desperation for a better way — a better way that Paul is showing us. But Paul’s goal isn’t just for us to be less exhausted — he’s wanting us to overflow with joy.
In verse 6 he writes, “just as David (that’s King David — so Paul’s going to point us to the Bible to show us how this is all found in Scripture — Paul says...just as David...) also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin."” (Romans 4:6-8 ESV)
What Paul — in quoting David — is saying here is, “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sins are put out of sight. 8 Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of sin. (Romans 4:7-8, NLT)”
Paul says, “You want to talk about works? OK. How about we talk about the joy that’s found in — the blessedness that’s given — to those who God says, ‘I see your works — and I’m going to count you righteous anyway. I see those works you’ve done — those lawless deeds — and I forgive you. I see those works of yours — the sins you’ve committed — and I put them out of my sight.”
So what Paul’s getting at here is this: What kind of response does our God — who blesses us in spite of our works — who’s gracious to us in spite of our sin — who credits to our account righteousness that we haven’t earned — what kind of response to a gracious God like this are we to have?
Rejoice — you’ve been forgiven!
Rejoice — God’s given you grace!
Rejoice — you’ve done nothing to earn the reward God’s given you — eternal life.
My life mission statement is to “glorify God by making disciples who find their joy in Jesus.” So my goal in life is for God to be glorified — to be magnified — to be honored — as I obey the commandment Jesus gave us — to make disciples — but I don’t want to make just any kind of disciples — like — “I know it’s called the book of Revelation not the book of Revelations” kind of disciples — I want people to find the joy that Jesus offers.
I mean you can’t love Jesus too much. You can’t reach a point where you’ve thought about Jesus enough or worshipped Him enough or have found enough joy in Him. And I know that if people have joy in Jesus — if your joy isn’t based on getting that promotion, or that bonus, or getting him to ask you out on a date — or any of the things we’re told to work hard for — to pour our identity in to — I know that if your joy is in Jesus — you’ll begin to understand the magnitude of the gift you’ve been given — the gift of righteousness.
And when you realize that God was not obligated to give you this gift — and when you know that there’s nothing you did to earn it — you have confidence in knowing “If I didn’t earn it — I can’t unearn it either.” And you can rejoice in the “blessedness” that David speaks of — in knowing that your sins have been covered and are not counted against you — you have reason to rejoice because God says, “I will never — never — never — count your sins against you. This is My gift to you.”
Do you see the amazingness of God’s grace — the magnitude of His gift to you? There’s no need to be chained down by your past because Jesus has set you free — you...are...free. And He who began this good work in you is seeing it to its perfection. The God who called you — who has declared you to be worthy and valuable and beautiful and loved — He who called you has given you the will to work for His glory and pleasure — God is working in you so you will work for Him.
What grace. What favor. What blessing. What reason to be filled with joy. Let’s rejoice as we pray to the God who gives us these gifts.
Heavenly Father, thank you for your gift of grace. In a culture where we’re told to work hard — to prove yourself — that what you do is who you are — it’s so refreshing to receive grace. Where what Jesus has done tells us who we are. Where His work — His life, death, and resurrection — show us our value, our beauty, our identity, our worth.
God, for anyone here who’s been trying to earn their salvation by what they do, I pray that You would open their spiritual eyes so they see the futility of the path they’re on and see the gift of grace You’re offering them. May they receive Your gift with great joy.
And for those of us who have received Your grace, help us to love You more. Help us to think about You more. To worship You more. To delight in You more. To live for You more. To work for You more — not because we earn anything by our work — but because You are our joy. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.