SERMON TITLE: The Faith of Abraham
TEXT: Romans 4:1-3 (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 — and it doesn’t matter if it’s your first time with us or if you’re worshipping at our North Main campus — I want you to know is that God loves you and I love you too.
And we’re continuing our study of the book of Romans — but given that we’re starting a new chapter — we’re changing things up a bit from the courtroom feel of our On Trial series.
And here’s a way to think about what we’re doing over the next six weeks. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you tried to convince them to change their mind about something — but the whole time the person was 100% confident they were right? It’s brutal, right? You make a compelling — airtight — argument — and still — they’re like, “Nah. My mind’s made up; don’t try to convince me with facts!” Welcome to my world of preaching sermons!
Every week I — or whoever’s preaching — stand up here and try to convince you of a better way of thinking — a better way of believing — a better way of living. And — oftentimes — OK — let’s be real — every time — there are things I say that you disagree with. It could be something small and inconsequential — but there are times when the Bible confronts something that’s core to what you believe. Well welcome to Romans chapter 4.
“What’s so confrontational about Romans chapter 4,” you may wonder. Paul’s going to challenge our thinking about what it means to be saved and to have faith — about what it means justified — or made right — with God.
Now that may not seem all that controversial to you — at first — but one pastor has said, “If there’s any doctrine that [our] chief enemy...desires to undercut and distort, it is the doctrine of salvation. If Satan can cause confusion and error in regard to [this] doctrine, he has succeeded in keeping men in their sin and under divine judgment and condemnation...” (John MacArthur)
What you believe about salvation — what you believe about how a person finds themselves in a good standing with God — is one of the most important things you believe. Yet — often — we give it so little thought. But not today — or for the next few weeks — we’re going to double down and let Paul explain to us how a person is saved — what Paul’s been calling being justified — Paul’s going to explain how you can know that you’re right with God — that you have faith.
So if you have your Bible please turn with me to Romans chapter 4. Today we’ll be looking at verses 1-3.
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 sermon notes sheet or you can submit it on the Gateway app.
Romans chapter 4. Beginning in verse 1.
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness."” (Romans 4:1-3 ESV)
As many of you know, I served in the US Army. Now when I served, the Army had just started using a new slogan — An Army of One. Now An Army of One never became as popular as the Army’s previous slogan — do you remember it? Be all that you can be...in the Army. There’s no denying just how culturally American that slogan is.
Now something hard for many us to recognize is how our culture — our be all that you can be culture — how it affects our view of the Christian faith. For instance...
Our American culture boasts in what the individual can accomplish.
Our culture tells us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and right the wrong.
Our culture tells us that we can accomplish anything we set our mind to — we don’t like being told we can’t do something, right?
The American dream is built on the belief that anyone can make themselves into a success or a better person.
Now — and maybe this will surprise you — let me say that our culture offers a wonderful opportunity for people. I was in Orlando a couple of weeks ago and the hotel shuttle driver was from Venezuela. He, his wife, and young daughter are here on asylum to escape the chaos and evil going on in their country. I love that people — like him — can find a fresh start, a hope, a place opportunity in our country. That’s something beautiful about the US and it’s right for us to be grateful for these benefits of our culture — our culture offers people an opportunity to improve their situation — it offers freedom — our culture offers — what can feel like — salvation and life to people coming from countries that are places of death.
But — and you were probably expecting this — the American dream has some drawbacks. For starters, the American dream is — a dream. We don’t call it the “American promise” for a reason. Instead of “be all that you can be” a more honest slogan would be “maybe you’ll be all that you can be — but probably not.” But that’s not very inspiring — is it — though it’s much more honest.
And this is something important for us to recognize — not only about our culture — but about ourselves — that if we’re honest — we’ve bought into the idea of self-improvement — that we can make ourselves better — that — in many ways — we can be our own saviors. But we know something’s wrong because only a few people make it to the top — not everyone gets their name in lights. And there’s this frightening thing we don’t like to talk about which is that those who do get their name in lights realize it’s not everything they thought it would be — because something’s terribly wrong and our culture doesn’t seem to have the answer.
And because of this, there’s no amount of American “get ‘er done” that’s going to fix us — there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves. And what Paul’s been suggesting is that our problem isn’t that we haven’t tried hard enough or that we’re not smart enough — those may be problems — but they’re not the problem. Our problem is what Paul’s been bringing up for the past three chapters — sin. We’ve all sinned and fall short of the glory of God — of God’s standard and purpose for us — and this is something we can’t fix on our own.
And — given that sin is our problem — what’s the solution — how do we get fixed — what makes us right with God?
And to answer our questions — Paul uses a guy named Abraham as an example — Abraham’s our test case as to what it means to be in a right relationship with God. So let’s discover how a person is made right with God. Let’s begin in verse one.
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?” (Romans 4:1 ESV)
Now I don’t want to assume that we all know who Abraham is — or his story — so let’s get to know him better. Abraham lived around 2,500 years before Jesus. When we first meet him, he’s living in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, he’s a pagan, and — most likely — he worshipped many false gods. And it was in these circumstances that God came to Abraham and gave him grace and mercy. Abraham wasn’t looking for God — God came looking for Abraham
And God gives Abraham a promise. And this promise is completely based on grace — meaning the fulfillment of the promise has nothing to do with Abraham. God says, “What I’ve promised — I will do.” And God promises Abraham that he will have a son even though he’s really, really old and his wife — Sarah — well she’s old too and has never had children. And God says that He will bless their son and turn Abraham’s family into a great nation.
So — quick recap. Abraham isn’t looking for God — he’s not seeking God — he’s a pagan — worshipping false gods. Yet God comes to Abraham and essentially says, “You’re mine. Let’s go.” And this old guy with an old wife — who hasn’t been able to have any children — are promised a son — and not just a son — but an entire nation of people will be part of their family tree. Pretty crazy sounding, right?
So surely with this kind of promise, Abraham’s going to live an extraordinary life.
Surely he’s going to do whatever God says.
Surely he’s going to be an example of what it means to trust God — to never doubt.
Surely what he does — his works — are really going to astound us, right?
Not so fast.
At one point — after the promise — Abraham’s forced to go to Egypt — and here’s what happens. Abraham knows that his wife — Sarah — is beautiful — and he thinks the Egyptians will kill him so they can have her. So out of fear, he tells Sarah to say that she’s his sister. And do you know what happens? The leader of Egypt notices Sarah’s beauty and takes her into his house to be one of his wives. Abraham fails his wife — even though God has chosen Sarah to be the mother of the child He had personally promised to them. And — get this — because this is so important — even Abraham’s weak fear-filled faith wasn’t going to disrupt God’s promise. God gets Pharaoh’s attention and he sends Sarah back to Abraham — Abraham does nothing to earn Sarah’s freedom — God does it all.
And as crazy as that story is — Abraham does it again! Later on he’s afraid of another guy and he and Sarah do the whole “She’s not my wife — she’s my sister” thing again. And — again — God rescues Sarah while Abraham cowers in fear.
In Genesis chapter 16 — and I know this may be hard to believe given how stellar their story has been thus far — but at one point Abraham and Sarah doubt that God will fulfill His promise and give them a child. And their doubt leads them to sin. It’s been years since God gave them the promise — and they weren’t getting any younger — and Sarah was still childless — so she convinces Abraham to sleep with another woman and have a child with her. “Maybe God’s having some trouble with His end of the promise — so I’ll give my husband this other woman to be the mother of his child.” Makes sense, right? No! Ladies it makes no sense!
So their weak faith leads to adultery — to sin. And the other woman — Hagar — does get pregnant — but her son isn’t the promised child.
Then — in Genesis 21 — Sarah becomes pregnant with a boy — Isaac — the promised son. Abraham’s 100 years old and Sarah’s 91. The promised son is born 25 years after God gave them the promise. Quick question. I think we’d all agree that their life could’ve gone a lot smoother if they’d been patient and trusted God to fulfill His promise. So what about you? Are you willing to wait — I don’t know — 25 years for God to fulfill a promise He’s given you or are you going to choose the path of pain and heartache like Abraham and Sarah because you’re unwilling to wait for God’s timing?
Abraham’s story isn’t over yet. After all of the waiting — and his son finally being born — God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Whoa, right? After all of the ups and downs — let’s be real — less ups and a ton of downs — God’s going to test Abraham’s faith again. And though everything up to this point makes this seem like a terrible idea — I mean — Abraham doesn’t have a track record that gives much hope that he’ll pass this faith test — but Abraham finally gets it right. “If God can give me a son through a barren old woman — I guess He can bring the boy back from dead.” And as he’s ready to kill his son, God tells him to stop — Abraham passes the faith test.
Now Abraham’s story is one full of failures with a little bit of faith. And his story shows us that he was sustained by God’s promise — God’s the faithful one in Abraham’s story. And in the end Abraham succeeds because God had given him a promise and it was guaranteed to be fulfilled.
And so the answer to Paul’s question — in verse one of Romans four — what was gained by Abraham according to his flesh — what did Abraham accomplish by his works — what did Abraham do to be right with God? And what we’ve seen is that the answer isn’t what you might expect.
Because most people think that it’s what we do that makes us right with God. “It’s the good things I do and the bad things I don’t do that make me right with God.” And if that’s true — then Abraham’s story makes zero sense because he didn’t get much right — in fact — he got a ton wrong — and yet he’s commended for living by faith.
So Paul explains why Abraham’s story does make sense — because if we’re made right with God by what we do — then we’ve got something to boast about — to brag about — “look at what I’ve done everyone — I’ve made myself right with God.” But there’s no boasting for Abraham — at least not in what he’s done — the only boasting in his story is boasting in what God did for him. Look with me in verse 2.
JUSTIFICATION AND BOASTING
“For if Abraham was justified by works, (then) he has something to boast about, but not before God.” (Romans 4:2 ESV)
What Paul’s saying is this. “If [Abraham’s] good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way.” (Romans 4:2, NLT)
Now what’s hard to pick up here — is the fact that Paul is arguing against a commonly held Jewish view. Many Jews believed that Abraham was justified — was right with God — because of how he lived. The word justified — means to be declared right with God — it’s a verdict — like in a courtroom — that a person is in good standing with God. And that’s what we’ve been looking at — how is a person justified?
The other keyword — here — is boasting. Which means to brag — to talk with pride. So when it comes to Abraham’s justification — what does he boast in?
Now — having just heard his life story — you may be thinking — “Well he’s definitely not bragging about being husband of the year or anything like that.” But listen to what Jewish people believed about Abraham. These are quotes — not from the Bible — but from other ancient Jewish writings that show us how we all naturally want what we do — our works — to be what save us.
One writing says, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.” (Jubilees 23:10) Some Jews believed that Abraham was perfect in everything he did for God.
Abraham … did not sin against you [God]. (Prayer of Manasseh 8) There were some Jews who believed that Abraham was sinless.
And we find that Abraham our father had performed the whole law before it was given, for it is written, ‘Because that Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.’ (Ken Hughes) That’s supposedly God speaking. Some Jews believed that Abraham had kept all of God’s commands — it makes you wonder if they’re reading the same guy’s story, right?
A final one. Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” (Douglas Moo, NIVAC)
Now that last quote is similar to our verse 3 — but when you add up all of these different beliefs about Abraham — here’s what you get. Someone has said that for the Jews, Abraham, “was considered the first of seven men who, by their [works], brought back the Shekinah (the cloud of light), so that it could take up its abode in the tabernacle.”(Hendriksen) What does that mean? It means that there were Jews who believed that God’s presence — God being with His people — was a result of the perfect work of Abraham and some other men.
Someone else has said that for, “the Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul...Abraham was the prime example of a man who was justified by his works.” (Kent Hughes)
So Paul’s treading in some dangerous water here. He’s trying to get the Jewish people to change their minds about how Abraham was made right with God. He’s trying to lay out some facts for them — using the Old Testament as evidence — and he’s trying to do so without throwing Abraham completely out as an example of what it means to be righteous — because Paul knows that Abraham was righteous — Abraham did have a right relationship with God. Paul’s argument has nothing to do with Abraham’s righteousness — Paul’s argument has to do with what the Jewish people believed about how Abraham was made righteous before God. The Jews believed that Abraham was made righteous by his works — and Paul disagrees — that’s why he brings up boasting.
About boasting — it’s been said that, “The whole idea behind boasting is, “We can do it. We can get it. We’re strong enough. We’re good enough.” (That sounds like our American culture, right?) They go on to say, “What God says is the problem with every human heart is you look at your beauty, you look at your smarts, you look at your talent, you look at anything good about yourself, you look at your achievements, and you say, “I did that.” You take credit for it. You see it as your accomplishment.
But “they’re gifts from God. You were born with the talent. You were born with the beauty. They’re gifts from God, but you take credit for it. That is the very nature of the human heart...every soul makes its boast in something...If you have money, you say, “Look at the money I have.” If you have might, athletic prowess, beauty, smarts … You say, “This is why I’m valuable. This is why I’m love-worthy. This is why I’m worthy of applause, of accolades, of cheering. This is why I am worthy of praise. This is my glory. This is who I am. This is my significance. This is my value...I have accomplished this...You say, ‘I’m a good father (or a good mother). Look at my children,’ or, ‘I’m a good artist. Look at my credentials,’ or, ‘I’m a good person. I go to church...‘I am part of an incredibly important political cause, and I’m really doing good in this world...’”
Then they conclude with this statement. “If the ultimate boast of your soul is you’re a good person or you go to church or you study the Bible…[Or] If the ultimate boast of your soul is, “I’m part of this great people, this nationality, this ethnic group, this group of people,” it’s almost impossible not to villainize and demonize any other people group that doesn’t respect yours...” (Tim Keller)
Here’s what’s being said — here’s a secret about the human heart — it’s going to boast about something. What does your heart brag about? Our heart has a way of taking good things and making them ultimate things to boast in — to pride itself in — to look down on others because of. Our hearts so crave love, and appreciation, and being worthy — that we’ll turn anything we have — or have done — into the justification for our worthiness. And this puffs up our pride. And when whatever you pride yourself in — when whatever it is that you base your justification on — if it’s not God — when it fails you — and it will — you’re crushed — you’re hopeless — you’re wandering around — flailing about — your life is turned upside down and you find yourself lost because your self-worth — your righteousness — was built on a foundation that was sure to crumble.
And if Abraham’s salvation — if his self-worth — his righteousness — was based on his own efforts and goodness — then there’s absolutely no way he could’ve earned or maintained it. In fact, his story shows us that he just wasn’t good enough — he wasn’t righteous based on what he did. So where does his confidence come from? Where does his righteousness come from? What does Abraham boast in? Look in verse 3.
BELIEF AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
“For what does the Scripture say? (Just like we saw in Romans 3, Paul appeals to the Bible as his authority.) "Abraham believed God, and it was counted (it was credited) to him as righteousness."” (Romans 4:3 ESV)
Paul’s saying, “What we read in Scripture is [this], ‘Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.’” (Romans 4:3, The Message)
Abraham trusted God to make him right instead of trying to be right on his own — that’s faith. Trusting in God to make you right — to justify you — to save you — instead of trying to be right on your own.
And here’s where we find conflict between the Christian faith and our culture — this is where I want to challenge you to consider thinking differently about what makes a person right with God. Because what we find here is that being made right with God — because of what you do — and being made right with God — through faith in Jesus — are two very different things — and only one is biblical.
What Paul’s saying is this. God didn’t go searching the earth for someone who was living the right way and found Abraham — that’s not what happened. Abraham was living unrighteously — he was worshipping false gods — he wasn’t seeking God — and yet God came to him and said — “You’re mine. I’ll make you right.” And Abraham believed God. And his belief — his trust in God — was credited to his account and he was declared righteous — he was justified.
And though he fumbled about — getting things wrong more than getting things right — Abraham was justified — he was right with God. And this is the promise for anyone who believes in Jesus. Not just believing that He exists or that He’s God — but a trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation and not in anything that you’ve done or will ever do.
You see, when you trust in Christ alone for your salvation — for your righteousness — all that He did — in His life, His death, His resurrection — all of it’s credited to your account. It’s like having the wealthiest person in the world put all of his money into your bank account — their wealth is credited to you — it’s now yours.
But even that’s a poor example because — through faith in Christ — all of the works that Jesus did are put into your spiritual bank account. Jesus made a spiritual transfer of His perfect obedience into your account — the credit for His sacrificial death is put into your account — His resurrection is in your account — His sonship is in your account. And the result of this faith transaction is this: God now looks at you and He sees Jesus. God looks at you — if you’ve trusted in Christ for your justification — and God sees Jesus. He sees His obedience. His sacrificial death. His resurrection. His sonship. God looks at you and sees the works that Jesus accomplished as work that you’ve accomplished — and God’s pleased with you.
Now — we’ll touch on this more in the coming weeks — but I don’t want anyone to leave here thinking — “Then I guess I don’t have to do anything then — because my works don’t really matter.” Your works don’t matter when it comes to your being justified — but your works do matter in demonstrating that you’ve been justified. Works don’t earn your salvation, but works are always a result of salvation. It’s believed that Martin Luther was the first to say, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” (For more on the debate as to whether Martin Luther was the first to say this, go to: https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/42366/is-luther-really-the-originator-of-we-are-saved-by-faith-alone-but-the-faith-t)
Our works don’t make us right with God — God says, “You’re mine. I’ll make you right.” — He saves us — He makes us right — to do good works.
When we first meet Abraham, he doesn’t have anything to offer God. He’s a pagan. He’s worshipping other gods. And even after being called by God — he messes up all the time. Yet God justifies Abraham anyway. And through Abraham God’s promise was fulfilled.
And — like Abraham — God has come to you. He’s come looking for you when you weren’t looking for Him. And He’s offering you the gift of salvation — a gift you’re to receive by faith as you trust in His promise to you. That through faith in Christ alone — you are made right with God. Will you receive this gift? Will you believe what God has promised?
Others of us have received the gift of salvation — you are right with God through faith in Christ — and you’ve been saved for good works. You’ve been saved to go and share the gospel — God’s saving news — with people who don’t yet believe. Salvation is never meant to end with us — the Good News is to keep going out until all of God’s people have received it. Will it go out from you?
We’ve seen Paul use Abraham’s story to change our minds about how we think a person is made right with God. God made promises to Abraham and He fulfilled every single one of His promises. It wasn’t what Abraham did — or didn’t do — that earned him his righteousness — Abraham’s righteousness was based on the work of Someone else — and this is what Abraham boasted in. As Paul says elsewhere, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14, ESV)
If we want the world to know Jesus — if want to see people connect to Jesus Christ and to one another — then we — dear Christians — will boast in the one thing guaranteed to make people righteous — the cross of Jesus Christ. May our lives boast in what Jesus has done. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us reason to boast. Not in what we’ve done — but in what Jesus has done for us. Spirit, if anyone here is desiring to receive the gift of faith — to be made right with God — I ask You to give them new life now — eternal life. Credit to their account the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And if you’re here today and you’re tired of trying to make yourself right with God — and if you’re ready to be done with that — if you’re ready to trust in God’s promise that He makes you right — that He saves — that He justifies everyone who trusts in Jesus — if you’d say, “That’s me. I believe — I can’t explain it — but I hear God saying to me, ‘You’re mine. Let’s go. I’ll make you right.’ — God’s saying that to me and I believe His promise is true — I believe that Jesus has done on my behalf what I can’t do for myself — and God I ask that you would credit Jesus’ work to my account.” If that’s you — would you — no matter which campus you’re at right now — with all heads bowed and all eyes closed — would you raise your hand so I — or your campus pastor — can pray for you? Just raise your hand up so that we can pray for you and praise God for being faithful to you today.
God, thank you for Your faithfulness. Thank you for Your mercy. Thank you for being our Savior. Thank you for being the One who says, “You’re mine. Let’s go. I’ll make you right.” Thank you for giving our lives reason to boast in the cross of Jesus Christ. In His name we pray. Amen.