Romans 4:16&17 “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
The Bible insists that we sinners are declared righteous by God through faith, that is, through the means of our entrusting ourselves wholly to God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ? Why has God chosen this means of our personal faith placed in the Son of God as the way we obtain the blessings of what our Saviour achieved all by himself? Paul is actually saying in the Greek at the beginning of our text just three words “therefore by faith.” That is all it says and the rest of the verse – words like “the promise comes” are all added by the translators to explain these very terse and economic and stark words of Paul, “therefore by faith.” Then he adds three more, “according to grace.” The six words have been expanded to thirteen in our version to make clear what Paul is saying.
1. THE GLORIOUS PROMISES OF GOD ARE OURS BY SUCH FAITH.
Paul is telling us that this wonderful promise that we are going to be heirs of the world becomes a personal covenant promise to us as we trust in God, because it is God’s grace that achieves this promise and gives it freely to us. If that promise actually became ours by our doing many, many good works then we would always be wondering whether we had done enough. We could never be sure that we’d done enough, especially done enough to inherit the world. Here is a very personal question that every Christian should be asked during their lifetimes: “Do you know for certain, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that if you should die tonight, that you would go to glory in the new heavens and the new earth?” How would you answer that question?
Perhaps you think, “Well, no one can know that for certain,” but the Bible doesn’t agree with you. You are able to know it, and indeed it is very good if you indeed know it through trusting in those promises of God that are in and by the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ. For example the apostle John writes to a congregation and he says to them why he has sent them this letter; “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (I John 5:13) The Bible says you can know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the new heavens and the new earth are going to be yours, if you are trusting in the mighty power of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. I am saying that it is possible for you to be assured of that – not after you die but now, and many Christians have that assurance and others of you are desiring that assurance yourselves, and sometimes you believe that you do have it though there are other challenging times when you are not so certain. Do you understand what I am saying? There are many Christians here who have put their trust in the promise of Jesus Christ that he has gone to prepare a place for us and is going to take us to himself. Jesus said that to all the apostles, and some of them were quite anonymous and had very feeble faith and understanding. but Jesus told them that he was preparing a place for them all. I am saying that Christians can be sure of possessing the new heavens and the new earth, that if they had a heart attack tonight, they’d know that they’d wake up in glory tomorrow. You can know! The Bible is written to assure us of this reality. You read the apostle Paul’s trust in God in these famous words; “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7&8). He trusts Jesus Christ and so has assurance that what our Lord has promised will be Paul’s, a crown of righteousness, or that he will be an heir of the world. God’s grace promises this, and the promises become ours not when we get the second blessing but as we trust God.
If salvation comes by keeping the law, no one can ever be sure. After all, how would you ever know if you’d been good enough? If you are thinking, “My life is in the balances and God weighs on one side my good works, and then on the other side he puts my sins and I am left all the time wondering whether my good deeds have outweighed my bad deeds.” People who think like that have no assurance of inheriting glory. Again, we read in Revelation 21 and verse 8 “all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.” Isn’t that a scary text? How many lies would it take to make you a liar and disqualify you from heaven? If you take the strict view, you would say it would only take one lie. But what if that were only a “little white lie,” nothing really serious. Would that keep you out of heaven? How about 2 lies? How about 10 lies? The same is true with any sin you could mention. How many times could you be a coward and still go to heaven, because the same passage says that no coward can enter the new heavens and earth? How many swear words could you say and still get to heaven? How much money could you steal? More than 5 pounds and less than 50 pounds? You never know.
Turn the question over. How much good do you have to do? How many little old ladies do you have to help across the street? Is five enough? 10? 20? How about old ladies in wheelchairs? Do they count double? That’s the problem with trying to count up your sins and add up your good deeds. You can never be sure you’ve done enough good stuff and not done too much bad stuff. You can never be sure at all.
But Paul says when you think of God’s grace then you look at things in a totally different way that makes his promises sure and his glory certain. If a Christian should die today then he knows that like the dying thief he will be with the Saviour in paradise – this same day. It is “guaranteed” because salvation rests not upon the weakness of human performance but upon the eternal strength of God himself. Grace is God’s strength in redeeming sinners all through what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us. We can trust him; we trust his promises. We don’t trust our good works having outweighed our bad deeds. We have little trust in that procedure. We don’t trust in our faith that it is strong and powerful. Often it seems to us like a tiny mustard seed. But we cannot doubt the kindness and love and grace of Jesus Christ. We trust everything he did and then everything he said explaining what he did. We trust in his grace. So our faith establishes his grace to be the foundation for living and dying in peace. We say to you, “Trust in the grace of God in Jesus Christ. His grace is sufficient for you, to pardon you and to keep you in spite of all your weakness and all your guilt.” Our faith in Christ establishes one great reality, that it is all of grace from beginning to end. Grace has helped us so far and grace with take us to the new heavens and earth. Faith establishes grace as a rock solid foundation on which to build your life and eternity. You can jump on it a million times and it will never crack or sag. On Christ the solid rock I stand, says the voice of faith, all other ground is sinking sand. Our personal faith in Christ and his promises establishes the grace of God as mighty to save now and in the great day.
This is what John Piper says; “So now we see what Paul is up to. In all this weighty writing he has a precious practical aim in view: your certainty that God’s promise of your being an heir of the world is certainly going to come true for you – for you who are an imperfect, stumbling, believing, justified, sinning saint. Paul is not interested in merely stretching your brain by this kind of compact theological writing, and writing it for no other reason than to show us what a brilliant theological mind he has. Not at all. Paul here is seeking to assist the congregation in Rome in their assurance of faith; the simple old men and the little old ladies who were illiterate. He wants them all to be sure, to know their sins are forgiven, and to know that they are going to lift up their heads with joy in God’s presence, that that posture is ‘guaranteed’ – that is the word he uses (v.16) encouraging all of God’s children, not just the super religious who have paid for 1000 masses or have lived totally sinless lives in a nunnery – it is “guaranteed to all of Abraham’s offspring.” The guaranteed reason is that the promise is underwritten by the omnipotence of grace and received by trust in what grace promises.
The people whose certainty about the promises of God is most unshakable during the suffering and the sensuality of their lives are the people who have sat under free grace preaching and have been thus enlightened into understanding the mind of God and the vastness of his mercy and the achievements of Christ by the power of his Word. So what is Paul’s foundation in verse 16 for a guaranteed and certain promise? Read it with me again and follow the three steps of his reasoning: “the promise comes by faith . . . that it may be by grace . . . and it may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring.” Faith . . . grace . . . guaranteed to every single person who trusts in the promises of God.
Now ponder this, and think about this for the good of your souls. Sink some roots down into this great statement. What is it that really, at bottom, guarantees the promise that you will be an heir of the world? The answer is: God’s grace. Your faith is essential, but the reason it’s essential is that it is the only condition of the heart that accords with grace. And God’s grace is the deepest foundation of our guarantee.
Notice the way Paul says it in verse 16. Why is faith so essential? He answers: it’s because it accords with grace. And why is that important? Because God’s grace is omnipotence redeeming sinners who believe, and that grace provides the guarantee. It is God who has done it; God has promised it; God will do it. The only way that our eternal future can be guaranteed is if it is resting on God’s grace. Grace is the free and undeserved work of God to bring his people to glory. Grace is the mighty, sovereign purpose of God to make sure we all get our inheritance. Grace is the ground of our guarantee. And faith is the only condition of the heart that accords with that free and undeserved work, because faith brings nothing with it except empty hands, our exceeding great need, and a longing look at God’s immeasurable, saving love.
John Piper says, “So grace is the purpose of God to give you the righteousness and the promise that you don’t deserve. That is why grace is the guarantee of the promise. It overrides our demerit. O, hear this! Wake up to this! What condition of the heart accords with this grace? Faith alone. Faith is the restful experience of the work of grace in our lives. If we think of that first act of justifying faith in Christ, we can say faith is to grace what seeing is to light, and what hearing is to sound, and what waking up is to the alarm clock. Faith corresponds to grace the way tasting sweetness corresponds to honey on the tongue. ” Do you understand? Light awakens sight and banishes the darkness. And sound awakens hearing – the alarm clock rings and sleep is over. And a piece of chocolate awakens our taste buds. So it is that the grace of God seen in Jesus Christ and preached to our minds and affections awakens in us trust in such a great Saviour.
So “the promise comes [to us] by faith, so that it may be by grace” (v.16). It does not come by our earning or meriting it. Jesus Christ has earned and merited it for us by his life and death, so that all we can do is receive such wonderful grace by entrusting our lives to him. We haven’t earned it. We haven’t given to God one pound to become an heir of the world. He has freely given all things to us through Christ. It is the gift of God that is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Dr. Ligon Duncan of Reformed Seminary Jackson has a host of stories concerning an uncle of an aunt. He was named Uncle Rosser. This man was outstandingly mean with his money. He hadn’t parted with ninety cents out of every dollar that he ever earned. One day one of Ligon’s cousins worked for Uncle Rosser on a Saturday, starting at 6:00 in the morning and he worked until the sun went down about 8:00 at night. He rode his bike over to the house to work in the yard, and he worked like a dog. He didn’t even take a lunch break, and he had visions of a substantial payment that he was going to get from working for Uncle Rosser. I mean he was thinking – “I’m going to get at least twenty-five, thirty bucks out of this. I’m going to be rich.” At the end of the day Rosser came out and he handed him a five dollar bill. And then he asked, “Do you have change?” His cousin was a very disappointed young man. And yet that’s the way a lot of people look at God. They think they’ve done so much, and that God owes them; he is in debt to them. He owes them the world! They’ve earned it after all!
But that’s not the picture in Romans 4 or anywhere in the Bible. It’s more like this. Someone pulls out their family silver. It’s been in the family for six generations, since purchased by a coal and steel baron in South Wales 160 years ago. Anyway they pull out all the family silver, and they say to you, “My friend, I want to give this as a gift.” And you look dumb-struck at it, and then instinctively put your hand in your pocket, scrounge around quickly, and you pull out a crumpled five pound note, and you say, “Oh, I couldn’t accept this. Let me give you something for it!”
You see, what we can offer God can’t match the grace of his offering in any way. He’s given his Son. What gift can you purchase that you are going to pull out of your pocket to offer in exchange for God the Son? He sent his Son into the world to die for you. What gift is it that you will give in return? What response are you going to make to merit the gift of God the Son? What are you going to do to earn, to deserve Jesus’ coming into the world and dying for your sins? Now do you see Paul says, “the promise of salvation, and eternal life, and becoming an heir of all things comes only through trusting in what God has done in the Lord Jesus. The giving of our faith is in accordance with the principle of grace.”
So faith doesn’t say, “Okay, what do I need to do to deserve this?” Faith looks away from ourselves, and it looks to what God has provided. And with an empty hand, simply receives what God has given by his love for us alone. God didn’t look at us and say, “Well, there’s something in them that deserves so much to be saved, I’m going to give them my Son.” The Father in his love, loved us apart from what we were, despite what we were, in total contradiction to what we were, and he gave his Son. And faith simply looks away from ourselves and looks to God. And so Paul says, “Look, faith works with grace.” If salvation is a gift, does it make sense to say quizzically, “O.K. . . . salvation is a gift . . . then I’m determined to earn the gift by what I do.” That makes no sense. You don’t earn a gift. You receive a gift, and faith is in accordance with receiving that gift. Faith works in tandem with grace. Works do not work in tandem with grace. You can’t earn grace, you simply receive grace. And the channel that God has appointed for grace to be received is the way of faith. That is how Abraham inherited the earth God promised him. He trusted God and so he set off on his pilgrimage to the land God told him he had given him. We trust what God has said to us, for example; “Whoever believes in me does not perish but has eternal life.” “Whoever,” he says. The word of offer was not spoken merely to the Jewish children of Israel “but also to those who are not of the faith of Abraham” (v.16), to Gentile believers like us. He is our example of saving faith and he also becomes our fatherly example – just like those men of God you’ve known in your life who’ve had such influence over you, and are considered by you to be your fathers in the faith.
2. IT IS SUCH FAITH THAT OPENS THE DOOR OF SALVATION.
Paul says to the whole congregation in Rome which must have contained so many nationalities and peoples in it – remember it was the only church in Rome – Abraham “is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations. He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed’” (v.17). The Roman congregation had its slaves and they heard these words and thought, “Mighty Abraham is my father.” There were paupers, beggars in the congregation, and they thought the same. There were orphans who discovered they had a mighty father in Abraham. There were those who had become Christians and their parents had thrown them out and held a funeral service vowing they would treat them henceforth as if they were dead. They would never see their parents again, but they had Abraham as their father, and Abraham’s God was their God and Father.
Paul quotes the Scriptures to drive home his point. “These are not theories; this is written in Scripture, Genesis 17 and verse 5 declares it to be so, “I have made you a father of many nations.” People of many nations are today the sons of Abraham. So there are no restrictions on the gospel. The gospel does not exist in some racial ghetto. The promise of salvation is not only for the Jew, but also for the Gentile. It is not for one class, or one moral group, but for all who believe in the Lord – as Abraham did. He believed in God and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness.
Let me tell you this story and I think the children will understand it. There is a pastor called Dr. Pritchard and I read his sermons regularly. He told his congregation that the previous week there had been a visiting woman in the church who had been touched by something he said and she wrote this letter to him and he read it to them;
“Yesterday I was in the 2nd Sunday morning service when you gave an illustration of how we could be righteous in God’s sight. I was reminded of the illustration which my mother used. She used the Chinese character “righteous” to make the same point. (her mother had been a missionary to the Chinese.) “The Chinese character ‘righteous’ has two parts. The top part means ‘sheep’ while the bottom part means ‘I’ or ‘me.’ So ‘righteous’ in Chinese is literally ‘sheep’ over ‘me.’ So when God looks down on me, he first sees the Lamb (Christ) and then he declares me righteous.” Now is that true, or is it a pretty story? Well, the woman photocopied some pages from a Cantonese-English dictionary and they endorsed what she’d written. She was exactly right concerning the Cantonese and also concerning the means of our justification.
In other words, what does it mean to be “righteous” in God’s sight? When God looks at me by myself, all he sees is my sin. And what I would like to regard as my righteousness, he calls filthy rags. I have nothing in myself that will pass for righteousness in his eyes. But when I place my trust in Jesus Christ—the great Lamb of God—then when God looks down from heaven, he sees “the Lamb over me” and declares me righteous in his eyes. That was the basis of the radical change in the life of Abraham and then of every believer who like Abraham trusts in the Lord. Not only does God see the “Lamb over me,” but he also imparts to me the very life of the Lamb of God so that I now share in the life of Jesus Christ himself. I am justified; I am declared righteous before God.
The offer of salvation is for everyone who has ears to hear, but the promise is only for those who respond by trusting in the Lord. Do you have Christ as Saviour? Nothing more is needed. If salvation required baptism also, then believing people in the desert wanderings would have been excluded. And how would the dying thief have got to heaven? If salvation required money, then poor people like Lazarus the beggar would have been excluded. If salvation required reading the Bible, then illiterates would have been excluded. I wonder if Abraham could read? If salvation required graduation from university, then many would be excluded. But salvation requires one thing, trusting in the Lord such faith as Abraham had, faith alone in Jehovah alone. So everyone is included in the offer of mercy! Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die O house of Israel?
You have all imagined the picture of God sending his Son from heaven into the world, waving goodbye to him with the deepest affection as Jesus sets out for our fallen world on his mission of salvation. God, when he looked down upon us in our misery, didn’t say, “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to establish seven spiritual laws which if you keep them you will save yourselves.” Rather he set up the machinery of redemption, a rescue mission into the world through his Son. He says, “There’s nothing down there that can help them out of the mess that they’re in. There’s nothing within them, no potential that I can stir up, or that they can call upon to save themselves. So I’m going to send someone special, my own Son, totally outside their world and their experience who will come into the darkness and pitch his tent there for more than thirty years, to live there and die in their place. And by that to achieve a righteousness which I can impute to them and lay to their account. I can then declare them righteous as they receive it by faith.”
You often hear people say, “You want to be successful? Look for the hero inside yourself.” And there are a lot of religious people who take that into the spiritual world and call self-improvement ‘Christianity.’ “Want to be successful? Look within!” And that’s exactly opposite of what God is saying. He’s saying, “You want to be condemned? Look within. You want to be saved? Look up. Look outsie. Look to Jesus Christ.” God sends someone into our experience in order to be righteous in our place in order to die in our place. This picture of God sending his Son into the world is a picture of the way of salvation. He provides it. While we receive it by faith.
You know, it’s not often Mark Twain the American homourist and humanist can be quoted with favor in a Christian pulpit. But to show you that even pagans sometimes see this point, I heard this quotation of his this week. It goes like this: “Heaven goes by favour. If it went by merit, your dog would go in, and you would go out.” You know, he’s right. I wish Mark Twain had believed it himself, but he’s right. Justification is by faith because it accentuates divine grace. We’re saved by God’s favour, by his mercy, by his gift. You can’t earn that. There’s nothing that you can do to purchase that. The gospel is talking about God sending someone into the world that the world didn’t deserve. The benefits of his coming are our when we connect with him and we connect by trusting in him.
3. THAT FAITH THAT SAVES IS CREATED IN A DEAD HEART BY THE GOD WHO GIVES LIFE TO THE DEAD.
“Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean thing?” Is a question we read in the book of Job. What surgeon would wander around his smallholding and see in a mound of manure something shining and realise that it was a scalpel, and then he takes that scalpel to a hospital and immediately perform brain surgery with it – just as it is? No surgeon would use anything but the purest and most sterile knife. So out of hearts that are deceitful and desperately wicked who is going to bring forth adoration, and holy fear of the Lord Christ, and devoted longings that Jesus would become his Saviour and earnest prayers that he would save him? Where would such pure things come from to rise out of impure hearts? It is God who gives the life of heaven to these unholy hearts. Paul tells us here that “God gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (v.17). So the guilt and the power of our sin is dealt with jointly by the Son of God and the Spirit of God.
You remember that Abraham was a childless man while his name meant “great father . . . exalted father.” Yet he and Sarah had no children of their own. They were both way past child bearing years. But God, in his powerful mercy, granted him that which never existed when he first came to Abraham to be his God. He found Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees. He opened the womb of Sarah, and he gave multitudes of descendants to Abraham and Sarah, when all that had seemed impossible.
Think of it, men and women. God made a promise to Abraham 4000 years ago that his spiritual seed would be numberless, and that he would be the father of many nations. And today, two billion people from all the nations on this planet worship Christ the Seed of Abraham. It’s an amazing thing, isn’t it? God is able to do beyond all that we ask or think. But this phrase also reflects Abraham’s faith in God, even in the case of Isaac’s death. Abraham was able to maintain his faith even when asked to sacrifice his own son. He had no expectations of a substitute. Listen to what Hebrews 11 and verse 9 says, that Abraham “considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received Isaac back as a type.” You see what that’s saying? It’s telling us that Abraham trusted God so much that he knew that if necessary God would raise his son, Isaac, from the dead to fulfill his promises. That’s the faith of Abraham. He takes the Omnipotent God’s word, he believes it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And he believes it so much that he knows that his Father in heaven will raise his son from the dead, if necessary.
The God we serve can do for us exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or even think. He promises to supply all our needs richly. What exciting futures lie before all whose faith is in the God of Abraham! Let me give you a current illustration concerning an American conference centre and campsite called Camp Nathanael in Emmalena, Eastern Kentucky, a huge campsite of 540 acres. It belongs to the Scripture Memory Mountain Mission.
It started in 1932 with a man named Garland Franklin who became its first director. That year he was driving along the dirt road next to Troublesome Creek when he was convinced that God would provide a camp for them right there. The land wasn’t for sale then, but Mr. Franklin began praying about it. Several years later the land came up for sale and the Scripture Memory Mountain Mission raised the money to buy it. This of course was at the heart of the Great Depression when money was scarce everywhere, amd nowhere more scarce than in the coal-mining country of eastern Kentucky.
Then in 1936 they decided to dig a well on the property. After saving up their money, they found that they had $75 to pay for the well—the digging, the installation of equipment, and any other associated expenses. When the man came to dig the well, Mr. Franklin asked him where he would like to dig. The man said, “Mr. Franklin, I can see into the ground just as far as you can.” So Garland Franklin pointed to a spot and said, “Right . . . dig right there.” So he started to dig and hit a powerful underground stream after going down only 75 feet (most of the other wells in the area went down at least 200 feet). After putting in the pump and the permanent casing, enclosing the wellhead and attaching the pipes, the contractor totaled up his bill and presented it to Mr. Franklin. The exact amount was $74.99. They had one penny left over!
That well is still there and it’s still providing water. Get this, in 78 years the well has never run dry. Never. Not even for a moment. As one of the leaders said recently, “It’s like there’s an ocean of water under there.” Two years ago when a severe drought hit the region, most of the local wells went dry, but not the one at Camp Nathanael. They had so much water that they let the local people come and fill their water barrels. After 78 or so years the extraordinary well is still gushing water, and it shows no signs of ever running dry.
The fact is remarkable, but behind it lies a remarkable God. He gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. He can speak directing his believing people and an ocean of water comes gushing up through the ground. How do we get attached to such blessings or rather to the blessing-providing God? By putting our trust in him, for the first definitive time when we kneel before him and give him our lives, and then for the rest of our time in this world day by day putting our trust in him with all our hearts and leaning not on our own understanding. We are plugged into him and all the benefits of having him as our Shepherd and King; it is by faith in him. Not by works. Not by the law! Not by anything I could ever do, but simply and only by faith in the crucified Lamb of God. When I come to Jesus, he not only saves me, but he begins to change me in the one place that really matters – in my heart, so that my “want to” is radically-reoriented to do the things that please God. All that I wanted but could never have, are mine when I come to Jesus Christ, forgiveness, love, joy, peace, gentleness and patience. All that I wanted but could never achieve is provided for me as I keep trusting in the Son of God. What I have lacked, he has provided. What I have wanted most, he supplied. What I needed, he has freely given. Glory to the God of Abraham and to our God, the Father of Jesus the Messiah, the Saviour.
7th September 2014 GEOFF THOMAS