Monday, June 5, 2017

3, 2, 1 "We're Debt Free!" Rom. 4:1-8

Dave Ramsey is a popular radio personality and financial guru that has helped many people climb out of financial debt. Sometimes when I’m on my way home later at night, I catch some of his show and hear people who have come into the studio to share how they have overcome a mountain of debt by endorsing some of the common-sense directives found in Ramsey’s popular Financial Peace University. After a time of sharing and celebration, Dave announces the couple’s name, how much debt they’ve paid off, how long it took them, and then after a brief countdown they all scream “WE’RE DEBT FREE!” This is followed by cheers, a playback from Braveheart, music, and all kinds of fanfare. It just goes to show how exciting and utterly relieving it is to be disconnected from the slavery of financial struggle and the weight of monetary debt.

Image result for Debt Paid Off

However, today I want to discuss along with Paul something even more exciting and something even more profound. I want to talk about relief from spiritual debt owed to God himself. I want to talk about being disconnected from the slavery and weight of sin. To be sure, Financial Peace University will not take care of such a deficit. What is necessary is justification by faith and it has been on Paul’s mind ever since chapter 3 of Romans. As Paul opens chapter 4, after having taught the basics of justification, he introduces someone into the studio who is able to say “I’m debt free!” This presentation both inspires his audience and supports his argument for justification by faith. Therefore, let’s listen in as we hear two parts of this case study as it is presented in Romans 4:1-8.

1) Confusion-What about Abraham?-4:1-3a

Chapter 4 helps prove that the program of salvation Paul is describing in Romans has been in place from the beginning. Paul argues that Justification by faith (not works) is not a new doctrine, but a continuation of what was always the case. To forward his point, Paul asks his audience, particularly the Jews in his audience, to consider one of their greatest heroes—Abraham.

This is a great example of an appeal to authority. If I was trying to make a point about good acting, I might have you consider people like Daniel Day Lewis and Nicole Kidman to prove my point. If I was talking about tennis, I might have you consider the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. If I was arguing what it means to be a great chef, I might mention Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsey. These have earned the right to be called authorities in their respective fields and any consideration of either acting, tennis play, or cooking, must mention these prominent figures as a good reference. The same was true of Abraham.

When it came to understanding how people related to God, especially the Jews, there was none better to consider than the Patriarch of the Jewish people. This is why Paul begins chapter 4 by asking “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?...” (4:1). If Paul can demonstrate that Abraham related to God in the same way the apostle has described in chapter 3, then he can call all people, especially the Jews, to model this in their own lives. 

The Old Testament itself calls Abraham the “father” of Israel (Isa. 51:2) and recognizes the role that Genesis gives him as the founder of the people of God (Gen. 12:1-3) (Moo, ZIBBC, 26). However, the Jewish tradition made Abraham even more significant. Many attributed Abraham’s unique relationship with God to his acts of obedience. Others also believed that Abraham was justified before God because of these acts/works of obedience. Therefore, in order to get the Jews to believe that salvation was by faith and not by works, Paul has to demonstrate, against the trends of his day, that even Abraham was justified in this way. After all, as Paul continues “for if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about…” (4:2).

That said, Paul makes it very clear that Abraham, in fact, does not have anything to boast about before God—“but not before God” (4:2). He is, in many ways, just like those Paul discussed earlier—“Where then is boasting? It is excluded” (3:27).

Paul’s next comment sets up the remainder of this passage and also establishes the main inquiry being made—“For what does the Scripture saw?” (4:3a). Ultimately, the people to which Paul was writing would be best served if they could see what the Old Testament (their Scriptures) had to say on the matter. After all, these same Scriptures gave the Jews their understanding of Abraham. If Paul could get his audience to see that the Scriptures are saying the same thing that he is saying, his case will be that much stronger. This question is the ultimate appeal to authority!

Notice that Paul does not appeal to himself even though he very well could have. After all, Paul is an apostle, church planter, and world traveler. He had been through an incredible conversion episode, was an expert in the Old Testament, and had been personally disciple by the likes of Peter, James, and John. In spite of all of this, Paul does not base his argument on his own expertise. He bases everything on the Revelation of God—“For what does the Scripture say?”

2) Clarification-Abraham had Faith!-4:3b-8

The Scriptures say in black and white “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3b). To prove his own teaching about righteousness/salvation through faith, Paul employs Genesis 15:6 (see also Gal. 3:6) (Moo, ZIBBC, 26). The context in which this reference is found has everything to do with Abraham’s conviction that God would make good on his promise of a natural descendent, thereby setting into motion the promise that God would make a great nation from Abraham that would bless the entire world. With a barren wife, old age working against him, and time passing by, there was nothing that Abraham could DO in order to make this happen. All he could do was TRUST in God to fulfill His promise. This faith, exercised against all odds, was awarded with righteousness.

“It was critical that Paul show that this proof text (Abraham in general and Genesis 15:6 in particular), far from establishing the importance of works for justification, actually proves the opposite when properly understood” (Mounce, 122).

Understood correctly, this Old Testament reference of Abraham and Paul’s teaching can be applied in at least two different ways. First, Paul discusses how works are rewarded in a real world scenario—“Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as favor, but as what is due” (4:4). In other words “When people work, their wages come not as gifts but because they have earned them” (Mounce, 123).

It is not as though a boss/manager throws out paychecks out of the goodness of his heart. People work for their pay. Pay in such a paradigm is earned.

This is not so in the spiritual realm. Paul continues and says “but to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5). Spiritually speaking, those who cannot work so as to earn their way into God’s good graces believe. In their believing they are regarded by God as righteous. This is not a merit-based system as much as it is a trust-based system.

In this illustration, God is not a boss giving a paycheck, he is a father who gives his love to his children freely because of their implicit trust in him. 

Paul’s explanation takes the unprecedented step of suggesting that the one “who justifies” justifies the “ungodly.” This would come as a shock to the Jews as in Exodus 23:7 God reveals “I will not acquit the guilty” and in Proverbs 17:15 one learns that God “detests” the practice of acquitting the guilty (see also Prov. 24:24; Isa. 5:23). Is Paul wrong to go this far? No! Paul’s statement is in keeping with the incredible fact that a holy God accepts as righteous unholy people through faith (Mounce, 123).  

Romans 3:28-“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

This is the good news of the Gospel. Everyone, no matter their past or pedigree, from Abraham to a former church persecutor like Paul can be righteous before God through faith and not works. In these situations faith is “credited” to the faithful as righteousness. This verb describes a transaction in which the insufficient funds in one’s account because of sin are infused with a windfall of grace that more than makes up for the debts owed.

Just in case the Jews in Paul’s audience were not convinced by Abraham’s reference, Paul invokes another Jewish Old Testament hero—“Just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works;…”(4:6). Surely the Jews would take seriously the writings of the great King David who was described as a man after God’s own heart. If anybody had any understanding of how to relate to God, it was him.

Paul quotes David in Psalm 35:1-2 and says “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”

In quoting this Psalm, Paul is using a Jewish style of argumentation called Midrash to support the point he made earlier. In this technique, texts from the Prophets or the Psalms are used to illustrate an original text from the law (Genesis-Deuteronomy). So much as a single word common to both texts was often enough to bring two different passages together. In this case “take into account” in Psalm 35:1-2 is the same Greek word for “credit” (logizomai) found in Genesis 15:6 (referenced earlier in Romans 4:3).

David, more than most Old Testament heroes, understood what it was like to receive undeserved grace and have “lawless deeds…forgiven.” After all, David was guilty of adultery and the death of a loyal follower. David knew God’s grace in spite of his works, not because of them. Those who, like David, put their faith in God, can be completely forgiven of their sin. Like Abraham and David, “believers are the most fortunate people imaginable because the question of their sin has been settled forever” (Mounce, 124). Their “sins have been covered!” The Lord “will not take their sin into account!”

So What?

The Case study of Abraham has illustrated that Paul’s teaching on justification by faith is not new. Everyone who has ever been justified before God has gone through the same process. He/she, in spite of their debt of sin, places faith in God and His Christ and as a result is credited with his righteousness. These credits render them capable of entering into a relationship with God that is wrought with all kinds of amazing blessings. Abraham, because of his faith and resulting relationship with God was used to make a nation that would bless the world. David, in spite of his treachery, was forgiven because of his faith and allowed to lead a kingdom of God’s people. Even Paul, though he was once a persecutor of the church, was justified through faith and used to plant churches across the Roman Empire and write the majority of the New Testament. Just imagine what God could do with you when your debt of sin is cancelled! Just imagine if the holds/leans are your account were lifted and a windfall of grace swept over your life! Isn’t it time you were able to say along with Abraham, David, and Paul, “We're debt free!”


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