There is a sense that the apostle Paul is in a war and has been shooting down enemy soldiers. In Romans 4 his war is for the gospel, of course, and the champions that have been sent to do battle against him have been formidable. Thus far there have been two of them. The first was “Works.” This is the soldier almost everyone believes in, the people’s favorite. But Paul shot him down with an arrow from Genesis 15:6, which proved that Abraham was justified by faith in God’s promise, rather than by works. Since Abraham is the Old Testament pattern of a justified and godly man, his experience sets the pattern for those who follow him. The second soldier was “Circumcision.” This champion was peculiar to the Jews and seemed to have the blessing of God behind him, since after all, God had Himself established circumcision. Paul defeats this mighty foe by showing that Abraham was declared to be justified by God years before circumcision was imposed on him and his descendants. The last of the enemy’s heroes is “Law.” Paul will shoot this soldier down in the next two paragraphs of his letter (vv. 13-17).
It’s important to notice his change in strategy, however. When Paul was arguing against circumcision as a way of salvation, he used a temporal or historical argument, as we have seen. Instead he speaks of the results of trying to live by law, showing that by nature law is contrary to both faith and promise and that the inevitable result for those who choose this bad option is God’s wrath.
Why does Paul take this approach? Why does he not argue from a time sequence, as he does in Galatians? It may not be possible to assign a sure reason for this, but we have a clue in the fact that Paul does not use the direct article (“the”) before the occurrences of the word “law” in verses 13-15, by contrast the article does occur with “law” in Galatians. In Romans Paul is not thinking so much of the specific Jewish law, though nothing he says excludes it, but of law in general. It is the law principle, rather than a specific set of laws, that he is thinking about. It is what we commonly call morality.
Is that distinction important? Well, it is for Gentiles, which includes most of us, as well as the bulk of those to whom Paul was specifically writing. The Gentiles of Paul’s day generally did not have the advantage of the Old Testament law for moral guidance. But they did have some standards of behavior, just as we do today. And like us, they wanted to trust in their personal ability to keep that “law,” to measure up to those standards, as a way of salvation.
We see that all around us, don’t we? People will say that God ought to save them because they have done the best they can, “best” in that statement being defined by their partial attainment of whatever standard they perceive to be a just one. Or because they are good people, “good” being merely the sense that they have done better at living up to some moral code than others. This is the way we naturally think about salvation. Because we think we have measured up to some moral standard, we believe that God owes us something.
So what are the consequences if a person tries to achieve a saved status with God not by faith but by morality or, as Paul says, by the law principle? Paul says there are three consequences: (1) Faith has no value (v. 14). The reason faith has no value if one is living by the law principle is that faith and law are opposites, and if a person is choosing one, he or she is inevitably rejecting the other. (2) The promise is worthless (v. 14). The second consequence of living by the law principle is the nullification of God’s promise. Why is this so? Well, if the promise of salvation is linked to the law principle, this can only mean that it is necessary for a person to keep the law in order to receive the promise. If that were the case, the promise would never be fulfilled because, as Paul has already proved in the earlier chapters of Romans, there is nobody who has ever done what God’s law requires. (3) Law brings wrath (v. 15). The third consequence of trying to achieve a saved status by the law principle is that, instead of achieving salvation, all one actually achieves is wrath. This is an important point, for it goes beyond what has already been established as the first and second consequences. This is because the law can do nothing but condemn. That is its very essence. If you do not turn from the law as a way of salvation and trust the work of God in Jesus Christ, the very standard that you trust condemns you – because you have not kept it and never will.
The second paragraph (vv. 16-17), shows the fortunate consequences of seeking to be justified by God, not on the basis of morality or by the law principle, but by faith – which was the path pursued by Abraham. Again, as in the case of law, there are three consequences: (1) Faith establishes grace (v. 16). Why is this so? It’s because faith and grace belong together by their very natures, just as works and law belong together. Faith establishes grace. Therefore, we must have faith, since it is grace we need. (2) Faith makes salvation certain (v. 16). We can see the truth of this by contrast. Anyone who wants to be saved by works can never be certain that he or she has performed well enough – assuming (wrongly) for a moment, that the standard can be less than utter perfection. If, by contrast, salvation is not by morality but by the grace of God received through faith, then salvation is certain – because God is faithful and does not waver in His promises. He has done what is necessary through the death of Christ. That work is a perfect and all-sufficient work. Nothing can be added to it. Consequently, the person who rests on that work can be quietly content and confident. (3) Faith opens the door of salvation to all (vv. 16-17).The final benefit of faith as the way of salvation is that it opens the door of salvation to everyone, not just to the Jew, who possessed the Old Testament law, or to the few favored Gentiles who had been taught a particularly high standard of morality. It’s open to everyone. All may enter. This is the point Paul particularly emphasizes in Romans 4, not only in these verses but from verse 9 to the end of the chapter.
I don’t know of any human benefit or award or promise of which that can be said, because all human offers have conditions and thereby always exclude some people. But this is not true of the way of salvation offered by God through the work of Christ. Because of this, I can say the door is open for you, regardless of who you are or whatever you may have done or not done. None of that matters because we are all reduced to the same level. Salvation is by the grace of God through faith. If you are excluded, it’s only because you have refused to walk through the open door. It’s because you prefer your own sullied morality to God’s grace.
Don’t let that be true of you. Instead of refusing grace, accept it and enter into the full joy of God’s salvation. That salvation is for you, whoever you may be – if you will have it.
Romans 4:13-17 Reflection Questions:
According to Paul in verses 13-15, what is the purpose of the law?
How does the knowledge that Abraham is the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5) and that you are a child of Abraham affect the way you view your faith?
“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea.” Luke 1:39
“As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” Luke 1:44-45
Dear Faithful and Fruitful Seed Sowers!
Merry Christmas! We are days away from celebrating the hope, love, joy and peace of the Advent Season in its fullest. I pray that your heart and home are prepared as we have journeyed. May the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, be with you as you celebrate the Christ-Child’s humble birth. May Christ be born in us anew and may we never be the same again. Jesus Christ is born!
I know you are busy. We all are. But this is a great week to MAKE time to read the Christmas stories found in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 & 2. In this message I have been reflecting on Luke 1:39-45–a short seven verse narrative of the joy of Christmas,
Listen to verse 39, “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, …” Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would become pregnant and that her very old cousin, Elizabeth, was already pregnant. Both young and old…pregnant–full of expectation, full of anticipation, full of life.
I wonder what it would be like for us to be pregnant with the hope, love, joy, and peace of the Advent Season. I wonder what it would be like for us to live each and every day having Christ born anew in our hearts.
Back to the story. Would we respond like Mary did? Would we take our own three-day journey, traveling 90-100 miles on foot, to go visit our cousin? The angel had, indeed, just delivered the most shocking news.
My job as a pastor is to care for the sheep. Much of my job is spent traveling to visit people where they are: homes, hospitals, recovery centers, and even jail. Sometimes I travel a great distance to care for the sheep. In our hurry, hurrry, do-more-now lifestyles, don’t we have a hard time going out of our way to visit someone nearby let alone 100 miles away? Think about this, Mary got ready and “hurried” (the Greek word means that she went with eagerness, excitement, with haste and quickly.) She didn’t stop at a store to shop on the way or dally around to see other friends who lived on the way. Mary walked as rapidly and quickly as she could and with great haste to see her cousin—who was pregnant at 80?! This made me think of our last trip to Texas to visit our son and his family. We usually drive and we usually plan to stop and visit those we love on our way to and from. This trip was different. We traveled with eagerness and excitement to see our grandson play football in Kerrville. We had a date that we had to be there and we drove straight there. Can you relate? Mary had Elizabeth on her mind and away she went (on foot) to visit her cousin.
“At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea.” Luke 1:39
I have read and reread this verse. She got ready and then hurried to walk 100 miles to visit her cousin. I don’t know about you but sometimes I have the tendency to dally and linger and complain about going out of the house. Sometimes I just want to stay home, sit by the fire and read a good book. Do you have the same problem? Especially at this time of year. I don’t want to get out there in all of that hub-bub. I think we are all far too busy. Some of you are even are even too busy to sit down and read this SEED OF FAITH and the ten minutes it takes.
But the Spirit presses in on us and impresses us to follow. How many of us are like Mary? Running out of the house with eagerness to follow the Holy Spirit. I have to admit that sometimes I hear the Holy Spirit say, “Dave, call this person. Go visit that person” and in all honesty, there are day when I hesitate. “God, why me — why don’t you ask so and so to go do that? I’m busy. I’m tired. They aren’t doing anything. Ask them.” Do you have my problem? I call it wrestling with God. As a former wrestler, this is not a very good idea. Ask Jacob.
This past week, I talked with a man who is struggling with God. His exact words to me were “Why me, God?”
I think we all get stuck with the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve situations in our lives. We allow speculation to cause us to stop and stagnate. We allow fear to freeze us frozen in our tracks. We allow doubt to drive us down depression avenue.
What amazes me about Mary is that she didn’t stop on depression avenue, she wasn’t frozen about the news the angel brought to her, she didn’t stop and speculate. Mary taught us a great life lesson; she got up and hurried with haste to see if what God had said was true. She did not let the 90 to 100 miles stop her, she went with eagerness.
As I studied for this message, I learned something from Mary. I have learned how to say, “Here I am Lord, I am your servant, do with me according to your Word. And, God, help me to do it with eagerness. Help me to follow you with JOY.”
It’s definition time. JOY. What exactly does it mean? Joy is a feeling of great happiness. Listen to Rick Warren’s definition, “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the JOY is the determined choice I make to praise God in every situation.” Did you read that correctly? Joy is the determined choice that you and I make to praise God in every situation.
The second lesson I learned this week pertains to the word, “joy.” Joy to the World! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy down in my heart! Joy! What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Joy?’ Only three little letters … but oh so powerful to transform and change our lives. Just this week, my wife and I went to visit a member of our church who was in the hospital. Jac was wearing what she calls her “Christmas uniform”—a black sweater with the word JOY splashed acrossed it and a black skirt. I am not kidding you, as we walked to the parking garage to get our car, a lady passing by started singing, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.” Jac stopped and they both started singing. Then another lady joined in and so did I. The four of us in a parking garage singing JOY about JESUS! And here’s the second lesson:
J — Jesus
O — Others
Y — You
I want you to know that Mary was joyful in her journey. Here’s a “so what?” for you: AM I JOYFUL IN MY JOURNEY?
I now want you to know the second truth of this message:
when Jesus shows up, He brings with Him the joy of the heaven.
That is my prayer for you this busy week. We have five short days until we reach the manger. We have five short days before we stand face to face with the giver of all JOY! Are you grumbling? Stop. Are you anxious? Stop. Is your “to do” list longer than your sleepless nights? Stop. The God who created you also created Jesus. The God of all JOY doesn’t want you to miss the manger. Don’t wrestle with God today. Do as you are asked to do. Run everything by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. “I’m thinking I need to get out there in all of that hub-bub and fight for that last gift. Are you sure you want me to go?” Maybe, just maybe, this might be the one time when you hear, “Call your Mom.” “Call your sister.” “Call your friend in the hospital.” “Drop off flowers to your neighbor.” Maybe that’s the plan. And when you get the plan, go with excitement. Go with JOY!
I want you to awaken on Christmas day totally filled with the joy of Jesus!
Our story today ends with a powerful statement of faith. Enter into the story one more time. Hear Luke say, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:45)
Do you believe? Do you believe all that the Holy Spirit is saying to you is true? Do you believe that God will accomplish all those things that have been spoken to you in your heart?
I have some homework for you this week. I know you’re busy but it’s pretty simple: practice JOY. Jesus. Others. You. Practice listening and obeying the Lord with great JOY, with great eagerness, with great haste, and with great excitement the JOY that only Jesus can bring. Don’t you see it? THIS IS WHY WE TAKE FOUR WEEKS TO PREPARE OUR HEARTS AND HOMES FOR CHRIST’S BIRTHDAY!!!
I want us to be like Mary: Travel with joy, believe all that God has said to you to be true.
I end with a story about a friend of mine. He has Parkinsons. He’s quite young and has suffered a long time with his disease. The dystonia Parkinsons presents totally ruined his shoulder. He’s been in 10/10 pain (and he says, “That’s on a good day”) for over a year. His doctor had to check all of the boxes before he could order surgery. It took a year. On the day of the surgery, a UTI was discovered and my friend was sent home for another week. My friend never complained. He told me, “God’s time, Dave.” Well, the week went by and he’s home now! I can profess that my friend has traveled this painful road with the joy of Jesus in his heart. That’s my prayer for you. No matter what you are going through, my prayer is that you find JOY in knowing Christ.
My final prayer for you this week is that you will, once again, find the joy in believing that all of what God has spoken to you is believable.
And Mary said, “Angels? Gabriel? A baby? I’m not married. Elizabeth? She’s old.” And off Mary went with JOY! And when the two cousins met, their unborn babies leapt for JOY!
We can all learn something from this story because WE ARE IN IT. December 25 is almost here. Before you fly out of the house on swift feet eager to complete your list, bend your knees and pray. Bend your knees and read the story again. The Father of all time has all the time in the world…and so do you.
See You Sunday!
God Loves You and So Do I … (Mulungu akudaliseni — for our Zambian Brothers and Sisters).