First Reading Genesis 12:1-4a
1Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
Romans 4:1-8, 13-25
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: 7“Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”
13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
23Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
We don’t use the word “reckon” very often. I remember my southern relatives saying they reckoned something was true. A lot of the people I’ve met from Australia and New Zealand say the same thing. But in Philadelphia or upstate New York we don’t reckon much of anything. That unfamiliarity can make it hard to hear the passage clearly.
In this passage reckoning is almost an accounting word. Imagine a giant account book with every person in the world in it. God keeps track of each of us in that big book; he adds up credits; he figures, reckons our balance in a book.
The question Paul answers in this part of Romans is how God reckons or figures our account. How does God determine our status, our credit, our righteousness?
In Paul’s time the leading opinion in the Jewish community was that our righteousness was based on following the Law. God gave us the Law as a way to please God, to show us how to stay in the good column in God’s giant account book. Since Christianity was a movement within Judaism, the same idea was common in the church. The Law tells us how to be righteous with God like our 1040 form shows us how to keep our account right with Uncle Sam.
There are some similar ideas today about how we keep our God account in the black. Maybe the most common belief is that we please God by being good people; by keeping our promises and being nice to others. Some people add to that going to church, giving generously and doing good deeds. Those are all good things, by the way; I’m not discouraging being nice or going to church.
Paul says that’s not how God does math; that’s not how God reckons our righteousness. He looks back at Abraham’s story, because Abraham is our main ancestor in the faith. He remembers God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. He remembers that God promised to bless all the families of the world through Abraham. Since we are all Abraham’s spiritual children we find an important clue to our righteousness by looking at Abraham.
So we get to the key phrase in our passage: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham did plenty of good things in his life, some not so great things too, as we read a few Wednesdays ago, but plenty of good things. But that wasn’t what gave Abraham a good balance in God’s book. The foundation of Abraham’s righteousness with God was faith, trust in the God who called him, trust that God would keep his promises, even when Abraham couldn’t understand how that was possible.
The fancy phrase here is justification by grace through faith. That phrase is the heart of the reformation, the heart of what makes the protestant tradition worth paying attention to. The trouble with a name like justification by grace through faith is that it makes grace sound like an academic theory; actually that’s the problem with theology in general. It’s convenient to have names for ideas, but what’s at stake is life, not academic finding the right answer to a question in school. Justification by grace sounds safe and domestic, but in reality grace turns our understanding of the world upside down.
I want to read this piece again for us: “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.” Another translation says, “To one who works, wages are credited not as a gift but as an obligation.” “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Even though in our minds we know we’re justified by grace, in our hearts we still often think about our spiritual lives in terms of wages and reward. We admire the saints and heroes of the church for their hard work and perseverance. We wish we had time to do more for the church or for other people. We imagine that one day God will reward us for the good things we’ve done, or maybe we worry about God’s judgment because we’re not sure we’ve done enough.
That’s not the point; that’s not what God is looking for from us. The truth is that we don’t have anything God needs. God was fine before humans were created. We cannot earn our righteousness with God. We become righteous by trusting God to make us righteous. God wants us to trust him; that’s all.
And it’s not just about trusting that God can make us righteous, since deep in our hearts we mostly think we’re pretty good anyway. God wants us to trust that God can justify the ungodly, that there’s no one beyond God’s reach, and to know that we are all in the same boat.
We put our trust in good behavior or church or family, but God wants us to trust him. God wants us to stand in front of him without our good deeds, without our family tree, without our membership card and simply trust that he will save us. God wants us to trust his endless love for all people. That’s the faith God loves; that’s the faith God wants from each of us. One of my favorite hymns says it like this: “Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne; on Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” This is truly amazing grace. Without anything to recommend us we stand before God and trust that he accepts us.
Grace is hard too because it strikes at our sense of basic fairness. It seems unfair that people who do all kinds of bad things will be accepted by God just like we will, even though we spend our lives trying to do the right thing. That sense of basic fairness is why Paul spends the first three chapters of Romans explaining how everyone falls short of our calling to be holy to God.
Sure, we haven’t robbed a bank or murdered anyone in cold blood; but we go about our lives comfortably enough while children die of preventable diseases and American made weapons are used against peaceful protestors. Every human being falls short of the holiness God wants from us, so no matter what we think, each of us can only cling to God’s incredible mercy to be righteous in God’s account book.
In case we’re not convinced yet, Paul gives us another example. We have so many blessings, but we often forget the most important: “So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’” We are sinners; but by the loving gift of God’s grace, we are forgiven. Hallelujah.
That forgiveness is free for us. God just gives it away, but it wasn’t free for God. Grace came at a terrible price because Jesus was handed over for our transgressions. Think about how much you love your kids. God sent his son into the world knowing that the world would torture and kill him so that we could be reconciled to God. I’ve never understood why it had to happen that way; maybe I never will. That used to bother me, but gradually I’ve started to worry less about why God chose to save us through Christ’s death and just be incredibly grateful he was willing to do so much for us.
Knowing that God was willing, even glad, to send his son to suffer and die for us, we can trust that nothing can keep us away from God’s love. We can trust that God has already done everything necessary to make us righteous. We can trust that we are safe and loved in God’s arms, and we can trust that no one is beyond God’s grace. Our actions can’t make us righteous, but we can trust that Jesus did that for us.
If you grew up in a protestant church, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know already. We Presbyterians are great at knowing things in our heads, but that’s not where God’s love makes the biggest difference. Things really get exciting when we let God’s love sink deep into our hearts. Things get exciting when we really start to trust God with our whole being, when we truly believe that without doing anything we can trust God to save us because of what Christ did on Calvary.
We don’t need to waste our energy worrying about whether we’ll get through those pearly gates when we die. We don’t need to waste our energy judging other people. Trust God and be at peace. You are forgiven; we are forgiven.
When we trust God with our hearts we don’t have to worry about how to please God; instead we’re free to serve God and others with joy. Let go of your guilt; let go of your shame; let go of your fear and resentment and judgment. Let go of your sin. Jesus took all that poison into his body and nailed it to the cross. Jesus was handed over for our trespasses so that all the garbage that pollutes our lives and souls, all the spiritual smog that separates us from God’s love, could die once and for all. Jesus was raised from the dead, proving that love conquers even death and giving us new life in him. You are free because Christ is risen. Put your trust in Christ; you’ve got nothing to worry about because you are righteous in God’s eyes without doing anything.
We’re talking about Abraham’s faith, so I want to say two quick things about that faith before we wrap up because they apply to our faith too. First, Abraham trusted God like crazy, but that faith was full of questions and doubts. After a few years on the road with God Abraham started asking questions because God promised him many descendants but Abraham still had no kids. Later, when God promised that Sarah would have a son, Abraham clung to the son he already had by Hagar. Abraham had plenty of questions for God, but he didn’t let his questions keep him from following. Instead he asked his questions as he followed.
Second, Abraham’s faith led him into action: he left everything he knew to follow God’s calling. Our good deeds don’t make us righteous, but our gratitude for God’s love invites us to radical service. When we really know the joy of God’s love for us we want to give back. We want to make a difference in other people’s lives. We all have different ministries, different ways to serve others, but the same loving God calls each of us and we respond gratefully. We are free, so let’s live each day in joyful service to the one who freed us with his amazing love.
Thanks be to God.