Summary: My good works are to be a response to God’s grace for the purpose of pointing people to Jesus
Last year when I decided to preach through a portion of the book of Romans each year for several years, I had to decide on an overall approach to that series of sermons. At one end of the spectrum, I could have followed the example of several pastors who have chosen to preach one or two sermons per chapter and finished the entire book in less than a year. At the other end of the spectrum, Pastor John Piper preached 225 sermons, or an average of 14 sermons per chapter, when he preached through Romans. I concluded that somewhere between those 2 extremes was probably best for us as a body, so I’ve been spending roughly 4-5 weeks on each chapter so far.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve been questioning whether that approach is really the best after all. Since Paul covers the same concepts over and over again from every conceivable angle my concern is that some of you are going to get bored and tune out if we do that, too. By my count this is now the 18th message I’ve preached so far and after his introduction in the first 17 verses of his letter, one could argue that Paul has really only covered two main ideas:
• In Romans 1:18 – 3:20 the message is that everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike – is a sinner who deserves God’s wrath.
• In the section we’re in right now – Romans 3:21 – 4:25 – Paul repeatedly confirms that our justification by God is by faith alone and not as a result of anything we can do.
So it’s real easy to begin to think that Paul is engaging in overkill here and that maybe my sermons are doing exactly the same thing. But as I’ve thought and prayed about that some more, I’m convinced that there is valid reason for Paul’s approach here that we can benefit from his example of examining each of these issues thoroughly. That conclusion seems to be borne out by the evidence we looked at last week that shows that so many in our culture and even many who claim to be born again Christians still fail to grasp these crucial ideas. So since these concepts are so foundational to us as the body of Christ, it’s really not possible to emphasize them too much.
Last week, we saw how Paul used the examples of Abraham and David to prove that my standing with God is not based on what I achieve but rather on receiving the righteousness of Jesus that God gives to me through faith. It would seem to us that Paul has now addressed every single objection that his Jewish readers could possibly have to that idea. But, just like us, their fallen human hearts so deeply embraced the idea that there must be something that we can do to commend ourselves to God that Paul feels the need to address that idea from a couple more angles. The last two millennia have certainly proven that he was justified in doing so. Every single religion that has developed during that time, including many of the large ones which call themselves “Christian”, teach that, at least to some degree, we are made right with God by keeping religious rituals and/or by doing good deeds.
So even if we’ve been in the church for a long time and been taught otherwise, there is always the potential that our culture will drag us back into that way of thinking. Therefore, it won’t hurt one bit to make sure we have this settled in our hearts. So with that in mind, open your Bibles and follow along as I read in Romans chapter 4, beginning in verse 9:
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
(Romans 4:9-12 ESV)
Paul is dealing here with an issue that had supposedly been settled many years earlier. After Paul and Barnabas had preached the gospel in Galatia, a group of zealots known as “Judaizers” confronted them and taught that one first had to become a Jew and be circumcised before becoming a Christian. So Paul and Barnabas eventually travelled to Jerusalem to discuss this issue with the apostles and the elders of the church there. Acts 15 records what occurred in what has become known as the Jerusalem Council.