September 17, 2017
ANOTHER LOOK AT JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH AND THE RICH GRACE OF GOD
(14 of 44 in a series through Romans)
This week was a hard week. Tom ended up getting the flu from Timothy last week, so early in the week I realized that I needed to plan on preaching today. And thankfully I’d done some study on the text last week, so I was in a decent place to do that writing. So, I headed into the office on Tuesday morning, ready to write, only to get news that morning that Matt and Kate’s precious baby had gone to be with Jesus that morning. And my heart broke for them. Tuesday, as if pictured in the gloomy weather, there was yet another reminder of death, and I found myself mourning. I was mourning over this particular loss of baby Esther in our church and mourning the more general fact that until the Lord Jesus Christ returns, we live in a world where, in the words of Hebrews 2:8, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to [Christ].”
And I know that my experience was reflective of us as a church. We were, in accord with the Scripture, mourning with those who mourn, and that was a good thing. It’s a good thing because the Scripture doesn’t tell us specifically what words to say when we find our brother or sister is mourning, but it does command us to mourn with them. Your tears and mine this past week were a good thing. They were reminders to our dear brother and sister of the love Christ has for them, as we, his people, are his body.
But thankfully we can also remind ourselves that for believers mourning and death will never be the last word. One day there will be no more tears and no more death. One day we’ll know a glory that will allow us to testify with sight to Paul’s declaration in Romans 8:18 that the sufferings of this world aren’t worth comparing to the glory to be revealed to us.
But what do we do until then to walk well in a world where sin is consistently witnessed, death seems to lurk at every corner, and we have an enemy who is like a lion, seeking to steal, kill, and destroy? Well, there’s much we could say to answer that, but one of the things that we can do is to faithfully remind ourselves of the glory and truth of the gospel, the goodness and wisdom of our God, and the fact that we have been, are, and will continue to be, as his children, the objects of his grace, love, and kindness. Consider, for example, that Paul tells us that we have been saved by grace, raised up with Christ, and seated with in “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).
Feel those words. Let them weigh on you. God saved you by grace through faith because he wanted to show you the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness” for an eternity. The God who made the world and everything in it, who holds everything together, and who is absolutely sovereign, even calling out the stars by name, has chosen to make us his people so that he can show us the riches of his grace in kindness. We are his people and the objects of his grace. That’s who we are when it seems like his blessings appear at every turn and when the painful circumstances of life bring such sorrow that we feel like it’s going to kill us. And so this morning, I want to remind us again of this truth that we are the blessed objects of God’s goodness, kindness, and grace as we look at Romans 4:9-12.
Now, if you’ve read over Romans 4:9-12, knowing that it would be our sermon text this week, or you’ve simply read over it in your seat prior to this moment, you may be thinking, “I don’t think this text really accomplishes the goal of showing us that we’re the blessed objects of God’s goodness, kindness, and grace.” After all, it’s simply four verses where Paul dives into looking at when Abraham was justified (before or after he was circumcised) and then concludes that people who are circumcised and people who are uncircumcised can be justified if they will place their faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, can claim Abraham as their father in the faith.
I mean, it’s nothing most of us probably don’t already know. And therefore it doesn’t necessarily move us to read those four verses, does it? But it’s precisely for this reason that we need to meditate on the teaching and application of this text this morning.
A couple of summers ago Aaron and I went to Salt Lake City to do a conference on Christology for pastors and church planters from Utah and Idaho. And when our plane descended into the city it was breath-taking. The sun was setting at that particular moment, painting the sky with all kinds of colors, while in the foreground there was this large body of water running up to this enormous mountain. It was amazing.
And I remember at one point on the trip walking out of Starbucks, where we’d had a meeting, and being reminded as I walked out the door that I wasn’t in Jackson anymore as there was this huge mountain in front of us. So, I said to one of the guys who’d lived in the area for a while, “Man, are you just constantly overwhelmed when you walk outside?” and the guy answered, “Actually, I hardly even notice them anymore.”
That’s my fear with us as we look at Romans 4:9-12. I fear that we can become so familiar with these rich notes of God’s grace toward us in his Word that we hardly even notice it anymore. So, what I want to do is to work through this text in three stages. First, I want to show you why what Paul says here is such a big deal and would have been almost shocking to a first century reader who knew his Old Testament well. Second, I want to walk through Paul’s argument so that we understand why Paul is saying the almost shocking things he is saying, and then I want to spend a while thinking through applying the truths revealed in these verses to us. First, then, let’s look at the situation and thought that would have made what Paul teaches here almost shocking. I think I can state it simply as follows:
It would be easy to assume from the OT that circumcision is necessary for justification before God
This is perhaps an odd statement for us because we know so clearly as readers of the whole of the Bible that circumcision is not necessary for someone to be justified. Paul will even say in Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through loved.”
But if you can imagine that you don’t have the NT for a second and merely think about the OT, you can see that it would be easy to assume that circumcision is necessary for justification before God. After all, in Genesis 17, when God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God and God to his offspring after him, the Lord said, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring . . . shall surely be circumcised. . . . Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (vv. 10-14).
And that’s not the only place you read this kind of language. In Exodus 12:48 the Lord said to Moses, “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. . . . No uncircumcised person shall eat of it.” Any male who was uncircumcised was forbidden to celebrate Passover with the people of God.
Finally, though we could point to more, in Exodus 4 we have this odd scene where the Lord sought to put Moses to death. Why? Well, it’s because he had not circumcised his son. Now, think about that for a second. In just a few verses prior to this incident Moses is whining and complaining and offering excuses about why he can’t obey the Lord and go speak to Pharaoh, and the Lord patiently extends mercy to him. But when Moses doesn’t circumcise his son, his life is under threat by God until his son is circumcised. Circumcision is a non-negotiable in this case.
So, the way that Jewish rabbis would have thought of circumcision is to say, “Circumcision is absolutely necessary to be among the people of God and, thus, absolutely necessary for justification.” Moreover, they would reason, if circumcision is necessary for those after Abraham to be justified, then it was also necessary for Abraham to be justified.
Now, you can see how this would have been easy to conclude. But before we get to Paul’s answer and argument, I want to note two things. One element I want to note is something that Paul isn’t going to argue in our text this morning but he has argued in previous verses, namely, that the circumcision of the flesh was always intended to be a mere shadow pointing to a greater reality. And that greater reality is the circumcision of the heart. The OT itself will make this clear on multiple occasions, noting that being circumcised merely in the flesh is insufficient to belong to God; we must be circumcised in our hearts.
But the second thing I want to note before we look at Paul’s argument is that all of us who are not physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are outsiders. That is, when you read the OT and read about all of those outside of Israel who had no claim to the promises of God and were strangers to the people of God, that’s us outside of Christ. The way Paul put it in Ephesians 2:11-12 was, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
That was us. Separated from Christ. Strangers to God’s covenants of promise. Without hope and without God in the world. Feel how removed and undeserving and without hope we are by nature apart from Christ. We weren’t among those to whom God was revealing himself. We were the uncircumcised, outside of the people of God. Now, let’s look at Paul’s argument in light of this thought.
Paul argues that Abraham was justified by faith alone, so is everyone else who is justified, and therefore Abraham is the father of all believers
That’s Paul’s argument in these verses, and it’s pretty simple, but let’s look at it closely. After having spoken of the blessing of justification, whereby we’re not only credited with the righteousness of Christ but we are not credited with our sins, Paul asks, “Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” (v. 9). Now, in light of what we’ve seen from some OT texts, that’s a reasonable question to ask.
And Paul adds that it’s a big deal to answer this question because he’s been arguing that Abraham was justified by faith, not by faith and circumcision. He writes, “For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness” (v. 9). So, Paul asks a key question, “How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised?” (v. 10).
You see, that’s key to ask because the Jewish rabbis had been reading the OT as if it were simply something like an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia doesn’t progress and tell a story and unfold truths as it goes along. You don’t have to ask with an encyclopedia what has happened before and what is coming next. It’s simply a book of facts, not a developing story where when something happens becomes a big deal. You just open it and say, “Good, that’s right.” And that’s how the Jewish rabbis had treated the OT. Circumcision is necessary for being God’s people, they would argue, and therefore circumcision is necessary for justification. And if circumcision was necessary for justification, then Abraham was required to be circumcised before he could be justified before God. That’s how the argument would go.
But Paul says, “Not so fast.” He asks when Abraham was justified, before or after his circumcision. And he notes, “It was not after, but before he was circumcised” (v. 10). You see, Abraham was justified in Genesis 15 but he wasn’t circumcised until Genesis 17. Or put differently, Abraham was in his eighties when he believed God and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness in Genesis 15:6, but he wasn’t circumcised until he was ninety-nine years-old (Gen. 17:24).
Therefore, there’s no way to argue that Abraham was justified by circumcision because he was justified by faith years before he was ever circumcised. So then, Paul answers the question we all are probably asking, “What then was the purpose of circumcision?” Paul answers in verse 11, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”
That is, Abraham’s circumcision was a marker of something that God had done, not the purpose or cause of it. God had justified Abraham by faith alone, and circumcision merely served as a reminder of what God had already done in justifying Abraham by faith.
Thus, Paul concludes, that those who speak of Abraham as their father are all those who believe and are justified because Abraham’s true offspring aren’t identified by whether or not they’ve been circumcised but whether or not they have faith. Paul writes, “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 by also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (vv. 11-12).
In other words, God has Abraham’s physical descendants physically circumcised so that their circumcision might be a shadow, reminder, and symbol of a greater reality that is needed, namely, the circumcision of the heart. So, circumcision wasn’t some waste of time but a needed teacher and symbol to show us what was needed in our hearts. But the reason God justified Abraham by faith before he was circumcised is because God was sending the message loud and clear that those who are justified, part of his true people, and truly Abraham’s descendants are those who have faith, whether or not they’re circumcised.
Thus, when we sang the song as children, “Father Abraham has many sons . . . and I am one of them and so are you,” we were right, as long as we were believers singing that song. Or, more eloquently, Rich Mullins was right in the song Sometimes by Step to note that one of those stars lighting up in the sky in Genesis 15:6 had been lit for him. For we who believe, Jew or Gentile, are Abraham’s true children, the people of God, and those who are justified.
But I want us to put these two things together. I want us to realize that we were at one time strangers to the covenants, alienated from the people of God, and without hope and without God in the world. We had no claim on God and were not deserving of salvation. On our own, we were no different than those Canaanites who were slaughtered when God brought his people into the land. And now we, like uncircumcised pagans, can rightly say that we are sons and daughters of Abraham, and more importantly, sons and daughters of God. We are the objects of his rich, undeserving kindness and grace.
Don’t miss that. Don’t let that become commonplace to you. Don’t let it be like my friend who no longer noticed the majestic mountains around him. Remember, as Paul did, that you had no hope and were without God and that now you get to be his child.
Now, let me end with a few words of application for us in light of this glorious truth:
A Few Points of Application
1) Realize that the OT is our history, for Abraham is our father in the faith, and we have a family of faith.
We are fond of saying around here that baptismal waters are thicker than blood. And what we mean that is though I could trace my family line back to a people who came from a village in South Yorkshire named Tankersley, it is more important in my identity to trace my line back through a people from all nations who believe, through the witness of the apostles, who walked with Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, who believed. That’s our true family, and our greatest longing for our earthly families is that they’re part of that family as well.
And this is why Jesus will turn and say that those who are his mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of his Father. What a blessing it is to have a family of faith! Recognize that and rejoice in it.
2) See that there’s nothing more than faith needed for justification.
I’ve been saying this for weeks, but don’t buy into the lie that you need to do more and more things to be right with God. We merely place our faith in the one who lived, died for our sins, and was raised for our justification. That’s how we’re counted righteous – through faith alone.
3) Be humbled that we’re objects of God’s saving grace and see no one as outside of the Lord’s saving reach.
I think one reason that Paul stressed to the Gentiles the fact that that had no claim on God and no hope outside of the saving work of Christ is because he wanted them to feel what he knew to be true about himself. Paul had no problem noting that he was not deserving of the grace God had shown him. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul wrote, “I am the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God,” and then he added in verse 10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.”
Paul knew who he was outside of Christ. He held the coats of men who threw stones at Stephen until they killed him. Have you ever clicked on video where a headline is about someone getting beaten by someone else? To my shame I have. And it is horrifying to watch someone savagely beaten by another human being, and we believers should abhor such violence. But as I watched it, I kept yelling, “Put down the camera.” You see, while this horrifying act was going on, someone was not only nearby but willing to sit there and film it, as if to say, “What you all are doing is good.”
That was Paul in the first century. The first century equivalent to holding that camera so that it could be posted online was holding everyone’s coats. That was Paul. And God saved him. And because he knew who he was and that God had saved him, Paul saw no one outside of God’s saving grace. Are you a prostitute? God saves prostitutes. Are you an adulterer? God saves adulterers. Have you murdered, lied, cheated, and done unspeakable evil? God saves sinners.
We must see that as well, brothers and sisters. See who you were outside of Christ – the uncircumcised, without hope and without God. And see who you are—Abraham’s children, those declared righteousness before God by God and loved by him. And let’s spread this good news in hopes that one day we can celebrate the marriage of a former white supremacist, now redeemed, to one of our African-American sisters. Let’s send out brothers to plant churches who at one time wanted believers imprisoned but are now redeemed. Paul could have started his testimony that he was sharing in a church by saying, “Now you all know that just last week I was trying to have you killed, but now …” And I pray that by the Lord’s grace we have more and more of those testimonies because we understand ourselves as undeserving objects of the Lord’s rich goodness, grace, and kindness and, thus, see no one outside of God’s saving reach, regardless of who they are apart from Christ. May the Lord use us to speak the gospel and bring more and more people to walk with us as our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and children in the faith, with whom we dine at this table! Amen.