Sunday, January 14, 2018

By Grace and Through Faith Alone

In this section of his letter to the church at Rome, Paul is almost done explaining the Gospel that he preaches. There is one more thing that he wants to be clear about before he writes about some of the implications of this Gospel. It’s actually a large problem when it comes to understanding how people become acceptable to God. This is because many Jews in Paul’s day misunderstood the role of the Law of God. They thought that if you obeyed the Law, God would be pleased with you, and everything would be fine. They were wrong.

Here, call to mind Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ​I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ Luke 18:11-12
Here’s someone who is quite sure that God is pleased with him because of the good things that he does and the bad things that he avoids. Paul knew plenty of people just like that. In fact, he had been just like that himself. So, he wants to be clear that that is not how the Gospel works.

To do that he uses the example of Abraham. Listen.
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. Romans 4.13-15
Let’s go through this line by line.
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
Paul is simply making a statement here. He’ll prove it in a moment. But the statement is that Abraham enjoyed this promise of God by faith, by believing God, and not by law keeping.
For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.
Paul here is saying that when it comes to enjoying this promise of God it’s either by faith or by law. If it’s by law then it can’t be by faith.  It’s the one or the other.
For the law brings wrath…
This is where Paul explains and proves those two statements. But like other things that Paul has written, he has packed a lot into a few words. So, we need to unpack it.

So, what’s Paul’s point? Those who attempt to enjoy God’s promises based on their obedience to the Law of God will fail to achieve that goal. And why? It’s because they - and the rest of us - are unable to meet God’s standards for obedience. As far as God is concerned, it’s perfect obedience, or it’s nothing. Adam and Eve could perfectly obey before they took that bite. But not after that. And now, none of us can. Bear in mind that failure to obey perfectly is the same as disobedience. And disobedience requires justice, God’s justice - wrath.

So, since no one can obey God’s Law, not according to His standards, then no one can depend on law keeping to enjoy God’s promises. Even law keeping with some faith thrown in won’t work. Faith doesn’t make up for what failed law keeping tried to do.

And that’s what Paul was getting at when he wrote,
For the law brings wrath…
Now, all of that was to set up the next thing that Paul wrote.
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace…  Romans 4:16
Enjoying the promise of God is, ultimately, a matter of the grace of God, something that can be received only by faith all by itself.

It’s important to be clear about what these words mean. So, quick review. Grace: God acting favorably toward someone even though what he deserves is God’s just wrath. Faith: hearing what God says and accepting it as true; that is, entrusting yourself to God according to what He has said.

So, again: Enjoying the promise of God is, ultimately, a matter of the grace of God, something that can be received only by faith all by itself.

Now, in all of that Paul was referring to Abraham and that promise God made to him. And Abraham did enjoy that promise - but not by any law keeping. The promise was his because he received it with faith as a gift of God’s grace.

Paul goes through this as an illustration of how the Gospel works. A person enjoys God’s promise of salvation in Jesus not by law keeping, but by receiving it by faith as a gift of God’s grace. Or to use the fancy language, Paul is illustrating justification by grace alone through faith alone.

Now, I doubt that any of that was radically new to any of you. But I went through it all so that I could ask a question. This question is what the sermon is really about.

So, a person enjoys God’s promise of salvation in Jesus by receiving it by faith as a gift of God’s grace and without any law keeping. That’s how someone becomes a Christian. Here’s my question: Is that also how someone grows as a Christian?

Listen to this.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1.6
What is that? It’s a promise. It’s a promise about growing as a Christian until the transformation is complete. How does that work? How do we enjoy, experience, that promise? How do we grow?

We all know that the Christian life is begun by grace through faith. That’s how someone is converted.   But what is he told after that about growing as a Christian? All too often he is told that there are certain things that he must do and other things that he must avoid. A list of these dos and don’ts is usually provided. He’s told that he will grow as a Christian if he keeps to that list.

Now, what shall we call this? What would be a label that would do a good job describing it? How about ‘law keeping’? It’s very much like that Pharisee in the parable that I read to you earlier.

I’m guessing that most of you were given some list of dos and don’ts. Let me give you an example of one thing usually on that list, something that we are to do.

If you want to grow as a Christian you must have a daily time for Bible reading and prayer. Must. And there’s even a verse to prove it. It’s where Jesus said,
If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8.31-32
You need to abide in Jesus’ word, daily Bible reading. That’s crucial to developing as a true disciple. As a result of hearing this, many Christians have told themselves, ‘My growth as a Christian depends on my daily quiet time. Jesus even said so. I had better be sure to do this every day.’

Is that right? No. For one thing, abiding in Jesus’ word is not at all about reading your Bible. A look at the context will prove that.

But on top of that, what is this but law keeping? Didn’t we just see that there is no room for law keeping when it comes to enjoying God’s promises?

And what is the all-too-common result of living this way? There’s a certain pressure that you feel. You have to be sure that you always have your daily devotions. After all, your Christian maturity depends on it. But what happens if you miss a time? Guilt feelings. And what if, after trying and trying, you fail to establish this daily habit? Obviously, you are second-rate Christian. And that’s only one item on the list.

We are all called to develop as Christians, to put off more and more of our foul sins and to put on Christian virtues like humility, kindness, patience, compassion. However, that will never happen by law keeping. Never. But it will happen by the grace of God received by faith alone.

Now, what might that look like?

It starts with this basic attitude. ‘The only way that I will grow is by God being gracious to me. It’s all a matter of His favor granted to me, His favor that roots out my sin, His favor that replaces it with virtue. It’s not about my efforts. It’s about His efforts.’ That’s the foundation of it all. Grace.

What’s next? Faith. Listen again to how I defined that. Faith is hearing what God says and accepting it as true; that is, entrusting yourself to God according to what He has said.

So, what does God say to the unbeliever in the preaching of the Gospel? His message goes something like this. ‘There’s sin in your life. If you continue to live that way you will die. Jesus has come to rescue you from that death and to lead you into life. He promises to do this if you will repent of your sin and entrust yourself to Him.’ That’s the message. And faith in that message happens when that unbeliever says, ‘I accept as true what God has said’. And so, he acts. He comes to Jesus, repenting of his sin. And the promised life is his.

That’s how an unbeliever becomes a Christian. He depends on the grace of God in the promise of the Gospel received by faith alone. No law keeping. None.

Is it any different when it comes to growing as a Christian?

What does God say to the Christian in the preaching of the Gospel? He says the same thing. ‘There’s sin in your life. If you continue to live that way you will die. Jesus has come to rescue you from death and lead you into life. He promises to do this if you will repent of your sin and entrust yourself to Him.’ And what does faith look like in the Christian? ‘I accept as true what God has said’. And as a result, he acts. He comes again to Jesus, repenting of whatever particular sin the Spirit was pointing at. And he experiences the promised life to a greater extent. And that’s how a Christian matures. 

The unbeliever and the Christian get the same message, the same Gospel. And both need to depend on the same grace of God presented in that Gospel, grace that changes lives, something that is received by faith alone. You live as a Christian in the same way that you become a Christian, by grace through faith. No law keeping.

Now, why is this important? Understanding these things will make clear where your efforts need to be placed when it comes to growing as a believer.

Consider a common scenario about dealing with some sin. Let’s pick something obvious like lying. A Christian is convicted by the Spirit that he lies. Because of that, this Christian wants to get rid of that sin. So, what does he do?  He commits himself to dealing with this sin. He heard about a book that describes various methods of changing sin habits into Godly habits. He buys it and begins to do what it says. He enlists the aid of other Christians, asking them to hold him accountable and to pray for him. He’s committed to change and isn’t going to stop until that sinful habit is gone. Good, right?

No, it’s not good. There’s no Gospel there. It’s law keeping. He’s trying to save himself from that sin. Sure, he prays for God’s help. But his hope is focused on his efforts, like doing what that book described. It’s wrong.

But wait. There are Christians who have done this sort of thing and the sinful habit they were working on disappeared. It seems to work, no?

No, it doesn’t work. Has he actually dealt with the sin, the whole sin? Remember from last week that our sins are the things that we do, like lying, which are the result of how we think about life, like needing to look good in people’s eyes, all of which is based on the assumptions of the heart, like the most important thing is me having a pleasant life. All of that is sin. So, he doesn’t lie any more. But his desire to look good to others and that basic commitment to himself haven’t been touched. They will just show in some other way, some other sin that will make him look good in people’s eyes so that he can have a pleasant life.

Law keeping doesn’t work. It can only result in superficial change, the kind of change that hides the reality of our sins.

So, how should a Christian deal with some sin, like lying? It’s by the grace of God received by faith alone. The Spirit convicts this Christian of his lying. Now what? First, there is prayer. He acknowledges his sin to God. Then, he comes again for forgiveness and to be changed. His prayer goes something like this. ‘Father, help me deal with this sin, the whole sin. I need to know its roots. Where is my thinking wrong? What are the commitments of my heart that give rise to this evil? I want to repent of these things, all of them. Teach me. Change me so that in my heart, in my thinking and in my actions, I am more like Jesus.’

The Spirit will respond to that. He will point out sins in the inner life of this Christian. This is one place where it’s good to know your Bible. It gives the Spirit more to work with. It’s also good to get some wisdom from mature Christians. The Spirit uses them as well.

What the Spirit will do is point out our wrong thinking about life. He will expose demands of our hearts that are so very rebellious. And as He does that we repent. And we repent specifically of the errant ideas and the sinful assumptions, asking that they would be replaced with Godly ideas and holy assumptions. And we pray that we would become more sensitive to times when we are tempted to give in to those deeper sins. The goal is not just to get rid of lying. The goal is to live the truth in the mind and in the heart which will show in the actions.

Understand that this isn’t a process that you start and finish quickly. Dealing with specific sins, dealing with them down deep, will take a while. But what we hold on to in the meantime is the promise.
He who began a good work will complete it…
God has promised that we will grow as Christians. He will get rid of our sins, our deep sins, replacing them with holiness. He has promised. As we accept what He has said as true - faith - He will, graciously, keep that promise. And little by little, as the Spirit does His work deep in our souls, we will be saved from the many sins that afflict us. And all of this happens by the grace of God received by faith alone.