2nd Sunday in Lent
“Salvation by God’s Grace Through Faith is not a New Teaching”
March 12, 2017
Sermon Text: Romans 4:1-8
When Moses was called at the burning bush to go back to Egypt to command Pharaoh to free the Israelites, and to speak words of peace and comfort to the Israelites, he asked the Lord, “If they ask me Who sent me, what shall I say?” And the Lord responded, “I am Who I am” has sent you. That word from the Lord, together with the great Shema of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” was instrumental in forming the Israelites’ whole notion of God. Those two texts speak of the oneness of God, the eternity of God, the consistency of God, the fact that God never changes. He is always the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, for all eternity.
Now, to be sure, there are places where the Scriptures speak of the Lord changing His ways, repenting that He made man, turning His face again to the sinner and downtrodden where He has turned away, and so on, and so forth. But all those passages are written from the human perspective, they are all meant to be our expressions of our experience with the Lord at any given point in time. He does appear to change from our perspective. But really, deep down, the Lord never changes, just as your father doesn’t really change from the time he’s grounding you for getting in trouble to the time that he’s giving you a bunch of presents at Christmas. It’s only our view of the Lord that changes. He Himself is always the same.
The Jews understood this about God. It was written deep into both their theology and their psyche, along with the Lord’s holiness and His sovereignty. The Lord was One, and He was Holy, and Almighty, and He never, ever changed. This was what they held onto with both hands no matter what happened.
Which was exactly their problem when Jesus came. The Jews had some fundamental misunderstandings about what the Lord was doing and promising and revealing about Himself in the Old Testament, and because they were so hardened in their view that the Lord never changes, they rejected anything that looked new without ever asking if their presuppositions were wrong.
Go home this week and read through one of the Gospels and look just for this. It’s at the heart of all the pharisees’ problems with Jesus. “Who are you to forgive sins? Only God can forgive sins!” “You can’t be the Messiah, this is what we expect from the Messiah.” “How dare You say that You and the Father are One! Only God, by Himself, is One!” And they were speechless when Jesus declared of Himself, “I am.”
In one respect, the Jews then and the Jews now know the Old Testament better than anyone. It’s their book, and they know the characters better than anyone. To read what a Jewish writer has to say about Abraham or Jacob or Ruth or Esther is to see someone breath life into a person and show them the way that you have never seen them before. It’s refreshing. But on a fundamental level, the Jews know absolutely nothing about the Old Testament because they don’t see Christ there. Any reading of any portion of the Bible that doesn’t come from a point of view that the Lord’s mercy and compassion trump all His other attributes and that His mercy and compassion are poured out only in His Son Jesus Christ will always completely miss the point.
St. Paul understood this thoroughly. He was the apostle who was the Jew of Jews, exceeded by no one in his Jewish religious education, his zeal, his commitment, the holiness of his life by all contemporary Jewish standards. When Paul was converted to Christianity, a part of that conversion was that his whole worldview and religious belief was shattered. And he had to rebuild. But not in a way that a lot of people do.
You see, when an athiest or someone from some other religion comes to faith in Christ, they can effectively throw out everything that they knew before and rebuild from the ground up at a new location. They will keep all the common sense that comes out of human experience that they had before. Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists have all noticed that it’s better to serve than to be served, that you are happier when you treat other people the way that you want to be treated, and that your life is better when you just accept the reality of your approaching death instead of fighting it and being terrified of it. That’s just human experience and wisdom. You don’t have to be a Christian to know those things. And so they will bring those things with them, often in a deeper way than we who have been Christians all our lives have them. But everything that they have ever thought they knew about God, about sin, about the final judgment and afterlife, it’s all completely wrong, and so they just throw it all out and start over.
But for a religious Jew like Paul, it’s different. What happened on the road to Damascus and what happened in Paul’s baptism a few days later turned Paul’s Old Testament into a pile of rubble. There was literally nothing solid left. But Paul could not abandon it. That was not a choice for Paul, because he knew that Christ was there and always had been there. So, guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul had to walk into that pile of broken and twisted wreckage and sort it out and rebuild it, and this time he did it right. By the time Paul was done, every joint between every girder was riveted together by Jesus Christ alone. Every footing at the base was sunk deep into the foundation of Jesus Christ only. Every view of that structure, seen from any angle, was unique, but they all cried out, “Jesus Christ alone.” And St. Paul finally had the true witness of the Old Testament, the true witness of the revelation of the Lord all the way back to the beginning of time and even before that.
This rebuilding is what we see when read the book of Romans. It is Paul’s master theological treatise, where he exhaustively details the relationship between Law and Gospel. He demonstrates that the Law of God is good and wise but that it cannot save, and that’s not the Law’s fault, but rather our fault because we do not and cannot live up to it. As someone who spent his entire life being deluded and lying to himself that he could keep and did keep the Law and please God through it, St. Paul now stands up and cries out “NO!”, no one can do that, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And Paul also proclaims this great new mystery that has been revealed to him. When a man is ready to bow his head in defeat and finally admit that has not kept and cannot keep the Law, Christ comes with the free gift of grace. We are saved not by our faithfulness, but rather we are saved by the faithfulness of Christ Jesus alone. Christ has earned God’s love, and now He freely gives to us what He has earned because He willingly took upon Himself everything that we have earned. Christ got death so that we can have life. Christ was punished so that we can be forgiven. Christ was abandoned and forsaken by the Father so that we could be adopted by the Father and have peace with Him.
In our text today, from the fourth chapter of Romans, St. Paul demonstrates that there is nothing in his theology that is any different from what is in the Old Testament. As we said before, Paul’s worldview was shattered in his conversion, but he could not leave the Old Testament behind. With one hand on Christ, and the other hand on his Bible, which he knew was the true Word of God, St. Paul knew that he must reinterpret everything in the Old Testament in the light of Christ his Messiah and the true Son of God. And Paul knew that all the other religious Jews would be the same way. He must demonstrate to them that he was not teaching anything new, but something very, very old. No self-respecting Jew would ever throw out the Old Testament for Christ, nor should they. They had to be shown that Christ was there, that, in fact, the whole book was about Jesus only.
There are, of course, a lot of similarities between Martin Luther and St. Paul, who we only half-jokingly call the first Lutheran. Both Luther and Paul were brought up in theologies heavy on Law and void of any real Gospel. Both had mid-life revelations, mid-life conversions, where they finally saw that God’s good favor was a free gift, not something that we can earn by working away like slaves. Both had to go back and relearn everything that they had learned before in the light of this life-giving and life-changing revelation. And just as Paul argued extensively that the Lord had always been a God of free grace through faith and that his idea was not something that he had cooked up that contradicted the entire Old Testament, Luther argued extensively that the early church fathers had taught the same grace that he taught, and that his idea was not something that he had cooked up that contradicted everything that the church had ever taught. When we say that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, we also must show that His people have always fundamentally believed the same things about the Lord yesterday, today, and forever, for we also confess that the Lord does not leave Himself without witness.
And so, in this fourth chapter, St. Paul tackles the two subjects of Abraham and David.
Abraham was a big one. It might be hard for us to believe today, but Paul’s contemporaries thought of Abraham as a pillar of faithfulness and a picture of someone who had earned the Lord’s favor. I remember in Sunday School all the lessons we got about Abraham going down to Egypt and lying about Sarah being his sister instead of his wife because he was afraid of someone killing him to get her. And he made that mistake twice. There was the whole getting-impatient-and-having-Ishmael-with-Hagar thing. Abraham was a good man and he grew and he did his best. But he was no pillar of faithfulness who had earned something from the Lord.
But Paul was raised to believe that Abraham was a pillar. The Jews especially pointed to the binding of Isaac, what they call the Akedah, as the height of Abraham’s faithfulness. Abraham was called to sacrifice his only son, the long-awaited child of the promise, and he was about to do it when the Lord stopped him. This was the great test of Abraham’s growth in the Lord, and he passed it.
But Paul’s view of this had changed, and he uses this to demonstrate that even Abraham was saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. He quotes Genesis 15:6, which reads, “Abraham believed the Lord, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham was saved not by any great works, but by God’s grace, grace freely granted to him as he simply trusted in what the Lord promised him. What the Lord had done in Paul’s time in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ was a new thing. What was very old was the Lord’s grace and His mercy and compassion towards mankind.
Paul also mentions another tower of the Old Testament, the mighty Kind David, as he quotes David’s Psalm 32, just one of many of David’s Psalms of this nature that he could have quoted: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” David, as great as he was and as much as he accomplished, was also a great sinner. But more importantly, he was a man after God’s own heart, a man who believed first and foremost in the love, mercy, and forgiveness of the Lord. That was David’s greatest treasure. That was David’s faith. And, like Abraham, that faith was counted to David as righteousness.
Of course, the stories of both of these giants of the Old Testament serve primarily in what they teach us about Christ. What Abraham was called to do to his one and only son of the promise, but was saved from at the last moment, was what God the Father was not saved from at the last moment: He sacrificed his one and only Son Jesus Christ for us, for our redemption. The binding of Isaac was not the ultimate example of Abraham’s faithfulness; it was, rather, the ultimate example of how far God the Father and God the Son were willing to go for us; it bears witness to God’s faithfulness. And King David, flawed as he might have been, served to point ahead to the true, eternal, flawless and perfect King of Israel, Jesus Christ, Who would earn His rule over us not by power and might as the Jews were expecting; rather, Christ would earn His rule over our hearts and minds by winning us for Himself through the self-sacrifice of death upon the cross. His love and grace and compassion and self-sacrifice compel us to fall in love with Him and serve Him joyfully forever, and to trust in everything that He promises. As St. Paul himself writes elsewhere, if Jesus loves us so much that He died for us while we were yet sinners, how much more will He care for us, protect us, and provide for us in all things, now that we are His forgiven children?
And so St. Paul demonstrates that this theology centered on the cross, this theology centered on the love and mercy of God first and foremost, is not a new teaching. It is a very old teaching, as old as the Lord Himself, for He has always been love and mercy, and He has always saved people by grace through faith, just as He in our day has saved you and me by grace, through faith, for the sake of Christ only. Amen.
“Salvation by God’s Grace Through Faith is not a New Teaching”
3/12/17 The Rev, Richard J Bellas
St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL