March 8, 2009 - Second Sunday of Lent
She’s looking over your shoulder, waiting for your next mistake. Will you get the amount wrong or click the wrong button or contaminate the sample? Will you mistype an order or misfile a folder or misdiagnose a patient? Your perfectionist supervisor hovers there, ready to pounce on whatever error you make next. Some of you know this kind of experience firsthand. Your job hangs on whether you can turn in a perfect performance, and, you know, most of the time, you can’t.
Your boss may think you just don’t understand your job, that going over the rules and procedures a few more times will bring you up to her standards. But that’s not it. You know the rules, you know how the job is supposed to be done. Or maybe she thinks you need a new rule, to do an extra check on your figures before you type them in, or to run an additional round of tests before you file your report. But that’s not it either. Rules aren’t going to help you, old or new. The simple fact is that you’re not a machine, you’re a human being, and you’re going to make mistakes. You just can’t do things perfectly, not all the time, not in every situation. It’s hopeless.
Here in Romans 4, beginning with verse 13, Paul wants us to feel the hopelessness of trying to keep our rules perfectly. In the Bible the rules which govern life are called “the law.” That includes God’s Law revealed to Israel through Moses, and the law of conscience, “written on their hearts,” as Paul says in Romans 2. Whichever it is, the Ten Commandments or our own consciences, we human beings find doing the law, wholly and perfectly, to be perfectly hopeless, as hopeless as trying to please that supervisor who wants perfect performance.
So Paul wrote in verse 13, “It is not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world.” In other words, the promise we heard God making in Genesis 17 this morning was not based on Abraham’s performance. Yes, God told Abraham to be faithful and blameless, but His promise that Abraham would father many nations was not contingent on Abraham’s blamelessness. As you can easily tell from the preceding chapters in Genesis, Abram was still very much a screw-up. He wasn’t faithful and blameless at all when God made His promise.
In fact, Paul wants us to understand in verses 14 and 15, law could not have helped Abraham. If God’s promise depended on Abraham doing what’s right, then as Paul says, “the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath.” The inevitable result of trying to receive God’s promises by doing what’s right will be failure. If we want God to judge us on good performance, His judgment can’t be anything but negative, anything but wrath.
That’s why Paul says in verse 13 that Abraham received God’s promise “through the righteousness that comes by faith,” and in verse 16 he says simply, “the promise comes by faith.” It’s not by performing well, but by believing God, by trusting God that Abraham, and you and I, receive the promise of God.
Now, as you can already tell, this passage is complicated, and we’re talking about difficult things. So hang in there with me. We’re talking about grace. Receiving God’s promise is by faith rather than by performance “so that it may be by grace,” says verse 16. Grace is at the heart of this passage, and grace is constantly misunderstood.
Too often we form the impression God’s grace means our performance doesn’t matter at all. We’re sinful human beings and we commit sin after sin and in His marvelous grace God just overlooks it all. We plead faith in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and suddenly what we do doesn’t matter. God’s wrath is just turned away by the work of His Son. It’s as if the holy God who hates sin is a cosmic vampire out to give us a deadly bite. All we have to do is hold up the Cross of Jesus and the divine fangs are turned away. And we can go on doing whatever we were doing, sinning boldly like the failures we are.
Yet grace never means to leave us just as it found us. Grace is not God pretending that we are something we’re not, forever and ever. The righteousness that comes through faith which Paul talks about here is a righteousness God really means us to have. He means us to be righteous. But the way we think about grace keeps moving us in the direction Paul worries about in chapter 6 of Romans. We suppose thatm because we’re under grace rather than law, that it’s now O.K. to sin.
The problem here is with seeing this whole business of grace in legal terms, a matter of legal standing before God. Guilty or not-guilty? And legally, we imagine, by the dying and rising of Jesus, God simply declares us not-guilty when we really are guilty. By grace God suspends our sentence and transfers it to Jesus, who takes the rap for us. But that misses the whole point of Abraham and what Paul says about the law here. It’s not about law, not a criminal matter at all. It’s a family matter, a matter of belonging to God’s family. So Paul says in verse 16 that Abraham “is the father of us all.”
Faith and grace are not about some magic legal transaction God conducted by having Jesus nailed to a Cross instead of you and me. They’re about what Paul describes here, that through Jesus, who is truly God’s Son, Abraham and his descendants, and you and I and everyone else who trusts in God through Jesus, are included in God’s family. Through faith like Abraham’s we become his spiritual children, but even more, we become God’s children. It’s not a matter of guilt or non-guilt, it’s a matter of inclusion.
So Abraham’s faith and our own Christian faith is about trusting God to include us, no matter what. No matter whether, at the moment, we obey God’s laws or not, no matter whether, at the moment, we have a guilty conscience or not, no matter whether we are Jews or Americans or Africans or Arabs. Through the grace God offers in Jesus Christ, we “hope against all hope,” like verse 18 says Abraham did, to be included in God’s family. And we are. If we have faith in Jesus Christ, God has promised to include us. It’s that promise in which we trust. It’s the same promise Abraham trusted in, to be included in God’s family, in His kingdom.
And the strange and wonderful thing is, that once we accept and believe God’s promise of inclusion, the way is open for our performance to improve. On the job, working for that horrid supervisor who sees nothing but your mistakes, you are rendered even less competent by the fear you will lose your job. Fear of the consequences of failure just makes you just that much more nervous, that much more distracted, just that much more likely to fail. But what if that fear were removed? What if you worked for someone who guaranteed your job, just like verse 16 says God’s promise is guaranteed to all Abraham’s spiritual offspring? Relieved of the fear, free of the stress, might you not work better? Might you not find yourself capable of performance you hadn’t believed possible, in gratitude for the security you have in your job?
That’s the story for Abraham. When he realized, when he came to believe, that God’s promise did not depend on his performance, everything changed. Verse 17 tells us that Abraham believed in “God who brings life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” Verse 19 says that when God promised to give him innumerable offspring, Abraham looked around and saw his own 99 year old body and Sarah’s eggless, shriveled up, old woman’s womb. He realized his own chances at creating a family were as good as dead.
Yet verse 20 says that Abraham “did not waver in unbelief.” He trusted in what God could do, in God’s performance, in God’s promise to include him and his wife in a great family, even when they could see no possibility of ever being in the family way. And because of that, Abraham’s performance improved. Yes, he and Sarah made a baby, but verse 20 also tells us that he “was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God.” Secure in God’s promise, Abraham’s spiritual performance got better, stronger. That’s what you and I have when we trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco took about four years, 1933-1937. For the first three years, workers clambered around the awesome structure, doing their jobs with the fear of a deadly fall always present. They worked slowly, and construction began to be delayed in 1936. So in June of that year, the project director, Joseph Strauss did something brand new in bridge construction. He spent $130,000 to create a huge safety net underneath the whole structure.
With the net, Golden Gate bridge workers moved more quickly and more confidently across slippery, smooth steal beams. Their performance improved. The net saved 19 lives. In a PBS interview, one of the bridgeman, Lefty Underkoffler said, “There’s no doubt the work went faster because of the net.” Less than a year later, the bridge was open for traffic.
Grace is you and I working with a spiritual safety net, with the promise that God has included and will include us in His family, in His people, regardless of our performance. And the result is that we have the opportunity to perform better, to grow stronger in faith, to give glory to God, because like Abraham in verse 21, we’re “fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised.”
Grace is a reality that can be seen over and over in human life. Try to teach your child to swim through law and he will probably fail. If you just stand with him by the poolside and teach him the rules; if you just show him how to move his arms and kick his legs and how to breathe; if you just instruct him, then thrown him in the deep end and walk away, expecting him to perform, you’ll probably do one of two things. You will drown your child, or if he survives, you will make him fear water and resent you for the rest of his life.
But if you get in the pool with him, show him how swimming is done with your own body, and stand by ready to rescue if he gets in trouble, you make it possible for him to really learn to swim, to become confident and strong in the water. That’s the grace of God to you and me. In Jesus Christ, God got in the pool with us, showing us how it’s done and being there to rescue us whenever we start to go under. And if we trust in Him, we find ourselves swimming through life far better than we ever thought we could.
The same kind of thing is going on as legislators and educators talk about performance-based teaching in our schools. It’s a recipe for disaster. Hang the threat over a teacher of her job being based on her students’ doing well on standardized tests and she may very well become a worse teacher. She will only teach what the tests require. She won’t dare fill her lectures with all the little extra thoughts and stories that might enrich student lives and make them excited about learning. Both she and her classroom will be clouded with anxiety over what the numbers will show.
Yet assure that same teacher of her place on the faculty with a contract or tenure not based on student performance, and she will be free to shine, to innovate, to spend time on matters that excite both her and her students. In the end, they could very likely do a whole lot better on those silly tests.
I know you see the problem in all these examples. Grace can be taken for granted. It can be abused. Yes it can. Some of the workers on the Golden Gate Bridge had to be threatened with firing because they thought it would be great fun just to dive into the safety net for the thrill of it. If you’re in the pool with your child, she may cling so closely to you that she never ventures out on her own, never gets far enough from you to really learn to swim. She keeps falling back on your rescue. And that tenured teacher may become lazy and careless and teach her students very little, all the while trusting in her job security. And we Christians may be tempted as Paul says in Romans 6:1, to “go on sinning so that grace may abound.” If performance doesn’t matter, then why perform?
That possibility of abusing grace is why it’s so important to grasp that Paul is talking about our inclusion in the family of God and not about a legal transaction. If it’s all legal, all a matter of God just declaring us “not-guilty,” then yes, we might as well go on sinning. The not-guilty verdict stands no matter what. There’s no good reason to bother about improvement or good work or battling temptation. God’s gracious “not-guilty” covers it all.
But if grace is about being included in God’s family, in God’s people, then our performance takes on a whole new dimension. Grace is the assurance of being included, and our own performance becomes the way we receive and enjoy that inclusion. By grace we are included in the family of God no matter how we act, but by acting like a true member of God’s family we get to feel like one. We get to be, like Abraham, more and more fully persuaded in our own hearts and minds that God’s promise to us is real, that we really are His children.
Yes, as Paul says throughout this chapter, righteousness is just “credited” to us, as it was to Abraham. God puts Jesus’ righteousness on our account, credits it to us. It doesn’t matter if we are Jews or Gentiles, people trying to live by the Bible’s laws or by our own consciences’, God includes us in the credit Jesus accumulated by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead. We are in. There’s a Christian family credit card with your name on it and you can use it at any time.
But belonging to a family is more than having credit on the family bank account. It’s a sense of inclusion, of being part of something larger, of learning to live in a way that connects you with everyone else in the family. As Paul says in verse 23, Abraham’s credit of righteousness was “not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” “For us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” Grace is given to us together and we live in it together, grow in righteousness together. It’s not just that you or I alone will be justified by God. He justifies us. He includes us. That’s biblical grace, and it’s natural result is a righteousness, a good performance that we all share in.
Right now, in the season of Lent, we recognize that part of being included in this family of grace is that we walk together on the same road Jesus walked. Verse 25 says, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.” That’s how we got included. Jesus went to the Cross and came out of the Tomb for us. We get to share in the credit of His death and resurrection. But if we share in the credit, we also get to share in the dying and the rising. Like the disciples in Mark 8 whom Jesus included in His journey to the Cross, we’re included in that same journey.
So working with a net, we dare today and every day to follow Jesus Christ, to be included in His people. We believe that by His grace we’re not going to be lost if we fall along the way, and we believe that we will walk more and more surely the farther we go with Him, until we’re finally caught up in His net of grace forever.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj