Grace and Rituals (A Study in Romans)

Romans 4:1-11

What rituals do modern-day believers engage in that tempt us to believe we have something to contribute to our salvation? The list could include prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, giving, mission involvement, observing Communion, teaching a class, foot washing, and fasting.

Abraham’s Faith (vv. 1-3)

Paul continues his discussion that salvation is not attained by works, heritage, or obedience to God’s law. Establishing a proper foundation for how salvation is attained is just as necessary today as it was in Paul’s era. Basing salvation on an erroneous premise has temporal and eternal consequences. Like in the construction of a ship. It is imperative to do it correctly or when it enters the water it will flounder and lives may be lost.

Paul appeals to the example of Abraham to prove faith has always been the way to approach a holy God. Abraham also lived before the law was given to Moses. Paul, however, is not appealing to Abraham to show disregard for the law or to insinuate it was not important but simply to show that obedience to it did not result in salvation.

Paul asks a question that has haunted humanity from the earliest of times. Was Abraham saved because of his good deeds—and are we? Is there a grand scale awaiting us as we stand before God after our death? Among the many deeds Abraham performed was leaving his homeland and going to a land he had never seen before simply because God told him to. Later he obeyed when God instructed him to sacrifice the son of promise from whom all the guaranteed descendants would arrive. The commentary in Hebrews concludes Abraham believed God had the power to raise Isaac from the dead to procure those descendants (Hebrews 11:17-19).

Did God accept Abraham because of these actions, or did they have anything at all to do with his salvation? More importantly, do ours? God accepted Abraham because of his belief which is the very thing that led him to leave his homeland not knowing where he was going and to be willing to sacrifice the promised son. He trusted God unreservedly, and this was counted unto him as righteousness.

Jewish tradition taught Abraham was chosen for his unique role in history because he was the only righteous person living at the time. But simply being a descendant of this godly man was not enough to gain acceptance with God, and this is one of the main points Paul is attempting to impress upon his Jewish listeners. The fiery wilderness preacher, John the Baptist, promoted this same philosophy when he told those coming for baptism not to trust in their descent from Abraham for God’s acceptance (Luke 3:7-9). Jesus, speaking to those who trusted in this same heritage, reminded his pious listeners that true children of Abraham would do as Abraham did (John 8:39).

Being a child of Abraham involves much more than physical lineage. Since Abraham was not accepted by God because of his works, he had no reason to boast, nor does anyone else. Salvation is a result of God’s grace, and the resulting honor and glory should be attributed to him. It was when Abraham believed God that he was declared righteous. The Greek word for declared is logizomai and means to reckon, count, compute, or calculate.

The cross is the focal point in history, and whether one believed before or after that event, is immaterial. The resulting salvation is based on what took place there. Christ took our sins upon himself and paid our sin debt. When we accept his payment for our sins through repentance and belief, as Abraham did, God reckons it to us as righteousness. Our account is not credited with good deeds, but once we stop trying to be good and let Christ make us good, then the righteousness is official. We have no power to live the Christian life apart from allowing Christ to live it through us. Nor is there any other means to attain the abundant life.

The Worker and His Wages (vv. 4-5)

No one who is paid for their work considers the wages a gift. Rather, we consider the pay our due for the hours of time we put in that allowed our employer to make a profit and continue running the business. If God gave salvation based on our works, it would no longer be a gift but simply what he owed us. This is Paul’s point in his next illustration.

Salvation is free. It is not recompense for what we have done for God. A proper understanding of this is important, for misunderstanding this essential point could actually lead us to usurp God’s role and him ours. If God was required to reward our good works with salvation but reneged on his obligation, we could sue him for breach of contract. If we had this power, we would be placing ourselves in authority over him.

Paul relates this to the salvation process and concludes once again that acceptance by God is not based on works but rather faith. Martin Luther said; “God does not accept the person on account of his works, but he accepts the works on account of the person.” Because of our works-oriented mentality, many, when they discover salvation is by faith and grace, begin to wonder whether or not they have enough faith or if their faith is sufficient to save them. This mindset reflects a misunderstanding of the salvation process.

Some theologians even maintain we cannot muster the faith to come to Christ but that it is a gift from God enabling us to approach him. Jesus is the one who saves, not our faith or how strong our feelings might be. We do not earn our salvation through our strong faith any more than we do through good deeds.

David Declared Righteous (vv. 6-8)

Paul appeals to King David to describe what happens when an undeserving sinner finds forgiveness. David is described as a “man after God’s own heart.” At the same time, he was guilty of adultery, murder, and lying. How is it possible for this characterization and his actions to mesh? The verses Paul quotes come from Psalm 32 which most scholars believe is David’s account of his feelings after his grievous sin with another man’s wife.

David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed in an attempt to cover his sin. For almost a year, David refused to confess his sin to God and during that period experienced God’s heavy hand of discipline. After Nathan the prophet confronted David with his wrongdoing, David confessed and had the joy of his salvation restored. Paul maintains these verses are the testimony of an undeserving sinner who had been declared righteous.

David’s attempt to cover his sin and rid himself of guilt is often repeated by us when we sin. It is our tendency to deny, cover up, and attempt to blame someone else for it, but it remains ours and only God can adequately deal with it. Denying guilt places us in a prison of inner turmoil from which there is no escape. While there is a difference between false and genuine guilt, guilt feelings over sin are always genuine and need to be dealt with. Nor will God accept our attempt to transfer blame to someone else for our failings.

It is essential, however, that we learn how to live without unnecessary or false guilt. We should not feel guilty for sins we have confessed and acknowledged to God and that he has forgiven. Continuing to feel guilt over confessed and forgiven sins causes us to fall into Satan’s ploy to make us live in misery, believing we are unusable to God because our sins were too dastardly. God can and does use people with sordid forgiven pasts. When he does, his name is glorified, not theirs.

When Was Abraham Declared Righteous? (vv. 9-11)

Whether it was before or after circumcision is vital in answering the question of how God’s grace is acquired. As previously mentioned, circumcision was a very important sign and rite for the Jewish people. It was the sign of God’s covenant with his people. It set them apart from the surrounding nations who worshipped pagan deities. This ritual, however, was not why God accepted Abraham. He was received because of his faith, and this act took place before the rite of circumcision.

God’s call to Abraham, and Abraham’s acceptance of this mission by faith, was made when Abraham was 75 years of age (Genesis 12:1-3). The ceremony of circumcision was introduced when he was 99 (Genesis 17:1-14). Abraham’s willingness to undergo the rite was proof of his faith not the reason God accepted him.

Abraham’s example is important in reminding us that faith is the means by which God accepts us. While we have ceremonies and rituals we observe in connection with our worship of God, they are a result of our faith and not the reason God welcomes us. It is our faith not faithfulness to certain rituals that brings God’s favor. Faith is the source that procures God’s grace.

The Importance of Heritage (v. 11)

How often I’ve heard senior adults share how they no longer have family reunions or if they do how many from the younger generation no longer attend. As the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family died, no one seemed interested in continuing the tradition.

It is quite common not to appreciate our family heritage until reaching midlife. For some reason, reaching this point normally brings with it an interest in where we came from and who our ancestors are. Unfortunately, by this time many of our relatives have died and questions that only they could answer cannot be now. Like with any history, family history reminds us of our roots and helps us understand who we are and why.

Spiritual heritage is even more important than family legacy. Having addressed those who assumed having Abraham as their progenitor automatically made them acceptable with God, Paul now concludes that Abraham is the spiritual father of all who have faith in Christ. While we may not be in the actual Jewish line, this is not nearly as important as membership in the spiritual line. The spiritual line determines our eternity while the physical line has no real bearing on anything. Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised as well as those who haven’t undergone the rite. Circumcision without faith has no bearing on a person’s spiritual state.

Photo credit: The Steps of Repentance

Martin Wiles
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