13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. 18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the 4 fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (after reading) This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The righteousness of God.
It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? And it did for hundreds of years, and for millions of people. This great big, perfect righteousness that God had and apparently demanded was impossible to attain, and no amount of fasting, praying, meditating, whipping your sins out of yourself would get you there.
If someone says to you: You WILL be righteous! it sounds like a command, doesn’t it? Or even a threat! It’s like it will have an “or else” at the end of it. You will be righteous, or else? And the mental picture of God is that of an old man shaking his fist full of righteous wrath and indignation.
But what if people were so sure that God DEMANDED righteousness, and that God had wrath waiting for everyone who did not measure up, that they missed another way that this could be read. It could be a command, or it could be a promise.
Context makes all the difference, doesn’t it?
You WILL be righteous! Sounds terrifying.
You will be righteous, sounds reassuring. It is the proclamation of a promise. And the word promise occurs three times in our text for today. It is a promise, grabbed hold of by a faith that believes it to be true, that delivers the righteousness of God.
I could be preaching this sermon on Reformation day, because this concept was the big turning point for Martin Luther.
Luther who wore out his father confessor, confessing to him every sin that he had, or ever could have committed, in an effort to be right with God, because the righteousness of God, or being perfect enough to be right with God was something that he thought he had to obtain, had to live up to.
And still so terrified, his mentor Johann Von Staupitz, sent him to teach the Scriptures at university in a little town called Wittenberg. He sent him back to a deeper study of the bible.
And there he read this passage from Romans 1 that contain a thought that these verses for today from Romans 4 carry on:
All of a sudden Luther realised that the righteousness of God is not something that he demands from us, but something that he gives to us. It is a gift and the realisation of a promise, the promise mentioned in our text for today over and over. You will be righteous is not a demand, it is a promise, and a statement of fact. Because in one of the greatest most blessed injustices in history, the obedience of Jesus has been credited to us as righteousness. We have been made right with God.
And all we do, in fact all we can do is to take hold of this in faith. The righteous, in other words those made righteous will live by faith. We will live as righteous people by taking hold of the righteousness given to us, credited to us.
Now the idea that something is credited to us is a joyous one for me. I love to see it in my bank account. However all too often there are many more numbers in the debit side than the credit side.
But if we are to think of the way we stand before God like a bank account balance, and we are either in the black, in credit, or in the red, in debit, then we know that because of the obedience of Jesus there is a credit in my account. Far greater than all the debits that I placed there with every sin, and with my failure to do any good thing, the credit in my account won for me by Jesus is counted as righteousness. In other words it makes me right with God. It puts us in the black.
And it is there for everyone if only they will believe it, if they will live by faith.
Today as Evelyn is baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the credit is placed on her account. She now has the opportunity to live every day of her life trusting in that credit in that promise, but having been made right with God that heaven is her possession.
So we trust in the promises of God given in our baptism, we trust in the forgiveness of sins given so freely because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And this changes the way that we see ourselves.
I heard the accusation before the Lutherans are far too hard on themselves, that we talk about being poor miserable sinners. We are so depressing. But that's just the thing: when we really understand the gospel and what is ours because of Jesus, it isn't depressing when we see ourselves this way. Because we know that that's not the last word. We don't have to be afraid of the fact that we're sinful because we're not trying to count the debits in one column against the credits in the other.
We aren’t trying to balance the books.
And this changes the way that we see each other. Or at least it should. So far we have dealt with that: what I call the vertical arrow, with our relationship with God. We know we're not fooling him, so we don't need to pretend to be perfect. We just trust in the promise.
But what about when the arrow runs horizontally? You would think that a group of people who know that their self-worth is not built on their ability to be perfect (because no such ability exists) would be the first to be able to admit when they had sinned against each other.
But somehow our understanding of our relationship with God gets lost in translation and doesn't flow through to our relationships with each other. I don't know about other denominations because I don't deal with them as much, but I have found over 20 years of ministry in the Lutheran Church a widespread lack of understanding of our own sinfulness, and a reluctance if not an inability on the part of so many people to admit when they have done something wrong against someone else.
Maybe we haven't had this modelled to us, after all it's not the way that American politics works, it's not the way that most of the TV shows we watch work. How boring would it be if both sides in an argument confessed that they had sinned against each other in the things they had thought about each other in the things that they had said about each other and asked for each others forgiveness and gave it freely.
Why, relationships might be restored, real community might be built, that would make for boring television.
But imagine what it would do in churches? Or in our home life?
My self-worth as a child of God cannot come from the delusion that I have never done anything wrong to anyone else. And neither can yours. We admit every week that we have let God down. Can we admit that we have let each other down? If I admit that I have let you down or sinned against you does that make me less of a person, or does it just mean that healing and forgiveness can begin. We don’t have to fool ourselves and think that we have to maintain some sort of illusion of perfection. No, we have dealt with that. Jesus righteousness, not mine. Remember?
You are I are saints in the sight of God. Wholly righteous, and perfect because of the perfection of Jesus.
And you and I are sinners, born in sin and unable to free ourselves from it, and will we remain so until we leave this world.
Now, right with him, let’s work on making sure we are right with each other.
Forgiven by God, we can forgive each other.
Loved by God, we can love each other.
Thanks be to God!