Romans 4:1-2 “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God.”
When something is hard to understand or believe, we have to work harder to defend the idea. We have to make a case for it. In our skeptical world, many people question traditional, biblical beliefs. As a result, we have books today with titles like The Case for Christ, or The Case for the Real Jesus, or The Case for a Creator, or The Case for Faith. Books like this try to scrape together all the evidence they can find for the truth they are trying to defend.
Paul makes this kind of defense in the words of Romans 4. In the previous chapter he has led his readers to understand that the only way to be considered righteous in God’s eyes, forgiven all sins, not guilty in God’s court, is by faith in Jesus’ saving sacrifice. No collection of our own good works is ever enough to secure God’s acquittal. Only faith in Jesus’ works and Jesus’ payment gets us off the hook.
This is extremely difficult for people to believe. It goes against all our instincts, all our human experience. Thus, Paul goes on to defend this teaching in Romans chapter 4 by appealing to other biblical evidence for it.
He chooses Abraham as Exhibit A. Why use Abraham as an example? Abraham was considered the father of the Old Testament people of God. Before his time, God had not focused his attentions on one family. But Abraham was called by God in a special way. If anyone was saved, one has to believe that Abraham was.
What about Abraham’s life? Was it a godly one? Abraham was generally willing to do what the Lord asked of him. At the age of 75 he moved his entire family 1000 miles from their native country when the Lord told him to go. He lived the rest of his life in tents. He wandered around with his flocks and herds like a man without a country. Note that this wasn’t camping trip for a couple of weeks. It was his way of life for more than 100 years. When God told him to be circumcised at the age of 99, and all of the males in his household with him, he raised no objection. When God asked him to sacrifice his only son as a burn offering, Abraham was ready to follow through.
Compared to most people, Abraham did some impressive things. He was obedient when many people would have been complaining about God’s program. As Paul says, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about.” He was no ordinary man.
But he was not justified by works. He did not have anything to boast about before God. Abraham also had his obvious faults. Twice he tried to pass his wife off as his sister because he feared powerful men might try to kill him for her. He slept with his wife’s maid in an early kind of surrogate motherhood. Compared to many other people Abraham lived a good life. But his life wasn’t good enough for God to grant him acquittal, to forgive him for his sins.
“I’m a good person” is still one of the first things people say if you ask them why they can be sure they are going to heaven. They still want to make a case for being acquitted based on good behavior.
Even Christians who should know better slip into this kind of thinking. They don’t always make it a verbal claim. They are thinking this way when they want to hold out heavenly hope for some moral unbeliever. If our minds wander during the gospel parts of the sermon that promise God’s grace, that may be a sign we have started to think along these lines. We don’t feel so much need because we don’t see ourselves as being all that bad. As a result, our hearts don’t thrill to know forgiveness is free.
Maybe you and I could build a list of good deeds and outstanding acts of obedience that rival Abraham’s. We are only deceiving ourselves if we pay ourselves the compliment of thinking we are any better. We are living in a delusion if we think we have lived so well we have something to boast about before God. Abraham’s life makes the case that God’s acquittal is credited only to faith. We cannot expect to be exceptions.