2 Cor. 1:8-11 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.”

When tragedy strikes, there is one question that plagues our minds: Why? What purpose is this serving? Often we ask “why?” not so much because we genuinely want an answer. We simply can’t believe any good can come of this.

God doesn’t feel obliged to share all the specifics with us. “Why?” is often the one question he doesn’t answer. But in these words to the Corinthians, Paul does provide a general answer to the question “Why?” It’s one we can apply to our hardships, too.

Paul spent nearly three years in Ephesus, a leading city of the Roman province of Asia. They weren’t easy years. In his earlier letter to the Corinthians he talks about fighting wild beasts in Ephesus, and the many men who were opposing him. Preaching about God’s love in Jesus made him many enemies and created many hardships.

The year 2020 has been a year dominated by hardship. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of COVID 19, and millions sickened. Tens of millions face unemployment and financial ruin. Now the unnecessary and unjust death of a black man at the hands of a white policeman in Minneapolis has opened up old, deep wounds of prejudice and racial division. Fear and frustration grip minority communities. Riots and looting exacerbate their suffering. Attempts to maintain order by those charged with keeping the peace sometimes pour fuel on the fire. No one knows quite what to do to achieve justice and heal the divide. We find ourselves at wits end.

Perhaps we can relate to Paul’s sense of despair. Paul doesn’t say, “It was almost more than I could bear.” He states that it was too much, “far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.”

It’s not necessarily a sin to despair of life. But despair becomes a sin if we despair of faith as well. If I suffer hardship, so much so that it exceeds my human ability to endure it, then I might start to think that something is wrong with God. Has he lost control? Has he stopped caring? Has he been just an illusion all this time?

Actually, not only does he still have control. He is probably getting some of his best work done. Paul explains, “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.” Why? Why does God let our hardships exceed our ability to endure them? One reason is that he is stripping us of the illusion of self-sufficiency. He is constantly letting hardships into our lives to strip us of the idea that our gifts, our abilities, our hard-work are going to rescue us or enable us to get by.

The destruction of trust in ourselves leaves only one viable option. “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.”

Why shouldn’t Paul have confidence in God to deliver him? This was the God “who raises the dead.” Jesus’ raised the widow of Nain’s son, Jairus’s daughter, his friend Lazarus. You don’t get much more hopeless than already dead.

Jesus died and rose as well. If ever there was a hardship that begged for someone to ask the question “Why?” it was his death. The answer doesn’t come back with some defense of its fairness. The answer is, “This is how much I love you.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” “This is how much you mean to me.” In Jesus, God has delivered us. He did so by becoming one of us, and letting our sins kill him instead. All the guilt, all the consequence, all the danger, all the hell for our sins went with Jesus to the cross.

Now Jesus lives again—more than lives, he reigns. Above I recounted the hardships this year has brought. But you are alive and reading these words. God has delivered you. If you are alive, then God has a purpose for keeping you here. So long as God has a purpose for you, it is our hope (in the Biblical sense of a future certainty, not just a wishful possibility) that he will continue to deliver you. You are going to make it. Rather than worry about dangers, we can focus our attention on finding and fulfilling his purpose.

Maybe you don’t have the cure for a deadly disease. Maybe you don’t have the power to erase the pain, the fear, the suspicion, or the resentment caused by centuries of oppression and inequality. But you and I can continue to be a voice for Jesus. We can live lives marked by unconditional love. We can show mercy to someone who needs it. We can answer hate with grace.

Through it all, we can rely on the God who raises the dead, even as we struggle with the question, “Why?”

Don’t Miss the Heart

Mark 7:6-7 “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”

Someone once told me about a conversation they had with a person who professed to be a “non-practicing” Christian. This person doesn’t go to church, doesn’t pray, doesn’t make much of Christian holidays. Let’s be clear on this: a non-practicing Christian is no Christian at all. Maybe such a person remembers being a Christian once, or used to be a Christian, but genuine Christian faith won’t let us be non-practicing Christians, at least not for very long.

But what do real believers practice? It has to do with more than going to worship, and mouthing prayers, and celebrating holidays. The Pharisees and teachers of the law did all those things, but Jesus calls them hypocrites, actors, pretenders. He reveals the root of the problem in this Isaiah quote: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

They looked religious. They prayed a lot. They worshiped regularly. They kept all their extra traditions. It made them feel spiritual. But all the while their hearts were not what God wanted them to be. They were lacking in faith and love.

How could Jesus tell? First, they lovelessly judged Jesus’ disciples, who had done nothing wrong. That is not the practice of faith and love. Later in his ministry Jesus does not mince words in exposing their hearts, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

Even more serious evidence of their hypocrisy was their treatment of Jesus himself. Nothing says, “My heart is far away from God’s” more clearly than ignoring, rejecting, or attacking his Son. You can’t say you love me and mistreat my child. Jesus says in John 5, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (v. 23).

We, too, need to be careful not to go through the motions of worship and prayer, to look like we are religiously busy, but our hearts remain empty, we do not love each other, and we fail to acknowledge our sin and trust Jesus for the forgiveness he alone can give us. Wherever Christians have adopted a subtle shift in emphasis from being forgiven and saved to being good (in other words, from Christ to me), you can be sure that people are turning into hypocrites.

The very rules and traditions the Pharisees intended to protect God’s Word eventually replaced God’s Word. You might look at it this way: In order to deliver our food and in order to protect our food, we wrap it in boxes and cans. Those boxes and cans serve a good function so long as we eat the nourishing food inside of them.

But what happens if we eat the boxes and cans, and ignore the food that they contain? We aren’t billy goats. Instead of nourishing us, the packaging will make us sick. This is what the false emphasis on their own rules was doing to the Pharisees. What was intended to protect God’s word, and deliver God’s word, now replaced God’s word. There was no spiritual nourishment there. By eating the wrapper and throwing away the food, the Pharisees had made themselves spiritually sick.

Our Lord wants nothing else but to reach us with his law to expose our sins, humble us before him, and lead us to repent. Our Lord wants nothing else but to reach us with his gospel, to show us the dying love of Jesus, pouring out his life on the cross to erase my sin and give me faith and life. That in a nutshell is the Word that must command our attention week in and week out. Everything else is only packaging. May God keep us so enamored by his message of grace that we resist the dangerous distractions that turn us from his word.

Tradition’s Dangerous Power

Mark 7:1,5 “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed… So the Pharisees and the teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the traditions of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”     

Tradition is a concept that has served our world well throughout centuries of time. Traditions, little rituals or ways of doing things handed down from one generation to another have a way of pulling people together across the generation gaps; uniting families, communities, even nations; connecting people to each other in a world where we often feel alone. Traditions can be vehicles for passing on our most cherished beliefs, teaching what has real value and importance, and expressing our love for each other. Christians have even used them to help preserve and pass on the gospel.

But like all good things that God has given us, tradition can be twisted and abused into a force for evil. Some people refashion seemingly harmless traditions into weapons of division or tools to reinforce some of mankind’s very worst ideas.

The tradition in question in our lesson is the Jewish tradition of washing your hands before you eat. “What’s wrong with that?” we might ask. My mother would have been upset if we came to the table with unwashed hands, too. She considered it bad hygiene. With all the concern going around about Coronavirus, we are bombarded by reminders to wash our hands frequently.

But the concerns of the Pharisees were not hygienic. “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders” (Verse 3). This hand washing was not about a clean body, but a clean soul. God had demanded that the Jews be particularly careful about their contacts with certain animals and things if they were going to be his people. Touch the wrong thing and you were ceremonially unclean. Put the wrong food in your mouth and you were ceremonially unclean. Then there were complicated purification rituals you had to perform to become clean again.

To prevent this kind of thing, the rabbis developed traditions as safeguards. Soup went through a strainer before you ate it. That way you could remove any insects that might have accidently fallen in, since eating them would make you unclean. Hands went under the water before you ate. That way any unclean thing you might have contacted while you were out didn’t end up in your mouth and make your whole body “unclean.”

Those might have seemed like reasonable precautions. The problem is, God never even suggested them. But for the Pharisees, these “traditions” became even more important than the laws that God did give, the laws these traditions were supposed to help protect.

Now we see the dangerous power of tradition beginning to work. It gave these Jewish traditionalists an inflated sense of pride. It made them feel superior to people who failed to follow their tradition. Instead of loving their less traditional neighbor, they looked at him with an air of contempt. At best, the tradition-breaking disciples of Jesus were regarded with suspicion. At worst, it meant the Pharisees rejected them as outright sinners. Such is the power of tradition to turn me against my neighbor for no good reason.

As useful as traditions may be, they don’t generally have the force of God’s word behind them. They certainly aren’t a reason to criticize or suspect someone who doesn’t share them. One of us wears his best clothes on Sunday morning, because worship is special, and he puts on his best for God. If he is going to dress up to attend a wedding, if he is going to dress up to attend an awards ceremony, he is certainly going to dress up to appear before his God on Sunday morning and receive his saving gifts.

Another person comes more casually dressed in “street clothes,” because Jesus receives each one, “just as I am, without one plea,” because “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness, my beauty are, my glorious dress.” If, as Isaiah says, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags, I’m certainly not going to impress the Lord with my clothes.

Either way, let’s be glad that my neighbor worships God, and hears the gospel of grace while he is here. If I am irked that my neighbor doesn’t do something that God never commanded, then tradition has wielded its dangerous power to turn me against my neighbor.

The Food God Gives

John 6:27 “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Each year Americans spend over 20 billion dollars on vitamins and nutritional supplements they hope will make them healthier and live longer. I take a few myself each day. We do this in spite of the fact that more and more studies suggest that our supplements don’t make much difference. Some studies have even suggested that taking vitamins like A, C, and E could shorten your life.

The food for our souls that Jesus feeds us endures to eternal life. It doesn’t merely lengthen life and delay death. It removes death altogether. It is a fountain of youth par excellence. It promises something better than enduring youth. It gives perfection in every way that never ends. That’s a gift that deserves a serious look.

And it’s all free. As a way of comparing the relative value of our earthly food to his eternal food, as a way of confronting our misplaced priorities, Jesus said, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life…” Then he turns around and promises, “…which the Son of Man will give you.” There is no charge to hear the gospel. Jesus preached it freely wherever people would listen. Over the past 2000 years, I know of only a handful of churches that have tried to charge admission at the door (and you wouldn’t hear the gospel preached in most of them anyway). In my own church, we just give it away. You can make a contribution afterwards if you like, but that’s not because you can pay for the gospel. That is always Jesus’ gift to you, and you can hear it and read it as much as you like.

This is how it always works with the gospel. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” He didn’t trade him to us for a cash sum and a number of future draft picks. Jesus promises in another place, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus gave his life for us as a ransom, a payment for our sins. He didn’t serve us on the basis of a contract which carefully outlined the salary we were going to pay him for his services. In Acts 5 the Apostle Peter preached that God raised Jesus from the dead seated him at his right hand in heaven “that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” These are gifts he has given to us, not commodities he has placed on sale for our purchase. Paul writes the Romans that we “are justified freely by his grace.” There is no fee structure mentioned in Scripture, no court costs or bribes to be paid to our Judge for his not guilty verdict. This is why “…the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The gift-nature of the gospel and eternal life is further demonstrated in the next exchange he had with the crowd. “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’” Note how the people in the crowd ask about the “works God requires,” plural. They are thinking about the many good works a person could do, keeping the 10 commandments, living a moral life. They can think only of earning eternal life.

Jesus turns this around by speaking of one work of God, singular. And the one thing he mentions isn’t really work at all. “Believe in the one he has sent.” Believing isn’t doing. It is receiving. It shifts our attention away from our actions back to the gift God has given us, “The One he has sent.” When faith is focused on Jesus, then the gift is no longer waiting. We hold eternal life in our hands.            

For a long time many people have believed that if you don’t satisfy people’s physical hunger, and fill their stomachs, they won’t be ready for spiritual food. Jesus himself asks us to feed the hungry. But don’t think that helps people see their greater, spiritual need. Jesus had already fed this crowd, as much as they wanted. In response they just wanted more bread. Only Jesus’ words can feed the gnawing hunger in our souls. Then we will see his greater gifts. Then we will have the food that endures to eternal life.

The Savior Goes to War


Revelation 19:13-15 “He (Christ) is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

John mentioned earlier that Jesus was riding a white horse. Behind him are columns of the armies of heaven, the angel hosts, riding on horses as well. This is no pleasure trip or holiday parade. Our Savior is going to war.

That means a bad day for his enemies. His robe is dipped in blood. So often when we hear of blood in the Bible, we think of Jesus’ own blood, the blood he poured out on the cross to cleanse us of our sins.

This time the blood does not belong to Jesus, and it does not cleanse us of our sins. It is the blood of his enemies (and ours) because he is cleansing the world of them. This becomes clearer as John describes his task further: “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

Each of these pictures is a description of his power to defeat his enemies. A sharp sword, the word of his law, the words of his judgment, comes out of his mouth to strike down the nations. If God’s word could create the world in the beginning, if Jesus’ words could drive demons from their helpless victims during his ministry, a simple word from his mouth still has the power to overthrow anyone who stands in his way.

Ruling with an iron rod is sort of a photo negative picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The word for “ruling” here is, more literally, “shepherding.” But it is not “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” that he is using. It is an iron rod of punishment for those who refused to submit.

The last picture speaks for itself. We all know what happens when you step on grapes. Jesus is going to crush the enemies of his people, his church. No wonder John said his robe was dipped in blood.

So how are we supposed to feel? Terrified? No, relieved, defended, and delivered! Don’t forget, salvation and judgment are opposite sides of the same coin. In order for the Israelites to be delivered from their slavery in Egypt, the army of Egypt had to be drowned in the Red Sea. In order for Noah and his family to be spared from unbelief the world had to be destroyed in the Flood. If Jesus is going to win, if we are going to be saved, his enemies must suffer defeat.

Again, that does not mean that we prefer such a terrible fate for the unbelievers in the world. Our task is to bring them the gospel at all costs, so that we can save as many of them as possible. But where they not only reject the gospel, but persecute its messengers and try to prevent its spread, Jesus’ task is now to bring God’s judgment.

Maybe I can illustrate with an old commercial for fire ant poison. It went something like this: “There’s nothing good about fire ants. They don’t pollinate your roses. They don’t make cute little sounds when they rub their legs together. All they do is build a big mound in your yard and bite…anyone who gets near it. That’s their soul contribution to mankind. And that’s why they have to die. It’s that simple. You cannot rehabilitate a fire ant. You have to kill it.”

It’s not for us to relish the death of God’s enemies. Their fate grieves God himself. But it is for us to understand the necessity, the advantage, even the godliness of this part of Jesus’ work. It is the other side of the task of salvation. It is our final deliverance. As we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to God’s right hand in power, our hearts fill with hope and our mouths with song at the thought of his final victory. To him be the glory.

Faithful and True

White Horse

Revelation 19:11 “I saw heaven standing open, and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.”

God gave the book of Revelation to the Apostle John for Christians who feared that the enemies of the Christian faith were winning. The emperor Domitian supported state-sponsored persecution of Christians. Attempts were made to force Christians to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods or to the emperor himself. Christian leaders were killed or exiled. Many individual Christians lost courage and left the faith. Some were lured away by some worldly pleasure or another.

They lived in an evil time, when Christians were considered a danger to the customs and values of the majority, and many appealing sins were made harder to resist because they were generally accepted, even promoted, by society as a whole. It looked like the other side was winning.

Other than relatively mild state-sponsored persecution where we live, does our world look so different? Churches are shrinking. People are forsaking the faith. So-called “sins-of-pleasure” trap more and more in their clutches–destructive addictions, sexual perversions, runaway greed. It is easy to lose courage and give up hope. Is God really going to let the other side win?

Despair, as you know, is more than a miserable feeling. It is also a sin, a symptom of faithlessness, a denial of God’s promise and power. Our pessimism and despair still find forgiveness in the gentle and merciful Savior and his atoning sacrifice at the cross. The Jesus we know from the gospels, who has washed us in our baptisms, who still feeds us in his supper, has taken all this guilt away.

But God offers us more as an antidote to our flagging faith. Note the qualities John describes here. “I saw heaven standing open, and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.” The one sitting on the white horse is called “Faithful” and “True.” It’s not that this is new information about Jesus. We have heard him assure us, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” “If you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth.” “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” It’s always been there. But it’s not always the first thing we think of when we think of Jesus.

It’s a quality that waits to be emphasized for such a time as this–not just that Jesus tells the truth in a general way, but that he will be true to us and faithful to his promises. Politicians have a long history for being unfaithful husbands. I know of two, one on the right and one the left side of the political spectrum, who left their wives when their wives were fighting cancer. Just when they were needed the most they bailed out on their families. Unfaithfulness at a time like that especially offends our sense of goodness and decency.

Maybe John’s original audience was inclined to have similar suspicions about Jesus. The going had gotten tough. Where was he? We struggle with the same thoughts for our times. “He has abandoned us.” “He has not abandoned us” is the clear message to John. He is faithful and true.

“But I don’t see him,” we object. Since his Ascension, when has Jesus been in the habit of helping us in an explicitly visible way? That doesn’t mean he isn’t there. See him here in his word, and drink in the proof that your Savior is “Faithful” and “True,” even now.

Not a Paycheck


Romans 4:4-5 “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Anyone who has had a job can understand the illustration Paul is using here. Even a child who has done some babysitting or lawn mowing can see the point. No one considers a paycheck a special favor received from your employer. We may be inclined to think that our employers don’t pay us enough for our work. We are always happy for more. Maybe we have even lobbied for it. But we are fully convinced that we deserve our paycheck and that our employer is fully obligated to pay us every penny. You might be offended if your paycheck came gift wrapped as though you were receiving something you were not owed. You would be outraged if your paycheck was never issued at all, and your employer had no intention of giving it to you in the future.

It is notable, then, that you don’t find the Lord using this kind of employer-employee language in his dealing with our salvation. He doesn’t “employ” us. He rescues us. He doesn’t pay us a wage. He gives us a gift. He doesn’t honor a contract. He keeps a promise, because he loves us unconditionally.

There is a place where God does pay wages, Paul later points out, but that is only the wages of sin. The amount marked on that paycheck is spelled D-E-A-T-H, death. No one is eager for that payday to come.

But someone might object that Jesus does use the servant-master picture in a number of his parables. And it is true. But this is never about earning our salvation. It is about the life we live in response to the one who has rescued us from our sins. Even then, Jesus later tells his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

The terminology of work and wages, then, simply cannot be made to fit what God has done to forgive our sins and consider us his righteous, guiltless people.  The terminology of love and gift-giving fits it to a tee. The picture of a merciful Judge, and a courtroom acquittal of a criminal everyone knows is guilty, fits the Biblical accounts and Paul’s argument. He can even say that God “justifies the wicked.”  Perhaps it goes without saying, but the “wicked” are never the “good and godly.” They are always the guilty. If God justifies them, then, the not-guilty verdict stuns the courtroom. Maybe it challenges our own belief. But this is precisely what God does in bringing forgiveness to sinners. Paul asserts, “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” The terminology of the gospel demands an understanding like this.

Like us, Paul was a sinner looking for certainty and comfort. He discovered that a gracious God does not wait for us to stop falling into sin, or expect us to work off the heavy debt we have incurred. He paid sin’s debt himself with the blood of his Son. He receives us because he forgives us. His promise enables us to receive it all by faith.

Scripture Says: “By Faith”

Bible Hold Out

Romans 4:3 “What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

How do Christians, how do God’s people, settle an issue? It is not a matter of our own opinions, no matter how passionately we may cling to them, nor how loudly we proclaim them. “I think” is never equal to “God says.”

It is not a matter of which position sounds most reasonable or has the tightest logic. God reserves the right to defy our logic. His thoughts are not our thoughts.

It is not a matter of who has the best scientific research. There are more ways of knowing things, more ways of learning the truth, than what comes out of a laboratory. God does not make himself our laboratory rat to be dissected and examined. “How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out.” If personal opinion, human reason, and the scientific method had the final say, most of the Christian faith as we know it would completely disappear.

So no personal opinion, or logical argument, or laboratory experiment would ever lead us to the idea that justifies us by faith. Only Scripture can teach us this. Here Paul tells us what the book of Genesis had to say about Abraham: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” God regarded sinful Abraham a righteous man. Abraham received his righteous status from God by trusting him. That is from the first book of the Bible.

The examples don’t stop there. Paul goes on to make the same case for David, who confesses in the Psalms, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” The prophet Jeremiah calls the coming Christ “the Lord is our righteousness” in his book. The prophet Habakkuk says that the righteous live by faith. Jesus says that whoever believes will be saved, whoever believes will not perish but have everlasting life. In each case it is not what we do. God gives righteousness, he credits it, to the person who has faith in him.

We do not have to be ashamed to believe this because the Scriptures say. How else would we know? It is God’s own Word. We do not have to be afraid to believe that we are God’s righteous people, not guilty, acquitted of all our sins. We, too, have received the gift by faith. It’s what the Scriptures say. We are “the man (or woman) whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” We are the ones whose Lord is our righteousness. We are the righteous who will live by faith.

Like Abraham, we believe God, and it is credited to us as righteousness.

Abraham’s Case for Faith

Abraham Sacrifice

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.