Hebrews 4:1-16 The Sabbath Rest For God’s people

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First century Roman culture was a culture of despair.  Some historians would refer to it as a culture of suicide.  It was violent, it was bloody, it was dangerous, it was oppressive, it was full of death and disease.  On top of that the religious establishment had created such religious oppression that people lived in bondage.  Most had given up any thought that they could ever stand right before a holy God.  It was into that context that Jesus uttered the words, “Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  About three decades later, the writer of Hebrews would give a message to people on the threshold of bloody persecution.  The message was not a message of health, wealth and prosperity.  It was a message that in the midst of the pain, you can enter His rest.  So here we are two thousand years later.  I think we all get this.  Sometimes the world can be very, very painful, hurtful, heartbreaking, confusing, devastating.  In the midst of all of that, what Jesus offers us is rest.  That’s what we want to talk right now.  If you have a Bible, turn to Hebrews, Chapter 4.   
 
One of the terms that we’ve seen a lot in the book of Hebrews is the word therefore.  You know the old adage: Whenever you see the word ‘therefore’ you stop to see what it’s there for.  And it basically reminds us that all of these truths are connected.  You can’t take any one passage in Hebrews and pull it out of its contextfor one truth leads to another truth leads to another truth and it’s all connected together.  It’s good that we keep remembering that.  Chapter 3 was all about the cost of unbelief, which then leads us to Chapter 4 verse 1: 
 
Therefore (in light of that, the cost of unbelief), then let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, anyone of you may have seemed to have come short of it. (*NASB, Hebrews 4:1)
 
So what’s the fear?  The fear is that even though there’s still a promise of rest, it wasn’t just about people thousands of years ago entering a land.  It wasn’t just about people in the first century.  It’s every bit as true for us today.  There is a promise of rest.  The word promise is really an important word in the book of Hebrews.  As a matter of fact, no New Testament book uses the term more than the book of Hebrews.  What do you say to a group of people that are on the threshold of bloody persecution?  You remind them, there’s a promise.  There is a promise that, in the midst of the storm, I will give you rest now, and a glorious future to come.  But the concern is that they won’t believe it.  It’s interesting that he says, anyone of you may seem to have come short of it.  This basically confirms what we talked in the last chapter—that when the writer is looking at the first readers, his audience, he’s identifying them primarily as believers but he’s not convinced they’re all believers.  There is no New Testament writer who could know that everyone who will receive this letter is a believer.  So there seem to be some who perhaps don’t believe.  Maybe they’re giving lip service; maybe they’re just going with the flow, but he says, “But it may seems like you’re coming up short.  You don’t really believe it.”  So that’s our audience—primarily believers—but the writer is not convinced that everybody believes, and that’s part of his concern here.  Verse 2: 
 
For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united (mixed in) by faith in those who heard.   
 
So the children of Israel heard good news.  We talked about this last time.  The good news was that God will give you the Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey.  But the truth was not mixed with faith; therefore it did not profit them.  They did not believe.  The writer is saying, in the same way we have good news.  We, too, have an offer of rest that we can enter into—a promise of rest.  But that promise has to be mixed with faith if we are going to profit from it.  It is a reminder that even though Jesus died for the sins of the world, the message is not universalism.  It’s not, “Everybody’s in!” The truth has to be mixed with faith.  There’s God’s part and there’s our part—that’s always the way it is.  God’s part is He has done the work, and He offers rest.  Our part is we have to believe, mixed with faith, in order for that truth to profit us.  Verse 3:  
 
 For we who have believed (the writer puts himself in there) enter that rest, just as He has said, “AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world.
 
So what is he talking about there?  He’s saying we who have believed enter into this rest.  When David said to the children of Israel in Psalm 95 that with belief they can enter God’s rest—My rest —God says, there’s a reminder that even though they were in the land, David was concerned that they would not enter into His rest.  In other words, the land wasn’t the point.  The land was a picture; the land was a shadow.  Are we saying today that in order to enter into God’s rest, we have to all fly to Israel and enter the land?  And we all understand, “Of course not!”  So the land was a picture, a metaphor.  David comes along with Psalm 95, They’re in the land—David’s king over the land; he’s reigning over the land—but his concern is they still won’t enter His rest because the rest isn’t just the land; it’s just a picture, a metaphor.  So what is it?  It’s God saying, “My rest,” which goes all the way back to Genesis 2:2 where it says the rest of God started all the way back at the foundation of the world.  In Genesis 2:2, we’re told that “on the seventh day God rested.”  He quotes that in verse 4:
 
 For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS”; and again in this passage, “THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST.” (VS. 4-5) 
 
So here’s what he’s saying: On the seventh day of creation, God rested.  Why did God rest?  Was He worn out?  Had he had a really hard week?  God didn’t rest because He was tired; He rested because the work was done.  The text says that when God had completed His work, He rested.  Then He placed Adam and Eve in His rest.  This is essentially what defined paradise.  God had done the work; once it was completed He rested, He didn’t begin another work and rest cycle. He rested from creative work once and for all. Adam and Eve entered into that state of rest.  This is what God has always wanted for people made in His image.  But as you know the story, Adam and Eve sin; chaos enters the world, yet God still promises rest—“to enter into My rest.”  Was it the land? Was it a day? The land was just a metaphor, just a picture.  David comes along hundreds of years later and he still desires for the people by faith to enter God’s rest.  It wasn’t just the land; it wasn’t a day. It was something far more than that.  Now one of the interesting parts of Genesis 2:2: When God rested is not on day 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6—each one of those days ends with, “There was morning and there was evening.”  But on the seventh day, when God rested, you don’t read those words because the rest of God was not a day of the week.  It was not one day of the week.  It was a state.  God had now completed the work; it was a state of rest, and He wanted people made in His image to enter into that rest daily.  So the Jewish promised land is a shadow, the Jewish Sabbath day of the week is a shadow, but God’s rest is something far more than that.  Verse 6:
 
Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience,”  
 
So today there remains a rest for us to enter into, but we do so by faith.  We talked about this: Disbelief leads to disobedience!  Whenever I don’t believe God tells the truth, then I do it my way.  Whenever I don’t believe that God’s going to meet some need in my life, I do it my way.  Disbelief always leads to disobedience; that’s the concern of the writer. So verse 7:
He again fixes a certain day
Okay, there it is!  He again fixes a certain day—a day of rest.  What day is that?  Well, it’s today!  Oh, it’s Sunday.  Last time I said, “It’s today,” and they said, “Oh, it’s Saturday.”  This has been a longstanding debate: Is it Saturday or is it Sunday?  Are we still under the Sabbath of the old covenant?  Or is Sunday, the new covenant Sabbath?  Answer:  “Neither…Neither!”  This has nothing to do with whether or not you mow your lawn on Saturday or Sunday; it has nothing to do with whether or not a business is open or closed on a Saturday or Sunday; it has nothing to do with whether you have worked the fields on a Saturday or Sunday; it has nothing to do with whether you took a nature walk or went to church on a certain day!  The Sabbath rest today is today!  Ask me on Tuesday; I’ll say, “It’s today!”  Ask me on Friday, I’ll say, “It’s today!”  It’s not a holy day of the week; that was just a metaphor; it’s just a shadow.  It’s not a holy piece of ground or “the holy land” (Zec 2:12); it was just a metaphor—a shadow.  Ultimately it is a state to enter into the rest of God.  That’s what he’s saying: “What day is it?”  “It’s today!”  Verse 7:   
 
He again fixes a certain day, (what day?) “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS.” For if Joshua had given them rest, He (God) would not have spoken of another day after that. (Vs. 7-8) 
 
So Joshua is the Hebrew version of the name Jesus.  So Jesus is the Greek version.  The Hebrew version of the exact same name is Joshua, and it reminds us that Joshua in the Old Testament was a type or a picture of the Messiah to come, a picture of the Jesus to come.  So what did Joshua do?  Joshua led them into the land of promise.  They claimed the land.  They observed weekly holy days. But God still promised that day of rest was yet to come.  So what he’s saying is, “If entering and possessing the land was the rest, then there would be no reason to say there’s still another day of rest coming, unless the land was merely a metaphor, a picture.  Just like the day of the week is a shadow of the ultimate fulfillment to come.  Verse 9: 
 
So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  
 
Now that phrase Sabbath rest is actually one word in Greek.  It’s not found anywhere else—this is the only place it is found. It doesn’t say that there is a Sabbath day; it says there is a Sabbath rest.  So what is the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God today?  It’s not a piece of land; it’s not a day of the week; those were just shadows; they were just pictures.  What is it?  Verse 10: 
 
 For the one who has entered His rest (how did he do that?) has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.  
 
There it is right there—verse 10!  This is the main theme of the gospel all throughout the New Testament.  Who is it that enters into God’s rest by faith? Not God’s work and rest cycle, but God’s rest.  It’s the one who ceases from his or her works and enters into God’s rest.  On what day? Today. So what is the Sabbath about today?  It’s about not working.  What does that mean?  It has nothing to do whether or not you mow your lawn on a Sunday.  It has nothing to do with whether or not your business is open or closed on a Saturday.  It has nothing to do with whether or not you are working the fields on a Sunday.  It has nothing to do with that.  Sunday is not the new covenant Sabbath.  It has nothing to do with that.  What does it have to do with?  The idea of works is used consistently throughout the New Testament as defining those things we’re doing to somehow try to merit favor with God—efforts of self-righteousness, religious activity, things we’re trying to do to make ourselves good enough for God. The world is full of religion.  Religion taps into our desire to be our own god.  I want to do it myself; I want to make myself righteous; I want to make myself spiritual; I want to measure up on the basis of my own efforts.  But religion is oppressive; religion is damaging; religion is full of hopelessness and despair because every day you are reminded that you’re actually just a loser that will never measure up to the standard before a holy God.   
 
We know from the book of Hebrews what the work is that God completed—the fulfillment of a promise that at a point in time, the Creator God of the universe took on human flesh.  He blazed a trail of salvation by conquering sin and death once and for all.  As the ultimate High Priest, He offered Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sin to make propitiation for sin.  Chapter 1 said to make purification for sin.  He was buried; He rose again; He returned to the Father and what did He do?  We learned this in Chapter 1: He sat down.  The priest was never allowed to sit because their job was never done, because it was only a foreshadowing of the promise of One who would ultimately pay the price for sin.  Jesus uttered on the cross, “It is finished!”  When He rose from the dead, He returned to the Father and the great High Priest sat down!  Mission accomplished; paid in full!  What did He do at the right hand of the Father?  He rested.  He created the rest of God that God has always wanted for people made in His image.  How do we enter into that rest?  By faith!  We cease from our own self-righteous works.  We give up our own attempts to merit favor with God through religious activity, and in brokenness and humility we acknowledge the only hope we have is what Jesus did for us.  We enter into the finished work of Christ.  This is a consistent message throughout the New Testament.  We’re going to throw a couple of verses on the screen just to remind ourselves of this message: 
 
But to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. (*NASB, Romans 4:5)  
 
This is the theme of the New Testament.  This is verse 10.  There is a Sabbath rest.  “Is it a piece of ground?”  “No, it’s not!”  “Is it a day of the week?”  “No, it’s not!”  Those were just shadows or pictures.  But ultimately Sabbath rest is when we rest from our own attempts at self-righteousness and we simply rest in what God has done for us through Jesus.  Sometimes people will say to me, “How come you don’t keep the Sabbath?”  Answer: “I keep it every day.” What a shame just to keep one day of the week. Ask me on Tuesday, I’ll say, “It’s today!”  I rest in the finished work of Jesus on the cross today.  Ask me on Friday, I’ll say, “It’s today!”  I rest in the finished work of Jesus on the cross.  It has nothing to do with mowing your lawn, opening your business, or working in the field.  It has to do with resting in what Jesus has done for us on the cross.  There is a Sabbath rest.  Verse 11: 
 
Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall through following the same example of disobedience.  
 
Now clearly rest is not automatic.  It’s not even automatic for believers.  That’s why he says, “…be diligent; work really hard at resting.”  There are those who have never trusted Christ.  They need to believe this is true.  Perhaps they’ve been used and abused and beat up by religion and need to hear, “That’s not what it’s about.”  But it’s also possible for those of us who have trusted Christ to still be miserable because we don’trest in the finished work of Jesus on the cross.  The enemy comes along and he whispers in your ear, “You’re a loser; you’re a failure; you’ll never measure up. Who do you think you are that God just hands out some kind of a salvation as a gift? You’ve got to be kidding me.  God probably is so annoyed that you’re in His presence because you’re a loser.”  How many lies does the enemy whisper in our ears and we’re anxious; we’re fearful; we’re hopeless, and we’re despairing because we are not diligent to rest.   
 
Can I come to the end of a day where I’ve blown it, biffed it, and disappointed God and myself again and still be at rest?  Answer:  “Yes!” …resting in the finished work of Jesus on the cross.  I need to be diligent to rest because when I rest, when I think that way, when I remember what’s true, that is the most likely scenario where I’m going to be repentant, where I’m going to confess, where I’m going to do it differently tomorrow—because I remember again who I am in Christ!  Verse 12: 
 
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able  to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (Vs. 12-13)   
 
In other words, Him with whom we will be accountable.  So the Bible is not just words on a page. It’s a living, breathing book.  It’s the God-breathed Word of God.  God takes His words with His Spirit and He penetrates and He judges and He sorts out, and He presents us naked. That’s literally what it says—naked before a Holy God—the One to Whom we will give an account.  For some people that is an absolutely terrifying thought.  For some people they will avoid the book because the book terrifies them because it penetrates and it judges; and it discerns and it sorts out; and it presents us naked before a Holy God.  But for those of us who believe, it is where we find the truth. 
It’s where we find grace and mercy.  It’s where we find relief from the bondage of religion and enter into the rest of God.  It’s where we find guidance; it’s where we find life.  When we understand the truth about God’s rest, I am not terrified to be presented naked before a holy God because I know I stand in the rest—the finished work of Jesus on the cross.  It’s the living, active Word of God that gives me life, that gives me hope, that gives me a future, that gives me what I need to rest in my most difficult moments in life.  Verse 14: 
 
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens (meaning back to the Father to be seated), Jesus the Son of God (that’s His humanity and His deity), let us hold fast our confession (our statement of faith, what we believe).  For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.  Therefore let us draw near with confidence (boldly) to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Vs. 14-16)   
 
When we go through the most difficult moments of life, we cry out not to a god who is so abstract and disconnected we have no sense that he understands what we are going through.  That’s not who He is.  It’s the One who actually took on human flesh.  As remarkable as that may seem, the God of the universe actually became one of us—and He walked on this earth.  He knows our struggle; He knows our pain; He knows our trials and our temptations; This is the God who loves me; this is the God who saved me; this is the God who’s experienced the struggle and the pain that I’m going through.  I come boldly and confidently into the presence of God, and in my hour of need I find grace and mercy.  I find what I need to get me through another day! 
 
There is a Sabbath rest.  It’s not a day of the week; it’s not a piece of ground.  It’s a Person.  It’s a Person who did for me what I could not do for myself—and He offers it freely as a gift!  If mixed with faith, I believe and enter into His rest.  
 
He’s just inviting you, by faith, to enter that rest, to experience the forgiveness of sin, and to experience a relationship with God.  I would invite you this morning, to enter into that rest.  What day is the Sabbath rest? It’s today!  Why would you wait?  Why would you wait until tomorrow?  Why wouldn’t you enter that rest today?  
 
Our Father, it’s really just so hard to comprehend that the God of the universe actually took on human flesh to make a way of salvation, to conquer sin and death once and for all,  to make payment for sin, and to simply offer it freely as a gift.  Lord, we’ve been reminded that truth has to be mixed with faith.  We have to choose to believe that’s true to enter into Your rest.  Lord, may today be our day of Sabbath rest. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 
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Faith That Works

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USELESS FAITH

James 2:14-26

If you have genuinely experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace, if you have been radically changed and transformed, if you have the nature of Christ and the Spirit of Christ within you, how can that not make you a generous person?  Is it possible that even though you know the right answers to the questions, you’ve actually never experienced true saving faith?  And a faith that isn’t a saving faith is a faith that is useless.  That’s the argument that James makes in James chapter 2.

Now James is a very practical book, perhaps the most straight-up practical book in the New Testament.  The author James is not the Peter, James, and John; it’s James, the half-brother of Jesus.  This book’s written less than twenty years after the resurrection of Christ, so a very early book.  He’s writing to dispersed Jews—Jews that consider themselves to be Christians, but because of the persecution in Jerusalem they have fled and been dispersed around the Mediterranean.  But James has a concern that even though they consider themselves to be Christians, for many of them there’s simply no evidence that they have experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus.  They say the right things but there are no works that seem consistent with a life that has been changed by Jesus.

Just because you say you are a Christian, just because you may know the right answer to some quiz questions, doesn’t mean you’ve actually experienced true life change.

So in Chapter 1, James talks about the need to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers only.”  The Bible’s not an encyclopedia.  The deal is not that someday when you die God gives a quiz and if you get eighty percent, you’re in.  It’s not all about information; it’s about: This is how life is to be lived, and it begins with a powerful encounter with the resurrected Christ.  He ends chapter 1 by saying, “For example, it should affect the way you talk.  It should affect a compassion for orphans and widows in need.”   In a 1st Century culture, those were the two most vulnerable categories of people.  You should genuinely care about those in need, and number three:  to remain unstained from the world—in other words to pursue a lifestyle of holiness.  So that’s being a doer of the word, not merely a hearer.

Chapter 2 moves into a discussion about partiality, that if you treat someone with money differently than someone who is poor, you’re guilty of partiality, which is completely contrary to the message of grace.  He doesn’t say that’s bad behavior; he says that’s sin.  As a matter of fact he says, “It’s every bit as much sin as murder or adultery.”  That then creates the context for the discussion that we want to have starting in verse 14:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (*NASB, James 2:14)

 

Now it’s very important to understand the question is not whether salvation is by faith alone.  The discussion is not:  Is it faith alone?  Is it works alone?  Or is it faith and works?  That’s not the discussion.  As a matter of fact, that is a settled issue.  The New Testament could not be clearer that it is faith alone, not by works.  The issue James is discussing is the nature of saving faith.  There’s no question it’s by faith alone, but the faith that saves is a faith that works.  The Bible does not teach that salvation is basically an intellectual assent of three or four bullet points and, on the basis of my assent to that, I get my ticket to heaven and slip it in my back pocket.  The New Testament teaching is that salvation is a radical transformation.  It is rebirth.  You are a new creation in Christ.  You actually have a new nature and it’s the nature of Christ.  You actually have the very Spirit of Jesus dwelling within you.  It is complete and it is radical.  If that’s true, then it’s far more than an intellectual assent.  It is life changing and there should be evidence of a changed life.  If all there is that twenty years ago I said a prayer, put my ticket to heaven in my back pocket, and “I’m good,” and other than that you live no differently than the rest of the world, you have reason to question whether you have actually experienced a saving faith.  That’s why James says, “Can that faith save him?  Can a faith that has no works save?”  That’s the question at hand.

Verse 15:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (Vs. 15-16)

So there’s our illustration:  Somebody is in need of food.  Somebody is in need of shelter.  Rather than having a heart of generosity, there’s merely pious language.  Go in peace, be warmed and be filled.  But the question is, “What use is that?”  And the answer is, “It is no use.”  It does nothing to meet the needs of these people.  A true, radical transformation produces a heart of generosity.  There is within us the compassion for people in need just like Jesus demonstrated when He walked on the earth.  Verse 17:

Even so…verse 16 is the illustration…faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself…

 

In other words faith that demonstrates no real life change.

To experience the resurrected Christ, something deep within me changes.  I have a new conviction of sin; I have a passion for righteousness and holiness; I have a desire to be generous.  I want to know God; I want to know God’s Word; I want to know God’s people; I want to give my life to the things that matter.  If there’s simply no life change, that is a faith that is dead, and it is not a saving faith.  James anticipates an objection and he records that in verse 18:

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works”; (Vs. 18a)

Now verse 18 is much debated.  The debate is about where the quotation marks go.  In the Greek text there are no quotation marks, and so it’s up to the interpreter to decide how much of that verse is the voice of the objector.  I believe only the opening line is the objector.  All the scholars agree that it’s the voice of the objector saying, “Now wait a minute”, (and by the way this is perfect for our 21st century post-modern crowd).  The objection is, “Now wait a minute, you have your deal; I have mine.  You do it your way; I’ll do it mine.  Some have faith; some have works; it all works itself out.”  That’s basically what the objector is saying.  So then James is responding:

       “…show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”                                        (Vs. 18b)

How do you demonstrate that you have truly experienced a saving faith if there are no works?  James is saying, “You have no reason to believe that you have experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus if there are no works.  You simply have no evidence of that.”  But James is also saying, “I’ll show you I’ve been radically changed; it’s evident in the way I live my life.”

Now the purpose of this text is not for everyone to walk back out the doors thoroughly insecure, now wondering, “Am I really saved?”  It isn’t that complicated.  Look at your life: If you can demonstrate, “I have been radically changed,” “I have a passion for holiness,” “I have a heart of compassion,” “I want to know God,” “I want to know what God says,” “I want to be generous,” “I want to walk in holiness,” “I have conviction of sin,” there’s evidence that I have been radically changed by the power of Jesus.  But if you were to be completely honest and say, “You know when I look at my life, I know the right answers to the quiz questions, but other than that I see no real difference between my life and the unsaved people around me,” you have reason to believe perhaps you haven’t really experienced saving faith.  Verse 19:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

 

In referring that God is One, remember these are dispersed Jews and at the core of Judaism was the belief of one God.  It’s a reference to the Shema from Deuteronomy that says, “Our God is One God.”  All of the religions of the ancient world were polytheistic—had multiple gods.  There was one religion and that was Judaism where there is one and only one God.  So this is at the core of their belief system and James is saying, “You believe that.  Good for you!  So do the demons!”  They get it! There is one God and this God is powerful and it makes them tremble.  So let’s put this in 21st Century language.  Most of the people who identify themselves as Christians would say, “Well, I believe like the Christmas story; I believe that, you know, God became flesh; Jesus was born in a manger from a Virgin Mary.”  Well, good for you!  The demons believe that too!  “Well, but I believe the Easter story.  I believe that Jesus died on a cross.  I believe that He was buried.  I believe He rose again.”  Good for you!  The demons believe that too!  I would suggest there’s not a demon out there that denies the Christmas story or the Easter story; they know that’s what happened.  They get it.  They believe it and they tremble!  But clearly that doesn’t make them Christian.

You have to move from intellectual assent to what the Bible would call believing or trusting.  It’s a step of faith—that I actually trust that Jesus did this for me.  It includes repentance: I’m no longer pursuing self-righteousness but trusting in what Jesus did for me.  And it is a faith that results in a radical transformation, and that radical transformation should be evident in changes in your life, your purpose, your mission, your conviction of sin.  You are a new creation in Christ, and at the center of that should be a heart of generosity.  That’s who Jesus is and, if we now have the nature of Christ, it should be evident in our desire to help those in need.

 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?  You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.  In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?  (Vs. 20-25)

Two illustrations:  If you were to take those verses, pull them out of context and isolate them, it’s very confusing. That seems completely contrary to what Paul teaches in Romans.  But this is a reminder why we do not take verses out of context and isolate them.  They are very much given in a context and that’s where they have to be understood.  So to start with, let’s remind ourselves that when Paul was making an argument that salvation is by faith alone, who did he use as the poster child to make his point?  Answer is Romans chapter 4: Abraham. He quotes Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed and it was reckoned as righteousness.”  He wasn’t circumcised until two chapters later.  The discussion here in James is thirty years later when Abraham offered Isaac.  The argument that James is making is not that Abraham was justified on the basis of works, but rather that the Bible states he was justified on the basis of faith.  But to demonstrate that faith was a saving faith, it was followed by works.  Specifically thirty years later, in his greatest moment of faith, he was willing to offer Isaac, his only son, on an altar in obedience to God.  So the question would be: “Okay, the text says that Abraham was justified by faith.  How do we know that’s a true statement?”  Answer:  “His works demonstrated that he was truly, radically changed, justified by the power of God.”

It’s the same argument with Rahab.  Somewhere along the way, Rahab the prostitute believed.  We don’t know when that was.  We only know that when the spies went in to Jericho, she risked her own life to protect them, to care for them, and to deliver them.  What we know is that Rahab did not just have an intellectual assent.  She believed; she was radically changed; the evidence is that she actually risked her life in order to act on that faith and to deliver the spies.  The story of Rahab is a fascinating one.  Her faith was so great that she would live among the Jewish people and she would actually be a woman through whom the seed of the Messiah would travel.  If you look in Matthew chapter 1 in the genealogy of Christ, there listed is Rahab the harlot—a radical transformation.  His point is true: saving faith works.  He closes the chapter with verse 26:

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.  

It’s a rather graphic illustration, but if you’ve been to a funeral, there’s a body in a casket.  Without the spirit there is no life; it has no potential to do anything.  Faith without works is like a body without spirit; it is simply dead.

So what do we do with this text?  First of all, this is not a text by which we judge everyone else’s salvation.  That’s always the danger in a text like that.  Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, I’m thinking about Joe,”—“Joe’s out”—“and Sally”—“Sally’s out.” Or even my spouse.  That’s a very dangerous thing to do.  You don’t know that.  What you do know is yourself and your own heart, and that is the point of the text. Okay, good for you. You know the right answers: You know the right answers on the quiz; you know what to say when God asks you the Kennedy question.  That doesn’t mean you’ve experienced a saving faith.  A faith that saves is a faith that works (not faith plus works).  If you’ve truly experienced a radical transformation by the power of Jesus, Paul says to the Corinthians that salvation is on the basis of God’s grace and that grace is so radical that if you’ve truly experienced God’s grace, it will make you a generous person.  Specifically he says, “Jesus, who was rich for your sake, He became poor in order that through His poverty you might become rich.”   

 

How Abraham was justified

abraham

The Gospel Story: Like Abraham

A Study of Romans

Romans 4:1-25

If you could think of anyone in all of history who could possibly be good enough to be justified by their works, who would that be?  Oh we could probably talk about some names that we’d throw out, but what about this? The very first verse of the New Testament—Matthew, Chapter one, Verse 1— starts with the genealogy, the family tree of Jesus, and describes Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham—two of the marquee names of the Old Testament.  So let’s start with them.  Do you think it’s possible that these great men of faith, the great King David and father Abraham could possibly be justified by works?  That’s what we want to talk about now.  But I’d ask you to consider this possibility:  If it becomes obvious that even these great men of faith could not possibly be good enough for God, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that none of us are either?

If you have a Bible, turn to Romans, Chapter 4.  In Romans 3:21-31 we see one of the most hope-filled, beautiful paragraphs in all of the Bible where Paul reminded us that on the basis of Jesus becoming the propitiation for sin—that Jesus became the payment for sin—that God can remain just and declare sinful people to be righteous in His presence.  But it’s all by faith, nothing to do with works.  He summarizes it in Chapter 3, verse 28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works…”  

But one can imagine these religious Jews responding they don’t agree with that because they believe they themselves were perhaps good enough.  So Paul is going to argue this by saying, “Okay, let’s think about this.  Let’s think about our great father, Abraham.  If Abraham wasn’t good enough to be justified by works, then wouldn’t it be fair to conclude no one is good enough?” Verse 1:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about…(*NASB, Romans 4:1-2a)

So he starts with, Let’s think about Abraham, our forefather.” Abraham would have been the greatest figure of faith that these people knew of.  He says, If it’s possible that he was justified by works, he would have something to boast in.” Now the Jewish rabbis did believe that Abraham was that good.  They did believe he was justified on the basis of his obedience, on the basis of his works.  I think part of what Paul is referring to is people that are highly moral, religious people tend to have kind of a mutual admiration society.  They convince each other that they’re good enough; they pat each other on the back.  And so that is kind of the imagery of Abraham.  If he was in their circle, they’d be patting him on the back and saying, “Abe, you’re good enough.” And so Paul says, “You know, if he was that good, he’d have something to boast about,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about……but not before God.” (Romans 4:2b)

But not before God! He reminds them that, at the end of the day, there is only one opinion that matters, and God doesn’t share their opinion.  He’s not good enough. Verse 3:

For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

That statement comes from Genesis, Chapter 15, Verse 6 and virtually all theologians agree that was the statement of Abraham’s conversion.  That was the moment when he was justified.  In Genesis, chapter 12, God comes to Abraham and calls him out of his homeland and promises that, “Abraham, I will be your God, and I will make you into a great people; and through your seed all the nations of the world will be blessed if you just trust Me.” And Abraham believed.

Much as we talked about in Romans 3:21-31, this was not an intellectual assent.  He actually put his trust in God’s promise to the degree that he put his entire family at risk.  They actually pulled up stakes and headed for a land that they had never known but had been promised, which was his way of saying, “I believe you.”

But by Genesis 15, Abraham was starting to wonder about this promise.  He was getting older and older and starting to think: I may be getting a little too old to have children, so I’m not going to be able to have a seed that would become a great nation. So he said to God, I’m thinking maybe we should consider Plan B.” And God said, No Plan B.  I made a promise; I’ll keep the promise.” And Abraham believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

The word credited there is an accounting term. It was credited to his account.

When we defined justification we talked about the fact that we stand before God clothed in the robe of our sin.  It’s dirty; it’s stained; it’s offensive.  But because Jesus became the propitiation for our sin, because he paid the debt for that sin, if we believe by faith, God is willing to remove the robe of our sin and replace it with a robe of His righteousness so that when God looks at us, He literally sees His own righteousness.  That will never be changed.  It will never be stained.  It will never be diminished.  It’s how God sees us now and forever.  That’s what it means to be justified.  Paul uses just a little different terminology with Abraham: that the righteousness of God was credited to his account because he believed—in other words, by faith. Romans 4:4:

‘Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due’

That phrase as what is due is literally not according to grace. So Paul is saying that when you work eight hours for someone and they pay you for that work, they’re not doing you a favor.  It’s not according to grace.  It’s what you’ve earned.  That’s what a wage is.  You have every right to expect that.

‘But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness’ (Romans 4:5)

To the one who does not work, this is then not a wage.  It’s not earned.  It’s not a right, but is rather a gift of God’s grace because you believe. Now a couple things in this verse:  There are those who would push it so far as to say: “Believing is actually a work.” Paul would disagree with that.  Look at the verse.  He clearly identifies belief in contrast to works.  It’s a non-work; it’s an un­work.  It’s simply believing the work has been done.  What does he believe?  He believes in Him who justifies the ungodly. It doesn’t say who justifies the high achievers, the really religious people like father Abraham.  As a matter of fact, the text is calling Abraham ungodly.

If that phrase does not sound somewhat scandalous to you, I would suggest you still don’t get it.  What right does God have to declare the ungodly righteous?  Now think about this: If a rapist, if a murderer came and stood before a judge, and the evidence was overwhelming that this person was guilty, what right would a judge have to stand in the courtroom and say, This person is righteous? But that’s exactly what God does.  He justifies the ungodly. How can He do that?  It’s based on the fact that His Son Jesus paid the debt of that sin.  And having covered that sin, He has the right to declare the ungodly to be righteous upon faith and repentance.  We’ve seen this word ungodly before. It shows up in Chapter 1, Verse 18: For the wrath of God is against all ungodliness. Until Abraham believed, he was under the condemnation of God.  He was under sin.  He was considered ungodly by a Holy God until His faith is credited to His account as righteousness. Now he uses David as another example:

‘… just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works’ (Romans 4:6)

So David clearly identifies that his own righteousness was not something he earned.  It wasn’t his wage, but rather by faith it was credited to his account.  Then Paul quotes David’s confession from Psalm 32:

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.”  (Romans 4:7-8)

Psalm 32 was David’s confession after his sin with Bathsheba.  He stands before God guilty of adultery and guilty of murder, and so he is celebrating that this is a God who doesn’t credit righteousness according to works.  He doesn’t give him what he’s earned.  What is the basis by which he says that? Well he tells us in his confession.  “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven.”  The Greek language has several words for forgiven. This is a word that means to carry away, to remove away. He follows that by the statement, whose sins have been covered. This is the idea of the propitiation, that the sins have been covered by the blood of Jesus.

Now those two concepts should sound familiar.  David was very familiar with the theology of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the day when there would be two goats.  One would be the scapegoat upon which the sins of the people symbolically were placed, and he was removed.  He was taken away, symbolizing those sins removed or taken away from their presence.  The other one would be a sacrifice, and the blood would be poured through the mercy seat, representing the blood covering the sins of the people.  Those are the two concepts David identifies.  Clearly he’s referring to the Day of Atonement.  He knows his theology: that God has taken his sin away, that God has covered his sin, that Jesus became that propitiation for sin, to the degree that he says God does not credit his sin to his account.

Now think about what he just said.  He is in the midst of a confession that he has committed adultery, that he has committed murder.  And yet, even in the midst of his confession, he states that God will not credit that sin to his account.  Why?  Because by faith he believed that God justifies the ungodly.  What he is saying is that when you are declared to be right in the presence of God, that righteousness is not a wage because of good works.  It’s not earned by good works, because it’s not your righteousness.  It’s not what you have earned.  It is the righteousness of God.  It can’t be changed.  It can’t be diminished.  It is the righteousness of God forever.

The Jewish rabbis taught that Psalm 32 only applied to the Jewish people, the circumcised.  They were God’s favorites, and so they could apply that, but no one else.  Paul says, “Let’s talk about that.”  Romans 4:9:

Is this blessing then on the circumcised or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”  How then was it credited? (vs. 9-10a)

So they’re saying the promise is only to the circumcised.  And Paul is saying, “Let’s think about that a little bit.  How was it credited to Abraham?”  In other words, was it credited on the basis of faith or on the basis of works (works meaning circumcision)?  The question of how is answered around the question of when.

While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. (Romans 4:10b-12)

 Okay, what’s he saying there?  It’s actually quite radical.  Genesis 15:6 is the statement, “Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  The question Paul is asking is, “When was that statement made?  Before or after circumcision?”  Circumcision doesn’t even enter into the picture until Genesis, Chapter 17—two chapters later—probably even more importantly, at least a minimum of thirteen years later.  So the argument that Paul is making is that circumcision could not have had anything to do with this justification because he was justified thirteen years before he was circumcised.

Then he says something really radical.  He says, “Actually, if you want to get technical about it, Abraham was justified when he was an uncircumcised Gentile.” He was an uncircumcised Gentile long before he was a circumcised Jew.”  The question would be: why did he do that? The answer is in the text:  in order that he might be the father of all the uncircumcised Gentiles who would ever believe.

So we as Gentiles could actually say he was our father first.  Why did God do that?  The text tells us:  in order that it might be clear that the promise to Abraham was for the nations—every tribe and tongue and nation.  It was never intended to be restricted to the circumcised Jew only.  So before he was ever the father of the circumcised Jewish people, he was the father of the uncircumcised Gentiles who would believe down through history.  And then he adds, “He’s also the father of the circumcised, but not just the circumcised, the circumcised who believe and believe like uncircumcised Abraham did.”  So Abraham was justified apart from works.  He was justified apart from circumcision.  One can imagine now the objection: Well, what about the Law?  Certainly once the Law enters the picture, didn’t everything change?  Romans 4:13:

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. But if those who are of the Law are heirs…meaning are justified…faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. (Romans 4:13-15)

So you could imagine the objectors saying, “Well, what about the Law?”  Paul would make the argument to the Galatians that Abraham’s justification could not have had anything to do with the Law because the Law came four hundred thirty years later.  But what he says here is that the faith of Abraham is what was credited to his account as righteousness.  But if one single person, on the basis of keeping the Law, became an heir (in other words was justified), then at that point faith is void and the promise is nullified. In other words, what he is saying is: if it’s possible that someone could be good enough, then it’s no longer of faith and the promise is off.

Paul makes a similar argument in the book of Galatians when he says, “If, on the basis of keeping the Law you can make yourself righteous, then grace is nullified.” (Galatians 5:4).  If you add one single work to grace, then grace ceases to be grace; faith is void; the promise is nullified, and you’re on your own.  In order to keep the Law, you must keep every point of the Law perfectly every day of your life. This is very important to understand.  The first century religious Jews that Paul was writing to, some of them may very well have been Christians; they would have believed in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  They would celebrate, in our terms, Christmas and Easter.  They would have embraced salvation by grace through faith.  They would have simply said, “Salvation by grace through faith plus...”  “At least you need to be circumcised.” “At least you need to be Jewish.” “At least you need to keep the Law.”

The very same problem concerns us today.  You have many, many Christian church denominations that would say, “It’s salvation by grace through faith.”  They celebrate Christmas.  They celebrate Easter.  They would quickly embrace the message of the gospel to where it sounds like they’re saying the exact same thing.  But once you drill down a little bit, what you find out is: it’s salvation by grace through faith…plus…baptism…plus…communion…plus…keeping the Sabbath…plus… whatever you want to put in there.  Jesus’ work was really good, but not quite enough.  There’s got to be this little thing we do as well.” The logic by which most people rationalize this goes like this: As long as they believe in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, as long as they embrace the core message, what does it really hurt?  You know, it doesn’t hurt to cover all the bases, maybe get a little extra credit, you know, maybe do a few more things just in case maybe that’s included too!  And so people think of it as being safe. What does it hurt to just add a few more works to the message of grace?

Look at the text.  That is not safe at all!

But if those who are of the Law are heirs…meaning are justified…faith is made void and the promise is nullified (Romans 4:14,15).

 At that point, faith is made void and the promise is nullified. Grace ceases to be grace when you add one single work to it.  Most of those denominations would deny that they add one single work to what Jesus did on the cross.  They would say, “We believe in salvation by grace through faith.  It was all Jesus!”  And they would maintain that position…until you choose to leave that denomination. And then they remind you: you cannot get to God without us. And at that point the jig is up.  They’ve been exposed.  You don’t need any denomination to merit righteousness with God.  It’s salvation by grace through genuine faith alone. Is this faith a working faith? Yes, works are the fruits, but faith is the root. Works don’t save us, but they prove your faith is genuine in God.

So Abraham was justified apart from works, apart from circumcision, apart from the Law, and finally apart from sight.  He had to believe by faith.

For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE.” Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore IT WAS ALSO CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.(Romans 4:16-22)

 God made a promise to Abraham that through his seed the nations of the world would be blessed. That would require Abraham to have a son, but Abraham was getting very old.  When it says in verse 18—in hope against hope, that phrase actually means he hoped even when it was unreasonable to hope by human standards.  Now think about this:  He’s 80…he’s 85…he’s 90…he’s 95…he’s approaching 100…no children! Human reason would say: Abraham, it’s probably not going to happen. Imagine the conversations he may have had with his friends.  They probably did an intervention and said, “Abraham, ol’ buddy!  Man, we love you, but you and Sarah, you need to let this thing go!  You’re 100!  She’s 90!  I mean you better think of adopting!  This is never gonna happen!”  But the text says there was one factor:  God had made a promise, and Abraham was unwilling to not believe the promise.  So he believed, even against all human hope, and God fulfilled His promise and gave him a son.  And eventually through that son and through the seed of Abraham would come the Messiah, through whom the nations of the world would be blessed. You say, “Why is he telling us that?”  Verse 23:

Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as thosewho believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our transgressions. (Romasn 4:23-25)

That we might have the faith of Abraham—that we might believe that God tells the truth—that He is a God who justifies the ungodly on the basis of what Jesus has done on our behalf.  Jesus being turned over is a phrase of a sacrifice—being handed over to be slaughtered—that he was handed over to the cross, the resurrection affirming our justification.  Basically what that means is: the resurrection gave evidence that the payment was indeed accepted.  God’s wrath was satisfied.  The evidence was the resurrection.

So what Paul is saying is that we choose to believe that God tells the truth.  The historical facts of the gospel story can be investigated.  They can be researched.  There’s lots of evidence to support that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are indeed true.  But I cannot prove to you the effect of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  That you must believe by faith. You must decide in your own heart whether or not you believe God tells the truth when He says, “On the basis of that work, I am willing to justify the ungodly for those who believe by faith.”

I would suggest to you that there are far too many Christians who still identify themselves by their shame, by their guilt, by their struggles, by their failures, by their sin.  That still remains their identity and, because of that, they continue to struggle through life day after day after day, never really experiencing the victory over sin and temptation, and the joy and the freedom that God desires you to have.  And typically it’s reasoned out or justified like this:  “I’ve messed up so much.  I’ve sinned.  I have all this shame; I have all this guilt so I’m really thankful I believe that Jesus died for my sins.  I accept Him as my Savior, and He’s given me a ticket to Heaven, and if that’s all I get, that’s way more than I deserve, and so I’m just thankful to have that.”  And we think of that as humility.  Friends, that is not humility.  That is simply unbelief.  You simply lack the courage to believe God tells the truth when God has the audacity, when God is so radical as to say, “On the basis of what Jesus has done on the cross, to those who believe, I am willing to declare the ungodly righteous in My presence now and forever.”

My prayer would be that each one of us would have the courage to believe that.  It’s not what we’ve earned.  It’s not our wage.  It is a gift of God’s grace.  But I am telling you this: When you begin to see yourself as God sees you, it will change the way you live!

(Adapted: A message by Pastor Bryan Clark posted with his permission. Here’s the original sermon. http://www.lincolnberean.org/sermons/the-gospel-story/like-abraham)