It’s All About Grace
Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.—Romans 3:31
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.—Romans 4:4-5
This is the third article in a three-part series discovering what the introductory chapters of this great book of Romans tell us about God’s amazing grace. The first, In Need of Grace, discussed the fact that we are spiritually sunk without God’s grace. We reflected on Romans 1:16-17, as well as the longer passage of Romans 2:1-3:20.
The second, Grace Alone, studied Romans 3:21-26, with verse 21 serving as the launching pad for our discussion.
The longer passage which follows in order is Romans 3:27-4:12, but for the sake of time, we will only read three of these verses as we begin, It’s All About Grace. In Romans 3:27 Paul reminds us that God’s grace leaves no room for boasting on our part.
When it comes to salvation and justification, there is no place for any human claim for boasting, because God has done it all. We can boast of a great Savior, we can bask in his supreme love and mercy. We can and should give thanks to God for doing what we can never do. But, we have no reason whatsoever to claim credit for any part of our salvation. It’s All About Grace.
It’s been said that we are saved by the word of what he has said, the worth of who he is and the work of what he has done.
Then Paul tells us, in Romans 3:28, we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Christ-less religion promises:
Work, obey and perform and you will gain life—because of what you have done.
The gospel insists on the polar opposite—the gospel promises this:
Surrender to, trust, accept, and have faith in Jesus Christ, and you will be given eternal life because of what he has done.
As Paul continues in the concluding verses of Romans chapter 3, he reiterates the fact that the gospel, as opposed to the old covenant, is not limited to one nation or one people group. God created all humanity, and in the person of Jesus, God died for the world.
He died for the whole world, not just part of it, so that the same gospel is offered to all, without distinction, without difference. Everyone is equal before God, there are no special favors, there are no exemptions.
In the last verse of Romans chapter three (Romans 3:31), Paul comes back to underscore his point one more time. He asks, rhetorically, does all of this emphasis on justification by faith mean that the law is void—is the law useless?
No, he says—justification by faith doesn’t nullify the law—it upholds it.
Years ago, when my wife and I and our two young children lived in England, there was a time of nationwide depression and widespread unemployment. During that time we became aware, through its wide usage, of a term applied to people who were laid off.
When people were sacked (another term used in England) they were said to be made redundant. Redundant is a terminal, somewhat brutal word carrying the idea that someone or something is no longer necessary, perhaps even useless. When someone is redundant in a place of employment, whether or not they are useless, it goes without saying that their services are no longer needed.
Paul, in effect, is saying that justification by faith doesn’t mean that the law is out of work, that the law no longer has a job or a task. Justification by faith doesn’t mean that the law has nothing to do. Justification doesn’t make the law redundant.
Justification by faith means that the law is simply reassigned to its proper function. Many people make the mistake of giving the law the gospel’s job. The gospel’s job is salvation. Salvation is the business of God’s grace, salvation is accomplished, our justification is accomplished, by faith. It’s All About Grace.
But the law, while it does not reconcile us to God, still has a function. The law convicts us of sin. The law condemns us. The law makes us aware that we need God’s grace. The function of the law is to drive us to the Lamb of God.
Religious legalism however, perverts the law, by attaching a significance and role to the law that it cannot produce. Religious legalism gives the law priority and a “job title” that it can never fulfill.
Salvation is way above the pay grade of the law! The law cannot justify or redeem us. The law should never be the object of faith (which of course is exactly what it becomes in legalistic settings). Authentic Christianity insists that the object of our faith is Jesus Christ.
The law cannot reconcile us to God. The law is not something that humans can ever keep and obey perfectly, without flaw or without sin. The law is not something that humans can keep in an effort to convince God to love humans. The law doesn’t define our relationship with God, God’s grace does that. When the gospel of grace and the law are confused and mixed up, the proper functions of both are corrupted. Much of this corruption must be laid at the door of organized religion.
Religion’s motive in corrupting the law and the gospel is clear. A perversion of the purpose of the law, and a devaluing of God’s grace, serves the purposes of religion for it puts religion in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t take a spiritual crime scene investigator to establish this motive. Just open your eyes and take a look at the misery and slavery legalistic religion produces in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
With its elevation of law to a task it cannot fulfill, religion effectively takes God off the throne and displaces Jesus as the focus of our faith. As Paul says in Galatians:
Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.—Galatians 3:21-22
The law is a device that legalistic religion uses to exercise control over people, insuring that organized religion will not only survive but thrive! In the case of the legalism that exists within Christendom, instead of a Christ-centered faith we now have the pills, prescriptions and potions of religion in the spotlight. Corrupting God’s grace, and trying to elevate law allows religious legalism to better control its subjects.
Now we turn our attention to the first 12 verses of Romans 4—in this passage, Paul asserts that salvation by grace, freely given on the basis of faith, has always been God’s way of salvation. Never in human history, to be specific, never in the old covenant, did God save people by works.
That’s a common misconception throughout Christendom. The idea is that while the New Testament teaches salvation by grace, the Old Testament taught salvation by human effort. In Romans 4:1-12 Paul says “no way.” Paul insists that people have always been reconciled to God by faith.
To prove this assertion, Paul gives us two case studies, two star witnesses for the case for justification by faith. First Paul asks us to consider Abraham.
Abraham and Sarah didn’t see that they had any future. They were prosperous, but they had no children. Their life together seemed like it was at a dead end. They were “past it”—past the time when married couples generally bring children into this world.
Though Sarah and Abraham lived during a time when people lived longer than the normal life expectancy of today, they were still advanced in age when God promised to give them a child.
Sarah gave birth to Isaac, her only child, when she was 99, and she lived 28 more years. That would be somewhat like a woman today giving birth to her first child at 60, and then living until she was 88.
While the comparison is not completely accurate, for there are other factors that should be considered, my point is this: Sarah and Abraham did not consider that they were able to have a child at that point in their lives.
But God, against all physical odds, against all physical evidence and experience that would suggest otherwise, promised Abraham and Sarah a child.
And Abraham and Sarah decided to trust in God and to accept his promise. It’s true that their faith wavered, it’s true that they had their moments of disbelief, it’s true that they couldn’t get their heads around the outrageous nature of what God promised. But then, most people today can’t accept salvation by grace, because it doesn’t seem to make human sense.
That’s Paul’s very point. Paul says, take a look at Abraham.
Abraham and Sarah didn’t say, “You know, we really want a baby. Maybe if we just get real religious, if we just start praying a prayer of positive confession, if we just start praying a specific prayer that a religious authority tells us to pray, if we just get our religious lives organized with 20, 30, or 40 days of purpose, if we just pray one hour every day and study the Bible one hour a day and fast once a week and go to church every time the door is open, and if we don’t drink any more beer and if we stop renting movies down at Blockbuster—maybe if we do all that stuff we can convince God to bless us with a baby.”
That’s not the way it happened, Paul says. Abraham didn’t start with a religious plan. He didn’t start with a program of religious performances and disciplines and rituals. He didn’t bargain with God, he didn’t produce a long list of things he would do for God in an attempt to gain favor with God.
Here’s the way it happened:
God said, “Abraham, here’s what I am going to do for you. Do you believe?”
Abraham believed. That’s the way the relationship started. Abraham, whom the New Testament calls a friend of God, started his relationship with God on the basis of faith. He trusted God. He took him at his word. The relationship God had with Abraham was not based on Abraham’s obedience. The relationship was based on faith. It’s All About Grace.
It’s interesting that God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child when they were at a time in life when they didn’t have to be convinced that they were “past it.” Abraham and Sarah weren’t 30 years old any more. They knew that their efforts alone would not produce a child.
Sometimes that’s what it takes with us. After we’ve gone around the block a few times in this old world, then we become convinced that we really do need God, and that our efforts alone will not cut the mustard.
Going around the block a few times may include a few failed relationships with religion. Maybe it takes spending a few decades trapped inside a particular religious hamster cage for us to realize that this spiritual wheel in which we’ve been going around and around and around is not going anywhere.
Paul, of course, had his own experiences in this regard. Paul came out of a faith tradition that defined one’s faith by the amount of religious stuff one produced. Before he was in Christ, Paul was named Saul.
For Saul, faith was defined as obedience and performance. For Saul, faith was all about being strong, building character, having integrity, setting a good example and performing religious rituals and observances. Faith, for Saul, before God got his attention on the Road to Damascus (see Acts 9), was doing religious stuff.
Before God introduced Saul to the gospel of grace, faith for Saul was being circumcised, offering the right sacrifices in the right place at the right time, eating the right foods and never eating the wrong foods, not working on Sabbath, keeping kosher, keeping holy days, wearing the right clothing—Saul had that drill down. He was “down with it.” He did all that stuff as well as anybody (Philippians 3:5-6).
By God’s grace, Paul came to see that relationship with God does not grow out of how we please and appease God. Relationship with God grows out of, begins with and must be based on faith in God’s promises. Our relationship with God is based on what God does for us—it’s based on what he can do, it’s based on his goodness and his grace, not the other way around.
This does not mean that Abraham did not obey God. Of course he obeyed God, but his obedience to God was based on an entirely different premise that religion at large perceives and teaches, including, sadly, many places within Christendom today.
Having faith in God did not mean, for Abraham, that Abraham was relegated to being a spectator. Abraham participated in God’s plan for his life, but Abraham was convinced—he accepted and he believed that the driving force in making the promises of God come true was God—not how well he and Sarah utilized their own human resources. They knew that they couldn’t make their baby factory work anymore.
When we have faith in God we realize that we cannot make God’s reality happen. When we trust God we then allow God to produce his reality in our lives, and we can participate in it freely—as long as we know, accept and believe that all of our participation will not produce what God alone can produce. It’s All About Grace.
Paul is offering the example of Abraham and Sarah to show that true faith in God is not based on human works and deeds. We must understand that the idea that our relationship with God is based on our works and deeds is an illusion, a mirage—sadly, that is what performance-based religion teaches hundreds of millions today—in many cases in the name of Jesus Christ.
So, do we trust in God OR do we trust in ourselves? Do we trust in what Jesus has done, is doing and will do…OR do we trust in what we have done, are doing and will do? We must make a choice, it must be one or the other.
After Paul established that God reckoned Abraham to be righteous because of faith, not because of works (of course, after Abraham was accounted as righteous he was able, by God’s grace, to do good works) then Paul directs our attention to another huge Old Testament name—King David.
There is more written about David than any other person in the Bible, apart from Jesus. There are 59 references to him in the New Testament, 66 chapters of the Old Testament are devoted to David. David was an enormously gifted person. He was a musician, a statesman, a poet and a warrior.
God called David a man after his own heart. But he didn’t say this because of David’s accomplishments apart from God, which were prodigious.
God called David a man after his own heart because David came to see his imperfection and his sin. David came to see that his pride, ambition and lust were completely at odds with God. David came to see that he was an adulterer and a murderer.
David was justified when he accepted God’s forgiveness, when he cried out to God and admitted that he, David, did not have what it took to stand before God on the basis of his own abilities. David was justified when he accepted that God and God alone could save him from the awful mess of his life.
God did justify him, and David became a man after God’s own heart, because of God’s grace. David still had to pay some horrible penalties for his behavior. God’s justification is a spiritual cleansing—it doesn’t necessarily extend into all corners of our physical lives and undo all of the consequences and penalties of our choices.
Following the example of David, Paul concludes by once again reminding us that God’s justification is not just for famous people like Abraham and David. It’s not just for the chosen people of the old covenant, the Jews. God’s grace is available to everyone.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. Your religious background and credentials, or lack thereof, are irrelevant.
It doesn’t matter if you have been a petty criminal, an atheist, a cult member, a mass murderer, or even a goody-two-shoes self-righteous-better-than-everybody-else-holy-Joe.
It doesn’t matter if you have been baptized, or if you have been immersed rather than sprinkled. If you have never had a drop of alcohol touch your lips, God still loves you, but he doesn’t love you because you have never imbibed.
If you have started every day, for the last two decades, with a six-pack of beer for breakfast, God loves you anyway. You can’t drink enough to make God stop loving you. Of course, he doesn’t love you because you’ve been guzzling a six-pack for breakfast—it’s just that your drinking has nothing to do with his unconditional love.
It doesn’t matter if you have read the Bible every day of your life or if you don’t even know which end of the Bible to start at.
Things that we do might be a confirmation of a relationship God has with us, things that we do might demonstrate
and reveal the faith in God we have, things we do might reflect on the goodness and grace of God so that he might have all the glory, but things we do will never be the foundation of our relationship with God.
A grace-based, Christ-centered relationship with God is established by one thing and one thing alone. Faith. Faith in God—trust in him—acceptance of his grace. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s All About Grace. Faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone.