Gold Medals Before We Swim

Sermon on 21 August 2016 - Romans 4

Christopher Pieper

Begin with prayer.

            As usual, I would like to begin with a little context [display map of the Roman Empire, with Rome highlighted]. Many of us have heard the age-old mantra, “All roads lead to Rome.” Of course, those words were far more true when Paul was dictating his Epistle to the Romans than they are today [include picture of the Via Egnatia, explaining a little bit about what I saw in Philippi and Thessaloniki]. The Romans knew the words were true, too. Roman society was proud of its privileged status among the cultures of the globe. My professor of Christian history, Jerry Sittser, has often reminded students like myself, “For Rome, the primary god was not so much Zeus, Hera or any of the mystery cults’ gods and goddesses. Rome’s god was Rome itself.” In other words, the Roman people worshipped the culture they had formed and were a part of. The ancient Roman historian, Suetonius, claimed that Emperor Augustus even boasted, “I found [Rome] of brick, but left it of marble.” It is to members of this majestic city, where Caesar Augustus was still a recent memory, that Paul sends his letter.

            If we are to appreciate the exclusivity and the boldness of Paul’s claims in Romans, we must imagine the society that he is addressing. In the past few weeks, we have already discovered that Paul challenges the pride of the Jewish people. However, Paul’s letter also confronts the culture of the Roman people, for it is to Roman and to Roman-Jewish Christians that he writes. In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul makes it clear that both the Gentiles and the Jews fall short of God’s requirements. Both groups of people are wholly reliant on Jesus for a right relationship with God: “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is” (3.27-29 NLT). In chapter four, our selection for today, Paul begins to unfold that belief in Jesus therefore consists in a radical, unworldly paradigm shift.

            The common understanding between both Jews and Gentiles is that “When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned” (4.4). The rule seems so obvious, it is almost redundant to state the fact. It is a our worldly, human assumption; we see it all the time. Turn on the television these days: Olympians stand on podiums and receive their medals. Men and women are collapsing at the finish line after multi-mile races. Swimmers gasp for breath while interviewers tease them for answers. The medals are hardly a gift. The medals are earned. The way we respond to corruption, like white-collar crime, is further evidence of how deep within us this rule is. Few things get under our skin more than when one person or group sabotages or profits by another person or group’s hard work. The justice of getting what you deserve is one of our highest principles. We crave it and build our legal systems around it.

            Then Paul writes to us as much as he writes to the Christians in Rome, “But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners” (4.5). The focal point of this passage is this verse. We need to take it in. We need to soak in it. The Christian life begins with the realization of the truth that this verse is witnessing to. “But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.” [pause] I think that Paul wanted the Roman Christians to be stunned by these words. I think Paul wants the same of us. They are radical words. Here the Romans are, Gentiles and Jews alike, surrounded by either the incredible culture they have meticulously constructed on the one hand (Romans) or by the pious religiosity they have formed on the other (Jews). Here we are, surrounded by our American culture—which we so often proclaim the greatest—or surrounded by our dedication to Christian spirituality, worship practices, and culture. Paul says it again elsewhere, “It all doesn’t matter. …  I once thought these things [circumcision, heritage, level of obedience to the law] were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. … I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Phil 3.7-8a, 9). Paul’s conviction is clear: faith in the provision and work of God is the crux of the matter. Paul reminds the Roman-Jewish Christians that “circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised” (Rom 4.11a). The Roman-Jewish Christians were not to think they had any advantage over other Christians. They were not to think that they had any claim on God for right standing before him. Our relationship with God “is given as a free gift” (Rom 4.16).

            Circumcision is no longer a major issue for the global church, but the basic problem that we make signs of the relationship with God into idols is no less prevalent today than it was in the early church. I have done this often in my life, and we are all in danger of doing so. When you find yourself assuming that due to the lack of presence of a certain “sign of relationship” with God, someone is less Christian than you, you are supplanting the gift of Jesus’ mercy with self-righteousness—the idea that anything you do in your strength is fundamental to your relationship with God. Two of the most common examples for Christians are our passion for social justice and our passion for evangelism. Constantly, I see these two signs of faithfulness being idolized – even to the point of being pitted against the other. The social activist feels that the evangelist who spends less time in protests is not really following in the footsteps of Jesus. The evangelist grows frustrated with the social activist, supposing he or she has placed his or her social work above sharing the Word of God. The social activist thinks that activism makes him or her a Christian. The evangelist thinks that evangelism makes him or her a Christian. They are both wrong. Jesus makes them Christians. There is no following Jesus, there is no speaking the good news of Jesus, unless Jesus has done so first. “For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort” (Phil 3.3-4 emphasis added). Paul writes these words in the same letter in which he again and again encourages the recipients to live according to the example of Christ! He knew that the lives of true Christians would be transformed, but that transformation was not the prize. The prize had already been given. The gold medal is given to us the moment we step into the pool, and we haven’t even begun swimming!

            In other words, the good news of Jesus Christ is radically different than everything we are always being taught in the world. We compete, compete, compete. Jesus gives, gives, gives. We say, “Give us our rights.” Jesus says, “I will take mine to the cross.” We are so driven to prove ourselves the worthy Christians that we often leave Jesus at the diving board. He is ready to give us the medal before we even get our feet wet, ready to tell us how valuable we are and how much he loves us. May we pause long enough to hear Jesus calling us from behind. He will send us into the pool soon enough, so that we can call to those competing for their worth, so that we can tell them, “Everything you needed was ready for you at the start. Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be God with us? Could he possibly be what we were racing for all along” (Jn 4.29 italics added).

            Paul refers to Abraham’s story, in order to turn us around in the pool. Abraham “was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises” (Rom 4.21), and for this reason, Abraham was content with the promise of God, even though he could not understand it. Abraham developed that remarkable faith over many years, which ought to encourage those of us who feel dwarfed by his mighty faith. For Abraham and his wife, Sarah, there was nothing more humiliating than their failure to produce a legitimate heir together. They had left Haran and Abraham’s family because they were promised by God, “I will make you into a great nation [people; family tribe]. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. … All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12.2). To leave their family and their home was already a great sign of faith, but then Abraham and Sarah found themselves waiting and waiting. After many years, Abraham asked God, “O Sovereign LORD, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? … You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir” (Gen 15.2, 3). God promises Abraham, “No your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir. … Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” (v 4, 5). Abraham believed, but may still have questioned how God would make this happen. He had a son, Ishmael, with Sarah’s servant and offered Ishmael to God for God’s blessing. But God intended for Abraham and Sarah to fully trust in his provision, so he blessed them with a son of their own, despite their barrenness.

            Finally, Abraham gets it: “The LORD will provide” (22.13). Even if Abraham must sacrifice his own son, Isaac, which God asks him to do before providing a ram in Isaac’s place, Abraham believes God will fulfill his promises. It is an incredible story. God blesses Abraham on account of his obedience, but the relationship Abraham has with God, as Paul points out, is established through faith (Rom 4.22; Gen 15.6). Through the story of Abraham, Paul determines that the cause of true obedience is faith. Yet the object or goal of our faith is not obedience at all, it is a single-minded focus on and reliance on Jesus Christ: “because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4.22-24). It is another of Paul’s paradoxes! Obedience comes out of the conviction that one can do absolutely nothing to gain God’s favor. Once we have realized that universal fact, we can finally have faith that Jesus is the only one who has earned and through whom we can receive God’s favor. And when the beautiful truth of Jesus’ love hits us, having already given up on ourselves, we can wholly give ourselves to Jesus. That is where true, faithful obedience begins.

            “If there was any idea that God had set us a sort of exam. and that we might get good marks by deserving them, that has to be wiped out. If there was any idea of a sort of bargain—any idea that we could perform our side of the contract and thus put God in our debt so that it was up to Him, in mere justice to perform His side—that has to be wiped out.

            “I think every one who has some vague belief in God, until he becomes a Christian, has the idea of an exam. or of a bargain in his mind. The first result of real Christianity is to blow that idea into bits. When they find it blown into bits, some people think this means that Christianity is a failure and give up. They seem to imagine that God is very simple-minded. In fact, of course, He knows all about this. One of the very things Christianity was designed to do was to blow this idea to bits. God has been waiting for the moment at which you discover that there is no question of earning a pass mark in this exam. or putting Him in your debt” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 142-143).