Is Faith Enough?

Chatswood Baptist Church

Romans 4

Is it really enough just to believe?

When I think about the conversations I’ve had with people over the past 15 years or so about Christianity – that is, where I am discussing the gospel with people who are not yet Christian but who are interested (to some extent at least!) – I would say the majority of people struggle with the idea that acceptance with God is based purely on faith and not on our good works.

It is normal and natural for people to respond to the Christian claim that we are justified – that is declared righteous and acceptable to God – on the basis of our faith in Jesus, and that our good works or ‘goodness’ as a person don’t affect this standing – it’s natural for people to respond to this by suggesting that surely you still have to try to be a good person… It just doesn’t seem quite right that it’s based purely on believing in Jesus.

And of course, this struggle can be just as common amongst those of us who havedecided to follow Jesus. Many of us who attend church regularly, perhaps who have considered carefully the message of the Bible and who have come to understand that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, and not because we’re good or deserving… many of us can still struggle with this question, and essentially wonder, is faith really enough? 

For some of us it’s a more theoretical discussion. We’re not sure exactly how to square different Bible passages that emphasise the importance of our behaviour on the one hand with these passages that say we’re justified by faith alone. We debate the issue at an exegetical or philosophical level. But for others, or for most of us at certain times, it’s a personal issue. We’re not sure if faith is really enough for usto be acceptable to God. We struggle to trust that trusting is enough! And we’re drawn again and again into anxiety over whether we really are ok with God, or whether we need to get our act together and make sure we’re the kind of person who will be able to stand before God.

Now, of course, it depends what exactly you mean by ‘Is it really enough just to believe?’, because as we’ll see, faith is never ‘just believing’ something. Biblical faith is conviction and personal trust that always leads to action on the basis of that trust. So in a sense, the Bible teaches that ‘just believing’ is not enough if you think of faith as divorced from action.

But what we see in Romans 4, building on what we’ve seen in the previous chapter, is that faith – genuine trust in God and his promise to us in Christ – faith really is enough. We really are saved by faith alone, and not at all by works of the law. We really do stand before God as righteous, innocent and forgiven purely on the basis of faith in Christ, and not at all because of our inherent goodness or because we’ve managed to keep God’s law or satisfy certain religious rituals or instructions.

The Question of the Passage: What about Abraham?

Paul helps us see and understand this by answering a related, but more particular question that he would have discussed over and over again with Jews and God-fearing gentiles at the time. The question that Romans 4 tackles is essentially, “Do these claims about justification, faith and the law (that Paul has been making in Romans 1-3) really fit with the Scriptures? And in particular, do they fit with God’s dealings with the forefather of our faith, Abraham?” You can see in verse 1 that this question really drives the whole chapter. Paul opens up by asking, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?” 

Now what Paul means by ‘this matter’ is his claims about justification, faith and the law that he has just made at the end of Chapter 3. He’s built up to these statements through chapters 1 to 3, and he sums up with two key ideas: 1) that no one is able to boast of their standing before God, because ‘a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law’; and 2) that this is true for all people, Jew and Gentile alike – the circumcised and the uncircumcised (which is a way of speaking about Jews and Gentiles) are both justified by God on the basis of the same faith – there’s no difference.

And now, having built up to these claims, Paul anticipates that some of his readers might object that they don’t fit with the very foundations of the Jewish faith. “What about Abraham?” some will surely say! Paul was aware that it was common to view Abraham as a model of perfect obedience and to assume God chose him and blessed him because he was such a righteous man. One ancient Jewish text states, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life” (Jubilees 23:10).

So Paul anticipates the question, admitting that ‘if Abraham wasjustified by works, then he really did have something to boast about, and my claims would start to look a little shaky…’ But Paul knows Abraham has nothing to boast about before God. No, because what do we learn about God’s dealings with Abraham when you actually look at Scripture? “What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”” 

This quote is from Genesis 15, which we read out at the beginning of the service, where God reaffirms his promises to Abraham to give him a child and make him into a great nation – to make him a blessing to the whole world. Abraham is struggling in the circumstances to see how and when it will happen, and God assures him that his children will be like the stars in the sky. And Abraham believes God. He simply believes that God is telling the truth. It will happen. And the narrator then reports that God credited this faith to him as righteousness. Not that he was so impressed and considered such faith to berighteous, but that on the basis of such faith, he graciously determined to consider Abraham as righteous, even though he wasn’t perfectly righteous. 

And what Paul does now in the rest of the chapter is basically preach a mini-sermon on this Bible verse, Genesis 15:6. This is the key idea, the Biblical teaching, that Paul grabs hold of and explains and applies through the rest of this chapter to help his readers understand that his claims about the gospel really do fit with the Scriptures and with God’s dealings with Abraham. Far from Abraham being a poster-boy for earning acceptance with God through obedience and works of the law, he in fact shows us that real righteousness, real acceptance with God has always and will always be based on faith and not on works of the law. In fact, Paul argues that when we consider how, when and why God considered Abraham righteous, we realise that our justification before God mustbe on the basis of faith or God’s good purposes for the world would come to nothing.

Faith apart from Works (v4-8)

So, the first thing Paul goes on to say is that Abraham being justified by faith apart from works fits with the broader message of the Bible about God’s grace and our salvation. For Paul, one of the most important biblical themes is the grace of God. God doesn’t owe us anything, we don’t earn our acceptance with him; instead he graciously gives it even though we don’t deserve it. 

Paul draws our attention to this general principal and how it relates to justification by faith in verses 4 and 5: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.”

When you work for something, you earn it – the giver is obligated to give it to you. It’s not a gift, it’s your wages. From a young age, I can remember having a list of Saturday jobs that I had to do to earn a little pocket money, which I then took down to the corner store and spent on lollies – every time! Of course, I didn’t have to earn everything I received as a child! My parents naturally gave me a free ride with 99.9% of my living expenses and even the things I wanted, rather than just needed, simply because I was their child. But I earnt that 50c to spend at the lollie shop, and I was proud of it. It was owed to me, because I did the work.

But that’s not how it works with God, says Paul. Verse 5 is contrasted with verse 4. Instead of working for acceptance or righteousness from God, we trust God who justifies the ungodly, and as a result, our faith is credited as righteousness – not as an obligation, but as a gift. This is the scandal of the gospel – the ‘scandal of grace’: God who justifies the ungodly. 

Although, as much as we don’t deserve it, it’s not a scandal of injustice is it? Paul has already explained how this free justification comes through the redemption of the cross – through the costly sacrifice of Jesus. And here he simply wants us to accept that this justification truly is a gracious gift from God – something we have not and could not earn for ourselves. We are credited with righteousness, even though we don’t deserve it, on account of our faith.

And this hope, this blessedness of having God credit you with righteousness apart from works, is something the rest of the Bible points to, explains Paul. King David says the same thing in Psalm 32! “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”The language is ‘forgiveness’ in the place of ‘justification’, and ‘not having your sins counted against you’ rather than ‘faith credited as righteousness’. But the point is the same. This is the biblical hope. This is true blessing, and it’s the only hope we really have – a gracious forgiveness and justification that we don’t deserve. 

Faith apart from circumcision (v9-12)

Paul then poses another rhetorical question in verse 9, ‘Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?’ Again, when Paul says ‘circumcised’, he is referring to the Jewish people, because of the way this physical sign marked them out as God’s covenant people – the children of Abraham. Paul’s just spoken about the blessedness of not having your sins counted against you – a blessing that King David spoke about. And now he asks whether this blessing is perhaps only for the circumcised – for the nation of Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham? Perhaps it is really just a blessing for God’s covenant people?

No, not at all, says Paul. And all you need to do is consider when and why he was considered righteous, and when and why he was circumcised, and then it’s clear that this blessing is for all who believe, whether or not they are circumcised.

Paul goes on to explain in the rest of verse 9, “We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it afterhe was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”

We read in Genesis 15 the account of God’s promise, Abraham’s response of faith, and God then considering him righteous. It’s two chapters and many years later, in Genesis 17, that God appears again to Abraham to establish the sign of circumcision as a condition of the covenant for Abraham and his descendants. And Paul’s point is simply that this sequence of events shows us that circumcision has nothing to do with Abraham being considered righteous. 

No, it’s faith that is the crucial factor, not circumcision, says Paul. And he concludes in verses 11 and 12 that Abraham is thus the Father of allwho believe, and onlythose who do in fact follow in his footsteps of faith, whether or not they have been circumcised. In the end, what’s important is not whether you’re a natural descendant of Abraham and are circumcised like him, but whether you share the faith he had before he was even circumcised.

Faith apart from the Law (v13-17)

Paul then drops the language of circumcision and now contrasts faith with ‘the law’, but he’s really building on the same logic. Just like Abraham was considered righteous on account of his faith before he was circumcised, so the promises of God to bless Abraham and bless the world through him as the father of manynations came long before the Law was introduced. Ultimately the promise is realised through the righteousness that comes by faith, and not through the law. 

Because, argues Paul in verse 14, if it does depend on the law, if it is those who depend on the law that are heirs of the promise, then faith doesn’t actually mean anything and the promise is worthless. Why? Because faith doesn’t achieve anything if it really depends on works of the law in the end, and God’s promise is only as good as our ability to satisfy the law. And we know how that would turn out – verse 15, the law brings transgression and wrath because of our sin.

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, explains Paul from verse 16, for two key reasons: 1) so that it might be by grace and depend on God, rather than us, and 2) so that it might be guaranteed, or offered with no strings attached, to ALLAbrahams true offspring – that is, not only those who are his natural descendants, those who are ‘of the law’, but to all those of us who share his faith.

Paul’s pointing out that God’s purposes in the world, his plans to reconcile the nations of the world to himself and establish his good kingdom through Abraham, all this must necessarily be realised according to the righteousness that comes by faith rather than through the law. The very promise of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, the he be the father of us all, implies that the promise be realised by faith, and not according to the limitations of the law or circumcision.

Faith really is enough

Now I can appreciate that you might be feeling like all this talk of circumcision and the law is a little far removed from your situation. What’s all this got to do with you? Why does it matter? Because it shows us that faith really is enough. If Paul’s saying decedents of Abraham are righteous through faith and faith alone, if Abraham himself was considered righteous on the basis of faith and faith alone… then so are we. We really are accepted purely on the basis of our faith in God and his promises. God really does consider, or reckon, us to be righteous, declaring us innocent and guaranteeing our salvation right here and now, through our faith in Christ. Faith in Christ is necessaryto be considered righteous – there’s no other way. And faith in Christ is sufficientto be considered righteous – there’s nothing else required. If you trust in Christ, God considers you righteous – end of story.

If this is something you struggle to accept, I want you to appreciate how much Paul is labouring here to show us that this really is what the Bible teaches us. It really is God’s plan from the beginning. It is necessary for what wants to do in this world that we be declared righteous on the basis of faith in his promises, and not because we are good, or worthy, or able to satisfy the demands of the law. It’s how God wants things to be, because he is the God of grace and he wants us to revel in hisgrace and mercy, and not boast in ourselves. I want to encourage you to believe… that believing really is enough!

Faith apart from Sight (v18-25)

Well in the final section, from verses 18, or half way through verse 17 really, through to verse 25, Paul turns our attention to the natureof Abrahams faith, and the objectof his faith and ours. Paul is pointing out that Abraham is not just proof that we are justified on the basis of faith, but a model of what it really means to believe God. We see here the nature of the kind of faith that God credits with righteousness. The kind of faith that is necessary and sufficient for salvation. It’s the kind of faith that takes God at his word, regardless of our circumstances – regardless of what we can grasp with our senses.

In verse 18 Paul states that ‘Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed’. It’s an odd phrase isn’t it? Against all hope, in hope, he believed. It’s actually a neat summary of what Paul goes on to explain in verses 19 to 21. Against all hope is referring to the worldly circumstances Abraham was facing – he and his wife were old (nearly 100 years old!) and they had never been able to have children. Paul uses the language of death to describe the reality of the situation. His body was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb was dead. To think that they could actually have a child in such circumstances is ‘against all hope.’ 

And yet, Abraham believesin hope, not because of his circumstances, but because of the promise of God. The word of God was the basis of his hope. And so, well aware of the reality of his situation, “he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” And this is why, Paul goes on to explain, “it was credited to him as righteousness.” Because of this kind of genuine, personal conviction in the promise of God, he was declared righteous. And this is our hope too, says Paul. These words are not for him alone, but for us too. For those of us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, God will credit righteousness. The kind of faith we are called to exercise is faith that takes God at his word, even when things look hopeless. We are called to trust that God is able to do what he has promised, no matter what. 

Not blind faith, and not perfect faith

Now there’s two ways we could misunderstand what Paul’s saying here about Abraham’s faith and what we are called to. First we could think that we are being called to a kind of irrational faith that ‘just believes’ for no good reason. This is of course how many atheists view Christian faith – just an irrational believing what we want to believe to make ourselves feel better, or because we’ve been brainwashed since birth. 

But biblical faith is not irrational. It is not unreasonable. Abraham had a very good reason for believing he was going to have a child despite his very unlikely circumstances – the God who made the universe had promised that he would! It would actually be quite irrationalwouldn’t it, to doubt that the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and the earth was not able to do what he’d promised. And likewise, we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead for good reasons. The gospel themselves present to us a number of independent, trusted eyewitness testimony of what Jesus said, did and the fact that he was raised from the dead. And so for good reason, we believe that God will likewise raise us to life, just as he has promised. It’s true, faith in God’s promise is often counter to what our senses and circumstances are telling us – it’s not on the basis of ‘sight’. But it’s not blind or irrational.

And secondly, we could think that Paul is saying we need to have perfect faith – never a hint of doubt or stumbling. Paul does after all say things like Abraham believed ‘without weakening in his faith’, and ‘he did not waver through unbelief’. It can make it sound like Abraham was a rock of faith, never putting a step wrong or struggling with what God had promised. But of course, if you’ve read the stories of Abraham in Genesis, you will know that’s not quite right. The very fact that God appeared to Abraham in Genesis 15 to say his children will be like the stars in the sky is because Abraham is struggling to believe! And even after this point he makes some big mistakes as he struggles with how God’s promise will be fulfilled in his circumstances. No, what Paul’s saying is that Abraham, even in his weakness and his doubts, was able to look beyond his circumstances and be convinced that God was going to do what he said. He really did believe God, and kept coming back to God and his promise, expecting it to be fulfilled somehow, rather than giving in to despair and cynicism. You’re not required to believe without a shred of doubt – without ever asking, “How do we know…?” You’re called to take God at his word, because you’re convinced he can be trusted, even if that’s a struggle sometimes.

Faith inGod

And that’s really the point I want us to finish on. Remembering that in the end, the important thing is whowe trust, not how strong ourfaith is. You see, we don’t just ‘have faith’ do we. Faith is not a thing we have that impresses God if it’s ‘strong enough’. No, we put faith in things. And so the important thing is that our faith in is in God and his promises to us in Christ, not how strong our faith in him is in and of itself. And in fact, the more we focus on God as the object of our faith, rather than ourselves or our faith, the stronger our faith will be. 

We all exercise profound trust in objects and people every day, because we’re convinced these objects and people are worthy of our trust. Getting into an elevator requires faith in wires, electronics, engineers and technicians. Driving your car down the road reveals your deep and comfortable trust in your brakes and everyone else’s brakes! It’s all about who, what and why you’re being asked to trust isn’t it? If you’ve never been rock climbing before, it’s hard to trust that the ropes really will have you if you let go of the rock. But if you’ve been hundreds of times, you know you can, and so you trust them. It’s not necessarily because you’re such a brave person – you just know what you’re trusting, and you know it’s ok.

Paul begins this section, in verse 17, by slipping in the description of God, the object of Abraham’s faith, as the one who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. When we remember that this is who we are trusting, it’s a lot easier to trust him. He’s the one who speaks the universe into being. He’s the one who breathes life into dust and into dead bodies. He’s the one who raised Jesus from the dead. The more we focus on him as the object of our faith; the more we consider how worthy he is of our faith; and the more we look to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the definitive proof of God’s power and love for us – that he was ‘delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification’… the easier it is to believe that he can and will do what he has promised.

So be encouraged that faith really is enough. And be encouraged that God really is worthy of your faith. Trust in God and the promises he has made you in Christ, and trust that this faith is enough.