“But now, a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26 NIV).
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 6-8 NIV).
Friendship with God
It was the killing stroke.
The knife was in the air and plunging down to snuff out the life of his son, whom he loved, when Avraham heard his name called out.
Even then, he could not have stopped if the Angel of the Lord had not helped him. It had been left to the last minute, the last seconds before it would have been too late. God wanted to know Avraham’s heart. He wanted to test his faith, that most powerful of weapons in the deadly battle for the redemption of mankind.
Avraham blinked hard a couple of times in an attempt to get his bearings. He heard the voice again.
He replied, “I am here.”
“Do not raise your hand against the boy,” the angel said. “Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your son, your only son.”
No, Avraham thought, I could not refuse but at times I wanted to. I am an old man and this is my son, whom I love. He was born in laughter and laughter is his name. But he was a gift in my old age and I cannot refuse the giver.
El Shaddai is a mighty God, full of compassion and love, and I could not refuse or doubt him. He would simply have raised Yitz´chak up again from the dead, if need be, to keep his promise that He swore to me on pain of death. No, I could not refuse but it had not been easy.
Looking up, Avraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Avraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. Avraham called this place, “Yahweh provides.”
It was the waiting that was most difficult, he remembered, for he had known that God required his son from him for a number of days already. They had chopped the wood for the burnt offering and started on the journey to the mountain. God would indicate the place. On the third day they had arrived.
Then Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there; we will worship and come back to you.” That was a statement of faith that had spontaneously sprung from his lips.
Avraham took the wood for the burnt offering, loaded it on Yitz´chak, and carried in his own hands the fire and the knife. Then the two of them set out together.
Yitz´chak spoke to his father Avraham. “Father,” he said.
“Yes, my son,” he replied.
“Look,” he said, “here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Avraham answered, “My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” Then the two of them went on together.
When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Avraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Suddenly he wondered how he would force his son to lie on the altar. The thought of struggling with Yitz´chak filled him with dread; the task was difficult enough as it was. But then he knew what he would do.
He approached Yitz´chak and, with strips of camel hide, he began to bind Yitz´chak’s hands. Yitz´chak seemed to be as much amused as he was confused. Although he inquired repeatedly, Avraham remained silent and did not answer his questions.
With a stubbornness born of the desert, Avraham completed the task, half dragging, half carrying Yitz´chak to the altar and pushing him upon it. Yitz´chak cried out in pain as the sticks of wood struck him in the back. But Avraham ignored his pleas and went about his task with single-minded determination, his bony face and hollow eyes a mirror of the death he was bringing upon his son, whom he loved.
He would put fire to the wood later, first he had to kill the sacrifice. Already he was thinking of Yitz´chak as the sacrifice! What strange thing is this, to what purpose this offering of his firstborn son?
But Avraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son. He had decided to do it swiftly and cleanly, so that Yitz´chak would not suffer. His arm was coming down strongly in the killing strokewhen he heard the voice call out his name.
It is time to talk about the good news, about faith and about a new relationship with God – a friendship with God.
Abraham was called the “friend of God” (Genesis 18:1-18; 2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) and Jesus tells us that he wants to become friends with us as well (John 14:21,23).
This is the great change that God is making in the world, transforming hearts, one at a time, from enemies into friends. Nothing less.
He started with the cross by showing us how much he loved us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8b).
And this is the second step in the gospel of Paul. The first step was to recognize that we are enemies of God, that we lead godless lives that leads to all kinds of wickedness and evil and that the wrath of God (a product of his love and justice) rests upon us. Even though there is an uneasy truce hanging over the human race where we can get away with evil for a short time, God’s judgment will come, sometimes in this life and certainly in the life to come. That’s the bad news.
But now, in chapter three of the Letter to the Romans, Paul starts to talk about the good news. “But now, a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21,22a NIV).
Let us be clear that the good news is that God simply forgets about sin or that his love is stronger than sin or that sin no longer matters. No, we learnt from Paul that sin matters so much to God (and should to us) that the only way to deal with it (and satisfy his justice) is to send his only begotten son to die a horrible death on the cross.
That is why Paul continues to talk about “a righteousness from God.” Whether through the law or through faith in Jesus Christ, a “righteousness” is still necessary for us to have a friendship with God. And “righteousness” here is no mamby-pamby, weak-kneed effort at good deeds. Enough of cheap solutions and easy answers.
The OT makes it clear that God has always expected us to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. We don’t even love each other (or ourselves) that much. Jesus made it clear that the outward acts of keeping the law were useless without your heart in it. Thoughts were as important as deeds. And Paul makes it clear that under that standard of true loving obedience from the heart, none of us can stand. Righteousness under the law will not work (and was never the idea in the first place). The Jews had perverted the relationship of God with his people (even in the OT) into something religious and offensive, like a man (or woman) going through the motions and duties of marriage, without their heart in it. Whatever happened to love?
“But now,” Paul says, “a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known…” Doesn’t that remind you of the statement he made earlier about the wrath of God which “is being revealed” from heaven? On the cross, God “reveals” or “makes known” both his wrath and this new righteousness at the same time. Jesus became sin (on the cross) and we became righteous in God’s eyes. Jesus is our substitute and the righteousness given to us from him doesn’t belong to us. Jesus received the wrath of God that was meant for us and we recieve friendship with God that belonged to Jesus.
The point is that “righteousness” is still necessary for us to have a new relationship with God. Now, when God looks at us, he sees us only through the lens of the righteousness of Christ. That is the good news.
But most people need more than deep theological words to understand what is going on here and Paul knows it. That is why he uses Abraham as his example. The story is quite fascinating of course, but the way Paul presents it is downright interesting. Listen….
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
“Without weakening inhis faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.”
“Yet 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.”
“This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”
“The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”
“He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:18-25 NIV).
Can you imagine the drama? Every time I meet a Jewish person I tell them that they are a living miracle. Often they ask me why and I tell them about Abraham and Sarah (if they didn’t know already). God waited until it was clear that there was no way humanly possible for them to have a baby.
Can you imagine being over 100 years old and your wife 10 years younger and telling her that it’s time to try again? What a joke. There was no way. Even trying to have a baby, much less Sarah being pregnant for nine months and giving birth at her age, was problematic and downright impossible. But Abraham believed in God’s promise and so took steps of faith to make it happen. It’s that simple.
And the same is true for us today. To have faith (trust) in Jesus Christ means to believe that we are under judgment and subject to wrath first of all. We need to accept God’s condemnation of our godlessness and wickedness and have a moment of honesty and truth in which we confess that God is right about us.
Then we also need to accept God’s provision of a substitute that will give us the righteousness of Christ in exchange for our godlessness and wickedness (together called sin) so that we can be declared by God himself as being justified (or innocent of all crimes) before God.
This is not merely a legal formality that allows us to then go back to the way we were living before, any more than a marriage ceremony means we are married and can now go back to acting like we are single or a birth certificate means we are technically a parent and can now go back to being childless. It is a covenant. It is a relationship. We are now “married” to Jesus. We now have a new “friendship” with God. Therefore we need to live our lives differently, in relationship with God, like Adam and Eve before they sinned – which is the whole point after all. Faith has a purpose.
But before we get into that process of learning how to be “married” to God or how to manage the challenges of a new “baby” type relationship with Jesus, we need to talk about the ultimate reality of judgment and hell. What happens then? It may seem obvious to some but not so obvious to others. This new relationship with God may have some great benefits in this life but the real problem comes in eternity. Can I really trust that Jesus is my substitute? Can I really believe that I am righteous before God when I so clearly continue to sin? I can’t trust myself to be very good at this new relationship (just like new parents don’t trust themselves with the little baby or newlyweds with their new partner). It isn’t about doing everything right. It’s about doing everything together. But the question is still a good one.
God is making a promise to us in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, he is promising wrath and judgment on all the godlessness and wickedness of man (and rightly so). On the other hand, he is promising justification (innocence) if we accept the righteousness of Christ in exchange for our sin (godlessness and wickedness). That is the deal. Marry Christ and you will have the benefits of his innocent relationship with God as your own.
Is that what faith in Jesus Christ means? Not quite. The first part is belief. You need to believe that it is true, certainly, both the bad news and the good news. The second part is action. The marriage proposal has been made but you still need to accept and enter into the marriage relationship. It is not just a head knowledge but a life relationship that is needed.
Paul gives the example of Abraham. A promise was made. He believed the promise and trusted in the One who made the promise. He was convinced but God still wanted him to take action on that faith. He still needed to go into his bedroom with his wife and make love to her one more time, creaky bones and all, even though there was no hope, humanly speaking, of any baby being conceived or born. But he believed in God’s promise and acted upon it and that is why his faith was “credited to him as righteousness.”
James makes this same point. “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend” (James 2:21-23 NIV).
Abraham was the friend of God because he believed him (trusted him) when he gave him a promise even though it looked impossible. And then he acted on it. The (almost) sacrifice of Isaac (the promise child) on the altar happened after he believed just like the act of going in to his wife to concieve a child happened after he believed. It was the result not the cause. James said “his faith was made complete by what he did.” He didn’t try and have a baby first and then, when Sarah got pregnant, he started to believe. He believed first and then expressed his faith through his actions. In Galatians 5:6, Paul explains it as “faith expressing itself through love.”
What does that mean for us? Simply this, do not be fooled. God is not mocked. Don’t play games with him. Just saying the words “I believe in Jesus Christ and I accept him as my Lord and Savior,” doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t first of all come from the heart (a TrueHeart Believer) and result in acts of faith, in a lifestyle of faith, in a lifelong relationship of ongoing trust and acts of faith in the same direction, learning to love your new family, your new “husband,” your new “baby” relationship with God.
That is what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is a relationship. And every relationship has evidence that it is there. Communication. Agreement. Results. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?”
And like all things that matter in life, it will cost you everything. Marriage is free but it will cost you everything. Having a baby is free but it will cost you everything (including many sleepless nights). A new relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ is free but it will cost you everything. Yes, God will ask you to make changes, to think differently, to spend money on the kingdom of God, to give up favorite pasttimes, to love people you would rather ignore, to be honest, generous, to ask for forgiveness, to reconcile, to get real with Him and your brothers and sisters in the church, to open up, to talk about your faith with strangers, to pray, to learn, to study, to be helpful, to do ministry. And the list goes on. Such a list can be made for marriage and parenthood as well.
But that’s the nature of love. It is free but costs us everything and we are glad to pay the price because there is nothing more precious to us than to love God, our spouses, our children, our church, our world. Love is the answer but only God’s love can provide the solution to sin and the power to live a lifestyle of radical love (more than normal) everyday. That is the price of friendship with God. Are you willing to pay that price? If so, welcome to the family of God.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, I am ready to pay the price for friendship with you. I know that the price is faith in your promise and actions to back it up. But I am surprised that this faith is even there. I didn’t expect that it would. I thought I would somehow have to convince myself that I had faith or conjure it up somehow by gritting my teeth and believing even though I didn’t really. Not the case. Your word says that faith is a gift. A lot like falling in love I suppose. It’s just there. But then we need to act on it and that is what you ask us to do. Thank you for the gift of faith and thank you for “strengthening” me like you did to Abraham so that I can act on that belief. I’m looking forward to our life together. In your name I pray. Amen.