Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, July 16, 2018
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The Way of Faith and Promise

Genesis 12:1-4 and Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17

I think that one of the more difficult aspects of the Christian life to keep in proper perspective is the relationship between faith and obedience. We seem to be frequently tempted to turn our obedience, our outward practice of good works, into the basis of our relationship with God. We may not say it, but maybe we think something like, “I know I’m right with God. I’m a good person. I do a lot of things for God. I’ve never done anything too bad.”

But we are talking about two opposite ways of understanding our relationship with God. The first is the way of obedience, the way of law-keeping. It begins with God’s Law, with the things that he reveals in Scripture to be in keeping with his will. But the shortcoming of the Law is that while it can diagnose the disease, it can’t provide a cure. It’s like going to the doctor and he tells you, “Your cholesterol is too high. You have to stop eating these foods, start eating these other foods, and exercise at least five times a week.” He’s diagnosed the disease, but he can’t make you do the work. And the more those tasty foods are forbidden, the more tempting they become.

The Law can’t make us good people. It only exposes our failures. And once we fail, we become Law-breakers. And Law-breakers are subject to the wrath of God, his righteous anger against those who break his Law.

The other way of approaching our relationship to God is the way of faith. It begins with the unconditional promise of God. God promises to do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. Faith is trusting God’s promise, taking him at his word. Faith is yielding to God and staking everything on his promise. Faith is complete surrender to God. And God’s gift to those who have faith is his grace.

The first way is the way of works, seeking to earn God’s favor. But if we come to God looking for what we deserve, what we find is that the only wages we deserve are the wages of sin: death. But the way of faith is not about what we deserve. It’s about what God freely gives.

The question Paul is trying to answer in this chapter is this: Is God doing something new? Is this different? Has God never done this before? Did God base our relationship with him on our works up until Jesus came and now he bases it on faith?

And the answer is no, this has been God’s way from the beginning. It was God’s way with Abraham.

Abraham is a such an important figure in Hebrew thought and life. The Jews said, “We are the children of Abraham.” But Paul argues that more than just being the father of the Hebrews, Abraham is in fact, the father of all who have faith.

Most Jews believed that God made his promises to Abraham on the basis of Abraham’s obedience to the Law. Now of course, there’s a tricky point here: Abraham lived and died centuries before the Law was given at Mt. Sinai. Up until Abraham, there were just a handful of instructions God had given to Noah after the Flood. How could Abraham be righteous for his obedience to the Law if there was really no Law to speak of yet?

They had an answer: The answer was that Abraham obeyed the Law by anticipating it. He knew what God expected before God revealed it.

It begs the question: Was Abraham really such a model citizen? Not really. He was a rather habitual liar and deceiver. His home life was not exactly a model for us to follow.

But I think we can say this for Abraham: At the crucial moments, Abraham trusted God. We heard about his departure from his father’s household in Haran. Abraham was taking a pretty big gamble by leaving his father’s house. That was a serious affair. He was leaving his inheritance, his family, his family’s land. Those things were the sources of security. And not just in this life: By leaving his father’s house, in the minds of his contemporaries, Abraham was jeopardizing his eternal security. Who would honor him after his death if he left his family? How could his gods watch over him if he left the land of his gods? But Abraham trusted God’s promise.

He had no descendants, no one to carry on his family name. God told him that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, even though he was pushing 100, and his wife was unable to have children. He believed God. His faith was not perfect. After all, he and Sarah did try to take matters into their hands by having Abraham take a second wife. That didn’t work out too well. But he believed God. He trusted God could do the impossible: Giving a son to an old, barren couple.

And when God asked Abraham to take that beloved son of the promise, Isaac, and sacrifice him on an altar, Abraham did it. He believed that even if Isaac died, God could bring him back to life again. He believed in a God who gives life to the dead and calls things are not into being. He trusted God. He staked everything in his life on God’s promise. And he yielded to God and walked with God. And walking with God and responding to God’s will means more than any amount of rule-following.

If it was a matter of obedience, then Abraham would have something to boast about: He obeyed God where all others failed. But Scripture it makes it clear that the only one who has ever acted in perfect obedience to the Father is Jesus himself. Instead, Abraham believed God, and God credited it to him as righteousness.

Credit is a term of the marketplace. It is a payment credited to one’s account. The payment wasn’t made by Abraham. It was only credited to his account. And he, like us, is justified by faith.

To be justified is to be declared not guilty. We’re probably familiar with the term from high profile court cases. OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman were all declared to be not guilty. And in each of those cases, there was an outcry. Many people were convinced they were not innocent. But they were not declared to be innocent. They were declared not guilty. Those aren’t the same thing. None of us are innocent. But by God’s grace we are declared to be not guilty.

More than that, we are declared to be righteous. When God speaks, he creates. God creates by his word. When God declares us to be righteous, he is not just saying that we are not guilty. He is creating a new reality: A holy people. Romans chapter 6 tells us that we should consider ourselves to be dead to sin because we have been declared to be righteous by God. That’s not something to be taken lightly. If God calls us that, that’s what we are. We are born again, and the life of righteousness is being created anew within us.

We must be careful not add anything to our faith. We must not think of our relationship to God as “Faith plus _________.” If we think that “I am saved because of my faith and my good works,” then we are saying that God’s promises are not enough. We’re looking for something else. And if God’s promises are not enough, then our faith is “useless” and God’s promises are “meaningless.” For the Law only brings punishment for those who try to obey it.

How then should we view obedience? I came across this quote recently, and it stuck with me: “Our obedience should be that of a lover offering self, rather than that of a criminal seeking pardon.” Our obedience is a way of expressing our faith and love for God. It should be a joyful response to everything that God has done for us. We can never repay his kindness, but we can do some small thing to show our appreciation. The things that God tells us in his word to be good and true and worthy are things that we should practice to show our love.

And I think we should also remember that God tells us what is good and right to protect us, to keep us away from the consequences of poor choices. Pick anything that God tells us to avoid, and we can pretty easily see how disobedience can lead to all kinds of trouble. God is after all, a loving Father, who wants to protect his children.

But more than anything, God is a God who provides. He provides a way for us to come to him by faith when we could not come to him by obedience.

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