The situation in the western part of the United States is a reminder of the power of fire. Fire can be good (we use it to heat our food and ourselves, for instance) and bad (it is destructive, especially when it is out of control). This fire also reminds me of another time that fire devastated a part of the west coast. And that is the fire after the great earthquake in San Francisco on April 18, 1906.
The earthquake caused major damage and could be felt from Los Angeles to Oregon. But the earthquake was only part of the problem. Some estimates say that 90% of the overall damage in San Francisco came from the fires that resulted largely from busted gas mains. (1)
Collier’s Magazine wanted an eyewitness account of the damage. But the person needed to be both credible and a good writer. They called upon a native San Franciscan, and well-known novelist, Jack London. London wrote a piece called “Story of an Eyewitness” which appeared in Collier’s just over a month later.
Collier’s called on London because they needed someone the people could trust. The news was devastating, and it needed to be properly told. The people needed to have a “picture” of the scene. While London did take pictures, it was his writing, before TV made reporting the news easy to see, that helped millions of Americans better understand the truth of the situation.
You and I are similar. When we are trying to make a good case for something, we may call on someone who knows more about the subject. We might quote from a news source, or a book, or a friend that others might respect (and even value) more than they might believe the case if the idea is simply our own. You have likely said or heard, “If you don’t believe me, ask him/her.” This is true because many people generally do not trust others particularly when a change in understanding is needed.
Paul fought the same battle. And now that he has laid out his argument that faith is the great equalizer for those who need to be justified, he needs a witness. In Romans 4.1-8, he calls on two witnesses known to any 1st Century Jew – Abraham and David.
He did so because justification is not the result of works; it comes through faith.
So, how did Paul seek to convince his readers then as well as those still reading today? It wasn’t just by mentioning the names of these well-known heroes of the Jewish faith, it was by showing his reader how their example fits his thesis so well. Let’s see what Paul wrote so we can make application of this truth as well.
Another week, another hypothetical question. Up to this point in the letter, Paul has been challenging the church (and the Jews primarily) on the place of works in their understanding of being justified. Ultimately, Paul has been presenting questions about the applicability of their understanding. But now Paul directly confronts their actual understanding of Scripture. That is, in these next verses, Paul goes directly to Scripture and suggests their interpretation has been incorrect – for centuries.
Now, if you are going to confront a major belief and are going to confront the essence of not just someone’s faith, but the faith of an entire people, and not just any people, but the people known as God’s chosen people, you better be equipped.
And Paul was. Paul has been chipping away at the people’s understanding of how the Law of Moses fit. If you were to ask a 1st Century Jew to list a top five of all the Jews in history, Moses would certainly be on that list. He would probably be in the top three on most every list. And on some lists he might be first. So, who might some others be? Well, Abraham and David come to mind. And Paul enlists them both in these verses to make his point.
The Example of Abraham
In Romans 4.1, Paul asks what Abraham gained by his supposed righteous living? In verse 2, Paul ties his argument back to 3.27 to say that if Abraham wanted to boast, if indeed his life was better than others, maybe he could do that with some, but Abraham had nothing to boast about before God. This truth echoes what Paul has said repeatedly in this letter, man cannot do anything on his own to merit favor with God. But this man isn’t just anyone; Paul is now including Abraham in the group.
Paul then quotes directly from Genesis 15.6 which says that Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness. That is, it was not his work that made him righteous before God, it was his belief. (Again, faith does, and must, lead to works to be authentic (see James 2, also Hebrews 11). But it is not the works that save us. It is the works that reveal the reality of our salvation. (I know I continue to share this in different ways week after week, but the principle is important and we cannot overlook it, nor can we be confused by it.)
The problem with the Jewish interpretation is that they viewed Abraham’s faith through the lens of circumcision (Genesis 17), and even more importantly, his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22). As such, the understanding was that Abraham lived by the Law of Moses before the law was given. In fact, in several of the Jewish writings which are a part of the Apocrypha, Abraham is highly revered because he was, for all practical purposes, perfect.
But that is the problem with looking at the big picture without considering the moment. Yes, Abraham displayed faith by leaving his homeland and by believing that even in his old age, God would make him the father of many nations…and by undergoing circumcision…and in preparing to sacrifice his son. But it was because of Abraham’s belief that God would make him the father of nations that God credited righteousness to him, not the sacrifice of Isaac.
Furthermore, we must also understand that although Abraham was faithful and was called a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20.7; Isaiah 41.8; James 2.23), he lied about being married to Sarah – twice (Genesis 12.10-20; 20.2)! Furthermore, he took the matter of having children into his own hands because even though he trusted God, he didn’t trust how God would do it (Genesis 16).
Are we any different? We often say that we trust God, but then when life doesn’t happen like we expect it should, we take matters into our own hands. We see countless examples of this in the Bible including Abraham, including Moses, including David, and someone not as highly esteemed, but one who is also quite well known today – Judas.
So, Abraham was not perfect as some of the Jews thought. It was not because of his works that he was saved, it was because of his faith. As Paul wrote in verses 4-5, if we receive something because we work for it, then it is our due. It is our wages. In other words, if we could be counted as righteous because of what we do, then if we do whatever that is, then God owes us righteousness. But God owes us nothing because He has already provided the way – literally, the Way. And that Way is Jesus (John 14.6).
As we will see in next week’s message, Paul goes even further with this argument to show that because Abraham was justified by God BEFORE he was circumcised (which means that the nations he would father included those of the Gentiles!). But that will wait for next week. For now, let us turn to another witness that Paul used as a means of testifying to this change of perspective that the Jews, in particular, needed. The next witness was the great king, David.
The Example of David
David was revered by the Jews, but not in the same way as Abraham. Abraham was truly the father of the nation. But David was a great king and one of only three that ruled over all twelve tribes of Israel. It was during David’s reign that Israel became a world power (regional, really, but to the people there, that was the world).
But David was not perfect. And the people knew it. For all of the good David did, people also knew the story of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12). They knew of Uriah (same). Etc. But they also knew David was the model king not only because of what he did, but because of who he was. And who he was is captured by the many psalms which would have been the hymns many sang each week in the synagogue.
In Romans 4.7-8, Paul quotes from Psalm 32, to show that the ones who are blessed are the ones that God forgives and the ones that God does not count their sin against them. In other words, Paul mentions both a positive (God does forgive) and a negative (God does not hold the sins against those who are blessed), both of which show that our justification is not about what we do, but about what God does. In both cases mentioned, God considers that person as blessed (i.e. that, in this case, they are righteous).
David did not just write a song for something to sing. David’s words had personal meaning. We see his heart laid bare in so many songs, and this song was likely a personal testimony about the mercy of God as well.
Paul captures this idea as a contrast to Abraham. Again, the stories and lives of Abraham and David would be extraordinarily well known (far more by most Jews then than by many Christians today). But Abraham was considered virtually perfect. David was not. However, before God, they were both found righteous. How could that be? Well, it could not be because of works, so it had to be by something else. And that something else is faith.
Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 seems solid. He was doing well to convey his beliefs, but to get the people to listen further, and to truly develop this idea of faith that Paul was proposing, he needed a witness. He needed someone the people would trust. Just like Collier’s Magazine called on someone the public would know and trust to provide a(n) (eye-)witness (account) of the damage from the earthquake and then flames that devoured the city of San Francisco in 1906, Paul used well-known people to convey God’s message of justification by faith to a stubborn people. Collier’s Magazine wanted the facts reported by someone trusted whereas Paul wanted to use the facts to justify his argument, but each party (Collier’s and Paul) using a reliable spokesperson is similar.
Collier’s was asking for a well-known witness to tell the story as it continued to develop. For Paul, he was calling on a couple of witnesses to help develop his argument further. Again, Paul’s logic has been solid to this point; but the battle was still uphill, and probably no less daunting, and eternally far more significant, than the idea of rebuilding San Francisco was.
But something Paul did should not be overlooked. Paul used two people who had memorable lives, but their lives would not have been known if it were not for God. God brought one from a land far from what would become Israel. He brought the other from being the obscure youngest son from a small, relatively unknown village. And despite both of their limitations AND their flaws, God justified both men because of their faith in Him, and showed what growing in faith can mean.
Ladies and gentleman, the same can be true for us. We may never be well-known like those two were. But we can be justified by faith as well. And we can grow in our faith despite the challenges that come our way. Indeed, it is the challenges that often help us grow. And we can grow despite our sin, because it is not our works which save us; no, we are saved by the grace of God.
And that is why…
Our JOURNEY letter for today is J – JESUS.
Abraham was a great man who many thought must have been perfect. David is a name which will not soon be forgotten, and he was far from perfect. And God saved both of them through the faith of someone who was to comes many generations later. That someone was promised to both of them in one way or another, and it is that someone’s name – that name above all names – the name of Jesus, that can save us too.
LIVE. As I have shared before in this series, Salvation isn’t what you do; it is about what God did. But we must choose to live for Jesus because He died for us.
We are made righteous by our faith in Jesus (Romans 3.22). But if we profess to have faith in Jesus, we should live our lives by that faith. We are to heed Jesus’ words to “Follow Me” (Matthew 4.19) and learn to live by faith because “the righteous will live by faith (Romans 1.17). So, determine what Jesus wants you to do for Him…and do it!
(1) Wikipedia.com. “1906 San Francisco Earthquake.” Footnote 26 – “Over 500 Dead, $200,000,000 Lost in San Francisco Earthquake”. The New York Times. April 18, 1906.