The Letter to the Romans
The Word of Faith vs. Self-Effort: Romans 3:27-4:25
False Pride in Self-Effort (3:27-31) Sometimes in our Christian walk we find ourselves tempted to look at another person and say to ourselves, "Well, maybe I’m not perfect, but at least I’m doing better than they are" Gradually, almost unconsciously, though never apart from our consent, we buy into this thought and begin to believe we really are better than others, forgetting that Paul told us that all alike are under sin and that no one is better than anyone else (3:9). It is not merely that no one is perfect, which everyone admits to be true, but there is no good whatsoever in our hearts at all. Paul says that no one seeks God, even if we vainly imagine that we did (3:12). Rather, out of the goodness of God’s he, He sought after and pursued us until we permitted Him entry into our hearts. We certainly did not impress God with our goodness, since Jesus had to die to satisfy God’s holiness and justice that required the penalty of death for sin (1:32; 3:25; 6:23). It cost God dearly to pursue us when we were still hostile toward Him (5:8). But that is the depth of God’s love for us and the heart of His intercession for the world: that He would send His own Son to take our place on the cross and to bear the penalty that we deserved. On the cross the fellowship of Father and Son was broken, so that our union with God might be restored.
So Paul concludes that all grounds for claiming to be superior to someone else are excluded from consideration, since all people come from the same evil root (3:27). The Jews cannot claim to be superior since they have the Law of Moses, for even though they know God’s will through the Law, they still break it (3:20). So doing what God requires in the Law will never make someone right with God, since no one actually does what the Law requires. Boasting in our superiority is based on the principle that my works of self-effort to keep God’s law somehow impresses God. But it is impossible to impress God with self-effort. The desire to obey or please God is not wrong; what is wrong is the idea that some kind of credit accrues to us if we do well. Self-effort is not merely trying to do God’s will in one’s own strength, but a wicked attempt to use God’s Law to exalt and draw attention to oneself. Self-effort is self-glorifying, so that ultimately our desire is not to please God, but to please ourselves. Self-effort gives self the glory and makes us the star in God’s great drama, rather than God Himself. But God will not share His glory with us: He will not be co-star, nor will He let us be co-star. He not only gets to play starring role, ultimately He’s the only actor in the play, we’re just supporting props, or the clothes that He puts on and displays Himself through.
Most definitely self-effort does not impress God. So the Law or God’s standard is not fulfilled by works, but by faith (3:27-31). It is faith that gives God the glory, since when we trust Him to do for us what we cannot do for our-selves, He gets the credit. We simply are grateful for what God does for us and through us. Now some might say that if it all comes down to exercising faith then obedience to God’s will is chucked out the window. But this is not true. Faith allows God to be the doer of His own will in us and through us. So faith, in fact, upholds the Law and fulfills God’s will (3:31).
We Have no Claims Upon God (4:1-4)
Now even if we imagined we had done God’s will perfectly by self-effort, that would never put us in the position of having some kind of claim on God, as if God owed something to us, such as wages for all the good works we had done (4:1-4). If we approach God on the basis of what we deserve, we will soon find out that all we deserve is death and eternal destruction in hell, for the wages of sin is death (6:23). So any time we are tempted to whine and complain to God or another person that it’s not fair and that we deserve better in this life, we ought to remember that we are always getting better than we deserve. To dwell in self-pity is to reject what God has said about us in His word: that we are utterly sinful and deserve hell. We ought to be grateful that we do not get what we deserve.
Faith is the Only Answer (4:5-8)
Since self-effort accomplishes nothing, the only other option is to trust the God who justifies the ungodly (4:5). God says in His Law that He will in no way justify the ungodly. In other words, those who are guilty will die for their sin. But here Paul says that God does precisely that: God does justify the ungodly, so that the guilty (namely us) do not die for their sins! Another has taken our place and taken upon Himself the punishment we deserve. David did not yet know how God would forgive sins, but he knew that God in His character of perfect holy love would find a way and provide an intercessor. So David spoke words of faith when he said: Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against him" (4:6-8). By trusting God rather than relying on self-effort, we are considered righteous, even though all our actions have been sinful. It is as if God wiped the balance sheet of debts clean so that we could start over on a new basis, not that of relying on works of self-effort, but a new basis of relying on God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Faith makes us right with God because He always intended to be the doer, and for us to be the passive recipients or vessels through whom He does His work. In no case do we get the glory of being the doer. So when we trust God, God credits a positive balance to our heavenly account, because in trusting Him, we are giving Him the glory, which is the essence of righteousness.
Circumcision is no Grounds for Boasting (4:9-12)
So when the people who opposed Paul’s gospel insisted that all non-Jews must be circumcised, Paul shouted "No!," because that would be taking back some of the glory for ourselves, a manifestation of the spirit of self-forself. Some of the early Jewish Christians misunderstood what circumcision was all about when they insisted that Gentiles have it done, because they saw it as a work of self-effort which they could take credit for and boast about. But Paul insists that Abraham was circumcised only after he had exercised faith and was considered righteous by faith, and that therefore circumcision was only an outward sign or seal of how God had accepted him by faith (4:9-10). Circumcision was never meant to be a work of self-effort through which one gained God’s approval, but an outward sign that one belonged to God. So it is those who trust God as Abraham did who are the true children of Abraham, not those who are merely descended from him and are circumcised (4:9-12).
Faith and Powerlessness (4:13-15)
So from the very beginning God has always wanted a people who would trust Him absolutely. God never wanted people to relate to Him on the basis of self-effort, but on the basis of faith alone, an unswerving trust in Him, in which we recognize our absolute dependence upon Him. Faith is an attitude of absolute dependence and there-fore is only possible when we recognize our powerlessness, whether we are speaking of salvation or living the Christian life. Because we are power-less either to save ourselves or to live the Christian life, the Law can only bring wrath, and God’s promise to Abraham is worthless (4:13-15). A merely external set of moral requirements cannot change the human heart or deliver humanity from Satan’s power. In fact, the Law can only expose how desperately sinful we really are and so can only lead to God’s wrath and condemnation at the final judgment. It is not that the Law is itself wrong or bad, but that it is ineffective. What humanity needs is for God to act in a decisive way to deliver us from our sinful predicament.
God’s Word of Faith to Abraham (4:16-17)
Therefore in grace God gave a promise to Abraham (4:16), a promise which is God’s word of faith and inter-cession for the world. In His promise, God expressed His desire to reclaim humanity for Himself, promising that through Abraham blessings would flow to the nations (Gen. 12:3). In fact, there is only one intercession in the world and only one word of faith, just as there is only one power and one person in the universe, of whom we are all particular forms. Our smaller "intercessions" and "words of faith" are simply individual manifestations of God’s word of faith for His world which He desires to redeem and save. God’s word of faith to Abraham required nothing of Abraham except Abraham’s trust. Because of his faith in God’s word of faith, Abraham became the father of many nations, the father of those who would also trust in God’s promise (4:12, 17).
The God who gives the promise to bless all the nations through Abraham is the God who raises the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (4:17). In other words, God’s word has the power to make and re-make reality itself so that God is not limited by the laws of the universe when speaking His word of faith. After all, God is the law-giver and law-maker; He is not bound by any laws higher than Himself. It was God’s word that made the universe: He spoke and it was so (Gen. 1:3). Nothing existed apart from God, then God spoke, and the universe came into being. One law of the present physical universe is that all living things decay and die. But God is not bound by this physical law, since He is the God who gives life to the dead by His word and promise. Isaiah says that God’s word will not return to Him empty without accomplishing the desire and purpose for which He sent it (Isa. 55:11).
Against All Hope: Supernatural Fulfillment (4:18-21)
For this reason Abraham can trust and hope in God against all hope (4:18). Abraham’s faith was against all hope, because it was humanly impossible for him to have a child at his advanced age. A word of faith begins with facing reality, our human circumstances as they really are. Abraham faced the fact that his human body, and Sarah’s womb were as good as dead (4:19). In other words, he and Sarah were incapable of fulfilling God’s promise through their own fleshly efforts. Abraham had already tried to fulfill the promise through self-effort by having a son through Hagar, but God did not accept Ishmael as the promised heir (Gen. 16). The consequence of Abraham’s sin of self-effort was that Ishmael became a "wild don-key of man," living "in hostility towards all his brothers" (Gen. 16:12). But God’s word of faith can only be fulfilled supernaturally, and therefore God rejoices in situations which are physically and humanly impossible because they are His opportunity to display His sovereign power. When His word must be supernaturally fulfilled, there can be no question that it was God at work. Our impossibilities become God’s opportunities to display His glory. Yet it is only through our faith in God’s word of faith that our seeming impossibilities become God’s opportunities. Without faith in God’s promise, Isaac would not have been horn, and Christ would not have been born as the promised seed of Abraham (of course God would have found another human being through whom He could fulfill His promise).
But Abraham did not stop at considering only the outward circumstances of the deadness of his and Sarah’s bodies. He also considered and was fully persuaded of the fact that God had the power to do as He had promised (4:21). In fact, God is all power. Abraham did not waver in unbelief and was not weakened in his faith by considering the outward circumstances, but believed in the God who was sovereign over all circumstances and who in fact created precisely this circumstance in which to glorify Himself. God delights in impossibilities! And so Abraham gave glory to God, because he attributed to God the characteristics of faithfulness and power to fulfill His word of faith for the world (4:20).
Abraham’s Faith for Others (4:22-25)
It was by this faith in God’s sovereign power and love for the world that Abraham was justified and saved by God (4:22). This kind of faith made Abraham right with God because it restored Abraham to a place of absolute dependence upon God. Abraham right with God because it restored Abraham to a place of absolute dependence upon God. Abraham trusted God completely to do for him what he could not do for himself. But Abraham’s faith was not for himself alone, for the promise God made was not merely to fulfill some selfish desire of Abraham’s; it was a promise to bless the world through Abraham (Gen. 12:3). So Abraham’s faith was for us as well. Abraham did not yet know how God would bless the world, but we have experienced the promised blessing in the form of Abraham’s true Son, who "was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised for our justification" (4:23-25). The death of Jesus on the cross was the end result of a long series of intercessors that began with Abraham who, against all hope, believed that God would supernaturally fulfill His word of faith to the world and save a people for His very own.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 11 No 3
- The Deep Things of God
- Editor’s Note
- Moments with Meryl
- Annual Business Meeting
- The Single Eye
- Prayer Without Works
- The Letter to the Romans
- Birmingham Fellowship Weekend
- British Easter Conference
- Questions & Answers
- My Dark Hidden Secret
- New Light on the Twelve Steps
- God’s Promises
- A Look at a Book
- The Mailbox
- Tape Talk
- Words to Live By