Second Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2011
“His Faith Is Counted as Righteousness” (Romans 4:1-8, 13-17)
Do you know how much you have in your bank account? It’s good to have at least a general idea, to know that you are on the positive side of the ledger and not about to overdraw your account. Because if you write a check and you don’t have enough money in your account to cover it, your bank will then hit you with an overdraft charge. There is a penalty for falling into a negative balance. So you want to know how much is in your account and to make sure you keep it on the positive side.
Now if that is the case with your account down at the local bank, how much more important it is with your account in heaven! Are you running a negative balance? Do you know there is a serious penalty, with eternal consequences, for being in the hole in heaven? Are you keeping score, keeping track of your debts and credits? Do you have enough righteousness in your heavenly bank account? What will God see when he looks in your ledger book? If you’re in debt, how will you get out of it?
These are questions raised by a consideration of our text for today, the Epistle reading from Romans 4. The Apostle Paul here uses accounting language in this portion of his letter. It’s about what counts as righteousness for you before God, in your heavenly bank account, and how you get it. Because that’s what you need, righteousness, in order to stand before God and live and not die. How will you do that?
You see, your sins can be thought of as debts. Every time you break one of God’s commandments, whether in thought, word, or deed, it’s like you’re draining your bank account. The debts start piling up. Your record book doesn’t look very good. Let’s see, cursing at that guy you got angry with yesterday–that’ll knock you down a couple of points. Adulterous thoughts? Minus six. Gossip, being gleeful about making somebody look bad? Negative ten. Not loving and forgiving your spouse? Minus fifteen. Failing to do your job as a parent, by teaching your child God’s word at home and taking them to church every Sunday–have you been sloughing off on that? Oh, that’ll take twenty points off your score. You’re really down a whole bunch by now! What are you going to do to boost your balance?
I’ve got it! I’ll start to work harder! Earn some righteousness points and build up my bank account again! Hey, this is Lent, after all! I’m going to make a more concerted effort at not sinning. That’ll make God take notice! He’ll give me points for trying! OK, today I will not sin. I’ll do some good works even, to put some plusses in! Yes, more good works, that’ll do the trick. More good works than sins, and that’ll tip the balance in my favor. Yes, sir, I’m on my way to heaven!
Is that how it works? No, not really. Not at all, in fact. You cannot pile up enough brownie points to outweigh the debt of your sin. First, you will soon discover that your resolve is not strong enough to maintain your pious efforts. You will keep falling and failing in your attempts at sinlessness. And if you think you are making it, then you’re being guilty of the sin of pride. You can’t win at the good works game.
Besides which, God can see through your works to your motives, even better than you can. He can see that all of your works are still stained with sin, still far from perfect, no matter how good they look to the world. And God does not grade on a curve. Relatively better than the bad people is not good enough.
So you can’t win at the good works game, as far as earning your way into heaven. The debts will always outweigh the credits, and you will be in the hole. And that will send you to hell.
So declare bankruptcy. Give up on that game, it won’t work. That’s where Paul is going with this in our text, showing us what won’t work, but also the one thing that will, as far as this “righteousness bank account in heaven” business is concerned.
As I say, Paul uses accounting language here, and he does so several times, using as his example the case of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. The bottom line, Paul says, when it comes to Abraham’s account, or to that of any other believer in God’s promises, is that “His Faith Is Counted as Righteousness.”
Now the accounting term that Paul uses here is the Greek word logizomai. Five times in just the first eight verses Paul uses a form of this verb. He writes: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted”–logizomai–“it was counted to him as righteousness.” “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted”–logizomai–“as a gift but as his due.” “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted”–again, logizomai–“as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts”–you guessed it, logizomai–“righteousness apart from works.” Finally, “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count”–logizomai–“his sin.”
So you can see that Paul is using the idea of a bookkeeping account with his use of this word logizomai. It can be translated “count,” “credit,” “take into account,” or “reckon.” You see, you’ve got a righteousness account in heaven, and if you’re running a negative balance, you’re in trouble. But if God credits righteousness to your account–logizomai–credits it as a gift, like he did with Abraham, then you are in good shape.
Paul here shows, from the Old Testament Scriptures, that you cannot achieve righteousness by works, that is, by your own efforts. Rather, like Abraham, you can only reach a positive balance in your righteousness account when God credits it to you as a gift–when you receive his promise of righteousness for Christ’s sake by faith.
Abraham is the prime example of this. And this case works perfectly to counteract the false notion that we’ve got to earn our righteousness by our works. For that is not how it was with the patriarch Abraham.
As you heard in our Old Testament lesson today from Genesis 12, it was the Lord God who initiated the covenant with Abram, as he was then known. God took the initiative and came to this man Abram with a promise. “I will bless you,” was the gist of this covenant promise. “I will make your name great. I will bless those who bless you. You will have lots of children, a great nation will come out of you, and I will plant you in the Promised Land. In you, and in your seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Those were the main points of the covenant promise to Abraham.
That was in Genesis 12. Then later, in Genesis 15, the Lord God reaffirms his covenant with Abraham. He takes him outside and shows him the stars of the heavens, and says, “Look at the sky, and try to count all the stars. That is what your descendants will be like. So shall your offspring be.” And then it says, in the verse that Paul quotes, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
The fact that this occurred in Genesis 15 is crucial to Paul’s argument. For some of the Jews of Paul’s time thought that it was because of Abraham’s works that God considered him righteous. And chief among those works was circumcision. Abraham obeyed God by getting circumcised and having his children circumcised, and that’s how he became righteous, so the thinking went. But Paul’s point is that circumcision was not instituted for Abraham and his people until Genesis 17, after–after!–Abraham was already pronounced righteous! The verse where it says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–that was back in Genesis 15, before the command to circumcise, before that became a law for Israel. So it was not by works that Abraham was justified, but rather by faith in God’s promise, and thus purely by grace.
Friends, this is how you also become righteous: not by your own works, but simply by receiving God’s free and gracious promise of righteousness. This righteousness was not gained by your efforts but instead by the truly good works of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. He, Jesus, is the seed of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth are being blessed.
It’s a forgiveness of sins thing. It’s a blessed exchange thing. Christ, who kept all the law perfectly, who earned a perfect score of righteousness–he’s the only one who ever did–Christ, the Son of God, willingly went to the cross for you. All our sins, all our debts, all our negative balance, hung in the balance, as Jesus was hanging there on the cross. He took the severe penalty for our shortfall when he died under God’s judgment in our place. And in exchange, Christ gives us his righteousness, which is more than enough to pay off all our debt and put us positively in God’s good graces for eternity. It’s a forgiveness of sins thing. It’s a blessed exchange thing.
Jesus Christ is our perfect righteousness, and we take hold of him by faith, that is, by being given to by God. Faith is no heroic effort on our part, as though we were finally doing one great good work to boost our own score. No, it is just the opposite. Faith is giving up on our efforts at self-justification and instead laying hold of God’s free promise of righteousness for Christ’s sake.
Look, it’s like you’re broke, you’re bankrupt, and someone comes along and, out of nowhere, hands you a check for 40 million dollars. The fact that you receive the check in your hand and say thank you and take it to the bank and deposit it–that is not some new way of you deserving credit by a work you have done. No, it’s pure promise, it’s pure blessing, it’s pure grace. It’s a gift–you don’t deserve it, you don’t earn it, you simply receive what God freely gives you.
So that’s how it is that you now have the riches of heaven credited to your account. Faith–because it is faith in Christ, who earned all the righteousness you will ever need–faith in God’s promise is reckoned to you, credited to you, “logizomaied” to you as righteousness. Got it? Yes you do! You’ve got it good, you’ve got it in abundance, the treasures and riches of God’s grace in Christ, socked away in your heavenly bank account, where it will never run dry! Thanks be to God!