I grew up immersed in the gospel of Romans. Raised in a Protestant church by Sunday school teachers who knew Paul’s dictum of grace backwards and forwards, I knew how to answer the question “faith or works?” We are justified by faith—of course! The old system of works-based righteousness was broken and incomplete—so the teaching goes. You can’t get to heaven by works. Only faith will get you there.
But the lines between grace and faith got so blurred by an anti-works polemic, that I don’t think I ever appreciated what it means to have faith. That sounds easy. But it only sounds easy because it’s held out to me as the opposite of works. Ask a seven year old what he would rather do—carry a 50-pound sack of corn up a steep hill or just take my word for it that it’s heavy—and the answer is easy. Give me faith over works anytime. But faith isn’t easy. In fact, I think works are easier. Faith is hard.
Today’s epistle lesson (Romans 4:1-12) is the crown jewel of the grace vs. law dichotomy. Like Paul, many Protestant preachers (including me) have chosen Abraham as our preferred OT figure. Paul needed a patriarch in the Jewish tradition onto whom he could fasten his gospel of grace, and Abraham fit the description perfectly. Remarkable faith leads to justification. That he was the father of circumcision (the symbol of the old covenant) was quickly and resolutely addressed by Paul: “That came after he was justified; go back and read Genesis.” And Paul’s treatment of the Abraham story makes Romans 4 one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament.
But what Paul couldn’t have realized is that, by the time we get to the twenty-first century, Christianity has spread so far that “believing” in Jesus isn’t all that hard—at least on the surface. In fact, growing up in Alabama as an anything-but-Christian is probably much harder than professing the lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s the opposite of Paul’s world. Back when Paul was writing, believing that God’s promises had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ and staking one’s life to that claim was physically dangerous and culturally difficult. We have no idea.
Kathy Grieb’s 2002 book The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness helped me make the connection. Although she says it with scholarly integrity in way I cannot, for Paul being justified by faith meant having faith like Abraham. He was old and his wife was reproductively even older. She was unable to have children, yet, when God told Abraham that Sarah would conceive and bear a son, Abraham believed God, and his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. That’s the model of faith we are called to follow. If our faith is going to justify us, we have to have crazy, makes-no-sense, are-you-kidding-me faith.
Paul wrote in Romans 4:5, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” In other words, if you’re going to give up on works (and we do), then you must have the kind of faith that enables you to stand naked and sinful in front of almighty God and trust that he won’t condemn you. You have to put all of your heaven-bound eggs in one basket and trust that you’ve got it right. If not, you’re in big trouble. If God isn’t a God of grace, then you’re in for a rude and quite unpleasant surprise that will last for the rest of eternity. Even in those moments when God’s salvation seems so far away, you must cling to it with all you’ve got. It can be the only thing that matters. Anything less isn’t real faith, and half-hearted belief isn’t what gets reckoned as righteousness.