Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? —Romans 4:9
What are we talking about? Justification. What’s that? It is God’s surprising answer to the deepest question we all struggle with, the question of guilt – and not just guilt feelings but actual moral guilt that’s on us even when we don’t feel it. The Palestinians and the Israelis are thinking about guilt right now. The Palestinians look at the Israelis and say, “You have wronged us. And obviously, you don’t get it.” The Israelis look at the Palestinians and say, “You have wronged us. And obviously, you don’t get it.” So they’re helping each other get it. It happens in marriages. Husbands look at wives and wives look at husbands and they feel wronged and injured and hurt. Parents versus children, employers versus employees, Sarah Palin versus Katie Couric, Bill O’Reilly versus Barney Frank, Walmart versus mom and pop, O. J. Simpson versus everyone. I googled the question “Who is guilty?” I got, Who is guilty for 9/11? Who is guilty for the economic meltdown? Who is guilty for perpetuating racism? The question is endless, and the accusations are flying. Ann Coulter has a book, Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right. Al Franken has a book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Every day we are living on a battlefield of accusation and complaint and finger-pointing and blaming and denouncing. We all take sides. It makes us feel better about ourselves. We announce our judgmental opinions. It makes us feel important, even needed. We fire the first shot. It makes us feel safe. And the craziest part of it is, we live in a time when moral relativism (you can’t say anyone is wrong) is outperformed only by moral indignation (you’re wrong, and you’re wrong, and you’re wrong . . .). People are unleashing guilt at each other every day. Why? They’re justifying themselves by offloading their own anguish onto someone else. It destroys. Our endless charges and countercharges destroy community. But these questions of guilt and innocence are not going away, because they are rooted in our deepest doubts and fears about ourselves. That’s why we’re talking about justification. God is talking about justification. God has an answer, a surprising answer, the only satisfying answer, to the question we all struggle with: “What about me? How am I doing? Am I guilty? How bad is it?” Here is God’s answer: “You’re more guilty than you ever feared, and you’re more loved than you ever dreamed. Come to me, and I will absorb your guilt into myself and give back nothing but love.”
Our passage for today, Romans 4:9-15, opens up the “more loved than you ever dreamed” part. Three things here. One, God makes all kinds of guilty people happy in Christ (verses 9-10). All kinds. Two, God sets his seal of approval on us even when we’re not outwardly kosher (verses 11-12). Three, God has destined us not for wrath but for everything desirable (verses 13-15). We’re more loved than we ever dreamed. What do we do with that? We surrender to God. We say to him, “I receive it. I agree to be loved by you. I want to learn how to receive life as your gift rather than demand it as my right. And I want to treat other people in this new way. This has got to get around! I want to help form this new community of grace here in an angry world. It will be the passion of my life.” That’s where he wants to take us. Let’s think it through.
God makes all kinds of guilty people happy in Christ (9-10)
If this weren’t in the Bible, I wouldn’t have the courage to say it. I wouldn’t even think of it. I would think, “God motivates us by making us feel more guilty.” But the Bible says the opposite. God makes guilty people happy in Christ. Remember from last week that, in verses 6-8, Paul used David, who committed adultery and murder, as a test-case of how God treats sinners in Christ. David sinned. What did God do? God did not take a pound of his flesh. God forgave David completely, and David was blown away:
Blessed [happy] is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. —Romans 4:8
David brought real moral guilt on himself. But God didn’t stick it to him. God released him. Now Paul applies that hope to everyone alike in Christ:
Is this blessing [happiness] then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. —Romans 4:9-10
In verses 1-8 we learned that God justifies us by faith alone. God is not blaming us. He is rejoicing over us for the sake of Christ. Now we learn that this blessing is for all alike – by faith alone (verses 1-8), for all alike (verses 9-10).
But what’s the deal with circumcision, of all things? Why does Paul drag that in? He’s explaining the gospel from the whole Bible. And back in the Old Testament God commanded that his men receive the mark of circumcision as a kind of ID, like a tattoo saying, “This man is set apart to God.” God commanded Abraham to do this, and Abraham obeyed (Genesis 17). His obedience didn’t make him acceptable. God had already pronounced him acceptable through faith (Genesis 15:6).
So here’s the insight Paul has for us. The ancient practice of circumcision was a barrier to Gentiles coming into Christ. In fact, circumcision was just one part of a whole culture of holiness that God commanded Israel. God gave them laws about which foods to eat, holy days on their calendar, rituals of worship, and a lot more. It was a total way of life. Why did God set up a separate culture for his people alone? Because they were moving toward the Promised Land, and the Promised Land was Las Vegas on steroids. Some kind of Promised Land! They were going to be dragged down by it. They were like a dry sponge about to be thrown into a cesspool. So God soaked that dry sponge first with their own culture of separation. It couldn’t change their hearts, but it did create some behavioral distance from Canaanite culture. It helped God’s old covenant people keep their sense of unique identity, so that they really could be a blessing to the world.
But when Jesus came, he was himself the fulfillment of all holiness. And he isn’t an outward regimen to adopt; he’s our righteousness before God and a living presence in our hearts. He presents himself to the whole world today as the Holy One. He is the Promised Land – with no down-side. He frees us from our guilt. He is enough to make anyone holy. So whoever you are, bring it on. Bring yourself to Christ, and just having him makes you beautiful in the sight of God. By faith alone, for all alike.
This is why, at Immanuel, we don’t absolutize any one cultural mode of being. We have an African family here. We have a Japanese family here. Where’s the Hispanic family? Where’s the guy with purple hair and the girl with a ring in her nose? God wants them here, because he wants to make us living proof that Christ alone is enough to bring us together. Some churches don’t look like that. There’s too much sameness. But a church of forgiven sinners embraces all kinds, because God wants to spread that happiness widely, for his glory. Here’s what we can do. We can make Jesus the only issue in this church. He’s the only issue with God. If we’ll do that, we’ll be amazed at the fascinating people God will bring here. May he fill this church with all kinds of sinners, both forgiven in Christ and others considering it. And may we who are members every week look around and ask, “Who’s feeling marginal right now?” and go after those people with openness. It’s the way of Christ – by faith alone, for all alike.
So we’re finding out God’s answer to our guilty alienation from him and from each other. And the first thing he wants us to know is that he makes all kinds of guilty people happy with his forgiveness in Christ.
God sets his seal of approval on us even if we’re not outwardly kosher (11-12)
Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. —Romans 4:11-12
If justification is by faith alone and not by outward compliance to any religious culture, if it’s a matter of our hearts embracing Christ, then here’s a question. How can you spot a justified sinner in a crowd – or in a line-up? If a justified sinner isn’t marked by an outward indicator, what do you look for? What does real faith look like? The answer is in these verses.
When God gave Abraham the rite of circumcision, Paul says it was a sign or a seal of the righteousness Abraham already had by faith. Think of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on a product at the store. The seal doesn’t make the product what it is; the seal is there because of what the product already is. Abraham was already a justified man, a man under the smile of God, when he received circumcision. The outward sign reminded Abraham every day that God had claimed him by grace – before he became outwardly kosher.
Paul wants us to pay attention to that. It tells us how to spot a real Christian: “walking in the footsteps of faith,” like Abraham (verse 12). His faith was obvious, unlike too many Christians today who are hard to read. When God called Abraham into a future so great only God could fulfill it, Abraham said yes to a whole new life. He was not adding God on. He was not fitting God in. He didn’t set any preconditions and say to God, “You can move into my life this far but no further.” That whole way of thinking, so widespread today – what does that communicate? Suspicion, not faith. Sinners receiving promises from God have no right to tell him how far he can go. Let’s repent of it. Abraham said a clear Yes to the call of God, and he stepped out in risk. You know you’re looking at a real believer when that person so trusts God that you start wondering, “Is he crazy?” The Bible says to us all, “Remember your leaders . . . , and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). Who is the boldest risk-taker, the most Abraham-like believer, you’ve ever known? You don’t have to imitate their style, but you do have to imitate their faith. And it’s how real community comes together. The word translated “walk” here in verse 12 means “to get in line, to line up together.” And what sets our pace and marks our course together is Abraham’s audacity in God. Living by faith will take us further with God than we’ve ever dreamed of going. If we’re never scared, we’re not living by faith. But faith is the way of blessing, the only way. Here’s why the risks are worth it.
God has destined us not for wrath but for everything desirable (13-15)
Our guilty, angry hearts whisper to us, “God is out to deny us everything we desire.” But our hearts are lying to us. Here’s the truth:
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. —Romans 4:13-15
Here is what God wants us to know. We don’t have to obey God’s law, to inherit God’s promises. His promises are unconditional. Trying to earn God’s blessing by our obedience doesn’t bring blessing; it brings wrath, God’s wrath because of our failure and our own wrath because of our frustration with ourselves and our own wrath toward others whom we see as letting God down. God wants to set us free from that. The freedom of faith is “where there is no law” (verse 15). That is where God wants us to go, where he wants us to live: “where there is no law.” Our works righteousness puts us under a sense of transgression and dread and fear. But God wants us to walk away from that and walk in the footsteps of Abrahamic faith, where our future is as bright as the promises of God.
Think with me about the expanding magnitude of God’s promises. In the Old Testament God created us to rule over the creation. But we threw it away by our sin and stupidity. But then God started giving it all back to us, plus more. He promised Abraham the land of Canaan, and he kept that promise. Now we see in Romans 4 that God had in mind not just Canaan but the whole world as his people’s Promised Land. But there’s more. We memorized today Romans 8:17 that tells us we are co-heirs with Christ. God promises us access to joys and privileges only Jesus Christ deserves – and forever. And there’s more. From the same verse in Romans 8 we know that we are heirs of God. God is promising us God. In fact, the Bible says, “All things are yours, whether . . . the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:21-23). The goodness of God is spreading.
How can we live in it, enjoy it? Believe. Receive. Rejoice. Faith feels not only that God is trustworthy but also that God is valuable, beyond all this world. If you believe the promises of God, but what your heart gets excited about is that new flat screen TV, you don’t believe. You need to go into repentance until your heart for God comes back. The gospel is God’s offer of God, for free, forever. What more could he give? The fact that his generosity throws in even more is his way of displaying the glory of his grace the more brilliantly, that he himself may be worshiped and honored and valued, above all his blessings. Aim at God, and you’ll get God plus earthly blessings; aim at earthly blessings, and you’ll end up with nothing.
God wants to show Nashville, Tennessee, how rich people are when their spirits are set free from guilt, when they come together in community on the basis of Christ alone, and when they feel in their hearts that they are receiving the best things in the universe. We are more guilty than we ever feared, and more loved than we ever dreamed. That is the gospel.
Just remember – God is offering all this to anyone, to any church, not because of their obedience but through their faith.