Counted as Righteousness (Romans 4)
For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Romans 4:3).
Faith is a very powerful thing. It can make or break a person's life, both here in time and in eternity. Faith is the simplistic trust in what God has revealed to us in His holy Scriptures. The trust that forms the basis of everything that we hold dear in this life. The basis of everything that is necessary for the life to come.
That's what we see from St. Paul's words to the Romans this morning. Faith. "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (v3). Abraham believed God, but what did Abraham believe? For that, we can look to the rest of the readings this morning. They are filled with the substance of Abraham's faith. As the Psalmist said, "The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore" (Psalm 121:8). How do we know that these words, traditionally sung by pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem for the Jewish feasts, were believed by Abraham? Abraham's first appearance in the Bible: "Now the LORD said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you'" (Genesis 12:1). God tells Abraham to go from everything that's familiar to him and go to an unfamiliar place. All he has is this voice from Heaven and a promise that goes beyond Abraham's wildest dreams.
It was a three-pronged promise: "And I will make of you a great nation" (Genesis 12:2); "I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (Genesis 12:2); and "To your offspring I will give this land" (Genesis 12:7). From Abraham would come a great nation that would be for the blessing of all people. Abraham's offspring would have a large inheritance of land. What did Abraham do with the promise? "He built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him" (Genesis 12:7). He trusted that God would do what He said He would do.
But why is this called faith? Why not something more akin to common sense? After all, he had heard a voice from Heaven. "Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran" (Genesis 12:4). "Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children" (Genesis 16:1). "So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai ... took Hagar the Egyptian ... and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife" (Genesis 16:3). Abraham was seventy-five and childless when God called him and gave him the promise. There's nothing rational about that. There's nothing CLOSE to common sense in Abraham's belief. Again we read, "Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, 'Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety, bear a child?'" (Genesis 17:17). Even Abraham laughed at the notion, but he still believed that God would do everything He had promised. The more unbelievable the promise, the truer it was. St. Paul continues to reference Abraham's faith to the Romans: "If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God" (v2). Abraham can boast about many of the great things he did in the ancient world, but before God it means absolutely nothing. Nothing Abraham did could effect his salvation. As Jesus told Nicodemus, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God'" (John 3:5). Salvation is not the result of how good you are. Salvation is the gift of God.
Abraham was saved because God counted his faith as righteousness. Abraham was righteous because he believed in God not because he kept God's Law. As the author to the Hebrews said, "O come, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith" (12:2). As we fix our eyes on Jesus, we see what Jesus tells Nicodemus that night: "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him" (John 3:17); and "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). Eternal life comes through faith. Faith comes by "God's free grace and favor" (LSB #555.1). "Faith clings to Jesus' cross alone and rests in Him unceasing" (LSB #555.9).
Faith isn't mere head knowledge. Nicodemus knew ABOUT Jesus when he came to see Him that night. "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him" (John 3:2). He came with the understanding that there was no other option. Jesus had to come from God. The miraculous signs were proof enough. But Nicodemus didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus understood the difference between faith and head knowledge. This is seen from the miracle the kids will learn about in Sunday School. Four men bring their paralytic friend to Jesus. "And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, 'Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven'" (Matthew 9:2). These four friends had faith. Not just head knowledge. They trusted that Jesus could heal their friend. And Jesus healed him in ways they didn't expect. Jesus saw their faith and did what He came to do. He forgave a sinner's sin.
And that forgiveness rests on grace. We sang about this grace in our sermon hymn, based on Zechariah's Benedictus that he sang at his son John's birth. In faith he prophesied that God's grace was truly at hand because the Messiah's forerunner had been born. God's kingdom of grace, promised to both Abraham and David, was close at hand. Zechariah praised the same thing that Simeon would prophesy about some seven months later. God's salvation was at hand. Both Zechariah and Simeon were ready to be taken home because they trusted in God's grace. And now God's grace was right before them. Both these New Testament prophets could say the words we'll sing to end our service, "Lord, let at last Thine angels come, to Abr'ham's bosom bear me home, that I may die unfearing" (LSB #708.3).
This unfearing, gracious death comes because God keeps His promises. To Abraham, God said, "I have made you the father of many nations" (v17; Genesis 17:5). Even before Isaac's promised birth, God said He had already fulfilled His promise to Abraham. Abraham became the father of all the nations who would come from Isaac and Ishmael, along with those who descended from his third wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-4). All God's promises came true.
"In the presence of the God in whom [Abraham] believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (v17). Abraham believed in God's promises because this was the same God who had created the entire universe out of nothing. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his promised son Isaac, "he considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead" (Hebrews 11:19). No one had been raised from the dead yet, but Abraham believed that God would do it to keep His promises.
It's that faith that God calls for us to have. Faith to believe that God's Word is true. As we'll sing in a moment, "His Word proclaims and we believe that in this Supper we receive His very body, as He said, His very blood for sinners shed" (LSB #634.4). "But blest is every believing guest who in these promises find rest; for Jesus shall in love remain with all who here His grace obtain" (LSB #634.7). By faith you are and will continue to be blessed throughout your days. The same God who promised blessings to Abraham promises those blessings to you. You have a great inheritance. It's everlasting life with your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Your inheritance is Heaven and all the glories therein. All this you receive through faith. Faith in Jesus Christ. Amen.