“God justifies the ungodly” may seem like an odd thing to say on All Saints Day. It is difficult to let go of the thought that one must have done some good in order to be considered righteous by God. Indeed, to say that God justifies the ungodly is to say something that we have a hard time believing. How much more difficult is it then to believe that those you think of as saints were ungodly people? When we think of saints we often think of the extraordinary achievements and qualities of particular Christians. Most of those we consider saints are Christian heroes of the past. Even when you hear people say in everyday language that someone is a saint, they usually mean that the person is very holy, super patient, or excels at some other virtue. It is difficult to believe that saints are ungodly people pronounced forgiven by God. It is unimaginable to think that a saint could ever have been steeped in idolatry and wickedness. We think saints were super-good people chosen by God for a special purpose because something about them caught God’s attention. Yes, “God justifies the ungodly” may seem like an odd thing to say on All Saints Day. But perhaps more strange is that Paul says it using the example not of just any Old Testament saint but of Abraham.
Abraham was an idol-worshiping Babylonian; Abraham was not some sort of righteous remnant living in exile.
The Jewish tradition pretended that Abraham was not at home in Babylon. The thought was that there must have been something that stood out about Abraham for God to choose him instead of someone else. Therefore, they made up background stories to explain why God chose Abram – one fanciful argument was that he became a monotheist through studying the stars at night, others made up stories about Abram not going along with the building of the Tower of Babel, but the point was that Abram must have been a fitting recipient of God’s grace. Nearly everyone wanted to find a reason for God’s selection of Abraham that had something to do with Abraham. (But not Paul.)
Paul’s eyes opened to see that Abraham was an ungodly person justified by faith apart from works of the law. After his Damascus Road encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ, Paul knows that there was no reason that God should have chosen him and turning to Genesis he now sees clearly that there was no reason that God should have chosen Abraham either. It was not as if there was something in Abraham’s biography that made Abraham worthy of salvation. He believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Paul says that the language is not that of good works – for good work deserves a wage – but instead the language of a free gift. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness! This Abraham was an uncircumcised barbarian – an idolatrous Babylonian. But Abraham believed in Him who justifies the ungodly. Only later did Abraham receive the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he already had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.
Thus Abraham is the father of all those justified by faith whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
Jewish tradition held that Abraham is the father of the Jewish people alone. To be sure, only the Jewish people could claim that they were the biological descendants of Abraham to whom God had given the Law of Moses. Moreover, Abraham was thought to have kept the Law of Moses even though he lived before it was even given. Therefore, Jewish people usually taught that Abraham was the father only of the Jewish people who had and kept the Law of Moses. (But not Paul.)
Paul’s eyes opened to see both that the God of the Jews is also the God of the Gentiles and that Abraham is the father of everyone justified by faith whether they are Jews or Gentiles. After all, now Paul realizes that Abraham was counted as righteous by faith before being circumcised. Thus Abraham is the father of both the circumcised Jews as well as the uncircumcised Gentiles who like him are justified by faith. He is the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that God’s righteousness would be counted to them. And he is the father of the Jewish people who have circumcised hearts – that is, who have the faith of Abraham. Or to simplify – Abraham is the father of everyone who comes to share his faith. (It is impossible for me to understate how big of a difference this makes for you and for us as a church today.)
Those we might consider ungodly barbarians in a foreign country are no different than our father Abraham and can become his sons by faith.
Paul wanted the Christians in Rome to themselves want to reach those they considered unsophisticated idolatrous ungodly barbarians. So he has shown them that father Abraham himself was one of those unsophisticated idolatrous ungodly barbarians. They might think that those barbarians were unlikely recipients of God’s grace, but God also chose Abraham for no reason to do with Abraham. Indeed, all the saints who have gone before us were ungodly people like Abraham and like us and like those barbarians living in foreign nations far away from here. So just as Paul has motivated the Christians in Rome to want to reach those that they considered barbarians in his day, we also should get excited about sharing our faith with those some Americans might call barbarians today. To share the gospel with foreign idolaters is to follow the God who went and revealed Himself to Abraham.
And some of those ungodly foreign idolaters may become sons of Abraham by faith. Now sharing the gospel is not an invitation for the ungodly to do a good work called faith that will make them a fitting recipient of God’s grace. Faith is not a good work that you make a decision to do. Saving faith is trusting in the one who justifies the ungodly. Faith says no to your own works and points instead to Jesus Christ. Justification is by faith apart from works of the law. So faith does not depend on the law, it is a gift. Faith says no to trying to save myself and yes to God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Faith is a dead person being convinced that God is able to give him a son. Faith is not you treading water reaching up your hand for Jesus to grab – faith is a gift God gives some dead people on the bottom of the ocean. God gives faith to take ungodly people dead in their sins and change their status before Him to righteous meaning that by faith one is counted a saint before God. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Paul tells us this was “not written for his sake alone,” “it will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Thanks be to God this was written for our sake and for the sake of some other ungodly foreign idolaters too. Amen.