I preached the sermon below this past Sunday at Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, during the season of Lent. Included below are both the sermon audio available from that church’s YouTube page and the prepared text of the sermon. The selections from Genesis and Romans are among the lectionary readings for that Sunday–although I have chosen to read the entire passages rather than the selected verses of the lectionary. These lectionary readings were Genesis 12:1-4a and Rom 4:1-5, 13-17. The point of Romans 4:5 that God justifies the ungodly is clearer with the larger context of these verses. (For more background on Romans and its purpose, I suggest my article on the topic that is available here.) I will be preaching in this pulpit again on April 19. Our condolences are with the family and friends of Rev. Phil Unger who often has filled their pulpit (he even administered the sacrament of communion to the congregation on the previous Sunday) and who died unexpectedly earlier in the week.
Godly people are religious and do good deeds. Godly people do more than give up something for the forty days of Lent. Saints are godly people. Canvas people on the street about saints and no one would think of Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Sister Act. No, they would say that saints are super-good people like Mother Teresa. Ask people in most churches and the consensus would be that saints were super-good people chosen by God for a special purpose because they got God’s attention. Protestants tend to think of saints as Christian heroes of the past. Americans sometimes use the term in everyday language to refer to someone who is super-patient as in the sentence “His wife must have been a saint to put up with him for so long.” But no matter who you ask, it is nearly unimaginable that a saint could ever have been steeped in idolatry and wickedness. It is difficult to believe that those we think of as saints were ungodly people. It is difficult to let go of the thought that one must do some good in order to be considered righteous by God—let alone to be considered a saint. In simple terms, “justifies” is legal terminology meaning to “pronounce righteous.” Thus the title of today’s sermon sounds like an odd thing to say—“God justifies the ungodly.” Contrary to popular opinion, the people that God declares righteous are ungodly people. We simply have a hard time believing that God justifies the ungodly. It is more difficult to believe that saints are ungodly people pronounced righteous by God. But perhaps it is even more surprising that Paul shows that God justifies the ungodly using the example not of just any Old Testament saint but of father Abraham. Hear the word of the Lord:
Romans 3:27-4:25 (“justifies the ungodly”)
was an idol-worshiping Babylonian; he
was not some sort of righteous remnant living in exile.
- By Paul’s day, Jewish tradition pretended Abraham was not at home in Babylon. This was not always so. Joshua 24:2-3 says, “And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac.” Joshua understood Abraham had been a normal idolatrous Babylonian when God called him. But later Jewish tradition felt that something must have stood out about Abraham for God to choose him instead of someone else. Since our reading from Genesis didn’t give any such reasons, 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 somehow have been a fitting recipient of God’s grace. By the time of Paul, nearly everyone wanted to find a reason for God’s selection of Abraham that had something to do with Abraham. (Except 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. Justification is a grammatical performative. God said it and it was so. 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.
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, in Paul’s day 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 us.)
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 in Spain. So he showed 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.