The Righteousness of Faith
The First Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| May 29, 2016| Genesis 15:1-6
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness. Genesis 15:1-6
Good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Jesus told a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man ignored the poor man in his need. He ignored Lazarus and did not help him. He was bad. He did not love his neighbor. That’s why he did not help him. He did not love him. He did not love him because he did not love God. He did not love God because he was bad. Bad people go to hell and nobody can leave hell once he’s there.
Good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. We need to know how to be good. Most people think that we become good by doing good. It makes sense to them. So they invent religions for themselves, follow their religions religiously, and hope that the religious stuff they do will be good enough to make them good. It never is.
To become perfectly righteous before God requires perfect love and nobody has it. Only God loves purely. The only way a human being would be able to love purely and be genuinely good – good enough for God and good enough for heaven – would be if that human being were God. But a human being cannot become God. God, however, can become a human being. And that’s what he did.
And this is what Abraham believed he would do. Abraham believed that from his body a Savior would be born who would bless all the nations in the world. God said to him, as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3,
Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Moses records nothing about Abraham’s faith here in Genesis 12. The word “believe” first appears in the Bible in the text before us this morning, three chapters later, where Moses writes, “Abraham believed the LORD and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Abraham is our father. We receive the same blessings as he. Abraham trusted in the Savior that would come from his own body. We trust in the Savior in whom Abraham trusted. When Jesus told the story about a beggar named Lazarus he said that when Lazarus died, the angels took him to Abraham’s bosom. Jesus describes heaven as the place where Abraham is because heaven is for those who believe what God promises and Abraham is the father of the faithful.
Islam claims Abraham as their father because they trace their lineage back to Abraham through his son Ishmael. But Abraham is not the father of Islam. Islam rejects the faith of Abraham. Jews claim Abraham as their father because they trace their lineage back to Abraham through his son Isaac. But Abraham is not the father of modern Judaism. They reject the faith of Abraham. Abraham is the father of the faithful. He is the father of those who believe as he believed.
Faith requires a promise. If God says nothing faith has nothing to believe. Abram complained to God that since he had no son Eliezer of Damascus would inherit his goods. God replied:
This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.
Then God showed Abraham the stars of heaven and asked him to count them if he could. “So shall your descendants be,” God promised. Abraham believed the LORD, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.
God promises what we cannot do. Abram could not give himself a son. God is the Author of life. Our generation talks about family planning as if we were the authors of life. We’re not. God opens and closes the womb. Abraham knew that. He lived four thousand years ago and was far more spiritually enlightened than the oh so sophisticated theologians of our day who put God on trial, acquit him, and then act like little Jack Horner as if by giving God a break they’ve achieved something praiseworthy!
Abraham knew that if God wanted to give him a child he would and if he didn’t he wouldn’t. It all depended on God’s will. When God revealed his will to him by promising him he would have a son, Abraham had something to believe: God’s word. Faith requires God’s promise. Without it, it is nothing but blind presumption and superstitious nonsense.
Faith requires God’s word. Abraham believed the LORD. He believed what he said. That’s where true spirituality begins. As Moses writes, “And he believed the LORD, and he accounted it to him as righteousness.
Listen to how St. Paul, the apostle of Christ, explains the meaning of our text. He writes in Romans 4:3-5,
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.
Before God we must be beggars. The name Lazarus means God is my help. You must be a beggar. You cannot stand before God on your own two feet and make any demand. You must humble yourself before God. God promises and doesn’t deliver. Don’t you dare accuse him of making false promises! He cannot break his promise. He can humble us and he will. He can drive us to his word and require us to take him at his word.
Look at how God humbled Abraham. He said to him, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Now you would think that “in you” would not be referring to a servant who wasn’t even a relative. But the law of the day was that if you died childless, your estate would go to whoever was born in your home, whether or not he was your bodily descendant. That would have enriched Eliezer who was not related to Abraham by blood. God had promised Abraham that in him all the nations in the world would be blessed. Then God made it crystal clear. The blessing would come from Abraham’s own body. Abraham believed the promise. God reckoned it to him as righteousness.
What is it about faith that makes it so precious to God? Is it faith’s moral perfection? Ah, but who has a perfect faith that never doubts, that never questions what God has promised? No one! No, the reason that God reckons our faith as righteousness is not because of the quality or perfection of our faith. It is because of what we believe. It is on account of the value of his promises.
Consider Abraham. He believes God will give him land that God didn’t give him for another five hundred years. He believes that God will give him as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, though he and his wife are up in their seventies and they haven’t got any children at all. He believes that God will keep his promises.
God promises it. Faith believes what God promises. Faith receives what God promises. This is how faith is accounted as righteousness. God promises righteousness. He promises his own Son who is the LORD, our righteousness. Abraham lived two thousand years before Jesus was born. We live two thousand years after Jesus was born. We share with Abraham the sin of Adam. We share with Abraham faith in Christ. Abraham is our father in the faith. He is the father of the faithful.
The only Abrahamic faith is the Christian faith. Abraham was a Christian. The promises God gave to Abraham God gives to us Christians. St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:5-9,
Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.
Abraham believed the LORD. God reckoned this to him as righteousness because through faith Abraham received Christ. Faith receives every word that God speaks. At the heart of the speaking is the forgiveness of sins God freely gives for Christ’s sake.
There is nothing more precious to us Christians than the forgiveness of sins. It is what makes us good. When God forgives us he reckons us to be righteous. Just as Jesus took upon himself our sin, so he covers us with his righteousness. It is a beautiful robe of goodness with which God covers us. It is Christ’s goodness. No other goodness is good enough for God, or good enough to get us into heaven where Abraham rests with the faithful.
Every day we are a day closer to death. As we think of our own death we are reminded of Jesus’ words, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” The rich man who though he had everything he would ever need didn’t have the one thing he needed the most: the righteousness that God requires. We have that righteousness in Christ. He is the LORD our righteousness. Our faith is not a general confidence in the goodness of a generic god who really has nothing much to say. Our faith lives on every word that God speaks. Our faith receives and rests upon Christ whose righteousness renders us good enough for God, good enough for heaven, good enough for father Abraham to acknowledge us as his brothers and sisters in the true and only saving faith.