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Monday, October 11, 2010

Faith Alone (Romans 3.21-31, Philippians 3.7-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
October 10, 2010
Some Music Used
Come People of the Risen King (Getty/Townend)
'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus (choir) (Youngblood)
Be Thou My Vision (arr. Youngblood)
Faith Alone
Texts: Romans 3:21-31; Philippians 3:7-11

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Today we are in the second of five sermons on “Themes from the Reformation.” Today we are looking at faith and asking the question, “Is there a ‘good work’ that brings about salvation?” As a reference point, let me remind you of the great catchphrase from the Reformation, which was a period in history in the 16th century where a return to biblical literacy and theology was emphasized and the Church was affected dramatically. That catchphrase was:

Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Today we will look at passages in Romans and Philippians to try to understand the role of our faith in justification, or being right with God.

Let me start with an analogy to set a framework for us. Consider the lights that are on in this room. I can say honestly that we are being illuminated. I can even tell you that I switched the lights on this morning when I arrived. Now here is the question that bears on faith: Where is your illumination coming from? Is it from me because I flipped the switch? Is it from the power company? Is it from the lights themselves? Yes – it is from the lights themselves – they have the filaments and the power in them and are providing the illumination. And similarly, the power for salvation resides in the power of God.

Okay, enough with the analogy. If that’s helpful to start to frame the meaning and purpose of faith, then I am glad. If it falls short (and indeed, no analogy is perfect), then let’s move on to God’s revelation about himself.

Workin’ our Way to Heaven

Can we “work our way to Heaven?” Everything in our culture and upbringing tells us to “climb the ladder” to success and work if we want a payoff. The message of God’s grace flies in the face of that mindset, making our heads spin, yet warming our hearts with faith as we realize how much God loves us and provides for us. If the message of “God’s grace alone” was not sufficient to put our ‘works’ in perspective, then consider Romans 3:23. It’s the “clincher” when it comes to earning our own salvation:

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

This verse is describing why there is no difference between those who had God’s Law (the Jews) and those who did not (the Gentiles). Sin is the great leveler, because no human being will (or can) do the work necessary – or BE righteous or holy enough – to come into the glorious presence of God. This isn’t meant to be discouraging or cynical. Rather, it is a reality check for all those who miss Jesus Christ for the hamster wheel of earning God’s pleasure.

Martin Luther, whom I mentioned last week, confronted the “works righteousness” mindset of his day after studying Romans and realizing both the full impact of sin in our lives and the amazing provision of God’s grace. Luther’s bold proclamation of God’s grace and the futility of our own works restored us to a biblical perspective on our own faith and work. Paul says in Romans that the reality of sin has several important consequences:

1. If left to ourselves and our own strength and righteousness, there would be no salvation;
2. Because our own strength and works cannot save us, there is nothing to boast of in and of ourselves – rather there is a humility that characterizes those who have experienced God’s grace;
3. Because good works are no advantage for salvation, God’s promise of salvation extends not only to Israel, but to the whole world

Paul makes such a strong case for the inability of good works of the Law to save us, that we would be prepared to accept the phrase he writes in verse 31… that God has now nullified the Law. But he then exclaims, “May it never be!” So there must be more to the picture…

Where’s the Power?

In the midst of all this exclusion of human works as the basis of righteousness, Paul also writes about the righteousness of God shown through Jesus Christ – through HIS works of obedience. Christ’s righteousness was demonstrated in his obedient death on the cross, offering the sacrifice necessary to satisfy God’s holiness.

If all that is hard to wrap your head around, consider this. My kids know that when we spill juice in our house that it must be cleaned up. We simply don’t allow it to stay there, get sticky, and attract flies and ants – that just wouldn’t be right. Now more than once, when my kids were little, they knocked over whole cupfuls of juice, milk, or some other liquid. Sometimes by accident because their motor skills are not completely developed, sometimes on purpose while fussing – either way, there is now a problem to be addressed… the milk slowly headed toward the edge of the table. Now that’s like sin – it’s not a sin that they spilt their drink… but it’s like sin in that there’s a situation that I will not “let be.” That I will not leave puddles of milk or juice around my house is like righteousness – it’s just not right to do that unless you are cultivating an ant colony. Now here’s the thing – while a two year old is very capable of spilling a quart of milk, she is not capable of cleaning up a quart of milk, even if I hand her paper towels. And so, I must make things right.

In a limited way, that is a picture of our predicament before God. We have sinned – fallen short – and we cannot fix the problem. We lack the tools, the will-power, the obedience, and the scope to “undo” our separation from God because of sin.

But God has acted for us and for our salvation. He has acted to make things right by becoming a human being, living a perfect and obedient life without sin, and dying on the cross to make right all that sin had made wrong. Paul writes of God in verse 26 that “He would be just and the justifier.” God would not and could not waive the requirements of his holiness – of being a just God. But, in love, God could and would become the one who makes things right – making us “just” through Jesus Christ.

All this is to say, in rather theological terms, that the POWER for salvation does not rest in us or in our good works, but in Jesus Christ, who is God-in-the-flesh. Good works, or righteousness, IS required by God’s holiness… and the only one who can and will satisfy it – God himself – DOES satisfies that requirement.

What is faith, then? It’s trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. Isn’t that just a good work – our ONE good work? No, it’s not, because the POWER for salvation rests in God through Jesus Christ. Christ has died already! Sin, evil, and death are defeated once and for all! Faith is the declaration – the trust – that Jesus has done what he said he would do.

Paul writes eloquently about faith in Philippians 3. He counts up all that he has done – all his good works and knowledge and abilities – and says that all of these things are rubbish (junk) compared to the value of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord. For in faith, Paul locates his salvation, identity, and purpose in Jesus Christ and in his righteousness – his ‘rightness’ with God. Faith acknowledges that the power for salvation is located in Jesus Christ, and in doing so, God connects us to Jesus – “to his righteousness… to the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.” Faith says, “I believe and trust in Jesus Christ, who, through perfect obedience, has accomplished on my behalf what I could not. Jesus is my Savior and Lord.”

Is faith a work, itself? Yes, as is our worship, service, mission, compassion, and the rest. But they are not saving works – they are responsive or thankful works. They are works in imitation of Christ, who modeled love, service, forgiveness, and compassion for us. The saying “faith alone” does not mean that we are not to do anything for God – it just reframes our good works from works-for-salvation to works of gratitude and service.

Again… Workin’ our Way to Heaven

Back in Romans, Paul wrote in verse 31: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” Paul does not do away with Law – he does away with the idea that our (spiritual) Law-keeping can save us. And the problem isn’t in the Law; it’s in us! Paul says that only one who is perfect in obedience can keep the Law. That’s what righteousness means – it is perfect obedience to God’s Law. And Paul’s intent is not to nullify this Law, but to ESTABLISH it. Righteousness IS the way to God; but only the perfect Son of God, Jesus Christ, was righteous. That’s Paul’s point: salvation is through the Law – through good works – but only through complete and perfect obedience (all the time) to that Law… and that is possible only through Jesus Christ.

So, to totally understand what Paul is writing here in Romans, we would say that yes, there is such a thing as “working one’s way to Heaven.” In fact, Paul would argue strongly that good works – righteousness – is the only way to Heaven!! He just wants to make absolutely clear that only Jesus has, can, or will accomplish this. Only Jesus Christ has ‘worked his way to Heaven,’ and not as some super-human, but as God become man.

And here’s the good news: not only has Jesus worked his own way (back) to Heaven. He has also made a way for us. Remember, he came all the way down to where we are; he has invited us to come and see him – to trust in him in faith; and he has gone to prepare a place for us that we might also be where he is.

Salvation by grace through faith…

There are two major applications of this biblical teaching on faith and works. First, I don’t think we can hear or contemplate enough that salvation is by grace through faith. Our salvation is a free gift from a loving God and is not something we earn or win. Our faith is simply a declaration that the gift that is our salvation rests completely in the power, love, and faithfulness of God working through Jesus Christ.

Second, if we can grasp that biblical truth, we can gain a proper perspective on “good works” in the Christian life. Our works are not a way to get to Heaven – that is a frustrating and futile approach to life, for the Bible indicates that we are incapable of generating the righteousness necessary to come into God’s presence on our own steam. Having understood God’s grace correctly, though, we are FREED to do good works – to love, forgive, show compassion, share the good news of Christ – because those works are acts of thankfulness and faithfulness. They don’t earn us something; they reflect the saving Lord who is at work in us and through us. We are not saved by works, but as scripture puts it, we are saved by God’s grace through faith FOR good works in Jesus Christ.

Let us love as Christ has first loved us.
Let us serve as Christ has first served us.
Let us forgive as Christ has first forgiven us.

Let us show forth Jesus Christ with the words on our lips, the works of our hands, and the attitudes of our hearts, for he is a Savior worth following and sharing. Amen.

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