Lent 2 · Romans 4:1-8,13-17 · February 17, 2008
By Joel P. Fritsche,
In the verses preceding our text, St. Paul beautifully proclaims the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. This is a gift of God that comes through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Since justification is purely God’s action, there is no room for boasting on the part of the believer. However, even though our works gain nothing before God, we should still do them. In the verse immediately prior to our text, Paul clarifies that the Law is not overthrown. Rather we continue to uphold it. Still, Paul reminds us that we cannot get away from the fact that the Law brings wrath (4:15). It shows us our sin. Even as we strive to uphold it, it will always accuse and condemn us.
Two Old Testament patriarchs, Abraham and David, are referenced in this text to support the Scriptural doctrine of justification. Paul makes it clear that this is not his doctrine, but that of Holy Scripture. It is the faith of the patriarchs of old, not a Pauline invention. Neither of these two patriarchs possessed their own strength for salvation, nor did they boast in anything but God’s grace. The examples of Abraham and David illustrate exactly what St. Paul says in the latter part of the text, namely that the promise to Abraham and his offspring “depends on faith” so that it “may rest on grace.”
Paul’s example of Abraham is an almost direct quote from Genesis 15:6 in the Septuagint. Paul, like the Septuagint, uses the word λογίζομαι (to reckon or account) when referencing Abraham. His faith was reckoned or counted to him as righteousness. Earlier Paul addressed this “righteousness,” namely that it is from God apart from the works of the Law, to which the Law and the prophets testify (Ro 3:21). God’s gift of righteousness is clearly proclaimed in the Law and the prophets, hence the example of father Abraham.
That brings us to Paul’s second example, King David, who penned Psalm 32. Paul quotes the first two verses. Once again we encounter the word λογίζομαι, this time with an emphatic negative. “Blessed is the man of whom the Lord shall never count (his) sin.” Paul’s exegesis places this right alongside the example of Abraham. A man’s sin is not counted against him. Rather he is credited with righteousness. King David of old, like father Abraham, knew and believed this great truth!
There is a potential connection with Nicodemus in our Gospel reading from John 3:1-17! Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Jesus points him away from the works of the flesh to the work of God through the Son of Man who will be lifted up. Those who believe in Him will receive eternal life. How does this faith come? It is given when one is born again (literally “from above”) by water and the Spirit. Nicodemus and the Pharisees remind us how easy it is to “not understand” these truths of God. Many great teachers of the Law, children of Abraham and David by blood, misunderstood the promise given through their patriarchs. Let it not be so for us! The mighty power of the Gospel defends us from all doubt and confusion concerning our justification. The Law has its place, but the promise rests on the Gospel of God’s grace. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it through Him (Jn 3:17). In other words, Jesus is not a new Moses. He is our Savior.
The Gospel “for you,” comes through very clearly in the fact that God’s promise to Abraham is also guaranteed to Abraham’s offspring. The true children of Abraham are those who believe in Christ (Gal 3:7). True children of Abraham are those who have been born from above, by God’s gracious work in Christ. God is the one who “gives life to the dead” and “calls things into being that do not exist.” He can make children of Abraham out of mere stones (Mt 3:9). God can make children of Abraham out of those who were born dead in their trespasses and sins. That is what God has done for you and me, heirs of the promise to Abraham.
The NIV text (4:1) reads: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, ‘discovered’ in this matter?” A sermon on this text could build on the concept of the Gospel as “An Awesome Discovery!” We even hear Dr. Luther’s experience with the Gospel put this way, namely as a “discovery.” Discoveries often happen in the midst of a journey. Luther’s journey was one of turmoil as he wrestled with the Law, the burden of his sin and a desire to know a God who loves His people. What an awesome “discovery” it must have been for him when St. Paul revealed that even for God’s people of old, salvation is ours by grace through faith, not by the works of the Law.
The preacher could structure his sermon around several individuals (Abraham, David, Nicodemus, or even Paul) and their journeys toward the discovery of the Gospel, perhaps using the example of Luther as an introduction, then concluding with the journey of the hearers. The life of a Christian is a Lenten journey. We journey each day with our Lord’s cross in view and the hope of resurrection to come. This approach gives opportunity to proclaim the Law in the sense that St. Paul teaches it here, namely, that it brings wrath. That is extremely evident in the example of Luther and even in David’s case after being convicted of his sin with Bathsheba. How awesome the discovery of the Gospel was for them! Throughout our journey, when we get puffed up with self-righteousness, or like Luther, fall into the pit of despair because of our sin, what an awesome discovery it is for us when we receive Jesus and His forgiveness through Word and Sacrament.