Justified by Grace
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Genesis 15:6, Luke 18:9-14
August 11, 2019

When we look at the Old Testament and Gospel readings today, we find the theme of justification by grace through faith. It is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. It is the doctrine upon which you stand.

In the Old Testament reading, it says that Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted Abram’s believing to Abram as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). In the parable Jesus told in the Gospel reading, Jesus says that the tax-collector, rather than the Pharisee, went down to his house from the temple, justified. The tax-collector was justified because he confessed before God that he was a sinner in need of God’s mercy (Luke 18:13). He appealed only to God’s mercy.

Now the word “justification” has to do with the question of how God considers us to be righteous in His sight. The fact is that we must be righteous before God in order to be saved. In other words, we must be regarded by God as righteous in order to have eternal life with God and a place in the new creation at the resurrection on the Last Day.  

Now there are only two ways to be righteous before God. One is the way of human achievement, the way of the law; that when God looks at us He is so impressed by us that He just must regard us as righteous, or worthy of His love, eternal life and resurrection. The other way is by trusting in the promises and mercy of God.

The way of God being impressed with us may sound good. It may sound logical. It makes sense to our human way of thinking. It is also what makes the world go around.

But with respect to our justification before God, it can lead in only two directions. One direction is arrogance, pride in oneself before God.

But here is a serious problem. This pride is sin before God. If one has pride in one’s achievements as the way for God to regard one as righteous, then one lands in an immediate contradiction, because pride in oneself before God is sin. This is shown in Jesus’s parable. The Pharisee boasts before God about his achievements. He does not go down to his house righteous in God’s sight.

Despair is the other direction to which hoping to be righteous before God in one’s own achievements leads. I will never be good enough.

This is the honest appraisal. To be justified in one’s own achievements is going the way of justification by obedience to the law. The law is never satisfied. One can never be good enough. If you have blown it in just one way in the righteousness of the law, you have blown it.  And we all know how we have blown it with respect to what the law demands many times. Honesty under the law knows this quite well. Thus, if we are to be regarded by God as righteous in our own achievement, by obedience to the law, then we are led to despair, when the honesty of our failure to achieve such righteousness comes crashing in on us.

So there must be another way, if we are to be saved. Thanks be to God that He has provided just such another way.

This other way is the way of faith in God’s promises. It is the way of appeal only to God’s mercy, mercy which He gives without price and in abundance in Christ.

Let’s focus here on the way of faith in God’s promises. This is presented to us in the story of Abram from Genesis chapter 15. It says in Genesis 15:6, “[Abram] believed in the Lord and [the Lord] counted it or reckoned it to [Abram] as righteousness.” God credited Abram’s faith in the promise to Abram as righteousness.

What is going on here?

We know that God had called Abram out of the Ur of Chaldees—what was later known as Babylon—to go to the promised land. And God promised to Abram that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that his descendants would one day occupy the land of promise.

Abram reminds the Lord of a serious problem. Abram did not have his own son through Sarah, his wife. And Sarah was apparently unable to have children.

To top it off, by the time we get to our text, Abram and Sarah are well-advanced in age. For all practical purposes, according to all the evidence and what we know about these things from human experience, God’s promise was impossible and falling flat.

Yet, the word of the Lord had the audacity to appear to Abram and speak the impossible promise to him again. “Abram. You will have an heir. He will come from your own body and from Sarah, your wife. It will not be Eliezer of Damascus. And through this son, your descendants will be like the stars in the sky in number.”

Abram believed in the Lord. He believed it, this impossible promise. The Lord regarded him as righteous for believing it.

The Apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 4. Abram did not waver in unbelief in the promise, but was made strong in faith, giving glory to God, being convinced that God was able to do what He promised (Romans 4:20-21). The verbs here in Romans 4, “being made strong” and “being convinced,” are passive. This means that these were things being done to Abram. The promise itself calls forth the faith. And the Spirit of the Lord is working in the promise to create and sustain this faith. Justifying faith cannot survive apart from God’s promises in Christ.

God then reckoned this faith to Abram as righteousness.

Why? Because he believed the promise. By believing the promise, he was trusting that God would do what God promised. By trusting the promise, Abram was relying upon God’s power and God’s faithfulness to follow through.

But maybe this believing is a human achievement, after all. Maybe we think here that Abram had such outstanding faith that when the Lord is reckoning it to Abram as righteousness, the Lord is really giving Abram the full merit of what his faith has earned. His faith is so strong and so stellar and so impressive on the faith-o-meter, that when the Lord looks at it, He is overawed and must reward it as righteousness.

And then we may think, I don’t have faith like Abram. So now the good news of faith being credited as righteousness leads again to despair.

Let’s take a look, therefore, to see how stellar Abram’s faith was. In Chapter 16 of Genesis, the next chapter, Sarah is getting impatient with the promise. She comes up with a plan for Abram to have a child to fulfill God’s promise by means of her servant, Hagar.

What was Sarah thinking to propose such a thing? What was Abram thinking by agreeing to such a plan? They certainly weren’t thinking with faith in the promise.

Or consider this. When Abram and Sarah went into the region ruled by King Abimelech in Genesis 20, Abram told Sarah to tell the men of that country that Sarah was his sister. Abram was afraid that they would kill him to take Sarah, if they knew Sarah was his wife, because she was apparently a beautiful woman. This was after the word of the Lord appeared to Abram in our text and told him not to be afraid and that the Lord was his shield and his great reward. Abram had also done this once before when they had gone to Egypt. Both Pharaoh and Abimelech got into serious trouble with God because of this scheme of Abram.

When viewed on its own merits, Abram’s faith was not perfect. Abram blew it at times with respect to ethical achievement.

So when the Scripture says that Abram believed in the Lord, at the point of the promise, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness, the reckoning is pure grace. This is the point of the word “reckoning,” or “counting as,” or “crediting to,” or regarding. The Lord is giving Abram that credit as gift, just because Abram believed in the absurd, impossible, promise. This is grace. A person cannot do anything with respect to a promise other than believe it. There is nothing to achieve in believing a promise.

There is no quantifying the believing here. It does not work that way. Even the smallest faith, so to speak, in God’s promises in Christ, if we must speak in terms of quantity, or quality, is reckoned as righteousness. The reckoning is by pure grace.

So what does this mean for you. God has sent Jesus as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abram and throughout the Old Testament. He is the One who crushed the devil’s head (Genesis 3:15). He is the One on whom God laid all our sins (Isaiah 53:6). He is the One who rose to new life, conquering death.

In Jesus, the good news is proclaimed: your sins are forgiven; you have eternal life in Him. As you find yourself believing these promises, your faith is regarded by God as righteousness. No quantifying of your faith here. This reckoning is pure grace.

And God delights in reckoning it to you that way. He delights in lifting the impossible burden off your shoulders of having to be righteous by your own ethical, religious, or other achievement, because that way leads only to death. He delights in giving life. He sent Jesus, and He reckons your faith in Jesus as righteousness. Thanks be to God.

Amen, 

Pastor Westby



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