BY GRACE, THROUGH FAITH.
In the name + of Jesus.
The more you read the Bible, the more you become acquainted with the people in it. We learn their names. We retell their stories. We even call them heroes. They are, but not for the reasons you might think. Some view the people in the Bible as examples of righteousness, morality, purity, honesty, and so on. You might even think about teaching your children to act like them. Well, that may not be so great an idea. While Simon Peter was the leader among the apostles, he also denied the Lord. While David was called a man after the Lord's own heart, he was also guilty of adultery and murder. And Samson? Sure, you might be impressed by his feats of strength, but you don't want your children to grow up and act like Samson. If you doubt me, read Judges 13-16.
Our epistle mentions the patriarch Abraham. He is also among the heroes of the Bible. But he is not a hero for what he does—no more than Peter or David or Samson. St. Paul wrote, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” (Romans 4:1-2) Abraham was not honored by God because he did more things or better things than other people. And even if he was good and holy, he did nothing more than what God demands. But Abraham could not even boast that.
How do you remember Abraham? We usually think of him in terms of good deeds. He left behind an idolatrous home. He was gracious with his nephew Lot. When their flocks grew too large to share the same grazing land, Abraham let Lot have first choice with which land he wanted for grazing. Abraham accepted the lesser quality land to keep peace. When Lot was taken captive by enemies, Abraham gathered an army to rescue Lot and all the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. See how righteous Abraham was!
Or, perhaps you remember Abraham differently. When Abraham felt that his wife, Sarah, would be desired by people with more power and authority than him, he had Sarah lie about their relationship. For his conniving, Abraham was given lavish gifts from duped kings. When Sarah could not get pregnant, Abraham took her maidservant Hagar as a concubine and fathered a child through her. When that resulted in family strife, Abraham sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away. So, he was a liar, a polygamist, and an absentee father. Do you really think Abraham deserves the title “hero”?
Now, let's turn this on you. How will the world remember you? Are you good or wicked? I am sure you have friends who could recite glowing eulogies about you, telling how wonderful you are and that your place in heaven is undisputed. But unless you are lying to yourself, you know better. “None is righteous; no, not one.” (Romans 3:10) Everyone has a dark side—words we regret or fantasies which would wreck marriages or ruin careers if they were made known. Or is your dark side that you remember only the faults of others and continually hold their sins against them? Are you self-righteous—condemning others and declaring, “Well, that guy is no Christian because he has done this or that”?
Guess what. The problem is not that we recognize people who do wicked things don't deserve a place in heaven. That is true. They don't. The problem is that we think we do. The problem is that we are convinced that we have done better and therefore deserve better. The problem is that we tend to think that salvation is for the good and damnation is for the wicked, and then we believe that we have a say in who is good or who is wicked. This usurps a place that belongs to God alone. Repent.
Now, to be sure, Abraham is a hero, but he is a hero of faith. God does not praise Abraham for what he did; God blesses Abraham for what he believed. St. Paul noted: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) Righteousness comes by grace, through faith. God extended a promise to Abraham that he would send a Savior for him, that he would give Abraham a place in his kingdom, and that God would be faithful to him. That word was planted in Abraham, took root, and sprouted into a living and active faith. This was God's work. God graciously worked saving faith in Abraham, and then God rewarded Abraham for that faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) Righteousness comes by grace, through faith.
What is true for Abraham is true for all Christians. No one is chosen because he has done something worth a reward. Now, in the world, that thinking makes sense. If someone got the promotion, it is because he worked hard. If someone made the team, it is because she trained for it. Scholarships are awarded to those who put in the hours of study. Imagine a worker who showed up late, who openly mocked his boss, and who spent the day eating bagels, drinking coffee, and dishing office gossip. Now imagine that he was the one who got the big promotion. People would be screaming bloody murder. This would be a grave injustice.
But what does St. Paul write? “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness....” (Romans 4:5) God is determined to be a gracious Savior. If you need to be saved, it means that you are not righteous and you have no hope of changing your situation. God must act. If God is gracious, that means his salvation comes to you for free. It means people who have done wicked things are credited for doing good things. It means people who have done nothing are rewarded for doing it all. It means the lazy are credit as industrious. It means that the guilty are declared innocent. God does not grant salvation based on justice. Righteousness comes by grace.
Righteousness also comes through faith. That faith rests on a promise, and the promise rests on the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus does all the work that needs to be done to save you. And the work had to be done. God's Commandments are not optional. Righteousness is found only in the one who loves God above all and loves his neighbor as himself. Only that person has God's favor upon him. So, Jesus demonstrated the love that eludes us. To those who deserved scorn because of their wickedness, Jesus showed mercy. Even Jesus' disciples did not get it. When they saw Jesus having a conversation with the town tart at the well in Sychar, they were astounded. Jesus, on the other hand, saw a woman in need of forgiveness. He extended a promise to her, and she believed it. Jesus justified the ungodly; even she would be called righteous.
Your place in God's kingdom is not based on your behavior; it is based on a promise. The promise is that Jesus would make himself a sin offering on behalf of the wicked. The Son of God would be slain for the ungodly. Righteousness is not a wage that you earn; rather, Jesus has given his righteousness to you. He delivers it to you by grace, as a gift. He proclaims it to you as a promised to be received by faith. Jesus Christ has done all the work to save you; so the work has been done. And what do you have to do in order to be saved? St. Paul tells you: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness....” (Romans 4:5) Righteousness comes by grace, through faith. Baptism is poured upon you. Absolution is proclaimed to you. Holy Communion is served to you. God works, and you simply receive. God does this so that he remains a gracious Savior, and so that you can have the confidence that, since God has done all the work, it was all done perfectly.
We do well to consider the people in the Bible whom we regard as heroes. They are not heroes of virtue or morality or honesty or even decency. They are heroes of faith. They are the ungodly who were justified by faith in Jesus who lived and died for them. For, if God is pleased to save the five-time divorced Samaritan woman, someone who plots murder like David, womanizers the likes of Samson, and liars the likes of Abraham, then he is pleased to save you too.
In truth, there is only one hero in the Bible, and that is the one who laid down his life to purchase forgiveness for sinners, who grants new life which sets apart the wicked for godly living, and who promises everlasting glory for those who have reason to be ashamed. Jesus has saved you. He forgives you, cleanses you, and supplies the righteousness you need for life in heaven. That is God's promise. And to the one who believes, his faith is counted as righteousness.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.