Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 - Does Faith Save? - March 12, 2017

Sola gratia; sola fide; sola Scriptura. Did you notice those words on your way into church this morning? They are engraved on the stone just to the left of the doors as you enter. In a world where we face sensory overload on every hand, it’s easy to ignore little things like that. I also realize that most of us never learned Latin and so the words are foreign. But for Christians – and especially for Lutherans – those are very important words. Those words sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), and sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) stand as the Biblical (and Lutheran) answers to the most important question in the world: how are sinful humans saved? Ever since our Savior ascended into heaven, these basic, foundational principals have come under attack by false teachers and false teachings, and have had to be defended with the sword of God’s truth. This morning God’s Word leads us to carefully consider one of those fundamental Christian doctrines: sola fide (faith alone). We ask with Abraham and Paul and believers throughout history: does faith save?


What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? In answering this question, Paul uses Abraham as an example and guide. Why? Couldn’t Paul find someone else, someone who didn’t live 4000 years before us? In using Abraham, Paul is proving a couple points. First, he is showing that Christian faith is not something that has evolved over time – Abraham was saved the same way we are. And second, this question “how are we saved – is it by faith or works?” has always been the most important question a person can ever ask.


So, if we are saved by faith; how do you define faith? Is it a feeling? Is it knowledge of facts? Is it equivalent to church membership? Is it a hidden, undefinable force in a person’s heart that drives them to do what they do? The book of Hebrews gives a careful definition of faith: faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1) Is that the sense you got as you listened to Genesis 12 earlier? What stuck out to you: what Abraham believed or what he did? It’s hard to get past the fact that when God told Abraham to leave everything he knew and set out for an unknown “Promised Land”; he actually did it, isn’t it? We might think: “If that’s faith, I don’t know if I would have that kind of faith; I don’t know if I could drop everything and leave everyone and go to an unknown place even if God personally told me to.” If that’s what you took from Genesis 12, you’re not alone. Abraham was held up as the pinnacle of righteousness by the Jewish people because of what he did. The rabbis wrote: “Abraham was perfect in all his dealings with the Lord and gained favor by his righteousness throughout his life.” [1]


The Jews had learned the wrong lesson from Abraham. But, sad to say, many Christians do not really understand salvation by faith, either. Too often today when people are talking about faith they bring up either the internal psychology (the feelings) of faith or the great things that faith does. If a certain hymn or song makes us feel funny inside – that must be faith pulsating there. If a person has an incredible knowledge of the Bible – they must have great faith. Or, if a person who is going through a difficulty in life but they still come to church, they still have a smile on their face, they still confess their trust in God; they must have great faith. Or like the Jewish rabbis, we might think of Bible history heroes as having great faith because of what they have done. Noah, because he built an ark on dry land. Moses, because he stood up to Pharaoh and his armies. David, because he defeated Goliath. A grandparent or parent, a pastor or teacher may stick out in your mind as being of great faith – because of how they lived or preached or taught. But we must understand that when we think of faith in that way, then we’re not really talking about faith anymore; we’re talking about works. And Paul is very clear: if…Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. Admittedly, Abraham’s works were good and righteous – and before men they may have given him a reason to boast. But Abraham’s good works could never justify him in God’s courtroom, where nothing less than perfection is tolerated.


If you take only one thing from this sermon, take this: faith is the opposite of works. Faith is not what you know, it’s not what you do, and it’s not what you feel. How can we be certain? What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Do you remember what happened before Abraham took a single step toward Canaan? God said: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3) Yes, Abraham obeyed God’s command to leave his home and family and travel to an unknown land. But Abraham didn’t believe God’s command, he believed God’s promise – the promise to make him into a great nation, to make him famous, to bless all nations through him (a reference to the Savior). That faith in the promise – trust in what God would do – is what was credited to Abraham’s account as righteousness.  


The same is true regarding our salvation. The Gospel is not a command, but a promise. Long before you and I were even a glimmer in our parent’s eyes, God promised to send a Savior into this world who would be born of a virgin, who would destroy the devil’s work by healing the sick and casting out demons, by preaching the good news, suffering and dying and rising again. 2000 years ago those promises came to a culmination on Calvary, where Jesus Christ offered his life as the perfect sacrifice for sin so that on Easter morning God could announce that the sins of the world had been paid in full. And in his Word, God has promised to credit Jesus’ righteousness to anyone who believes and is baptized. Where were you and I in that story? What did we contribute? Unless you want to take credit for your sins that put Jesus on the cross, you must admit that you contributed nothing. The only way to receive God’s promise and Christ’s righteousness is to accept it as a gift. Paul uses an analogy from the business world: now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness. If we must earn salvation by what we do, it’s not a gift – it’s something we have earned. But if salvation is a gift of God’s grace, then by definition, we can’t do anything to earn it. So, does faith save? Yes, in the sense that it simply believes God’s promise and receives Christ’s accomplished work. Faith saves because it takes us, and anything we might do, out of the equation. When it comes to salvation: we do nothing, God does everything. In that sense, faith, and faith alone, saves.


But we wouldn’t waste our time asking a yes or no question if the answer were that simple. There is a way that faith does not save. Briefly, faith, if it is misplaced or is regarded as meritorious, does not save. Jesus exposed misplaced faith in the Samaritan woman at the well. Did this woman have faith? Sure she did. In what, is hard to say (although it was likely some combination of Judaism and idolatry) – she seems to be very “open-minded” in her understanding of truth – like so many people today: “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe.” And we can see evidence of her “faith” in her life. She “had” a man; but they weren’t married. What does that tell us? This woman’s faith was misplaced; she trusted a make-believe god with make-believe laws. As Jesus told her, she was drinking from the wrong well. (John 4:13-14) In today’s terms, there’s no doubt that a young Muslim man who walks into a bar in Miami with the intention of killing as many people as possible (and knowing that he will either be killed or imprisoned for the rest of his life) has faith. He does. But it’s misplaced. Trusting Allah is no different than trusting nothing, because Allah is nothing. His “faith” will not save him.


In religion, like in rock climbing – the most important thing is not your rope, it’s what that rope is anchored to. What is your faith anchored to? In verse 13 Paul talks about the righteousness that comes by faith. That righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. Our right standing before God is based on Jesus’ work, not ours. He obeyed God perfectly, we haven’t. He poured out his blood on the cross, we didn’t. He paid the price for our sins – if we want to pay that price, we must spend eternity in hell. We are not saved because we believe; we are saved because Christ died to save us. The rope of faith, in order to save, must be anchored in Christ.


Paul also describes the problem with understanding faith as something meritorious: something that earns God’s favor: if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. If you trust your faith to save you, then you are back in the realm of obedience to the law. Specifically, the first commandment. You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3) If faith is going to save you, then your faith must be perfect in every sense: in what you believe and how you live. No one, not Abraham, not you, not me has that kind of faith. So, faith in faith is idolatry. I’ll say it again: faith in faith is idolatry. It is not trust in God. It is not trust in his grace. It is not trust in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is empty, futile, worthless. To use the rope analogy, having faith in faith is like trusting your rope because it’s so good and sturdy, even though it’s not tied to anything. Martin Luther was so averse to thinking of faith as meritorious that he said: “I am accustomed, for the better understanding of this point, to divest myself of the idea that there is a quality in my heart at all, call it either faith or love, but in their place I put Christ and say: “He is my Righteousness.”” (St. L. XXI)


Again, Abraham serves as a case study. He had saving faith, but it was far from perfect. Did you know that before God broke into Abraham’s life, he worshiped idols? Yeah, Joshua told the entire assembly of Israel: long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped foreign gods. (Joshua 24:2) Did you know that even after God brought Abraham to faith, he lied about the fact that Sarah was his wife, not once but twice – because he didn’t believe God would protect him? (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18) Did you know that Abraham had a baby with his servant because he didn’t believe God would keep his promise to give him a son? (Genesis 16:4-6) I don’t bring this evidence up to ruin Abraham’s reputation, but to demonstrate that even saving faith merits us nothing, earns us nothing in God’s eyes – because it is never perfect.


And you know what? That’s very good news. Because I don’t know my Bible as well as I should, do you? I don’t always live the way the Bible tells me to, do you? I don’t perfectly trust God’s protection, his love, his plan and I don’t always rejoice in suffering, do you? My faith doesn’t always show itself in acts of love for my family, friends and perfect strangers – does yours? Sometimes, when I keep falling into the same sin over and over again or when guilt leaves me lying awake long into the night or when the smartest people in the world claim to prove that there is no god, I sometimes have some doubts; do you? But that’s when I’m right where God wants me. Because God’s grace and his promise are not to save those who have lived a perfect life or even have a perfect faith. Jesus himself said that he didn’t come for the good, but the bad; not the healthy, but the sick. (Luke 5:31) Paul says: the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. In the end that’s where we come into the picture – we are the wicked people God has justified (declared “not guilty”) for Jesus’ sake. That promise is what saving faith clings to. So when sin or guilt or Satan or life has you feeling more like that Samaritan woman than Abraham – don’t look to yourself, your works, or even your faith – look to Christ; because his life and death and resurrection provide the only solid anchor for faith and the only certainty for salvation.


So, does faith save? Yes…and no. Yes, when faith is defined as the opposite of works – that clings to Christ alone; faith alone saves. But no, faith that is misplaced or meritorious cannot save. To say, “faith saves,” is like saying, “eating makes you strong.” Eating doesn’t give you anything – the nutritional value of the food does. Faith saves because it receives Jesus Christ as Savior. Faith alone saves, but saving faith trusts in God’s grace alone, in Christ’s sacrifice alone, spelled out in Scripture alone. That kind of faith, and that kind of faith alone, is what saves. Amen.


[1] BST Romans, 122