This post contains Pastor Natsis’s sermon from Sunday, March 8, 2020; the Sunday after Nashville and surrounding areas were hit by a massive tornadic storm.
This past Tuesday I was standing in front of a house around 12:15 in the afternoon. Well, I suppose that’s an inaccurate statement. I was standing in front of something that was a house at one point. 12 hours earlier, in fact, it had been a house. But around 1 in the morning, a powerful force of nature arbitrarily passed through and wiped the house clean off its foundations. That tornado did similar damage to a 50-mile swath of land in our community, then, after taking a break, resumed its damage further east in Middle Tennessee.
This was an incredible sight. It provided me with a lot of perspective, as disastrous situations like the Nashville Tornado tend to do. As I drove around town that afternoon, I called some of my seminary classmates. Every Tuesday we have a video chat to discuss our sermons for the upcoming Sunday. I was a little too busy to video chat, so I called in while stuck in tornado-related traffic. In the verses we were looking at, Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17, Paul goes into a discourse about Abraham and righteousness. He contrasts two kinds of righteousness: righteousness that comes from works, and righteousness that comes by faith.
We had a good, Lutheran discussion about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, as found in Scripture alone. In Christ Alone, our hope is found. These are all good thoughts, and they’re thoughts that you and I are going to explore as this sermon goes on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the tornado and the damage that I witnessed. Even as I was driving and talking (hands-free, of course) on the phone, I was passing by some devastating sights. I started thinking about the tornado’s effects and the essence of faith. Trust. And I asked the question, half in my head and half out loud to my classmates, “I wonder what these people with destroyed homes had their faith in in at 1 a.m. last night.”
And I wasn’t necessarily talking about faith in the religious sense here—as in “I wonder what god these people believe in” or “I wonder what their religious affiliation is.” But when people found themselves taking shelter, what did they have their faith in? Was their faith in chance, just banking on the fact that the tornado would not come near them, or maybe go back into the sky before arriving? Was their faith in the four walls around them, that their physical shelter would stand strong and protect them? If you were in that position, I’m not trying to grill you or accuse you of anything. I don’t think it would have been wrong to have either of those thoughts or feelings. But the fact remains…for the owners of that home and ones like it, those objects of faith would not have come through for them. The tornado didn’t divert its course. Those four walls came down. If that was the extent of their faith, they were let down. Putting faith in the wrong thing might work sometimes, but if your faith is in the wrong thing, faith can fail. And it’s not necessarily because your faith is weak or flawed—it’s because of the object of your faith being, in the end, unreliable.
Romans 4 is all about the contrast of two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness that comes from works and the righteousness that comes from faith. But we can view this contrast in a different way: in what do we place our faith in order to be righteous? Do we place our faith in works, or do we place our faith in God? Paul specifically uses Abraham as the object lesson, a man and a story that would have been familiar to Paul’s primarily Jewish audience. To the Jewish mind, Abraham was one of the greatest men—if not, the greatest man—to ever live. God chose Abraham to be the Father of the entire Israelite nation. He made amazing promises to Abraham: “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.” So the mindset of the proud descendants of Abraham would be something like: “God wouldn’t make those promises to just anyone, would he?” Clearly, there was something special about Abraham. And if there’s something special and righteous about Abraham, then there’s something special and righteous about those who descended from Abraham.
Before we go on, I don’t want to accuse Paul’s Jewish audience unfairly or hypocritically. Clearly, this mindset is flawed. Placing your faith in your blood or in your heritage sounds problematic to our ears, and that’s because it is. But think for a moment—members of Rock of Ages, practically speaking, what do you think makes you righteous? You may never say this out loud, but look into your heart: do you think you have an extra measure of righteousness because you’re a Lutheran? Do you think you are more righteous on account of belonging to a church that preaches the Word of God in its truth and purity? Do you think there is at least some righteousness that comes from the fact that you know what it means that salvation is by grace alone? On what do you place your faith in order to be righteous?
Perhaps that example is too crass. Think of it this way. Do you ever get the feeling that God should reward you if you’ve done something good? Or that you can influence God’s favor toward you by having a good day of Christian living? Or that if things aren’t going your way, that you could bend God’s will by trying extra hard? On what do you place your faith in order to be righteous?
When God, through his inspired writer Paul, talks about righteousness that comes from works, he’s really talking about no righteousness at all—because it’s not possible. He’s talking about misplaced faith. Faith in works is not actually faith. Even someone who is devoutly righteous in many things fails if they place their faith in their works, or in their heritage, or in their church. It’s even wrong to place your faith in faith. It’s the same problem as placing your faith in the four walls of your home in the shadow of a tornado. The object of your faith is what matters. The object of your faith is what makes or breaks the value of faith. So what’s the answer? Let’s look to Paul’s example of Abraham. Abraham did not have faith in himself, or in his works, or in his faith.
So what does Paul say Abraham’s faith was in?
Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
And what does John say about our Savior in his Gospel?
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
There was nothing special or righteous in Abraham that caused God to choose him. God’s promises to Abraham were not a wage. God’s promises to Abraham were a gift. That is the difference between the two kinds of righteousness—the two objects of faith. Righteousness does not come from works. It comes from faith. But more than coming from faith, righteousness comes from faith in the true God—faith that rests upon the only object that can truly give righteousness: Jesus Christ, our Savior, who won righteousness and gives it as a gift to you and to me.
Brothers and sisters, put your faith in Jesus. Put your faith in the God who calls into being things that were not. Put your faith in the God who brings life to the dead. I stand up here this morning confident in the fact that this is where your faith rests. Otherwise I wouldn’t call you brothers and sisters in Christ! Even knowing and being confident of that fact, though, my encouragement is exactly the same. Put your faith in God above all else. And the amazing thing about what I just said—“put your faith in God”—is that it doesn’t even come from you. Faith has always been, and will continue to be, a gift from God. In that encouragement, I am doing nothing more than praying that God would continue to be with you and strengthen your faith in him.
There will be days when it seems like believing in God is harder than normal. There will be times when trusting in ourselves and our own work will seem like the better option. There will be plenty of opportunities where we are tempted to put our faith in things that cannot save. When we fall into these traps that are laid for us by the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, know that our God, the truly saving object of faith, forgives us and lovingly calls us back to himself. But not only that—he gives us spiritual strength and renewal of faith in him.
Righteousness is not earned—it is a gift. It is a status that God gives us by faith in Christ alone. Our faith does not rest on the four walls around us, or on our church and its doctrine, or on our own work. Our faith does not even rest on faith. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness—I dare to make no other claim but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. Faith looks to God.
A lesson from Romans chapter 4:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.