on earning and righteousness

“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. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Romans 4:1-8

There’s an old-fashioned phrase called preaching to the choir. It means you’re saying something that your audience already knows, and already agrees with. Generally when you’re preaching to the choir you’re just kind of wasting your time, since you’re not saying anything new, or changing anyone’s mind.

In this passage Paul is kind of preaching to the choir: he’s addressing Christians living in Rome, explaining to them what it means to be God’s people. But here’s where things get complicated: among those Christians are Jewish believers who think Paul is preaching to the choir, they think they know it all already. But in today’s passage Paul — who is Jewish himself — is trying to show them that they actually don’t know what it means to be God’s people, to be acceptable to God; Paul is trying to show them what that really means.

That’s why he brings up Abraham and David. Every Jew in Paul’s day knew that Abraham and David were the best examples of how to be acceptable to God: these two men had followed God’s law, the Jews said, and done great and faithful things for God, and that’s why God said they were righteous. That’s why God loved them and accepted them.

But Paul makes it clear here: the Jewish believers who think they are acceptable to God because they obey God’s law are wrong. They’re wrong about Abraham and David: remember Abraham and David? Abraham, who was promised that God would give him a son even though he was really old, but surrendered his one and only wife to save his own skin? Abraham, who when he had to wait for God’s promise of a son, decided to have a son with his slave girl just in case God didn’t pull through? Or David, who took his friend’s wife, and then had his friend killed to cover it all up? That David? If the Jews claimed that being acceptable to God meant following God’s law, they had some pretty weird standards of what it meant to follow the law.

Paul tells them no: Abraham was not counted as righteous, acceptable, because he followed God’s law perfectly — because he didn’t. Abraham was counted as righteous because he believed God, believed that God does what he says he’ll do, that God would give him a son because that’s what he promised. The same goes for mighty King David — murderous, adulterous King David — who could only count on God’s mercy. David believed that God would have mercy on him as a sinner instead of trying to cover up what he did in front of God. That’s what made him acceptable before God.

That’s the attitude the Jews should have before God, Paul says. That’s the attitude that all people should have before God. We don’t present to God all the good things we’ve done and hope against hope that they’ll cover up all the awful things we’ve done. We trust that when God says Jesus alone saves us, that’s exactly how it is. We trust that we are acceptable to God when we are honest with him, when we admit that we really are no better than cowardly, shortsighted Abraham, no better than murderous, adulterous David, and instead we count on God’s mercy through Jesus — Jesus who bled and died to take the punishment that all cowardly, shortsighted, murderous, adulterous, envious, dishonest, self-destructive, imperfect people receive. That’s when we are right with God.

Now what does any of this have to do with us? Like the Bible’s message in general, it’s both disturbing and reassuring.

It’s disturbing because Paul isn’t afraid to offend his audience. No one likes to hear that they’re not good enough to meet God’s standards. And in a city like Hong Kong, where we pride ourselves on achieving things, on doing and saying the right things, on earning the good things we get, Paul’s message is sometimes not that welcome. This might be the most disturbing part of the gospel message: the most important thing in our lives is not earned. Being acceptable to God cannot be earned. It’s received as a gift, but received hungrily, humbly.  

But there’s reassurance here too: maybe the world isn’t a place to scramble and earn, not a place to justify our existence, not a place to do things to show why you deserve love and acceptance and respect. If the most important thing in our lives is not earned, maybe many other things aren’t earned either. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some things that we do earn: we work hard to make money, you work hard to get good grades. But maybe making lots of money, getting really good grades, finding something to show your quality, earning respect by doing great things —  maybe these aren’t what make you acceptable. Just like how following God’s law perfectly and being a really good person don’t make us acceptable before God. Maybe what makes you acceptable, what makes you respected, what makes you cherished, precious, loved — maybe it’s not something we earn and achieve. Maybe it’s something else that does all that. Maybe it’s someone else that does all that.

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