Connections 03.12.2017: Just Believe?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul spent a lot of mental energy writing about faith versus works. Having studied some of the history of his time, I understand why this was so important. The new Christian movement broke into a centuries-old religion that relied on sacrifices, rituals, and strict adherence to the laws of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Old Testament. While still honoring these ancient tenets, Paul struggled to communicate the free gift of grace available in Jesus Christ through faith alone. Nothing was needed to earn grace. Nothing was required aside from believing in Jesus and what he came to do for all people.

This is a beautiful and important truth. It is freeing and undemanding. It is available to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

It can also be oversimplified. When I was growing up, I often heard the path to salvation described with a catchy acronym: ABC. Many adults told me that, in order to become a Christian, I simply had to Admit that I am a sinner, Believe that Jesus died in my place to take away my sins, and Confess that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. This, too, seems beautiful, important, freeing, undemanding, and widely available.

Even as a child, though, I thought ABC was too formulaic, too reduced, too easy. Over the years, as I matured in my spirituality, I realized that no one can make himself or herself believe in Jesus. We either believe or we don’t believe. And sometimes we believe strongly, while other times our belief is frail and fragile. There are even times when otherwise faithful Christ followers may not believe at all. At least in my own walk with Jesus, I’ve discovered that it’s never as simple as a one-time progression through ABC.

I don’t think we have to oversimplify the gift of grace through Jesus Christ. Nor do I think Paul oversimplified it. It cost Jesus dearly, and Paul goes on to write about how much it cost himself and how much it will cost anyone who accepts, believes, and confesses. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was hanged for resistance to the Nazi regime, wrote this about grace:

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Grace is free for us in the beginning. We don’t have to earn it. But it was not free for Christ. And if we truly receive his gift of grace, our lives will reflect its presence. This can end up costing us dearly. Faith was costly for Abraham. It was costly for Ruth and Esther. It was costly for Mary and Peter. And it was costly for Paul. If it is real in our lives, why shouldn’t it be costly for us as well?

Source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1937.

Discussion

1. If you grew up in the church, what were you told about being saved? How does it continue to affect your walk with Jesus?
2. What are the benefits of catchy phrases and teaching aids that condense Scripture into something that is easy to remember and understand? What might be harmful about such tools?
3. If you could condense what God did in Jesus Christ into a “plan of salvation,” what would it be?
4. How do you feel about the idea that grace is a free gift? Do you think grace can be costly, as Bonhoeffer wrote? If so, when and how?
5. What can you do to better understand what Jesus did for all people, and how can Christ’s gift of grace be more evident in your everyday life?

Reference Shelf

Chapter four, with its focus on the role of the law, is launched by the continuation of the diatribe form. A fifth exchange is found in 4:1-2. (5) The Jewish questioner asked: “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about” (vv. 1-2a). To which Paul responded: “But not before God (v. 2b)! For what does the scripture say (v. 3a)? Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v. 3b; see Gen 15:6). Down through v. 12 Paul’s first point is that Abraham’s righteousness was a gift through faith.

In many Jewish circles Abraham was held up as a model of works-righteousness. First Maccabees 2:52 says: “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” Sirach 44:19-21 says: “Abraham . . . kept the law of the Most High . . . and when he was tested he proved faithful. Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring.” Jubilees 23:10 comments: “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.” These Jewish interpreters viewed Genesis 15:6 (Abraham was reckoned righteous) through the lens of Genesis 22 (the sacrifice of Isaac). As a result, Abraham’s faith became his obedience to God. It was regarded as a work for which God owed Abraham a reward. Not so Paul, who would have regarded such a reading as legalism. For the apostle, Abraham’s righteousness was a gift. “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (vv. 4-5).

Charles H. Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 117–18.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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