Romans 4:1-12 Two kinds of religion

Romans 4:1-11Barrow 27/1/13

It has always been this way (also Les Mis)

The hot film of the moment is ‘Les Miserables’. it is the film of the musical of the book. The novel by Victor Hugo was first published in 1862. The stage musical was first performed in 1980. Then London version has run continuously since 1985 and has been immensely popular which is why a film version of the musical has finally been made. The central characters are a criminal released on parole, Jean Valjean and a policeman, Javert. Now I am aware that some of you may not know the story and so I don’t want to spoil things too much for you. But a central theme is about two forms of religion - that of law and that of grace. And that is also the central theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans. So if you don’t understand the sermons go and see the film!

I shall come back to the musical in a moment but let us just trace where we have got to. At the start of the letter Paul showed that everyone, whether they were Jews or Gentiles, fell short. We all fail to keep the two great commandments of loving God and our neighbour wholeheartedly. We are all part of God’s problem - a world not living in harmony with him, other people and his creation. Then Paul moved on to show us God’s solution, which brings together God’s justice and God’s love - the cross of Jesus. That is what Judith focussed on last time. On the cross, God himself, bore all the consequences of our sinfulness, this opened the way for us to be ‘in the right’ with God. Paul uses a technical term for ‘in the right’. It is the word ‘justify’. When we put our trust in what God has done for us, we are ‘justified’ - that is put back into a right relationship with God. We can start being part of the solution instead of part of the problem - although in this life we shall always be a bit of both.

But is this some new thing? And if so where does that leave God’s people from of old - Israel? Here in Chapter 4 Paul begins to answer such questions. The father of Israel was Abraham. The nation consisted of his descendents. Now, at the time Paul, was writing, there was great emphasis on the laws God had given to his people. They both showed people how to live, and also marked out the nation as distinct - especially the laws relating to circumcision and sabbath and there was a great concern generally to live by the law. So Paul goes right back to the beginning of the nation. How did things start? What was the basis of Abraham’s relationship with God? Was it law or was it grace - God’s mercy? 

And so in 4:1-3 Paul says, “What then shall we say that Abraham, the forefather of us Jews, 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’”

When Paul says ‘works’ what he means is ‘works of the law’, that becomes clear later on in this chapter, esp. vv.13-15. So let’s bring in Les Mis again. As I said there are two kinds of religion. There is the religion of ‘duty’ of keeping the law in the hope that God will be pleased with us. The idea that life is all about the scales of justice and that we have to keep the law to please God, This is the philosophy that Javert lives by. In his song ‘Stars’ he sings ‘those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward, and if they fall as Lucifer fell - the flame, the sword ..... and so it has been and so it is written on the doorway to paradise, that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price!” Religion for such people is a thing of a duty and obligation. It is about merit and reward. And it is more common than you might think. It is sadly surprising how many people when asked the question ‘Do you expect to go to heaven when you die?’ answer “I hope so, I have done my best, I have tried to live a good life”. They hope that on the scales the good they have done will outweigh the bad. Sadly, as we see with Javert there is often little joy in such religion and it can lead to self-righteous pride and a hard heart to those who fail. Jesus often castigates the Pharisees for having just such a religion.

The other kind of religion is the religion of grace. This begins with forgiveness and mercy. Paul speaks of this when in verses 7 & 8 he says:

“Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed are those whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”

Such people know that they do wrong, but have grasped that they can be and are forgiven. This is what ‘grace’ is, it is to receive what we don’t deserve - forgiveness. This is what Valjean experienced. Having robbed the bishop who had offered him hospitality he is arrested and brought back before the bishop - who says he had given him the things he stole - and then gave him two candlesticks more valuable than all that he had stolen. He is not handed over to the demands of the law, but is forgiven and experiences generous love. Valjean sings:

“One word from him and I’d be back
beneath the lash, upon the rack.
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife.
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?”

He knows that his experience of mercy and grace means that everything else is now different. He realises that one life has finished and a new one could begin. He realises that his life now belongs to God and he seeks to make a difference to the lives of others. 

And this, too, has been the experience of many through history. John Newton famously wrote these words:

Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

That sums up the outlook of Valjean exactly, or take the words of Charles Wesley:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

And, of course, it is the view of Paul, as he was to sum it up in 1 TIm. 1:15:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.

And Abraham was one who also knew the truth of this. Paul says in v.5 “However, to anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” and he is writing about the faith of Abraham. 

Some people try to play off the Old Testament against the New, saying that Old Testament religion is all about keeping the law to get right with God, whereas the New is all about grace. But that is not true. Abraham knew all about grace. It was his faith, not his works, that marked out Abraham. The way of grace, responded to in faith, has always been God’s way of working.

And so, Paul writes in v. 11 “He (Abraham) is the the father of the of all who believe” and whether you are circumcised is irrelevant”.

The message of Les Mis and the message of Romans are the same. We do not get right with God by trying to keep all the law - that route lies misery and disappointment, for we will all fail. But once we realise that God has dealt with our sin on the cross and offers complete forgiveness and a new start - then we can live a life of making a difference to others. Showing to others the mercy we have received. Is your religion that of Javert or Valjean? I pray that we will all come to know the life-changing experience of grace that he had

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011