Questions about faith often plague those of us who are active in church. By that I mean that a goodly number of questions that people have about themselves and their relationship with God are articulated around their faith. Do I have enough faith to be saved? Do I believe the right things about God enough so that He will raise me after I die? How can I know whether I am in “right relationship” with God? There are tons of other questions along these lines. Chances are, all of us have asked ourselves these types of questions at various points in our walk with God. And, it is no small wonder that we do. Most of us realize that we are saved by faith and God’s grace, so it seems natural that we would want to make sure that our faith is “enough” or “well placed.” No doubt the Enemy of God also provokes us to wonder and doubt our relationship with God, as well. When we reflect honestly upon ourselves, when we are given eyes to see us as God saw us before we became His adopted son or daughter, it is no wonder that our doubts can prick at us. I am not righteous enough. I am not loving enough. I am not obedient enough. I don not deserve His grace. Clearly, the people whom Paul was writing in Rome shared some of our questions.
How can we be sure that they shared our questions? Look at the entirety of the letter. What is it about? On an important level, faith is a subject of the letter. The letter begins and ends with Paul exhorting the readers (and now us) to an obedience which arises from faith. And much of what comes in between is spent explaining what is meant by faith and its role in salvation. Take for example today’s readings. If I asked you when it is your faith that saves you, what would be your response? Now, read St. Paul again and ask yourself that same question. Does your faith save you?
The quick answer to the question is, as you have no doubt figured out, no. Our faith does not save us. It seems a strange statement. We are all called to believe in Christ, and Him crucified and Risen. Should not faith be that which saves us? Mercifully, it is not what saves us.
Paul uses as his example of salvation the life and history of Abraham and Sarah. It is a fitting example. Thankfully, Abraham and Sarah are presented in the book of Genesis as mere human beings. I know our temptation is to elevate the saints to a holiness that seems unattainable to us “mere mortals,” but look at their faith journey. Our reading this week takes place nearly 25 years after God has sworn His covenant that their descendants will be like the stars or like the grains of sand on a beach. 25 years! Abraham and Sarah give up the family farm. They travel hither and yon throughout what you and I consider to be modern Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Israel on foot. I can imagine there was a bit of grumbling over 25 years. What are we doing? How is this helping us? What was I thinking? Scripture teaches us that, at times, both Sarah and Abraham took things into their own hands to help keep God’s promise. Sarah, you probably recall, gives her handmaid to Abraham to father a child upon. Why shouldn’t she? When this journey began, she was in her 70’s. Even if Abraham can function, it is wasted. She has long since passed through the change of life. And, lest you think that Scripture picks only on her, look at Abraham. When the two kings decide that Sarah is a looker and they want to take her for a wife, what does Abraham do? For fear that they will kill him and obviate the covenant, Abraham pretends to be her brother. Eventually the kings figure out that Sarah and Abraham are married and give tremendous gifts to them because Yahweh is clearly on their side. So I ask again, does their faith save them? Do they act like holier-than-thou individuals? Or, are they more like you and like me than, perhaps, we want to believe?
St. Paul points out that what saves them is God’s grace. They believed and He credited it to them as righteousness. Not even their faith saved them, just as our faith does not save us. It might seem counter-Christian, but think on Paul’s treatment of the subject. He rightfully points out in the letter that keepers of the law fail to achieve their own salvation, and in our section he reminds us that those who depend on their own faith also fail to achieve their own salvation. It is God’s grace working in us as we live out our lives in obedience to Him which achieves our justification.
To some of you, it might seem like I am speaking nonsense or quibbling, but think of the impact. How many of us have seen or heard a preacher tell us or someone else that the reason God did not heal, did not act, did not provide, did not (fill in your own blank) was because the person’s faith was not enough. God wanted you to be healed of that disease, that infimity, but you lacked faith. God wanted to bless you, but you withheld that last $100. Wolves robed as sheep prey on people’s desires to have their salvation depend upon themselves. And our desire to believe is no different than our desire to earn God’s grace through works. Deep down, we want to believe that we can save ourselves. Deep down, we want to believe that Jesus was scourged and crucified for others, and not for us. Put another way, can Abraham and Sarah boast that their faith was of such a quality, of such a depth, that they had to be saved by God? Can you or i? Absolutely not! The only thing which saves us, which restores us to a right relationship with the Lord, is His grace, His promise.
Ironically, our translators did us no favor this day in choosing the words. In verse 16, they take Paul’s language and make it seem as if God has to respond in a particular way. The word “guarantee” does not appear in the Greek. That is because guarantee is a legal language. It is contract speak. What Paul is teaching the disciples in Rome is that they should trust in God’s grace just as did Abraham and Sarah. It is God’s promise which makes the covenant valuable, worthy, holy. He is not obligated. Where Abraham and Sarah had every reason to believe that God’s oath was impossible because of their respective ages (Paul says they were as good as dead), they believed that God could. Naturally, their belief that God could bring the dead to life and call into existence things that are not yet foreshadowed the work and person of Christ who is that ultimate expression of God’s ability to keep His promises.
Brothers and sisters, you may feel a bit diminished this day. Perhaps you have heard me say that your faith does not save you and felt a bit disconnected, a bit less worthy of God’s love. Perhaps deep down you have always thought that your faith was what saved you, that your faith was of sufficient worth in God's eyes to merit your salvation, and now you find yourself reexamining your life in God’s eyes. Good. It is not by mistake that Paul spends so many verses teaching us about the importance of God’s grace in our lives. What we are talking about today is, to use another of Paul’s images, a meaty subject and not gruel. But Paul is not alone in his emphasis on this aspect of our salvation. Think of your favorite hero or heroine. Who in the Biblical narrative does not waffle between faith and unbelief? David? Elijah? Sarah? Rebecca? Peter? Paul? Who? Only Christ. Only His faith in our Father in heaven is perfect, just as only His work on earth was perfect, and just as it is only His faith which saves us and raises us to new life with Him.
Thankfully, brothers and sisters, all God asks us to do is to believe. All He asks us to do is to believe that He died, rose, and will come again. The rest, as they say, is up to Him. The events of Holy Week and Easter serve as that perfect reminder that the Lord whom we are called to serve can and will keep His promise to all who follow in the footsteps and paths of Abraham and Sarah. Like them, we can waffle a bit. Like them, we can stumble. Yet, mercifully, like them, He will raise the dead and nearly dead to new life, that His purposes in our lives and even in the world around us will be fulfilled!