Do I belong? (Romans 4:1-12)

Do I belong?[1]  This is a really important question.  It’s one we hear children ask, whenever they get frustrated, perhaps when justifiably chastised and shout out “this isn’t my real family.”  It’s a question that maybe some of us found ourselves asking when we moved to a new town or even country.  “Will I ever fit in here?  Will I make friends?  Will I fit in with the culture?”  Perhaps we’ve found ourselves asking the question about church.  “Can I belong?”Sadly in church people do find themselves asking “Do I belong?”  Sadly churches often give out the message that you won’t belong.  Maybe they are not so overt as to have someone standing at the door turning people away.  However we can send out subtle signals about what is required before you belong.  Do you match the dress code?  Do you use the right language?  Sometimes a church seems to have its inner circle of those appointed to decide who belongs and who doesn’t.  There can be a sense that before I belong I must serve my time, earn the right to speak, fulfil a role.  Sometimes there’s a sense that if the problems, hurt and mess in my life situation can’t be hidden (unlike the problems of those who belong) then I’m not welcome.   Sometimes too we can convince ourselves that we don’t belong.  We can do this in two ways.  First we can feel so badly hurt and bruised that we grow to believe that people are looking at us and judging us when they are not.

Another way of looking at this is to ask the question “Is the Gospel exclusive or inclusive?”  Is Christianity welcome to all regardless of background or are there restrictions on who can belong?

We’re going to try and answer those questions by looking at Romans 4:1-12.  Paul has been talking about belonging in the sense of being right with God (righteous or justified) and he has said that this all happens through faith in Jesus and what Jesus achieved on the Cross, not on our own efforts to keep God’s Law.  He says that this excludes any possibility for human pride or boasting.  Now if there was one person who might be able to boast, it was Abraham, the hero of Jewish history.  So what did he discover with regards to the questions we are asking? (v1)

  1. The Gospel is  Exclusive (v2-5)

This is because it excludes boasting (v2).  If Abraham’s relationship with God was based on what he had achieved by living a morally good life then he would have been able to boast.  But if Paul seemingly opens up the possibility that Abraham could boast, then he quickly closes it down with the words “but not before God.”  You see, the place where this type of boast or claim counts is with regards to God.  Can I look God in the face and tell him that the life I’ve lived makes me worthy of a relationship with Him?  Paul says “No, not even Abraham could claim that.”  To be sure, Abraham had done lots of good and heroic things, giving up a comfortable home to go to another country, obeying God’s command, acting wisely, caring for and rescuing a foolish nephew.  However, Abraham often messed up too, for example taking matters into his own hands by getting Hagar to act as a surrogate mum or passing off his wife Sarah as his sister to keep on side with the Pharaoh.

No, Abraham’s relationship and right standing with God was not based on his own achievements (works).  Genesis 15:6 (quoted in verse 3) says that” Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  What does that phrase mean?  Well first of all, Genesis 15 is all about God’s promise to Abraham that despite his own weakness and failings, God would fulfil all his promises to him.  Abraham very simply trusted God to keep his word to him – he had faith.  Secondly this was credited, counted or reckoned as righteousness.  The word “credited” is a business or accounting term and has the idea of an account or ledger being reckoned up.

So how does that work?  Does it mean that God looked at Abraham and said “Well you’ve not achieved much in terms of righteous works but you have shown faith and I think you’ve got enough faith there to exchange for righteousness?”  That sounds a bit like me turning up to Sainsbury’s with my Nector card to see if I’ve totted up enough points.  Sometimes we make faith sound a bit like that.  You need to show enough faith for God to say that you now are right with him.  This might be demonstrated by what is perceived as a spiritual way of acting or talking or by reaching a certain standard of Bible knowledge.  Well no, that’s not right.  We aren’t crediting up points that one day can be exchanged for righteousness.  After all, we then would be able to boast “I have more faith than you…”

Rather, this is how it works.  Paul says that there’s two ways your account can be credited.  In the first example (v4) you work and you earn a wage.  When you get your pay slip, you receive what you owe.  That’s not how God deals with us.  The other way for your account to be credited is as a gift.   Someone gives you something that you don’t deserve.  That’s what is happening here.  We cannot do anything to earn God’s favour.  Instead he freely offers us a right relationship with Him.

This reminds me of the parable of the Lost Son.  You will remember how he had taken his inheritance and wasted it. He comes to his senses and returns home and offers to be his dad’s servant working for pay.  Is there a thought there that maybe somehow, someday, he could pay off his debts and atone for the shame he has brought on the family.  His father will not have it.  No, he welcomes the lad back as his son and gives him new clothes, a ring and a feast.  All of these free gifts are about the relationship.  The Son does not deserve them, he has not earned them but each gift tells him that he is a son not a servant, that he is loved and that he belongs.

  1. The Gospel is extensive in its effect(v6-8)

Paul now quotes from King David (c.f. Psalm 32).  This was a technique often used by Jewish preachers, a quote from the Torah was backed up by one from the Psalms or Prophets.  David was another man who had discovered something about how things are credited.  David identified himself as one of the righteous  – but not because of his own  lifestyle which in fact showed him up as a sinner, an adulterer and a murderer.

Do you remember that God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be blessed and so will his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3)?  So what is blessing?  Well David answers as follows (see v 7-8)

Those who are forgiven

Those whose sins are covered over

Those whose sins are never counted against them

In other words, God offers complete and lasting forgiveness meaning that even a sinner like David can be counted right with God.  That’s what righteousness is all about.  It means standing before God declared innocent of guilt and sin.  David stood before God innocent and righteousness not because he was perfect but because God had completely forgiven him.  God’s forgiveness is real and lasting, not like human forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness works because it is based on the truth that sin really has been dealt with.  Christ bore the penalty, the guilt, the shame of sin on himself.

  1. The Gospel is Inclusive (v9-11)

So who is included in this blessing (v9)?  The answer is all to do with timing.  When was Abraham declared righteous?  The answer was that he was already righteous before he was circumcised (v10-11).  Therefore righteousness isn’t dependent on circumcision (v11b-12).

Circumcision was something that marked you out.  It of course had the effect of marking Jews out from Gentiles.  It represented their desire to keep the Law and was the starting point of Torah observance.  For Abraham, circumcision had really been a symbol.  It was  a reminder that God had made promises to him and that he had trusted him.  However over time it came to represent something more sinister.  Circumcision had come to represent

-The requirement to keep God’s law as a set of burdensome rules in order to be right with Him

-Belonging to the right group. (An ethnic marker)

-Fitting in with in crowd (customs, regulations..)

It wasn’t that you had to definitely be a Jew by birth to be right with God but there were a set of hoops to jump through, a set of standards to live by to show that you fitted in, that you belonged on the terms set by the religious elite.

 

Well, Paul was clear that those things didn’t count.  The only way of belonging is through faith in God and specifically in Jesus and his achievement on the Cross.  So people from all nations and all backgrounds can be part of God’s family.

Conclusion

The only basis for belonging and the only requirement is belief.  No-one has any right to draw up any obstacles or barriers to belonging to God’s family.  Now for some of us this means that there is a decision point.  Am I ready to throw my lot in with Jesus, to fully trust him and him alone?  There is of course a cost to this.  It isn’t an easy decision.  We know in our heart that this will mean giving up our hold on certain things in our lives.  This isn’t about having to do something or to be someone to fit in.  Rather, there are things we are holding onto and insisting that these are the terms on which we must be accepted but in fact those things are harmful and God wants to strip them away, just like the prodigal son would need to be rid of his old smelly rags, exchanging them for the beautiful new coat.

For others, there is this challenge.  Have we at times become the gate keepers, deciding who belongs and how.  Does this maybe say more about us at times about our own uncertainty about belonging?  Have we been burdened with the expectations of what is required to belong and has that led us to impose the same burden on others?  Well, it’s time to be rid of that burden and instead return to that point of faith, simply putting our trust in Him and receiving his free gift of life and a right relationship with God.

[1] This article is reproduced from the main Bearwood Chapel website (http://bearwoodchapel.org.uk/news-views/do-i-belong/) .  We are including it here as part of a mini-series helping people think through questions including baptism and membership that we are running this week.

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