Weekly Meditation: 12th March 2017
2nd Sunday of Lent
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
There is an important but somewhat unwelcome message in these readings; we are not saved because we are good.
The world in which we live does not accept this message easily. We are not conditioned to think that way. Almost from birth we are told, ‘be good and you will have a reward’, ‘do well and you will win a prize’, ‘pass your examinations and you will have a good career’, ‘win the race and everyone will praise you’, ‘look beautiful and the world will be at your feet’. The world is not kind to those who fail, who make mistakes, who do not succeed, who do not look the part.
God is quite the reverse. He rewards people because he chooses to. He saves them because he loves them. He is merciful to those who are lost, misled or wrong, and he lifts up those who fall. He clothes them with righteousness so that, in his eyes, they are beautiful.
When Abram (later Abraham) heard God’s voice and obeyed his call, he left his home and all that was familiar to him, to become a wanderer in the land that would one day be Israel. It was an act of obedience that demonstrated Abram’s trust in all that God said to him. It enabled him to become the ‘great nation’ into which the Messiah would one day be born, through whom ‘all the peoples on earth [would] be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1-5).
This great act of obedience was not, however, the reason that God declared Abram righteous. Rather, righteousness was ‘credited to him’ simply because he believed God (see Genesis 15:6), and this point is taken up by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Paul was writing to the early Christian Church in Rome, at a time when there were already variants of the Christian faith, and some false teachers were setting conditions on salvation. In the Galatian Church, the emphasis was on keeping the Jewish Law, and that seems to have been the problem also in Rome. Paul’s message in Romans is that salvation is by faith in Jesus. In chapter 4 he writes about the way in which an individual is declared righteous, ‘justified’ simply by believing in Jesus. He draws on the example of Abraham who was not made righteous by his works, but because he believed God’s promises (Romans 4:1-3). Paul emphasises the clear distinction between wages that are earned, and gifts that are given. Salvation is a gift (4:4-5).
Just as Abraham was not rewarded for his works, neither was he rewarded for keeping the Law. God’s promises were made to him through the righteousness that comes by faith (4:13); if it was by Law, faith would have no value (4:14).
God’s favour is undeserved , it is ‘grace ... guaranteed to all’ (Romans 4:16). In John’s gospel, Jesus calls it being ‘born again’, ‘born of the Spirit’ (3:5-7). Being born again requires the same humility of heart, the same emptying of oneself that Abraham displayed. It is not a reward for works but is the result of faith in God; it is an act of the Spirit. In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus made the startling statement that ‘no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (3:3). Trying to justify oneself, clinging to rules or focusing on works all get in the way of allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our lives and bring us to new birth in Christ. Salvation is not something we can earn, pay for, deserve; it is the gift of a devoted God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him [like Abraham] shall not perish but have eternal life’ (3:16).