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Faith, Faith, Faith
02/16/97 and 11/21/04
I invite you now to turn in your Bibles to the book of Romans, chapter 1, and follow along as I read verses 16 and 17. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
One day a man came to an old and devout Christian and said that he would like to discuss salvation. As they talked, the old saint led the man down to the river. Suddenly the Christian grabbed the man by the neck, shoved his head under the water, and held him there. The man struggled desperately to get free. Finally, he managed to wrench himself loose and jerk his head above water. While the man gasped for breath, the Christian calmly asked, “When you thought you were drowning, what did you want most of all?” “Air,” gasped the man. The Christian said, “When you want salvation as much as you wanted air, you will have it.”
In the early centuries of the Christian church, many people were seeking salvation the way a drowning man seeks air. The intellectual glory of Greece had faded. The military triumphs of Rome had been replaced by defeat and stagnation. The world was ruled by degenerate tyrants and the barbarians were at the gates. People were acutely aware that things were not going right. They yearned for redemption.
Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ to that world. In the spring of A.D. 55 or 56, Paul wrote a long letter to the Roman church explaining the way of salvation that had been opened by the death and resurrection of Christ.
There is a method to the letter. In the first fifteen verses of chapter one, the Apostle Paul takes care of some preliminary matters; then in vs 16 and 17 he states his theme; and he spends most of the rest of the book expounding upon that theme.
The opening phrase of v16 shows us Paul’s attitude. He is “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.”
Back in the days of the Soviet Union, it was against the law for Russian Christians to assemble for worship. A little group of Russians came together in secret to pray and read the scriptures from the one Russian Bible the group possessed.
Suddenly the door burst open and several soldiers rushed in, carrying rifles. The Sergeant snapped out gruffly, “Everyone who is not a Christian can leave now.”
As you might imagine, most of the group fled. Only about half a dozen people were left, with the leader, a poorly dressed woman, clutching the Bible to her chest.
But when the others were gone, the soldiers put up their weapons, and the sergeant said in much milder tone, “Brethren, we are Christians too, we just wanted to make sure that we were among real believers.”
Now I have heard that story several times. I am not surprised that most people in the group fled when confronted with the threat of imprisonment and possibly death for publicly professing faith in Jesus. The question for us today is what would we do in a similar situation? I trust that we would not be ashamed of the gospel.
The gospel is the greatest thing that has happened to this world, and yet, even living in this country, with freedom of speech and freedom of worship, we sometimes act as if we are ashamed of it. We are so timid in our witness for Jesus that the world might be justified in wondering if we believe in Jesus at all.
Now anyone who does not believe in the gospel certainly ought to be ashamed of it. The gospel looks like foolishness and folly to an unbeliever. In ICR1:25, the Apostle Paul cheerfully admits this saying, “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Consider Jesus himself. He was a poor peasant, an itenerant carpenter. How powerless he must have seemed to the rich and mighty of his time. He was crucified and suffered and died, how pitifully weak. Yet in his weakness was hidden the power of God. His godhood was hidden in human flesh so that only the believer might see and understand while the rest of the world scoffed.
Power of God
The gospel “is the power of God unto salvation.” As human beings, we have a certain power. We have power of body. We can lift, we can pull, we can push. We have power of mind. We can reason, we can analyze, we can figure things out. Yet, all our physical and mental power is not enough. The world is too much for us if we insist on fighting the battle alone. We may seek the help of other people, and that is good so far as it goes. We can do more with others than alone, but that is still not enough.
Today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves feeling much as people did in the first century. We have the feeling that things are not quite right. We have a sense of personal sin. We have fallen short of the holy and pure lives that we know we ought to lead
The Apostle Paul was no different than us. Indeed, he had more to be ashamed of than most of us. He had participated in the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He had persecuted the church. We would think that when Paul looked back on his life, he felt a pang of guilt about what he had done before he met Jesus on the Damascus road.
But the Apostle Paul does not say that he has never done anything that he is ashamed of. He says, I am not ashamed of the gospel. Why not? Because the gospel is the power of God to redeem and to save.
Only to Believers
Now Romans 1:16-17 does not say that everyone will be saved. The gospel is the power of God, but this power is available only to those who have faith.
A minister had been trying to lead a factory owner to Christ for a long time without much success. One day the factory owner took the minister on a tour of the factory. This particular factory made soap and the owner was proud of it. After the tour, the minister complimented the owner upon the efficiency of his operation, but the owner wanted to talk religion. The owner said, “The gospel you preach has not done much good in the world. Look at all the wickedness. Look at the millions of wicked people.”
Like a lot of us, the minister could not immediately think of a snappy reply to that, so he surprised the unbeliever by agreeing with him, “You are right,” he said. “The world has a lot of wickedness.”
They walked out of the factory and up the street and entered a residential neighborhood. It had rained earlier, and they passed a child sitting in a mud puddle making mud pies. The child was happily covered with mud from head to toe, and both men smiled at the child. The minister saw his opportunity. He said, “The soap you make has not done much good in the world. Look at all the dirt and all the dirty people.”
“No, no,” said the soapmaker. “That is not fair. Soap is only useful if applied.”
“Exactly,” said the minister. “It is the same with the gospel.”
The gospel is useful only to those people who trustingly accept it, who apply it to their souls and seek to live out its consequences in their lives.
The Righteousness of God
The gospel reveals to us the righteousness of God, which is not the same as the righteousness of people. When people do good, we declare that they have acted rightly. If people generally do good, we describe them as righteous people. Thus, we judge people to be righteous on the basis of their deeds. This is what the Apostle Paul calls the righteousness of men, and he emphasizes that this has nothing whatsoever to do with the righteousness of God.
The righteousness of God is a gift that is bestowed upon us by God to make us acceptable to God. A person is called righteous by other people if he does good deed or works, but the righteousness of God, which we receive when we believe the gospel precedes works and works result from it. The gospel is that Jesus Christ put himself in our place and through him we are made acceptable in the eyes of God, before we do any good works, before we do any good deeds.
Centuries ago, most of the world was ruled by kings and queens. The only way to become a legitimate king was to be born into it. You inherited that job. Another person could seize power, and do all the functions and works of a king, but he would not usually be regarded as a legitmate king, he was just a dictator.
The same is true of the righteousness of God. Many people practice works that are associated with being righteous. Many people do some good deeds, but some good deeds do not qualify them for God’s righteousness. No matter what they do, they are not acceptable to God.
But, when we accept the gospel through faith, then we are born again as the people of God and we become kings and queens of the universe, and as God’s own people, then our deeds become acceptable to God..
Abraham is the outstanding example of Old Testament faith. GN15:6 speaking of Abraham says, “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” Because Abraham believed God, God accepted Abraham. So it is with us. We have not been righteous. We have been sinners. But we believe Christ our sins are covered, and God treats us as if we were righteous.
RM1:17 says that the gospel is revealed to us “from faith to faith.” Paul uses the word “faith” twice to emphasize that this is the only way we can become acceptable to God. It is by faith and nothing but faith. We shall see God only by faith. We shall live in eternity only by faith. An ungodly person has the illusion of life. Ask the ungodly if they are alive, and they will say, “Of course I am alive.” But, they have only a shadow life that flits by in a second. Unbelievers stand already with their feet in the grave. Yet they have only to turn in faith to the gospel to receive salvation and life.
Dip It Up
Back in the days of sailing ships, a ship was caught in an Atlantic storm and lost its sails and its water supply. Days went by. The crew began to suffer terribly from thirst. Finally they sighted another ship in the distance. They signaled their distress: EMERGENCY: NEED WATER. Back came the reply: DIP IT UP. The crew was astonished. Were those on the other ship, fools to tell them to drink salt water? In their weakened condition, that might kill them. They signaled the same message again: NEED WATER. And got the same reply: DIP IT UP. Finally the crew of the strickened ship said, “What have we got to lose?” They lowered a bucket. Imagine their amazement and their joy when the water proved to be fresh and pure, for they were just off the mouth of the Amazon River, where the thrust of that mighty river carries fresh water for miles out to sea.
Spiritually we are like that ship. Life is dry. We are dying of thirst. Yet all of the time we are surrounded by the grace and goodness of God, and all that we need to do is: DIP IT UP. All that we need to do is to have faith, and we will have the love and power of God.
I remember reading in a course on Christian history of some of the excesses to which people have gone in their efforts to attain the righteousness of God.
One woman locked herself in a room for five years and never saw a single person. Her meals were given to her through a slit in the door. She never spoke to a single person. She spent all her time in prayer and meditation. Others had themselves whipped, or when without food. One man wore a steel girdle with needles in it to prick his skin and moritfy his flesh. Their hope was that God would somehow be pleased by their strange behavior and count them as righteous.
But they missed the point. They were like the crew of that ship dying of thirst, vainly seeking water with water all around them. All the ship’s crew had to do was DIP IT UP. All that we have to do is believe.
Thanksgiving is this Thursday. We will be urged this week to count our blessings. Today I ask you to count one blessing. . The gospel is the power of God for my salvation. All that I have to do is believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 12/10/04