If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about…
(Romans 4:2 NIVUK)
In ancient times boasting was a ritual before going into battle. A general might proclaim, ‘By tonight their king’s head will be on my table’, and all the army would cheer with approval. Shakespeare’s St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V is essentially a ritual boast, a proclamation of we can do it, we have what it takes. However, when Gideon led an Israelite army against the Midianites this is what God said, ‘You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, “My own strength has saved me.” ’ (Judges 7:2).
Right there, is the essence of the problem. Our human hearts look to our strengths and talent, taking credit for our achievements, boasting that we did it, as we leave God out of the picture. The ultimate human boast is that I am a good person because I go to church, I study the Bible and pray, I do good works by giving to charity and I haven’t killed anyone or robbed a bank, so I deserve to go to heaven – my own strength has saved me.
The antidote to this boasting is delivered by Paul when he says, ‘Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the ‘law’ that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.’ (Romans 3:27-28). If we are made right with God by observing the law then this would only give us grounds for further boasting.
To prove his point Paul presents Abraham as a case study and tells us that if Abraham was justified by works, he would have something to boast about (Romans 4:2). He would be able to say to God, look at all the good things I have done. You owe me. You have to answer my prayers. You must give me salvation. But this is not how it worked with Abraham, rather ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ (v. 3). When we work, our wages are not credited to us as a gift but are paid as an obligation. Abraham was made right with God, not because of his works, but because he trusted God, and righteousness was credited to him as a gift.
The same is true for us. Our boasting is excluded because our salvation is not as a result of our works, lest we should boast (Ephesians 2:9), but because of faith alone in the work God has done for us, through Jesus Christ.
As a result, we can say along with Paul, ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…’ (Galatians 6:14).
Loving Father, forgive us when we have relied on ourselves, trusted in our works, and boasted in our own strength. Thank you that our salvation comes from trusting in your Son and not from what we do, so that all the honour and praise goes to you alone. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.
Study by Barry Robinson
About the writer:
Barry Robinson is a minister in Grace Communion International and Regional Pastor for Southern England.
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