In the 1960s (and 70s) CHRISTIANITY TODAY was a popular and generally orthodox publication with a large readership. The editor in those early days of the magazine was Carl Henry. And on one occasion Henry met with a prominent Swiss theologian who had for decades been making waves with many novel (if not unorthodox) theological ideas. When they met, Henry introduced himself as “Carl Henry, the editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.” But later, during some theological questioning the European theologian disparagingly asked, “Did you say CHRISTIANITY TODAY or CHRISTIANITY YESTERDAY?” The American Henry quickly responded with a Biblical phrase, saying, “Christianity Yesterday, Today, and Forever!”
Our Faith — the Christian Faith once delivered to the saints—does not change. The Word of God written in the Scriptures does not change. And that through which we are saved—Faith in Jesus Christ—does not change. It is good news for every age. It is the same in all times, yesterday, today, and forever.
It is impossible to ask a more serious question than “how can I be saved?” But, there is much confusion and ignorance regarding the answer to this question, even within the Christian church. Probably, most non-Christians think that Christians believe in some sort of scales of judgment whereby those who do more good than bad make it to heaven. Maybe even some in the church believe this. But it is a great error. Thinking that we can do good things to merit salvation is itself a sin. It is sinful to think that we are able to appease the most holy God with our deeds. For our deeds are filthy rags, and to think of them as something that would satisfy God is either to raise us above our true, sinful, nature, or to lower God down from his perfect, holy, nature. We can do nothing to appease God, and so there must be another way if we are to be saved.
I. SALVATION THROUGH FAITH – YESTERDAY
In our reading today from Romans 4, we find Paul continuing his theme from the previous chapter — salvation comes through faith. But to prevent anyone from saying that in this Paul has created a new doctrine, he proves his point by going to the Scriptures. He proves that in the “YESTERDAY” of the Old Testament God’s people then were saved through faith. And he provides two examples of this; two examples from The Old Testament of salvation not based upon works but through faith.
First, and most prominently, Paul shows that Abraham was saved through faith.
1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Paul here is directly quoting Genesis 15:6. He has gone to the Scriptures to prove his point since he knows that his Jewish theological adversaries agree that God’s Word is the authoritative. And while his adversaries might want to argue for salvation by works, Paul proves from the Old Testament that salvation is through faith. He does this by showing that it was through Abraham’s belief in God — through Abraham’s faith — that he was counted as righteous in the sight of God. And no works are allowed to sneak in to the equation. Works are entirely ruled out. For if works contributed at all then man would have something in which to boast.
Paul not only references Abraham in Genesis to prove his point, but he also quotes from a Psalm of David, the 32ndPsalm. He writes,
4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
The Psalmist does not say that the man who has done good works is blessed; he says the man whose sins are forgiven is blessed. As works do not forgive sins, it is the grace of God which the Psalmist is speaking of. God alone, by his grace, forgives sins.
And we too are blessed. And the focus of God’s blessing here is not on our wealth or our health, though these things are blessing from the Lord. But we are primarily blessed in that our sins have been forgiven. You, as a Christian, are greatly blessed because you have a savior in Jesus Christ.
So do not say that the person with more wealth than you is more blessed. And do not say that the one with more natural talent than you is more blessed. The blessed one is truly the one against whom the Lord will not count sin.
Who do you see as blessed?
– the athlete for his talents?
– the businessman for his wealth?
Are these not just fleeting things? The one who is truly blessed is the one who knows the Lord. You are truly blessed.
In all of this talk about the blessing of forgiveness, Paul has proven from the Old Testament that man then — in the YESTERDAY — was saved through faith.
To add to this, he proves another related point directly from the Old Testament. That is this: Abraham was not saved by circumcision, but through faith. Paul writes,
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.
Abraham had saving faith without yet having had the sign and seal of the covenant, which then was circumcision. Those who have done the math say that God declared Abraham as righteous at least 14 years before Abraham’s circumcision.
II. SALVATION THROUGH FAITH – TODAY
So too Christians TODAY can have saving faith without Baptism — which is today’s sign and seal of the covenant. That is not to say that Baptism is unimportant, but it is to say that Baptism does not save us. In this Paul rejects what is known as Sacramentalism – the false teaching that one is saved by participation in the sacraments. I’ll spell that word out for our budding theologians, for the children of the congregation. (S A C R A M E N T A L I S M) — the false teaching that one is saved by participation in the sacraments.
When I was studying this passage I first called this error Sacredotalism rather than Sacramentalism. I had confused the terms. Sacredotalism actually is the false teaching that a priest is required to intervene to bring grace from God to man. Perhaps you’d like the spelling on this one too — S A C R E D O T A L I S M.
So the one, sacramentalism, teaches that sacraments are necessary for salvation, and the other, sacerdotalism, teaches that priests are necessary for salvation. But we believe that the Bible teaches salvation through faith ALONE; not by works, not by sacraments, and not through priests. Jesus alone saves us, and His glory is to go to no other person nor thing.
So Abraham YESTERDAY was saved through faith, not faith + circumcision. And we TODAY are saved through faith, not faith + baptism, or any other addition.
And in proving that salvation is through faith, Paul has proved that salvation is not in any way by works.
Thus he writes,
The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring–not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
With this we see the unity in God’s plan of salvation. There was not one plan for the Jews and another for the Gentiles, but one unified plan of salvation through faith. And there is not one plan for the saints of the Old Testament YESTERDAY and another plan for the New Testament times or in our own time TODAY, but there is one plan. God does not want faith from one person and works from another, but he has given faith to all His people that they may know Him and have eternal life by His grace.
We see here also the idea of Abraham as a father. Interestingly, Ab, in Hebrew means father; Abram means “exalted Father” and Abraham means “a Father of many nations.”
Abraham was first the father of the nation of Israel. He is also the father of all the faithful in that he was justified through faith long before the vast majority of God’s people were born into this world. Abraham was the prototypical man of faith. And we are children of Abraham when we have faith in Jesus Christ. It should be noted too that Abraham was an idolatrous sinner. He was imperfect as we are imperfect. He was a sinner as we are sinners. But he had faith, as we have faith, and so his sins were forgiven as our sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ.
III. SALVATION THROUGH FAITH – FOREVER
As we move on in the passage, we see that God’s promise is not only for YESTERDAY and for TODAY; it is FOREVER. [REPEAT: GOD’S PROMISE IS FOREVER] So not only were people in the Old Testament times and in the New Testament times saved through faith, but God’s blessing extends to all times; to now and to the future even unto the end of the age. This gives us hope because God is not going to suddenly change His plan of salvation. He is not going to suddenly require you to achieve a certain amount of good deeds or to be pure and holy of your own efforts.
God’s promise is FOREVER. His promise is to Abraham and his offspring. Not merely his physical offspring, but his spiritual offspring, for all times, forever. Not just the circumcised (the Jews) but the uncircumcised (the Gentiles).
So Paul writes,
20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
It is in this passage that the word “promise” first appears in the Paul’s letter to the Romans. God’s promises to Abraham include what is sometimes shortened to the phrase “land, seed, and blessing.” That is, there is the promise of the land of Canaan to him, the promise that he will have many descendants, and the promise that all families of the earth will be blessed through him. And, as Jesus descends from Abraham, the promise of blessing all nations is fulfilled in Jesus Christ whose death on the cross was for all nations.
One commentator well explains,
“In the present case the object of hope was the fulfillment of God’s promise that Abraham would have a son, in whose line the precious promise of blessings would be fulfilled.”
That son was Jesus Christ, 42 generations later according to the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel.
But “promise” is not the only future-looking word in this passage. We also have “hope.” It was “in hope” that Abraham believed God. And it is “in hope” that we too believe God, for just as Abraham expected and received blessings from the Lord, we too expect and receive blessings from the Lord. In fact, all our blessings come from Him. It is God alone from whom all blessings flow.
This phrase, the title of my sermon “Yesterday, Today, and Forever” comes actually from another passage altogether. Hebrews: 13:8 reads, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” And it is because Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever that our salvation through faith in him remains unchanged. Salvation is through faith today as it was yesterday and will forever be.
THROUGH Faith and BY Grace.
You might have noticed that throughout the sermon I say “THROUGH faith” rather than using some other preposition. I quite like Paul’s statement in Ephesians where he says “For BY grace you have been saved THROUGH Faith.” (Ephesians 2:8) Now, one can certainly use the preposition “by” and say that salvation is “BY Faith” as Paul does in Romans 4. But there has been a dangerous tendency historically to mistake what he here means.
Reformed theologians properly make the distinction between God’s GRACE as the GROUNDS of salvation, and FAITH as the INSTRUMENT of salvation. God, by His Grace, saves His people. Faith does not save us, but mediates the salvation we have by grace. Grace is the cause of salvation. Faith is the means through which God applies and makes known to us His Grace.
So we should only say salvation is “by Faith” if we understand “by” to mean “the instrument of” rather than “the ground of.”
This is extremely important, because if Faith were the grounds of our salvation, then man would be adding to the work of God, and taking from His glory. Man would have something in which to boast.
But Paul says the promise “rests on Grace.” Grace is the grounds of salvation. Christ’s death on the cross successfully atones for the sins of His people and guarantees their salvation.
We are justified in God’s sight by Christ’s righteousness imputed to us.Faith then is the instrument through which we receive the righteousness of Christ.
So we might say: Faith is not your savior. Jesus is your savior. Do not look to yourself for security, look to Christ.
As in real estate where the most important factor is LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION, when it comes to understanding the meaning of a Biblical text the most important factor is CONTEXT CONTEXT CONTEXT.
And when all the context is taken into consideration, we must agree with the theologian and commentator William Hendricksen who explains that in Romans 4 Paul’s use of “by faith” means more exactly “the righteousness of Christ appropriated by faith.”
APPLICATION & CONCLUSION
With all this in mind – that God’s salvation through faith is the same yesterday, today, and forever, I ask, “HOW DO YOU VIEW YOUR STANDING BEFORE GOD?” [REPEAT]
Do you think you are “good enough” and that God likes some of what you do? Or do you see your standing before God as a forgiven sinner only through work of Jesus Christ?
If you do not have faith in Jesus Christ you should be very concerned about the wrath of the most holy God.
But if you believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord and confess Him with your lips then you should take comfort in the fact that He has saved you through faith (not works!) just as he saved Abraham and David and Paul and all people for eternity.
Since we can only have Faith in God if we have received His grace, the presence of faith in us proves that God’s grace is upon us.
So, take comfort in the Lord. As you have taken comfort in Him in the past, take comfort in Him today, and take comfort in Him forever. Amen.