Abraham and Grace
When I was 16 and a junior in high school, I had a job working after school at a bakery, Sunrise Pie Company. The owner was an old Greek named Chris, who addressed his employees brusquely in his thick accent. Though at first I was fearful, I soon found out that his heart was softer than his speech.
On payday Chris would walk around handing out our checks for our week’s work. He came to me on my first payday and held out to me my first paycheck. I reached out and grasped it between my thumb and the fingers of my right hand.
“Thank you.” I said.
Immediately, Chris pulled it back. “Didn’t you earn this check?” he growled.
“W-w-well, y-y-yes.” I stammered.
“Then why did you thank me? You don’t have to thank me for something that you earned.”
That day I learned something about the difference between grace and works.
Searching the Old Testament for examples of grace we find Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation. His story is found in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, but he’s also mentioned in 17 of the 39 Old Testament books and 11 of the 27 New Testament books.
The Apostle Paul writes of him extensively in his letters to the Galatians (chapter 3) and to the Romans (chapter 4), he is seen as one of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, and while James only speaks of him in a brief four verses (2:21-24), what he says is significant.
Interestingly, in all of these accounts, we find the word “grace” mentioned only twice (Romans 4:4, 16), even though we could say that it underlies Abraham’s whole story.
Both Paul and James make reference to the statement in Genesis 15:6: “And he believed in the LORD (Yahweh) and He credited it to him as righteousness.” However, they are apparently quoting from the Septuagint (LXX) which adds Abraham’s name and substitutes the name “God” for “the LORD.”
Since Romans 4 is where we find our subject “grace” specifically mentioned, I’d like to go there. Verses 1-5 read:
1) “What then shall we say that Abraham, our father according to the flesh has found? 2) For if Abraham was declared righteous by works he has a boast – but not before God! 3) For what does the Scripture say?
‘And Abraham believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness.’
4) Now to the one who works, the wage is not credited as grace, but as something owed. 5) But to the one who doesn’t work, but believes in the One who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Paul in Romans had been speaking of God’s grace at work. He has explained in very vivid language, quoting the (Old Testament) Scriptures, that all are sinners, whether they are Jews or Gentiles (non-Jews), and stand condemned before God. Mere knowledge of Scripture is no plus. God judges impartially. But God has supplied a way for people to be declared right (or justified or acquitted) before Him through the death of His Son. This way of gaining right standing is appropriated through faith. It is nothing new, Paul explains; it has been God’s way all along, even in Old Testament times.
So in chapter 4, Paul argues his claims, using Abraham as his example. He poses a hypothetical situation: Abraham being declared right by God on the basis of his good works.
Abraham was the great man of the Old Testament. We might say that if anyone could be declared right on the basis of what they’ve done, it would be him. And if he did, he would have something to boast about. Paul even seems to be suggesting that this was possible. But he very clearly adds the qualifier: “not before God.”
Verse 4 contains that truth I learned many years ago at Sunrise Pie Company. Chris was doing me no favor when he paid me. I earned it. If I (or Abraham) could earn my way into right standing, I would not need the grace of God. But grace tells me I can’t earn it. As 3:21 says, “All sinned and keep falling short of God’s glory.” That includes me – and Abraham.
And verse 5 brings it down a bit clearer yet. It gives the “qualifications” for being right with God.
· I must recognize that I am ungodly. The ungodly are the only people that God credits with righteousness.
· I must be one who is not working for that righteousness or right standing with God.
· I must believe. I must place my belief in God’s promise, just as Abraham did. Of course, the promise for this day involves Christ and His death on the cross.
Grace, as defined before is “the expression of God’s love without condition toward those who do not merit it.” If I can do anything to merit it, it is not grace. Grace is not, as some have defined it, “the power and desire to do the will of God.” All the do-ing is on God’s part. Even faith is not a work. It is the receiving of the benefit of Someone else’s work.