The Opposite Ways of Works and Faith
Today we start a new series that will last through June and I want to take a few minutes to introduce it. Most Americans in my generation and younger are all enrolled in the same school. It’s called Google University. As students of Google U, whenever we have a question, we ask “professor Google,” who scours the internet for us and, in no time at all, gives us a list of thousands of websites providing thousands of answers to our question. We look at the first dozen or so and choose whatever answer we like best. To show how automatic a reflex this has become, while writing this, I wondered, “I know that Google is a search engine but what exactly is a search engine? An enormous computer? A network of computers? Is it just a computer program?” Without even thinking about it, guess what I did to find the answer while writing this very paragraph? I Googled it! I typed in the phrase “search engine” and found 349 million answers in 0.91 seconds.
I mention this because of how it could influence the way we interpret the name of this sermon series, “Unsearchable.” That word is not found in the vocabulary of Google University students because if that school has taught us anything, it’s that everything is searchable. Even the word “unsearchable” is searchable (in fact, I found 912,000 results for it in 0.58 seconds). If it’s a word or phrase, the search engine will find something. The only time it won’t is if we search for a word or phrase we make up. If we type in gibberish, we will get the error message, “Your search did not match any documents.” In other words, “Sorry, but that’s unsearchable… nothing came up… we can’t find anything for that.” That is not what I mean by unsearchable in this sermon series—I mean the exact opposite.
The idea for this series came from two Bible passages that describe something about God as unsearchable. The first is Psalm 145:3, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.” The second is Ephesians 3:8, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” The word “riches” there doesn’t mean Jesus has lots of money like famous celebrities today. It means that Jesus possesses something in overflowing abundance and that something, according to the book of Ephesians as a whole, is glory. His glory is His awe-inspiring, breathtaking, captivating perfection in every pure, wonderful, and satisfying way. Glory is Jesus’s wealth.
So, according to the Bible, God’s greatness and His glory in Christ are unsearchable. What does that mean? Imagine that God has a database in heaven full of all that can be known about Him. Now imagine that He gives us a search engine to help find information in that database. If we type in the phrase “God’s greatness” or “Christ’s glory,” the message would not be, “Your search did not match any documents” but “Your search matches countless documents.” The message would not be, “Results cannot be found” but “Results cannot be exhausted.” The message would not be, “Zero results found in 10 seconds” but, “Infinite results found in infinite seconds.” There are countless, inexhaustible, infinite wonders to behold in God’s greatness and glory in Christ and we want to see them and hear them and live in them and share them. To help make that happen, we will hear God’s word preached from a different member of our congregation each week in June. Each sermon will include a testimony of how a particular Bible passage has left that preacher awestruck by God’s unsearchable greatness and glory. I have the joy and privilege of starting us out; so, let’s not delay any longer.
Sermon Introduction, Outline, and Prayer
Today’s sermon is titled, The Opposite Ways of Works and Faith. In point 1, we will look at one way people try to escape the wrath of God they deserve for their sins against Him. It’s The Way of Works (v. 4) and it winds up being a dead end. In point 2, we will look at the way God has provided, The Way of Faith (vv. 5–8), and how it is the only way we can actually escape His wrath.
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” (Romans 4:4–8)
Point 1: The Way of Works (v. 4)
In the first 3 chapters of Romans, the author, Paul, presents a water-tight case against humanity, conclusively proving that every human is a rebellious sinner who deserves the wrath of God. His goal is not to bring inescapable judgment upon us but to warn us of judgment so that we might escape it. He has played the part of a spiritual doctor diagnosing the terminal sickness of the human soul and prescribing the only medicine that can treat it: the saving grace of Jesus Christ. We are sinners in urgent, dire need of salvation from God’s just and righteous wrath. If you do not believe that this morning, nothing else I have to say in this sermon will matter to you—it will seem like I’m giving you directions to a place you neither need nor want to go. But if you are even remotely open to the possibility that you might need a way to escape God’s wrath, then I plead with God on your behalf that you would listen closely because that way is available and we all need it.
In v. 4, Paul uses a very relatable illustration from the working world—it carries over into our day and age seamlessly. Our paycheck is compensation for our work. We can and should still be grateful for it but we shouldn’t react to a paycheck the same way we react to a gift. We ought to be more grateful to the giver of a gift than we are to the signer of a paycheck because a gift is something we receive that we have not earned, that we are not due, that no one owes us. However, on payday, we don’t receive gifts from our employers, we receive what we have earned, what we are due, what our employers do owe us. If we work and our employers don’t pay us for it, we can take the case to court and they will be forced by law to pay us what we have earned.
God wants us to consider here in v. 4 whether or not works are a valid way to escape His wrath. Can we work hard enough to be healed of our self-inflicted, terminal illness of sin? Can we work hard enough to escape the judgment we deserve for it? Can we do enough good deeds to earn a saving paycheck from God? Does God ever owe us eternal life because of our obedience? Can we take God to court and sue Him if He tries to withhold heaven from us? It is absurd to think the answer is “yes” to any of those questions.
Let me illustrate why. I am on a computer basically every day, it is my primary tool for studying, writing, and communicating, which are three of the main tasks I have as a pastor. Let’s say that since I’m on a computer a lot, I decide that the local technology company called JAMF should pay me. I think, “All of their employees are on computers all the time. So am I. Where’s my paycheck?” Now, I’ve never worked for JAMF and I never will. I am not qualified to work for them and I never will be. I do not know anyone there and no one there knows me. But let’s say I show up one day in their HR department demanding a paycheck from them, getting increasingly angry that they are not paying up. Between confused looks and attempts to reason with this crazy person off the street, they call the police who remove me from the building.
The next day, I decide that I’m taking my fight to the streets. I spend weeks protesting all over Eau Claire and the internet, slandering and accusing their company. When they still won’t pay me, I decide to sue them. If I were able to find a lawyer who would take the case, what chance do you think I would have of winning? Perhaps a better question would be, what are the chances of the case lasting more than 30 seconds? A case like that shouldn’t even make it to court, the judge should take one look at the paperwork and immediately dismiss it because JAMF was never in a position of owing me anything.
That doesn’t even come close to capturing the absurdity of trying to earn salvation from God by our works, especially since our works are the reason we need saving in the first place! Adding another layer to the illustration will make it fit our situation before God better. Let’s say that, before suing JAMF, I decide to vandalize their building and physically attack some of their employees. Then my court case would be even more outrageous because they would be the offended party who should sue me, not the other way around.
It’s the same with God. No sinner can take God to court because He withholds heaven from them since that is our just punishment for lifelong, deliberate rebellion against Him. He is both the Judge and the offended party; we are the guilty defendants. God’s judgment looms over us for the crimes we have already committed against Him; therefore, in the courtroom of heaven before God, the Judge, our works provide absolutely no defense for our sin or hope for being found “not guilty.” As I’ve said before, no death row convict gets released on good behavior. No amount of obeying the law can make up for our law breaking. No amount of working for God can ever erase our rebellion against Him. As Paul says later in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” If we receive a paycheck from God, it won’t be for a total of eternal life but for eternal condemnation. We have earned hell, not heaven for our works.
Point 2: The Way of Faith (vv. 5–8)
What then is our defense and hope? Is there any way of escape for us? Yes, there is, the way of faith. Believing in the justifying power, grace, and love God has for ungodly sinners like us is our only and all sufficient defense and hope. And, according to v. 5, this belief is considered not working, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Attempting to work for our salvation is one of the greatest offenses to God and v. 5 tells us why. Preferring our works to God’s grace is staring God in the face and saying with our whole being, “I believe you are incapable and/or unwilling to justify the ungodly. You are not enough. Your power is not enough. You are insufficient for me. You are not the one who has, can, or will justify the ungodly—I am. I will justify my own ungodly soul. I refuse receive your offer of pardon and choose to earn the verdict of ‘not guilty’ for myself.” What God reveals to us in this passage is that He does not want us to work for salvation but to stop even trying to work for it. He wants us to surrender to His grace because He is our only hope.
This would be like the president of JAMF coming to my home and saying, “I’m not giving you a paycheck but I am going to give you my personal retirement package from this day forward as a free gift if you will just trust me to do so and drop this lawsuit and protest and slander against our company. On top of that, I will personally pay all of the fines and jail time you deserve to ensure that you can fully enjoy all of the benefits we are prepared to give you. We don’t want you to work for us we just want you to stop working against us.” That’s what God requires of us to receive heaven—not working for Him but not even trying to work for Him anymore by receiving His work for us instead as a free gift.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, not this time. This blessing is too good and too true to be ignored and Paul goes on describing it by quoting what David wrote in Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” That forgiveness and peace with God would be a blessing is obvious but how these blessings come about, that is puzzling. Lawless deeds deserve punishment; so, why and how is God forgiving them without the whole of His creation descending into complete anarchy? Our sins deserve to be uncovered, exposing the reality of our character to our shame and disgrace; so, why is God willing to hide them and spare us from shame in His presence? Our sins have caused us to be in greater debt to God than we could ever possibly pay; so, why would God cease counting that debt against us?
The answer is found at the cross. On the cross of Christ, our lawless deeds have been punished. On the cross of Christ, our sins have been uncovered and shamed. On the cross of Christ, our sins have been counted—only against Jesus, not against us.
So, these are the two ways set before us. We can either take our own punishment, shame, and reckoning ourselves by choosing the way of works. Or we can have Jesus take our punishment, shame, and reckoning for us by choosing the way of faith in Him. Those are the two and only two ways of escape set before humanity. If we refuse God’s blessing and choose the way of our works, it will not lead to salvation; it will dead-end at offending God and condemning ourselves. It will bring us to an abyss too wide and deep for us to fill with our own good deeds so we can cross to the other side. If we receive God’s blessing and choose the way of faith in Christ, it will lead to God’s honor and our salvation. It will fill the infinitely deep and wide abyss with the more infinitely precious and powerful sacrifice of Christ and allow us to pass to the other side on the basis of His perfect works freely credited to us.
Who could ever exhaust the search for how glorious that truth is? It has no end and I want to share just one personal testimony about how it has impacted my life.
Toward the end of Bible college, I was facing a lot of difficult trials I life. It’s not necessary to give the specifics but everything seemed to be blowing up; if I thought something was going one way, it went the other. As the anxiety surrounding these trials mounted, God brought to mind something I had read in a book called Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer. I got my Bible and that book and started rereading the passage that had come to mind.
“All the problems of heaven and earth, though they were to confront us together and at once, would be nothing compared with the overwhelming problem of God: That He is; what He is like; and what we as moral beings must do about Him. The man who comes to a right belief about God is relieved of ten thousand temporal problems, for he sees at once that these have to do with matters which at the most cannot concern him for very long; but even if the multiple burdens of time may be lifted from him, the one mighty single burden of eternity begins to press down upon him with a weight more crushing than all the woes of the world piled one upon another. That mighty burden is his obligation to God. It includes an instant and lifelong duty to love God with every power of mind and soul, to obey Him perfectly, and to worship Him acceptably. And when the man’s laboring conscience tells him that he has done none of these things, but has from childhood been guilty of foul revolt against the Majesty in the heavens, the inner pressure of self-accusation may become too heavy to bear.
The gospel can lift this destroying burden from the mind; give beauty for ashes and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”
In that moment of feeling broken beneath the weight of life’s problem, God comforted me with the blessing of Romans 4:7–8 (Psalm 32:1): “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” That moment is framed as a masterpiece of God’s grace hanging over the mantle in my soul to which I often look. I remember everything about it. Hunched over my Bible reading this passage and coming to realize and experience anew the glorious, sufficient, and unsearchable great truth that, on the cross, Jesus solved the greatest problem I have, namely, that I am a sinner accountable to a holy God. That eternal problem Jesus has graciously taken care of. At the very worst, every other problem I will ever have, even if I were to experience them all at the same time, would only bother me as long as I live on this earth.
Whatever temporal problems might be piling up in your life and trying to crush you, the reality is that Jesus has lifted the "one mighty single burden of eternity" from you. If you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then your obligation to God as an ungodly sinner has been fulfilled. That is the blessing the Psalmist is speaking of. If you are in Jesus, the blessing is yours now but it is also of infinite value and can be experienced and explored in greater and greater measures forever. I pray that God would take you further up and further in to this blessing and that the joy of being forgiven and being the object of Jesus' love would silence the cares and trials of life that are not worth comparing to the glory that awaits you. And if you haven’t yet believed but are still either ignoring your need to escape God’s wrath for your sins or have been attempting to escape it by the way of works, may you come to Jesus now in repentance and faith to receive the greatest blessing you could ever want.