I have learned that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I’ve learned that the hard way. I have been taken in by a good story before. Maybe you have too. So, if you are like me, you are pretty sceptical when you get a recorded phone call telling you that you have won a cruise of the Caribbean for free. You are sceptical when you go on an internet website that proclaims that you have won a prize and all you have to do to claim it is to click on the box. It sounds too good to be true. Maybe you have even been taken in by some sort of scam and you learned that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
But what about when it is something that God says? What about what we’ve been hearing in the book of Romans about God’s grace? It some ways it sounds too good to be true. People have had doubts about the truth of God’s grace ever since the Gospel was first preached. I am not talking about non-religious people here. I am talking about religious people. I am talking about people who have an idea of who God is. I am talking about people who feel an obligation to God. I am talking about people who believe that God has high standards and that we as human beings should be living by those standards. Even such people as that can have a real difficult time with the Bible’s teaching that God is gracious.
They might not have a problem with what Paul says in Romans 3:23:
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
After all, the evidence is all around us that all have sinned. Religious people have a good grasp of sin. And maybe that’s why they ARE religious people. They are trying to somehow earn God’s forgiveness. Most religious people don’t have trouble with the idea of sin. However, they might have a problem with what Paul says next:
24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.
Another translation puts verses 24-25 this way:
All need to be made right with God by his grace, which is a free gift. They need to be made free from sin through Jesus Christ. God gave him as a way to forgive sin through faith in the blood of Jesus.
And then they might have a real problem with verse 28
28 “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
In other words, the Bible teaches that a person is made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ because of his sacrificial death on the cross, not through obeying the law. This idea is scary to some religious people and so they reject the idea outright or they say that we are saved by grace but to be a real Christian you must follow a certain set of rules to be saved. This is called legalism. Legalism has proven attractive to people who are serious about knowing God throughout the ages. Why is that? We can glean two reasons from Romans chapter 3 and 4 today.
I. Grace is simply too risky.
Again, Paul was writing to religious people. He was writing to Jews who had lived with and upheld the Law of Moses all their lives. The idea that people were not made right with God through observing the Law was really scary. When Paul preached this, it looked like he was trying to destroy –or nullify the Law – everything that they believed it. In verse 28, Paul voices this objection.
31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
The person with this objection is asking, “Do we destroy the law by following the way of faith?” In other words, “If I’m not saved by my works than why work at all? If I’m not saved by the law, then why keep the law? If we don’t have the Law to keep us in line, why behave at all? If we don’t have to obey some sort of rules to get to Heaven, why not sin all I want?
Preaching and believing in salvation by grace through faith is scary because it seems to take the fences down. People see two problems with that. It leaves us feeling insecure. People who are serious about God often like fences and boundaries. They like to know what the limits are. In that way many people are like children. Children, despite what they tell you, like boundaries. They may push against your fences but they are desperately hoping that they will stand. Many people serious about God like boundaries and this preaching of Grace seems to destroy these boundaries. The second problem people see is that others will abuse grace. I will admit that preaching grace is risky because there is a chance that people will take grace to an extreme. There is a possibility that people will abuse God’s grace.
However, let’s look at it this way. I got my first credit card at the age of 19. I was going to California and I didn’t want to carry a lot of cash so I went to the Trust Company that was located beside my Dad’s store and I applied for their credit card. Now, the trust company manager was leery of issuing a credit card to a 19 year old University kid. I don’t know why! However, he knew my dad. When my credit card application crossed his desk, he went next door to my dad’s store and told him that I had applied for a credit card. He wanted my dad’s perspective on the matter before he said yes or no. Well, my dad told him that if I got in trouble using the card, he would look after it. On the basis of that promise, the manager issued the card.
My dad made the mistake of telling me about that conversation but he never gave me any boundaries about using the card. How do you think I responded to that? As I told you before, I was going to California. What do you think of when you think of California? I think of good times. I think of sun, surf and sand. I think of parties on the beach with that classic Beach Boy song – “Fun! Fun! Fun!” blaring from the radio. As foreign as this idea might be to the young people sitting here, I like fun as much as anybody and I could have been like the prodigal son. When I got off that plane in San Francisco I was a free man. I could go anywhere I wanted to. I had my clothes, I had money and, most of all, I had my credit card and my dad’s promise to pay it off if I didn’t. I was a slave set free. My chains were off. Mom and Dad wouldn’t miss me for weeks. What was to keep me from going wild?
People ask, without the law, what is there to keep people from going wild? I mean, if worshiping doesn’t save me, why worship? If giving money doesn’t save me, why give? If being moral doesn’t save me, well, watch out because I’m going out to sow some wild oats! The answer to that is that the Bible never teaches that God’s grace is a license to sin. Jude called people with this attitude godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. Later, Paul would counter his critics with the question:
1 ¶ What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
He answers with the strongest Greek idiom possible which we translate, “By no means!” J.B. Phillips in his translation of the Bible writes, “What a ghastly thought.”
Jesus doesn’t offer us grace so that we can go sin all we want. Rather, as Paul says in Titus:
[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
Jesus offers us grace to free us to do good, not evil. Grace fosters an eagerness to do good. If we have truly embraced God’s gift, we will not mock it. When my dad told that banker that he would cover my debts if I got into trouble, he didn’t attach a list of regulations and rules yet Dad never did have to honour that promise to the banker. I never racked up enough credit card debt that I couldn’t repay. Why didn’t I go crazy? I didn’t go crazy because Dad gave more than just a promise to a banker. He gave me his trust and I wasn’t about to abuse his trust.
God’s grace, if we truly understand it, makes us eager to do good. The law can show us where we can go wrong, but it can’t make us eager to do right. It can’t change our hearts. It can’t make us WANT to obey God. Grace, on the other hand, does. Grace makes us WANT to fulfil the requirements of the law. That’s what Paul means when he says that we uphold the law by this faith
We do not destroy nullify – or destroy - the law by this faith. Rather, we uphold the law. Faith causes us to do what the law truly wants in the first place and makes us want to obey it because we want to, not because we have to.
Grace may be risky, but it’s the way God has chosen to purify a people eager to do good.
B. People also feel more secure in legalism because it fits with what they believe to be the Old Testament concept of God.
Most people see God as portrayed in the Old Testament as a God of Law. They see him as the God who gave the 10 Commandments and the Law of Moses. They don’t see him as the God of Grace. Yet, in chapter 4 Paul discusses how God dealt with Abraham by Grace. He begins chapter 4 by saying:
1 ¶ What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about— but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." (Romans 4)
In these short little verses, Paul shows that before the law and even before that most Jewish of rites, circumcision, God dealt with Abraham in grace. The Jews upheld Abraham as a man who was blessed BECAUSE OF his obedience. Paul argues instead that in GRACE God credited Abraham with righteousness because of his FAITH.
Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."
What did Abraham believe God about that God would credit his faith with righteousness? Genesis 15:6 shows us that it was God’s promise that Abraham would have many offspring. Now, this promise might have sounded too good to be true to anyone else who heard it. Sarah was barren and aging. As the years past, this promise sounded more and more like it was too good to be true. For forty years Abraham and Sarai’s bodies aged. For forty years they watched their peers become grandparents and then great-grandparents but still saw no sign of their promised son. During that time, they lost their youth and vigour but not their hope. But then they had three mysterious visitors, one of which was the Lord who told Abraham that by that time next year Sarah would bear a son. By that time Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was not much younger. Sarah laughed when she heard that. Sarah thought it was too good to be true. However, a few months later she found herself laughing all the way from the geriatric ward to the maternity ward and her son, Isaac, whose name means “laughter” was born.
It all seemed too good to be true, yet there was Sarah with Isaac. It was all too good to be true. But God specializes in fulfilling promises that seem too good to be true.
18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead— since he was about a hundred years old— and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why "it was credited to him as righteousness."
God waited until everyone would know that He was involved in the making of this threesome. He waited until everything was gone – youth, strength and vigour. He waited until Abe and Sarah’s get up and go had got up and went. Then he did something too good to be true. God graciously credited Abraham with righteousness because he believed God. Then, in the next few verses, Paul tells us what this has to do with us:
23 ¶ The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness— for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
In other words, the same God who promised Abraham a child has promised grace to us who believe in Christ. If we exercise the same kind of faith in Jesus that Abraham exercised regarding God’s promise, it is credited to us as righteousness.
Grace is not a new concept! The Old Testament shows God to be a God of Grace! Yes, he gave the Law, but that came after and had a temporary purpose and we will look at it later.
What do I want you to do with this? Two things: I want you to have the audacity to believe it. Most of the time, when something sounds too good to be true, it is. One exception is when God says that something. When God says something, he means it, even if it sounds too risky to be true, even if it flies in the face of our own ideas about God and even if it sounds too good to be true. God even means it when tells us that he is willing to extend Grace to sinners based on what Jesus did for us on the cross. I want you to have the audacity to believe that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law even if it is risky, even if it flies in the face of your own ideas about God and even if it sounds too good to be true.
Secondly, I want you to abandon legalism. I want you to abandon the idea that rules can make you right with God. God does not save us based on our performance in good works. God’s approval is different that the approval of people. People tend to approve of us based on our performance. Many of us therefore have a need to please people. From experience we know that people pleasing a tough way to live. God’s approval is based on his grace. He already approves of His Son and if we place our faith in Jesus, we receive his approval. Isn’t that great? Along with abandoning the idea that rules will make you right with God, abandon the idea that rules can make us holy. For that, God’s grace is enough. Rules might be able to tell us what right and wrong is but they can’t give us the power to be holy. For that, we need God’s grace. God’s grace, not rules, Paul says, fosters in us an eagerness to do good. As I have said many times, God desires that we obey him because we WANT to, not because some rules says that we have too. He desires that we obey him from the inside out. This is true freedom.
Yes, the gospel may sound too good to be true, but it is of God and because of that, it is true nonetheless. Believe it. Live it. Teach it.
C. 2011 by Rev. Steven Brown. You are free to use portions of this message but please do not pass this off as your own.