The Faith - Grace - Certainty Connection

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By John Piper About Faith
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written

Romans 4:16-21
For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 (as it is written, "A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU") in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. 18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, "SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE." 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.

Heirs of the World

Let's start where we left off last week: with the promise that Abraham and his descendants - that is, all who have the faith of Abraham (Jews and Gentiles) - will be heirs of the world. Verse 13: "The promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world. . ." This was the summary and implication of all God's promises to Abraham: he and his descendants would inherit the world - or as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:21, "All things belong to you . . . and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God." I closed with four exhortations: Rejoice in this great hope; be secure in all your affliction; venture something a little bit crazy for Christ; give God the glory. Some of you did that this past week, and some radical choices were made that will change the rest of your life.

Now today it only gets better. Paul is so serious and so eager for you to bank your hope on the promise of being an heir of all things - and for you to live your life with the kind of radical abandon for Christ that will make people see and wonder and give glory to God - that he now labors to show what God has done to make the promise guaranteed and certain. So the question you should have in your mind during the message today is: What has God done to make sure and certain and firm and guaranteed the promise that his people will inherit the world?


Let's start with verse 16 and answer the first question that turns up: "For this reason it is by faith . . ." What does "it" refer to? "For this reason it is by faith." If you have the NIV, they interpret it for you by saying: "the promise comes by faith." The original simply says, "For this reason, by faith, in order that according to grace . . ." What then is "by faith"? Is it simply the promise that is by faith?

Look back at verse 13: "For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith." Here he says that the "promise" comes not just through faith, but through "the righteousness of faith." It's certainly not wrong to say that the promise is through faith. But Paul is saying something more. Don't forget what this whole chapter is about: it's about justification by faith. That is, it's about having a righteousness that is not our own, but is credited to us by faith apart from works. Verse 13 says that the promise that we are heirs of the world is ours through "the righteousness of faith" - that is, through the righteousness of God credited to our account through faith. (See Romans 4:5,9,11.)

So then what is "by faith" in verse 16 when Paul says, "For this reason it is by faith"? Answer: the righteousness of God that obtains the promise for us is by faith. It's true to say that the promise is by faith, but it is by faith through the righteousness of God in Christ that is credited to us by faith. We believe - we trust God's promise to us obtained for us by Christ - and God imputes his righteousness to us through this faith, and on the basis of that imputed righteousness, the promise is secured for us that we will be heirs of the world.


The next question verse 16 raises for us is what "For this reason" refers back to? "For this reason the righteousness that obtains the promise is by faith." For what reason? Verse 14 gives the answer: "If those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified." The reason the righteousness that obtains the promise is "by faith" is that if it were by law, then the promise would be nullified. Why? Verse 15: because the law brings wrath. If you try to use the law of commandments to do things for God so that you will have righteousness before him, you will fail. You will only get wrath, because justification is by faith alone, and all works before faith are self-wrought rebellion, not acceptable righteousness (Romans 10:3).

So here's the way we can paraphrase the first part of verse 16, "Since trying to keep the law of commandments as a way of justification only brings wrath, therefore the righteousness that obtains the promise for us is by faith, not law."

Now comes the new thought in verse 16. Paul wants to show us another reason why God makes faith the only way to have the righteousness of God and obtain the promise. The first reason was that the alternative to faith is the trying to be justified by the law of commandments; and that fails; it brings wrath; it nullifies the promise. The second reason why faith is the only way to be justified - the new reason in verse 16 - is that faith is in accordance with grace.

Verse 16: "For this reason it is by faith (that is, since the law brings wrath, the righteousness we need to inherit the promise is by faith) in order that it may be in accordance with grace." Why is it important that the way to inherit the promise be "in accordance with grace"? The next clause in verse 16 gives the answer: "So that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants" - both kinds of descendants: believing Jews ("those who are of the Law") and believing Gentiles ("those who are of the faith of Abraham"). Why must the way of inheriting the promise of being heir of all things be "in accordance with grace"? Answer: So that the promise will be guaranteed - or certain and sure and unshakable.


So now we see what Paul is up to. In all this weighty writing he has a precious practical aim in view: your certainty that the promise of being an heir of the world will come true for you, an imperfect, stumbling, believing, justified, sinning saint. Paul is not interested in stretching your brain with this kind of writing and thinking for no urgent reason. He wants you to be sure, to know a guarantee, to be certain about the promise that we talked about last week.

The people whose certainty about the promises of God is most unshakable in the suffering and the sensuality of life are the people who have meditated their way into the mind of God with the help of his Word - which is what I am trying to help you do right now.

So what is Paul's foundation in verse 16 for a guaranteed and certain promise? Read it with me again and follow the three steps of his reasoning: "For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants." Faith . .. grace . . . guaranteed promise.

Now meditate on this with me for a moment. Ponder this. Think about this for the good of your soul. Sink some roots down into this great statement. What is it that really, at bottom, guarantees the promise that you will be an heir? The answer is: God's grace. Your faith is essential, but the reason it's essential is that it is the only condition of the heart that accords with grace. And God's grace is the deepest foundation of our guarantee.

Notice the way Paul says it in verse 16. Why is faith so essential? He answers: it's because it accords with grace. And why is that important? Because God's grace is what gives the guarantee. The only way that our eternal future can be guaranteed is if it rests on God's grace. Grace is the free and undeserved work of God to bring his people to glory. Grace is the mighty, omnipotent purpose of God to make sure we get our inheritance. Grace is the ground of our guarantee. And faith is the only condition of the heart that "accords" with that free and undeserved work.

What Is This Grace?

Now I want you to taste the glory of this powerful promise-guaranteeing grace. To do that, let's look back to something we have seen and then forward to something we have not seen. What is this grace? How does it guarantee that we will obtain our inheritance?

Look back at Romans 4:4-5. "Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor [literally: "in accordance with grace" - the exact phrase found in verse 16, "in accordance with grace"] but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness." Paul is talking here about how to be justified, how to have a righteousness before God that will inherit the promise. Notice the opposite of grace and faith in these verses. The opposite of faith is working, and the opposite of grace is due (or debt or desert). If you try to work for righteousness instead of trusting God, he says you will get a wage that you are due, and that is not "in accordance with grace," but is the opposite of grace. But if you don't try to work for your righteous standing with God, but trust him who justifies the ungodly, God's righteousness will be credited to you as a gift. That is grace and the only condition of the heart that corresponds to it is faith.

So grace is the purpose of God to give you the righteousness and the promise that you do not deserve. That is why grace is the guarantee of the promise. It overrides our demerit. O, hear this! Wake up to this! What condition of the heart "accords with" this grace? Faith alone. Faith is the restful experience of the work of grace in our lives. If we think of that first act of justifying faith in Christ, we can say faith is to grace what seeing is to light and what hearing is to sound and what waking up is to the alarm clock. Faith corresponds to grace the way tasting sweetness corresponds to honey on the tongue.

Why do I say it like this? I know this is not a common way of talking about faith today. But it was three hundred years ago. There is a widespread loss of understanding today about the Biblical nature of grace and faith. Most church-going Christians today are so uninterested in Biblical doctrine and rich Biblical truth that they have forfeited much truth and with it much blessing. O, how I hope God will be merciful to us in this series on Romans and waken us from those unthinking slumbers!

So I ask again, why do I say that faith is to grace what seeing is to light and hearing is to sound and tasting is to honey on the tongue? Doesn't this imply that God's grace actually awakens the faith - the way light awakens sight and sound awakens hearing and honey awakens the taste of sweetness? The answer to that is yes. I think that is exactly what God's grace does. And that's the second reason why it guarantees that we will obtain the promise. You can see a picture of it in verses 17 and 19.

Follow carefully. At the end of verse 16, Paul says that grace guarantees the promise to all the descendants of Abraham, both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, since he is the father of us all. Then in verse 17, Paul quotes Genesis 17:5 to show that Abraham was going to be the father of many nations. Then, in the rest of verse 17, he says that Abraham's faith was "in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist."

Now why does he say this? Why does he call attention to this kind of sovereign, divine activity? The point is this: in order for Abraham to have a guarantee that he would inherit the promise, God must bring life from death and call into being what does not exist. This is sovereign, omnipotent, free grace. He is describing here what he means by the grace that guarantees the promise. Deadness must come to life and non-existence must exist. That is what grace does. Man cannot do this. Man cannot raise the dead. And man cannot create something out of nothing. But God can and God does in order to guarantee the promises for his people. That is the meaning of grace.

Grace Does the Humanly Impossible

Without the birth of Isaac, the promise to Abraham will have failed. But Isaac does not exist, and humanly cannot exist. His Father is ninety-nine years old. His mother is ninety and barren all her life. Human works and resources have been tried: a concubine named Hagar and a son named Ishmael. But God says, No. The promise will be fulfilled and guaranteed not by my cooperation with your human resources, but by my sovereign grace to do the humanly impossible.

Paul explains in verse 19: "Without becoming weak in faith [Abraham] contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb." If the promise is to be guaranteed, God must do the impossible. He must do what humans cannot do: "give life to the dead and call into being that which does not exist." That is the meaning of grace.

The supernatural birth of Isaac is a picture of how God creates children of promise - you and me. Paul says in Galatians 4:28, "You brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise." Not like Ishmael, born from what humans can do. Isaac was born by a miracle of the Spirit; you are born by a miracle of the Spirit. He was brought forth from deadness; you are brought forth from deadness. His faith was called into being out of nothing; your faith is called into being out of nothing. That is the meaning of grace. And that is why grace guarantees the promise. It does what human resources cannot do.

Grace not only gives us better than we deserve (Romans 4:4-5); grace gives us what we cannot produce: life from the dead -the sight of glory, the hearing of divine truth, the tasting of spiritual sweetness. It all comes into being by the sweet and sovereign grace of God. That is why the promise is certain.

Life to the Dead

Let me close by drawing one parallel from outside Romans that I had never noticed before, but is tremendously compelling in this understanding of grace. Ephesians 2:4-5 tells us that grace is precisely this: it is the work of God to raise spiritually the dead - to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)." The fact that Paul inserts the words "by grace you have been saved" right after "we were dead and God made us alive" shows that grace is just what Romans 4:17 makes it out to be: it is the work of God "who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist."

And what does he call into being for us? Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." Faith is the gift of God's grace the way seeing is the gift of light and the way hearing is the gift of sound and the way tasting is the gift of honey on the tongue.

The light of the gospel is shining this morning. The word of the gospel is sounding this morning. The sweetness of the gospel is falling this morning. And the loving command of God is this: Look and see; listen and hear; taste and enjoy the glory of the grace of God.

This is faith. This accords with grace that gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. And that sovereign grace guarantees, above all human fickleness and frailty, that you will inherit the world.

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