Kevin Labby is Senior pastor of Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida.

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Sermon - Romans, Part 9: "When Trusting God Is Difficult" (4:1-8)

Sermon - Romans, Part 9: "When Trusting God Is Difficult" (4:1-8)

The following are Pastor Kevin’s sermon notes, not a transcript of the message. They’re not professionally edited, and are only posted here for personal devotions and encouragement.


If you’ve been with us these past several weeks, you know that the Apostle Paul used most of the first three chapters of Romans to provide instruction about the spiritual condition of humanity, and our absolute need of God’s grace for redemption. We summarized this, on more than one occasion, with reference to a quote often attributed to Jonathan Edwards (probably mistakenly), “The only thing you contribute to your salvation is the sin that made it necessary.” Apocryphal or not, that’s a pretty good summation of Paul’s instruction in the first three chapters of Romans.

At the end of the third chapter, from verses 27-31, Paul moved from instruction to some of its implications. He shared three. First, he said that we can’t boast about our salvation; it’s God’s gracious work, not ours, from first to last. Second, he said that God’s grace extends to all kinds of people, not just some. God so loved the world. The respected and the scandalous. Men and women. The rich and the poor. The educated and the uneducated. The powerful and the weak. Every nation. Every tribe. Every tongue. Finally, he said that, even though we’re not saved by our obedience, our obedience still matters. No, we don’t earn our salvation through our obedience, but our Spirit-born obedience is a grateful expression of our love for God and our neighbors. It glorifies God and promotes the common good. Martin Luther expressed some of this when he said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.”

Here, beginning in Romans 4, Paul moves from instruction and implications to illustration. He mentions two titans of Old Testament history, Abraham (the father of the Jewish people) and David (their greatest king prior to Jesus Christ). Why does Paul choose these two men? What did he intend to illustrate thereby? Why does any of this matter to us today? These are the questions we’ll tackle this morning.


Father, please shine the light of understanding into our hearts and minds that your Spirit might transform our thoughts, words, and deeds for the glory of your Name. We ask this in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Do you remember the comedic movie, What about Bob? It starred Bill Murray as Bob Wiley, an incredibly annoying and exceeding neurotic patient, and Richard Dreyfuss as Dr. Leo Marvin, his egotistical therapist.

What about Bob? begins with Bob appearing in Dr. Martin’s office, complaining of excessive phobias. We learn that he fears almost everything, and spends most of his life in a constant state of anxiety. A parade of psychiatrists and medications have accomplished little with Bob, making him the perfect project for a self-promoting egomaniac like Dr. Marvin. The initial meeting ends with Bob receiving a copy of the doctor’s latest book, Baby Steps, and an assurance that the two will meet again when the doctor returns from vacation in a month.

Filled with newfound hope, Bob leaves the doctor’s office and heads home. However, shortly thereafter, his lingering paranoias and anxieties get the better of him. Desperate, he learns of Dr. Marvin’s otherwise secret vacation home; travels there against the doctor’s wishes; and eventually ingratiates himself with Dr. Marvin’s wife and children - again, despite the doctor’s repeated, angry, and eventually murderous protests.

The movie follows two trajectories, the patient and the doctor. As Bob experiences the love of family and newfound friends, he’s healed. He becomes healthier emotionally and mentally. He ascends from the depths to newfound heights, filled with joy and peace.

However, Bob’s love and kindness toward his doctor’s wife and long-neglected kids dislodges Dr. Marvin from the center of family life. Slowly, and fueled by deep resentment at Bob for not feeding his narcissism, Dr. Marvin descends into a state of catatonic madness. In a brilliant touch, Bob eventually becomes a psychotherapist himself.

In other words, the inverse trajectories of patient and doctor eventually cross, one ascending and the other descending. A personal fascination of mine is exactly where these two lines intersect. If you’ve watched the move and have a theory, I’d love to hear it. If you haven’t yet watched it, do so over the holidays - with some caution over language - and let me know your thoughts. I think it’s when Dr. Marvin discovers Bob using his toothbrush.

Well, why do I begin a sermon with reference to What about Bob? Is it because I think Bill Murray is fabulous and that Dr. Leo Marvin, not Mr. Holland, is Richard Dreyfus’ best role? Both of those are true, but not why I start here. I start with What about Bob? because it’s a story told with brilliant use of contrasts, one man up and another man down, and that has some bearing on our passage today.


Let’s look at the first man, Abraham, as we read the first two verses of our passage:

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.”

So, why did Paul mention Abraham? It’s a good question! Here’s a basic answer: Paul wants to show that salvation is not by works, but is - and has always been - by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Abraham could not boast in his own righteousness before God, but rather believed and trusted in the grace of God. Abraham is an especially good illustration of this truth for a few reasons.

First, Abraham was the father of the Jewish people. God’s covenant with Abraham defined the relationship of the Jewish people with the Almighty. To understand the salvation offered to and through the Jewish people, one needed to understand God’s dealings with Abraham; in a sense, it all began there.

Second, Abraham lived hundreds of years before the Jewish people received, through Moses, the law of God at Mount Sinai. This helps illustrate Paul’s main point. If God justified Abraham even before the law was given, then justification could not and did not come through obedience to the law.

Finally, Paul cites Abraham because Abraham’s circumcision came after God declared him righteous, not before. He received the sign of the covenant not to earn righteousness through works, but rather in response to receiving the gift of righteousness by faith. In Paul’s quotation of Old Testament Scripture, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” This belief was not Abraham’s work for God, but rather resting in the work of God for Abraham. More on this next week.


Paul then builds on this with a hypothetical regarding an employer and an employee.

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,

My first job was as a paperboy for USA Today. They experimented with home delivery at one point, and gave lots of people free trials. I had a nice route and delivered to everyone for a few weeks without incident. However, when I went to “collect” - i.e. accept payment for the papers delivered - my customers all seemed surprised. Apparently, the free trial came to an end; they didn’t cancel; and were left with a bill for papers already delivered.

Most of my customers paid me, and then promptly cancelled the unwanted service. One cancelled, but didn’t pay me. She stuck me with the bill. A couple of weeks passed, and her daughter pulled me aside at school. She said her mom wanted to give me an apology, as well as a small gift for my trouble. She handed me an envelope containing a signed card, along with the amount of money she owed me. I certainly appreciated it, but - even then - I knew that it wasn’t a gift. It was what I was owed!

That’s something of Paul’s point here. When you ask someone, “Do you think you’ll go to heaven when you die?” and they respond, “Yeah, I’m a pretty good person.” or something like that, do you know what they’re really saying? They’re saying that God owes them. They’ve made God their debtor. They’ve done good work, and consequently deserve a good outcome.

There are several issues with this, but perhaps most notable among them is that, when it comes to our justification, all of our righteous deeds only seem righteous in comparison with others. They never seem so before God. They, like we, all fall short of his glory (Rom. 3:23).

Now, most of us will admit that we’re not perfect, yet take some comfort in the fact that we’re not Hitler, Stalin, or Freddy Krueger. That might help you get a seat on the city council, but it won’t get you seated at the right hand of God. If salvation would be attained by works, those works must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48).


At this point, Paul introduces the second man, David. Let’s read verses 6-8.

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.”

Now, why David? This brings us back to What about Bob? Remember what I described? One man began up, and another began down, and then the trajectories of their lives crossed? Well, here you have that again, though so many centuries ago.

When God appeared to Abraham, he was no doubt a polytheistic pagan, worshipping the idols of his family and region, Ur of the Chaldees. He didn’t know the true God. He didn’t serve the true God. He was, spiritually speaking, at the bottom - far from God, cursed. And then God met him where he was, called him into a covenant relationship characterized by four promises and lifted him up. Obviously, it was all by grace. Abraham wasn’t seeking God; God graciously sought him.

When the time came to “cut” the covenant, the confirm it as a life or death relationship sealed in blood, God had Abraham (then Abram) slay several animals, split their carcasses in half, and then separate them on both sides of a walkway (cf. Gen. 15:9-21). Abraham would walk between them, confirming the covenant and showing forth what would happen to anyone who broke it.

Amazingly, before Abraham could walk through, God caused him to fall into a deep sleep. God, in a theophany, then walked through the carcasses, taking the obligations of the covenant entirely upon himself. God met Abraham at the bottom, and lifted him up. This wasn’t a testimony to Abraham’s goodness, but rather God’s goodness. It wasn’t to Abraham’s glory, but to God’s glory.

On the other hand, David began his life enjoying that covenant God established with Abraham and his descendants. His early life and ministry were filled with the goodness of God, and young David had a heart after him. His early story is characterized by zealous faithfulness, living in awe of God’s love and mercy.

It wasn’t until much later that David’s attention and trust in God waned. His descent was marked by pride, entitlement, intrigue, adultery, deceit, murder, and a family and kingdom torn apart as a result.

This is why Paul also mentions, of all the saints of the Old Testament, David. He’s one of the most reassuring persons to say “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.” If God was trustworthy in his graciousness toward David, even as he struggled to trust God, he will be trustworthy toward us.


Let’s close with just a few points of application.

God is not the God of second chances.

Many today believe that our God is the God of second chances; that he’ll give you a fresh start; that he’ll wipe the slate clean; but that, once he does, it’s up to you to keep it clean. Be careful on this point. These teachers will often say that salvation is by grace (which is true), but they limit that grace to a fresh start - a do-over (not true). God is gracious, they argue, to let you try again. This is the essence of legalism, that Jesus isn’t enough. You need, in whole or in part, to merit acceptance.

That’s not how Paul describes God’s grace in salvation. Abraham’s situation certainly improved when God met him at the bottom, but his growth in grace was anything but linear. It was full of stops and starts, advances and retreats. The general trend was upward, but it wasn’t smooth - at all. If Abraham looked to his own performance for assurance, he would have been in trouble. But, looking to Christ, the author and finishers of our faith, he found hope. Trusting in the righteousness of another, Abraham could have hope.

Likewise, David, though starting at the top, in many ways ended life at the bottom. Yet, God was faithful at every stage of David’s life. Psalm 51 is David’s great testimony to the steady faithfulness of God, even in the wake of our greatest failures.

Bottom line: The gospel isn’t a “second chance” to get it right. You’ll never get it right, even with a billion chances. The gospel is the Good news that there is One who always gets it right, and that he got it right for you. For your salvation, he’s left nothing to chance.

Your worst sins might be in front of you, not behind you.

Like Abraham, some of you began your walk with Christ in a place of spiritual darkness. Maybe you weren’t worshipping the moon god in Ur of the Chaldees, but you know who you once were: an enemy of God - utterly lost, wholly without hope except in God’s sovereign mercy. For some of you, there is a lot of bad behind you - and you hope it stays there.

Like David, others of you don’t look back on a time of spiritual darkness. You don’t remember a time when you didn’t believe. You’ve known God’s kindness and love from the beginning, and you’ve loved him in response. Your trajectory, at least so far, has been relatively good - and you hope it stays that way.

But let me ask you a question. What if your worst failings are still in front of you, not behind you? What if your biggest sins and struggles come after your justification, not before? Do you think that God will abandon you? Do you think that your failings will trump God’s faithfulness? Do you think that you might be a bigger sinner than Jesus is a Savior?

Listen carefully. Someone very wise once said it this way: “If you think God loves you any more for your obedience or any less for your disobedience, it’s not the gospel you believe but yourself.” That’s it. Paul’s entire point here is that God’s love and acceptance isn’t pegged to your performance. It rests on Christ alone.

Now, of course, your subjective sense and enjoyment of that love and acceptance can rise or fall depending on your obedience. However, the objective truth remains. God didn’t forsake Abraham. He didn’t forsake David. And he’ll never forsake you.

Sound doctrine matters.

Finally, this is consequential stuff. Doctrine matters. Sound doctrine promotes freedom and flourishing. Bad doctrine threatens both. Paul knew that. That’s why he took so much time, several chapters, to instruct the Roman Christians in the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, steadily sharing its implications - and even illustrating them.

We live in an age often averse to the faithful, steady study of Scripture. All too often, we want preachers and teachers to tickle our ears rather than feed our souls. And when we do eat, we often seek the “spiritual milk” of elementary teachings rather than the “solid food” of deeper truths (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1-3). This results in spiritual malnourishment, and an arrested development. Paul sought better for his churches, and - guided by the same Spirit - we should do the same.


Did you ever play the game Chutes and Ladders as a child, or maybe with your children or grandchildren? I like that game, at least I think that I do. It’s fun, but also so frustrating at times.

You spin the wheel; advance a certain number of spaces; land on either a blank space and do nothing, a ladder space and climb to the top of the ladder, or a chute (or slide) space and slide all the way down to its bottom. The object is to make your way all the way from the bottom to the top.

Through a series of starts and stops, advances and retreats, someone eventually makes it to the top. They’re the winner. That’s when the game ends, at least officially, but not in our house. We play until everyone gets the top; we don’t leave anyone behind.

That’s the way God is with you. Today, whether you feel like Bob Wiley on your way up a ladder, or Dr. Leo Marvin on your way down a chute, know this: God is with you. And the game’s not over until he gets you across the finish line. He who began a good work in you will see it through to completion, not because you’re so good - but because he is (Phil. 1:8).

Let’s pray.

Devotional - Whose Words Matter Most?

Devotional - Whose Words Matter Most?

Q&A - "Why do some call the Holy Spirit a Ghost? Who is the Holy Spirit?"

Q&A - "Why do some call the Holy Spirit a Ghost? Who is the Holy Spirit?"