(Romans 4:1-5, 13-17)
The best-selling vehicle in the United States for the past 45 years is not a sedan. Not a van. Not an SUV. It’s a pickup truck: The Ford F-150.
About one million new trucks hit the road each year.
According to Motor and Wheels website, the F-150 is popular because it has an all-aluminum body, and available 10-speed automatic transmission and turbocharged engine. The truck has great fuel efficiency and incredible hauling capacity. The website says that it is “a symbol of American tenacity, grit, and honest living,” combining ruggedness with innovation.
Speaking of innovation, here’s a big change: the F-150 Lightning.
Yes, the Ford F-150 is going electric.
Given the sales history of this truck, you might wonder why Ford would want to mess with success. You know the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Ford executives knew that they would need to win over some serious skeptics with the electric version. “We wanted to make sure that we built a truck that would be accepted by truck owners today,” said Linda Zhang to Fast Company magazine. She’s the chief engineer for the new electric truck.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s what a lot of folks were saying about good works back in the first century. Within the Jewish faith, there was a long tradition of people being “justified by works” (Romans 4:2). They would study the laws of the Bible, including the Ten Commandments, and then do their best to follow these laws by remembering the Sabbath day, honoring their father and mother, and refraining from murder, adultery and stealing. When they did these good works, they would be justified – which means being put in a right relationship with God and their neighbors.
The model for being justified was Abraham, a righteous man who was the ancient father of every Jew. He was held up as the symbol of Jewish righteousness, just as the Ford-150 has been “the symbol of American tenacity.” Those who followed Abraham saw him as the finest example of being justified by works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But then the apostle Paul came along and saw something that needed to be fixed.
Paul made an important discovery when he studied the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis. He realized that it was simply not true that Abraham was justified by works. “What does the Scripture say?” he asked in his letter to the Romans. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (v. 3).
Yes, Abraham was made righteous by believing God, not by following the law. He was justified by his faith, not by his good works.
This was a radical innovation, along the lines of a pickup truck going electric. No one saw it coming, but then it revolutionized the industry. If we are going to follow Paul, we need to choose a new kind of vehicle: A Faith-150.
When we jump into this truck, we discover that our “faith is credited as righteousness” (v. 5).
The Ford Lightning is the winner of one of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards. This electric truck can pull 10,000 pounds of cargo up steep hills, and it can accelerate faster than a gas truck. It can also be a handy source of electric power. On a work site, a construction crew can plug into the truck to recharge cordless tools, power air compressors, and supply electricity for larger equipment. And if power goes out at home, you can use the truck to keep your lights on for up to 10 days.
In a similar way, Paul’s focus on faith is a world-changing idea. Suddenly, a person can be made righteous by believing God, not by following religious law. Anyone and everyone can be justified, not just the people who follow the law and do good works. “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world,” says Paul (v. 13). That was the old F-150.
No, Abraham and his offspring received the promise “through the righteousness that comes by faith” (v. 13). That’s the new Faith-150.
It’s a world-changing idea, and it is available to us all.
If we climb into the Faith-150, we become “Abraham’s offspring.” We don’t have to be Jewish. We don’t have to be circumcised. We don’t have to follow every religious law. All we have to do is show “the faith of Abraham” (v. 16).
And what exactly is this faith? Paul says that Abraham believed in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (v. 17). He believed in the same God who raised Jesus from death to new life, and who calls into existence what may seem to be impossible. In Abraham’s life, this means that he trusted God to give him a child, even though “his body was as good as dead” (v. 19). He believed in the promises of God and was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (v. 21).
Abraham had faith in the God who gives life to the dead. He trusted God. He believed in the promises of God and that God had the power to fulfill those promises. And because of this, his faith was “credited to him as righteousness” (v. 22).
What a powerful faith. Stronger than the charge in a Ford Lightning.
So, what would it mean for us to move forward in a Faith-150? This kind of faithfulness makes us right with God and gives us power to do God’s work in the world.
For starters, we believe in the God who gives life to the dead, the God seen most clearly in Jesus Christ. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther made Paul’s insight the center of his theology, one that asserted we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus. Luther wanted to be a good and righteous person, so he confessed his sins frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a time. But after confessing his sins, he would leave the church and remember other sins that he needed to confess. He tried the path of good works and discovered that he could never do enough to save himself.
Then Luther read the line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that says, “the righteous will live by faith” (1:17). In a flash, he realized that he was not made righteous by his good efforts, but by his faith in Jesus Christ. “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise,” said Luther. “This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”
On a personal level, Luther was reborn by this insight into the power of faith. He was touched by the God “who gives life to the dead” (4:17). But on a historical level, the Protestant Reformation began when Luther made this discovery about faith. “If you have true faith that Christ is your Savior,” he said, “then at once you have a gracious God, [and] you should see pure grace and overflowing love.” Luther was inspired to go out and preach the gospel, a word which means “good news,” because he saw that the gospel was “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (1:16).
After we jump into a Faith-150 and trust Christ to be our Savior, we make every effort to support God’s work in the world. As Luther himself said, “Good works do not make a [person] good, but a good [person] does good works.” Good works are naturally going to flow out of a person who has been saved through their faith in Jesus. Having faith in Jesus does not give anyone permission to sit back and refrain from doing good.
Think of the Ford Lightning truck. Yes, its electric engine makes it a truly innovative vehicle, one that can power a house during blackouts. But even though it is based on a world changing idea, the Ford Lightning still has to carry tools, building supplies, mulch and manure. If it didn’t tow heavy cargo up hills, it wouldn’t be a pickup truck.
Same for a Christian whose “faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5). Yes, our faith in Jesus makes us right with God, but still we are challenged to show each other compassion and justice and mercy. The heavy lifting of the Christian life involves feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, welcoming strangers, and visiting people in prison. If we didn’t do these good works, we wouldn’t be recognizable as followers of Christ.
Everyone should, of course, feel free to choose the brand of pickup truck that is best for them. But when it comes to following Jesus, you cannot beat a Faith-150.