Poverty caused by misfortune

This post discusses a Christian response to poverty caused by misfortune such as disaster, death of a spouse, job loss, war-trauma or illness. (I am not talking about those who prefer a life of drug abuse or petty crime.)

I am glad to report that my home church does far better than most in caring for the poor and disadvantaged. Our pastor and elders have led the way in this effort since our church formed. However, I still believe that concern for the poor is the number one disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and most evangelical Christians today. Sermons on this subject seem few and far between.

Since I live in Texas, it has occurred to me that Texas culture may bear on the issue. Historian T.R. Fehrenbach wrote a history of Texas published in 1968. One of his conclusions was that Texas has the ethos of the frontier, where the strong live and the weak die. As a man born and raised in Texas, I have come to believe he is right about that. While his description of Texas values is accurate, that does not make this compassionless stance right in the sight of God.

If God had adopted this attitude toward sinners, then Jesus never would have been sent to die for our sins and reconcile us to God. Before our salvation, the Bible describes us as helpless and ungodly (Rom. 5:6), even enemies of God (Rom. 5:10). By the frontier values of Texas, we would have been left to die in our helplessness. But God apparently does not favor certain Texas values, because he demonstrated his love for us by sending his son to die for us that we might be reconciled to him (Rom. 5:8).

That is what the Bible says, but I may not be wise to publish these views in Texas!

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.

Exposition of Romans 4:4-5, Since God provides all, believe him!

A powerful image in late 20th century politics was the welfare-cheat, someone who was getting something for nothing. It was easy to say — and was sometimes true — that people on welfare were not willing to work. They were all cast in a negative light, even the ones working.

In America we have historically believed in self-reliance, hard work, and pulling ourselves up by sheer effort. Our media regularly praise such qualities.

Whatever the political value of these concepts, they present exactly the wrong idea with respect to attaining salvation. In attaining salvation, we are both helpless and ungodly. God’s way of solving our problem demands that we be counter-cultural and substitute his efforts for our own.

(ESV) Romans 4:4-5

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,

Paul continues his argument concerning Abraham by using common knowledge about the nature of work and wages (4:4). One word that is central to Paul’s analysis is the now-familiar verb logizomai which here (4:4) means “to determine by mathematical process, reckon, calculate.”[1] This verb is the very one used in Genesis 15:6 in the Greek version — called the LXX or Septuagint — that Paul is quoting in Romans 4:3.

We could translate Romans 4:3 by saying, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not calculated according to grace but according to obligation.” Grace is something freely given, but an obligation is a debt which is owed. Paul forces his Jewish opponents to face the fact that attaining salvation-righteousness by works has inescapable baggage: it means God owes that righteousness to the one who works. Since Paul knows Jewish theology fiercely rejects the idea of God as debtor, the logic forces his opponents to disavow works as playing any part when God credited (logizomai Gen. 15:6) Abraham with righteousness.

But if works were not pivotal to the reckoning of righteousness to Abraham, what was? The answer is found in Gen. 15:6 when Abraham “believed God.” C.E.B. Cranfield summarizes the message of Romans 4:4-5 when he says, “The best explanation of Paul’s exposition of Gen. 15:6 in these two verses would seem to be that which understands it to turn upon the fact that the Genesis verse makes no mention of any work of Abraham but simply refers to his faith.”[2]

(ESV) Romans 4:5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

If Romans 4:5 explicitly mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, it might be even more famous than John 3:16. The phrase him [i.e. God] who justifies the ungodly (4:5) is absolutely astounding! Grant Osborne expresses the natural reaction: “At first glance this does not seem right. It should be the godly, the pious who should be justified.”[3] That would work fine if anyone were pious enough.

Romans 4:5 first forces us to realize that no matter what we think of ourselves, we come to God as those who are ungodly. Second, we see that God can justify the ungodly, declaring them to be righteous. Later Paul will explain how God could possibly justify the ungodly: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6, NET). That leads us to ask: how can we receive such profound benefit?

Paul says that we the ungodly obtain God’s justification the same way Abraham did. We do not work for it, but believe in the gracious God who made our justification possible through Jesus Christ. Romans 4:5 uses both the Greek verb pisteuo (“believes in him”) and the noun pistis (“his faith is counted as righteousness”) to nail down the central importance of faith to our justification.

Remember who is reckoning

The church father Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD) said, “The root of righteousness does not spring from works; rather the fruit of works grows from the root of righteousness.”[4] So, it is God who provides the way for us to become righteousness, and then our works can honor the one who saved us.

1. How do you think the merciful character of God figures into his counting (or reckoning or crediting) our faith as righteousness?

2. Do you think that the faith God wants from us is merely mental assent to an idea (e.g. Jesus died for my sins), or is there more to it than that? Explain.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:23-24, HCSB)

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] BDAG-3, logizomai, reckon, q.v.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 231.

[3] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 109.

[4] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 112.

Exposition of Romans 4:1-3, Faith has always triumphed over works

Time and events have a way of knocking us off course. In 1848, San Francisco had a population of 1,000, and then gold was discovered and caused the population to increase 25-fold in 1849. The city was never the same again.

The same type of thing can happen for a people or an individual. Abraham was declared righteous by God because of his faith, but over the years his descendants forgot about that and began to work for Gods approval. Some even followed after other gods. What is the moral to this story? Do not get distracted from fundamental values; not all that glitters is gold.

(ESV) Romans 4:13

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.

When debating Jewish opponents, Paul could no more avoid Abraham than someone writing a history of the United States could ignore Abraham Lincoln. Douglas Moo explains, In keeping with the [law-observant] focus of first-century Judaism, Abraham was held up particularly as a model of obedience to God. . . . It [was] even being argued that he had obeyed the law perfectly before it had been given.[1]

So, Paul dives right into the application to Abrahams life of what he has said about justification by faith (4:1). If he can break Jewish resistance on that point, his argument is won. To do this he uses a critical verse: Genesis 15:6, which says, Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness (HCSB).

Romans 4:2 is a little tricky, but we happen to have a contemporary idiom in English that matches it. Paul first concedes for the sake of argument that if Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, then he would have a basis for boasting. Then Paul uses the final phrase — but not before God (4:2) — to negate the whole idea. In contemporary English we might playfully say, Yes, you actually are Superman. Not!!

Paul swiftly supports his denial of Abrahams basis for boasting (4:2) by quoting the pivotal passage Genesis 15:6, which says, Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (4:3b). Moo points out the power of this verse: Not only is this [i.e. Gen. 15:6] the first time believe occurs in Scripture, but it is connected with attaining righteousness — one of the very few times in the OT that this connection is made.[2] Mention of Abraham is the other key to its rhetorical power for Pauls immediate purpose.

What about us?

Grant Osborne says, People cannot seem to understand that no one can buy his or her way into heaven on the basis of being basically a good guy.[3] This case of wishful thinking is going to leave a lot of people in a state of shock and disbelief when it crumbles.

1. Define biblical faith in your own words. If I said faith is an acceptant response to what God has said and done -- which I consider accurate -- how do you see that definition as either fitting or deviating from the biblical usage of faith?

2. What does living by biblical faith have in common with the American idea of being basically a good guy? How are they different?

Jesus had something to say to the Pharisees who had lost sight of the fundamentals of the faith: Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others (Matt. 23:23, NET).

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 256.

[2] Moo, Romans, 261.

[3] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 107.