Keeping faith in the promise (Romans 4:13-25)

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How have you done at keeping your hope up through the pandemic? It has been hard at times hasn’t it. We were promised a short fight to flatten the curve and then normality by Easter last year only for the First Lockdown to drag on into the summer of 2020. Then in the Autumn we saw the easing of lockdown not just halted by reversed. We had been told in the summer not to expect a return to normality including full church opening before January. We were now asking “but which January?”  It was harder to go through the last lockdown as hope seemed to be extinguished but them came the renewed hope of a vaccine. Yet even today, there are worries and fears aplenty about variants and future waves of the virus.  How are you doing at keeping going? How are your optimism levels?

For the believer, we have the bigger question about perseverance not through a pandemic but through life between Christ’s first and second coming. How do we keep going as Christians? 

We have been exploring Paul’s gospel or theology and seeing that sin means that there is no excuse or exemption, we all have sinned and deserve the penalty of death. Yet God has acted to save, the Gospel brings good news not just of deliverance but of reconciliation and restoration. We are made right with God. How is that possible? Well Paul insists that it is not possible through ancestry or through good works, rather it is only possible through faith in Christ Jesus who bore the penalty for our sin on the cross. 

In chapter 4, he goes on to use Abraham as a crucial example. His testimony provides vital testimony proving Paul’s case. The question under consideration at this point is “How/why what Abraham justified?” and the answer is reaffirmed that it is by faith (v22).  This points us back to v 9-12 Abraham is father of both believing Jew and Gentile. Why? Well because the promise came not through the law but by faith otherwise the law would nullify the work of the Gospel (v13-15).  This means that the gift of righteousness is an act of grace so that it will benefit all those identified as “Abraham’s offspring” or all intended beneficiaries of the covenant (v16-17).  Abraham therefore exercised faith in the context of his old age and Sarah’s infertility. The faith made our salvation possible and gives us an example of the kind of faith we should have (v18-21). This means that the declaration of Abraham’s righteousness by faith in Genesis 15 was not for his benefit alone but for ours too (v22-25).

 A promise received by faith (v13-15)

V13 The use of gar (for) at the start of the sentence points back to what has been stated in verse 12, in verse 13 we have reasoning to show why and how Abraham can be the ancestor of all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike who believe. The verse  describes how the promise is received both by Abraham and by his seed or descendants. The language used to describe the covenant promise is extended out from the promise of land, the specific territory within the borders of Canaan to describe the whole earth as Abraham’s inheritance. This suggests that Abraham is a successor to Adam and reminds us of Jesus’ words promising that his followers would be blessed and inherit the earth.  The  promise is received not through the Law but through the righteousness of faith, in other words, the righteousness that comes through faith. Going back to chapter 1 and its description of the Gospel as revealing God’s righteousness, we might also say that there are two revelations, Law and Gospel. It is the Gospel that brings the promise.

V14 explains why this is necessary. If you become heirs by keeping the law, then faith becomes void or meaningless and so does the promise. If Torah observance was the vehicle for receiving the blessing that it then the blessing would be constrained and limited to the one ethnic group that had been given access to the Law.

V15 If the Law is not the vehicle of promised blessing then what is it there for. One of the themes in Romans is that the Law cannot deliver salvation and righteousness partly as we will see in Romans 8 because of the limitations and weaknesses brough to it by the failing of sinful nature and secondly  because the Law is designed to do something else. In Romans 1, we’ve seen that as well as God’s salvation and righteousness being revealed, his wrath is also revealed and the Law’s role is to reveal and to bring that wrath.  You see, there cannot be transgression or law breaking without the presence of a law to break.  So, to make sense of why our actions cause God’s wrath to be revealed, we need the law to highlight the standards from which we fall short.

An Act of Grace (v16-17)

V16 The point is reinforced and driven home again that we talking about faith here. This also means that justification is about grace, about a gift that God freely gives.  This means that the promise is available to all of Abraham’s descendants making it clear that Gentiles are included with Jews in this. This is because as we have seen previously, the question about lineage, about being descended from Abraham is all about belonging to the covenant community and entitlement to its privileges. The point being that God had given a promise of blessing to Abraham not just for a nation but that he would be the father of nations and that allpeoples would be blessed (v17a). [1]

V17b The covenant promise, sealed with the changing of Abram’s name to Abraham was in the presence of the living God.  Here’ Paul identifies two crucial things about God’s character and purpose. He is the God who raises the dead and who brings life out of nothing. Of course those statements point to his creative and redemptive power seen in the Gospel  so that we are raised with Christ and become a people who were not a people. However, those truths about God have particular and immediate importance to Abraham and Sarah.

Faith Displayed in hope (v18-21)

V18 -19  For Abraham himself to believe God’s promise was going to take great faith, “hope against hope” as Paul puts it. I guess we might rephrase that as “rock solid, copper plated hope when hope itself seemed hopeless.”  It was trust on God’s word. God had shown him the stars and told him his descendants would be numberless like those.  As Abraham grew older it would have seemed that the promise looked less and less likely to be fulfilled. Had he got God wrong? Had he misunderstood the promise? Was it just wishful thinking on his part? Could God not be trusted after all? Or perhaps Abraham himself had failed in some way, disappointed God so that YHWH changed his mind?  No says Paul, Abraham’s faith “did not weaken.”

All of this was so, even though Abraham had ever human, earthly reason to doubt. He himself was old, his body dying, or as good as dead and Sarah’s womb also, dead. The double emphasis on death here demonstrates the personal element to the assurance that Gopd can bring something from nothing and can raise the dead. If Abraham’s own body was dying and Sarah’s womb dead, then this suggests that there was nothing there, semen or eggs with which to begin the process of conception. God will create ex-nihilo and God will bring life to Sarah’s dead womb.  The birth of Isaac was a death and resurrection experience.  This is another way in which Paul connects the promise of offspring to Abraham with the specific promise of the Gospel. Abraham’s hope was in The Resurrection.

V20 As with Paul’s claim that he was “not ashamed of the Gospel” I think we are to treat the negative here as functioning as an understatement. His faith grew stronger.  The consequence of Abraham’s faith was that he worshipped and glorified God. This reminds us that the consequence of faith and grace is that instead of our boast being in ourselves it is in God and the Gospel.  

V21 Abraham was certain, “fully convinced” we might say that he had assurance. What was the basis for this assurance? The answer was that God could and would keep his promise. This is a trust in God’s goodness and greatness. Abraham recognised that the promise was not in any way, shape or form dependent upon his or Sarah’s strength or abilities. It was down to the all powerful creator God who faithfully keeps his promises and who is love to do what he said he would do. Abraham knew he could trust God to do that.

Grace for us (v22-25)

V22 So, Paul has demonstrated that the Old Testament covenant promises and their application show that Abraham’s right standing with God and therefore enjoyment of the Covenant blessings was through faith not by works meaning that Paul’s assertion about our own justification being by faith is true also.

V23-24 God’s verdict in Genesis 15:6 on Abraham’s status before him therefore was not just for Abraham’s ears only. Here we pick up on another Pauline theme that the purpose of the experiences of the patriarchs and of Israel was for our benefit. God want’s us to learn from their lives and to overhear what he says to them as addressed to us as well. V24 So the words about and to Abraham were for those God intended and planned to justify, specifically for those who believe in him. Note that the focus of our belief is specifically in God and specifically in him identified as the one who raised Jesus.  Here justification is attached primarily to the resurrection.

This is affirmed in v 25. Jesus was handed over to death for our sin, he bore the penalty of our sin on the Cross. However, it is specifically through the resurrection that we know justification. This is because justification is a form of vindication and Christ’s resurrection declares that the sacrifice he made satisfied God’s wrath, it confirms his blamelessness and declares him victorious. 

Applying Justification to us now

Therefore, Christ’s vindication, his declaration to be victorious over sin and death, to be blameless and in the right is our vindication and victory too.  We are justified. We are reconciled to God having a right relationship with him. The penalty for our sin is paid so that God looks on us as blameless. Christ’s obedient life, death and resurrection are ours so that we are blameless. It is just as if I had kept God’s law perfectly.

All of this is God’s free-gift it is received by grace. Our part is faith, simply to trust in God’s promises. What does that mean for us today in our context? Well simply, it means to trust in Christ and his death and resurrection and to keep believing.  There are lots of things that might get thrown at us, that the devil wants to throw at us to knock us off our feet, to prize us away from Christ.

 Primarily, just as he wanted Abraham to focus on his own mortality and his wife’s infertility, to suggest that it was hopeless to have hope, so the devil will encourage us to look in at our own lives to see our own failures and weaknesses and to think that eternal life is impossible. I don’t deserve it.

The devil will also use our circumstances including the failings of prominent Christians and of the church. His message is “look at the church it is useless” to discourage us.  He will seek to use our own suffering. The message he sends with it is that “you are weak, useless and if God is letting you suffer then he has given up on you so you might as well too. Alongside that will be the passage of time and the lie that “Jesus isn’t coming back.”

Yet, by looking back to the way that God has kept his promises not just to Abraham and David but fulfilled completely in Christ, we can learn to hold onto the promise to us with sure and certain hope. We can face our sufferings from  a new perspective and see how God is at work through them as we will find out more about in Romans 5.

[1] C.f. Genesis 17:5.

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