13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled. 15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. 16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations. So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 18 When it was beyond hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him: That’s how many descendants you will have. 19 Without losing faith, Abraham, who was nearly 100 years old, took into account his own body, which was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb, which was dead. 20 He didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith in God’s promise, but he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.
23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us. (CEB)
Credited to Us
My health insurance’s wellness program is pretty cool. We use Virgin Pulse, and it gives rewards based on physical activity and participation in features of the program. I wear my FitBit Blaze, which tracks my steps, active minutes, stairs, heartrate, and even sleep. All that information goes into the cloud and gets recorded by the Virgin Pulse website. I earn a certain number of points based on how many steps I’ve taken, and how many active minutes I’ve had in my day. I can record meals and healthy snacks. They have health coaches who call me and talk me through setting goals for physical activity and give me encouragement. I can even challenge friends of mine who are also in the Virgin Pulse program. I get points for all it.
All those points add up on my account, and I can earn small cash rewards based on the number I’ve earned. I usually dump mine into an Amazon gift card to help feed my book-reading habit, which my daughter appreciates because she gets to read the books, too. So, it’s pretty cool that I get to earn rewards for my healthy activity. But I wouldn’t earn anything if it weren’t for the wellness program that offered them. They have faith my ability to work toward better health, and that makes me want to work for it even more. Besides, I’ve already got my Amazon Wish List ready with my next book orders.
In the same way, our faith is a gift to us from God. It may be credited to us as righteousness, but faith isn’t something we have apart from God’s gracious gift. God offers faith to us as our response to God.
Paul’s writings are some of the more difficult to put into a sermon because you often have to look at his full argument, instead of pieces of it, and understand the context from whish he’s writing. It’s difficult to take a single text and preach about it because the preceding and following verses are also part of Paul’s argument as a whole. And, with this text, we need to include the reading about Abraham from Genesis 17 if we’re going to understand it.
Abraham is the key to understanding Paul’s argument here. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abraham represents something important. But it’s different for each of the three Abrahamic faith traditions. For Jews, Abraham is the literal father of the nation. Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham. For Muslims, Abraham is the example of a model Muslim—one who submits to the will of God. For Christians, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the “father of many nations” is fulfilled in the faith of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now, here’s a little background. Back in the year 49, Emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jews out of Rome. As a result of that decree, Priscila and Aquila had emigrated from Rome to Corinth, which is where Paul first met them on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-2). When the Jews were expelled, the Gentile Christians in Rome likely rose in prominence.
Less than a decade later, during the winter of the year 57 or 58 while he was staying in Corinth on his Third Missionary Journey, Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Church. By then, the ban of Jews in Rome had been lifted, and Priscila and Aquila had moved back. We know that because Paul sent his greetings to them in verse 16:3. When these Jewish Christians returned, it probably caused some ethnic discord between the Gentile and Jewish Christian congregations.
Remember that the earliest communities of the church often had Jewish and Gentile congregations who worshipped separately. It was a struggle for some, especially the Jewish Christians, to fully accept their Gentile sisters and brothers in Christ as such. Some Jewish Christians even argued that Gentiles had to first convert to Judaism before they could be Christians, because Christianity was a Jewish thing. The main thrust of Paul’s argument here is ethnicity, and he’s trying to show both groups that they’re actually equals through faith.
Earlier in Romans, Paul argues two main points. First, he argues that everyone knows the law, including Gentiles, because we can clearly see and understand God through the things God has made (c.f. 1:20). Yet, everyone rejects God instead of honoring God. Second, he argues that no one follows the Law, even the Jews who might boast of possessing it (c.f. 2:23). It seems like he’s painted himself into a corner with his argument when he concludes, “It follows that no human being will be treated as righteous in his presence by doing what the Law says, because the knowledge of sin comes through the Law” (Romans 3:20 CEB). In fact, he uses a list of Psalms in verses 3:10-18 to add to his point that no one is righteous.
At this point, we almost want to toss up our hands and throw in the towel, thinking, Well, who can win? And that starts the next phase of Paul’s argument. We can’t win. But God can. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, BUT all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24 CEB).
Then, we get to chapter four, and our text for the day, where Paul introduces Abraham as his primary example of righteousness, not because Abraham followed the Law, but because Abraham had faith in God and believed in God’s promises. It’s important to note that, in Greek, faith and believe (or had faith in) share the same root: πίστις and πιστεύω (pistis and pisteuo). So when Paul is talking about faith as a noun, or believed as a verb he’s talking about the same thing, though the words are different in English. According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham was reckoned as righteous, not because he followed the Law, but because he believed God’s promises.
Only God can create faith in those who have faith. Righteousness is credited to those who believe, not because it’s something they earn through having faith, but because it’s accounted to them by God as a something God freely gives. Adherence to the Law depends upon human choice and agency. We choose to either obey or disobey the Law. In that sense, if the Law makes us righteous, we would essentially be making ourselves righteous by obeying the Law. But, Paul argues that the Law doesn’t make us righteous. The Law is educational, and serves to show us that we aren’t righteous. And, faith comes before obedience. The gift of faith to us is God’s initiative, God’s action, God’s agency. God makes us righteous because of our faith, we can’t make ourselves righteous by following a list of DO’s and DON’Ts.
For Paul, the timeline of Abraham’s life is important. Abraham’s belief in God’s promises, for which God reckoned him as righteous, came before circumcision as the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17:10. So, it wasn’t any act of covenant or Law that made Abraham righteous. According to Scripture, itself, it was Abraham’s faith in God back in chapter 15 that made him righteous.
Paul also argues that God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of MANY nations, not merely the father of one nation. Jews thought of their birthright as Abraham’s direct descendants as an advantage, but Paul argued that it wasn’t really an advantage. John the Baptist made a similar argument when people were coming to him for baptism. He said, “And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones” (Matthew 3:9 CEB). He went on to argue that what mattered was the fruit we produce. How we live matters to God.
It’s all people who have faith, Jews and Gentiles together that fulfills the promise of God to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. God is able to bring forth life from what is dead (Abraham was nearly a hundred years old when he got Sarah pregnant) and from that which is barren (Sarah was also around ninety years old when she finally got pregnant). In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God again brought forth life from death.
Now, we can wonder about Paul’s words in in verses 19-21. He says Abraham’s faith never wavered, he didn’t hesitate with a lack of faith, but believed God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations even when it seemed impossible for him to have children. But we know Abraham’s story. We know that he fell on his face, laughing when God qualified the promise to mean that Abraham’s son would be with his wife, Sarah (c.f. Genesis 17:17). We know that, before that episode, Abraham got worried and he and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands. Sarah had him get Hagar pregnant, which didn’t work out well for Sarah (c.f. Genesis 16:2-4). So, in one sense, it seems that Paul views Abraham through some rose-colored glasses.
But, it might be that Paul says these things about Abraham’s faith because Abraham really did have faith and believe in God’s promises. If Paul sees Abraham’s faith as unwavering, it’s not because Abraham never had doubts, it’s not because he never tried to take matters into his own hands. It’s because, in Abraham’s story as a whole, he really did have an unwavering faith. When Abraham was about seventy-five years old, he left the security of his home, his family, and his community because God told him to. (So much for kicking back and enjoying retirement, right?). He journeyed through the land in stages despite the dangers. He was even prepared to sacrifice his own son, and all the hopes of God’s promises that were attached to him, because he had faith that God would accomplish the promises despite his son’s death.
The reason Paul can say that Abraham’s faith never wavered is because, when God called, Abraham put it all on the line and trusted God. As messy as things got at times, Abraham had faith in God, and he lived that faith out completely. Abraham was convinced that God could and would do what God promised. That belief, that trust, that faith, is why God accounted Abraham as righteous.
And there’s one last thing. Paul wrote, “But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us” (Romans 4:23-25 CEB).
Muslims view Abraham as a model Muslim. Long before that, Paul used Abraham to describe a model Christian and to show us that, no matter who we are or what our genealogy is, faith puts us in a right relationship with God. The good news that Paul preached was that those who have faith in God, whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, are made righteous through that faith. We can believe that the God who raised Christ from the dead will give us life, too.
The Church of Jesus Christ is called to this kind of unwavering faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we’ll never have doubts. It doesn’t mean we’ll never try to take matters into our own hands. But it does mean that when God calls, we lay it all on the line and step out in faith. It means that we have permission to go out in boldness, even if we don’t know exactly what it will mean or where God’s call will lead. But we can trust that, when God calls and we follow in faith, our faithfulness becomes a blessing to others, and God credits our faith as righteousness.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay