The Descendants of Abraham: Romans 4

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Thoughts from the Passage

As I read Romans 4 and see Paul reminding his stories of the incredible faith that was shown by Abraham I cannot help but ask myself a question. Do I show the kind of faith that says, ‘nothing is impossible with God’? The story of Abraham and him coming to right relationship with God is incredible, but what is more incredible is the way that God is redeeming the whole world.

Paul writes in such a way that he wants us to know that our hope, our future, our salvation all come from Jesus, the one who conquered death and is redeeming all the world. God wants us to all be in right relationship with Him and He does that through Jesus.

Sue and Vince are good friends of mine and they have an incredible story of God doing the impossible in their lives. They were divorced, one was borderline suicidal and the other was an addict. In the midst of the chaos if their lives they turned to God and he transformed them. They were remarried and are today some of the most faithful servants of God I have ever met. Their story always reminds me that nothing is impossible with God!

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”[a]

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”[
b]

Once again Paul continues his diatribe argument in this passage of the letter. Paul points out that Abraham’s righteousness didn’t come from what he did, but from what he believed. If you know the story we know that from that belief came remarkable action, or works if you will. But, it was Abraham’s faith that initiated the sequence of events!

Abraham was a central figure to any conversation on what it means to be one of God’s people. “It would be difficult to overestimate Abraham’s importance in Judaism. A hero who worshipped the one true God in the midst of idolatrous peoples, Abraham’s legacy had been polished with a rich patina of miracle and legend.”[1] In other words, Paul is using a central figure known by all to tell the story of what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection mean in terms of right relationship with God.

Throughout this chapter Paul is referencing Genesis 15 in which God makes a covenant with Abraham. “The main thing the chapter is arguing against, then, is any suggestion that Christianity might after all be some kind of subset of Judaism, as defined by ‘works of the law’.[2]

Paul ends this passage with sharing David’s words from the Psalms. It is Psalm 32 that Paul quotes and it is as if he is saying that David recognized how great God’s forgiveness was, how much greater should God’s people recognize his forgiveness through Jesus? In Jesus there is a forgiveness that is greater than anything ever experienced before![3]

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

This section is the last time that Paul mentions circumcision in this letter. His point is that God established His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) before Abraham was circumcised (Genesis 17). This matters because it redefines who is a part of God’s unique family. As NT Wright writes, ”First, he has opened it up so it contains Gentiles as well as Jews – specifically, Gentiles who believe in the gospel. Second, however, he has narrowed it down, so it no longer includes all Jews automatically. Jews – like Paul himself, and all the earliest Christians – are of course welcome, and Paul will argue later in the letter that God wants more and more of them. But the badge they, too must wear is that of the Christian faith.[4] To join God’s family takes faith in Jesus and no works by any man or woman can redefine that.

This is a revolutionary thing among the Jews. In the Jewish world no one could be participants in the Passover celebration if they had not been circumcised. In order to be a participant among the celebrations of God it was necessary to make a full Jewish conversion and what Paul is saying here it isn’t necessary.[5] In fact, what he is saying as has been stated above, that the outward change stems from the inward faith and anything less than the inward is not enough to be right with God.

William Barclay makes the point that cannot be missed in what Paul is saying here about those that have faith and their connection to Abraham: “Abraham is not the father of those who have been circumcised; he is the father of those who make the same act of faith in God as he made. He is the father of every man who in every age takes God at His word as he did. This means that the real Jew is not the man who is racially a Jew and who is racially circumcised. The real Jew is the man who trusts God as Abraham did, no matter what his race is. And all the great promises of God are not to the Jewish nation, but to the man who is Abraham’s descendent because he trusts God as Abraham did. The word the Jew has ceased to be a word which describes a nationality and has come to describe a way of life and a reaction to God. The descendants of Abraham are not the members of any particular nation, but those who in every nation belong to the family of God…In one short paragraph Paul has shattered all Jewish thought.”[6]

13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.”[c] He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

NT Wright among others argues that this section as well as Romans 8 argue for the idea that the whole world is the inheritance of Abraham’s family, God’s unique people. It is no longer a small strip of land in the Middle East, but all of creation! This is a much larger inheritance. It is why Paul writes in verse 17 that Abraham will be the father of many nations, as in all nations of the world![7]

Each of us who are part of God’s covenantal renewal through Jesus are also children of Abraham. Abraham’s family is a multi-ethnic family that does not have national boundaries. God’s people come from every walk of life and every background!

Abraham’s inheritance came through his faith. This same faith is what God’s followers are called to exhibit today. It is not just a faith that calls us to go where God calls us (although we should), it is a faith that is rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul is trying to help those who would hear or read this letter understand that no one can be in right relationship with God through works. Paul who was the Pharisee of Pharisees and followed the law to the letter, recognized that his works still left him with a heart that needed to be transformed. The heart transformation comes through faith in Jesus and the grace that he offers.

William Greathouse puts it this way, “Paul must achieve two things in his Scriptural recasting of Abraham. First, he must show that Scripture presents primarily as a person of faith, as one who became “right with God” on the basis of faith alone; and, second, that it was upon the basis of this righteousness with God brought about by faith, that Abraham received for himself and all his descendants the blessing of salvation contained in the promise (Romans 4:13-17a)… …Based in theses proofs, Paul redefines, Abraham as not merely the father of Jews, but as the father of a great multitude of both Jews and Gentiles…What is at stake, then, in this discussion concerning Abraham is nothing less than the definition of God’s eschatological people: Who are the “progeny of Abraham (see Romans 9:6-8)? And, thus, who are promised a share into the world to come, and upon what terms? Paul appeals to Scripture to establish a place for uncircumcised believers within the community of salvation…”[8]

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”[d]19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Abraham is the epitome of hope in situations that are hopeless. “There was no hope for Abraham in circumstances. But Paul says Abraham saw his circumstances in faith, i.e., not from the perspective of mechanistic determinism, but from the viewpoint of God, who makes all things new. God’s promise transformed Abraham’s weakness and despair into hope.”[9] Having hope is not a sign of not being capable, but having hope is a sign that we trust that God can do greater things than we can. James Edwards also says it this way in terms of faith, “Faith is not inoculation against the germs of life. Faith is a fierce struggle.”[10] Hope and faith are both things that take effort.

Abraham showed incredible faith. He and his wife were old and yet he still believed that God would make him the father of many nations! God always does what he says he will do! The Scriptures are filled with wisdom, poetry, and great stories, but in the passages that God gives promises to His people God always fulfills His promises. Abraham’s faith led to God doing the impossible.

The rabbis had a saying when it came to Abraham “What is written of Abraham is written also of his children.[11] In other words, if it was faith in God that put Abraham in right relationship with God it is faith that puts all others in right relationship with God. If it was faith in God that allowed God to work through Abraham to do the impossible it is faith that allows God to do the impossible through all believers

This chapter and this section of Paul’s letter end with the whole point of why he is writing, Jesus. It is as NT Wright writes, “ …when Jesus was raised from the dead God was not only saying ‘he really was and is my son, but also ‘all those who believe in him really are my people.’”[12] This is the hope that we all have, that God’s promise to Abraham is our promise, that Jesus is really setting the world right, and that through Jesus we can be justified before God and in right relationship with Him.

[1] Edwards, 112.

[2] Wright, 66.

[3] Wright, 68.

[4] Wright, 71.

[5] Barclay, 63.

[6] Barclay, 64.

[7] Wright, 73.

[8] Greathouse, 135-136.

[9] Edwards, 126.

[10] Edwards, 127.

[11] Barclay, 69.

[12] Wright,

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