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Romans (Series 2)

Dazzling Leap

Romans 4

Lesson audio

Paul’s thesis now takes a slight detour to deal with certain questions and objections which would logically arise at this point. Anticipating Aquinas on this point, Paul knew that an argument was not complete without answers to objections. We shall state those objections, and Paul’s answer – and then proceed to examine the implications thereof.

Objections

Romans 4:1-8 NIV

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? (2) If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God. (3) What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."[1] (4) Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. (5) However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (6) David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: (7) "Blessed are they

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered. (8) Blessed is the man

whose sin the Lord will never count against him."[2]

Objections

We might see in this three objections to Paul’s argument concerning the nature of human sin and God’s response to it. We may phrase those objections as follows:

  1. “This is all just theory. You need to show me by historical evidence that such a thing is plausible at least and ultimately required. Give me an example.”
  2. “All this talk puts me down. I’m not a axe-murderer; but I might as well be by your argument. Surely good – OK, great – people are exempt from this. If this is true, why do I feel OK about myself?”
  3. “You have obviously missed one central point: God works by Law. The Old Testament is full of rules and regulations. How can you reconcile that with your theory?”

Paul’s answer comes in two parts: Abraham and David.

Abraham

We must remember how Abraham would have been viewed by the legalist Jews of the day. He is the patriarch, the man with whom God started his system. To one who reasons through these things, he would be seen as one greater than Moses, and thus greater than the Law (being the ancestor of Moses). From our point of view he is the man with whom God arranged the promises of Christ, and therefore a man worthy of high praise, at least in our view.

Paul brings our attention, therefore, to what Abraham discovered. The point is experimental. God did not simply write it down for him; Abraham discovered the character of God through a lifetime of interaction. Now, it cannot be said that Abraham kept the Law, for the Law was several hundred years in the future from him. But through his experience, Abraham learned to trust God – and for this he was “credited” with being righteous.[1]

You can see the point. Promises are made to Abraham concerning his descendants; his descendants in that sense inherit those promises. Those promises come by faith, not keeping the Law. Historical example, and logical point.

David

In David we find no man of great logic and reason as much as we find an artist – a poet, to be specific. If Abraham is left-brain, David is right brain. Paul quotes him here (Psalm 32) showing us the blessing of God – by God’s action, not our own. A blessing is not something earned, but given as favor by God. And what is that blessing?

  • That our sins are forgiven – which sets our relationship to God in order.
  • That they are “covered” – meaning that God will not bring them up again at some convenient time. God, if you will, can’t find them anymore.
  • That our sins will never be counted against us. Our sins are fact; their impact depends upon God. If he forgives, they cease to count against us – and this is a great blessing.

The point is poetic. If the burden of sin is unbearable gloom,[2] then forgiveness, covering and remission are indeed the blessings of God.

One cannot help but note that God is making this argument both to the Romans and to us

Questions

Romans 4:9-17 NIV 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 the sign of circumcision, 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 also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (13) It was not through 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 live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, (15) because 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 are of 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."[3] He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.

The biker problem

We come now to the “biker problem.” Consider it this way: it’s one thing to tell a pious, hard-working, upright Christian that faith is so pre-eminent. It is, from that point of view, a solution to many difficulties – for example, the call to perfection. But let us consider that icon of badness, the biker. How can we say that faith avails for such a person as that?

  • There is the obvious: the promise comes by faith. The biker may be greatly inferior in being nice to his mother, but that doesn’t necessarily imply he can’t have faith. So, purely logically, this shouldn’t be a problem. But it is.
  • Paul draws this conclusion by inference from circumcision. Righteous people are (physically or symbolically) “circumcised.” That’s the Old Testament dividing line between the good guys and the bad guys. If God had given Abraham the promise after circumcision, we might conclude that only the good guys can have the promise. But God didn’t.
  • He also argues from first principles. God is one. His family is therefore one. God is father to us all; indeed Abraham is called a father to many nations, not just the Jews. The question is not, “who is righteous?” but “who is family?”[3]
Promise vis-à-vis Law

Sometimes the idea that there are rules and regulations, and that life is about following them, is so ingrained in us that we fail to see the limits of the rules. Look at it this way, perhaps:

  • The Law – the Old Testament version of rules and regulations – looks backward. It asks, “What have you done?” and provides penalties for it. In the law itself there is no hope, for hope concerns the future. The Law of God brings the Wrath of God.
  • But even in our legal system there is the slight hope of pardon. The Promise of God looks forward, as do all promises. Therefore, there is hope. If you have faith, He will deliver.
So why circumcision?

Which brings us to another logical objection: if this is so, then why do we have Law at all? Why do we teach the Christian that he must ceremonially be cleansed (baptism) and then stay clean?

  • The ceremonial part is well described here as a “seal of righteousness.” If you will, it makes your attributed righteousness official. It’s the purple ink, raised letter seal on the death certificate of sin.
  • Staying clean? Any parent knows the answer to that. It’s a fact that obedience in children pleases their parents; obedience in the Christian pleases God. And disobedience provokes not God’s wrath but his discipline.

Hope

Romans 4:18-25 NIV 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."[4] (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.

Against all odds

Hope is not the same thing as probability. Probability guesses what is likely to happen; hope believes – even knows – what is going to happen. The facts do not matter to hope.

  • Abraham, when he was told he’d have his own biological son, was pushing a hundred. Remember, no Viagra. He just laughed at the idea; God was serious, though.
  • OK, maybe Abraham can do the job – but his wife? Sarah was pushing ninety. There’s a reason Medicare doesn’t cover pregnancy.
  • Perhaps more telling, Abraham proposed that his son by Hagar, Ishmael, should be his heir. God said no. In short, Abraham made a reasonable suggestion – and God countered with an unreasonable promise.

Against all odds? You bet.

What kind of faith?

What kind of faith would do a thing like that? I give you three characteristics:

  1. Abraham was “fully persuaded that God had the power.” Such faith begins with the knowledge of God – and that knowledge includes knowing his power. We shy away from that; gentle Jesus is more approachable than the creator of all things. But they are one in the same.
  2. Abraham did not develop this faith by himself; rather, we are told that he was strengthened in it. If you need help in this, ask the one who gives faith.
  3. This is not “faith in faith” – that is, if you just have enough faith it will come true. It is faith in the promise of God.
“Credited”

Abraham didn’t earn this treatment; God “credited” it to him. God is the Father of Abraham as well as our heavenly father; what he did for Abraham he will do for us. He will credit us with righteousness – if we believe.

Believe what? Paul tells us simply: the death and resurrection of Christ. There is a reason that the attacks against Christianity center on this.

And the hope? The hope is none other than the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead – including us. The facts are there to support it You know God’s power; you know of the resurrection of Christ; you know that you are part of God’s family. This hope is a leap of faith, to be sure – a dazzling leap of faith. It is also a sure one.



[1] Genesis 15:6

[2] Psalm 51 is the classic expression of this

[3] Those who know about the author might ask about Joe Gresko and Ben Machinist.

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