Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 1, 2015

Romans 4:13-25 Commentary

Comments and Observations

Did the apostle Paul distort the teachings of Jesus?  That’s the claim of some higher critics of the New Testament.  Jesus taught a simple but stringent Jewish Gospel, while Paul complicated it with categories taken from Hellenistic thought that dramatically changed Jesus’ message.  Paul, say the most radical critics, invented Christianity.

A comparison of the lectionary readings for this second Sunday of Lent seems to illustrate that radical claim.  In the reading from Mark 8, Jesus calls for a cruciform, self-denying discipleship.  It costs to follow Jesus.  In the reading from Romans 4, Paul says that the cost has already been paid by Jesus.  What Jesus did in his death and resurrection has been credited to those who simply believe in him.  So, do these two texts show that there is a great difference between Jesus and Paul?  Or, as I believe, is Paul simply telling us the secret of discipleship, revealing how sinful people can live the kind of radical discipleship to which Jesus calls us all?

I’m not going to comment on major portions of this text, since I did that at length only a year ago in my March 10, 2014 posting on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website.  There I said that if I were going to preach on this text, I might entitle the sermon, “Getting the Credit without Doing the Work.”  I pointed out that Paul is summarizing the way he preached the gospel all over the world, a message that led the Judaizers to allege he was distorting the centuries’ old teaching of Torah.  Paul preached that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone apart from works of the law.  That message made Paul’s law-abiding critics feel like those day laborers in Jesus parable in Matthew 20:1-6.  It wasn’t fair that those who worked only an hour should get the same pay as those who slaved all day in the hot sun.  Getting the credit without doing the work went against everything the Judaizers had ever been taught.

That’s why Paul illustrates and proves his gospel of justification by faith alone by using the story of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation.  What I’m preaching all over the world is not new, said Paul.  You can read it in the familiar story of the man you call “Father Abraham.”  His faith was “credited to him as righteousness,” says Paul in Romans 4:3, quoting directly from Genesis 15:6.  That happened years before he was ever circumcised and centuries before the Torah was given to Israel to obey.  So, it wasn’t his circumcision or his law keeping that made him righteous.  It was his faith, simply his faith, that was credited to him as righteousness.  Anybody who trusts God the way Abraham did, whether they are Jew or Gentile, will receive the same credit.  He is the “father of us all.”  I’ve oversimplified Paul’s argument here, but you can read the details in my previous piece.

For this Lenten season, I want to single out three aspects of Paul’s message that seem particularly relevant to our world today.  First, notice that this whole section is about the promise of God.  “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise….”  The Gospel is not about law, about what we must do, but about promise, about what God said he would do.  God doesn’t make his promises to those who have been good, but to those who simply believe his promise.  “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and 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.”

This is an important preaching point.  There are no qualifications for salvation, no conditions, no performance standards, no levels of achievement, no rungs to climb.  Nobody is shut out because of what they have done or not done.  Nobody is excluded because of religious or ethnic or racial background.  Salvation cannot be achieved by any acts of devotion or obedience.  It can only be received by faith, faith in the promises of God, faith in what God says he will do, faith in what the Gospel says God has done in Jesus Christ.

This stark fact, of course, makes salvation both universally inclusive (for all who believe) and terribly exclusive (for all who believe).  But that was exactly what God promised.  He made his promise to one man out of the whole human race, one pagan who didn’t even know who God was.  This hitherto unknown God promised this one pagan man that he would have many children, that he would, indeed, be the father of many nations.  That’s the dimension of the promise Paul highlights here in Romans 5.  The Jews, the direct physical descendants of Abraham, had historically focused primarily on their own nation, but here Paul reminds them that God had always intended to bless the whole world through them.

Trusting that promise in all its richness is how Abraham received salvation which was “credited to him….”  And, adds Paul, those words were “written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.”  Here is the gospel at its most inclusive; salvation is for all the nations, not just for Israel.  Here is the gospel at its most exclusive; it is for those who believe in Jesus.  No amount of religious observance can achieve salvation.  It can be received only through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  No amount of sin can disqualify us from being justified.  God promises salvation by his grace to those who will simply take God at his word and trust Jesus.  It’s not about performance; it’s about the promise.

Second, I’m struck by that phrase in verse 18, “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed….”  I just officiated at the funeral of a friend.  His downward slide began with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.  As he struggled with that pernicious disease, the doctors found prostate cancer, which they did not get in time.  It spread to his bones and his internal organs.  Treatment was followed by complications.  Moments of health were erased by days of sickness.  But always he had hope.  Against all hope, he and his family in hope believed.  Then, they found cancer in his colon, and hospice care was initiated.  Now, there was no hope for him.  He died a few days after hospice came into his home.  How many of our listeners this Sunday are in that very condition?  Against all hope, they in hope believe.  How can that be done?  How can we all continue the Via Dolorosa of Lent in hope, when there is no hope of being able to live up to Jesus’ stern words in Mark 8?

Further, as we look out at the nations of the world, things look hopeless.  God promises to save the nations, but the nations seem beyond all hope of salvation.  Think of the terror threat that has gripped Europe, the abominations inflicted by Boko Horam and ISIS.  Think of the economic uncertainty that looms over the developed nations and the economic deprivation that dominates life in the undeveloped part of the world.  Think of the tinder box tensions that threaten peace in the Middle East and in the Ukraine.  I could go on and on, but you have your own examples of personal and international hopelessness.  How can we be like Abraham who against all hope continued to believe in hope?

The answer lies in verse 17, where we are told that Abraham believed in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”  That’s the third thing on which I want to focus, and perhaps the main thing on which we should preach in the season Lent, 2015.  What kind of God can you trust in a hopeless world?  Paul gives us this description of God that is the key to hope.  Of course, he is referring to Abraham and Sarah when he describes God as “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”

Abraham’s body was “as good as dead” and Sarah’s “womb was dead.”  At 99 there was no hope that Abraham could father a child; he was a decrepit old man who might die during sex and whose sperm had little motility (as medical folks put it today).  But even if he could somehow manage, Sarah was severely postmenopausal.  Her womb was dead; it no longer ovulated.  There were no eggs to fertilize, even if there were a stray sperm feebly swimming upstream.  It simply couldn’t happen.  No hope.

Except that the God of Abraham had promised, and this God can give life to the dead and call non-existent things into being.  He did it at creation; he could do it at procreation.  And he did it at re-creation, or resurrection.  Abraham is not the greatest example of God’s power to raise the dead and create life by his word.  Jesus is, for he was truly dead—not just as good as dead, not just part of him dead.  He was thoroughly and completely dead, but God raised him from the dead.  The promise of God had been fulfilled in the birth of Abraham’s great Offspring, but then the Offspring of Abraham lay dead in the grave.  The hope of the nations was no more.  But God raised Jesus from the dead, and hope was reborn for the human race.

Now hope is alive for disciples who feel hopeless in the face of Jesus’ daunting words of Mark 8.  How on earth can we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus, if following means losing our lives?  How can we live boldly and unashamedly in a world that pressures us to compromise and fit in?  How can we follow Jesus to his cross in our Lenten journey?  If our salvation depends on doing what Jesus says in Mark 8, is there any hope for us?  Yes, there is, because the God who raised Jesus from the dead can raise us from our defeats again and again.  We do not achieve our salvation by perfect performance.  We receive it by trusting the perfect performance of Jesus, who “was delivered to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”  Yes, we should try to do as Jesus commanded, but the secret of discipleship is trust in the God who raised Jesus.  We shall succeed in our discipleship not by rite (whether circumcision, or sacraments, or liturgy), nor by rules (whether God’s own law or helpful spiritual disciplines), but only by faith.

Abraham’s faith is the example for us.  “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised.”  This NIV translation covers a very helpful hint for growing in faith.  The Greek says, he “was strengthened in his faith, giving glory to God.”  There is no conjunction there; “giving glory” is a participial phrase, telling us how he was strengthened in his faith.  His faith grew as he gave glory to God, as he refused to dwell on the hopelessness of his situation and focused instead on the power of God.  That’s how faith is strengthened.  Or, as Paul will put it later in Romans 10, faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard is the message of Christ.  If we listen to the world (and our own minds) saying, “There’s no hope,” faith will weaken to the point of death.  If we listen to the message of Christ, the message of his death and resurrection, the message of a God who keeps his promises even when it seems impossible, then our faith will grow and thrive.

But the best news is that even when we fail to follow Christ faithfully, God is faithful to his promise.  Through Christ we are saved by grace alone through faith alone apart from works of the law.  Even when our faith is weak, God’s grace is strong.  Christ did the work so that we can get the credit, even when we fail.  Glory to God!

Illustration Idea

This very complicated passage can be summed up in the simple prayer my parents taught me when I was a little child.  You probably know it well.  “God is great.  God is good.  And we thank him for this food.”  I wonder if that was the first prayer Abraham and Sarah taught little Isaac, the offspring who was the initial fulfillment of the promise given by the God who can raise the dead and call into existence things that are not.   “God is great.  God is good.”  Because God is that and more, there is hope for those who have no hope.


Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup