Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 25, 2024

Romans 4:13-25 Commentary

It sometimes feels as if alienation, hostility and division flourish nearly everywhere we look. Hostilities that have turned violent between Ukrainians and Russians, as well as Israelis and Palestinians. Alienation between American Democrats and Republicans, as well as advocates for traditional and non-traditional understandings of human sexuality. Churches and denominations dividing over race relations, climate change, missions and more.

That’s a reason why the startling unity that Paul describes in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson doesn’t just provoke wonder. It may also, candidly, make even Jesus’ most faithful friends question how we can manifest such unity in a world and culture that might not recognize it even if it bit us on the leg. We can’t even come together enough to agree on what unity is or what it is that unites us.

Romans 4 is Paul’s inspired song of praise to the God who accepts and adopts Abraham as God’s child not on the basis of anything the patriarch does, but on the basis of God’s faithfulness. God, the apostle celebrates, forgives Abraham’s transgressions, covers his sins and does not hold his sin against him (4:7, 8). In receiving those gifts with his faith, Abraham also receives the gift of God’s righteousness.

But Paul has much bigger goal in mind than simply recounting Abraham’s story and status. In fact, the scope of the apostle’s focus is far broader than just the patriarch’s biological descendants and fellow Jews. Paul is also deeply concerned about God’s gift of righteousness to the whole world’s inhabitants. Throughout his letter to the Roman Christians, including in chapter 4, he tries to answer the question, “Just who does God consider ‘righteous’?”

The apostle alludes to grace’s wider scope already in verse 9 when he asks if the blessedness of forgiveness is only for people who have been circumcised. He answers by insisting that Abraham is “the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised … 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” (4:11b-12).

Here’s gospel for a broken world: God’s gift of righteousness is for Christians on both sides of the various issues that divide us. God’s gracious acceptance of us unites all of God’s adopted children in a community of  those whom God has declared to be righteousness.

This assertion changes the identity of just who God and Paul consider to be Abraham’s “offspring” [spermati]* (13, 16). While spermati literally refers to something that’s been sown, the Scriptures generally connect the concept to people who are biological descendants of someone. My siblings and I are my parents’ spermati. My wife and my sons and grandchildren are our “offspring.”

Paul, however, insists that Abraham’s spermati include not just his biological descendants and fellow Jews. God has graciously made him the father of every one of God’s adopted children “who walk in the footsteps of the faith that [their] father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (12).

That graced group includes, says Paul in verse 16, “those who are of the law [ek tou nomou] but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [ek pisteos Abraam].” The patriarch is, in fact, according to verse 16, “the father [pater] of us all [panton hemon].”

Embedded in this great news is a detail that Jesus’ friends easily forget: Abraham’s family isn’t just made up of non-Jews who have received God’s grace with our faith (“those who are of the faith of Abraham”). It’s also composed of Jews (“those who are of the law”) who recognize in Jesus Christ the Messiah for whom their ancestors have waited for millennia. That means that those whom God has graced with the gift of faith in Jesus Christ aren’t just our fellow Christians. All of them are also Abraham’s descendants.

That in itself would an extraordinary claim had Abraham and Sarah parented children from the get-go. But Abraham and Sarah got a very “late start” on the whole parenting business. They weren’t for a very long time the parents of even one child, much less of “many nations” (18). Abraham’s body, writes Paul in verse 19, “was as good as dead [nenekromenon] – since he was about a hundred years old – and … Sarah’s womb was also dead [nekrosin].”

God, in other words, didn’t just start raising dead people to life with the son of Nain’s widow (cf. 2 Kings 4:8-37). God already began raising the dead to life with infertile Abraham and Sarah. This God, writes Paul in verse 17, “gives life [zoopoiountos] to the dead [tous nekrous] and calls [kalountos] things that are not [ta me onta] as though they were [hos onta].” In other words, infertility, aging, death, and all the other things that hinder human flourishing cannot ultimately resist God’s life-giving and affirming power.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s apostle insists that belief or faith is an essential part of an appropriate response to this life-giving God. God equipped Abraham to receive God’s grace with his faith. So the patriarch “believed in” God (17b). He, in fact, believed in God “against all hope [par elpida]” (18).

Abraham, what’s more, didn’t even “weaken [asthenesas] in his faith” (19) or “waver through unbelief [ou diektrithe] regarding the promise of God” (20). He was “full persuaded [plerophoretheis] that God had power to do what he had promised” (21).

To close this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul summons Rome’s Christians to receive God’s “righteousness” [dikaiosynen] with our own belief in the God “who raised [egeiranta] Jesus our Lord from the dead [ek nekron]” (24). He, after all, was “delivered over [paredothe] to death for our sins [paraptomata] for our justification [dikaiosin]” (25).

Together with Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, with all of God’s adopted children, God accepts God’s dearly beloved sons and daughters because God graciously allowed the authorities to crucify his only natural Son and then miraculously raised him to life again. So preachers might prayerfully consider ending a message on Romans 4 by asking something like, “Since God accepts all those who receive this grace with our faith, how dare we do anything less?”

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In his book, King, Jonathan Eig recounts how the authorities responded to civil rights protesters’ march across Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. He quotes marcher John Lewis as remembering how the police “came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas … I was hit in the head [and] my legs … I thought was going to die.”

Onlookers largely kept silent in the face of such injustice. Eig describes the reaction of a Selma attorney who witnessed what we now call “Bloody Sunday.” Philip Pitts sat in a sheriff’s car and watched as peaceful protesters met unprovoked violence. He watched marchers flee and posse members spur their horses to chase them. Pitts also heard white spectators cheer from the side of the road and, in some cases even join in.

Pitts later admitted that “I knew it was wrong … [But] I didn’t even tell my [Selma City Attorney] daddy I knew it was wrong. It was really inhuman … Somebody should have stopped it. But who was going to stop it? Sometimes I regret not voicing my objections, but … they wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.”


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