Sunday Evening Bible Study — Romans 4:18-25 — Abraham’s Faith

25 Sep

Romans 4:18-25
Abraham’s Faith

Over the last several weeks in Romans chapter 4, we have seen Paul using the example of Abraham to support his argument from chapter 3 that we are justified, or made right with God, by God’s grace through faith. Over these weeks, Paul has been making negative arguments: Abraham was not justified by works, not by circumcision, not by law. Tonight we turn to the positive side of the story to look at what Abraham’s faith was like. This is common in the Bible, this negative to positive thing. We could even say the whole Old Testament is like that. Not the sacrifices, not the law, not the kingship, not the nation, not the prophets, none would save but Christ. So it is in the whole of the Bible and so it is in Romans chapter 4. So let’s take a look tonight at Romans chapter 4. I’m going to be asking you a lot of questions tonight so get ready to get involved with this text. There is precious truth here.

 18  In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”
Paul turns here in these verses to the nature of Abraham’s faith. It was a faith that was rooted in hope. What was that hope in? (The promise of God and God Himself). This is the very nature of faith, to hope in God, to look to God and His promise. People like to quote Hebrews 11:1, Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And I also really like Hebrews 11:6, And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. So the very nature of faith is to hope in God. This sounds good and pretty straightforward but the next phrase complicates things. In hope he believed how? (against hope). Now what does it mean when you hope against hope? (You hope even when things seem unlikely). Now God’s promise to Abraham was unlikely, we could even say impossible, on merely human terms. What was God’s promise to Abraham? (That he would be a great nation and that in him all the people of the earth would be blessed) But what was Abraham’s problem? (He and Sarah were old and couldn’t have children). Abraham was 100, Sarah was 90, it doesn’t look good. It looks impossible. And this is the context in which he believed. It was a hope against hope kind of faith, that he would become the father of many nations.
Now Paul reminds us even here that Abraham’s faith is rooted in a promise, “as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” So it’s not “pie in the sky” faith. It’s not Abraham wishing upon a star. His faith is rooted in something real. Douglas Moo says,  Abraham’s faith was not a “leap into the dark” but a “leap from the evidence of his senses into the security of God’s Word and promise.” Now again, what is Abraham’s faith rooted in? (the promise of God). But that promise does not seem likely in human terms. So this is the nature of Abraham’s faith: hope in God’s promise even when circumstances make the fulfillment of that promise seem unlikely.
And I just want to say to you that on this point we are no different than Abraham. We are called to hope against hope as well, this is at the heart of faith for us just as it was for Abraham. Just consider for a minute what God promises us and how it contrasts with what we see. God promises us eternal life, but what are we surrounded by? (sickness and death) God says that we are justified, declared not guilty, right in His sight, but are you without sin? (No, we sin all the time, yet by faith in Christ, we are justified). God says He will build His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, yet the Church on earth is faced with all kinds of internal and external pressures which threaten it on every front. God calls us to believe His Word while at every turn there are people around us trying to tear it down and calling us foolish for believing it, saying we believe in the equivalent of the tooth fairy. God promises that there will be a numberless multitude in eternity worshiping Jesus yet as we look around us and around the world we see many who hate Christ and so many others who are just indifferent, whose hearts are more thrilled by football or romance novels than by Jesus. So we are here, living in the already but not yet, having trusted Jesus and received His gifts, but still living in a sinful world. And so we are called to hope against hope too. But again, this is not a hope in ourselves. Faith is not a belief in some indomitable human spirit. That’s the way our culture defines it. Because we have eliminated God from the discussion, faith has become nothing more than a synonym for determination. We keep going because we believe our persistence will pay off. But that is not the biblical definition of faith. Faith is not trust in the human spirit it is trust in the word and work of God. Faith is believing that God does and will work to fulfill His promises, no matter what outward circumstances look like. This is the faith of Abraham, further described in verse 19 . . .

19  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.
Abraham did not weaken in faith. This word “weaken” was often used in the Gospels to describe sick people Jesus healed. He did not weaken in faith. Now did he have reason to weaken? Yes. Why, according to verse 19? (His own body and the barrenness of Sarah’s womb).
Now there’s something else here which I think is very helpful. Abraham considered his own body and the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. In other words, he thought about his circumstances. The Greek word for “considered” has this idea of thinking about or pondering. Now the reason I think that’s important is because sometimes people talk about faith as if it is really just kind of living in the clouds, we might call it, “living above our circumstances.” There are book titles to that effect. But Abraham considered his circumstances and yet was the man of faith. So this idea of kind of living on another level of existence by faith is not well-founded. No, in the midst of circumstances of which he was fully aware, Abraham didn’t ignore his plight but he put his hope fully in God. C.H. Dodd says, “Conscious of his own utter impotence, Abraham relied simply and completely on the all-sufficient power of God.”
We worship the Almighty God, who fulfills His promises in spite of what the circumstances may look like. We can believe God for our salvation, for our growth in grace, for His blessing on us as we gather together and we can believe God to in the end bring the new heavens and the new earth. This is the faith to which we are called. I hope the banner over our church life will not be the title of the JB Phillips book from many years ago, “Your God is Too Small.” Rather, I hope our lives will be characterized by the great quote from the pioneering Baptist missionary William Carey, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”
Now, I want to ask you, how does Abraham’s faith relate to the words about God in verse 17? (Abraham who believed in the God who could bring life from death and could call into existence the things that did not exist. This was the situation Abraham and Sarah faced together).

20  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,
The Greek word order here is different, it puts the promise of God first in the sentence, bringing emphasis to this idea. The NASB picks this up but most other translations put the words about distrust and wavering first because it sounds better in English. The point I think Paul is making in his sentence structure is to again emphasize the importance of the promise of God in contrast to our circumstances.
Now here we run into a problem when we go back to Genesis. The Greek word for “distrust” is often translated “doubt” or “dispute.” It is a common word. This kind of doubt did not make Abraham waver concerning God’s promise. Instead he grew strong in his faith, giving God the glory. Now here’s the problem. Sometimes it seems in Genesis that Abraham did waver in faith. Think about when he went to Egypt to avoid the famine. Think about when he laughed at God’s promise in Genesis 17:17. Think about his efforts to try to raise up an heir by his own strength.
How can this be resolved? One of the mistakes we make is assuming that New Testament writers didn’t know the Old Testament. Most of them knew it far better than we do. Paul quoted the Old Testament all the time, even in this passage. The whole structure of chapter four is built around an Old Testament quotation. So it’s not that Paul didn’t know his Bible. So how is it that he can say Abraham didn’t waver concerning the promise of God? I think there is a clue in this verse about what Paul means and I think there is a clue in our lives as well. Let’s first consider the verse. Is there anything in verse 20 which would lead you to believe that Paul was not saying that Abraham’s faith was perfect, that he never had any doubt ever, just that his heart attitude was consistently one of faith and hope in the promise of God? (Paul says Abraham grew strong in faith, pointing to the fact that he grew from weaker to stronger shows us that Abraham’s faith was not fully mature from the beginning).
Let’s think about ourselves for a moment. Do you doubt that because you’ve trusted in the work of Jesus you will be with God for eternity? (No, most of us don’t doubt that. We believe God’s promise that He will keep us and bring us into eternity with him). We don’t waver in unbelief because we hope in the promise of God. But do all our everyday decisions line up with our hope in God’s promise? (Definitely not). Yet, as we continue to hope in him, our faith is strengthened, so that the gap between our everyday decisions and our hope in the promise of God is narrowed. We see this in Abraham’s life. He is strengthened in faith, so that in the end he is even willing to give up Isaac, the son of the promise, to God because he is convinced God will still fulfill His promise to Abraham.
So there is a sense that we can be unwavering in faith even as we are still growing in faith.
One more thing on verse 20. Notice that Abraham’s growth in faith brought glory to God. Now why did Abraham’s faith glorify God? (Because it showed that Abraham valued God’s promises more than he feared his circumstances, because nothing honors someone as much as when we trust them). Paul cares about the glory of God. We see it often in Romans. He says the very essence of man’s sin is to exchange the glory of God for other things. Sin at its core is a falling short of God’s glory, a failing to praise and prize God above all things. He says in chapter 9 that God’s purposes in salvation are for His glory. And the great doxology of chapter 11 ends with the words, “To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” So the glory of God is a really big deal. And we glorify God best when we trust Him deeply.
A good summary of this trust is verse 21, which says . . .

    21  fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
Faith is to be fully convinced that God is able to fulfill His promises and that He will do it. There are three truths about God that we must believe to have true faith. What are those three truths? (That He is powerful, that He tells the truth and that He has good will toward us). If you are faltering on any of those questions, your faith will be weak and maybe even empty. Which of these three is hardest for you to believe? ( — ).
In light of the truths we have been talking about tonight about faith, that to have faith is to hope in the promises of God, how should we approach our day to day life? (find the promises of God’s Word and remind ourselves of them and cling to them in spite of our circumstances)

22  That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”
Why was Abraham’s faith “counted to him as righteousness”? Look back at verse 21. (Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness because he was fully convinced that God would fulfill His promise). In other words, it wasn’t about anything in him or his circumstances it was all about looking to God and hoping fully in Him. The only hope he had that the promise would be fulfilled was to hope in God alone. In doing so, God credits or counts that hope, that faith, as righteousness. Abraham is given right standing with God because He looks to God alone for the fulfillment of His promises.
23  But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,
Again, as has so often happened in this chapter, Paul makes the connection between Abraham and us. He is saying to all his readers, you are in the same boat as Abraham. You all, Jew and Gentile alike, who trust in Jesus, share the faith of Abraham.
Again, also, notice how Paul is rooting his arguments in Scripture. Oh that we would be looking to what God has revealed as we think about life and reality. When we’re looking for a right description of reality, we need to look infinitely more at the Scriptures than we do at Fox News or CNN.

24  but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,
The start of verse 24 concludes the thought of verse 23. The crediting of righteousness is not only for Abraham but it is ours also. But just in case there would be anyone who might take Paul to be saying all people have that righteousness, he makes it clear who makes up the our. Who is it, according to verse 24? (Us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord). Notice it is not faith just in God. I talk to people sometimes and if a conversation begins about spiritual things they will often say something like, “Well, I believe in God.” as a kind of way to shut down the conversation. But it’s about more than believing in God. Even the demons believe in God. Paul doesn’t get away from his main point, which is the gospel, the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. So Abraham’s faith looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all nations through him and our faith looks back to say, “we believe God has fulfilled that promise in Jesus’ death and resurrection.” This is described more fully in verse 25 . . .

25  who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
The who here is referring of course to . . . ? (Jesus) Jesus was “delivered up.” Now this is powerful. This word that is translated “delivered up” here is the same word used in Romans 1:24, 26, and 28 to describe how God gave over rebellious people to their sin.  In other words, God let people go off in their sinful course, giving them over to their desires, but then He gave over His Son to die for those same rebels. He was given over because of our trespasses. Our trespasses here is a word different from the transgressions used earlier in chapter four. This word for trespasses, paraptoma, is usually used for a sin against God, not a sin against another person. So Jesus was given over to forgive us our sin against God. Without His death there would be no basis to forgive us. Without His resurrection there would be no proof of the value of His sacrifice and no assurance of the promise of our own resurrection. Anyone could claim to die for the sins of the world but the resurrection was a proof of the validity of the claim.
The resurrection is like the story of the man on the mat in Mark chapter 2. Jesus told the man his sins were forgiven but the religious leaders criticized Jesus for this. So Jesus said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.…’ He said to the paralytic, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home’ ” And the man rose and walked.
This is the link, the work of Christ on the cross was validated through the resurrection like the forgiveness of the paralytic was validated through his healing.
N.T. Wright says, “Underneath Paul’s neat formula is another reference to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, the one who will ‘make many righteous, and bear their iniquities’ (53:11). The first great section of Romans ends with Paul saying, in effect: the prophetic promises have come true; Abraham’s faith is at last vindicated; the law has been fulfilled; human idolatry, sin and death have been decisively challenged; God has sent his own son as the Messiah, Israel’s faithful representative, to do for Israel and the world what they could not do for themselves; those who believe in the gospel, in God’s good news about his son, are assured that they are the people of the new covenant, the single worldwide family promised to Abraham.
Paul’s description of Abraham’s faith, though, goes deeper than simply an account of heroic trust in the face of overwhelming odds. It is a deliberate reversal of his description of the degeneration of the human race in chapter 1. It’s worth looking back to 1:20 and the verses that follow. What Paul is saying is that in Abraham’s faith, and in faith of the same kind (which, as he will show at the end of the chapter, basically means Christian faith), human beings are put back together again and enabled to rediscover what a genuinely human life is like.
This is how it works. Humans ignored God, the creator (1:20, 25); Abraham believed in God as creator and life-giver (4:17). Humans knew about God’s power, but didn’t worship him as God (1:20); Abraham recognized God’s power, and trusted him to use it (4:21). Human beings did not give God the glory he was due (1:21); Abraham gave God the glory (4:20). Human beings dishonoured their own bodies by worshipping beings that were not divine (1:24); Abraham, through worshipping the God who gives new life, found that his own body regained its power even though he was long past the age for fathering children.”

So this is Abraham’s faith, absolute trust in the promises of God. And this is our faith, absolute trust in the fulfillment of God’s promises, past and future. In this hope we find freedom from all the ways of death we find when we hope in other things.

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