In today’s Scripture, Paul goes old school. Sure, Paul is old by our standards, clocking in at nearly two-thousand years ago, but his audience would’ve known the story of Abraham well. It was part of their common understanding of the faith, in the ways today that we k know the story of Jesus. Paul wants to make sure he has their attention, so he brings Abraham to mind for them – using everything they’ve known before to build on this idea of faith.
Opening Romans 4, Paul says that if Abraham was considered faithful by what he did, “justified by works,” then he would be worthy of praise but it wouldn’t be that he was righteous before God (4:1-3). Think about that for a minute: everything Abraham did was great, Paul says, but it’s not what makes him special.
Seriously? Abraham did some pretty amazing stuff. Let’s investigate:
Abram is born about four hundred years after The Flood (Gen. 11:26). He’s in a time after God said he wouldn’t destroy the world again by flood.
At seventy-five years old, God shows up and tells Abram: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Sure, God says, “I’ll make you a great nation; and you’ll bless everyone on earth” (12:1-4). And Abram goes.
Abram survives that little trip through Egypt where he claims his wife, Sarai, is his sister so the Egyptian king won’t kill him (Gen. 12:10-20). Apparently, some cowardice, some ‘less than what we hoped for’ behavior doesn’t make you unfaithful.
Abram rounds up his men to rescue his nephew lot from the tribes who kidnapped him (Gen. 14: 8-17).
At this point, God appears to Abram again, and reminds him of the covenant that he’s going to bless the world through, and Abram says, “How can I be the head of a nation when you haven’t given me any sons” (Gen. 15:1-10). He also challenges God on how he [Abram] could take over the land that is currently occupied by fierce warriors? Apparently, asking God questions, challenging God’s promises doesn’t make you unfaithful.
Sarai gets a bit edgy about God’s timing – she and Abram are closer to one hundred than young and footloose, and she sets him up with her slave, Hagar, to, ahem, create an heir (Genesis 16). Apparently, God’s grace extends beyond distrusting God so much that you take matters into your own hands.
At ninety-nine, God comes to Abram and tells him that he’s going to give Abram a son to start this whole family line, that he will be given a new name (Abraham), and he’ll be the father of many nations (Genesis 17). Remember, now, that Paul was Saul first. Paul would’ve understood what it meant to get a new name from God. But the covenant doesn’t just come with a new name; it comes with the instructions to be circumcised. Now, without going into great detail: there’s a reason this normally happens to infants who are drugged up and won’t remember. The newly-minted Abraham is circumcised, and has his whole male household circumcised. But that’s still not the faith Paul is talking about – it is still “by works,” right?
Next up, Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah to be saved (Genesis 18:16-33). God agrees that he will spare these two, sinful cities if he can find just a few good people (which ultimately, he doesn’t). Abraham’s faithfulness – especially after the whole circumcision deal – seems to be growing, and he’s willing to bank on God’s good graces to intercede on someone else’s behalf. That’s prayer, right?
Abraham and Sarah encounter Abimelek, and brave soul that he is, Abraham says Sarah is his sister again, hoping to avoid conflict (Genesis 20). Seriously, this guy might be bold when it comes to Travelocity, but when it comes to Christian Mingle, he’s a boldfaced chicken!
Abraham’s son, Isaac, is born, and because of the friction with Sarah, he sends away his other ‘wife,’ Hagar, and her son, Ishmael (Genesis 21:1-20). In the next chapter of Genesis, Abraham is called to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on an altar to God, which he prepares to do faithfully (Genesis 22:1-19). Now, Abraham is faithful, even when God calls him to sacrifice the gift, the blessing, his one and only son, who he has waited over a hundred years for, but we’re talking about a guy who inhumanely rejects and abandons a woman whose only ‘problem’ is being used her master. But God still counted that master faithful…
Abraham’s life is kind of a mixed bag, isn’t it? He isn’t particularly kind, particularly strong or courageous, particularly good. But he is a guy who went where God told him to go, who is willing to sacrifice everything he really wants because God tells him to, and who goes through significant pain to follow God.
So, let’s go back to Paul. What did he have to say about Abraham’s faith? First off, Abraham’s faithfulness credits all who believe because of the covenant God made with him (Romans 4:16). Second, Paul makes it clear that the God of the Old Testament, the one his listeners would consider to be the “Jewish” God, was the same one who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 4:17). This isn’t two gods Paul is talking about, but Abraham and Jesus are part of the same story. Abraham and Jesus are connected.
Third, Paul says that Abraham hoped, that he continued to believe even though everything seemed bleak (Romans 4:18). Paul said, and this is one of my favorite lines, “since he was as good as dead,” that Abraham did not waver in his faith but gave glory to God (Romans 4:19-20). Abraham is understood as faithful by Paul because, even though it seemed mathematically and physically impossible, he continued to believe that God’s covenant would come true.
And Paul says, fourth, that Abraham’s righteousness isn’t just something he had, but something we can have, too. Abraham hoped in something he couldn’t see (the birth of a child at an old age); we hope in the resurrection of all who believe in Jesus Christ, something we can’t literally see. Paul says that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 5:25). Paul believed in the power of Jesus’ resurrection having seen Jesus as fact, while believing in hope in his own resurrection from death. And Paul’s faith was strengthened by knowing the historical struggles of Abraham before him.
I wonder sometimes who we look to as our spiritual role models. Who are the people who we know that speak into our lives, or whose stories inform us on what it means to be the children of God we’re called to be? Whose stories help us understand, in the midst of the darkness and struggle, that we are not alone, that God is watching over us, that resurrection is a real hope?
I hope today that you’ll consider who those people are, and consider telling them. Abraham never knew the complete impact of what his faithful decisions did for the world; we may never know what kind of impact we’ll have on people either. But we need to hold onto hope and push forward faithfully, knowing that we’re saved by the grace of God and not by works.