The book of Romans struck fear into the hearts of many people, especially Seventh-day Adventists, worried about that message of grace interfering with the keeping of the Law. And, indeed Romans can be a challenging book, but it doesn't have to be. If we take a moment to think about how the book of Romans came about and why, it may help us understand a little bit better its message for us today.
The church in Rome, like most churches of the first century, started out of the Jewish synagogue and therefore most of the members and leaders of the original church and house-churches of Rome would have been Jewish. And then as the Gentiles were added to the church they were kind of second fiddle out on tertiary edges with the Jewish core providing the leadership, but then Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews out of Rome. Suddenly the Christian house-churches had only Gentiles, and these Gentiles suddenly had to take over the roll of elder and deacon and so forth: the various leadership positions. For five years it went like this. And they were feeling pretty good about their ability to lead the church. And then emperor Nero decided to let the Jews back in. So, these Jewish Christians who had gone came back to Rome. I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't expecting to slip right back in to their old role and restore things just the way they had always been. But those Gentile Christians were used to running things now, and the transition wasn't as easy as those Jewish believers had expected.
You add to this the controversy that had now developed in the Christian church over Jew versus Gentile, and how much of the Jewish ways did the Gentiles have to adopt in order to be a Christian. And things were not going well in Rome. The apostle Paul is worried because he wants to go west to Spain but he needs Rome for a launching pad. But Rome is not in the condition to be a launching pad. And so, Paul writes the book of Romans to try to stabilize this theological and ethnic controversy so that he can go west from Rome with the gospel and with their support.
That is the context in which he writes and obviously in this Jew- Gentile issue the nature of salvation was the central point of controversy.
In Romans 1, Paul addresses the Gentile audience and he says, "You Gentiles are guilty before God because you rejected what God revealed about Himself through nature." That's the basic gist of Romans 1. Yes, he talks about what happens because they rejected this revelation of God through nature, the various things. But the basic point is what could be known of God through nature they consciously rejected and therefore they stand guilty before God.
And then in chapter 2, he turns to the Jewish half of the audience and he says, "You've done the same thing the Gentiles have done." And they said, "Who? Us?" and he says, "Yes. Just as the Gentile rejected what God revealed about Himself in nature, you have rejected what He has revealed about Himself through law, the Torah. Therefore you Jews are equally guilty before God." So, guess what! Jew and Gentile are in the same boat. Both have rejected God's revelation of Himself, one through nature, one through the law and both stand equally guilty before God. "There is no difference," said Paul. Romans 3:9 (NLT) Well, then, are we Jew better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. So stop being proud that you're Jewish or Gentile or better than each other.
And then he proceeds to explain that both Jew and Gentile, since they have all sinned the same way, by rejecting God's revelation of Himself they will all be justified the same way, by believing a promise. You can't earn it. You have to believe God's promise. You have to trust His integrity to do what He said He would do.
And Paul brings this argument to an apex in chapter 3, verse 28- 30. I'm reading from the Revised Standard Version: For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since God is one; and He will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised on the ground of their faith. It's a very clever argument of Paul here. He basically says we have the same problem, right? We both rejected God's revelation and we have one God. Since there's one problem, one God, there's one way to be made right with God and that way is through faith, believing.
Well, I can just see our Jewish half of the audience getting real nervous here. "What about the Law? If I don't have to keep the Law to get right with God, what do I do with it?" So Paul adds a balancing statement now in verse 31: Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? By no means! or as the King James puts it: God forbid! This is the strongest way of saying "no" in Greek. You can't make it any stronger. On the contrary, this faith that justifies a sinner in God's eye keeps the Law, it upholds it. Aw! A sigh of relief!
But Paul isn't finished making his argument to bring two into one and obviously he is anticipating a greater battle with the Jewish half of the congregation and so what way, better way to appeal to the Jewish mind than to appeal to father Abraham. And so he goes to the example of Abraham to give us an illustration of righteousness by faith in action, an object lesson. Romans 4:1- 3: What then shall we to say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh. If Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He's quoting Genesis here.
First question: Who did the believing? Abraham believed God! And it was credited to Abraham, not to somebody else. Abraham believed. God credited it to him as righteousness. Paul says, "See, Abraham... and later he's going to argue Abraham before he was circumcised was justified by believing the promise of God. The Law does not go away with a promise.
We need to ask ourselves another question here. He said Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. Here's our question: What was the promise Abraham believed for which God credited him as righteousness? What was it that Abraham believed in for which he credited righteous? Let's turn the question around. What wasn't it that Abraham believed for which he was credited with righteousness? The promise that Abraham believed, the specific promise that Abraham believed for which it says God credited him as righteousness was not a promise about substitutionary atonement. Now, did Abraham believe in substitutionary atonement? Yes! How do we know he believed? Sacrifice of Isaac? God will provide for Himself? The lamb, right? Abraham believed that. But the object lesson is not built on Abraham's belief in substitutionary atonement, it was built in his belief on something else.
So, what is this something else that Abraham believed? A promise about what? Having a son. Paul is going to use Abraham's belief in God's promise for a son as the object lesson of our believing in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. Let's unpack this object lesson to see what it tells us about the faith that justifies.
Paul take care of some other business and then he comes back to this faith around verse 18 in our scripture reading here. Romans 4:18 In hope he believed against hope that he should become "the father of many nations," as he had been told "so shall your descendants be." There was the promise. Verses 19-21: He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
You should be asking yourself, "What about Hagar?" Didn't Abraham waver? How is it that Paul could say, "He never wavered?" Particularly in light of this Hagar business.
So, we need to ask ourselves another question: What was it about Abraham's life in regard to this promise of a son that makes Paul conclude that he never wavered in faith? Let's go survey Genesis and see if we can find out.
Genesis 15. Now in chapter 14, Abraham just went and rescued Lot and all the inhabitants of Sodom and the sister cities. What do you think he might be worried about? Revenge? That the kings he defeated are going to re-organize and come and attack him in revenge for his attack and freeing of their hostages and booty and so forth? And so Abraham is a little worried and God comes to him in Genesis 15:1 (KJV) and He says, Fear not Abram: I am thy shield, "I'll protect you from those kings. And Abraham basically says, "Thanks a lot, God, but a great reward is meaningless unless I have a son to give it to. And right now all I have is Eliezar, my servant.." And so God come back to him and He says, "Abraham, Eliezar will not be your heir. You will have a son out of your own bowels or loins. You will sire a son. Look at the stars, Abraham. Can you count them? That's how many descendants you'll have." And there it is, verse 6, And he believed the Lord. And it was counted to him as righteousness.
So far, so good. What kind of belief was this? Let's add to the chemistry, now. The next thing that happens in chapter 15 is that God tells Abraham to conduct a covenant ceremony. "Take some animals, kill them (certain kinds), cut the carcasses in half, lay them out in two rows with a little swale, valley, ditch, between them. And as the carcasses drain their blood, it runs down in pools in the little ditch. This is a covenant between a greater and a lesser. Who's the greater? God. Who's the lesser? Abraham. Everybody knows that the lesser goes between the pieces, walks the bloody valley, wading in the blood, chanting to his Greater, "May you do this to me and more if I do not keep the covenant. You can cut me in half like these animals. Everybody knew that. Abraham goes through the pieces. The Bible doesn't tell us that. Patriarchs and Prophets (by EG white) does mention it.
But now something very unusual happens. God appears in the form of the Shekinah torch, the smoking pot, and the Greater passes between the pieces effectively saying to Abraham, "Abraham, if I don't give you a son you can cut Me in half and kill Me." God guaranteed this promise with His very life. What a God! So, God had just guaranteed this promise with His very life.
What's the next thing I expect to happen? I'm expecting to see a baby show up, right? God has taken a pretty big risk here.
Now Sarai, Abram's wife had borne him no children. That's not what I was expecting. She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, "Behold, now the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my maid. It may be that I shall obtain children by her." Question number one: In the Biblical text, has God given any indication of who the mother would be at this point? No! He's only told Abraham, "You will father a son," but He has not named the mother at this point.
Point number two: Sarah makes this announcement to Abraham. "God has prevented me." Why doesn't she make that statement a chapter or two earlier, or a chapter or two later? In other words, something has happened that has caused Sarah to conclude that it must not be God's will for her to be that mother. I wonder what that something could be? Perhaps Sarah's body chemistry has changed and she's stopped having certain experiences that women have. When women stop having that experience they are no longer fertile. And so she come to Abraham and effectively says, "Abraham, I've started menopause. I'm finished. It's impossible. God must have a different way. Let's try Hagar and keep it close. Maybe I can sort of surrogate, you know." A perfectly logical assumption that God is going to bring this baby through a fertile woman.
I do not believe that Abraham's taking of Hagar was so much a lack of faith in God, as it was an assumption on how God must work. And how often do we limit God because we assume He has to work a certain way. And the assumption is that God had to work through a fertile woman. Still trusted God. And it was such a logical assumption. They don't bother to check with God to see if their assumption is right. Have you ever done that? You assume that God has to work a certain way? You forgot to open the Book and find out if that's the way God really works? A very important lesson for us.
And so, Abraham follows through on this assumption that God must not have willed it through Sarah but through some other way. He takes Hagar, and slam, bam, she's pregnant like that. And she delivers a son. Abraham says, "Praise the Lord! He delivered my son. Thank you." And at the end of chapter 16, how old is Abraham when Ishmael is born? He's eighty-six.
Now we'll go one more verse: Genesis 17:1. How old is Abraham now? He's ninety-nine. How many years have passed in one verse? Thirteen. Thirteen years in one verse! Thirteen years with no supernatural revelations from God. Thirteen years of enjoying Ishmael, thinking this is the fulfillment of the promise. God does nothing to correct it. Thirteen years of menopause for Sarah. If she was infertile, she's really infertile now. It's impossible!
But, praise God we serve a God who loves to do impossible things. God show up and renews the covenant with Abraham. He introduces circumcision and then He drops the bombshell. By the way, why are thirteen years so important? Think Jewish, now. Bar Mitzvah? Legal adult now? God waits until Ishmael is installed as a young man, no longer a boy. And then He shows up and says, "Abraham, you did a wonderful job, but that's your work, not Mine." Now I'm ready to work. About this time next year Sarah is going to have a son." "Oh! Isn't Ishmael good enough." "No, that's your work, not Mine." About this time next year Sarah is going to have a baby boy." And when Abraham realizes God is serious with this promise he laughs. He laughs so hard he can't stand up and he falls on his face. He really laughed! And God said, "Do you think this is funny, Abraham? When this baby is born, here is what I want you to name him: Isaac (Which is the third person singular of the verb, to laugh: "He laughs.").
God had the last laugh. Every time they called, "Isaac, come here," God was having a last laugh.
And so, it happens, and Sarah has a baby at ninety years old. But now tension develops between Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac. What was the infant mortality rate back then? Not as pleasant as it is now, right? If you had to bet you inheritance on a young man, legal adult, thirteen, fourteen, now maybe sixteen years old, healthy, strong, versus betting it on a little year and a half, two-year old child, that could easily catch a disease and die, which is the wiser one from a worldly perspective to put your hope in? Wouldn't it be the sixteen year old? And yet, Abraham, because God said this little two year old is the promised one, sends away the sure bet and puts all his eggs in the risky basket because God said something, because God promised something. That's faith. And indeed, that faith was rewarded, and that little boy grows up.
But now we have to ask another question: Have you noticed that Abraham doesn't have children by any other means now that Isaac is born while Sarah is still alive? No record of any other children. Abraham was to be the father of many nations. And Sarah was to be the mother of man nations. Is it possible that Abraham said, "If God could thirteen years in menopause and bring a baby through her, is it possible now that she's fifteen or sixteen years He could bring another one? No more assumptions.
So Abraham sticks with Sarah until she dies. He marries off Isaac, and in chapter 25:1, what does he do? He marries Keturah. Six strapping sons. Abraham is going to have those many nations. And so he re-marries and gets to work, but he does it after Sarah is not even a supernatural option now.
Which brings us back to our question: What is it in Abraham's life that Paul saw, that makes him conclude that he never wavered in faith? What is it about this object lesson of Abraham that illustrates righteousness by faith? Might I suggest to you that Abraham stuck with Sarah risking no children to give an inheritance to. We had the little problem of the assumption, false assumption which was corrected by sending away Ishmael and putting all his eggs in one basket. And then when push came to shove, God comes to Abraham, He says, "Take that visible manifestation of my promise and give it back to me and trust me to fill it anyway. Sacrifice your son up on Mount Moriah. And Abraham trusted God enough to fulfil that promise anyway. As he lifted the knife to leave himself no visible evidence that God would fulfil the promise, hear heard the bleating of a ram caught in the thicket.
Romans 4:22. It is precisely because Abraham risked it all on God's promise, not making any contingency for God to fail the promise. So Paul says, "This is why his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, because he trusted God more than he trusted his own ability to figure things out. He trusted God more than what he saw, more than what he heard. If God promised him descendants, then God had a way he didn't know about. But he never doubted that God would do it. And he structured his life around that promise with no contingencies. And that, says Paul, is why the faith as righteous.
You see, let's apply this to righteousness by faith. The faith that justifies is not simply a faith that says a little magic formula. "I believe in Jesus. It is a faith that is foolish enough to take a promise and structure the life around it." How many of you have been up to heaven to verify that God has entered "Forgiven and saved" by your name in the books? Anybody here been up there to verify it? I mean, you have to trust a promise?
Now let's get one step further. The promise is: If any man is in Christ he is a new creation. - 2 Corinthians 5:17. Now we're getting into some dangerous ground. Not dangerous but comfortable. Do you believe you're a new creature? Do you always feel like a new creature? I don't always feel like a new creature. Can you believe that God's promise that you are a new creature is more real than what you feel? Can you believe it so much that when temptation comes you choose to structure your life around God's promise that you are a new creature instead of structuring it around your feelings? That's righteousness by faith. That is the faith that justifies. The faith like Abraham that risks failure goes for broke. I don't have to feel like a new creature to be one. I don't have to see it to believe it. Blessed are those who don't see, but still believe.
For you see, my friends, some day soon all the visible evidence for our faith is going to be taken away from us. We're not going to be able to buy or sell. They're going to want our head on a platter. And there'll be no visible reason for keeping the Advent faith. Can you trust God anyway? Is His promise more reliable to you than what you see with your eyes, hear with your ears or feel in your heart? That's the faith we need for these last days, and we develop it in trial and test when God doesn't seem to be dong what He said He would do. But we trust He'll do it anyway. And that is the faith we need not only to be justified, but for these last days.
Are you ready to trust God with a radical, risk-taking faith? Let's commit ourselves to having Abraham's risky faith, what do you say?
Hymn of Praise: #516, All the Way Scripture: Romans 4:13-22 Hymn of Response: #518, Standing on the Promises Transcribed from first service)
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last updated 7/15/2000 by Bob Beckett.