January 30th, 2013

We come now to chapter 4 of Romans, where we will spend the rest of the week – including next Sunday’s sermon.  So far, Paul has introduced the gospel with an overview (1:1-17), argued that God’s wrath is on “them” who hate God in their wickedness, “you” who judge them, and “we” who have greater revelation in God’s law.  “But now,” he says in 3:21, God has acquitted us by faith.  There is no difference between pagans, moralists, and Jews in their need for justification or the result once God declares us good.

Well said, Paul.  Let’s move on.  But Paul doesn’t move on.  He spends an entire chapter (in our Bibles, anyway), illustrating what he’s been saying with Abraham.  Why Abraham?  How is he relevant to Paul’s readers and to us?

Permit me a moment to jump on my hobby horse, declare my pet peeve, or whatever metaphor you wish.  The “relevance” question is simply further evidence of our narcissistic world view.  “Why does this matter to me?” is a pervasive inquiry of moderns, and we even sell the Gospel and the church of Jesus Christ on the grounds that it will make your life better.  I was taught in Bible college and seminary to include “application” with every Bible lesson and sermon.  My pushback is that the Bible itself doesn’t do that.  To be sure, there is application to life written all over the pages of the Bible, but sometimes the Holy Spirit is trying to change how we think before he can alter how we act.  In other words, asking, “Why does this matter to me?” may be premature.  Romans 4 will matter to us, but first we just need to understand what Paul is saying.

To Paul and to his readers, Abraham matters a lot.  Some of Paul’s readers were Jewish in background (like he was), but not all of them.  You don’t have to be Jewish to understand Abraham’s importance.  That was true in the A.D. 50s when Paul wrote, and probably is even more true in the 2010s when fully half the world traces is spiritual and/or biological heritage to Abraham.

Let’s start these meditations on Romans 4, then, by asking why Abraham matters.  We’ll find our reasons explicit and implicit in Romans 4.

  1. Abraham is the spiritual ancestor of both Christians and Jews (4:1).  Today we would add Muslims to the list.
  2. At first glance, Abraham’s story contradicts justification by faith (4:2), so he would contradict what Paul has argued in chs. 1-3.  The rabbis of Paul’s day saw Abraham as the epitome of a person whose friendship with God was based on his own righteousness.
  3. Genesis 15:6, however, declares that Abraham “believed God” and therefore righteousness was “credited” to him (4:3).
  4. With David (4:6), you don’t get any bigger in terms of spiritual giants of our faith heritage.
  5. Abraham’s righteousness was credited before he was circumcised (the BIG one in terms of righteousness for a Jew, comparable to being “saved” or being “baptized” – depending on your Christian tradition), meaning that faith precedes acts of righteousness that make any real difference (4:10).
  6. What matters is “the faith of Abraham,” then (4:16), not being descended from him.
  7. The details of Abraham’s story (including his failures) as much as that he was “fully persuaded” of God’s power to deliver on his promise (4:21).
  8. God’s intent was that Abraham would be a pattern for those who would follow in faith (4:24).  We find greater confidence “our” justification through Jesus’ death and resurrection by pondering Abraham’s.

In other words, when I let go of the question, “Why does this matter to me?” and just focus on why it matters to someone else (in this case, Paul and his readers), my serendipity is that it does matter to me!

God has a way of working like that.

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