Tenth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

The Real Promise


Scripture reading: Romans 4:1-15.

Sermon text: Romans 4:16-25.

“I promise.” Those 2 words carry great expectations in the English language. When we hear “I promise,” we anticipate the speaker to accomplish whatever he states connected to the phrase. When someone promises to love us, we anticipate the actions we associate with love. When someone promises to help us, we expect the person to follow through with concrete actions that will provide the aid we desperately need in times of trouble.

No one can deny that humanity found itself needing help after Adam’s fall. Driven from the Garden with Eve, Adam found himself in hostile, unfamiliar territory, facing his own mortality. His descendants fared little better. The religions of the ancient civilizations rarely held any hope of a peaceful life after death for their adherents. Even worse, human pride, greed, and arrogance led to eras of widespread misery and destruction as tribes, nations, and empires swept across continents, trying to conquer and hold resources and wealth.

In one of those times, God appeared to a man named Abram (later called “Abraham”) and called him to leave his home in Ur and travel “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham obeyed God’s call and traveled to Canaan, the land we call Israel today. In chapter 4 of Romans, St. Paul elaborated on Abraham’s obedience and a promise that God made in response to his obedience. God gave Abraham a wonderful promise that would bring hope, redemption, and restoration to the world. As we continue our study of Romans, we find that St. Paul saw hope for all humanity in God’s promise to Abraham. St. Paul understood that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fulfilled God’s promise to His obedient servant. Contrary to the opinions of some, Jesus wasn’t a “Plan B” for humanity’s salvation; Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of a promise made over 2,000 years earlier.

To understand Romans 4, we need to read Genesis 15. Here’s a short summary.

God had called Abraham from Ur in c. 2091 B.C., a time when Ur was at the height of its last period of dominance in Mesopotamia. Abraham took his family from one of the world’s greatest cities into Canaan, a land that seemed backward and wild by comparison to Ur. God had promised Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1), and that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2). However, Abraham and Sarah, his wife, were childless. How could God make a nation of a childless couple?

The situation hadn’t changed by the time of Genesis 15. Twenty-four years had passed, and Abraham and Sarah remained childless. God appeared to Abraham and told him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” Abraham’s response forms the basis of St. Paul’s argument in chapter 4 of Romans: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). The rest of Genesis 15 describes the covenant ceremony between Abraham and God. It’s well worth reading.

This brings us back to Romans. St. Paul had proved in chapter 1 that all humanity needed salvation, because all humanity had participated in Adam’s sin. In chapter 2, St. Paul had reminded the Roman congregation of the last judgment, when everyone would face judgment, both Jew (those physically descended from Abraham through his grandson Jacob) and Gentile. In chapter 3, St. Paul had reminded the Roman believers of the Mosaic Law, God’s great covenant with the Hebrew nation following their time in slavery in Egypt.

The Jews of St. Paul’s time knew their history. They knew that God’s covenant with them at Mt. Sinai contained blessings if they obeyed the Law, but it also warned them of exile if they broke the Law. Jews of the first-century A.D. saw their domination by the Roman Empire as a constant reminder their ancestors had broken the Mosaic Law.

However, those Jews also looked for God to fulfill His promise to Abraham. They had looked for God to raise up an “Anointed One” — also known as a “Messiah” — to restore their nation’s prominence and destroy her enemies. Unfortunately for them, the Jews had misinterpreted God’s promise; they saw the Abrahamic covenant as exclusive to them alone. Someone forgot the ultimate promise: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The Jews, as St. Paul wrote in chapter 3, looked to the Mosaic Law, known as the Torah, as a sign of God’s choosing of their nation for a special relationship with Him. Did the Torah really fill this role as the Jews thought?

St. Paul decided to go back before 1446 B.C., the time Moses received the Law at Mt. Sinai, to the time of Abraham’s covenant with God in 2067 B.C. St. Paul pointed out that Abraham wasn’t “justified” by the Law, nor was he “justified” by his works. Remember that “justify” refers to someone receiving the legal status to stand before a judge. Abraham was justified because he believed God; his belief in God resulted in his justification.

St. Paul pointed out that Abraham’s justification didn’t resemble “wages” from God; he didn’t work for his justification. Instead, Abraham trusted “Him who justifies the ungodly,” God Himself. Therefore, “his faith is counted as righteousness.” Remember that “righteous” refers to the Hebrew term for “right living.” In a legal context, “righteous” meant that a person was declared innocent by the court.

Continuing his reasoning, St. Paul turned to King David, quoting Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Note that the entire range of “righteousness” appears in this quote; the guilty stand before God, expecting condemnation, and hearing “not guilty!” as the resulting judgment.

Back to Abraham. God had given Abraham and his descendants, the Jews, the ritual of circumcision as a sign of His covenant with Abraham. The Jews had held circumcision and the Torah as visible signs of their special relationship with God. St. Paul reminded the Romans that Abraham was justified and declared righteous by God before God instituted the ritual of circumcision. God justified Abraham before circumcision “to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

What a glorious statement! Abraham became the father of many nations when salvation came to the Gentiles following Pentecost. God’s promise to Abraham “that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” Abraham could not rely on the Torah for his righteousness; he preceded the Torah by over 600 years.

The Torah, in fact, never could bring justification: “if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.” If anyone managed to keep the Law perfectly, then justification could rest on works. But since no one managed to keep the Law perfectly, “the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.” The Roman believers read this and realized, at the same time as the Jews, that — spiritually — they count count Abraham, the one who kept faith when God spoke, as their ancestor.

Did God ever fulfill His promise to Abraham? Shortly after the founding of this covenant, God visited Abraham and Sarah, changing their names (to the ones St. Paul used here) and promising a son. Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90!

Keep in mind that God had an ultimate fulfillment for this covenant. According to St. Paul, Abraham’s faith was counted as his righteousness for us as well: “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

Here, again, we find the gospel in Romans: Jesus, the Son of God, fulfilled the covenant with Abraham. Israel, as Abraham’s chosen descendants, had failed miserably in their role as an example of righteous living, leading the nations around them to conquer them and drag them into exile. The nation of Israel failed, but Jesus, the Son of God and of David, fulfilled the role of the faithful Jew, the one representative who could bring justification to the world. Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses;” His death on the cross served as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. Then, Jesus was raised for our justification;” His resurrection releases all who believe from the penalty of sin, because the resurrection proves Jesus’ victory over death.

What does this profound chapter mean to us today?

For one thing, notice that neither Abraham nor any other Jew ever achieved right standing before God by their works. Likewise, we cannot earn our standing before God, either. Anyone desiring salvation — the result of justification and righteousness — must come only through faith, confessing Jesus as Lord and believing God raised Him from the dead. When we make this confession, we receive God’s promise of justification and righteousness.

This confession then results in our inclusion in Abraham’s family through our faith. It turns out that while Abraham certainly produced numerous physical descendants, his spiritual descendants literally rank as “countless.” Jesus’ death and resurrection resulted in an innumerable multitude of descendants from Abraham, as St. John saw in his vision in the Revelation: “you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10). Every one of us today who has confessed Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, counts as one of Abraham’s spiritual descendants.

Since our confession of Jesus as Lord brings us into Abraham’s family, corporate worship acts as a “family reunion.” Everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord must follow Jesus’ command of baptism into the Church, the Body of Christ. Then, we must follow the command of Scripture to assemble regularly for worship. If you want to see Abraham’s family today, look at the congregations who gather to worship our resurrected Savior, Jesus the Christ. Those who truly believe in Jesus as Lord will join with other believers for worship, fellowship, study, and support.

Lastly, our confession of Jesus as Lord must result in obedience to God’s call in our lives. Abraham serves as an excellent example of obedience to God; when God called, Abraham went. When we confess Jesus as Lord of our lives, we declare to Him our allegiance and obedience. When Jesus calls us, we must obey that calling.

God made great promises to people in the Scriptures, but none of those promises rank higher than His promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his Descendant. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, proves that God always fulfills His promises to His people.