October 1, 2017
FAITH, GRACE, AND THE GUARANTEE OF THE PROMISE
(15 of 44 in a series through Romans)
In the middle of his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes an interesting argument. He notes that one story in the Old Testament may be interpreted allegorically. You may well remember the story. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son together, and Abraham believed God’s promise in Genesis 15. But by Genesis 16, Abraham and Sarah have begun to try to figure out exactly how God would fulfill this miraculous promise of offspring, especially since Sarah was barren and they were both quite old. And then they had an idea. Hagar, Sarah’s slave, might be the solution. After all, the Lord had promised Abraham a son, and if this son was the offspring of Abraham and Hagar, then the son would still be Abraham’s, and just like that, promise fulfilled. They’d figured it out, and they’d make God’s blessing come about.
And it worked, in a sense. It worked in the sense that Abraham and Hagar did conceived a child together, and Abraham had a son named Ishmael. But God made clear that this was not the fulfillment of his promise to Abraham to give him a son. The Lord made clear that Abraham would have a son with Sarah. In other words, this promise of a son was going to be a miracle. Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar was a picture of what human ability could accomplish, but that wasn’t God’s purpose. He wanted this to be clearly a work of his miraculous provision. And sure enough, Sarah did get pregnant and gave birth to Isaac when she was ninety-years-old and Abraham was 100. He was the fulfillment of God’s promise.
And this brings us to Paul’s argument in Galatians 4. Isaac and Ishmael, as sons of Sarah (Abraham’s wife) and Hagar (the slave woman), respectively, represent two groups of people. If we choose to rely on our works (our human effort) to be justified before God, then it’s like we’re children of Hagar, in the line of Ishmael. That is, we represent man’s best effort, and it’s not enough. However, if we merely believe, trusting in Christ’s finished work for us as our only hope for justification, then we’re children of Sarah, in the line of Isaac. We represent what only God can do, as he credits us with his gift of perfect righteousness. So, Paul says to the Galatians that they’re children of promise. Specifically he says in Galatians 4:28, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”
This is why I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that reading about the OT saints is like reading our family tree because everyone who believes in the crucified and risen Lord is saved, is considered a child of Abraham, and is, like Isaac, a child of promise.
But if that’s true, then all of the sudden, our eyes should be wide open and our ears should perk up when reading the OT Scriptures. You can see what I mean if you think about the reading of a will that includes your name. Hundreds of wills each day are probably read across the country, but you almost every time you don’t care. But what if you knew a will was going to be read today that included your name? Would you ignore the reading of that will? Of course not. You’d probably be willing to take the day off work or get baby sitters or whatever you had to do because this will is naming you as an heir to something.
Well, this is what I mean by saying that our ears should perk up at the reading of the OT. After all, if Paul says in Romans 4:11 that Abraham is the father of all who believe so that we are all his offspring, all in the line of Isaac, then that means we’re heirs of all that God promised Abraham, right? That’s what’s demanded by the declaration that Abraham is the father of all who believe or that all believers are in the line of Isaac, as children of promise. If we believe, then we’re his offspring. But in case you need more support, Paul actually explicitly states in the text we heard read earlier, Galatians 3:29, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Therefore, our ears should perk up when reading from the OT about what God promised to Abraham and his offspring. And I think that train of thought from being children of Abraham to being heirs of the promises God made to Abraham is exactly what is going on in Paul’s mind as we move from the text we looked at two weeks ago (4:9-12) to the text we’re looking at this morning (4:13-25).
After noting that Abraham is the father of all believers in 4:9-12, Paul dives into one particular promise that God made to Abraham and his offspring, and he speaks of the nature of this promise, the way it comes to us, and what it is certain in verses 13-25. Therefore, I want us to consider this morning what this text says to us about the promise that God has made to us of a coming glorious inheritance.
First, Paul begins by noting that,
The blessing for all believers is an eternal inheritance that includes the whole world
That’s the first place Paul begins in our text. After saying that Abraham is the father of all who believe, he says in verse 13, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
Now, you can tell that Paul’s main point is the manner by which the promise comes. Paul mentions that it doesn’t come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. But did you note what Paul mentioned the inheritance is? He says, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world.”
Imagine you were unexpectedly invited to the reading of a will because you were included, and someone said, “In order to get the billion dollars that is promised to you, you will first need to sign your name on this line.” If that happened, my guess is that your first response wouldn’t be to say, “Wait a second, talk to me about signing. Is there a reason why a signature is required? Is there a certain kind of ink I use?” No. My guess is that before saying anything about signing anything you’d first blurt out: “What!?! Did you say a billion dollars?”
Well, I think that’s how we have to respond to this. I mean, Paul just said that the promise to Abraham and his offspring is that he’d be heir of the world. And he’s later going to confirm that the one who shares the faith of Abraham is a recipient of this promised inheritance as well. But where is Paul getting this? After all, when the Lord made a promise to Abraham that he’d get an inheritance of land, he didn’t seem to include the whole world. Rather, the Lord said “all the land of Canaan” (Gen. 17:8). So, how did Paul conclude that Abraham and his offspring would get the whole world?
There are a couple of paths that Paul could potentially be taking to arrive at this conclusion, but I’ll just lay out one of them based on the reading that we heard earlier in our service from Galatians 3:15-29. In that text, you’ll remember that Paul said that the “promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring.” Then he adds, “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one,’ And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
Now, this isn’t Paul saying that there are many offsprings of Abraham. Of course there are. In fact, a few verses later in 3:29, he’ll say that if anyone is in Christ then he is Abraham’s offspring. And when you total up the number of believers (i.e. those in Christ) then it’s a good number of people throughout the world and throughout the ages. But what Paul is showing us is that the promise to Abraham first comes to Jesus and then it comes to everyone who is united with Jesus by faith.
If that’s true, then we should ask, “What did the OT (and then the rest of the Bible) picture Jesus, Abraham’s chief offspring inheriting in terms of land?” And the answer is that the OT very clearly pictures the Messiah, Jesus, getting the whole world. One place we see this, for example, is in Psalm 2:8 where God says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” That’s a lot bigger than Canaan, isn’t it?
So here’s how I think Paul’s thinking goes. Abraham was promised that he and his offspring would get the land of Canaan. However, Canaan must have just been a type or shadow of the inheritance God was really promising because Abraham’s chief offspring, Jesus, is promised to get the whole world. And if Abraham and all those united to Jesus get to be co-heirs with Jesus, then that means that Abraham and his offspring are heirs of the whole world. Thus, we can say that the promise to all believers is that we get to be heirs of an inheritance that includes the whole world. That’s what awaits us at Christ’s return.
But Paul’s main argument is the manner by which we receive the promise. He wants us to see, first, negatively, that,
This promised blessing isn’t dependent on us obeying the law’s commands because then no one would receive it
Now, we know that Paul has been arguing for a long time that we’re justified by faith alone and not by obeying the works of the law. Well, he brings in this contrast of faith and works of the law once more, now in relation to being heirs of this promised blessing. He writes in verses 13-15, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath but where there is no law there is no transgression.”
So, here’s what Paul is saying. If God promised this inheritance of the whole world only to those who adhere to the law, keeping its commands, then it would all be for naught. It wouldn’t matter if anyone had faith. Faith would be null. It wouldn’t matter if God had promised. The promise would be void. If God only promised this blessed inheritance to those who kept the commands of the law, then no one would get it because no one can keep the law. That’s Paul’s point.
And because no one can keep the law, then the law only brings wrath. It only condemns. But why does Paul say “where there is no law there is no transgression”? Well, his point is not that before God gave Moses the law to give to the people the people weren’t sinning. Of course they were sinning. Paul isn’t using transgression here as a synonym for “sin.” A transgression, rather, is violating an explicitly stated command. This is what Paul says the law does. It turns sin into transgression. Without the law you are coveting, and that’s a sin. But once the law is given, saying, “You shall not covet,” well, now that sin is labeled a transgression. This is Paul’s point. The law didn’t create new hearts, giving people holy desires. The law merely brings wrath, showing people that they’re transgressing the commands of God. So, if that’s all the law does, and if God’s promised inheritance were only given to those who perfectly adhere to the commands of the law, then no one would be heirs.
But Paul also states this positively, saying,
The promised blessing comes by grace through faith and is therefore guaranteed
Now, Paul has already said that this glorious eternal inheritance that is ours in Christ doesn’t come by our obedience to the commands of the law because then none of us would get it. But how then does someone get the eternal inheritance if it isn’t by obedience to God’s commands? Paul answers in verses 16-17, “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, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
In order for Paul’s argument to be clear, think back to the argument he made at the beginning of chapter 4. He argued that if someone were justified by works, then what they would get (after fulfilling this demand for good works) wouldn’t be a gift or grace but that person’s due or wage. He’d be able to say, “I earned that.” But that’s not how the blessing of eternal life and the blessing of our promised inheritance works. God says, “You can’t earn it. But if you have faith, then I’ll graciously give it to you.”
Paul is saying here that this is why God made the promised inheritance depend on faith. Because if the command to us is not “Do enough,” but simply “Believe, and I will do it,” then whatever we get is simply by the Lord’s grace, right? We haven’t earned it; we just believed. And if it’s simply dependent on the Lord’s grace, then the question isn’t, “Will I be able to do enough to earn eternal life and all the blessings of eternity.” The question is simply, “Will God be able and be faithful to do what he has graciously promised?”
And the answer to this is, of course, “yes.” How do we know it’s certain? Well, the God in whom we’re believing is the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that don’t exist, Paul says. If that’s who he is, don’t you think he can fulfill any promise he makes to us? This is why whether we’re born with the law, like the Jew (which is what Paul means in verse 16), or without the law, like the Gentile, God shows his grace to all who believe, Abraham is their father, and they’ll receive the Lord’s eternal blessings because God is able to fulfill his promises.
But Paul, as a masterful teacher, gives us an illustration of all of these truths in the story of Abraham. In verses 18-22 he shows us that.
Abraham’s story is a picture of faith in God’s promise, of God’s faithfulness, and of God's grace.
In other words, the narrative of Abraham pictures each of these elements. First, Abraham believed God’s promise and held fast in faith although everything around him said it was impossible. Paul writes, “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.’ 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” (vv. 18-19).
Abraham looked at himself at 100, looked at his wife who was 90 and barren, and said, “We’re not going to be able to bring a child into the world by our own ability.” But, he had faith that God could do it. And as time went on his faith grew stronger. Why? It wasn’t because all of the sudden he said, “Sarah’s looking like she’s getting a bit more youthful. I bet she’s able to conceive.” It’s because he kept remembering who his God is.
Paul writes in verses 20-21, “No unbelief 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.”
That’s how faith works, and that’s how persevering faith works. It continues to set its eyes on God and his ability and his faithfulness. If Abraham had kept looking at himself, he’d find all reasons to give up believing and walk away. But if he kept his eyes on God, remembered God’s ability, and remembered God’s faithfulness, then he had every reason to keep believing, right? So, that’s what he did. He set his eyes on God in faith, believing that God would do what he promised, so Paul writes, “That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness.”
But then Paul brings all of this argument to a point of application, reminding us in verses 23-25 that,
We’re commanded to walk in the same justifying faith as Abraham
In other words, Paul says that the story of Abraham’s justifying, persevering faith and God’s fulfilling of his promise by grace isn’t a story where we’re merely to be passive readers. We’re supposed to apply it to ourselves. Paul writes, “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone but also for ours also. 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.”
The Lord showed us Abraham so that we might have Abraham’s faith, trust in Abraham’s God, and receive Abraham’s promised blessing from God.
Let me lay this out to us in steps. God has a promised blessing of salvation for all his people that includes forgiveness, eternal life, and being heirs of the whole world. This promised blessing is for all of those who are of the line of Abraham. And those who are in the line of Abraham are believers, Jews and Gentiles who believe. Furthermore, this promised blessing isn’t dependent on us obeying the commands of the law, for if that were the case, no one would get it because no one is able to obey the law perfectly. Instead, the law simply condemns us, showing that we are transgressors. Instead, the promise of salvation and the eternal inheritance comes merely to those who believe. It comes to those who believe because then it’s not something we earn but a gift of grace from God. And if it’s a gift of God’s grace, then it is guaranteed to us because God is both faithful and able to do all he says, even as we see pictured in the story of Abraham, which was written so that we could see that we too could have faith and have God’s gift of righteousness credited to us. Thus, once more, justification is by faith alone.
However, I want to note two more things before we conclude. One is that we, like Abraham, need to stop focusing on our ability as the source of our hope but instead on God, his ability, and his faithfulness. In other words, many of us can be tormented with doubt before the Lord, perhaps even waking up daily feeling condemned because we’re consistently looking at ourselves and saying, “But I’m not good enough. No matter what I do, I’m not good enough.”
Well, that’s right. We’re not, and we couldn’t be. If salvation were dependent on us being good enough, then no one could be saved. So, instead of waking up each day and fixing our eyes on ourselves, seeing all our shortcomings, wake up and remind yourself of what God has done, is able to do, and has promised. He has said that he will count us as righteous if we trust in him, looking by faith to his crucified and risen Son as our only hope. Is he able to save us as we believe? Of course. Is he faithful to do what he’s promised? Of course. If Abraham woke up each day, taking a survey of his fitness to parent a child in his 90s, he would have had all reason to doubt. But instead, he looked to God, who is able and is faithful.
And, finally, we have what Abraham didn’t have. He trusted in God’s promise, looking forward. We look forward to our final salvation and resurrection while also getting to look back. We can look today and remember that God has already done everything necessary for our salvation. That’s why Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. He did everything for us. Our response is to believe that what he did was sufficient and that God will save us in the end. Therefore, let us this morning fix our eyes on the finished work of Christ and on our almighty and faithful Father as we come to the table. Amen.