Father Abraham Had Many Sons
Scripture: Romans 4:1–4:25
“Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham.” You may be familiar with those words. They are from an old camp song that was once popular with children and young people. Unfortunately, the popularity of the song rested on its chorus and the actions that set us all to dancing around the camp fire. But as nonsensical as most of the song is, the opening words do contain a seed of very important Biblical truth which is taken from Romans chapter 4. And here is the question that is raised and answered in this chapter: Who are Father Abraham’s sons and daughters?
Why is this an important question and why does it arise in the Book of Romans? Paul is elaborating on his message: the Gospel. The central truth of the Gospel is that “a righteousness from God is revealed that is by faith.” In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul carefully developed his argument, addressing the question: Who needs the Gospel? Those messages are available on the church website or on a CD if you missed them. The answer to that question, of course, is that everyone needs the Gospel. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In this matter of needing the Gospel, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.
This declaration might well have caused the Jews in his audience to bristle. “What? No difference between Jews and Gentiles? We are children of Abraham! Why do we need this righteousness from God that is by faith?” And so Paul turns to the story of Abraham to make the argument that right standing with God is now, and has always been, by faith and that this is the basic premise of the life story of Father Abraham.
Verse 1 says, What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? In the rest of the chapter, Paul uses a kind of circular logic, like spokes in a wheel that all come back to the same central point. Justification is by faith.
In the first spoke of the wheel, Paul points out that justification is by faith apart from works. In verses 2-3 we read,
"If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
This quotation is taken from Genesis 15:6, when God affirmed his covenant with Abraham. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. There it is! The principle of justification by faith, in this Scripture which is at the very heart of the Old Testament record. Central to Paul’s argument is this word “credited”. Paul uses this word 11 times in this chapter alone. It is a word taken from the financial or book keeping world. It has the idea of calculation and counting something as either a debit or a credit. It also carries over into the legal world; the world of the courtroom and legal argument and the legal record. Actions can be counted either for or against a person in his standing before the court. Using this language, Paul uses this Scripture to argue that God took Abraham’s faith in the promises of God and credited it to his account as “righteousness.”
Paul then continues: 4Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation
Paul’s reasoning makes sense, doesn’t it? Imagine that you have worked hard all month. At the end of the month, your boss comes by your desk or work station. He says to you, “I want you to come to my office. I have a special gift I want to present to you.” You enter his office with a sense of excitement and anticipation. And with a great flourish, he hands you a check. When you look at it, you realize that the check is simply the amount of your monthly salary. How do you feel? If you’re like me, you would be quick to say, “Gift? This is no gift! I earned this!” This is Paul’s point. Did Abraham earn his right standing with God? If he did, then he has something to boast about. But the Scripture says that Abraham’s right standing with God was ‘credited to him as a gift.”
Verse 5 is one of the most amazing verses in the Bible.. 5However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
This is truly radical! Abraham is here identified as one who “did not work.” What does that mean? It means that he did not rely on his own works, his own righteous deeds, his own right actions for his standing before God. Instead, he “trusted God.” Actually, the word here is “believed”. He believed in a God who “justifies the wicked.” This phrase alone, taken in isolation, almost seems to make God an accomplice in evil. But it must be taken in the context of Paul’s words at the end of chapter 3. Because of Jesus and his “sacrifice of atonement”, God can be both just and the justifier of those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, even though they are sinners. God is the one who “justifies the wicked” (and that includes all of us) when we stop our own striving and trust in him. When we do that, God sees our faith and credits it to our account as righteousness; right standing before his court. We are justified by faith apart from works.
The second spoke in the wheel is that we are justified by faith in spite of our sins. This, too, he demonstrates from the Old Testament Scriptures. This time, he quotes from another Jewish hero, King David.
David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
This is the reverse side of the book keeping logic. The word “count” in verse 8 is the same word we have been looking at, translated as “credited”. Faith is “credited as righteousness” and our sins are not “counted” against us. They will never again appear in the debit column of our legal record. They have been erased.
The third spoke in Paul’s wheel is that the Old Testament saints were justified by faith apart from circumcision. Here Paul continues to keep the Jews in his audience firmly in mind. They would have been quick to argue for the necessity of circumcision in order to achieve right standing with God. So Paul goes back to the Old Testament account. He argues simply from the chronology of the story of Abraham. When does the Scripture say that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”? It was in chapter 15. When did God institute circumcision? It was in chapter 17, 13 years later. Abraham’s faith and his justification in God’s sight preceded circumcision. The key ingredient was not circumcision. It was faith.
Finally, the fourth spoke in the wheel is that justification is by faith apart from the law. Paul picks up this line of reasoning in verse 13:
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.
So Paul has hammered home his argument based on the Old Testament Scriptures and stories. The principle of justification by faith is laid out. Justification by faith, apart from works, in spite of sin, apart from circumcision, apart from the law. To the person who argues, “But I am a child of Abraham!” Paul now again addresses the question: Who are the true children of Abraham?
Here is Paul’s conclusion, first in verses 11-12:
So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
He follows this up in verses 16-17:
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed…
The children of Abraham are those who have the same faith Abraham had. They are those who are justified by faith, just like Abraham was. It was one of the rallying cries of the Reformation. Sola Fide! Faith alone!
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last... But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith…
This is not a denial of the Old Testament Scriptures. It is, in fact, a fulfillment of them. The faith principle is fundamental to the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.
Before he leaves this vital topic, Paul takes some time in the final verses of this chapter to expound on the nature of faith, using the story of Abraham as an example and an illustration. The first thing we learn is that faith must have the right object. I must stress again what I have emphasized before. This is not faith in faith, or faith as an abstract energy. Faith, saving faith must have the right object. As we consider Abraham’s example, we find that his faith was in God. He believed God. We see this back in verse 3 in the quote from Genesis 15. Abraham believed God… We see it again in verse 17b: He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed.
Going on a little further, we find that he believed in the character and power of God. This is found in the rest of verse 17: the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.
Finally, and this is important, we find that he believed in the promises of God. We see this in verse 18: Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be. The key to that verse is found in the phrase: “just as it had been said to him…” The same point is found again in verse 20-21:
Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.
Notice the emphasis in those verses on the promises of God. I believe that in some cases, faith can go awry here. We get ourselves in trouble when we misunderstand or misapply the promises of God. We’ve been talking about that in the Sunday night classes on interpreting the Bible. But in Abraham’s case, he had a very specific promise from God and he believed that God would fulfill his promise. Abraham believed in God, he believed in his character, his power and his promises. Paul uses the story of Abraham and the birth of Isaac to illustrate these points:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” This is a great story of faith in action; of faith in God under difficult circumstances. It is a story of faith that did not waver.
Before we leave this topic of faith, I want to make a few comments about the content of faith. While the nature of faith and its object remains the same, we find that there is a difference between the believers of the Old Testament and believers today when it comes to the content of faith. What was the content of Abraham’s faith? He believed the promise of God; that God was going to give him a son, and through that son would come many descendants, and even many nations, and from those many descendants would come one particular descendant, through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed. Abraham believed God and over the years, the promises were fulfilled; first through the birth of Isaac in his old age; then through the birth of many descendants and the whole nation of Israel. And then through the birth of that one special descendant or seed, the Messiah, the Christ, through whom God would bless the nations of the world. Abraham believed that it would happen, and his belief was credited to his account as righteousness. He was justified in God’s sight by his faith.
What about us? What is the content of our faith today? Let’s look at verses 23-25:
The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
What do we believe? The object of our faith is the same. We “believe in him…”…in God. The same God Abraham believed in. But our content is more specific and more complete. We “believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. Why is belief in Jesus and particularly in his resurrection so important? Paul is circling back to the truth of Jesus as “the atoning sacrifice” which he raised in chapter 3. He was delivered over to death for our sins. Do you believe that? He died for our sins. But he did not remain in the grave. By the power of God – the same power that gave life to Sarah’s womb so many years before – Jesus was raised to life. And the resurrection is essential to the Gospel, because, as Paul states here, he was raised for our justification. We might also translate that he was raised because of our justification or he was raised on account of our justification. Just as it was our sin that caused his death, so it was our justification that made possible his resurrection.
Think of it this way. When Jesus was on the cross, the sins of the world were laid on him. He bore our guilt. He cried out on the cross: My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me! Our sin caused that awful separation between God the Father and God the Son, because a holy God cannot associate with sin. Jesus was separated from the Father and then he died. He dismissed his spirit and his soul was separated from his body. The Righteous One died on behalf of the unrighteous. But then on the third day he was raised from the dead on account of our justification. His resurrection was the proof that his suffering and death had satisfied the wrath of God against our sins. The ransom payment had been accepted. We can now be justified before God’s court by believing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
Who are the true descendants of Abraham? They are those who share the faith of Abraham. Abraham believed in a descendant, a promised Seed, the Messiah who would come. We believe in Jesus, the Messiah who came, who died and who rose again. Believe in him, and your faith will be credited to you as righteousness.
Father Abraham has many sons and daughters. I am one of them. Are you?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Take a few minutes together to review the main points of the first 3 chapters of the Book of Romans.
- See how many times you can find the words “credited” or “counted” in Romans 4. Discuss the concept and its significance to Paul’s reasoning in the chapter.
- Pastor Cam referred to Verse 5 as a truly radical verse. Do you agree or disagree? Why? How might you use this verse to share the Gospel with a person who is a member of a religion that depended on a works based righteousness?
- Abraham is referred to as the father of those who have faith. How is our faith the same as Abraham’s and how is it different? Use Abraham’s story and example to discuss the following: the nature of faith, the object of faith, the content of faith.