As we’ve worked our way through Romans 4 we’ve learned some incredible lessons about the bedrock of the Christian faith: salvation is by grace through faith. God offers His grace and faith receives God’s precious gift. Paul has shown us that salvation does not come by any other means. We might like to think that we can devise our own personalized ways to make things right with God, but God’s Word teaches us that there is only one way to be made right with God. Salvation comes by grace alone and it is received through faith alone.
We have this problem that gets in our way. The problem is that we want to take what works in our relationships with others and overlay that grid over our relationship with God. Hey, if it works with people then surely it will work with God, right? Wrong. Let me give you an example. Paul has taught us, back in the beginning of Romans 4 that salvation could never be achieved through “works.” That is a tough pill for us to swallow because “work” oftentimes works in repairing our relationships doesn’t it? Back in 1980 those famous Motor City theologians, The Spinners, had a #1 hit called, “Working My Way Back To You.” The song must have struck a cord with people because almost thirty years later we are still singing their song. One stanza goes like this:
My road is kinda long
I just gotta get back home
Oohh I’m really sorry for actin’ that way
I’m really sorry oohh little girl
I’m really sorry for telling you lies
For so long ohh please
Forgive me girl come on (give me a chance)
Won’t you forgive me girl hey (lets have romance)
Oohh forgive me girl (lets start again)
Come on forgive me girl
I want you over and over and over and over again
I’ll be working my way back to you babe
With a burning love inside
Yeah I’m working my way back to you babe
And the happiness that died
I let it get away
Been paying every day
He did wrong, but he was now ready to do right. He was willing to work hard to get back into the good graces of his lost love. How many times has this story been replayed in our lives? We messed up, but with a lot of work we can make it right, right? That line of thinking might work in our relationship with others, but all of the work in the world won’t make you “right” with God. Salvation is by grace, it is the gift of God, for those who, by faith, will receive God’s gracious gift. You don’t work for gifts, you receive them.
Paul has also taught us that salvation is not by circumcision. (Romans 4:9f) If you and I were to come up with possible avenues to get right with God this one probably wouldn’t appear on any of our list since we are not Jewish. Regardless of that fact, Paul wanted the Jews to know that circumcision was a sign of what God had done and not the means to get right with God.
In our Scripture for today, Paul addresses a third alternative that people have tried to substitute for the biblical teaching of salvation by grace through faith–the Law. Let’s read our Scripture for today and get started.
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. 14 For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, 15 because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 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. 17 As 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 God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. 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.” 19 Without 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. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness– for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:13-25 NIV)
When Abram was born his mother and father had high hopes for their son. Why else would you name your son, “exalted father” or “father of many?” Abram had other brothers, but their names didn’t hold nearly as much promise as the name Terah, Abram’s father, gave to him.
Abram grew up in the home of an idol maker. (Joshua 24:2) His father was a successful tradesman and one of the favored tradesmen of Nimrod, the most powerful man of Terah’s day, according to Jewish tradition. There is a story in Midrash Bereishit 38:13 about a time when Abram’s father, Terah, left his business in the hands of his son, Abram, while he went on a trip. The story goes like this.
Abraham’s father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop. People would come in and ask to buy idols. Abraham would say, “How old are you?” The person would say, “Fifty,” or “Sixty”. Abraham would say, “Isn’t it pathetic that a man of sixty wants to bow down to a one-day-old idol?” The man would feel ashamed and leave. One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, “Take this and offer it to the gods”. Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them. When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. “Who did this?” he cried. “How can I hide anything from you?” replied Abraham calmly. “A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, “I’m going to eat first.” Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.” “What are you trying to pull on me?” asked Terach, “Do they have minds?” Said Abraham: “Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?” (Midrash Bereishit 38:12)
Abram didn’t buy into the idol business. He knew that things fashioned by human hands couldn’t possess even as much power as the hands that fashioned them. Even though Abram didn’t share his father’s passion for idols, Abram didn’t have any knowledge of the God who was about to confront him.
Abram was still living in Ur of the Chaldees when God came to Abram one day. God called him to leave his father, his relatives, and the land that he had called home. (Genesis 12:1) Abram was seventy-five years old at the time when God told him to leave all that was familiar to him. Along with the call to let go of all that Abram was familiar with in life, God also promised to bless Abram. God said,
2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3 NIV)
Abram believed God. I’m sure Abram didn’t fully understand how everything would work out, he wasn’t even sure where he was going, but he believed God so he gathered up his wife, Sarai, his nephew Lot, along with all of his possessions and servants, and they hit the road.
Abram was a wealthy man. He had been blessed by God and even though he was in transition, making his way to his new home, the Lord continued to bless Abram. Abram looked at all that God had given to him and he was grateful, but he was still childless. It doesn’t look too good when your name is “exalted father” or “father of many” and you don’t even have one child. It had to have weighed heavy on Abram’s mind. You can get a sense of what I am talking about by taking a look at Genesis 15:1-6. Read along with me.
1 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” 2 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” 4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars– if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6 NIV)
God had blessed Abram, but He had not blessed him with a child. Regardless of all that God had done in the life of Abram, he still did not have a child. Every time Abram heard his name, the “father of many,” he was reminded of that fact. Can you imagine how embarrassing it must have been to Abram? His very name implied that he was a big-time daddy, but he knew the truth, he was no dad at all. Donald Grey Barnhouse writes,
The Scripture says that ‘Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold’ (Gen. 13:2). When the caravans of the rich merchants came into the land, either from the north or from the south, they stopped at Abram’s wells. The servants of Abram took good care of the needs of the camels and the servants of the traders. Food was sold to the travelers. And in the evening time the merchants would have come to Abram’s tent to pay their respects. The questions would have followed a set pattern. How old are you? Who are you? How long have you been here? When the trader had introduced himself, Abram would be forced to name himself: Abram, father of many.
It must have happened a hundred times, a thousand times, and each time more galling than the time before. ‘Oh, Father of many! Congratulations! And how many sons do you have?’ And the answer was so humiliating to Abram: ‘None.’ And, many a time there must have been the half concealed snort of humor at the incongruity of the name and the fact that there were no children to back up such a name. Abram must have steeled himself for the question and the reply, and have hated the situation with great bitterness.
‘Father of many,’ father of none. The possibilities were varied, and I believe that it is possible to detect in the psychology of the narrative the fact that there was much gossip about it. The servants who heard the jokes and who saw Abram’s embarrassment repeated the details with embroidered variations. It was a world of cloth and goat skins, where all lived in tents, and where there was little privacy from the eyes and none in the realm of the ears. There must have been many conversations on the subject–who was sterile, Abram or Sarah? Was he really a full man? Oh, he was the patriarch; his word was law; he had the multitude of cattle and the many servants, but, he had no children, and his name was ‘father of many.’ (God’s Remedy: Romans 3:21-4:25 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954], pp. 311-12)
Abram reminded God that he didn’t have a single solitary child. Did God really need reminded that He had not given Abram and Sarai a child yet? With all that God had done for Abram and his wife they still were childless. That had always been a sore spot with Sarai as well. Sarai had wondered from time-to-time, when she saw the other mothers enjoying their children, was it Abram who was infertile or was it her fault? Sarai tried to stay focused on the promise of God that indeed they would hold their child in their arms…one day.
Time rocked along. “How long does it take for a baby to be born? It’s still just nine months isn’t it?” Sarai thought to herself. The couple became impatient, when, after more than ten years had passed, there was still no child in Abram’s caravan bearing his resemblance.
The couple became impatient. As it was in the days of Abram so it still is today. When we become impatient with God we get into trouble. Instead of waiting on God, Sarai figured that it was her fault that they couldn’t have any children. Why else would Sarai send her husband into the arms of another woman? Sarai suggested to her husband that he sleep with her servant, Hagar, and she could bear the son that God had promised. After all, God did say that the child would come from Abram’s body right? So he must be going to father a child by another woman. Our thinking can get so twisted when we are impatient with God.
After nine months Abram had his son by Hagar. Hagar named her son “God will hear,” his name would be Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born. He was proud of his son, but this was the son who came by human effort and not by the promise of God, so God appeared to Abram once again in Genesis 17:5-6. God said,
5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. (Genesis 17:5-6 NIV)
When God appeared to Abram, in Genesis 17:5-6, He changed his name. No longer will you be called, “exalted father,” but from this day forward you will be called, “father of a vast, vast multitude,” or “father of a nation.” God was rubbing salt in the wounds of Abram’s inability to bear children don’t you think? Not, if God was good on His promise.
Abram had to go to the vast number of people who were part of his caravan and give them the news. “Don’t call me ‘Abram’ any longer.” I can imagine some of the snide comments. “What should we call you?” someone mumbled to the man standing next to him. “How about ‘father of one?'” his buddy snickered. Abram said, “From this day forward you will call me ‘Abraham'”? The folks knew what the word meant. Eyebrows were raised. Heads turned. Whispers mingled in a chorus of doubt and disbelief. “What? You want us to call you ‘the father of a vast multitude’ and you are how old? I don’t mean to be disrespectful Abraham, but how old is Sarai?” Can you imagine how embarrassing that must have been for a ninety-nine year old man to stand before hundreds of his servants with his ninety-year old wife and announce that they had great hopes for their yet unoccupied nursery?
Someone here this morning might want to correct me at this point and say, “Abraham wasn’t embarrassed at all. He had faith, remember.” I do remember, but I also know that having faith, believing God, doesn’t eliminate struggles that we have in life with God’s promises from time to time.
There is no promise of God that I know better than the promise that “He will never leave us or forsake us.” (Hebrews 13:5) Yet, there have been times in my life when I sure felt alone. I have cried out to God to show Himself present with me. I’ve asked him to reaffirm His promise to me. I’ve held onto His promise even when I didn’t feel like He was with me in my trial. Have you ever felt that way when you were going through heart-breaking trials?
I’m sure Abraham must have wondered how in the world God was going to deliver on His promise when he was just getting older and older. It wasn’t that Abraham didn’t believe God, it’s just that he wondered how in the world God was going to do what He said He was going to do and how He was going to do it.
I’m sure that when Abraham appeared in front of all of those with him, he appeared confident, but he didn’t tell them the whole story of what had gone on when God appeared to him, reaffirmed the promise, and changed his name. In Genesis 17:15-19 we read,
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” 19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. (Genesis 17:15-19 NIV)
When God said that Sarah was going to have a baby Abraham fell on the ground laughing. He said, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” How can this be? Abraham wasn’t the only one who laughed. When Sarah was told what God had said she responded like any ninety-year old woman would respond if she were told that she was going to have a baby. In Genesis 18:12 we read,
12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?” (Genesis 18:12 NIV)
Let’s get back to Abraham. I want you to notice what happened after Abraham laughed at the thought of having a child. Abraham says to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” If only You could make all of this happen through the child who has already been born. God told Abraham that Sarah would have a child and that they were to name him, “he will laugh,” his name will be “Isaac.”
There is a great lesson in this episode of Abraham’s life for you and me. Some today believe that if you ask questions of God or you struggle with your faith in God’s promises that it is a sign of weakness. I absolutely disagree. I don’t base that on my opinion, but on the many references in God’s Word of godly people who didn’t understand God’s ways. I, like Abraham, don’t understand God’s ways. I don’t understand, I have my questions, but I trust God more than I trust my opinion or my emotions or my ability to reason life’s trials. I trust God even though I don’t always understand.
God delivered on His promises, all of His promises to Abraham. In Genesis 21:5-8 we read about the birth of Isaac.
5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” 7 And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” 8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. (Genesis 21:5-8 NIV)
God did deliver on His promise to Abraham. Sarah and Abraham held their long awaited child in their arms and the first step to fulfilling God’s promise of making Abraham the father of a vast, vast multitude was taken. God continued to deliver on His promises throughout Abraham’s life and for every generation that has been born since the time of Abraham.
I’ve got good news for you this morning. God is in the business of delivering on His promises. He not only excels in delivering babies, but He desires to deliver you from the bondage of sin and shame.
The gifts of God are gifts. They don’t come about by human effort or adherence to any set of laws, they are the free gift of God to be received by the faith of those whom God calls. Just as Abraham and Sarah received their son Isaac as a gift from God so you are invited this very morning to receive the gift of eternal life as a gift from God.
There was another long awaited baby who came many years after the birth of Isaac. He was the Promised Child who was delivered into this world to deliver this world, you and me, from death to life, from hopelessness to a hope that is rooted in the promises of God. God delivered Him over to death so that you and I might live. I pray that this morning you will invite Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior so that you might begin to trust God to deliver on all of His promises for your life.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
August 27, 2013