Even though there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping – believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, "That's how many descendants you will have!" – Romans 4:18 NLT
Paul is still driving home his point that the key to being made right with God is based on faith, not our own efforts. He has established that both Jews and Gentiles stand before God as guilty and condemned because of their sinfulness. "For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard" (Romans 3:23 NLT). But he is now attempting to clear up some misunderstandings regarding Abraham, the patriarch of the people of Israel. Paul refers to him as the "founder of our Jewish nation" (Romans 4:1 NLT). In the eyes of the average Jew, Abraham held rock star status. He was worshiped and revered. They knew the stories of God's promises to Abraham and took special pride in the fact that they were the descendants of this amazing man. But Paul wants them to understand that even Abraham was made right with God based on faith in God, not his efforts on behalf of God. Paul writes, "If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God's way" (Romans 4:2 NLT). The Jews believed that Abraham had somehow earned his right standing with God through his own efforts. He had obeyed God. He had made sure that all of his men had been circumcised according to God's command. For the Jews, circumcision was like God's Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It was His stamp of acceptance. That's why, even in Paul's day, as Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ, Jewish converts to Christianity were demanding that they be circumcised. They were requiring circumcision and adherence to Jewish laws and customs as an additional step in the plan of salvation. And Paul resisted this heresy with every fiber in his being.
Referring to Abraham, Paul writes, "Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!" (Romans 4:10 NLT). You have to go all the way back to Genesis to read the account of God promising to provide a son to Abraham, and to produce from Abraham and his wife as many descendants as there were stars in the sky. The only problem? Abraham was an old man and his wife, Sarah, was barren. Abraham had resigned himself to the fact that he would have to make one of his servants his heir if he was ever going to have a family. But God had other plans. "Then the Lord said to him, 'No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir,' Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, 'Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That's how many descendants you will have!'" (Genesis 15:4-5 NLT). Then we read the words that Paul included in his letter to the Romans, "And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith" (Genesis 15:6 NLT). This event took place long before God gave Abraham the command to be circumcised. It was long before the law was given to Moses. God's acceptance of Abraham was based on his faith alone. He believed what God had promised. And even when everything looked bleak and as if the promise would never come to fruition, Abraham kept on believing. In fact, Paul makes the amazing and somewhat confusing statement, "And Abraham's faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead – and so was Sarah's womb" (Romans 4:19 NLT). And yet, a cursory reading of Abraham's life seems to reveal a great deal of wavering and weak faith. He tried to make his man-servant his heir. He and Sarah came up with the idea of using her maid-servant, Hagar, as a surrogate mother. There are numerous occasions when Abraham and Sarah struggled with doubt. That is normal and natural for all of us as human beings. But as time passed and Abram watched God work, his faith grew – his confidence in God increased. "In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to whatever he promises" (Romans 4:21 NLT).
Abraham's life was intended to be an example for us. Faith was the key to Abraham's relationship with God, and the same is true for us today. "God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over for because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God" (Romans 4:24-25 NLT). It is belief in the unbelievable that makes us right. It has nothing to do with our vain attempts to keep God's standards or live up to some man-made set of decrees. God has asked us to believe His promise that we can be restored to a right relationship with Him through His Son's substitionary death on the cross for us. Far-fetched? You bet. Hard to believe? No doubt about it. But it is no more impossible to believe than an old man and his barren wife producing descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. But they believed, and God delivered. And if we believe that God can remove the penalty of our sin and replace it with the righteousness of Christ, He will deliver – and make us right with Him.
Father, what You have promised to do for us through Christ sounds incredibly far-fetched and impossible. And yet, You ask us to simply trust You. The only requirement You place on us is that of belief. And like Abraham, the longer we place our faith in You and watch You work, the stronger our faith grows. Our wavering in doubt becomes increasingly less frequent. We see You work in our lives and gain confidence in Your faithfulness to us and love for us. Never let us lose sight of the fact that it is by faith alone that we are saved, not by our own self-effort. Keep us trusting You and not ourselves. Amen.