Abraham’s Sons and Daughters
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 4:9–17a
(Read Text) One of my favorite statements of Christ is found in Luke 10. Jesus sends out 70 disciples to preach, and he gives them power to perform miracles. Verse 17 states, “The seventy returned with joy saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” You can imagine how excited they must have been. What could be cooler than to exercise that kind of power? I know I’d be excited.
But Jesus responds with stunning perspective in v. 20, “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” As cool as it would be to cast out a demon, a right relationship to God and a place in heaven are far more valuable.
In fact, nothing is more important than being right with God, and no question is more important to answer correctly than how can I enter a right relationship with God. If you don’t have a clear answer, please listen closely. And if you know the answer, our text should drive you to compel everyone you know to understand and believe the gospel.
It's been 3 weeks since we were in Romans, so remember that the purpose of Romans 4 is to support the assertion in chapter 3 that we cannot possibly be righteousness enough to earn salvation; instead, our only hope of salvation is that the righteousness of God would be credited to us by faith. We are saved by grace, not works.
Romans 4 proves this assertion through the testimony of Israel’s chief ancestor, Abraham. 3 weeks ago, we saw in vv. 1–8 that even Abraham was not justified by his works; instead, v. 3 quotes Genesis 15:6 (read). That’s huge, because if Abraham, the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant and the father of the Jews couldn’t be saved by his works, then what hope do any of us have of being saved by works?
So, vv. 1–8 prove that neither Abraham nor anyone else can be saved by works. And vv. 9–17a follow by demonstrating that neither can Abraham nor anyone else be saved by circumcision or by obedience to the Law. Instead, Paul demonstrates that the gospel is good news because from the very beginning God’s intent was always to save anyone who comes to him with the faith of Abraham. So, notice first in vv. 9–12 that salvation is…
I. By Faith, Not Circumcision (vv. 9–12)
I doubt any of you lay awake at night stressing over the significance of circumcision. That’s just not on our radar. But it was very important to Paul’s Jewish readers. And we’ll see that Paul’s discussion of circumcision has tremendous significance even for Gentiles. I’d like to summarize the argument of vv. 9–12 with three assertions.
Abraham was justified before he was circumcised (vv. 9–10). Notice that v. 9 begins with a question, “Is this blessing…” Blessing is the key word in vv. 6–8. Those verses teach that the blessing, specifically, of forgiveness is essential to the gospel because there’s no way I can cover my own sins. Rather, God must forgive them if I have any hope of being right with him.
So, v. 9 ultimately raises the same important question I raised in my introduction, “How can I be forgiven and made right with God?” More specifically, is the blessing of forgiveness restricted to the circumcised, or can uncircumcised people also be forgiven?
Paul already told us in v. 3 what he thinks. Again, he mentions in v. 9 that “Faith (not circumcision) was credited to Abraham as righteousness.”
But what role did Abraham’s circumcision play in all this? Verse 10 asks, “How then…” Notice that Paul’s 2nd question specifically reflects on the chronology of Abraham’s life and of God’s dealings with him. If Abraham were justified after he was circumcised or at the same time, the Jew would have a pretty good argument that justification is applied by circumcision.
However, Paul answers that Abraham’s justification was, “Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.” In other words, he was justified before he was circumcised.
Paul makes this assertion based on the clear testimony of Genesis. Specifically, God revealed his plan to Abraham in 3 important stages. First, God revealed the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12:1–3, “NowtheLordsaid to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; andI will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and soyou shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one whocurses you I willAnd in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’”
This covenant is of massive significance to the rest of your Bible. God promises that Messiah will descend from Abraham, and Messiah’s blessing will flow to Abraham’s descendants and then to all the nations. The rest of your Bible and salvation history hangs on this Covenant.
Abraham obeyed God’s command and moved to Canaan. And 5–7 years later God spoke to Abraham once again in Genesis 15. For the first time, God specifies that Abraham will have a child through whom God will fulfill the covenant (v. 4). In response, 15:6 makes the key statement that Paul quoted in v. 3 (read). The Bible says that’s when Abraham was justified.
And Paul simply points out that God didn’t commanded Abraham to be circumcised until Genesis 17. The rabbis of Paul’s day taught that 29 years lapsed between Genesis 15 and 17. So, the Bible clearly states that Abraham was justified long before he was circumcised. Circumcision played no part in his justification; he was justified by faith alone!
That’s a simple fact, but it is so foundational to the gospel. And it’s a truth that people really struggle to grasp. If you walk around town or even around your typical evangelical church and ask people, “Why do you believe you are going to heaven?” Most people, even many who believe the gospel down deep, want to answer with something they did. They will respond, “I got baptized,” “I turned my life around,” “I made God a part of my life,” or something else along those lines.
Instead, the answer should simply be, “Because I have trusted in Christ alone for my salvation.” Yes, lots of radical changes take place afterwards, but none of these things justify. We are justified by faith alone.
I hope everyone here has put his or her faith in Christ alone for salvation. You don’t do anything else to be justified. You simply receive Christ by faith. If you have never put your faith in Christ alone, please do so today. So, Paul’s first assertion is that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. His second assertion is that…
Circumcision symbolized a previous spiritual work (v. 11). Considering v. 10, the question which naturally follows is, “If Abraham were justified before circumcision, then why was he circumcised?” The simple answer is that circumcision was a visible sign and seal of “the righteousness…”
Abraham’s circumcision didn’t justify him, but it was a physical reminder to Abraham and a statement to everyone around him that God had removed his sin and set Abraham apart to himself. Abraham belonged to God.
And God commanded Abraham to circumcise everyone in his house, and he commanded all of Abraham’s descendants to be circumcised as well. God didn’t give this command because he’s gory or loves pain. Instead, circumcision was to serve as a lasting testimony of the special grace God had shown a to Israel, and of the fact that they belonged to God.
It’s worth noting that believer’s baptism serves a very similar purpose. It doesn’t make someone a Christian. Rather, it testifies to what God has already done, and it is a lasting reminder of the believer’s commitment to follow Christ.
Similarly, circumcision didn’t justify anyone. It was simply a physical reminder of a spiritual work of God. Sinners have always been justified by faith alone. But why does that matter to Gentiles like us? Paul answers that it means everything. Paul’s 3rd assertion is…
Salvation is available to all who believe (vv. 11b–12). Sadly, the Jews had largely missed God’s fundamental purpose in the story of Abraham.
Yes, God did intend to create a nation, and God did institute circumcision to set Israel apart from all the other nations as his special possession. However, God did not set Israel apart in order to cut off the nations from himself or his blessing. Rather, he made them holy so that they could be a “kingdom of priests” and a “light to the nations” to draw them to God.
This purpose was clear from the moment God promised, “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” God always intended for the blessing of Messiah, the salvation that we know in Christ, to extend to every corner of the world.
Therefore, since God justified Abraham before he was circumcised, v. 11 concludes that Abraham is, “the father of all who believe…” Every Gentile Christian should rejoice in this verse. Justification is not just for an exclusive few; it is for “all who believe.”
It doesn’t matter what I’ve done or what my family has done. It doesn’t matter how shameful your past may be. God saves all who believe. So, if shame or guilt are keeping you from believing, please see that God promises his righteousness to ALL who believe.
And Christian, give thanks that you are a child of Abraham in the sense that you are an heir of the promise of Messiah. As a kid, I hated singing “Father Abraham,” because I’d always get dizzy when we got to “turn around.” But I am so thankful for the basic truth of that old song. “Father Abraham has many sons…I am one of them and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!” We have great reason to praise the Lord.
And then v. 12 adds that Abraham is also, “The father…” This verse would be a tough pill for a Jew to swallow. The Jews thought physical circumcision all but guaranteed them a place in heaven, but Paul already said 2:29 that heart circumcision matters far more than physical circumcision.
And he makes the same basic point here. Physical circumcision will not get anyone into heaven. Neither will getting baptized, growing up in a Christian family, or performing religious rituals. However, every Jew who truly believes the Lord and walks accordingly is a child of Abraham.
It’s the same for everyone. We must believe, and then we must follow in accordance with genuine faith. So, if you have never been saved, just believe God, like Abraham did and then act in accordance with that faith. You can be saved today. Praise the Lord that he saves all who believe.
So, vv. 1–8 say that we are saved by faith, not by works. Verses 9–12 say that we are saved by faith, not by circumcision. Then notice that vv. 13–16 say that salvation is…
II. By Faith, not by Law-Keeping (vv. 13–17a)
This section begins with another very important assertion.
The promise is available through faith, not law (v. 13). The previous section was built on the “blessing” of forgiveness. But this section is built on “the promise to Abraham…that he would be heir of the world.”
The statement probably encompasses every promise in the Abrahamic Covenant. Abraham would have many descendants, they would possess much land, and they will be a blessing to all nations. Someday the spiritual seed of Abraham will inherit the entire earth, and God will fulfill every salvific promise.
So, this verse is asking who will receive the full blessing of Abraham, who will receive the full inheritance of God’s salvation?
Once again, Paul answers with a hard pill for a Jew to swallow. The blessing is “not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” That’s tough because the Jews took tremendous pride in their possession of the Law. They should have. The Law was a tremendous gift.
The problem is that they often thought that merely having the Law or their external conformity to its standards was enough to earn salvation. It’s not that different from many religious people today. They take great pride in their affiliation with a particular denomination or faith and in their external show of religion. They know they aren’t perfect. In fact, they don’t even sincerely try to live up to all that their faith demands. But they are still sure that God accepts them based on their religion they possess.
But God says merely possessing the Law is not enough. Instead, it is only through faith that I can attain righteousness. We’ve talked about the fact that “the righteousness of faith” is not a work that makes me righteous. Verse 5 makes this clear when it contrasts works and faith (read). Rather, God applies his righteousness by faith. So, faith is the key, not the Law. But why could the Law never save? Verses 14–15 answer with a 2nd
The law cannot secure the promise because we are sinners (vv. 14–15). Paul makes his point, by proposing a potential scenario. What if becoming an heir of the promise was based on obedience to the Law? That’s what most people believe. If you ask them if they are going to heaven, they answer with something they do or don’t do based on a religious code or some personal code they sucked out of their thumb.
What would be the consequence if the promise of salvation depended on law-keeping? Paul answers that the consequences would be devastating, “Faith is made void and the promise is nullified.” In other words, if salvation were by law-keeping, no one would receive the promise of salvation, and all humanity would be condemned.
Have you ever thought you had a great idea only to find out later that it was terrible? You’re stuck in traffic, and you see an empty road. Instead of thinking, “Maybe there’s a reason no one is going that way”; you decide that you are the only one brilliant enough to go that way. You wind around for 30 minutes, tear your suspension to pieces, and get nowhere. What looked like a brilliant path turns out to be useless.
God warns that this is the case for every path to salvation apart from faith in the finished work of Christ. Many people think they have found a path to God that is so much better than the gospel. It’s easier, it fits their style, or it makes them feel good about themselves. But they don’t see that the end is destruction. It’s terribly foolish and tragic.
But why is it that law-keeping and every other man-made path will never end in heaven? Verse 15 answers, “For the Law brings about wrath.” I want to be clear that this is not because there’s something wrong with the Law; there’s something wrong with us (7:12–13). The Law is holy, but I am a sinner.
Therefore, the Law cannot produce genuine righteousness in an unbeliever. Instead, it can only produce “violation (i.e., transgression”). The point of v. 15b is not that people wouldn’t sin if God hadn’t given a law. Paul will argue in chapter 5 that the people who lived before God gave the law were sinners; therefore, they died. So, it’s not as if people who don’t have the law are innocent and therefore not guilty.
However, v. 15b is saying that having the Law does make sin more severe. The term translated “violation” or “transgression” refers to an infraction of a specific command. For example, every parent or teacher understands that kids are sometimes foolish, and foolishness has consequences, but knowingly refusing to obey a rule is far more serious.
So, vv. 14–15 make the point that the law cannot secure the promise because we are sinners. We simply can’t keep the law well enough to earn righteousness through it. I’m a sinner, and so are you. That’s not good news; it’s devastating news. But it opens the way for something infinitely better. Verses 16–17 make a 3rd assertion…
Salvation by faith is better (vv. 16–17a). Last Sunday, I briefly raised the question, “If God is good, then why does he allow evil to exist?” It’s a complicated question that the Bible doesn’t fully answer. But our text raises one important factor in God’s purpose.
Specifically, the fact that we cannot possibly save ourselves means that our only hope of salvation is the grace of God. We would never truly appreciate God’s grace unless we were wholly dependent on that grace. And that’s exactly what we are. It’s only because I know I’m a wretch that I appreciate God’s amazing grace.
And it is a wonderful grace to know. There’s no way I would love God as much or worship him as passionately if I deserved his love. But because I am helpless, and he loved me anyway, I know his grace in a far deeper way. God’s grace in the gospel is truly amazing. I’m so thankful that I know God by his grace and not by my ability to keep his law.
But then notice that v. 16 points out a second reason that salvation by faith is far better than salvation by the Law (v. 16b). We talked on Sunday nights this summer about the fact that the Law did more than define the holiness of God. It also created a culture. It was a national constitution that shaped every aspect of life.
With this in mind, the logic of v. 16 is pretty simple. If salvation were by the Law, we would have to become Jews in order to be saved. We wouldn’t just have to righteous; we would have to be Jewish. But we can’t be saved by keeping the Law. Instead, God told Abraham from the very beginning that he intended to save people from every nation through the Jewish Messiah.
And God reiterated this fact in Genesis 17 even as he instituted circumcision. Verse 17a quotes Genesis 17:5 when it says, “As it is written…” God has always had a passion for the nations.
The blessing for us is truly wonderful. I don’t have to obey Jewish food laws or where Jewish clothes. I don’t have to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem every year. Instead, I simply must imitate the faith of Abraham. If I have Abraham’s faith, he is my spiritual father. God welcomes all who simply believe on him.
Do you have the simple faith of Abraham? Do you believe God when he says that you cannot save yourself? Do you believe God when he says that Christ fully paid for your sins on the cross and that he finally defeated death in his resurrection? Have you put your faith in the finished work of Christ? If not, believe God, and you can become a child of Abraham and, more importantly, a child of God.
And if you are saved, I hope you will be moved by God’s zeal in this passage for the salvation of all people. Verse 11 says God designed his plan so that, “He might be the father of all who believe,” and v. 16 says “So that the promise…”
God is passionate about the salvation of sinners. He doesn’t care where they come from, what they have done, what gifts they have to offer, or how obnoxious they may be. He designed his plan to save them all. We must share his zeal, and it’s our job to take the gospel to them all. Maybe you’ve lost interest in the salvation of someone near you. You’ve stopped praying, and you’ve stopped sharing. Be convicted by God’s zeal, and make specific plans to go after them this week. God desires the salvation of all people. Praise God for that. Let’s participate in his zeal.