The Letter to the Romans



14. The Father of Us All


Romans 4:9-15


Paul has introduced the idea that credit and wages are not the same things. "Wages" are earned; "credit" is granted apart from one's work. Abraham is Paul's model of a person who received God's credit of righteousness while still an uncircumcised Gentile. Although the Jews rightly recognize him as their father, yet he is also the spiritual father of all who believe God's promises and surrender to his will.

God's choice of Abraham to be the father of all his people for the rest of time reveals insight into God's sovereign omnipotence. There is no Biblical hint that Abraham knew God before God called him out of Ur in Mesopotamia. The account in Genesis 11:26 to 12:5 tells the story of God's telling Abraham to "leave [his] country, [his] people and [his] father's household and go to the land" God would show him. Further insight into this story appears in Joshua's last speech to Israel found in Joshua 24:2-4. As he reminds Israel of the history of God's leading of them he recounts that Terah, the father of Abraham, lived "beyond the River [Euphrates] and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants." Verse 14 also alludes to these gods when Joshua tells Israel to throw away the gods their forefathers worshiped in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Certainly the moon-god was a prominent god in Mesopotamia during that time, and it's safe to assume that Terah and even Abraham worshiped it.

God who sees all, however, chose Abraham and called him out of Ur, out of Haran, and into a relationship with Him.


God's Sovereignty

God's call of Abraham illustrates a fact the rest of the Bible confirms: God is sovereign over everything that happens, including his awakening us and calling us to himself. Many of us grew up hearing that God was sovereign but believing that ultimately we controlled our own fate and even influenced God's decisions.

The Bible does teach us that we have a responsibility to respond to truth and to God's call. It also teaches, however, that God is ultimately sovereign over everything, including those he knows and those who reject him.

Isaiah 41:8-9 declares to Israel that God took them from the "farthest corners of the earth," called them, and chose them. Jesus even said, "Many are called, but few are chosen."

Paul is even more forceful in Romans 8:29-30; he states that those "God foreknew" he "predestined to be conformed to the likeness of the Son." He continues by saying that those he predestined he also called, and those he called he also justified and glorified. To the Ephesians Paul wrote that God chose us in him "before the creation of the world." He chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight. Furthermore, in love he "predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 4:1-6). Slightly later in the same chapter Paul writes,"In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will in order that wemight be for the praise of his glory." (v. 11-12)

Jesus told his disciples, "You did not choose me; I chose you" and appointed you to bear fruit. (John 15:16) Furthermore, he said in the same passage, the world hates you because you don't belong to the world. "I've chosen you out of the world." Colossians 3:12 identifies Christ-followers as "God's chosen people," and Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that he knew God had chosen them because the gospel came to them with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction. (1 Thessalonians1:4) In his next letter Paul told that young church that "from the beginning" God chose them to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)

Peter writes that Christ-followers are "a chosen people" (1 Peter 2:9), and Revelation 17:8 talks about those "whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world." (Revelation 17:8)

The Bible is clear that God knew his own people from the beginning of time, from the creation of the world. He chose us to be his before we ever were born; he knew us from eternity. How we can exercise free choice yet still be known and chosen by God before our births is a mystery we can't explain. It is a paradox that doesn't make sense inside the limitation of time and three dimensions. Yet both are true. That God knew us before time is a fact that builds our confidence and trust that our lives are not random; God is in the future, and nothing can touch us without first coming through the filter of his love when we belong to him.


Abraham's Seal of Righteousness

Paul explains that Abraham received the mark of circumcision from God as a sign of the righteousness that God had already credited to him because of his belief. Circumcision became the mark of being God's covenant people, and the Jews considered it the sign of their being God's chosen nation. Paul, however, is clarifying that God's choice of Abraham and Abraham's belief in God preceded the mark of circumcision. Rather than circumcision being the ceremony that made people acceptable to God, it was the sign that by faith Abraham was already acceptable to God.

Circumcision, the sign given to seal Abraham's right standing before God, was the shadow of the coming miracle of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Abraham and the Israelites did not experience the new birth because Jesus had not yet died to atone for sin and to open a new, living way to the Father. They did, however, have the opportunity to believe God and his promises, to surrender their own wisdom, and to trust their true Father, thereby being counted righteous in God's sight based on the strength of God's promise of the Messiah.

In the new covenant, the reality symbolized by circumcision became known. In language remarkably reminiscent of Paul's description of Abraham's circumcision in Romans 4, he describes the indwelling Holy Spirit in Ephesians 1:13-14: "And you were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession-to the praise of his glory." Again in Ephesians 40:30 Paul tells the Ephesian church not to "grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians about their seal of the Holy Spirit. He said God "set his seal of ownership" on his followers and "put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come" (see 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 and 5:5).

The old covenant seal of belonging to God was a physical mark left when a piece of flesh was permanently removed. The new covenant seal is a spiritual mark that results from a metaphorical circumcision of our natural hearts of flesh. In fact, the real meaning behind circumcision was stated in the Torah. "Circumcise your hearts, therefore," Moses cried to the people of Israel, "and do not be stiff-necked any longer" Deuteronomy 10:16). The point of circumcision, even for Israel, was to signify their belief and trust in God. As Israel became more settled in their special status, they lost sight of the surrender that was Abraham's legacy to them. They began to see circumcision as the means of their belonging to God instead of as the mark of their surrender to him.

Paul explains the fulfillment of the sign of circumcision in his epistles. Romans 2:29 clearly states that a man is only a true Jew if he is one inwardly, if he has circumcision of his HEART done by the Holy Spirit, not merely physical cutting done by a man. He is quite forceful in his letter to the Philippians who are being besieged by Judaizers attempting to force the Gentile Christians to be circumcised in order to belong to God's chosen people. Paul exhorts them to watch out for those "mutilators of the flesh." He continues by saying they, the Christ-followers, are the true "circumcision"; they worship God "by the Spirit of God" (Philippians 2:2-3). It is the Spirit, not the physical mark, that makes people truly circumcised.

Paul reminds the Colossians they were circumcised in Jesus when they put off their sinful nature; it was not human hands that circumcised them, but Christ (Colossians 2:11-12). When a person is born again, the Holy Spirit brings that person's dead spirit to life; that spiritual birth is when the sinful nature is put to death. No longer does that person walk in darkness, doomed to death. He is now alive in Christ. That spiritual birth marks the cutting off of the sinful nature; that event is a person's circumcision of the heart.

The author of Hebrews also explains the transcendence of the new covenant over the old covenant. He quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 where the promise was made that God would put his law on his people's hearts, and they would know him. This miracle of God putting himself into our mortal bodies to bring us to spiritual life in him fulfills the prophecies of the new covenant. It replaces the act of physical circumcision as the sign of belonging to God.

On this side of the cross, Jesus bears the physical marks of the covenant. Instead of a permanent mark in our flesh, the sign of our belonging to God and being counted righteous is the new birth, the indwelling Holy Spirit who transforms us and gives us eternal life and the mind of Christ. We have our sinful nature "cut away" by the Holy Spirit giving us himself. We now live in eternity through Christ who has saved us. Our sins no longer condemn us. Our seal of salvation, the Holy Spirit in us, is the sign that we have surrendered ourselves to Jesus and believe God's promise to save us.


Abraham's Faith

Even Abraham, though, could not generate his own saving faith. While he believed God and God counted that belief as righteousness, still Abraham himself was unable to generate perfect faith. When Abraham took his household to Egypt to escape the famine, he advised Sarah to pose as his sister instead of as his wife. (She was his half-sister by birth; but more to the point, her current identity was Abraham's wife.) Abraham feared the Pharaoh would kill him in order to have Sarah for his own, and he shamelessly put Sarah into great peril to save his own skin. His ruse nearly failed; Pharaoh, hearing Sarah was merely Abraham's sister, ordered her taken from Abraham and put into his harem. Instead of trusting that God, who had already called him and promised to make him a great nation, Abraham acted foolishly and in his own strength. The Pharaoh finally chastised Abraham and explained that had he known Sarah was married, he never would have taken her from him.

Further, after God promised Abraham that he would bear a child who would become a great nation, Abraham began to question the reality of that promise as the years went by. He finally took Sarah's handmaid, Hagar, and bore a son by her in attempt to fulfill God's promise. This son, however, was not the promised son, and Abraham's efforts to fulfill God's promise only yielded great division and heartache. God's promise still stood, and God's timing still governed its fulfillment.

Years later, when God visited 99-year-old Abraham again and told him that in one year he and Sarah would finally bear the promised son, Abraham "fell facedown and laughed" (Genesis 17:17). Even though this visit marked God's giving Abraham the mark of circumcision, the seal of his gift of righteousness, Abraham still was unable to generate the faith that God was telling him the truth.

This deficit in Abraham's faith raises the question: if Abraham's faith was undependable, what exactly was his faith that was counted as righteousness? Paul elucidates this matter in Romans 4:20. He says that Abraham did not waver but "was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God." God's faithfulness provided the strength Abraham needed to keep faith. His human disbelief did not undo God's keeping power over him, and even though he had moments of weakness, God strengthened his faith.

Both Habakkuk and Isaiah emphasize that the righteous will live not by their own strength but by the faith and strength of God. (See Habakkuk 2:4 and Isaiah 26:1-6.) Isaiah 26: 1 says that Israel has a strong city, but God makes salvation the walls. Verse 2 describes the righteous nation as one that keeps faith, but verse 3 identifies God as the one who keeps his people. Their faith and trust is the result of God keeping them in him.

When Peter healed the crippled beggar at the gate of the temple shortly after Pentecost, he told the watching crowd that the healing did not come from him. Rather, "It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him." (Acts 3:16) Even the faith necessary for the man to be healed came from God.

In his second epistle Peter again refers to the source of saving faith: "To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours" (2 Peter 1:1).

Paul also spoke of the grace given him (Romans 12:3), and in 1 Corinthians 12:9 he identifies faith as a gift of the Spirit. In the conclusion of his epistle to the Ephesians Paul writes a benediction of peace "and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 6:23).

The author of Hebrews further identifies Jesus as "the author and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 12:2)

Abraham's faith, which Paul uses as the example for all of us, was not faith he mustered on his own. Rather, even faith is a gift of God. Only when God calls us, reveals himself to us, and generates saving faith in our hearts can we demonstrate faith that God counts as righteousness. Our entire salvation, including our saving faith in Jesus, is a gift of grace from the sovereign God of the universe.


Inherit the World

Paul comments in verse 13 that Abraham received the promise that he "would be heir of the world" not through law, but through "the righteousness that comes by faith. In fact, the Genesis account of Abraham did not specifically say he would inherit the world; rather, the promises God made to Abraham implied and foreshadowed that Abraham's descendants would "inherit the earth." (see Matthew 5:5) God promised Abraham "offspring like the dust of the earth," (Genesis 13:16). He promised him that he and his offspring would possess the land of Canaan, and that all the people on earth would be blessed through him and/or his offspring. (see Genesis 12:3; 7;-8; 13:16; 15:7, 8-21; 17:8; 18:18; 22:17-18) Paul, with the benefit of being on this side of the cross and knowing how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament symbols and promises, understood that God's promises to Abraham really were that through him all those who believe God and live by faith in Him will be citizens of God's kingdom and thus inherit the earth.

God attached promises of inheritance and prosperity to keeping the law, and he attached curses to disobedience of the law. Abraham's descendants, however, inherit the earth by faith, not by law. The question arises, if inheritance is by faith, not by works of the law, what is the purpose of the law and its promises?

Paul answers this question in several passages in his epistles. In Romans 3:21 he announces the good news for fallen humanity: there is a righteousness from God that is apart from the law. This righteousness, he declares, was foretold in the law and the prophets. From this passage we understand that the law was only a shadow of better things to come. It taught about the gift of grace that God would grant his people through the Messiah.

The epistle to the Galatians is even more specific. In chapter 3:15-25 Paul tells us that God's promises of inheritance and blessing preceded the law. God's promises to Abraham occurred before Sinai, and the coming of the law, Paul declares, did not negate the previous promises. If the law superceded God's promises to Abraham, those promises would no longer be valid, and God's word could not be believed. Rather, the law was added after God's promises to lead people to Christ. Because humanity was hopelessly sinful, people were living in rebellion to God and not even realizing how desperate they were. God gave the law to define sin in people's lives and to cause them to become conscious of their brokenness and of the futility of trying to be good. It's purpose was to make them aware that they needed a Savior.

The law outlines the standards God demands of his people. The legal standards of God's law, however, cannot be met apart from surrendering oneself to God and trusting in him. Israel had largely abandoned the faith of Abraham, relying instead upon their genetic inheritance, God's choice of them, and the seal of circumcision that marked them as Abraham's descendants. The law brought them face to face with their failure to live in submission to God and in service to one another.

Further, the law is compared to a servant, a pedagogue, whose job it was to take charge of the minor heirs in a family and to escort them to school. That image describes the job of the law. It was to take charge of wayward Israel and, by setting rigid requirements of behavior, lead them to see their own arrogance, their own weakness, and to cause them to give up their vain efforts and to cry out to God for salvation. Once a person admits his failure to keep the law and to be able to live successfully under its authority, once he sees that God offers him rescue and salvation from his own incompetence and evil, then the law no longer has a claim on him. Jesus his Savior becomes his master, and his heart becomes changed. He inherits the righteousness from God, and the law no longer has a role in his life. Jesus has fulfilled the law and places his Spirit in the new believer. God becomes the overseer of a believer instead of the law.

Paul further states (in Colossians 2:16-17) that the legal requirements of the law including holy days, food requirements, and festivals were merely shadows of the reality which is Christ. The law's purpose was never to make people holy or good or to provide a way to be saved. Rather, it has always been to make sin prominent in people's lives.

Hebrews also clarifies that the law was a servant of Christ. Moses, says the writer of Hebrews, was a servant in God's house, but Jesus is a Son over God's house (Hebrews 3:5-6) This passage uses similar imagery to the passage in Galatians 3. Moses, representing the law, was a servant of God's people while Jesus is the Son, the master, over God's people. The law has always been the servant of God, not the authority of God. The law only had authority that God gave it, not intrinsic authority. Just as a master of a household can temporarily trust a servant to represent him but ultimately replace that servant with his own Son who has intrinsic authority, so God gave the law temporarily to manage rebellious humanity and to reign in people's destructive behavior. Ultimately God fulfilled the requirements of the law through his own Son, and the Son now stands in the place of authority before sinful humans as the standard and the power of God in their lives.

The promises of prosperity and inheritance that God gave Israel if they only would obey the law are now fulfilled through Jesus. People never could have earned those promises by molding their behavior by the demands of the law. Even under law, the promises of God depended on trusting God and living by faith. The law's function was to bring people to repentance so they could realize the righteousness of God that is by faith. The law has always been God's servant, designed to lead his rebellious subjects back to a relationship with him.



God is calling you to live by faith. Living by faith, though, does not mean having faith in faith. Rather, it means having faith in God and his promises. Many people believe and teach that if one has enough faith, he will realize his dreams and goals. Faith, many believe, is that on which we must hang our trust. Faith, however, is not what saves us or sustains us. God does those things. The faith of Abraham is a gift from God; it is the ability to surrender oneself to the inevitable conclusion that one is hopelessly flawed and doomed to death without the saving power of Jesus. It is embracing the sacrifice of Jesus and allowing his life to save us from ourselves. True faith sees Jesus in the center of its vision. We are not to trust faith to save us; we are to trust Jesus.

God is asking you to stop looking to his servant the law to evaluate your standing before him. He is also asking you to accept your hopeless condition without Jesus. He is asking you to surrender to him and to accept his promises of blessings and eternal inheritance based only upon Jesus' finished work, not on your own attempts to keep the law.

God is not going to withhold his grace from you if you have moments of doubt, as Abraham did. What God wants from you, though, is the willingness to surrender to him everything in your life that you are reluctant to give up. Whatever you're unwilling to surrender stands between you and Jesus and makes it impossible for you to experience peace in that part of your life.

Jesus has promised to complete the work he has started in you; he does not ask you to perfect yourself. He asks you merely to trust him and to release to him the things he wants you to release. God is asking you to trust his promises. Once you have accepted Jesus and his sacrifice for you, you belong to him. You can give up your fears and your attempts to fix or control yourself and others and give Him the intractable problems that have been dragging you down.

Only you know what Jesus is asking you to surrender. Only you know what you don't want to give up. Believe God. Believe that he is disciplining and perfecting you because you are his child. Believe that he will never leave you or forsake you. Let go of your defenses before God and allow him to bring your emotions to life with the healing grace of his love.

Praise God for being trustworthy and for keeping his promises. Praise Jesus for fulfilling the law and for saving you. Praise the Holy Spirit for putting true faith in your heart-the power and presence of God that will keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted December 17, 2003.
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