Book of Romans Bible Studies
Romans 4 P2 - Abraham’s hope against hope - Faith in the resurrection power of God

by Fraser Gordon

Last time we looked at Romans Chapter 4 about the example of righteousness and the example of justification. The writer used Abraham as an example. We looked in Genesis Chapter 15 at Abraham's encounter with someone before he was declared righteous, just by believing what God said to him. He had an encounter with that unique man, Melchizedek, which means king of righteousness and king of peace. He had this encounter before he was declared righteous in God's sight.

Continuing the story in Genesis

Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward."

We saw how Abraham met Melchizedek after he had defeated the kings, and God said to him, “I am your shield, I go before you and behind you even though you don't realize it”. God was a shield to Abraham when the king of Sodom tried to say, “come take some of the booty”. Then God said to Abraham, “not only am I your shield but I am your great reward”. The essence of our Christian faith is that we get a person, and it's God himself through the presence of the Holy Spirit. That is the exceedingly great reward we get.

Where is the promise?

Genesis 15:2 But Abram said, "Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 Then Abram said, "Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!"

After all these great things that God said, Abraham is completely honest with God. He doesn't respond to God, “that's great you’re all that I need, you’re the only thing I ever want”. He pours out to God what is important to him and that is that God had promised him something. But where is the promise? Abraham was called at 75 and he has probably walked with God for about 10-15 years, but at this stage there's no fulfillment of the promise, “I will make you a great nation”. Abraham responds “you've given me no son and the only heir that I have, Eliezer is my servant”. In 10-15 years there's been no change.

Abraham is like us, we often mistake God’s ways and purposes. We mistake his delays as denials. Abraham has been walking 10 or 15 years with God, “but where is the son that you promised me? I've got no son, I've got no heir. Where are all the promises that you made to me, I've got no son. Where are they?” We are often exactly the same with God and we find it very hard to wait. They did then and even more so now. We live in such an instant society. If you've got children in the household you'll know that they want everything now, they want everything right now. Most objects are designed so we get things quicker, everything is easier for us and gives us more spare time, but we're rushing around, rushing to this and to that. Our whole society wants it now and we want it quickly. We're a little bit like that with God, we don't know how to wait. The Christian life is actually full of big long periods of waiting for God to fulfill what He has promised.

I was thinking about my dog Flash. When I came home from work the other day I said, “okay boy we're going for a walk”. I told him what I wanted to do so he thought it was going to be instant but in the back of my mind I had my lawns to mow and a whole lot of other jobs around the house I had to do. I was intending to take him for a walk but he didn't know that. I always tell him what we're going to do, but he thinks it’s right now. So he’s following me and barking at me everywhere I go. He's right there because he thinks what I told him is going to happen right now. We are a little bit the same with God, He makes his promises, He tells us His plans and we think they are going to happen right there and then.

God is not in a hurry

God had promised Abraham He was going to bless him and make him a blessing to all the nations, that through him and his seed the blessing would come. Abraham is expecting this, 10 or 15 years has passed up to this point but there is no sign of anything. So he is pouring out his heart, “you have given me no son, where is the one? It’s all good saying I'm your great reward but where are your promises to me?” God is very gracious here because Abraham is being honest from his heart. God doesn't belittle his request. We are very much like Abraham, we expect fullness to be given straight away but we don't realize there is masses of time involved in God working into our life his purposes and plans. We need to always remember;

Philippians 1:6 “be confident of this very thing that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion”.

We need to hold onto that because sometimes we feel like it is so delayed, “has he denied me what he once spoke to me about?” It's not like that, we just don't understand. Like my dog he thought the walk was right now, but he didn't understand all the things that I had to do prior to actually taking him somewhere. We need to be confident of this, that God is not in a hurry with his children, he's not in a hurry at all. Philippians says he will complete what he has started but there are long periods of time involved as it was with Abraham.

It has often been said that when God wants to make an oak tree he takes a hundred years but when he wants to make a squash he takes six months. What would you rather be? There are so many stories in the Old Testament of the saints - like Moses, he thought he had the ability to do what God required, but he killed an Egyptian and left his feet sticking out of the ground, so he got caught. Then he fled into the wilderness and spent 40 years in the backside of the desert until God showed up. Forty years is a long time to hear absolutely nothing from God. “ Where are God's promises, why is there delay? Is it a denial? Am I right out of the will of God because nothing is happening?” These are things we think about when God's promises are delayed.

David is anointed king and then spends at least 10 years running and hiding before God removed Saul from the throne. In all those 10 years where were God's promises? Why is He delayed? In the story of Lazarus the people came to Jesus and said Lazarus is sick. You notice when you read that passage that it says Jesus delayed where he was two more days and by the time he got to Lazarus he was dead. He was actually four days dead. The people came to him and said “if you had been here none of this would have happened”. “If only you had been here, the one that you love wouldn't be in the burial tomb”. But Jesus purposely delayed his coming so that the glory of God could be brought about. Jesus delayed his coming so there would be a resurrection story, that Lazarus would come out of the grave after four days dead. Abraham is exactly the same, God delayed his promises to Abraham until the point where he is as dead as anything and there's no natural way of him conceiving a son or an heir apart from the resurrection power of God. Abraham didn’t know that, but God was taking him on a journey.

Abraham believed God

Genesis 15:4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir." 5 Then He brought him outside and said, "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." 6 And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.

It would have been an amazing thing for God to take him outside and look up, when he’s got no one and no hope and he can't see any of his promise. For God to declare “just count what's up there” I don't know whether he started counting or not. “So shall your descendants be, like the stars”. Abraham had to wait, he had dreams and words that God had spoken to him and so do we. We all have had words spoken over our lives when God has either spoken to us directly or he has used someone to speak something. There are families that believe that God is going to bring members to be saved and there seems to be big delays. There are big waiting periods, but Abraham believed what God said even though it was an absolute impossibility. He was called at 75, and in this passage he's about 80-85 so he's getting on, but he believed. It's just a simple belief, he believed what God said was true.

A story of resurrection

Romans 4:17 (as it is written, "I have made you a father of many nations") in the presence of Him whom he believed--God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.

The object of Abraham's faith was God himself. Then Paul makes a statement, “who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did”. This is the whole story of Abraham and his promise. It's a story of resurrection, of life coming forth where there is deadness and he “calls those things which do not exist as though they did”. When I read that verse I thought, that's so true.

Romans 8:30 “Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified”.

The word glorified is in the past tense, in other words when you were justified, in God's eyes you were also glorified, but it's yet to happen. God sees the package as though it's already happened because the word glorified is past tense. As far as God is concerned the whole package has been given to you even though you haven't yet been glorified. But he calls those things which don't exist as though they do. So from God's perspective you're already there. You've been called, you've been justified, and you've been glorified even though you're yet to come into that. This is what Paul is saying, God calls those things which do not exist as though they do.

Abraham did not lose hope

Romans 4:18 who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, "So shall your descendants be."19 And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb.

This is another 15 years later. Contrary to hope in hope, it's a beautiful thing to say. In other words when Abraham looked at his own frame it was as good as dead, he was about a hundred years old, he was wilting away. When he looked at Sarah she was well past menopause and the ability to conceive. He looked at her and she's even deader in that respect. Both of them were really closer to the grave than what they were the marriage bed. There was no hope of life coming out of this couple because everything had well passed. But Paul is saying that contrary to hope, in hope he believed, so somehow he actually had hope that what God had said he was actually able to do.

The other thing you've got is the embarrassing nature of his name. Abram meant ‘exalted father’ it was his first name, exalted father. “Well how many kids do you have?” “Well... none", “but you've got a name that means exalted father!” He could well have been the mockery of those around him having a name that meant exalted father, without anything to actually show for it. Then one day God appears to him again and says “I'm going to make you a blessing, I'm going to give you a child and not only that I'm going to change your name. No longer will you be Abram but you'll be Abraham which means father of a multitude”. You can imagine when he came home to Sarah and said “God's just spoken to me again and He said that we're still going to have a child, we're going to have a son. But not only that dear He's changed my name, no longer Abram, exalted father, I'm Abraham, a father of a multitude”. I don't know how Sarah would have responded to this she probably thought “he's losing it, he's getting on a bit, he's a bit delusional, he's a few sandwiches short of a lunch pack”. But God changed his name and all this is before a child is actually given. That would have been embarrassing for Abraham. But he still hoped that God was able to fulfill what He had spoken. Contrary to hope in hope he believed.

I read something about hope the other day. They were doing experiments on rats, not the nicest thing to do. They put a group of rats in a tub of water and left them swimming. In one experiment the rats died within an hour. They put another set of rats in the same tub of water and they periodically lifted the rats out and gave them a rest and put them back in. They found that the ones they lifted out periodically would swim for up to 24 hours without drowning because of the hope of being periodically lifted out of the water. Hope is really important in the Christian life. I just finished reading a book on the Holocaust, it was an amazing book. It was a study of Germany from 1929-1946 solely on the Holocaust and there's lots and lots of stories of people that were put into camps and the horrendous things they had to go through. Many of the survival stories were about having hope. They had to have a deep-seated hope within them that they could make it through. That there was light at the end of the tunnel. For those that lost hope it was said they would die from the inside out. That was the description of them, once they'd lost the simpleness of hope to survive they would die from the inside out. They would stay on their bed and wouldn't come to the roll calls even though they were threatened and beaten, they still wouldn't respond. In the end they would give up on life and die. The book talked about having a grit of hope in your life so you could survive and make it through to the end. This is what Abraham had, he had lowdown grit, contrary to hope. Everything was against him, his body was as good as dead, his wife's body was as good as dead, they were just about at the grave. But God had promised him something, contrary to all of that, there was a little germ of hope and it stuck with him.

Romans 4.20 He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God.

In other words he wasn't double minded he didn't get up one morning and say “so I think God's going to fulfill his promise today”, halfway through the day “Ohhh, I'm not sure”, get to the end of the day, “no I don't think he can”, that evening “yeah I think he can”. He wasn't up and down like a yo-yo. The Bible says “and a man like this is unstable in all his ways, a double-minded man. But he didn't waver at the promise of God through unbelief. Abraham wasn't perfect by far, he tried to give his wife away twice. I don't know how you husband's would go if you tried to give your wife away twice. I think you’d get more than an ear lashing. He was far from perfect.

What about Ishmael?

Paul says that he did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief. In Genesis chapter 16 about one or two years after the promise of a child, this event happened. Abraham is about 86, scholars say, Sarah comes up with this bright idea. “Look this isn't working, we're not having a child, there's no light on the horizon. Maybe God doesn't want to do it the way that we thought, let's help Him fulfill his promise. I've got a maidservant Hagar, I'll give you her, you go into her, maybe that's the way God wants to fulfill His promises”. I personally believe they were trying to help God out with His promise as opposed to being unfaithful. I believe they thought, “this is not happening, I think God must be going to do it this way”. We do those very same things because we can't wait for God to act, we get our sticky fingers all over it and we try to help him fulfill what He's promised. Whenever that happens, trouble always comes. Even though God has blessed Ishmael, you've got the arab-israeli issue which all stems from someone trying to help God fulfill what He said He was going to do.

It's another 15 years before God brings Isaac along, another big period of time again. At that point Abraham was one hundred, as good as dead. This is where the story becomes a story of resurrection. Of God taking a man to the end of himself before life can come forth. Exactly the same in our Christian lives. When there is strength we'll use it but God will sometimes bring us to an end where only that life that he can bring forth will come forth. For Abraham it was a 25 year period before life came forth. So Ishmael was I believe, “let's help God out here, He's not doing what we thought He was going to do, maybe He's going to do it this way”. Scripture says that Abraham did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief.

Strengthened in faith

Now that doesn't mean that he got up every morning and it was all about positive thinking, visualisation or speaking things into being. Sometimes you hear these terms in Christian circles. Abraham and Sarah didn't get up in the morning hold hands and say “we need to visualise a son, God has promised us a son. I just want you to visualise him Sarah. I can see him Sarah can you see him?” “No I can't see him!” Why can't you”, “oh shut up”, or “just be positive dear”. It's not about visualization or positive thinking. None of those things would have sped up God's plan of a son. They could have done that for 25 years and it wouldn't have made any difference whatsoever. God was going to fulfill His purpose with Abraham when He was ready.

Romans 4:20 “he did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief but was strengthened in faith giving glory to God”.

When I read that I thought “how on earth was he strengthened over 25 years? How did his faith grow?”, but it did. He didn't have any scriptures. We have the scriptures to remind us of God's promises Abraham didn't have that. How was he strengthened in faith? He could only go off his relationship with God and his past experiences of God. God had been faithful to him and had rescued him from Pharaoh, from the Kings, he got Lot back, and his experience with Melchizedek. So even though he doesn’t have the scriptures, he knows from his past experiences that God is faithful, and he can believe what God says. God really was the object of his faith.

Romans 4:21 “being fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to perform”.

That really is the guts of it all, he believed God back when God made the promise and he was fully convinced in his mind in verse 21 “that what he had promised he was able”. You have to believe that not only what God has said is true but He is able to bring it about. Because this is faith and hope combined. I was thinking about dads. When my kids were little I'd stand in the pool or on the lawn and the kids would be on the trampoline and I’d call to them to jump. They took one look at me and they said to themselves “gee he's got big muscles he's going to catch me”, and they jump, either into the pool or onto the ground. But if children don't want to jump what they are thinking is “this guy's as skinny as a rake he's got no ability to hold me up or catch me” or “he's overweight and got no coordination”. So in other words, “daddy can't catch me”, or maybe “he won't catch me, daddy might move”. There's the trust thing, “if I jump will dad stay where he is and catch me”. Or the child might think “I'm not going to do what he tells me” that could be another reason. It's like that with faith, Abraham was fully convinced that what God had said He was able to bring it about. Oswald Chambers said that “faith is the deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time”. Abraham had deliberate confidence in the character of God. From what he knew of God, that God had promised him a son even though everything was as dead as a hammer.

Faith and works together

Romans 4:22 “therefore it was accounted to him for righteousness”

At the end of all this, when the son is given, there's another period of time, Isaac is either a young man or a teenager, where God asks him to take another step in his relationship with him on faith. God asked him to lay down Isaac. All that Abraham had hoped for was wrapped up in this son and God asked Abraham to lay him down. Abraham again being fully persuaded that God was able, was willing to go to the point where the angel had to say stop. Hebrews 11:19 brings out that Abraham believed God was able to raise the dead. So you have this whole circle of resurrection again. Not only did Abraham believe God could bring life from the dead but even if he was obedient after laying his son down, the God of resurrection would still have the ability to perform and raise Isaac from the dead. All the promises God had given to Abraham were wrapped up in this one son. So it's incredible, the whole outworking of this with Abraham is there.

Then you contrast that with James. Everyone who hates Grace always pulls out the book of James. When you're talking about being declared righteous and your standing in Christ, and all those wonderful positional truths, they always say, “faith without works is dead”. James brings out in Chapter 2:21 “this very thing that was Abraham not justified by offering Isaac up to be slain”. James says there that what you see is faith and works working together, so it fulfills the scripture “that it was accounted to him for righteousness”. So James and Paul aren't contradicting each other, works don't prove that you're acceptable to God. What James is saying is if there is true faith there should be an outworking of that faith. Remember it didn't come straight away, sometimes we look for fruit straight away and say there should be something. There was years involved before Abraham was actually asked to do this work, probably at least another 15 years before there was an outworking of this faith in the promise. If there is true faith then you should see something at some point, it might not be straight away. Sometimes we look for it really quickly in believers but remember God takes a long time. This proves there was a genuine belief and a genuine faith by Abraham because when it came crunch time he was able to be obedient to God.