This past Sunday I had the pleasure of preaching on Romans 4:13-17 at International Baptist Church Cologne. My family and I have been living in Germany this summer while I have been on a research trip to Bonn, Germany. The aim has been to work with Deuteronomy scholar Udo Rüterswörden. More on this trip later, but for now, let me share my sermon notes below. If you want to listen to the sermon, go to the link above.
This week I had the opportunity to consider some of the greatest, most extravagant gifts in recent history. Here are three of the top contenders.
1) As the story goes Count Gregory Orlov gave this 190 karat diamond to Catherine the Great of Russia. They had been romantically involved for many years, and Gregory even led the way in the dethronement of Catherine’s husband in a coup d’état that put Catherine in power. Their relationship carried on for many years and produced an illegitimate child, but Catherine eventually forsook Count Orlov for another man. Count Orlov apparently tried to rekindle the romance by offering her the diamond. The gesture did not work, but Catherine kept the diamond of course. Catherine named the diamond after the Count, and had her jeweller design a sceptre incorporating the diamond.
2) In 1907, Tsar Nicholas II gave his wife Alexandra Feodorovna this Faberge egg to commemorate the birth of their son Alexei Nikolaevich, three years earlier. It is made of gold, pink and green enamel, and encrusted with diamonds. The gift was an unexpected surprise, since for two years no Imperial Easter eggs had been produced due to the Russo-Japanese War. To add to the surprise, the egg also contained a diamond necklace and a miniature ivory portrait of Alexei framed in diamonds.
3) Or how about the story that I heard this week of 3 graduating seniors at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian University in Southern California. It happened at a special gathering of alumni, new faculty, board members and the president of the University. John Wallace, the university president, had invited 3 graduating students to attend a well. These particular students had decided to spend the following two years serving overseas in India, among the untouchables. These students assumed that they were invited to simply be commissioned and encouraged. But something unexpected happened. Dr. Wallace turned to the three students and said, “I have news for you. There’s somebody you don’t know, but they’ve appreciated what you’re planning to do over the next 2 year and have given a gift to the university in your name and on your behalf.” Then he turned to the first student and said, “On behalf of the donor, you are forgiven your $105,000 dollar debt to this institution.” He turned to the second student and said, “And you are forgiven your debt of $70,000 dollars” and to the third student he said, “You are forgiven your debt of $130,000 dollars to this University.”
Perhaps you know more of these stories. And there are more.
How do you respond when given an extravagant gift that was unexpected?
What are your thoughts, emotions, actions? Consider now a past gift, and try to remember your response.
I’ve had several weeks to consider this. As I’ve meditated on our text for today, I have had the opportunity to consider my own heart and my own inclinations and my own patterns of behaviour when receiving a gift that is unexpected. Indeed, I think that I have discerned two distinct ways that our sinful flesh responds to the grace of others.
How would you respond to one of these gifts? Or we could talk about intangible blessings. For example, the opportunities for education and work that may not have been available back home, but that many of you have come to enjoy here in Germany. Or perhaps there are some here that have had near death experiences and feel blessed to even be alive.
In my own life I am constantly reminded of the blessings that my late Grandfather gave me. He was an amazingly generous man and made my education financially possible. I also often wonder why God determined that I would not be born in the majority world, but in the USA. Why was I not born impoverished, like most of the world? Why am I the child of parents that have remained married and who love God?
These are great blessings, and I believe that it is important to consider the Lord’s great blessings in our lives, but the point that I am getting at here is that most times that we receive generously, our sinful flesh has one of two responses.
1) We believe that we somehow deserve it because of something that we have done previously.
This sinful impulse crops up whenever we think, “Oh, this is because I …” “My wife is being so sweet to me because I …” Or whenever we rationalize our gift with the words, “Well, it’s the least he could do considering…”
2) We believe that we somehow have to become deserving of it by paying it off or returning the favor.
How many of us can recall receiving a gift and our first thought is, “What is this for?” or “You don’t have to do that!” These statements often reflect an evaluation of ourselves based on behavior. If I could expand it and rephrase it, it might sound like this, “You don’t have to give that to me, because I haven’t done anything yet to deserve it.” The implication then is that now something must be done to pay off a debt.
What I want us to consider today is that our sinful impulses when we receive the grace of others are driven by a selfish focus on actions. Do we, or do we not deserve this thing?
Why is this our impulse?
Because we want to believe that we deserve what we receive. We desperately want to believe that we have done something to earn it.
But in our text today this lie is confronted by the truth that this thinking has no place in the Gospel. A focus on ourselves and whether we deserve God’s grace has absolutely no place in the Gospel of Christ.
The LIE: Our flesh tells us that we can either earn God’s grace or that we can pay it off so that we don’t have to be in debt to God for his grace.
The TRUTH: We can never earn God’s grace, and those who receive it can never pay off the debt.
LET’S NOW READ OUR TEXT beginning with verse 9.
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
VS. 13 If vv. 9–12 could be paraphrased to say that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised, then verses 13-17 could be paraphrased to be saying that Abraham was declared righteous before the law was given.
His point in vv. 9–12 (as well as most of chapter 3) is that one’s nationality is not the basis of salvation. But why is Paul belaboring this theme? He seems to go on and on and on about righteousness through faith and not works.
It is important to note that here Paul is advancing his argument. Vv. 13 begins with the word “for,” which Paul will also use in verses 14, 15, and 16. This word both in Greek and in English serves in a logical context to both explain what has come before and to advance one’s argument.
So what is he explaining or advancing in our text today?
Paul is explaining more about the nature of the promise given to Abraham in Gen 17:4–8, which Paul quotes in vs. 17.
4 “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 “No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 “I have made you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. 7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. 8 “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
- Paul is explaining the nature of this covenant
- That it extends beyond nationality (vv. 9–12)
- That it is based on Grace and not law ( 13–17)
- What we see in our passage is that because this promise is based on grace, it does not depend on obedience.
- It is on this basis, according to Paul, that the promise is eternal.
But we might ask why Paul seems to be repeating himself so much. Why does it seem like he keeps repeating the same argument?
Well, keep in mind what I’ve said so far about our sinful inclination when we are on the receiving end of grace. We tend to believe that we are or should be deserving of that grace.
These inclinations are not less present in the people at the church in Rome. Nor were they less present in the Judaism. In fact, consider some important background:
Jewish tradition at the time Paul wrote this letter taught that Abraham obeyed the law before it was given and that it was on the basis of this obedience and passing the test of offering Isaac as an offering on Mount Moriah (Gen 22) that God gave the promises of a land, a seed, and a blessing.
The Jews greatly revered Abraham
- A Jewish writing from right before Christ (Sirach 44:19-21) states, “Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. 20 He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he proved faithful. 21 Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.”
Did you catch that? The Jews believed that Abraham was blessed by God because he 1) obeyed the law before it was given 2) was circumcised, and 3) passed the test at Mount Moriah.
In response to this Paul has said and emphatic “NO!
VV. 14–15 In fact, in vs. 14-15, Paul states that if being an heir of the promise to Abraham, (after all, God said in Gen 17:7 that the covenant was with Abraham and his descendants) depended on obeying the law then “faith is null and the promise is void.”
In other words, if we had to obey the law in order to receive the promise, then the promise would be void. Why? Because, he says, “the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.”
In other words, even if Abraham was somehow able to keep the law before it was given, this would be able to provide no assurance of the promise, because that very law would condemn him!
To the Jews of Paul’s day who thought that the assurance of God’s promises to Abraham were based on his obedience to the law before it was given, would have no hope of inheriting that promise because the law would condemn them as well.
In fact, anyone who is attempting to become a worthy recipient of God’s grace, can never do so because the bases of their hope proves that they are unworthy. This is because wherever there is law, there is condemnation, and those who are condemned as law breakers, cannot be worthy to inherit the promise.
Let’s consider an example. If I tell my son Caleb that I will take him to the playground as soon as he is perfect, then he has no chance no matter how much hope he puts in obeying all of the rules. However, if I tell him that I will take him to the playground because I love him, well then, that is a different matter. It doesn’t matter what he does or doesn’t do, it only matters if he accepts my offer.
VV. 16-17 “That is why” Paul says in vs. 16, “it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring”
Now we have arrived at the heart of our passage! This is the climax of our text for today!
Paul is saying that there is are reasons that the promises to Abraham are not based on either Abraham’s works or his descendants’ works. The reasons are “so that” or “in order that” (as your Bible might say) it would depend on grace and be guaranteed no matter whether we deserve it or not.
You see, even if Abraham earned the promises that God gave him, as the Jews believed, even if he earned his salvation, we are still doomed if receiving the promise depends on our worthiness. For as Paul has already proven, we are wicked law breakers!
So what is this promise? What is the promise that is guaranteed? Well, Paul hinted at this back in vs. 13, but says more here in vs. 16b and 17a. This is a parenthetical phrase added by Paul to describe the word “offspring,” which may be translated “seed” or “descendants.”
These “descendants” of Abraham are further described by Paul when he says that they are those who are of the law and those who are of Abraham’s faith. If you have the ESV, then you will see that there is a bit of interpretation going on.
The ESV says, “not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham.” The challenge with this translation, even though it touches on some important elements of the Greek text, is that it seems to say that those who obey the law and those who only have faith are the children of Abraham. The Greek here has no verbs. It is really only describing “those who are of the law” and “those who are of Abraham’s faith”
What the text is really getting at is the union that can be enjoyed between Jews (those who come from the context of having circumcision and the oracles of God, i.e., the law (Rom. 3:2)) and Gentiles who have no hope other than to come by faith. Both of these groups can together come together on the same ground, as recipients of God’s grace.
So, again, what is the promise? The promise, as it says in vs. 17 is that Abraham will become the father of many nations. This means that the promise is also to us and to all humanity that we can become descendants of Abraham, to be part of the people of God, no matter our ethnic or religious background. And this promise is guaranteed, because it does not depend on us, but on God’s grace.
That means that we can’t earn it, and it means that we can’t pay off that debt.
Vs. 17 then ends with a description of how Abraham received this promise. It says of Abraham that he believed in God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Now this really belongs to the passage for next week. What he is introducing, however, is the fact that Abraham believed God when he said that Abraham would become the father of many nations. He believed God, despite the fact that Sarah’s womb was barren and Abraham was “as good as dead.”
Abraham received the promise because of faith. We become a part of that promise and recipients of that promise by faith as well.
So how do we receive that grace? I want to end today by showing how Jesus shows us how to receive from others without selfishness or pride or attempting to prove that he deserves it.
HOW DOES JESUS SHOW US A BETTER WAY?
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Notice two things:
1) The disciples’ response: “Why this waste?” they say. As if somehow performing such a gracious and generous act for Jesus would be a waste! As if Jesus didn’t deserve this and more! The irony is that these are his closest friends and should know that Jesus is worth this adoration.
But notice also Jesus’s response to his disciples.
2) He defends the woman, not himself! Instead of saying, “I’m worth it!” he says, “She has done a beautiful thing.” He receives with grace and humility the humble and genuine act of this woman. He receives with grace and humility this woman’s extravagant gift. Remember, this is the creator of the universe, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, and yet he lovingly receives this gift of love and reverence. He doesn’t say, “well, it’s the least that she can do considering what I’ve already done for her.” Instead he says, “She has done a beautiful thing.”
The implication for us from this example is that we should focus on God’s grace for what it is and who He is. For as soon as we begin to focus on our worthiness or unworthiness, we take the focus away from the giver and selfishly place the emphasis on ourselves.
HERE AND NOW
My question to you today is this, “How are you responding to God’s gracious offer of salvation?”
Are you falling into one of the two sinful inclinations that we’ve discussed?
1) Are you trying to do things now so that you can receive God’s grace when you deserve it?
2) Are you trying to do things now so that you can prove that you are a worthy recipient of it?
The danger is that as soon as we begin to think about ourselves in relation to receiving God’s grace, we begin to lose sight of God’s great grace. We take our eyes off of Him and begin to focus on ourselves and what we have done, or should be doing. Our flesh wants us to feel either as though we have earned his grace or as though we are no longer in debt to him for his grace.
The LIE: Our flesh tells us that we can either earn God’s grace or that we can pay it off so that we don’t have to be in debt to God for his grace.
The TRUTH, however, is that we can never earn God’s grace, and those who receive it can never pay off the debt.
SO WHY DO WE DO GOOD WORKS? Because the God of all grace dwells within us and works through us!!