Why would a preacher work with these pieces of a complex Pauline argument in her sermon?
Perhaps because it puts before us a major understanding of what God was up to in Jesus and long before that, in Abraham. This chapter speaks to the very character of God. Granted, the vocabulary and speech patterns are not easy soundbites for contemporary audiences. Granted gospel narratives offer a more direct way into preaching. But this chapter, too, relies on a story that is part of a much bigger one.
The question wrestled with in this text is simply, "how big is Abraham's family?" The answer Paul offers, derived from his reading of Genesis 15:5, is that Abraham's family is as big as the numbers of persons who have faith in God. Jews are part of the family to be sure. So are Gentiles who believe that God has rescued them through the obedience (crucifixion and resurrection) of Jesus.
The translation of Romans 4:1 has been much debated. As Richard B. Hays persuasively argues1 4:1 is best rendered in two questions: "What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?" Paul voices the second question in order to argue against it, a not unusual process for him. Paul believes that the text and order of events in Genesis 15 is crucial to a proper understanding of who is in Abraham's family.
Paul's answer to this question is delayed to the very end of our passage. In verses 16-17 Paul insists that humans are part of Abraham's family through faith rather than physical descent. Christians throughout the New Testament are concerned over and over again to associate themselves with Abraham through this story. To be part of Abraham's family by faith is to be an inheritor of God's promises, to be in covenant relationship with God, to be "justified." All these phrases are in apposition to each other. All of them describe who we are, whose we are.
Paul and other believers needed to establish how Gentiles, most of the folks reading this page, can be part of God's covenant people without attention to the Torah. If God could simply cast aside all the covenant promises made to Abraham, David, and through the prophets in favor of a new people, it is God who is unreliable, indeed, unfaithful. And if God has been unfaithful to God's word to the children of Abraham according to the flesh, why should anyone trust that God will be faithful in the future? So, it is really important that God's promise be understood as from the beginning for a larger group than Abraham's children according to the flesh. The breadth and depth of God's promise, God's fidelity to God's own promise, and our ability to trust and hope in God are all at stake in this argument.
Paul's writing in these verses again has the breathless quality of a sketch made in a hurry. It is an abbreviated summons. We can imagine him speaking these words. "So then," he says, "from faith, so that on grace in order that the promise be firm to all the seed, not to [seed] from the law only, but also to [seed] from the faith of Abraham. It is Abraham's faith that marks this family, a faith and a "mark" recorded in scripture and connected there explicitly to God's promised blessing. This God of Abraham is faithful. In fact, it is precisely in sending the Holy Spirit on Abraham's children NOT according to the flesh, that God fulfills promises made eons ago to Abraham.
This passage is so about why we dare to trust God. The answer is that this God does not create, make promises to and abandon a people. God binds Godself in the promises God makes. This is very good news for us, now in the twenty-first century who continue to long for God's shalom in this world. It is also very good news for us, although challenging, to think about what other peoples God considers to be part of the family of Abraham by faith. What does faith look like? Surely the faith and faithfulness of the Gentiles would have been surprising to Abraham. What would surprise us, were we suddenly able to see who all is in God's family?
Finally, a most important point is that this faithful God justifies the ungodly, not waiting for them to shape up first. In verses 5 and 17, God is identified as the one who justifies the ungodly, the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. "Once," says the writer of 1 Peter 2:10, you were not a people, but now you are God's people." The meaning of this change is indicated by the next line, "Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." A people has been brought into being that had not existed. Paul identifies the God who has created a new people, a new part of the family through the faithfulness of and faith in Jesus the Messiah. This people participate in the life of God's covenant family, those who receive mercy.
God did not and does not wait for us to become a people. "While we were yet sinners, " as Paul will say later in this letter, God brought us into relationship, gave us the gift of the Spirit, showed mercy, and in all that acted faithfully to the promises long made and never forgotten.
1Richard B. Hays, "'Have We Found Abraham to be Our Forefather According to the Flesh?' A Reconsideration of Rom. 4:1." Novum Testamentum 27 (1985) 76-98.