Commentary on Romans 4:13-25
I find preaching from the epistolary literature of the New Testament difficult.
The narratives of scripture are most manageable. The presence of small details in a story is usually enough platform from which to launch. The wisdom literature is generally a fun exercise in homiletical impressionism—be poetic; the Psalmists were. The epistles feel like climbing a sheet of ice. I tend to need more preparation, more commentaries, and more conversation to feel ready to scale the wall. When I preach from the epistles, I first fetch my ice ax.
No sheet of ice is more intimidating than Paul’s letter to the Romans. Like a sheet of ice, it is one single piece. The sustained argument makes understanding twelve verses from the fourth chapter and making them intelligible a challenge. A preacher would be wise to read the entire letter to ensure that they have a basic grasp of the argument preceding and following the passage. As with most of his letters, Paul assumes his audience had prior understandings that he never bothers to explain fully. Why would he explain what they already know, after all? To complicate things even further, the letter to the Romans interprets past events in Israel’s history through a new axiomatic principle of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Leander Keck puts it, the book of Romans is the culmination of Paul’s “rethinking” of his own theology.1 Romans is the divided spectrum of light of Paul’s previous theology refracted through the prism of Christ.
In Romans 4, Paul is rethinking his theology of Abraham—which is a necessary step as he reviews faith at-large. Having already concluded in chapter one that “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (1:17), Paul tries to explain how Christ relates to God’s righteousness and the people’s faith. Given Abraham’s privileged place within Israel’s identity, Paul examines Abraham’s faith which led to belief without proof. Abraham believed in the promises of God without experiencing the fulfillment of those promises. Such belief was no easy task for Abraham and Sarah. Their childlessness and their odd sojourn in a foreign land ought to have been enough to dampen their faith in the God who called them from Ur. But, their faith held fast in the face of testing.
For Paul, faith is what leads to life, even amid death (verse 17). Such trust is not easy or straightforward. For Abraham, the paragon of faithfulness, faith was a struggle—it required a “hope against hope.” A sermon discussing the complicated nature of faith, hope, and doubt might find some inspiration in Paul’s discussion of Abraham. The inspiring idea that Abraham’s faith and hope found mutual reinforcement in each other is enough fuel to get a preacher to Sunday.
Additionally, how Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith as growing in strength holds promise for preaching. The NRSV translates enedynamothe as “grew strong.” This translation, I think, fails to account for the passive nature of the verb. According to Paul, Abraham’s faith didn’t grow strong of his own accord, but was made strong—presumably by God.2 What that strengthening of faith means as Paul (hyperbolically, I think) describes Abraham’s unwavering trust in the promise continues to confound interpreters, especially in light of Abraham’s laughter in Genesis 17. If I was preaching this sermon, I would sit with this point of scholarly contention for a bit. As with most preaching, places of most profound vexation provide some of the most profitable opportunities for imagination.
Paul concludes this short section by turning to the reader so that they know that the life of Abraham is relevant “for our sake” (verse 24). The faith of Abraham was not earned but given. This gift of faith thus manifests in Abraham’s life as righteousness. So it is with righteousness within the burgeoning Christian community. The story of Abraham is likewise the story of the new Christian community—that is, all who can lay claim to being a “seed” of Abraham.
We get to verse 24 of the chapter before we hear the first mention of Christ. Christ—and the events of his life, death, and resurrection—is the content of the faith that leads to righteousness. Paul is aware that Christ was not the content of Abraham’s faith but explains that the eternal God is the animating force behind both the faith and the subsequent righteousness in Abraham and the community. Therefore, the power inherent within faith is not innate to the believer but a product of the gospel laden with God’s power as it meets human existence. This conclusion can be a freeing one to those congregations who still believe that their lives will find worth and power in the length of their reach. Paul clarifies (sort of, it is Romans after all) that measuring God’s faithfulness is always a more productive use of our imagination than measuring our own.
- Leander Keck, Romans, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 33-36.
- Ibid, 131.