“And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead…”
I realize that some of you have never sat through a series of sermons in church where the priest preached through whole books of the Bible and you may rightly be wondering why one would do such a thing. We do after all have an Epistle and a Gospel reading assigned for each Sunday and Holy Day of the year, so why do we need to march through entire books? My reason for preaching through whole books is simply to get the whole sweep of an Epistle or a Gospel. I have preached from the Epistle and Gospel readings appointed for each Sunday and Holy Day, and I certainly will return to the appointed lessons, because they are thematic to the year. But it is difficult, even with a three-year lectionary, to move beyond the themes of the season and the sense that we are sampling Scripture. So to take the Word of God written in whole and part such that we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Word, it is most helpful I think to occasionally take a whole book like Romans and camp out for a season. Sometime it is beneficial to lift our gaze to see the forest as well as the trees.
But why is it important for us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Bible? It is important because the Bible is God’s instrument for demythologizing the myths of this present age. We live with what we suppose are unassailable truths in the Church and in the World. These so-called unassailable truths are the myths that control our communal and private lives: our lives as Christians, our lives as American citizens, as husbands and wives, parents, and children. These assumptions define the good life; they tell us what is means to be successful, what is worth dying for and astonishingly what is worth killing for. Just which institution in America has the right to tell a member of the body of Christ whom to kill? Of course anybody can and will claim that he is on God’s side; anyone including Satan can quote the Bible, but it is altogether a different exercise to occasionally study a whole book of the Bible. What Paul said of the Church may be also said of her Book:
“(She is) built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together growth unto an holy temple in the Lord…”
The Bible is the whole deposit of the apostles and prophets and it is “fitly framed together,” but we have to study it to know and benefit from its liberating, demythologizing power. All this takes time. And so with this clarification, we need to get back to Romans and sum up where we stand at this point:
First recall that chapter 1 presents humanity divided between the Jew and the Gentile, the circumcised versus the uncircumcised, but chapter 1 also presents the Gentile world in a state of rebellion against the Creator. The Gentiles have no special revelation; they do not have the Old Testament, yet they are without excuse according to St. Paul because the truth of God’s existence and his almighty power and his created order are visible without special revelation. Gentile rebellion against the Creator is manifested by a reversal of the natural order of things with the result that humanity seeks its end, its telos, its perfection, in the creation while dismissing God, the omnipotent Creator, as unworthy of attention. This state of being originated with the first man, Adam, and Paul describes it is as darkness, futility, and finally death. Paul itemizes a list of habits that typify this darkness: deceit, covetousness, maliciousness, envy, strife, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, and unmerciful, to name a few. And this brings us to the wrath of God. After each declaration that mankind has in one manner or another exchanged devotion to the Creator for the creature, St. Paul declares – three times – that God has “given them up.”
Humanity having turned to idolatry, has abandoned the true God and God has permitted him to do so. This is the wrath of God: permitting man to break free of God and to live on his own. The rupture of our relation with God brings on the wrath of God but his wrath is manifested not by pouring blows down upon us, but by stepping aside. The vices and sins that St. Paul lists here do not call down the wrath of God; they are the wrath of God already present in our life. What has provoked the wrath of God is the ungodliness that consists essentially in the “suppression of the truth” of God as our omnipotent Lord and Creator. God’s judgment is to grant mankind the separation from God that he wants.
Now chapter 2. As I said some weeks back, imagine that chapter 1 is a sermon condemning idolatry and creature worship leveled mainly against Roman Gentiles and imagine that it is preached in a Jewish synagogue in Rome. You can see how that message would have been welcomed with a rousing chorus of amens – a strong sense of like-mindedness between the preacher and the congregation. But in the midst of all those amens Paul proceeds to pull the rug out from under Jews:
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”
Paul asserts flat-out that Jewish confidence in circumcision and possession of the Mosaic Law is misplaced and it will make no difference in the end – the law will not save anyone who is a transgressor of the law. Circumcision, from a Jewish point-of-view, is the first step of obedience to the Law, but Paul asserts that it is worthless. Accordingly Paul claims that circumcision of the heart is the real matter and that is only possible through the Spirit. Circumcision of the heart is not achieved by keeping the law; it is the gift of God. And Paul ends chapter 2 by redefining what it means to be a Jew:
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
In chapter 3 Paul returns to the universality of sin and the calamity humanity, Jew and Gentile, has brought upon itself and the rest of creation. His description of humankind is hideous:
“Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips…
Destruction and misery are in their ways:
And the way of peace have they not known:
There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
The culmination of all this was Israel’s great apostasy; her final rejection of the True Jew, their Messiah Jesus Christ – thus breaking the covenant God made with Abraham. Israel rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but that did not bring an end to God’s covenant faithfulness and God’s faithfulness to Israel is an instance and occasion of his faithfulness to his whole creation, the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Thus Paul asserts at the end of chapter 3 that God’s righteousness is revealed through the faith of Jesus Christ and it is through the faith of Jesus Christ that we are saved.
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested… Even the righteousness of God which is by the faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe…”
But with this Paul is getting ahead of his story because this story, the story of redemption, begins with Abraham and the promises God made to him. But up till this point Paul has not even mentioned Abraham by name. So in chapter 4 Paul brings into the open the story he has had in mind all along – God’s covenant, God’s promise to Abraham.
“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.”
The faith of Abraham is not merely an example for us to follow, but rather it is the beginning of God’s redemption of humanity. But what did Abraham believe? What is the promise God made to him? What Abraham believed was God’s promise that he would give him a son even though he was well beyond the ability of fathering a child.The story of Abraham in chapter 4 is the story of God’s reversal of humanity’s degeneration described in Romans chapter 1:18 where we read:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…”
Abraham’s faith in God was reckoned to him as righteousness; on account of his trust in God Abraham was counted as a faithful and loyal son of the covenant. What does Paul mean by faith? What is the faith of Abraham that pleased God? The answer to that question is at the end of chapter 4:
“And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.”
It has come as something of a surprise to me that in Romans as well as Hebrews faith is described in the most rudimentary, essential manner, as faith in God’s existence and in his omnipotence. Abraham was “fully persuaded that, what he (God) had promised, he was able also to perform.”
Again, in the Hebrews chapter 11 essentially the same point is made about the object and content of faith:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.”
But the point of Romans chapter 1 is that this most elementary knowledge of God existence and his omnipotence was known to be true but then it was rejected:
“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”
Abraham reversed this collapse of humanity’s relation to God: Humanity dismissed God, the Creator; Abraham not only listened to God, but he believed his promise and he trusted in his power to perform his promise. Where humanity knew about the power of God but lost interest in him, Abraham loved him and worshiped him. Human beings dishonored God with their own bodies; Abraham believed God and his old body, good as dead, recovered the power to father a child. Deep within God’s promise to Abraham is his commandment to the first man and woman to be fruitful and multiply – to father forth the order of creation that God is renewing and blessing in Abraham’s trust.
God called Abraham to undo the sin of humanity and this is the story of how it happened – it began with Abraham’s trust. That was the beginning of our redemption. That promise was confirmed and completed in Jesus in the events of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We who believe in Jesus are members of God’s covenant family and children of Abraham, siblings of Jesus Christ, saved by his faith. Regardless of how dark his world became, Jesus believe that God would keep his promise. This is the very distinctiveness of Christian faith and exactly what we observe in both Abraham and Jesus Christ. Their faith, their trust in God is unconditional – a joyful devotion to the promise of God and his omnipotence. Jesus, in each time of trial and in the moment of his greatest personal darkness, firmly clung to God’s faithfulness. This is the faith that saves us, not our own faith, but the faith of Jesus and the unchanging faithfulness and power of God.