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Faith of Abraham
Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 2: Faith and Salvation
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 18, 2021
By Dr. Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Romans 4:1-12
When I was a kid at Vacation Bible School, we didn’t have the awesome “praise and worship” songs of today that kids now begin singing at an early age. We had songs like “Father Abraham.” It went like this: “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham, I am one of them and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord – Right Arm!” Then for some unknown reason we started swinging our right arm and sang the same chorus again. The next time we sang the chorus, we added the left arm. Eventually, we were swinging both arms, stomping both feet, bobbing our head up and down, and turning around. After the seventh chorus of “Father Abraham,” we would shout “right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot, up-down, turn around, sit-down,” and sit exhausted. It wasn’t until much later that I really began to grasp why the concept of Abraham being a spiritual father to us is such a big deal. Our scripture from Romans 4 explains why.
“What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
The fact that Abraham is introduced in scripture as early as the 12th
chapter of Genesis should tell us something of his importance not only to Jews, but also to Christians as well. The covenant that God made with Abraham is foundational to all that follows in the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments. To Jews, he is their “ancestor according to the flesh.” In today’s study, we are doing a deep dive into why God’s relationship with Abraham is important to Christians as well.
Paul asks what could be gained by any relation to Abraham. If it was merely because of Abraham’s works it would not be much. What does Paul mean by works
? Works are our efforts and religious strivings to please God. If Abraham’s works were placed on a scale, he might have something to boast about before people like us, but not before God. What does Paul mean when he says justified
? To be justified means to be counted righteous in our status before God, or to be brought into a right relationship with God. It is impossible to be made right before God by our own efforts or works. There is nothing mere humans can do to measure up to God’s holy nature. We all have sinned and fall impossibly short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Paul is making the point that it was not Abraham’s works that pleased God and granted him God’s favor. So, if it wasn’t works, what was it?
Abraham Believed God
“For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”
Abraham and Sarah believed God. They demonstrated faith first by being obedient when God told them to go where he would tell them to go. This was not a particularly religious request. It was an open-ended request that simply invited them into a relationship. (Genesis 12:1-3) The fact that God would reveal the specifics later invited Abraham and Sarah into this ongoing journey. God continued to call them deeper, still not being very specific: “God said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” (Genesis 15:5) I would say that God was still not being very specific. God was using evocative language – language intended to fire Abraham’s imagination. Despite the fact that Sarah had been barren for so long, Abraham believed. In the very next verse, Genesis 15:6, we read, “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Two millennia after the incident happened, Paul brought Abraham’s belief to our attention to explain what this means. It means Abraham’s belief, not his works, is what the Lord reckoned as righteousness. The phrase “reckoned as righteousness” means “counted” or “credited” in Abraham’s favor as righteousness.” It’s as if God had credited to Abraham’s account God’s own righteousness. Righteousness is not Abraham’s achievement, but God’s gift.
“Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So, also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’
Notice how Paul is emphasizing the free nature of this gift. God placed God’s righteousness into Abraham’s account as a free gift, not something Abraham had earned, like one might earn one’s wages. Paul talked about the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works. He refers to David’s psalm which talks about how blessed one is whose sins are forgiven and covered, in the same way a person’s debt might be forgiven and paid for by another. Forgiveness offers a new lease on life, especially
given the fact that God’s forgiveness is offered as a free gift.
The Important Sequence of Events from Genesis 15 to 17
Next, Paul gets into the practice of ritual circumcision. Let’s remember the background. Jewish males were required by the law of Moses to undergo ritual circumcision at eight days old or at the time of being converted to Judaism. Jews who became followers of Jesus Christ had undergone circumcision, so some of these Jewish converts to Christ thought it was a good idea for Gentile converts to Christ to be circumcised as well. Some thought it should even be a requirement. Paul disagreed with this idea of Gentiles having to undergo circumcision as a prerequisite for becoming a Christ follower. Paul not only thought it was unnecessary, he also thought it created confusion about the nature of faith and salvation.
“Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.
To answer this big question of the day, Paul looked to Abraham. When Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him by God as righteousness, it was in was in Genesis 15 before
he was circumcised in Genesis 17. God instituted that requirement later in Abraham’s life to be a sign and a seal of his righteousness. Circumcision followed after
the free gift of righteousness had been given. Circumcision was therefore not a prerequisite for God’s righteousness to be granted. So, in what ways are Gentile Christians also related to Father Abraham?
Why Christians Look to Father Abraham
“The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
Paul established the fact that it was not Abraham’s circumcision that made him righteous, but God’s free gift given before
as the result of Abraham believing in the Lord. Paul sees a wider purpose in this divine order of events. The purpose was to make Abraham the ancestor of all Christians, whether they started out as Jews or Gentiles. Those who started out as Gentiles know that they believed without being circumcised and righteousness was reckoned to them just like Abraham. Those who started out as circumcised Jews and then became Christians should also know that Abraham is their ancestor not
because they were circumcised but because they follow the example of Abraham’s belief and faith before Abraham was circumcised.
This focus on Abraham was because Abraham’s belief in the Lord was seen by Paul to be a precursor to the belief a person declares in Jesus Christ. Abraham is not the one through whom we receive God’s righteousness as a gift. Abraham is presented by Paul as an early example of faith and belief. Jesus Christ is the one through whom we obtain the forgiveness of sins and the salvation God offers.
When we put our whole trust in Jesus to be our Lord and Savior, the righteousness of Jesus Christ demonstrated on the cross is credited to us resulting in the forgiveness of our sins. God sees us through the atoning sacrifice of his Son. That forgiveness is not earned or deserved. It is not the result of our own works, but the result of our faith in God’s work, God’s action through the gift of his Son. God’s righteousness is received by us purely as a gift
of grace. Salvation must be received as a gift of grace or it is no grace at all and no salvation at all. Why this insistence? Only grace has the power to transform us. Once we lay down our pretentions – that we can somehow lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps – then we can let God’s grace and unconditional love transform us. More will be said about how God’s grace transforms us in the next week’s lesson.
The Jewish Christian vs. Gentile Christian and circumcision vs. uncircumcision struggle that was a live issue in Paul’s day does not exist in the same way today. I do believe that we can perhaps draw a similar parallel today in the Christian Church.
Think about two kinds of people who become Christ-followers. Some were involved in their church from the cradle. They were baptized as infants and went to church and Sunday School religiously. They’ve been involved ever since they can remember. They have put in their time. Some may feel they have earned a little status as a result.
Others come to Christ without having had much prior church experience. The newcomers haven’t put in the time that the long-timers have. They may have even sowed some wild oats before coming to Christ. Sometimes, long-timers may feel somewhat suspicious toward newcomers. The long-timers may feel somewhat resentful. If they are honest, they may admit feeling envious. Everything is fresh for these newcomers. Their hunger and their appreciation for what they have received in terms of God’s grace is very evident. They can’t stop talking about the newfound experience of their salvation.
I remember when God’s timing was working in a special way in the church where I was pastor – Upatoi United Methodist Church. It was confirmation time for our young people – the sons and daughters of long-timers who raised their children in the church. These young people were making their public profession of faith in Jesus Christ – a very special time in the life of a church. A couple of these young people had not been baptized when they were infants, so they were also receiving baptism at the time of their public profession. At the same time, we had a family who had been attending church for some months. The wife was joining the church by renewal of her faith, and the husband and daughter were making their public profession of faith and receiving baptism. Another family had also been attending our church for some months and decided to make their profession of faith in Christ. The mother had been working in the office of a couple in our church – long-timers – who were insurance agents. This couple had invited their employee, and the church fell in love with her family, including her special-needs son who could light up a room with his infectious joy, and this mother, husband, and son made their profession of faith, and were baptized, and their infant child was baptized. The husband of this family also had three adult siblings, each with families. These adult siblings had grown up in an abusive home and had the emotional scars to prove it. They had not grown up in church. They each had experiences of lostness. The Lord did an amazing work among these siblings, each telling the other what was happening in their lives, and inviting their siblings to join in what God was doing, and there were more baptisms. It was turning out to be a big baptism day. Some were baptized by sprinkling, and others chose immersion, and we went to the Baptist Church just up the highway.
It was such a glorious day. What I remember most is the collective joy of the whole church – long-timers and newcomers alike. We all fed off the newfound experiences of God’s saving work. We knew God was alive in the church. By then I was a long-timer as a believer, and I realized how much my soul needs kindling from the fire of new converts. It reminded me that, at the end of the day, it is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that saves me – not how much time I have put in the church. Salvation is received by faith as a gift of grace – not something we earn or deserve – or it is not salvation at all.
Gracious God, your servant Paul reminded us of the role of faith, not works, in obtaining the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Open our eyes to the opportunities around us to share our faith and experience of God’s grace, that others may know that they are not required to earn God’s love in order to be saved. Through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose atoning work on the cross is offered freely without price to those who believe. Amen.
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.