You sit in the lawyer’s office surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other heirs (it’s a big office). The patriarch Abraham is present. The crowd is all his faith-descendants from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. The lawyer opens a will and reads: “You—all of you (he pauses at the outrageousness of it)—inherit the world.”
That’s what Paul writes of in today’s text–but mentions it almost as an aside. He’s focused on Abraham, a Jewish hero, right with God, not by works but by faith. Paul concludes this makes Abraham the father of both believing, circumcised Jews and believing Gentiles (4:1-12)—though they had been the pagans described in 1:18-32.
But, now, about . . .
“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13).
Paul has two passages from Genesis in mind when he writes that sentence . . .
“After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, ‘O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’ Then the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars– if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:1-6).
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’ Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations’” (Genesis 17:1-4).
Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, expands “offspring” and “many nations’ to “the world”. He uses the Greek word, kosmos—here referring to the new order of creation peopled by all the redeemed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
Who’d want to inherit this world? Sure, it has its wealth and places of magnificent beauty. But this world is under the devil’s dominion (1 John 4:19). It’s corrupted by wars and senseless violence, by poverty, by sickness and disease and death, and by human sin against the Creator. But there’s a new world coming! And it’s ours who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus we are Abraham’s descendants. And, thus, we are made right with God, so we might have the promise.
“If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 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” (Romans 4:14-17).
The reasoning of this paragraph is clear. If those who cling to the law are to inherit, “faith is null and the promise is void.” This because the law brings God’s wrath, because those who aim to be right by keeping laws always fall short. And so, God has made the promise depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants”. And Abraham’s descendants are all (circumcised or uncircumcised) “who share the faith of Abraham”.
And Abraham’s faith was as outrageous as the promise: he believed in God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” I picture nothing—and God creating out of nothing this universe. I picture something else too. Old, as good as dead Abraham with his old barren wife Sarah. He’s standing in a desolate darkness. He hears the Lord say, “’a son coming from your own body will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars– if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’”. He looks up and sees stars, yes, more than he can count. And he believes in this God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” He, Abraham, is as good as dead. And not even one son exists. But he believes in the Lord.
All those who share in Abraham’s faith have God’s promise guaranteed by grace. Paul uncovers the nature of Abraham’s faith (which we are to share).
“Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:18-21).
Abraham’s faith necessarily included hope, because he believed in a future work of God (“he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’”). But that was hopeless (“against all hope”). After all, his own body “was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old)” and Sarah’s womb was barren. But “hoping against all hope, he believed that he would become the father of many nations” according to the Lord’s word.
“No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God . . . “ Those words seem at odds with Genesis 17:17,18 . . .
“Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’”
Commentators suggest various solutions. I think the best is this: Paul was looking at Abraham’s life of faith overall. He wasn’t perfect. He had bouts of wavering. But, search the panorama of his life and you find a man who hoped against hope, believing what God said he would do.
* * * *
Two applications can be made, the first concerning our inheritance. Obviously, that we are among those who will inherit the world gives us hope for the future. Beyond the routine of our lives, beyond even death, our new world awaits. Though, as I’ve said above, this is an outrageous promise, we should never think of Christianity as only a “personal faith”. It is cosmic. It involves a new creation. We mustn’t publicly retreat from the promise because it sounds so “crazy”.
The second application to be made here concerns our faith. We’re called to believe that by believing in the death (and resurrection) of Christ God, despite our sins and moral corruption, declares us in right-standing with himself. We’re called to believe in the outrageous promise of the new world. But, since we are called to share the faith of Abraham, we’re called to “faith for the long haul”. Day after day, year after year with no tangible evidence accompanied by “body blows” that cause suffering and raise doubts. May God in his grace grant that it may be said of us as if was of Abraham . . .
“No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God,
but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,
being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”