Reading Time: 6 mins

Epistle: Romans 4:13-25 (Pentecost 2: Series A)

Reading Time: 6 mins

Our righteousness, along with Father Abraham’s, is found in the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, whom God promised to Abraham and has given for us all.

A few weeks ago, I found myself lost in a Facebook video wormhole. You know what I am talking about, right? You click on a video that looks interesting, then the next video also catches your eye and so, of course, you watch. Next thing you know, it is 45 minutes later, and you still have not responded to that email. So... yeah, I was doing that, and usually it is a fruitless 45 minutes. But, on this day, I found some pretty captivating stuff!

One video which has had me thinking for days since was a clip from an interview with Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Breitowitz.[1] He was addressing the question, “Why do Jews have so many rules?” He immediately contrasted the Jewish view of God’s Law with that of Christianity (well, he would say, the Apostle Paul’s view of the Law, not necessarily Jesus’... but I digress). In this interview, he suggested Christianity, according to Paul, cannot be in congruence with Jewish teaching. Why? Because, according to the Rabbi’s interpretation of Paul, Christianity teaches the Law was too hard, thus God abrogated the Law and made matters easier by saying righteousness is through faith. The Rabbi said Christianity is too negative and pessimistic about humanity’s ability to keep the Law unto righteousness.

According to Rabbi Breitowitz:

“God says you can perfect yourself and, therefore, you must perfect yourself. I will not give you cheap grace. I am not going to give you holiness for free... In a very real way, the very detail of Judaism is an expression of God’s hope and confidence in man that we are capable of perfecting ourselves.”

This is fascinating, and baffling to me. If I hear the Rabbi correctly, it is as though he is saying God gives us the Law because He has faith in us to fulfill it! God gives the Law because He sees our potential and, like an inspiring little league coach, gives us more responsibility to inspire us towards a better performance.

The Rabbi is at least right on this, Paul’s preaching is not in line with Judaism. I like to imagine Paul’s response: “You are right, Rabbi, I do not teach in line with Judaism, but that is because Judaism is not in line with God’s Word! Come, Rabbi Breitowitz, let us chat about the righteousness of Abraham!”

I recount this lengthy story because it is this legalistic understanding of God’s Law which Paul goes at full-bore in our reading from Romans 4 today.

The Text

Romans 4 finds us in the midst of Paul’s long argument about how one is found righteous (justified) in the eyes of God. Paul spends the first three chapters of his letter to the church in Rome showing how “no one is righteous” (3:10) according to the Law and righteousness has come apart from the from the Law through faith in Christ Jesus (3:21-22). After laying out his case, Paul then demonstrates that this is not a new teaching. In fact, Abraham himself is said to have been righteous through faith alone (4:1-12). Paul quotes Genesis, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted as righteousness” (4:3).

Now (in our text; 4:13-25), Paul is going to continue to make his case for the righteousness of faith by contrasting it with the work of the Law. He says, “The Law brings wrath” (4:15). Paul is thinking here of the Covenant God made with Israel during the Exodus. This was a Law which came with blessings and curses. It was conditional. If Israel obeyed, life would go well with them in the land. If they disobeyed, curses and punishments would fall upon them (see Leviticus 26:1-46 and Deuteronomy 28:1-68). The Old Testament is one account after another of God’s people breaking the Covenant and God sending forth punishments, only to redeem them by His own mercy. If the fulfillment of God’s promises depended on the Law, they would never be fulfilled. “For if it is the adherents of the Law who are to be heirs, faith is null and the promise if void” (4:14). If the history of Israel proves anything, it is that the Law brings wrath. Thus, the promises cannot be conditioned on our adherence to the Law. That would mean God’s promises depend on us!

If the fulfillment of God’s promises depended on the Law, they would never be fulfilled.

“That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise might depend on grace and be guaranteed to His offspring...” (4:16). In other words, reception of God’s promised salvation depends on God’s gracious promises to His people. To say it depends on faith is to say we can only trust God to do it, to accomplish it, and to give it, that is, the gift of righteousness.

Paul goes on to show how Abraham’s entire life was lived by faith before God. He did not live by what he saw or experienced, but by what he heard. If God promised geriatric Abraham offspring, he believed it. “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (4:19). After all, Abraham believed he was dealing with the God who graciously “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17).

Paul wants to preach that we have been given the same faith as Abraham and are, therefore, justified in the same way. The difference is time. Abraham believed the promise which was to come. He was reckoned righteous by God’s grace alone through faith alone that believed “God was able to do what He promised” (4:21), but he looked forward to the arrival of the promised, righteous Offspring. We have received it in the coming of Jesus. We are justified, reckoned (not “made” by any sort of process) righteous on account of Jesus, whom Abraham believed would come. Righteousness “will be counted (in other words reckoned or credited) to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (4:24-25).

All of this is to say, our righteousness, along with Father Abraham’s, is found in the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, whom God promised to Abraham and has given for us all. Our righteousness is not found in us; the Law ended that dream by exposing us as sinners and leaving us for dead. That is what the Law brings: Death. But Christ died to suffer the curse of the Law in our place (“was delivered up for our trespasses”). Now that He has sufficiently fulfilled the curse of the Law by becoming the curse for us (Galatians 3:13), He has justified us by rising from the dead. Faith in Christ alone justifies, for Christ alone is our righteousness, just as He was for Abraham.

 Faith in Christ alone justifies, for Christ alone is our righteousness, just as He was for Abraham.

Structure

There is a lot to cover in this text. Its theological richness makes theology nerds like me extremely excited! However, this can also make me and my fellow doctrine geeks long-winded in the pulpit. As incredible as Paul’s teaching is here, the preacher runs the risk of preaching over the heads of his congregants with a text like this. Choosing a good sermon structure will help keep you focused, and your hearers engaged.

If you tend to preach longer sermons, the Verse-by-Verse structure could work here. Again, just be cautious you do not get bogged down by theological jargon and the nuances of Paul’s argument. Work to clarify terms throughout in order to help your hearers feel as though they grasp Paul’s language, so they can make it their own.

With this as a goal, it might be more helpful to use the Compare/Contrast structure. Here you could easily set up a comparison between two types of belief, one which pursues righteousness according to the Law and another that receives righteousness through faith in Christ. As Francis Pieper says, “[There are] but two essentially different religions: The religion of the Law, that is, the endeavor to reconcile God through man’s own works, and the religion of the Gospel, that is, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, belief wrought through the Gospel by the Holy Ghost that we have a gracious God through the reconciliation already effected by Christ, and not because of our own works.”[2]

You could get creative here, setting up an imaginary conversation between Rabbi Breitowitz and Paul. Each one would be given a few minutes to make their case about where righteousness is found (obedience to the Law verses Christ’s finished work for me). Then, you could compare how the Law faired in bringing righteousness to Israel in the Old Testament and how God faired in fulfilling His promises, specifically to Abraham. Discuss Abraham’s faith, but always keep in mind it is his faith in the promised Offspring which matters. Jesus is the focus of the text. Finally, you could demonstrate that, ultimately, the Rabbi’s argument is left wanting, and how the dying and rising of Christ Jesus is the only answer to the Law and the only one worth trusting. That is why Abraham looked to Jesus’ day and rejoiced (John 8:56-59).

That said, there is no need to pick on Judaism (though, Paul certainly had to deal with it). After all, legalism is the air the old Adam breaths. Works-righteousness, the idea that we can earn a right standing before God on the basis of our performance, is the religion of the sinful nature. It appears in the Jewish faith and every other religion besides Christianity. It views the Law of God in terms of potential, not accusation. If God said it, I must be able to do it. As Immanuel Kant declares, “Ought implies can!” It is idealistic, not realistic, and it is utterly self-centered. [3]

Paul wants to take our eyes off our own performance and, instead, give us Jesus. The danger in a text like this is you can make faith into the one work which makes God happy, thus making faith a new law. Paul’s point is not so much that faith saves us, but rather, Jesus saves us, and He is the only one we can trust (in other words, put our faith in). Faith alone saves because Jesus alone saves you. Despite the Rabbi’s accusations, Paul does not do away with the Law because it is too difficult. Rather, He preaches a gracious God who not only saves us freely by His grace, but He also loves to do it!

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Additional Resources: 

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching Romans 4:13-25.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 4:13-25.

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6ipMfr6HM0

[2] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1 (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1950). 10.

[3] See C. Fitzsimmons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy, (Morehouse Publishing, New York, 1994).