Abraham’s gospel: Paul’s message in Romans 4

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite, April 19, 2015, Romans 4:1-25

Kathleen and I love to go on road trips. We’ve been all over the United States and seen some amazing views. We especially love mountains and oceans. We don’t agree with our friends from Winnipeg who say they don’t like mountains because they block the scenery. Although in our time in South Dakota we came to love the prairie too.

In my mind, the greatest viewing experience we ever had came in the mountains of western North Carolina. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In general, we believe the west is best, but the Parkway, especially in North Carolina, is probably about our favorite drive ever. A few years ago we spent the night in Little Switzerland and greatly anticipated the next morning when we would drive by Mt. Mitchell, the highest spot east of the Rockies, and then see points west.

But when we got up, it was totally foggy. As thick a fog as we’ve ever seen. Now, the forest has its own eerie beauty when you can barely see the white lines on the highway. Still, we were uneasy when we drove twenty miles or so and never saw another car. But then came the moment. We turned a corner and without any warning the fog was gone. We had the most incredible vista, in the bright sunlight, mountains, valleys, forests. It was amazing. Then, we were back in the fog for several more miles. It was just those few moments, but the picture is still vivid in my memory.

Embracing the entire Bible

This experience came to mind as I was thinking about Romans four, believe it or not. A lot of Christians, maybe especially a lot of Mennonites, are pretty suspicious of the Old Testament. And pretty suspicious of the Apostle Paul. And, deeply suspicious of the book of Revelation. There is the great bright light of Jesus, his picture of a God of love and mercy—and much of the rest of the Bible is kind of foggy, wars and rumors of war, legalistic religion, abstract doctrine, with the finale of Revelation’s unspeakable bloody judgment.

This is the analogy; the Bible can seem like that foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is but one spot of incredible beauty. It can redeem the whole thing—but the rest isn’t of much value. I want to say: No! The Bible is actually more like our return trip coming back home. Then the Parkway was clear and sunny all the way and we had one beautiful scene after another. Likewise the whole Bible has great beauty.

And Romans four is a text that helps us to see the Bible in this way. I don’t want to deny that the Bible has a few spots that are irreparably foggy scattered around. Basically, though, I believe that the overall message is about mercy all the way down from the very start. The Bible tells an empowering story throughout. We may embrace its message of peace, restorative justice, compassion, and healing.

The key figure in Romans four is Abraham, the great patriarch, considered to be the spiritual ancestor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Paul’s main point is to insist that Abraham himself illustrates the gospel of Jesus that Paul outlined in Romans three. This idea that Abraham embodyies the true biblical gospel may be a new one for you—and the idea that the Bible as a whole is a book of peace may be too. Let me start by reading from Romans four. This is a fairly complicated passage, even after I have shortened and simplified it. As I read, listen for impressions. What do you think of Abraham? Draw on this text, but also on other impressions you have of him.

What was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? If Abraham was accepted by God due to his works, he has something to boast about. But this is what the scripture says: “Abraham trusted God, and it was accepted as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not counted as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts the giver of life, such trust is accepted as righteousness.

Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, “Abraham’s trust was accepted as righteousness.” When was it accepted? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of God’s gift given while Abraham was still uncircumcised. God did this so Abraham could be the ancestor of all who trust without being circumcised. These have righteousness reckoned to them. As well, though Abraham is the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow his example of trust before he was circumcised.

For the promise that he would bless all the families the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law. It came through their trust in God’s gift. That the blessing follows from Abraham’s trust means that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants—circumcised and uncircumcised.

The God in whom Abraham trusted gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Abraham’s trust did not weaken 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. He gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised. (Romans 4:1-25)

So, what words or thoughts about Abraham come to mind?

Using Abraham to critique the rigorously religious

Paul here has in mind the problem of what I called last week systems of salvation that minimize the mercy of God. The two systems in particular that Paul focuses on are, first, “Idolatry I,” the idolizing of human political constructs—namely, the Roman Empire (and, we could say, all its many imitators since).

The second system of salvation, “Idolatry II,” is Paul’s own rigorously religious approach before he met Jesus. He had sought violently to establish and sustain a pure community that excluded those who weren’t rigorous enough. The practice of circumcision served as a key symbol for the boundary line between pure and impure. Circumcision was seen as a crucial, necessary act of obedience that would assure God’s favor on the community.

Paul argues that a key source for the rigorously religious system he had embodied, father Abraham, in fact, shows us a different meaning of circumcision. God’s work to heal the world began with the calling of Abraham and Sarah. God promised them a son, a miracle given their advanced age. Through this son, they would have descendants who would ultimately bless all the families of the earth.

Paul makes a big point of the order of events in the story of Abraham. First, comes God’s promise. And it is only as a response to this promise that Abraham instigates this new ritual that would over time distinguish his descendants. Circumcision came second, a response to God’s gift—not as a condition for the gift, not as a means of showing that Abraham would be worthy of the promise.

Paul goes on to relativize the boundary lines of the community of the rigorously religious. Abraham, he insists, “is the father of us all,” circumcised and uncircumcised. All who trust in God’s mercy, all who seek to bless others, all who embrace life in our death-obsessed world—Abraham is the father of us all.

And, I want to say, Paul helps us see that the message he now embraces about Jesus goes back to the beginning of the story. Apart from works of the law, apart from the purity project of the rigorously religious, and, certainly, apart from the so-called security of human empires; apart from all these systems of salvation, God’s healing justice is disclosed. God’s healing justice is disclosed to all with eyes to see, to all who trust in the reality of mercy.

Mercy comes first

Abraham’s trust was not in a religion with boundary markers. Circumcision did not come first. God’s promise of blessing came first. Circumcision was Abraham’s acknowledgement that he embraced that promise. It was a reminder of the promise. As with our Christian rituals that have replaced circumcision, the point is to be reminded to be merciful as God is merciful.

Paul quotes from Genesis 15 to establish that Abraham’s gospel was a gospel of God’s promise and mercy—not of “works of the law” and not of human institutions (religious and political) that establish our security. We must notice this gospel in the story of Abraham. It is amazing and tragic how Christians have failed to notice Paul’s insistence that the Bible’s salvation story is about mercy from the very beginning, it is amazing and tragic that Christians have so often insisted that salvation rests on a bed of retributive justice instead of on mercy all the way down. But when we notice the nature of Abraham’s gospel, at the very beginning, we will realize that the Bible is about mercy from the start. Mercy in the exodus, mercy in the giving of Torah, mercy in the sustenance of the promise over time amidst the failures of the community to embody it.

To notice Paul’s insistence that Abraham’s gospel was about God’s promise and mercy, is to realize that Jesus taught the same thing. One of the other tragedies of the Christian reading of the Bible is the shadow of the satisfaction view of the atonement. This view puts all the meaning on Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice that satisfies God’s retributive justice. By (mis)reading Jesus’s death in this way, Christians have not paid attention to Jesus’s own teaching about salvation. What must I do to gain eternal life, he is asked. Love God and neighbor. That’s it. On that simple truth hangs all the law and the prophets. Christianity has failed to understand that when Jesus says this, he means this is how you should read the law and the prophets. The law and prophets teach love of God and neighbor as the key to everything.

And Abraham understood this. God honors Abraham’s trust in God’s promise—Abraham’s trust that his life will continue through his as yet to be born descendents. Abraham had this trust even though “his own body was as good as dead.” This is how Abraham loved God. The story continues to show how Abraham loved his neighbors.

Abraham models neighbor love

Just a couple of chapters later, Abraham and Sarah receive some guests. They model the gift of hospitality in how they receive these vulnerable strangers. This incident marks hospitality as a key virtue in this community—called to bless all the families of the earth. Show welcome, help the one in need, care for the vulnerable. These strangers continue on their journey. They end up in Sodom and Gomorrah and are welcomed hospitably by Abraham’s cousin, Lot. But they are then terribly threatened by men of the city. God is outraged and purposes to punish these people. Now we see what Abraham is truly made of. He challenges God not to be so quick to act. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” That is, please don’t simply wipe them all out. Abraham pleads on behalf of the Sodomites for God’s mercy—the same kind of mercy Abraham himself has received and the mercy Abraham knows is God’s deepest characteristic.

God listens but ultimately does act to punish. However, this is not the end of the story. A precedent has been set. It’s good to challenge God to be true to God’s own character. Later, a similar interchange happens between Moses and God when the children of Israel have angered God. This time, Moses persuades God to act with lenience. Later still, the prophet Hosea reports God’s internal struggle over how to respond once again to the people’s injustice. This time, God moves all the way—I can not treat you like Sodam, God cries. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender…. I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

This is the gospel of Abraham in a nutshell—God loves humanity and God wants humanity to find healing. To facilitate this healing, God calls a people who will know God’s peace and who will share that peace with others. God calls a people who will ultimately bless all the families of the earth. Abraham and Sarah are the first people who receive this calling. They receive it as a gift; they believe God, they trust that God’s life-giving power is real. Because of this trust, God does bless them and considers them righteous—that is, God empowers them to become whole. Out of this wholeness Abraham and Sarah exercise hospitality and Abraham pleads with God on behalf of others for mercy and healing. This is the same message we see, when we look carefully, in the story of the exodus—the liberation of people from slavery so that they might be a priestly kingdom, and community that would mediate God’s healing, restorative justice to others, helping them to beat their swords into plowshares.

We see this message in the content of Torah. The commands are given after the merciful deliverance. The reasons to listen to and seek to follow the commands are, first, that God is the liberator. The people need are not try to get leverage over God so God will act on their behalf. They need not try to repay their debt to God. Rather, they respond with gratitude to a gracious God. They also listen because the commands help them live in wholeness and generosity, with the health of the entire community and of future generations in mind. These words are good news. Paul’s problem is not with the content of Torah, it is with how the rigorously religious have twisted that content to create a religion of rules and power-over.

Paul would have even more problems with how Christians have betrayed the gospel of Abraham—not least, with our long legacy of anti-semitism and our failure to read the Old Testament as a book of mercy. As well, we also have Christian forms of this rigorous religiosity that turns the gospel of Abraham on its head. The gospel is God’s mercy first, then come human responses of gratitude shown in love of neighbor and care for the vulnerable. The gospel is not doctrine first or rituals first or institutional survival first or nationalism first. It’s about mercy all the way down—received and given.

Putting mercy into practice

My ethics course always discusses the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie. Each time, I find the book inspiring. It tells the story of people in the French village of Le Chambon who during World War II provided safe haven for at least 5,000 Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazi death camps. The hero of the story is André Trocmé, the pacifist pastor of the village’s French Reformed Church.

Now of course, I find it inspiring to read of how Trocmé, his wife Magda, and the various other rescuers risked their lives out of their commitment to live out the gospel. They displayed the gospel dynamic in extraordinary ways—a sense of gratitude for God’s mercy and a commitment to love their neighbor, especially their vulnerable neighbors fleeing for their lives. One of the most profound points in the story is this direct statement—when Trocmé and others were asked by the authorities if there were Jews in the village, they would say, no, we don’t know “Jews,” we know only human beings. We know only human beings—without boundary lines of inside and outside. We refuse to “other” anyone.

This time, though, I reflected more on Philip Hallie, the author. He himself was a non-religious Jew. He fought as an American soldier in World War II, in the European War. He was proud of his service. He felt it was a necessary task, to stop the Nazis. But he also always felt uneasy. There was so much death. Life became very cheap. When he accidently stumbled upon the Le Chambon story, he found he couldn’t ignore it. It touched something in his soul.

He ultimately concluded that even if the Le Chambon work itself did not defeat the Nazis, it did something probably even more important. It witnessed to the preciousness of life. Hallie does a marvelous job, really, of portraying the gospel that animated the work of the rescuers. Life is precious. Those who have been given much, those who know life as precious live gratefully. Out of this gratitude comes the willingness to help—the response when people in need show up was, of course, let’s show our love however we might.

To return to the fog metaphor, Hallie talks about the fog of war that enveloped all of Europe, southern France no less than elsewhere. There was a lot of danger and uncertainty. But these folks responded like Abraham and Sarah—trust in God that as they accept God’s gift and live in light of it, they will find their way. The gospel of Abraham—illuminating the entire biblical story and illuminating life down to the present.


This is the fifth in a series of sermons on the book of Romans—Here is the home page for these sermons.

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