Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on March 12th, 2017.

When the apostle Paul wrote the Book of Romans he had never been to Rome. In spite of that unusual fact, he knew the Romans. The Romans included a unique mix of Roman citizens, non-citizens, Greeks, Jews, barbarians, educated and non-educated persons. Rome appeared to many as the center of the world.  Roman power, government, law, oppression, and the Roman penchant for keeping Romans happy with a supply of bread and entertainment known as the circuses kept the Romans in order and believing in the Roman ideal. “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” while a cute phrase for today’s culture, became a way of life for Romans. Put simply, you did not want to violate Roman law and protocol because to do so involved harsh consequences.

The church started, more than likely, near the Jewish synagogue. Church planters taught the Christian basics of Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and how to live as a Christian. The whole realm of Christianity appeared foreign to Roman officials and to next door neighbors. What was Christianity? Was it a form of Judaism with its special practices of feast days, Sabbath rites, and dietary restrictions (Romans 14)? Or was it a religion altogether different from Judaism? And, if the church started near the synagogue and many of the first Christians in Rome were Jews, who and what kind of person should the church welcome (Romans 14:1; 15:7). Whom to welcome into the church and how to relate to others who had become Christians created questions and even problems in the church. Never mind that the answer to such a question and problem should be simply solved both then and now, the reality of “other” people different than them stirred controversy and conflict in the church.

Paul responded to the question and problem with clear instruction:  “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7, NIV). Jews who had become Christians were to accept Gentile Christians; Gentile or Romans were to accept Jewish Christians. Each accepted the other to God’s glory and praise. However, in Rome as in almost any modern church today, problems with apparent easy solutions do not often find easy resolve. Often problems that should not be problems in churches become problems.

This takes us back to Romans 1:14-17 (NIV): “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Paul desired to share the Gospel with Jews and Gentiles alike, to the educated and non-educated. The cross leveled the ground and meant that each person had value to Christ, to his church, and to each other.

This leads us to Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17. In Romans 4 Paul argues that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), each person has access to Christ, Jew and Gentile (“there is no difference,” Romans 3:22), and that Christ is the God of Jews and Gentiles.

Romans 4 addresses the Jewish community and Abraham’s faith while acknowledging that Abraham’s faith fulfilled God’s promise. Faith and promise serve as two key thoughts. Faith involves belief and trust in Christ. Paul speaks of righteousness by faith and Abraham as an example of faith. Paul uses the word “faith” forty times in his Letter to the Romans. Paul communicated Christ and his grace that led to right conduct or “an obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5, NIV) and a faith that comes from hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17).

Paul uses the word “promise” six times in his Letter to the Romans. The promise indicated God’s promise to Abraham when God called him to leave the land of Ur and go to a land that God would show him. The promise involved a clear message of hope and faith: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3, NIV). Romans 4:17 affirms Genesis 12:1-3 by proclaiming Genesis 17:5 regarding Abraham, “As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’” (Romans 4:17, NIV; Genesis 17:5). Paul aims to communicate that the gospel is for “all peoples on the earth,” Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians, the wise and unwise, and all are welcome to experience Christ, the power of the gospel, and salvation in Christ (Romans 1:16).

Although difficult to interpret, focus on three key items in preaching Romans 4: faith, the promise, and hope. An invitation to the gospel, to Christ, and to join in fellowship with believers that make up the church in Rome comes only by grace through faith through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 4:17; Ephesians 2:8).

First, consider faith in Romans 4 and Abraham’s faith (4:1-5). A person believes in Christ by faith with God’s grace at work (Romans 4:16). One theological thought must be worked out in interpretation: Was the same grace at work in Paul and the early Christians in believing by faith also at work in Abraham (Romans 4:11; 4:13; 4:16; 5:2)? Still, Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, or as The Message writes, “He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own” (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). Abraham sets an example of faith, following God into the unknown, and trusting him at every step. Abraham’s faith, as Paul is not subtle at all, is a faith that “gives life to the dead” (Romans 4:17).

Second, reflect on the promise (4:13-17). In a sense, God’s promise was fulfilled through Abraham as the “father of all peoples.” But in a deeper sense, God fulfilled his promise through Christ. Jesus Christ invites all people to know him by grace through faith.

Third, faith and the promise mirror a new life and a new way of the Spirit (Romans 6:4; 7:6), a way that inspires hope and directs the believer by faith toward Christ’s hope. Abraham “hoped against hope” (Romans 4:18), that is, by grace through faith trusted in God’s promise and followed God to that end. Such faith in God’s promise assists the believer in living in the hope of Christ, supplies daily strength, and gives purpose to glorify God (Romans 4:18-25). Hope completes the triad of this new life in Christ.

John Duncan
Writer and Preacher





Tags: righteousness, grace, invitation, promise, strength

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