Sermon preached on Romans 4:13-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/29/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“That the Promise Might Be Sure to All the Seed”
Some promises are conditional. A parent might promise their child some reward if they get all A’s on their report card. But some promises are not conditional. That same parent might announce to their child that tomorrow they are going to the Zoo. That’s a promise not conditioned on any work of the child. Those are the best kind of promises. Ones you can’t really mess up because they don’t have strings attached. Such promises are ultimately gifts. And if the person who promised such a gift is trustworthy, then you know that you will get what was promised.
Well, in our passage today we see that the gospel is about a promise. Here Paul brings this concept of a promise into his discussion on justification. And so this morning we’ll think first about what this promise is. Second, we’ll see how Paul says that the law stands against this promise and our faith. Third, we’ll think about why faith, instead of works, is such a fitting complement to this promise.
So let’s begin then with discussing this promise. We see Paul use this language in verse 13. Verse 13, “For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” This is the first time Paul uses this word of promise in Romans. He’ll go on to use it three more times in this passage. He’ll only use it four more times in the rest of the letter, so that means half of its occurrences are right here. It’s certainly something he’s focused on in this passage.
Well, for Paul to talk about promise, he’s bringing in history. He’s not talking about some promise concept in general. He’s referring to a specific promise made to a specific group of people. Verse 13 says that he’s talking about the promise made to Abraham. And not just Abraham, but to Abraham and his seed. So we should thinking back to the book of Genesis when we here this. When we do, we remember who’s making the promises back then to Abraham and his seed. It’s God. God is a God of promise. He’s made various related promises to Abraham and his seed. As we’ll see they all ultimately look forward to Jesus and the salvation that we have in him.
So what specifically then did God promise Abraham and his seed? Well, Paul says here that the promise is that he and his seed would be heir of the world. That’s an amazing thing for Paul to say because nowhere in Genesis do we find the several promises God makes to Abraham put in that language. In Genesis we see God promise Abraham that he will give him the Promised Land. In Genesis we see God promise Abraham that he will make Abraham into a great nation; that his descendant would be like the sand on the seashore. He promised there that Abraham’s descendants would be like the many stars in the heavens. Paul references that promise in verse 18. There God also promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Paul references that promise here in verse 17. And of course God promised Abraham there in Genesis 12:3 that in Abraham, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Other specifics could be mentioned of what God promised Abraham, and his seed along with him. But those are the big ones. None of these, specifically use the language that Abraham would be the heir of the world. So what is Paul doing? Well it seems this is some inspired interpretation and inspired summary.
You see, if you stop and think about it, all these promises really do point to that fact. That Abraham and all his offspring are getting the world as their inheritance. Here, by the way, I’m not referring to his physical offspring, but his spiritual offspring. Paul’s already made that point in the previous passages that the real children of Abraham are those that have the same faith of Abraham. He makes that point again quickly in verse 16 too. But I digress. The point here is that all the promises God gave Abraham and his seed in Genesis can be summarized in the way Paul describes them here. That we along with Abraham inherit the world. I mean think about it. God promised that in Abraham’s offspring, nations would be formed. They’d be vast and abounding. Like the sand on the seashore and the stars in the heaven. In his offspring, all the families of the earth are blessed. What you have here is a picture of Abraham and his children being a world-wide blessing unto all. A place where Abraham and the nations that flow from him fill the earth in a blessed existence. And so Paul can summarize the promises made to Abraham and his offspring as one that inherits the earth.
And of course this God of promise didn’t only make such promises to Abraham. This same God kept reiterating this promise to Abraham’s seed. For example, he told King David that from his seed would come a king whose dominion would be over all and it would be everlasting. This is a world-wide dominion, in other words. It’s part of the promise given to Abraham’s seed. Or think about how this comes out in Romans 8. In Romans 8:28 we are told that all things work together for good for us who are God’s people of promise. Romans 8:32 goes on to say that if God did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, give us all things? Or then he goes on to say that nothing can separate us then from his love. Nothing in or even beyond this world! Do you see the picture here? God has promised Abraham and his seed that we are heirs of the world. The world which belongs to God, he has given to us as an inheritance.
And yet this has not come to its ultimate fulfillment quite yet. Hebrews 11 shows that Abraham knew that this promise looked beyond this earth. That’s why he lived in tents it said. It says he was looking for a heavenly city that God will make. In other words, he and us are heirs of the world, but ultimately of the world to come. Those new heavens and new earth. This is the promise we’ve come into by faith in God in Christ. We’ve come into the blessings of Abraham’s family through our faith and imputed righteousness. That was Paul’s point earlier in this chapter. We are blessed along with Abraham because we have been counted righteous on account of his faith. Faith in this promise. As we believe in this promise, we too are accounted righteous. Faith in a promise that has been spelled out all the more clearly now in Jesus Christ. It is in this seed of Abraham, that all this blessing to the world comes. In Jesus, and his atoning work, we can be justified by faith in him. We then who have not a righteousness on our own, are made partakers of this promise. Heirs of the world!
So, then this leads us to our next point. Why does the law stand against this promise and against this faith? That’s Paul’s point here. Let’s observe that and then consider it. Look at verse 13 to start. It was not through the law that this promise came to Abraham and his seed. The language there is one of receipt. Abraham and his seed – us included, don’t receive this promise on account of the law. In other words, we don’t keep the law in order receive this promised inheritance. The assumption by the way here is that in order to get a promise like this from God, there has to be some righteous foundation. It would not be keeping with the justice of God to give the world to sinners who deserved punishment. Thus, you would think that if God promised a promise like this, that it would be conditioned on righteousness according to the law. That Abraham and his seed would have to keep the law perfectly and thus be declared righteous.
This of course doesn’t work for us, however. Verse 15 explains why. It explains the role of the law now for us. The law brings wrath. The law will not bring us the promise. The law will bring us wrath. Why? Because verse 15 says that the law exposes our transgression. Without the law there is no transgression. Paul explains this further in Romans 7:7 with the example of coveting. He says there that it’s the law that says coveting is wrong. But now that we know that from the law, then we are guilty when we do it. You see, that’s what Paul says the law does for us. It exposes our sin and declares us guilty. If we need to be righteous to get this kind of promise, then the law is no good for us. We are not righteous according to the law. According to the law we deserve God’s wrath and curse. According to the law we are transgressors. That’s the law’s very purpose. To expose sin and unrighteousness. It does it well.
Well, besides the fact that we know that to be impossible for us to keep the law and thus somehow earn this promise, Paul also further explains why this doesn’t work. Look at verse 14. Paul tells us that two things would happen if this promise was obtained by the law, by keeping the law. He says first that faith would have no value. He says second that the promise would be worthless. Let’s explain these both.
First about faith having no value. The sense here is that Scripture tells us that faith plays a foundational role with Abraham. We’re talking now about what Paul has said repeatedly in this chapter. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. That’s quoting Genesis 15:6. Paul quotes this in verse 3 of this chapter, and repeatedly refers back to it. Paul mentions it again in verse 22 of our passage today. As Paul says in 18, Abraham did believe. And the Scripture tells us that his faith was so instrumental. It says that it was faith that accounted him as righteous. Nowhere does Genesis say that Abraham’s righteousness came by his works of the law. No, it says that faith secured it. And so Paul’s essentially saying here that if the promise had to be obtained by works of the law, then that would nullify what Scripture’s already said. That Abraham believed the promised – and that this was accounted to him for righteousness. The righteousness of faith! This is the sense then that faith would have no value, if we obtained the promised inheritance by works.
Second, then he said that if we had to obtain the promise by the law, then that would make the promise worthless. Why? Because no one would ever obtain it. If the promise was conditioned on our perfect law keeping, we could be sure that we would never get what was promised. Because no one can keep the law perfectly. The promise would be effectively worthless. You might as well not even promised it, because it will never happen. Like if I promised my son Will that I will buy him a motorcycle if he can perfectly memorize the whole Bible by the end of the day. Well, my promise would be worthless – there’s not a chance he could earn it.
So, Paul’s point here is that the law inherently stands against this promise and is pitted against faith. If we obtained the promised through the law, then that would be a condition outside of our reach. Scripture’s teachings on faith would be nullified, and the very promise would be seen as hot air – not something we could ever obtain. This is our second point.
So then if we don’t receive the promise by the law, how do we receive it? Well, that’s our third point. We receive it by faith. Our third point now will be to think about how fitting it is that we receive this promise by faith. Look again at verse 13 with me. Here he specifically says that we receive the promise by faith. He actually says that it’s through the righteousness of faith. And so it’s not simply through faith, but it through the righteousness that comes by faith. In other words, we are talking about justification here. Remember, Paul’s been teaching us about justification in this letter. Here he’s connectingd our justification with this promise.
Remember that just a moment ago, I mentioned how we could understand how God couldn’t just give the whole world to guilty sinners. That whomever God would give the whole world to, would need to be righteous. But we said that we could not be righteous according to the works of the law. And so now Paul connects this back to what he’s been talking about. It’s this alternative way to be righteous. A righteousness apart from the works of the law. A righteousness of faith. Righteousness imputed to us through the instrument of faith. Again, this is his point. It’s driven home hard in the last part of this passage. The last few verses say that this is what Abraham had. And then verses 23-25 connect this to us. If we believe in God, that he saves through Jesus, then we have this righteousness of faith. For Christ died on the cross because of our sins, and he rose again because of our justification. Our faith in God in Christ leaves us justified along with Abraham. This means that we have a real standing of righteousness. That means it’s quite fitting that God can give us what he promised.
Here’s an interesting thought. Is this promise then of God conditional, or unconditional? Well, it depends on how you look at it. In a real sense, there does seem to be the condition of righteousness. But when we think of how we get this righteousness, we realize that more has to be said. You see, just notice the point of verse 16. This is where our faith is so fitting to this promise. We don’t receive the promise by works of the law, but by faith. Verse 16 then tells us why it’s by faith. Why faith and not works of the law? Verse 16, “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed.”
So we learn two things there about why faith was chosen as the instrument for this kind of righteousness. First, he says that it might be according to grace. In other words, faith was chosen as the instrument for our righteousness and for how we obtain this promise, so that it’s clear that it’s all about grace. We don’t obtain this promise by something we earned. If so, it wouldn’t be grace. If we get the promise according to grace, then that means that it’s a gift. A freely given gift by God. If it was by works of the law, then it would have been earned. But God wanted to give it us a gift. But along this same sort of thinking, Paul’s helping to show how wonderfully God chose faith as the instrument to receive this promise and this righteousness. I mean, hypothetically speaking, God could have chosen a number of actions that a human could do that would not strictly speaking merit or earn either this promise or this righteous standing. God could have given a small thing to do as some token thing to get this promise. He could have told us to go wash in a river seven times. Or to make some pilgrimage somewhere. Such human actions would not have earned a sinner a perfect righteousness before God. God could have hypothetically selected some action like that to be the instrument for his gracious justification. But if he did, the temptation of man would be to miss that it was a gift. But faith on the other hand, so wonderfully shows that it is indeed a gift. That it’s all about grace. Faith looks away from human achievement and looks to God as the gift giver. Paul helps us then to see here how fitting faith here is for how we wants to give us the promise.
And then the second thing he said in verse 16 as to why faith was chosen as the instrument, is so that it might be sure to all the seed. If faith is the instrument, then this is something all the chosen seed can get. In other words, this is the opposite conclusion we came to a few moments ago when we said that the promise would be worthless if we received it by the works of the law. We said that it would be worthless, because no one could ever earn it. But if the promise is not earned, but received as a gift through faith, then this insures their receiving it. This insures that all the chosen seed can receive the promise. God draws all his chosen seed to him in faith. And there is not some mighty work they have to accomplish to get the promise. They believe, and then declared right before God, as an act of grace, for the sake of Christ. God then graciously gives them what is promised – heirs of the world!
And so in some sense, God’s promise here is conditional. Man needs to be in a right standing before God. But God provided a way to meet that condition that is not conditioned on our works. God provided a way for us to meet that condition through his gift to us. So in that sense, this promise to us is unconditional. He’s worked it all out. That’s why he chose faith as the instrument. To make sure we all always remember that this was God’s gracious promise to us. He provided all that was needed for us to have it. It’s an expression of his great love for us. Faith and promise go so well together, because it highlights the gift and grace of God. God gives to us the whole world!
Saints of God, I hope that you are encouraged again today. Be encouraged with this promise. This is a promise that is still valid for you. A promise that you are heirs of the world! Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that hard to believe? But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Believe it! Trust it! Think of Abraham. He was asked to believe these promises. Yet he did, praise the Lord. You are asked to believe these promises as well. And yet I rejoice that even now we have a foretaste of this inheritance. You see, on the one hand, 1 Peter 1 tells us that our inheritance is kept in heaven for us, and that its incorruptible, and undefiled, and does not fade away. And yet on the other hand, in Ephesians 1:13-14 says that we already have the Spirit of Promise, and that Spirit is the guarantee of our inheritance. God’s Spirit which lives inside us is the guarantee of this promise. He’s the down payment of the world to come – the foretaste I just mentioned. He’s the first installment of what it means to be heirs of this world. Praise God for that!
That means that as we see the Spirit upholding you in faith, you are encouraged that you are a child of Abraham. This promise is for you. This means that when the Spirit gives you peace amidst the tribulations of this world, you can know that this promise is for you. You are a child of Abraham. This means that when you see how the Spirit has given you gifts to bless someone’s faith, that you can know this promise is for you. You are walking in the faith of Abraham, and so you are part of the seed to whom God has promised the world. Be encouraged, saints of God today. Be encouraged that you are an heir of the whole world. Nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ.
You see, that means that this whole world is serving you, even now. Yes, it doesn’t look like it most of the time. It seems that the world is going from bad to worse so very quickly. But if you are a true believer, then it means that God’s working everything out in this world toward this goal. To keep his word. To fulfill his promise. To ultimately give this all over to us. This again, calls for faith. But that again is what it’s all about. Believe Romans 8:28. All things are working toward this end. The promise will be fulfilled in its fullness. God is fully able to fulfill it. And we can trust that he is faithful to his word. Praise God, for what we’ve seen. Because this promise is received by faith, we can be sure to receive it. Be sure, beloved of the Lord. That’s his message and encouragement to you again today. Be sure. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.