Recently Added
to Exposition of Romans:

3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power
(January 26th 2019)
Romans 4:17–21—Abraham’s faith apart from sight.

17 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.
18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”
19 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.
20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,
21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

I took my heading for these five verses from Douglas Moo, whose convenient outline of Paul’s discussion of faith in this chapter goes like this:
“faith apart from works” (vv. 3–8)
“faith apart from circumcision” (vv. 9–12)
“faith apart from the law” (vv. 13–16)
“faith apart from sight” (vv. 17–21)

For the exposition of these verses, I refer you to my book. Chapter 8, “Calling Things That Are Not as Though They Were,” describes the background of God’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s walk of faith, with application for us. (See my note below about the translation of verse 17.) This is one of several chapters in Dead to Sin, Alive to God that I occasionally reread just because they profoundly uplift my spirit—not because of my genius as a writer, but their life-giving truth.

Abraham’s hope
What does Paul mean by the phrase, “In hope he believed against hope” (verse 18)? Moo says no one can top Chrysostom’s explanation: “It was against man’s hope, in hope which is of God.” Man’s hope is a mere wish: I hope the Ducks make it to the Final Four next year. Or a misguided trust, as in a politician or a humanist philosophy.

God is our hope (Psalm 71:5). He is the God of hope who gives us the Holy Spirit so we abound in hope (Romans 15:13). Hope in God will never disappoint, because it rests on the solid foundation of his character: “He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). We set our hope on the grace given through Jesus Christ with complete assurance that we shall see him when he is revealed in all his glory (1 Peter 1:13).

Growing stronger in faith
Verse 19 says Abraham did not weaken in faith, and verse 20 says no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God. Yet we know from the record that Abraham’s initial response to God’s promise that Sarah would bear his son was skepticism bordering on derision. He fell down and laughed, and said, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Not much faith can be seen here, nor in his continuing reliance on the product of his earlier lapse of faith, the birth of Ishmael. Abraham tells God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:17–18).

This encourages me, as it ought to encourage you. We see here God’s “editing” process. If the enduring commitment of our heart is Godward, he deletes from the record our occasional “wavers” of unbelief. Longenecker says, “Paul preferred to highlight only Abraham’s more thoughtful and settled response to God and God’s promise, which he evidently felt characterized Abraham’s life much more than his initial response.”

The impulse of Abraham’s heart over the course of his life was to seek and please God. Likewise David would run to God even after serious sins, in contrast with rebellious King Saul who cared for his own reputation and blamed others.

The faith of those who love God always grows stronger. And who does the strengthening? You might conclude from the ESV translation of verse 20 (“he grew strong in his faith”) that Abraham strengthened his own faith, but the correct translation is “was strengthened” (NKJ and NIV have it right). Longenecker says the aorist passive verb points to God as the agent of the strengthening of Abraham’s faith. Here is Paul in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

Note on the translation and interpretation of verse 17
Verse 17 poses a couple of significant challenges for interpreters, and the one I address here is found in the latter part of the verse. The ESV translation of verse 17 omits two words (“as though”) that we find in the more accurate NKJ translation:
(as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did;

In omitting those words, ESV and some other translations assume that Paul is making a point about God’s creative power: God calls something into existence, in this case life from Sarah’s “dead” womb. But when “as though” is added to the sentence, the meaning shifts to God’s speaking of something that does not exist as if it does exist. Moo says that if Paul intended to write about God’s creative power,
it is surprising that he speaks of God’s calling things “as though” they existed; we would have expected him to say “calls things into being.” This leads us to conclude, somewhat hesitantly and reluctantly, that the clause cannot refer to God’s creative power as such, whether general or spiritual. It is, then, the nature of God as “speaking of” or “summoning” that which does not yet exist as if it does that Paul must mean. And this interpretation fits the immediate context better than a reference to God’s creative power, for it explains the assurance with which God can speak of the “many nations” that will be descended from Abraham.

God’s speaking of the “many nations” of course presupposes that he will create those nations, so the ESV translation is to that extent not without warrant. Moo succinctly alludes to God’s power to create that of which he speaks:
God can promise Abraham—and Abraham can believe—that certain things not now existing will exist because God is the God who “gives life to the dead and calls those things that are not as though they were.”

Let’s not forget that Paul’s focus is on Abraham’s faith in God’s promise. Because God called things that were not as though they were, Abraham was able to speak likewise, calling himself the father of many nations. As I say in my book,
When God changed Abraham’s name from Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”), Isaac’s birth was still twenty-five years away. Yet whenever someone asked Abraham for his name, he couldn’t respond without calling something that was not as though it were. People may well have laughed at him, just as people may laugh at us today for saying God calls us righteous, but God honored Abraham by holding him up as the father of faith for all of us who believe.