Could Abraham have remained childless?

Those “aha!” moments in Bible study are sweet. It’s the experience the psalmist prayed for in Psalm 119:18 — “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in Your law” — and that we long to have more of. A couple of years ago I had one of those moments working through Romans 4 and the light from that study¹ brought much-needed correction and clarity on the relationship between justification (God’s declaration that we are righteous) and sanctification (the process of our becoming righteous).

Maintaining these two doctrines without allowing one to undermine the other is threading a theological needle. How, exactly, does one harmonize a not-by-works salvation with a working faith? We find various formulations (with varying degrees of authority):

God will take you as you are but he will not leave you as you are.

Saved by good works–no. Saved for good works–yes.

We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone.

For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

But for all the explanations out there it was the Abraham analogy in Romans 4 that helped me the most. The explicit point of the chapter is that God counted Abraham as righteous because he believed God’s promise.

But consider the broader implications:

  1. The promise of many descendants was given to Abraham although he was neither a father nor able to become a father.
  2. Abraham believed that God was able to do what he could not.
  3. Abraham’s faith was the vehicle by which the promise became a reality.
  4. At the practical level, Abraham “acted out” the promise.
  5. Because God called Abraham a father, God made Abraham a father.

And Abraham’s story was written for us:

  1. The promise that we will be declared righteous is given to us although we are not righteous nor able to become righteous.
  2. We believe that God is able to do what we cannot.
  3. Justifying faith is the vehicle by which the promise of righteousness becomes a reality for sinful people like us.
  4. At the practical level, we “work out” the promise of righteousness.
  5. Because God calls us righteous, God makes us righteous.

In this light I think we can better understand why Paul: (a) expresses disbelief at the notion that Christians would continue in sin after being justified (Rom 6:1-4) and (b) equates those who are “in Christ Jesus” as those who “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-4). The act of justification can’t be separated from the work of sanctification. Those whom God calls righteous apart from works will be made righteous by their works.

To be sure, Abraham never saw the perfect fulfillment of the promise in his life. Neither will we see the perfect fulfillment of righteousness in this life. But the encouragement of Romans 4 is this: because our righteousness rests on God’s promise we can no more remain fruitless than Abraham could have remained childless.


¹The light bearer for this occasion was Mark Seifrid’s commentary on Romans in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

5 thoughts on “Could Abraham have remained childless?”

  1. Very well written, and easily understood. Yet i wonder, as you have mentioned that Abram received God’s promise of child and thus he became a father because he “acted out” the promise, how exactly did Abram act out the promise? I wonder again was it less “Acting” and more believing, speaking and trusting.
    Abram did little in his flesh to act out what God spoke except to change his name, have others call him that, and have sex with his wife. And when it came down to it he even screwed that up because he tried to force the promise of fatherhood by having sex with Hagar.
    I believe this parallels the way we as Christians should speak of God’s righteous gift, tell others we have a new name, ask them to call us such, and love others well.
    I believe the “fatherhood” part of our promise is simple. When we force it in the flesh by “working” our works are counted as debt. But when we allow holy Spirit to do it for us our “Isaac” is born and we bear the fruit of Holy Spirit. The empowerment to be sanctified is not in our hands or even within our grasp which is why we need a savior. #selah
    All in all a very well written article.

    http://www.youarebecauseiam.wordpress.com

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. When I say that Abraham “acted out” the promise I would liken it to what Paul says in Phil 2:12-13 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” I work because He works. His work makes my work possible. Abraham did the “work” of creating a child even though it was God who made his work effective. In a similar way, we do righteous works because God is the one who makes that work possible (by the power of the HS).

      Thanks for reading & interacting.

  2. Overall, I find this to be a solidly written work on Romans 4. As a Catholic, it is interesting that you point out that we are made righteous by the grace of God. This is an interesting claim, since no protestant theologian would ever say this, since transforming righteousness is purely a non-protestant understanding of sacred scripture. If you are saying what I think you are saying, then you are rejecting the classical protestant position of alien righteousness (i.e. Imputation) and are holding to the Catholic/Orthodox/ancient christian position of theosis. (where we grow in holiness over the course of the Christian life.) This would imply that you are grouping justification together with sanctification and I would agree with this assessment. If this isn’t, well then your position is of Luther and Calvin, which was never before seen in Christian history until the so-called reformation.

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