Alfred Place Baptist Church

4:18-22 Against all Hope we Hope, Having Faith in God

Romans 4:18-22 “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead–since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’”

One of the many phrases of William Tyndale that was taken up by the Authorized Version has passed into the English language, “to hope against hope.” You understand it. Someone is missing for weeks and all the signs are discouraging and yet the parents ‘hope against hope’ that she will be found. One of my neighbours had cancer, an older man, and it was widespread in his body. He had showed no interest in Christianity and he never went to church, and I called on him. I saw an ordinary Bible there on top of the TV set. I hoped against hope that he had been reading it and had found a Saviour.

True faith that saves us is a sustained trust in God and his promises, not the temporary faith that stony-ground hearers initially show who have no depth of soil and who wither at the first difficulty, but saving faith goes on and on and on, year after year, trusting in God despite some tough circumstances. So let’s consider again the saving faith of Abraham. He eventually became a centenarian, a very old man with his body as good as dead, and Sarah was an old woman, way past the age of bearing children, but God told them that they were going to have a son and Abraham hoped against hope. He didn’t waver in believing God. He was fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. What can we say about Abraham’s faith?

SAVING FAITH RESTS IN THE PROMISES OF GOD.

Exactly what was the promise that Abraham believed? Verse 18 specifies that God promised to make him “father of many nations.” This must have seemed incredible to a 75-year old man with no children. 75 is a little late to be starting a family, and even if you could, how could you ever start a nation? The SNP are finding it very hard to make a nation out of Scotland this coming week. No, the title was clearly impossible, a pipe dream, a vain hope, wishful thinking by an old man. Nothing more. But somehow Abraham found it within himself to believe what God had said and to keep believing it (not without some hiccups of unbelief) for a further 25 years after the initial promise “I am going to be the father of many nations.” We find in Genesis God repeating that promise 5 times – in Genesis chapters 12, 13, 15, 17, 21. It’s as if God is saying, “I know you’ll find this hard to believe, so I’m going to repeat myself to help you believe what it is going to happen Abraham.”

Abraham “hoped against all hope” that is, when all human reason for hoping for a baby in a crib in the corner of the bedroom was gone they believed that one day there would be a baby. Yet they kept the empty crib ready, year after year. Now, there’s only one way Abraham and Sarah could have kept on believing for all those years. They were a God-centered couple; their lives had a vertical focus, not a horizontal focus. They believed in God with all their hearts and did not lean to their own understanding. If they had a bout of bad health, and felt their age and found a thousand reasons to give up like, “I’m too old . . . She’s too old . . . Nothing like this has ever happened before . . . We’re tried to have a baby for years and nothing has happened . . . Our friends think we’re nuts” yet they kept believing. What Abraham did was to check out and confirm that he had indeed had a promise from God and so he kept speaking back to those doubts, “But God has promised . . .” He had given his word, and then after 25 years Abraham’s faith in the promises of God was rewarded. He became a Dad, at 100 years of age. Trust the promises of God.

SAVING FAITH RESTS IN THE BARE WORD OF GOD.

Not that “Geoff Thomas said . . .” Not that “I did an Alpha course and sang in tongues at the end and they told me I was a Spirit-filled Christian.” Not that “A bishop put his hands on my head and confirmed to me that I was a real Christian.” No. None of that. Our Lord Jesus Christ says, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” You believe that bare word of God. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” You believe that bare word of God. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” You believe those bare words inspired by the Holy Spirit. God has to bring us to that point. We feel nothing. We do not feel we are Christians, but here is the bare word of God and we say, “Right! I am going to spend the rest of my life trusting what God has said in his word, even when I feel cold and utterly lacking in faith I have planted my mustard seed of faith in those promises.” And that is exactly the place to which God wants to bring us. No one but God can help us. No one but Jehovah could help Abraham, not his father Terah – he was dead, not his nephew Lot – he was playing games down in Sodom, not from any human being in the world or who once had lived here. There was no one but God and so Abraham rested in the bare word of God.

Faith is trusting a person, and when you trust that person for something they promise to do in the future, it is indistinguishable from hope. Someone might claim, “That is only true for Abraham, since he believed God before Christ came, and so his faith was future-oriented, but ours is past-oriented, toward what Christ did for us on the cross.” No, that’s not quite right. It’s partly right. But the way to think about it is this: since Christ has come and died for us and risen from the dead, our faith now has a clearer, firmer, historical foundation to stand on than Abraham’s faith had. So we take our stand on the death and resurrection of Christ, but what we believe is that this death and resurrection secures and guarantees the promises that he has made that we will be heirs of the world, just like Abraham believed his promises.

You can see this in the way Paul reasons in Romans 5:9 says, “Much more then, having now been justified by his blood [that’s past], we shall be saved from the wrath of God through him [that’s future].” Faith looks back and takes its stand on the solid basis of the shed blood of Jesus and the justifying effect that it has; then we look to the future and believe that this past work guarantees our future salvation from God’s wrath. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us all [that’s past], how will he not also with him freely give us all things [that’s future]?” Faith looks back and takes its stand on the demonstration of God’s love for us in Christ’s death, and then looks to the future and believes that God will therefore fulfill all his promises for us. We’ll praise him for that is past, and trust him for all that’s to come.

So even today after the coming of Christ, our faith is still future-oriented. Justifying faith trusts God for all he promises to be for us and do for us. This is why faith glorifies God. Believing that God has done things in the past glorifies God, but believing that God will do what he has promised to do in the future – before you see him do it – that glorifies God even more. It honours his present and future trustworthiness. So faith is future-oriented because that gives God the most glory.

Ray Pritchard recounts a time in his life when all the props seemed to be pulled out and he was waiting for a great collapse. I don’t know what had happened but it was apparently a desperate time in his Christian life. Then a friend of his named Jerry Hansen came and spoke to him and shared what he called “the five stages of panic” with Ray.

Stage # 1: “I know God will take care of me.” This is that brave moment at the beginning of the crisis when faith fills your heart and in full assurance you proclaim that God has the power to pull you out of the mess you’re in. You smile a lot, you whistle, you laugh, you joke because you know it won’t be long before the miracle comes.

Stage # 2: “I think God will take care of me.” The second stage kicks in after about a week. You’re still smiling, you’re still laughing but not as much now. You still believe in the miracle but God seems to be taking his time getting around to it. As the days pass, little arrows of doubt find their way into your heart, but you rush to pull them out. “Any day now,” you say, “Any day now.”

Stage # 3: “I hope God will take care of me.” Now you’ve been in this crisis for a month or more. The smile is gone, the laughter dies on your lips, the jokes seem forced. Deep in your heart you’re beginning to plan for the worst. ‘What-ifs’ fill your mind and cloud your confidence. Satan seems to have appointed a demon to sit on your shoulder and make fun of you. Still, in your better moments you believe God can come through for you, but your doubt is almost as big as your faith.

Stage # 4: “There’s no way God will take care of me.” You hit the fourth stage not long after the third stage. At this point doubt has won the battle and faith has been routed from the field. Anger and despair replace hope and joy. It’s all over now, and you’ve lost. What a fool you were to trust in God! He never meant to help you. Filled with recrimination and accusations, you lower the flag and give up. You’ve been beaten. You remember that Abraham and Sarah reached that stage when he took Hagar, Sarah’ maidservant and had a son by her.

Stage # 5: “I don’t know how he did it, but God took care of me!” This is always the final step. Always! My God shall supply all your need. Always! Grace shall abound to us. Always! Somehow, someway God takes care of us. You got the job, you found the money, you made that phone call, you forgave the unforgivable, you battled back from the bottom, the treatment was successful, he came back repentant, you were given a peace after the loss, and now you’re on your way again. How did it happen? As you look back, you’re not sure. You are sure of only one thing: God did it! You had nothing to do with it. Once again, his bare word proved to be a mighty foundation for living through crises after all. Maybe you had to go all the way to stage four to proto-despair before he delivered you. Why is that? So that when he delivers us he alone gets the glory. Let’s look at that in a moment.

SAVING FAITH NEVER RUNS AWAY FROM THE FACTS.

In other words the way that Abraham coped with childlessness was not through denial. That’s one of my ways of dealing with difficulties. Here in Wales we love to do that. You know, the elephant’s in the room and you won’t admit it. You’re eating the finger food at a family funeral, and you know that so‘n-so and so‘n-so have been mad at one another for nineteen years. And nobody says a word about it. We all speak happy trivia and get along. We love to cope by denial.

That’s not how Abraham copes. In fact, Paul tells us here in verse 19 that without becoming weak in faith, he contemplated his own body. It wasn’t that he said, “I’m not going to think about it. I’m not going to consider how old I am.” No, he did contemplate his own body. “Lord, I’m almost a hundred. There’s no way humanly that I’m going to be a father.” He was realistic about his and about Sarah’s condition. He looked the situation square in the eye, but then he still believed God. Faith uses divine, not human mathematics and biology. Men and women, Abraham’s faith is not possibility thinking, it’s not positive thinking, it’s not denial. It’s not psychobabble escapism or any of those things. Abraham’s faith is trust in God. He doesn’t cope with the situation by not thinking about the negative aspects. He doesn’t cope with the situation by trying to think positive thoughts. He trusts in God.

There was a professional athlete being interviewed. He was out all last season being treated for a liver ailment. And as the interviewer was speaking to him he asked, “Well, what are you doing? How are you tackling this problem?” He said, “Well, one thing is I make sure that nobody around me has negative thoughts. We all have to have positive thoughts about this thing. We’re going to think positively. I’m going to get better.” Men and women, that is not what Abraham did. Abraham didn’t say, “Now, nobody around me must ever mention barrenness or hurt me by saying how wonderful it is to have a son. We’ll just think positively and a son will come along.” Abraham is not doing possibility thinking, or naming it and claiming it. This is not a Norman Vincent Peale that Abraham is doing here. Abraham faces the facts and he is trusting in God

Ray Pritchard calls this ‘the heart of the matter.’ Abraham believed in spite of (humanly speaking) impossible circumstances. Notice how verse 19 puts it: “Without weakening in faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.” Abraham “faced the facts” He looked them squarely in the eye. He didn’t turn the lights out so that he couldn’t see them, and then started to whistle. In every crisis you eventually have to face the facts head on. You can’t run from reality. If it’s cancer, then you have to face the fact. If it’s divorce, then that’s what it is. If it’s the loss of a job, then you’ve got to face the facts. If for a little while the offerings go down in the church then you have to face the facts. You can run and hide and stick your head in the sand. That’s won’t do any good. Faith doesn’t avoid the facts; faith faces them and then reacts to the facts on the basis of the Word of God. Faith doesn’t say, “This isn’t happening to me.” That’s not faith; that’s pure fantasy. Faith says, “This is happening to me. But this isn’t God’s final word on the subject.” Faith believes that beyond the crisis a better day is waiting to be born. Faith believes that there is more than meets the eye. Faith “sees” things that are invisible to the naked eye.

Abraham faced two unavoidable facts: his body was dead, and Sarah’s womb was dead. On both sides of the equation, Abraham was facing an absolute impossibility. On a human level, he was too old. Full stop. End of discussion. Case closed. To put it bluntly, Abraham was impotent and Sarah was 45 years past menopause. Unless God did a double miracle, no baby would be born. John Calvin summarized the matter well when he said that Abraham and Sarah were closer to the grave than to the marriage bed. Abraham faced that fact, and decided to believe God anyway.

There is a great hymn of Charles Wesley that isn’t in our hymnal. It begins,

Father of Jesus Christ, my Lord, my Saviour and my head,
I trust in Thee whose powerful word has raised him from the dead.

But the fifth verse is the most powerful and famous. It says.

Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees, and looks to God alone;
Laughs at impossibilities and cries, It shall be done!”

SAVING FAITH MUST BE STRENGTHENED.

We are not to be contented with faith as thin as a spider’s thread. I have often told you that if it is lodged in Christ then it is saving faith. It will take you across the lake of fire and will present you faultless before the presence of Jesus’ glory, but you are not to be satisfied with the thinnest trust in God. Hebrews chapter 11 tell us of men and women strong in their trust in God, who by faith subdued kingdoms and obtained promises and did great acts of righteousness. So it was with Abraham; his faith grew.

We are told that against all hope, Abraham in hope believed. We are told that Abraham became “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (v.21). We are told that “he was strengthened in his faith” (v.20). That is the challenge facing me and it is also facing you. We don’t look for reasons to doubt God. We praise God for the blessing we know lies before us, that all that we meet shall work for our good, the bitter will be sweet and the medicine will be food, and how joyful will be the song of the conqueror. 

So many of us fail the test right there. When a crisis comes, we look for reasons to doubt God. All that inner pessimism bursts out in a moment of difficulty. We are called to praise God for his answer before the answer even comes. That’s what Abraham did. And if you ask me, “Do you mean that Abraham never doubted?” Not at all. Genesis 17 says that when he heard the news that he was going to have a child, he fell on the ground and started laughing. Later on, Sarah did the same thing. It seemed like some cruel cosmic joke played on two old people to make them look foolish. Listen carefully. Abraham had his doubts. That’s natural. Who wouldn’t? He was a redeemed believer, not a plaster saint. He had his doubts but he didn’t dwell on them. That’s why we’re talking about him today. Sure, he was tempted to doubt. The Lord Jesus was tempted in all points as we are and so he was tempted to doubt, but he didn’t relish them and dwell on them and given them a place in his heart. He went to the word of God and cried to Satan, “It is written!” and so he overcame his doubts by the promises of God. Faith is always a struggle, always a battle, always a conflict. If faith were easy to come by, it wouldn’t be faith. The point is, Abraham often wondered what God was up to … but he never gave up!

Abraham was 75 years old when he received the first promise from God. He was 100 years old when Isaac was finally born. What was he doing during that 25 year period? Ray Pritchard has his tongue in his cheek when he suggests that “at the age of 76 he bought a crib, and at 78 he made a list of possible boys’ names, and at 80 he ordered a pack of super-absorbent nappies, at 82 he went hunting while Sarah’s friends give her a baby shower, at 86 he painted the baby’s room blue, at 90 he subscribed to New Parents magazine, at 96 he drove a practice run to the hospital, at 98 he packed the bags and put them near the flap of the tent. Then at 99 he scratched his head and said, ‘I wonder if God is kidding me.’ Is that possible? Sure, it’s possible! Abraham believed and he doubted, both at the same time.

That’s bit of American whimsy, but the climax of the birth of Isaac story was this fact, that before the baby was born, Abram accepted a change of name. In the beginning, his name was Abram, which meant “Exalted father.” That in itself was striking since he wasn’t a father at all until Ishmael was born at the age of 86. But at 99 he accepted the name God gave him of ‘Abraham,’ which means “Father of many nations.” You don’t change your name at 99. You change it at 18 when you don’t like your name and go off to college, but Abraham at 99 let it be known that his name henceforth would be Abraham. That is how he was to be addressed by family and businessmen. Notice the chronology. He changed his name not only before Isaac was born, but before Isaac was even conceived. He changed his name while his body was still dead and Sarah’s womb was still closed. He said, “I am about to become the father of many nations, so I accept this new name.” That’s saving faith! It finds its focus and strength in what God has said. If his friends had thought he was crazy before, now they think he’s gone round the bend, “Abra-HAM?” Yes. His faith was exercised and strengthened and became strong.

SAVING FAITH GIVES GLORY TO GOD.

That is what we are told in verse 20, that Abraham “was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God.” That doesn’t mean adding glory to God. It means Abraham’s faith showed his servants and family that God was glorious. It means calling attention to God in his glory and showing it to be what it really is. His glory is the greatness of God’s beauty and the shining of all his excellencies, and the radiance of his perfections. Most of you drove here through the beautiful countryside today and the very heavens were telling the glory of God. The glory of God is the out-streaming of the beauty and reality of God.

The aim of all things is to display the glory of God. HYPERLINK “http://biblia.com/bible/esv/Romans%2011.36” \t “_blank” Romans 11:36: “For from Him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” And what is the basic condition of the Christian heart – giving rise to all other graces – that best gives glory to God? Not speaking in tongues or having a great experience of God. The answer of verse 20 is faith. “[Abraham] grew strong in faith, giving glory to God.” Continually trusting God gives glory to God.

So I ask what is it about faith that gives glory to God? The answer is given in verse 21, “Being fully assured that God had power to do what he had promised.” This is what faith is: it is the strong assurance that God’s promises are good and that he can and will perform them. And the harder the promises seem to being fulfilled, the more our conviction (that this is what’s going to happen in the future) gives glory to God.

The fulfillment of the promise that Abraham would have a son seemed utterly impossible – and it was, humanly speaking. So whenever you are really trusting in God in a situation like that, you glorify him, you make him look trustworthy and strong and loving and reliable. Faith gives God glory because it shows that God can and will do the great, necessary good that humans can’t do.

Here is a lucid illustration I’ve got from John Piper, and the children will understand it. Children, I am explaining how our trusting in God and our believing in God, glorifies God and so it fulfils our chief end. You have heard the Catechism question, “What is man’s chief end? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.” So when you say from your heart to Jesus, “I am trusting Thee Lord Jesus, trusting only Thee” then that glorifies God, but if you can say and mean those words when things are tough – when Mummy is ill or you are being bullied in school – then trusting God at that time glorifies God more. You are saying, “Even today when I’m really discouraged I’m hanging in there, Lord Jesus” then that gives glory to God.

Here is Piper’s story; your daddy is standing in a swimming pool towards the middle but not too far out. You are, let’s say, three years old and your name is Carwyn, and you’re standing on the edge of the pool. Daddy holds out his arms to you and says, “Jump, Carwyn! I’ll catch you. I promise.” Now, how do you make Daddy look good at that moment? Answer: by trusting him and jumping. Have faith in him and jump! That makes him look strong and wise and loving. But if you won’t jump, if you shake your head and run away from the edge, you make your Daddy look bad. It looks like you are saying, “he can’t catch me” or “he won’t catch me” or “it’s not a good idea to do what he tells me to do”. And all three of those doubts make your Daddy look bad.

But you don’t want to make God look bad do you? He promised you eternal life if you believe in his Son Jesus Christ and so you trust him. You believe right into our Lord. Then you make God look good – which he really is. And that is what we mean when we say, “Faith glorifies God” or “Faith gives God glory.” It makes him look as good as he really is. So trusting God is really important.

And the harder it seems for God to fulfill his promise, the better he looks when you trust him. Suppose that you are at the deep end of a pool by the diving board. You are now four years old and you can’t swim, and Daddy is at the other end of the pool. Suddenly a big, mean dog crawls under the fence and shows his teeth and growls at you and starts coming toward you to bite you. You crawl up on the diving board and walk toward the end to get away from him. The dog puts his front paws up on the other end of the diving board. Just then, your daddy sees what’s happening and he calls out, “Carwyn, jump into the water. I’ll get you.”

Now, you have never jumped from one meter high and you can’t swim and your daddy is not underneath you and this water is way over your head. How do you make your daddy look good in that moment? You jump. And almost as soon as you hit the water, you feel his hands under your arms and he treads water holding you safely while someone chases the dog away. Then he takes you to the side of the pool.

We give glory to God when we trust him to do what he has promised to do – especially when all human possibilities are exhausted. Faith glorifies God. That is why God planned for faith to be the way we are justified. Abraham specifically believed in God’s covenant promise, despite its audacity. I mean, think of it . . . God hadn’t even given him one child by Sarah yet, but God had promised him that he would be the father of countless millions. And Abraham specifically believes this promise, despite its audacity and impossibility. I want you to think about that for a moment, because all men and women are in precisely the situation that Abraham is in. Sinners and unbelievers have no human hope of forgiveness. There may be some here today who’ve not known much in the experience of human forgiveness. You may have failed in some relationship, and the result of your failure has been cold condemnation by the person whom you offended. And she shows no signs of ever wanting to forgive you, and maybe you can’t even imagine that what you’ve done in the past could ever be forgiven by God, because you haven’t even experienced it at the human level. You are unforgiven by men. And yet the sinner’s hope must be in God, and in his divine and gracious forgiveness, even as Abraham had to believe something that seemed beyond possibility.

Or again, the sinner might say, “Well, this message that you’re preaching . . . it’s wonderful, but, you know, it’s too good to be true. I just can’t believe in all this heaven stuff, this forgiveness stuff. It’s just beyond comprehension.” Well, I could remind you again that today there are two billion people on this planet, more than two billion people and they profess to be the spiritual seed of Abraham, worshiping the one who is the divine seed of Abraham. Now this man 4,000 years ago was childless. Since then more than two billion very ordinary people have called on God and have claimed him to be their spiritual Father. So, do you think God can’t deliver for you, that he can’t change you, and clean up your life, and give you assurance of mercy and pardon? If you’re a sinner, and you doubt God’s ability to deliver you, then you remember what he promised to Abraham and fulfilled in him. He became a Dad in great old age. You look around. You look around at the people here today, most of whom have no blood relationship to Abraham, but today are his children by faith, and by God’s grace. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. You too must believe in the God of Abraham and be justified through that faith. God is able to fulfill what he promises. Trust in him, and it will be credited to you for righteousness.
14th September 2014 GEOFF THOMAS