The God who quickens the dead
Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. Romans 4:16-17
This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, precisely because of the way God is described in verse 17. There, he is portrayed as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (ESV). That is, the God who is the object of faith is the God of creation and resurrection. This was especially relevant to Abraham because in order to believe in God’s promise he had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist, and that he could give life to the dead.
Abraham certainly had to believe that God could create what didn’t exist because when the promise came that he would have a son and through him a family that would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, none of this existed. This promise came to a relatively old man and to a woman who was barren. Yet Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise, even though humanly speaking there was no hope that it could happen. Note the apostle’s description of Abraham’s faith in verse 18: “ Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.” I love that: “against hope he believed in hope.” When everything around him told him that there was no chance it could happen, Abraham persevered and trusted that God would fulfill his promise.
Also, Abraham certainly had to believe that God could give life to the dead. Now you might be thinking of the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac. And you would not be wrong to think that because the author of Hebrews explicitly draws this connection in his portrayal of the patriarch’s faith: “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.” (Heb. 11:17-19). Abraham had such faith in the promise of God that he knew that nothing, not even death, could prevent it from taking place.
But there is another reason Abraham needed to believe that God could give life to the dead. This is given in verse 19: “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb.” Here Abraham’s body is described as being “dead.” In order for the promise to be fulfilled, this dead body had to be made alive again. One-hundred-year-old men and ninety-year-old women don’t have children. But Abraham was confident that God could do this since he had promised it. For he is the God who can take what does not now exist and bring it into existence, and can take dead bodies and make them new again.
We need to reiterate the fact that this is not faith in ourselves. This is faith in the God who is outside of us and who acts for us. One of the tragedies of 19th century religious thought is that it gave birth to this attempt to make God immanent by replacing faith in the God who is revealed in Scripture with religious sentiment and faith in human progress. We are living with the sad consequences of this kind of thinking in the present day. What we need is not faith in ourselves, but faith in the God who is outside of us; not a God who is dependent upon us but a God upon whom we are dependent. This was the faith of Abraham. It may not be popular today, but it is the only kind of faith that God recognizes. And it is the only kind of faith that will hold up against despair – which will remain hopeful in the face of hopelessness.
But what’s really amazing about all this is that this is power for us. God didn’t just reveal himself to Abraham as omnipotent in the abstract. He revealed himself powerful in the behalf of Abraham (cf. 2 Chron. 16:9). God’s power is still operative for his people today. The supreme act of God’s power of course is found in the resurrection of Christ from the dead: it was by this, remember, that he was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). But what is so tremendously hopeful about that exercise of God’s power is that it is the precursor to our own resurrection. As Paul puts it later in this epistle: “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you" (Rom. 8:11).
Moreover, it is the power of God that raises us up from a death in sin. In fact, it is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, so that it touches not only our bodies but our souls as well. As the apostle puts it to the Ephesians, he wants them to know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20). Again, it is a mistake to think of regeneration and new birth purely in terms of its human response in conversion. It takes the mighty power of God to rescue us from our sins. But the implication from this fact is very comforting: the God who began this good work in us will not stop to complete it until the day when Christ returns and presents us before his Father with unceasing joy (cf. Phil. 1:6; Jude 24).
Again we are reminded that God’s power is operative all throughout our lives. We are kept by God’s power through faith (1 Pet. 1:5), and it is God’s power which is perfected even in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). It is God’s power which makes the preaching of his word effective (Eph. 3:7; Rom. 1:16).
I think the Christian life in many respects is like the condition of the Israelites with the Red Sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them. People don’t walk on water, and untrained civilians don’t defeat the world’s best army. There seemed no way out. But then God did the unexpected and unimaginable: he parted the waves of the Red Sea and allowed his people to pass through. They didn’t do anything; as Moses put it, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today” (Exod. 14:19). The Christian life is like that; it is about being still and knowing that God is God and watching him work salvation for you. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have nothing to do. God works in us to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). But we need to understand that trust in God is not trust in ourselves, that we can do a better job, or be better people. Rather, it is trust in the God who acts for those who trust in him, who wait for his power to work for them.