I’ve never won anything.
I know people who have a trophy display case in their home. An entire case. I don’t even need a shelf. My trophy case could probably best be described as a “great poverty of merit,” its dusty shelves an enduring testimony to the triumph of my own mediocrity.
So this is why I get slightly irritated when I’m standing in line at the convenience store and the person immediately in front of me is buying lottery tickets. And then the clerk allows them to scratch them off, right there in the store—which I suppose is some strange form of punishment for me for buying my iced tea in a convenience store in the first place. But after the customer clears away the silver powder residue from their scratch-offs, they buy another ticket—maybe even another.
And that, dear friends, is the difference between hope and mere wishful thinking.
The lottery, after all, is just a tax on people who don’t understand statistics. The lottery isn’t designed to give people money; it’s designed to take it. But I digress.
The Christian faith is built neither on wishes or merits, but the power of God. That’s why—as we saw yesterday—Paul uses Abraham as an example. Abraham, as we pointed out, was no Charlie Church before God came around. God saved Abraham through His sovereign choice. Abraham’s only responsibility was to respond in faith to the promises of God.
So in his letter to the Romans, Paul summarizes:
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 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. (Romans 4:16-17)
So often I hear people tell me that they could be a better Christian if they could understand the Bible better, or if they had more time for personal study, podcasts, and the like. Sure; these things are beneficial. But if this is you, then I’m afraid you might be missing the point. It is not the “strength” of our faith that saves us—as if our merits brought us any closer to God—it is the object of our faith that saves us. Here, Paul emphasizes that Abraham’s faith saved him because of the God who made him the promise of being the “father” of all Israel. And, says Paul, we can trust this promise because the God who makes it also “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It is this ability to create something from nothing that forms the foundation of Abraham’s hope.
CREATION OUT OF NOTHING
Paul goes on to write:
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. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:18-22)
What does it mean for Abraham to “hope…against hope?” In a very real sense, the calling of God went against all material evidence. You really have to laugh at how Paul describes Abraham as being “as good as dead” (!). And this is to say nothing of the prospect of his wife Sarah getting pregnant. God’s promises began in absurdity, to say the very least, but Abraham believed. Let’s not be naïve; when Paul says that “no unbelief made him waver,” he obviously didn’t mean that Abraham never experienced moments of skepticism or doubt. But his overall pattern was trust in God.
Just as God created the universe from nothing, just as He created life in the womb of Abraham’s elderly wife, through His grace He creates life in each of us by cultivating faith within our hearts. Wonder replaces doubt; skepticism slides away into trust and endurance.
This is what separates Christian hope from the wishful thinking of lottery ticket customers. Abraham’s faith was never anchored in some abstract personal experience, never in something so flimsy as a mere dream or vision. Abraham’s faith was in the promise of God. For what is faith without promise? Even if we trust in His goodness, we can never expect Him to do what He has not promised. And the promises of God find flesh and bone in the person of Jesus.
For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus authenticates all of Christian faith. He writes:
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:23-25)
What does it mean that Christ was “raised for our justification?” It means that through Jesus, we are not only forgiven from sin, but we have a new standing in Christ. Christ is now my identity and my righteousness; God approves of me because I am now living in Christ.
See, without this most of our faith would be little more than the wishes of a lottery scratch-off. But like Abraham, we must “hope against hope” that the gospel is true. Again, even that statement might sound like wishful thinking until we consider that the Christian hope is anchored in the unchanging promises of God. Hope is less a wish but an expectation, an expectation that God would be true to His Word, and an expectation that—through grace alone—we would be found in Him. The “hopes” of this world are uncertain, and even if we find immediate solutions through politics, career, or relationships, these immediate hopes pale in comparison to the ultimate hope we find in the gospel.