This article first appeared at Servants of Grace on June 7, 2021, as part of the Romans devotional series..
Not long ago, DNA self-testing kits were all the rage. Our daughter received one as a gift and delighted in reporting to us what she’d learned about our family heritage. Other fads may have since surpassed the popularity of the kits, but the questions that motivated the sales remain. Who am I? Who are my people? And how does my DNA connect me to them or determine who I am?
Our DNA contains the coding, in one sense, for who we are. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a long molecule that carries within it genetic instructions for living organisms. It is like a recipe book, and as the Author of this book, the Lord determines the development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all of life: you and me, every person, every creature, every living thing. DNA gets passed down through generations. I carry a recipe that reflects the DNA of my parents, their parents, and so on backward through the chain of life.
But while being of the line of Englands, Pinkertons, Houghtons, and Dandridges, I also belong to another family. According to the Apostle Paul, I have a spiritual father, Abraham (Galatians 3:29), and all of my spiritual siblings are connected to me through the Seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). While I don’t have his physical DNA, I am grafted into his lineage by faith, making me, as Paul says, “an heir according to the promise.” Abraham’s spiritual DNA is reproduced in his children, and their lives reveal a profile that can be traced to him. This profile is my spiritual inheritance, a faith that looks like his.
This is what Paul reveals in Romans 4. In his commentary on Romans, Thomas Schreiner writes: “If Abraham by his faith functions as the father of all peoples, and if his faith was counted to him as righteousness, then it is imperative to define the nature of his faith.” (1)
Our study passage is Romans 4:18–21: “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.’ 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. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” (ESV)
There’s a lot here to unpack, more than can be addressed in a short devotional article. Still, I think we can extend this DNA analogy a little bit further to examine how Abraham’s DNA is reproduced in the life of a believer.
In verses 16–17, Paul establishes the nature of the promise. We learn that:
- The promise is that God has made Abraham the father of many nations.
- The promise is guaranteed to all of Abraham’s spiritual offspring, Jew and Gentile. All of his offspring will be saved, and the saved are his offspring.
- The nature of the promise depends upon faith, it is secured by grace, and it is distinct in that the One making the promise “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
See in verse 17 that God did not say to Abraham, I will make you the father of many nations. He said I have made you the father of many nations. Abraham knew God to be the One who calls into existence things (descendants) that are dead (not yet in existence). Even though his own eyes did not see the physical evidence for descendants, they were as good as real to him. He surrendered his disbelief and affirmed life comes from God.
Abraham considered the obstacles of his and Sarah’s inability and frailty. What he faced was a picture of the condition into which all of us are born. When Adam and Eve rebelled, sin entered the world, and sin tainted their DNA. They died spiritually, and this soul death is what we all inherit upon conception. The reality of this situation is not unlike the condition of Abraham’s and Sarah’s bodies, dead and void of life. Death and a sentence of eternal judgment are the wages for all enemies of God and transgressors of his law.
Upon consideration guided by the mercy of God’s Spirit, Abraham weighed their barrenness and incapacity against God’s promises, and he believed in God. His faith did not waver. The reality of the tangible circumstances was unquestionable: Old, feeble male bodies are incapable of producing seed that develops into life; old, feeble female bodies no longer provide nurturing soil for seed to flourish. Adam’s children quake at the thought of frailty and feebleness. Weakness is abhorrent, so rescue that rises out of powerlessness is unfathomable, and a Savior who would let himself appear powerless is repulsive. But Abraham’s faith was God-centered. The weakness of his own body didn’t frighten or distress him, so it didn’t consume his attention. His confidence was not in the power of faith but in the power of God, who makes weakness the workspace for his displays of power and majesty (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Hope in the Story’s End
Abraham’s hope rested in the results—a living descendant from which many nations would be born, and this hope strengthened his faith so that later when he was called to act against that hope on the journey to Mt. Moriah with the promised son, he believed the story would end exactly as God had declared (Hebrews 11:17–19). He was confident he had a place in God’s redemptive history.
This promise is not just Abraham’s; it’s ours as well. We may not be “fathers of many nations,” but whatever our purpose, whatever our call, God beckons us to surrender our weaknesses to His power. In his economy, all bodies raised from death to life have a place in his plan. Life invades these dead-unable-to-sustain-life bodies—a picture of resurrection. What glory! We rejoice in the reality which has already been accomplished on our behalf, and we hope with confidence for the fulfillment of the not yet, for which we are being preserved through perseverance, through the strengthening of faith, through daily sanctifying moments of submitting to God’s truth, all to God’s glory.
A Life-Sustaining DNA
In Adam, our human DNA is reproduced through the generations and results in sin, rebellion, and self-glory. In Christ, the Seed who ushers in the New Covenant, our spiritual DNA reflects the faith of Abraham and develops in us a Christlike character. This is a new recipe with eternal coding and a guaranteed and eternal outcome! The Holy Spirit leads us to function daily in a way that eschews sin and embraces obedience as a manifestation of gratitude and glory to God. We grow in knowledge and understanding of God’s word and ways. And we reproduce Jesus’s works and manner throughout the kingdom, confident that He has already determined all of his promises and all their outcomes.
This confidence should be reflected in our prayers, being “fully convinced that God [is] able to do as he promised.” Doubt and immaturity prevent us from seeing that God leans in to work over time in small, mundane people feeling weak, inadequate, and insufficient for the task at hand, but giving glory to God puts our weakness in a new light and strengthens our faith.
Let’s repent of relying upon our mortal “powers”—the smarts, the charm, the connections, the prowess, the resiliency, the savvy, our enneagram number. Let’s stop searching for satisfaction, rest, and glory from within. God has a place for us in his arc of redemptive history so we can be confident in the story’s end. We carry the DNA of the faithful father of all, having the righteousness of his Seed imputed to our account. In our surrender to Christ, who does all and more than we could ever imagine to bring about the fulfillment of his promises, let us consider weakness, not an obstacle to saving and sanctifying work. Let us glorify God, the Encoder of life-giving and life-sustaining DNA. Let us herald the call to gospel faithfulness. Let us be beacons of the message of hope.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2018) 243.