Our natural expectation is to die and stay dead. Death proves that there is something wrong in the world, that God is not pleased, and that humanity is guilty and sentenced to death. Yet, Christians believe that by trusting in Jesus Christ, God forgives our sins, declares us not guilty, will raise us from the dead, and will give us eternal life. We hope against hope.
In Romans 4, the Apostle Paul retells Abraham’s story told in Genesis 12–25. In retelling the story, Paul seeks to prove a simple but important point about Christianity: God promised eternal life, and we receive eternal life by believing in Jesus. Our best efforts render a guilty verdict. The punishment is eternal death. Our only hope is that God would declare us righteous and give us what we don't deserve, eternal life. Here, Paul shows Abraham as an example of how to live, trusting that God will keep his promises, with this strange little phrase, "In hope he believed against hope."
God had promised to make Abraham the father of many nations. Abraham would have descendants beyond number, but there was a problem. To be the father of many nations, Abraham, who was about seventy-five years old, needed an heir. His wife Sarah was old and barren (Gen. 12). The likelihood of Sarah bearing a child for Abraham seemed like nothing more than a wishful dream for both of them.
Eleven years went by, and at eighty-six years old, Abraham grew tired of waiting. Abraham and his wife took matters into their own hands. Sarah had a much younger maid servant named Hagar. Sarah’s idea was simple: Hagar would act as a substitute in her place. Hagar would bear Abraham an heir (Gen. 16). Hagar bore Ishmael. But, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God again appeared to him and told him that the child by Hagar didn't count. God promised Abraham a child by his wife Sarah.
The natural expectation was that having a child at that age was impossible. Yet, Abraham believed the God who created the world out of nothing could certainly give life to a barren womb. God kept his promise. Within a year Abraham was the father of the child Isaac by Sarah.
Abraham is an example of what the Christian life is like. Though Abraham saw the beginnings of God’s promise kept, Abraham did not live to see the nation of Israel, or the Christians who would become his children through faith in Jesus (Galatians 4).
God has promised eternal life to anyone willing to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead for the forgiveness of sins. We often see our failures. Sin has blinded us. Our holiness is hidden from sight. We often feel guilty and ashamed. Sometimes we feel as if God is against us. But because we trust in Jesus Christ, God has forgiven our sins. God has justified us. God calls us holy. Like Abraham, the Christian life is one that hopes against hope.