Welcome back to our series on Romans. We are up to section two of our outline of Paul’s letter, following the thematic verse of Romans 1:17, in which Paul quotes from Habakkuk 2:3: “The righteous by (their) faith shall live.” Chapters 1-3 covered righteousness, so now we’re up to the issue of faith.
Remember, Paul is building a case that now, for Jews and Gentiles alike, there is one path to God and it is through allegiance to the Messiah, not through works of the law. The “works of the law” refer to Jewish boundary markers, i.e. things that had set Jews apart from the rest of the world, and these boundary markers fall into three categories: 1) circumcision, 2) dietary laws, and 3) holy days. For more about this, see the works of James Dunn, NT Wright, and EP Sanders on the so-called “New Perspective(s) on Paul,” a very important paradigm shift in understanding first-century Judaism. (We may have a special post/episode dedicated to this topic in the future.)
In Romans and in particular chapter four, Paul contends that for a person to be right with God now, they only need to live a life of faith and obedience toward the Messiah (and of course, His Father (YHWH), who appointed Jesus as the Christ). That is, to get into and stay in a covenent with God, the works of the law are no longer necessary. (Note: he is not saying they are not allowed for Jewish members; he is saying the church cannot require non-Jewish, i.e. Gentile members, to submit to those works of the law.) Also, Paul is not mainly discussing the role of faith against good works (as in good deeds). He is referring to works of the law, the Jewish boundary markers we discussed earlier.
Now, to make a strong case for faith in his letter, where do you think Paul turns? Paul of course uses the Hebrew scriptures, which was the early church’s Bible. He, like Jesus, is a bible-believing person, so that is where he goes, and it is the source his audience trusted. Within the scriptures, then, where should he turn? What better argument could one have made–than going back to the very (earthly) father of the nation of Israel, Abraham? Paul sets forth father Abraham as the prototype of faith-based obedience to God:
Rom. 4:1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6 So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”
Rom. 4:9 Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, 12 and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Rom. 4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
Rom. 4:16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 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.
Paul’s point here is clear: Abraham sets a precedent for being made righteous before doing any works of the law: it was before Abraham was circumcised that he first believed and was justified (or made righteous) before God, not after! Therefore, Paul is proving that he is not actually reforming their heritage but rather living in accordance with it in light of Jesus.
God promised to Abraham that He would make him the father of many nations—not just one, not just Israel. Israel thus had a mission, and now that the Gentiles are incorporated into God’s family, that mission belongs to the church, which includes Jews who have given their lives to King Jesus, as well as Gentiles. For more on the role of Israel in God’s mission, see Isaiah 49:6 and then Acts 1:8 for where the church picks up on God’s mission of reuniting heaven and earth, starting in Jerusalem and moving out into the ends of the earth.
Thanks for joining this study. Next Time we will dive into some of the most popular texts in Romans (if not the Bible in general), in Romans 5-8 and the subject of living–or life–in Christ.
God bless you, and happy studying.