4:1-12 – The Example of Abraham
[4:1-8]—Paul now turns to Israel’s tradition to make even more clear the continuity he sees in God’s healing justice from the beginning of Israel to the present. Abraham was the founder of the Jewish community (“our ancestor according to the flesh,” 4:1).
How was Abraham justified (made whole in his relationship with God)? If it were according to works of the law he would be able to boast – and thereby establish the precedent for the valid boasting of the judgers. However, according to Paul, scripture makes it clear: “Abraham believed God (trusted in God), and it was reckoned to him as just (it made him whole)” (4:3). That is, God’s gifting call came first, then Abraham’s trust, and then, in response, Abraham’s following the commands (i.e., circumcision, the classic boundary-marking command).
To one who trusts in following the commands as the way of gaining God’s favor, the favor God bestows (“wages”) are “something due,” not a “gift” (4:4). The entire relationship becomes characterized by efforts to gain leverage, to maneuver for advantage, to separate oneself from those “outside.”
In contrast, to one who trusts in God’s mercy, recognizing that God’s favor is from the start a gift that need not be earned, their trust in God is what counts as the basis for their being seen as just (that as, for their being made whole). Faithfulness follows from trust and works for wholeness, not for boasting and injustice.
Paul then quotes from Psalm 32:1-2 to underscore his point (4:6-8). Paul sees these verses supporting his point that genuine wholeness comes from trusting God’s mercy, not from trusting in works of the law.
[4:9-12]—Paul reflects further on what we could call the order of salvation, or the relationship between gift, command, and faithfulness. The “blessedness” of God’s mercy is pronounced on both circumcised and uncircumcised. Paul has already made it clear that circumcision is indeed of value. He in no way intends to reject circumcision per se. However, mercy precedes this external act and is not dependent upon it. God’s healing justice transforms all who trust in it and orient their lives by it. At its best, circumcision reminds the believer of God’s mercy, it does not cause it.
Abraham’s faithfulness in responding to God’s call, trusting in God’s directive, leads to his being made (“reckoned,” elogisthë) just (at harmony with God). Abraham’s relationship with God was founded on God’s gift accepted and embodied, not on Abraham’s adherence to an external ritual (4:9).
His faithfulness counted for justice before he was circumcised (4:10). In Genesis, Abraham was called in chapter 12 and not circumcised until chapter 17. This process did not negate the value of Abraham’s circumcision as an authentic response to God’s call and external sign of his covenant with God. Paul simply make it clear that from the start the order of salvation was first God’s gift, then the command as a means of deepening and sustaining the faithful embodiment of the gift.
The circumcision was a “sign” that served as a “seal of the justice he had by faith” (4:11). The justice, though, was established before Abraham’s circumcision. By handling the process in this way, God established Abraham as the ancestor of all “who believe,” circumcised and not (4:11-12).
For those who are circumcised, the people of Israel, Abraham’s importance as their spiritual ancestor may be seen most of all in his “example of faithfulness” before “he was circumcised” (4:12). This is Paul’s way of emphasizing again that what matters most is our response to God’s gift of salvation, much more than following certain external rituals, much more than our ethnic or formal religious identity. He is not against the rituals and community membership, but they must serve the faithfulness, not be seen as ends in themselves. They must be responses to the acceptance in faith of God’s gift, not levers that are intended mechanistically to elicit God’s acceptance.
4:13-25 – God’s Promise Realized Through Faith
[4:13-15]—When Paul speaks of God’s promise that Abraham and his descendants “would inherit the world” (4:13), he may have in mind the promise of Genesis 12:3 that Abraham’s descendents would “bless all the families of the earth” and the promise of Isaiah 2:4 that the nations would flock to Zion to learn the ways of peace. Paul’s own apostleship to the Gentiles (1:5) may be seen as his acting on the confidence that he is part of the embodiment of the “inheritance” promised Abraham.
This promise is not channeled through the boundary-marker oriented commands such as circumcision, but through the justice of faithfulness. That is, it is through embodying genuine justice/wholeness in their relationships with God and with each other (two sides of one coin) that Abraham’s descendents “inherit” the world (i.e., spread God’s blessing). It is not through adhering to legalistic purity and separation (not that purity is not vitally important, only that the purity must serve the spreading the blessing rather than be an end in itself or a lever to gain God’s favor).
If Paul’s former violently zealous purity-oriented Jewish colleagues are correct in seeing works of the law as that basis for inheriting the world, then Paul sees faithfulness in the sense of the integration of trust and response as “null and the promise is void” (4:14). This is a strong statement that should not be read too literally. Paul, of course, does not imagine a second that the promise actually is void. He uses this “if…then” formula as a rhetorical device. He does so to underscore why the works-of-the-law orientation is not faithful to God’s revelation. Of course, the promise is not void. Hence, anything that would void the promise must be rejected – including especially making legalistic adherence to the commands the prerequisite for the promise.
“The law brings wrath” (4:15). This statement must be understood in the context of what has been said earlier in Romans. Paul seems to have the judgers, or law-idolaters, in mind here. “Wrath” has been pictured as the unfolding of the consequences of trusting in things rather than God. When the law is reduced to rules and boundary marker enforcing commands, separated from its heartbeat of God’s liberating mercy and the promise of healing, then those who are idolizing it will themselves be reduced to rules. This is how God’s wrath works.
So, Paul’s simple statement, “the law brings wrath,” could be paraphrased and expanded as follows: “Trusting in the law as an idol separated from God’s motivating mercy brings with it negative consequences. Those so trusting lose touch with this mercy and instead are possessed by the rules in ways that lead to violence and injustice.”
Paul states the opposite of the law bringing wrath as “where there is no law, neither is there violation” (4:15). I am not clear what he means by “violation” (parabasis, also “transgression”). [This verse needs more work.]
[4:16-25]—Indeed, Abraham is “the father of all of us” (4:16). The promise that came through Abraham rests on grace, not works of the law (4:16). This promise of salvation, of wholeness, includes all Abraham’s descendents (that is, all people).
The promise is not only for “the adherents of the law” (4:16). Paul makes two points with this statement that must both be remembered. The most obvious, and controversial, is that the promise includes those outside of Israel. As throughout his writings, Paul directly challenges the exclusivism of the law-idolaters. Paul denies the very thing they seem to base their faith on, that they alone are heirs of the promise to Abraham and Sarah.
At the same time, Paul’s “not only” makes clear that “the adherents of the law” do remain heirs of the promise. Paul remains committed to belief in the election of Israel. God has not repudiated the promises that founded his covenant people. Paul is not in any way meaning to imply that Israel is no longer part of God’s covenant. He merely argues, based on the original scope of the promise to Abraham and Sarah, that this promise includes both “adherents of the law” and those “outside the law,” that is, both Jews and Gentiles.
Paul’s basis for making this inclusive claim stems from his belief that the promise rests on grace, not on works of the law (the regulations that marked the boundary between Jews and non-Jews). The clearest expression of this grace of God, the grace that does not discriminate (3:29), is how God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist” (4:17).
Paul reminds his readers that in the beginning of Israel, God brought into being something new, out of nothing. It was an act of pure mercy. If God did such a work in the time of Abraham (and if Jews of Paul’s time owe their relationship with God to such a work of mercy), there is no reason why God could not do it again. The Gentiles who trust in God in Paul’s context are not less worthy of God’s mercy (and no less uncircumcised) than Abraham had been when God first called him.
Abraham proved his worthiness of God’s call by his faithfulness, “believing [trusting] that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said” (4:18). Stemming from their trust, Abraham obeyed God and followed the command to leave their homes and establish their new community.
Abraham trusted in God’s promise of a child even though Abraham was “as good as dead (for he was about one hundred years old)” and Sarah’s womb was barren (4:19). Abraham gave glory to God (in contrast to the idolaters of Rom 1:23) with his trust in the promise. So, Abraham plays two roles in Paul’s argument here – one is to “prove” that the promise and Abraham’s response of trust predate circumcision (in a genuine sense, then, disclosing God’s justice revealed apart from the law right from the start), and the second is to model genuine trust in God in contrast to trusting in idols.
Because of Abraham’s trust that was followed by obedience, his faithfulness is “reckoned” as justice (4:22). Abraham enters into a whole-making relationship with God and plays such a central role in the outworking of God’s promise to bring healing to all the families of the earth because he says “yes” to God’s call.
Now Paul comes to his punch line with regard to his discussion of Abraham: “the words ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also” (4:23-24). That is, this story Abraham is a present reality throughout all of history, showing how God works with human beings and providing a model for human responsiveness to God. Abraham shows the way to genuine whole-making justice with his responsive of trust and obedience to God’s promise.
Just as Abraham trusted in God’s work to “give life to the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17), so Paul describes the authentic present-day descendents of Abraham (remembering that Abraham is the “father of all of us,” 4:16) as likewise trusting in God’s work to bring life out of death in the resurrection of Jesus.
In Paul’s statement here, we must be clear, the object of trust is God not the resurrection itself. That is, in the resurrection, we see the same God doing the same kind of thing as we see in the gift of descendents to Abraham and Sarah. The resurrection is not a new kind of work for God, but a continuation of the same work.
At the same time, this specific work of God raising Jesus from the dead defines the shape of Paul’s faith. Jesus’ faithfulness in his life of peacemaking and healing was vindicated when God raised him. This act of God established Jesus’ peacemaking and healing as the definitive revelation of God in human history.
Jesus lived his life of self-sacrifice in order free those who trust in his revelation of God from “our trespasses” (4:25). In the context of what we have seen in Romans up to now, we should understand “trespasses” here especially to be referring to the kinds of idolatry Paul describes in chapters one and two. Jesus’ freedom from sin found its clearest expression in his rejection of trust in the law as idol (see his assertion [reflected in his practice] that the Sabbath laws [another key boundary marker] are for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath [Mk 2:27]) and in his rejection of power politics as idol (see Mk 10:42-45).
When the Powers that were attached to the Law and to the Empire put Jesus to death, they made clear that they were rivals to God rather than God’s servants. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God unveiled (revealed) the reality that these Powers are not serving God’s justice. Instead, fact they manifested the most horrific kind of injustice, murdering God’s very Son, and murdering him precisely because of how he was manifesting God’s justice.
So, for those who would be “justified” (made whole in their relationship with God), Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection serve the double purpose of making clear that the idolatrous Powers were not worthy of trust and of making clear that the God of Jesus is worthy of trust. The resurrection played an especially important role in this justification process because it is what ultimately convinced Jesus’ followers of his identity. As a consequence of their belief in God raising Jesus from the dead, the early disciples themselves found the power to follow Jesus’ path – both exposing the idolatries of religious institutionalism and power politics and taking up the cross of self-suffering in order to make this witness with trust in God’s vindication.