Romans (Part 16) – Abraham, the Example (4:1–8)

09/11/2017 05:17

By the end of chapter 3, Paul has made his point that boasting in the flesh (being a Jew) has no merit in showing Covenant of Life relationship with God. You are not in right covenant standing with God simply because you are a Jew. Therefore, holding up markers of being a Jew (circumcision and the Law) did not identify you as being in right covenant standing with God. Rather, Paul argues, people are in right covenant standing (being righteous) by their faith in God’s truth, goodness, and beauty—their trust in him as source for TGB, and they are justified (declared or confirmed as being in that right covenant standing) by their faithful works revealing their heart attitude (a connection—faith of heart to faithful works—made evident in chapter 2:6–10).

So then, through chapter 3, here is what our overall outline has shown:

   Part 1: Introduction (1:1–17)

I.               General Study Introduction

II.             Theme of Romans—the Gospel (1:16–17)

III.           Letter Introduction (1:1–15)

   Part 2: God’s Righteousness: Judging TGB (1:18–3:20)

I.               God’s Revelation & Our Turning Away (1:18–32)

II.             God Will Judge Good and Evil (2:1–16)

III.           The Failure of Israel (2:17–29)

IV.          Israel’s Advantage Offers No Excuse (3:1–8)

V.            Summation: Jews As Guilty As Gentiles (3:9–20)

   Part 3: God’s Righteousness: Redemption (3:21–4:25)

I.               Propitiation of God: Jesus (3:21–26)

II.             The Law of Faith (3:27–31)

As I studied this outline I have created so far, I noticed a problem—actually two problems. First, Part 3 is titled “God’s Righteousness: Redemption.” Although Paul certainly did hint at redemption in the passage as he discussed God’s righteousness being fulfilled through Jesus’s faithfulness, the passage doesn’t really discuss redemption. But as I reflected on what better to call Part 3, I noticed the second problem: the outline doesn’t serve well to tell the story in brief about where Paul is heading. For example, we have talked specifically about what justification means because Paul is using the term to make his point. Yet, the word justification isn’t even in the outline. And going back to Part 2, we see sub-points 1 and 2 making one point about the common difficulty for all humankind, while points 3 through 5 are making a point about specifically the Jews.

Therefore, the outline needs more clarification in structure. I do not want to change all the roman numeral headings; those do explain their portions satisfactorily. I will, however, add to the overall divisions to bring in a little clarity. Rather than merely having a division of three “Parts,” I am adding “Sections” for a wider grouping, allowing me to make the Part titles more specific. Here it is (and, by the way, COE and CCP stand God’s Trinitarian Covenants—the Covenant of Operational Essence and the Covenant of Creative Purpose):

  Section 1: Introduction (1:1–17)

               I.      General Study Introduction

               II.     Theme of Romans—the Gospel (1:16–17)

               III.    Letter Introduction (1:1–15)

  Section 2: God’s Righteousness (1:18–5:21)

       Part A: In COE: Judging TGB (1:18–2:16)

               I.      God’s Revelation & Our Turning Away (1:18–32)

               II.     God Will Judge Good and Evil (2:1–16)

       Part B: In CCP: Justification Not by Law (2:17–3:20)

               I.       The Failure of Israel (2:17–29)

               II.      Israel’s Advantage Offers No Excuse (3:1–8)

               III.     Summation: Jews As Guilty As Gentiles (3:9–20)

       Part C: In CCP Justification by Faith (3:21–5:4)

               I.       Propitiation of God: Jesus (3:21–26)

               II.      The Law of Faith (3:27–31)

You see that in this outline, I have not yet mentioned redemption, and that is because Paul doesn’t really start explaining it until chapter 5. I like this outline better. It provides a much clearer flow through Paul’s argument.

Our next point, then, will be the last under Section 2, Part C. Point III is “The Promise of Faith (4:1–5:4).” Paul begins chapter 4 with a question. My understanding of this question may not be exactly the same as many other commentators. Most understand Paul to be asking a legitimate question for which he pursues an answer in his following verses. That presumption, I think, is a misreading of the question. I am going to use the ESV translation for this first verse because the word order more closely resembles the Greek: “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?” My interpretation considers the need for an extra comma right after forefather. In other words, Paul is not simply pointing out that Abraham was their forefather according to the flesh, and then asking what he gained. In that case, the phrase “according to the flesh” would simply be redundant to forefather. Rather, Paul points out that Abraham was their forefather, and then asks what he gained according to the flesh. Remember, Paul has just spent the previous chapter emphasizing that the works of the Law did not identify the Jews as being in righteous relationship with God simply because of their flesh—being Jews. To give foundation to that point, Paul goes back to Abraham to see if he had been identified as being in righteous relationship with God simply “according to the flesh.” His answer will be no.

Paul begins that answer by saying that if Abraham had indeed been justified by works (marking his covenant relationship through the flesh), he would have something to boast about. That boasting refers back to the same boasting the Jews made in 2:17 (the boasting Paul said has no part of true, righteous relationship with God in 3:27). In Paul’s further response, “but not before God,” the preposition before may more appropriately be translated to as it is in Romans 15:2. It has the connotation of direction toward. Thus, Paul first states that the “If justified by works” scenario results in legitimate boast, but then Paul says (in effect), “But [that boast in the flesh would] not be directed to God.” In other words, the fleshly boast because of the fleshly requirement for justification would be a fleshly pursuit; it would not be a means of showing the very purpose of being righteous before God—an outward dependency on God’s truth, goodness, and beauty for relational fellowship.

And that is why Paul immediately appeals to Scripture to show that justification must necessarily include a demonstration of the purpose of right standing in the covenant—for love relationship (and not a boast in fleshly condition). Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 saying that Abraham believed God, and by that belief (or based on that belief), God counted (or regarded or valued) him righteous.

As Paul moves to verses 4 and 5, we can’t lose sight of his emphasis so far. It is not to decide whether works or faith are the means of earning salvation. He is still talking about the Jews’ false understanding that they belonged to God simply because of their fleshly condition shown in the markers—the works of the Law. And remember also that part of Paul’s point in why their understanding is wrong is because the concentration on the flesh—as if they are owed justification just because they are, according to the flesh, Jews—does nothing to promote the true purpose of the Covenant of Life—everlasting love relationship (which is based on God’s TGB). So Paul tries to put it in terms the reader can understand. He says that if someone works for something, what he receives is merely what is owed to him. It is not a gift. It is not something that draws the giver and receiver into common bond. It is not an exchange of joy and relationship and love and hope and life. It is merely a transaction. But, Paul says, justification is not based on the flesh—on works—on something transactional in nature, given just because it is due. Rather, justification comes by faith—a faith in God and his TGB upon which relationship grows and clearly marks what that right covenant standing is all about—love relationship with God.


To prove justification works this way through relational faith, Paul brings up the example of David. He states first that David enjoys a righteousness (a standing of covenant relationship with God), not because of the flesh (works), but apart from works—because of faith. As backup, Paul quotes from Psalm 32. Nowhere in this quote or in the full Psalm is there any statement about whether salvation is earned or gifted. The whole psalm is merely about the joy and fulfilled relationship resulting from right standing with God. And that’s Paul’s emphasis: Jewishness—some fleshly requirement—is not what obligates God to justify someone. Justification has to do with a faith(ful) fellowship (communion) with God.