Romans (Part 17) – The Promise of Faith (4:9–5:2)
We continue in Part C of Section 2 of our outline. Recall that Section 2 concerns God’s Righteousness. Paul has been emphasizing this idea from the first chapter and will continue with it through chapter 5. We are in the portion of his discussion concerning justification by faith (3:21–5:3). Paul had shown Christ as propitiation and that we are justified by faith rather than through the Law. Paul had been speaking about this particularly for the Jews’ sake who were confused about the concept of justification. Although we had already moved into chapter 4 for Paul’s further explanation concerning the Promise of Faith, I’d like to backtrack just briefly to solidify in our minds where the Jews got themselves confused and the clarity Paul was trying to bring.
We, too, in our day often miss Paul’s point of these chapters because we are so intent on seeing a war going on between works and faith. We greatly simplify Paul’s argument to see him saying only that to gain the favor of God for salvation we must present no work merit of our own but only believe in Jesus as redeeming savior. Well, while that statement is true—it is through faith and not through meritorious works that we gain eternal life—it is nonetheless NOT Paul’s point or even part of his argument in these chapters. Remember that in chapter 2 Paul was insisting that we would ultimately be judged by our works. Why by works? It is not because works earn eternal life but rather because works reveal the heart intent on pursuit of God. Paul presented that in chiastic fashion in verses 7 through 10 of chapter 2. Thus, Paul’s first point back there was not that works stand opposed to faith but rather that faithful (good) works point to the faith within.
The same kind of relationship exists when we speak in terms of justification and righteousness. Righteousness (faithfulness to the covenant) is an unseen status of an individual. God’s announcement (declaration) of that unseen status is called justification. We find, then, that rather than a works-versus-faith discussion by Paul, he is showing outward and inward aspects to relationship with God. And that makes sense since our makeup is outward (physical essence) and inward (spirit person). Paul argues, then, that inwardly we have faith shown outwardly by our works, upon which basis God declares us justified regarding our inward righteous standing in the covenant of life (relationship with him).
The Jews had this all wrong. They concluded a justification (outward declaration of belonging to God) shown by Law and circumcision (outward signs) based simply on them being Jews (outward being). Everything in their scheme was based on the outward and thus a foundation for their boast in themselves. Paul argued no. The outward must point to the inward of faith and righteousness. It was necessary to point inward because that inward quality of faith was the basis for love relationship. Love relationship with God is founded on his truth, goodness, and beauty, and therefore, justification must be of faith—an inward relational positioning, thus excluding boasting.
To prove his point, Paul moved to a discussion of Abraham in chapter 4. We learned that Abraham indeed was justified by his faith. And faith in God, as shown in David’s expression, was a relational condition producing joy and delight. In verses 9 through 12 of chapter 4, Paul forces the Jews to recognize their faulty thinking in comparison to Abraham. The Jews had insisted that they could point to the signs such as Law and circumcision to prove their established connection with Abraham and, therefore, an already established connection with God. But Paul takes their example of Abraham and asks when his connection with God was established—was it in and of circumcision? The answer is no. Indeed God said that Abraham’s faith was the basis for his justification (being declared righteous). And when did God so declare Abraham righteous? Was is before or after Abraham was circumcised? It was before. Thus, the Jews, Paul concludes, are incorrect to point to their markers, such as circumcision, and claim to be justified by it when their father Abraham himself was not justified by it. Abraham was justified by faith prior to circumcision.
Circumcision was given to Abraham only after justification as a sign and seal of that justification for the purpose of carrying out his mission in God’s redemptive plan of bringing forth the Messiah.
Importantly, the order was that of justification before circumcision, Paul says, so that Abraham could be the father not only of the circumcised but of everyone who would be justified by faith (4:12)—Gentiles as well as Jews.
Paul continues in Romans 4 to emphasize this connection of Abraham beyond the Jews to all people of faith by seemingly recasting the promise of inheritance beyond the land of Canaan to the whole world. However, Paul is really not stretching the idea beyond what God presented in Genesis. When God first called Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, he mentions land, offspring, and blessing. These were not three separate items but rather an entwined gift. We see that clearly in Abram’s discussion with God in Genesis 15. There God says Abram’s “reward will be very great” (15:1). But Abram, understanding the entwined nature of land, offspring, and blessing, wonders to God, “Lord God, what can You give me, since I am childless?” (15:2). Abram’s point is that land given as a gift means something only if the possession goes beyond the recipient’s short life. That was the reason for the intense desire for offspring seen pictured throughout the OT. Land and offspring were entwined for meaningful perpetuity. And blessing came from that security of livelihood through land and offspring. So God responds in verse 15 with a promise of offspring to complete the thought of land and blessing he intimated in verse 1 (and that he had promised previously in chapter 12).
With that understanding, let’s return to chapter 12 and look at those opening verses again. The blessing promised in verse 3 is to the whole world. Considering the entwinement of land and offspring with blessing, it is not a stretch at all for Paul to see the land inheritance measuring up to God’s promise of world blessing. And indeed, that is exactly how we are to understand the whole Abrahamic covenant. God promised Abraham land (the world), offspring (the faithful of the whole world), and blessing (life with God) as the great intent of the covenant. However, he also provided land (Canaan), offspring (the Israelites), and blessing (Messiah through them) at the same time as the effective means of accomplishing this redemptive plan. So then it was never (as some have supposed) that God’s first plan was to give salvation to the Jews, but when they rejected Jesus, God turned to Plan B and offered salvation to the Gentiles. Rather, it was always about redemption of the world, but limited to those who would have love relationship with God as shown by their faith in this relational basis—God’s truth, goodness, and beauty.
Paul continues in chapter 4 stating that the promise for the whole world rests on faith not law. If it rested on law—something that occurred afterwards apart from Abraham’s faith—then faith is made of no effect and the promises made through faith would be canceled (4:14). Paul says that Law produces wrath. And of course that is true. The Law gives the standard to love God and love your neighbor. Without God’s influence through the relationship born in faith, the commands would serve only to condemn the Jews as failures. But Paul says, the Law was not given—not involved—as the means for redemption, and therefore, since it was not the means of redemption, transgressing the Law had no negative impact as to whether redemption was possible. (That idea is the meaning of verse 15.)
Redemption, rather, comes by grace—the favor of God promised not according to payment but according to faith. Paul spends the next several verses (16 through 22) emphasizing examples of Abraham’s faith (not trappings of Law and circumcision) which settled that declaration of righteousness. And, Paul emphasizes, just as Abraham was justified by faith, all those of faith will be justified—all those who believe in God, who raised up Jesus (embracing him after separation of death), the one who was delivered up in death for our sins and raised to life again precisely for our justification (declaration of righteousness).
The thought leads to the conclusion of the first few verses in chapter 5. Because of justification, we have peace with God. We had been enemies, but justification removed the enmity. But not only do we have peace (a non-combative relationship), we also have access to his favor (5:2a). Thus, removal of conflict is good, but enjoining in love relationship offers all the joy and delight of God’s love. And further, 5:2b explains that we also have the hope for glory—that glory of forever reflecting the TGB of God with him.