Abraham’s Faith and Works – Romans 4

Romans 4 offers an interesting application of the New Perspective on Paul. Paul seems to be making a contrast between his opponents who saw Abraham’s faith as meriting justification and his view that one cannot boast in salvation because it is wholly a work of God.

faith-of-abrahamThere does seem to be some evidence some streams of Second Temple Judaism considered Abraham’s faith so or faithful acts as something to boast in. For example, Sirach 44:19-22 claims Abraham “perfectly kept the Law.” In the Testament of Abraham, a young Abram rejects his father’s idols and mocks them as useless. In response to this, God gives the young Abram the promise of Genesis 12. In the Mishnah, Genesis 26:5 is interpreted as an indication Abraham kept the entire Torah before it was even given!

m.Qiddushin 4:14 “We find that the patriarch Abraham kept the entire Torah even before it was revealed, since it says, Since Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Gen. 26:5) (Neusner, The Mishnah, 499).

Another example is found in 1 Maccabees 2:51-52: Call to remembrance what acts our fathers did in their time; so shall ye receive great honour and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness?”  In Special Laws 4.164 Philo boasts his summary of the Law is “my incomparable boast and glory (καύχημα καὶ κλέος ἀνανταγώνιστον), a sign of sovereignty that none can challenge, formed in the image of its archetype the kingship of God.” (cited by Jewett, Romans, 310).

I would suggest another aspect of boasting in one’s faith is the Greco-Roman practice of boasting in honor. If a wealthy Roman did something worthy of praise, they might pay to have that deed inscribed on a monument or dedicate some public work in order to boast in their honor. If Abraham did something to merit God’s declaration of righteousness, it would be natural for a Roman to boast about it.

In each of these cases, it appears Abraham is righteous because he keeps the Law, or at the very least, the key boundary marker of Judaism of the first century, circumcision. Paul’s point is the exact opposite of this, Abraham’s faith was expressed before he had been given the first of the boundary markers (circumcision) and well before the Jewish people were given any of the Law. Although Sabbath was a part of the creation story, there is no indication Abraham kept the Sabbath in Genesis, and there is no hint he would have kept the food laws which separated Jews and Gentiles. Joshua 24:2-3 says Abraham had worshiped “other gods” when he lived in Ur of the Chaldees, so he cannot even be considered a monotheist!

It is hard to imagine how Paul’s suggestion that Abraham did not merit God’s declaration of righteousness would have sounded to a Jewish person in the Second Temple Period. For some, they might agree with Paul and consider the boundary markers of the Law a proper response to salvation rather than a requirement. But it is also likely there were some who saw boundary markers as non-negotiable, so that they do function as “required.”

In the present age, after the cross, this de-coupling of works and salvation is more clear, yet there is a human tendency to fall back to good works. How can we use Romans 4 to avoid this?

 

 

5 thoughts on “Abraham’s Faith and Works – Romans 4

  1. New Perspective readings of Romans 4 don’t take Paul to mean this is how Abraham became righteous (or merited righteousness) in God’s sight. Rather we understand Paul to be discussing how one can tell a person is righteous in God’s sight. Hence boundary markers indicate ‘who is in’, not how they ‘got in’.

    You might want to flesh out what you mean by ‘merit’. Do you mean to suggest a system of interpretation where Abraham was a sinner or neutral before God, then he did enough works (can we quantify this?) to become righteous in God’s sight such that we can say he merited / earned it? You know the Law – Gospel / Covenant of Works theology? Is this what your pushing onto Jewish thought?

    Regarding good works and salvation (or better to say judgment leading to salvation) Paul is pretty clear in other areas:
    Rom 2.10 ‘for everyone who does good’ – eternal life,
    Gal 6.8-9 ‘one who sows to the Spirit’ and ‘doing good’ – eternal life.
    1 Cor 3.15 ‘If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’.
    This last passage suggests people with no good works can still be saved, but works provide greater assurance of the likelihood of salvation.
    None the less, the conflict should push us to reconsider how good works, final and -impartial- judgment and salvation work together in Paul’s theology.

    Regarding Testament of Abraham check this out http://www.thepaulpage.com/files/Testament_Abraham.pdf

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  2. Everywhere I look, I see Christians who are involved in some sort of service, whether it is volunteering in the community or volunteering within the Church. There is nothing wrong with that. We ought to be compelled to serve the Lord and others after receiving our salvation, especially as we continue to grow in our faith and our relationship with the Lord. However, just because many Christians find it to be a natural compulsion to help others, it does not mean that we are required to do works to gain righteousness in God’s eyes. Often when I see Christians boasting about their works, I think back to the Bible about how we really have nothing to boast about. Our works, although a positive thing, can become centralized for us, and at times they are a way to show that we are more holy than other people. Romans 4 shows us that righteousness is only granted due to faith, and the Abraham story is meant to show not only the Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s day the truth, but also meant to show us the truth behind Abraham’s righteousness. Abraham was credited with righteousness because he believed in the Lord’s promise to him, no matter what happened, even to the extent of willing to sacrifice his son in obedience to the Lord. God saw Abraham’s faith, and told him to stop before he went through with the sacrifice. God counted Abraham righteous because of the faith he distributed. It is important for us to look at that example, and remember that none of us are righteous enough on our own, but through faith and the cloaking of Jesus’ sacrifice covering us, we are seen as righteous and justified in the eyes of the Lord. Keeping Romans 4 in mind will do Christians a good service by showing us that we are able to become righteous only through our faith and through the gift that Christ has presented to us all. As Moo pointed out Paul’s point to the Christians in Rome, “Paul next goes on to remind us of the way Abraham believed the promise of God even when all tangible evidence seemed to point in the other direction,” so too we current-day Christians should believe in God’s promise despite how the odds may seem to be stacked against us (Moo, 79).

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  3. I would completely agree that there is a human tendency to fall back on good works as a basis for salvation. I am a perfectionist by nature and love to work hard to earn things; this has caused me to personally experience how challenging it can be to remember the basis of my own salvation. Just prior to Romans 4, Paul addresses the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Despite what other writings allude to, no one, not even Abraham, is flawless according to the law and can earn their Salvation apart from what Jesus did on the cross. We are saved not by what our actions are, but through our confession of Jesus’ deity and our belief in his resurrection (2 Tim 3:16). Even Paul refers to this when he quotes Genesis 16:5 saying, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3). Abraham was not declared righteous because of his ability to uphold the law, he was declared righteous because of his belief in God.

    Striving to earn salvation by works neglects the imperfections that we have which ultimately shows our need for a Savior. Even through striving to honor God’s law may seem good, if a person is doing that to the extent of seeking Salvation, the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes mundane and meaningless. I need to understand that my Salvation is wholly a gift that comes from God with nothing to do with me. Fully grasping this truth results in a life full of gratitude and submission rather than pride and control. Romans 4 is great reminder that no matter what life we have lived or how obedient we are, we can never earn the Salvation that Jesus so graciously offers.

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  4. The main reason people fall back into good works instead of faith is simply because it is easier. It is something someone could physically attain or check-off, and it makes them feel good. I believe that is why Christianity is so countercultural, because it takes faith and trust in the unseen, rather than a long list of do’s and don’t’s. Romans 4 is a great way to show that even Abraham was justified by his faith, and not his works. It says over and over in this one chapter of the Bible that righteousness was due to faith, and even “the promise comes by faith” (Romans 4:16). In Longenecker, he explains that the reward for Abraham’s family was also translated as wages, and this award went to him because of his faith, not his works (181). The gospel emphasizes the grace of God, and this alone is what upholds each person (Longenecker 180). I find it very interesting that Paul uses Abraham as an example, as he was known as the “father of many nations” and was not living in a time where the gospel was solidified through the death and resurrection of Christ (Longenecker 181). It is almost more impactful to see a person in the Bible without a “choice” of the law or faith, and the decision of Abraham to still press on forward with faith, rather than works. When he had faith in God, God delivered, and proved Himself to be faithful. Romans 4 is a great representation of how even in the first few chapters of the Bible, those alive were still living a life full of faith. What a great example for believers today to recognize that it was never about works, but about faith and relationship with God.

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