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?

 

 

Why Abraham? – Romans 4

In Romans 4 Paul illustrates his statement claim that God will justify all those who are in Christ Jesus by faith, no works. Like Galatians, he uses the well-known story of Abraham in order to show that the father of the Jewish people was himself made right with God without submitting to ritual (like circumcision) or keeping the Law.

Abraham was a prototype of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism. He perfectly kept the Law according to Sirach, a wisdom text written about 200 B.C.

Sirach 44:19–21 (NRSV) Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. 20 He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he proved faithful. 21 Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.

Jubilees 23:10 For Abraham was perfect in all of his actions with the LORD and was pleasing through righteousness all of the days of his life. (OTP 2:100)

Another reason for using Abraham in both Galatians and Romans is Paul’s opponents may have used Abraham as an example for the Gentiles. Abraham was a Gentile who was righteous before God. Why did God declare him righteous? They might answer because he obeyed God by not withholding his only son (Genesis 22) and because he submitted to the sign of the covenant, circumcision.

Abraham BelievedPaul’s main point in Romans 4 is simple. In Genesis 15:6 God declared Abraham righteous, before he was given the sign of the covenant (Gen 17) and long before the Law was given. For Paul, Gentiles are declared righteous just as Abraham was, by faith.

Are there other factors which may account for why Paul used Abraham as an analogy in Romans 4?

Without Law There is No Transgression – Romans 4:14-15

In verse 14 Paul makes a radical statement within the world of Second Temple period Judaism: if Abraham’s heirs are the ones who keep the Law, then Abraham’s faith is emptied and God’s promise to him is nullified.

Image result for no mosaic LawAccording to verse 15, the Law brings only wrath. This returns to the theme sounded in Romans 1:18, the wrath of God is being revealed. For the Gentiles, the wrath is revealed by creation, but for the Jews it is revealed in the Law. The Law demands God’s people be holy, as God himself is holy. Although there are provisions in the Law for dealing with uncleanliness or sin, ultimately the Law was designed to demonstrate the need for God’s grace and mercy.

The second part of verse 15 may be a problem for some readers. Without the Law, Paul says “there is no transgression.” Potentially this means from Adam until Abraham, there was no Law so people could live any way they chose. If that is the case, God’s judgment in Genesis 6 is not just and fair. There had to be some revealed standard to which people could be held accountable. Or maybe Paul means, “If there is no rule against it, then it is permitted.” But it is not difficult to imagine some sin that is not specifically covered in the Law. People are always finding loopholes in the rules which allow them to get away with bad behavior.

Is it true that “without Law there is no transgression”?

The problem here is taking transgression as equivalent to sin. The word “transgression” (παράβασις) is not the usual word for sin in New Testament, although Paul uses the word in 2:23 and 5:14. Far more common (48 times in Romans alone) is the word ἁμαρτία, usually translated as “sin.” The word Paul chooses in Romans 4:15 refers to “violation of the law given or sanctioned by God” (EDNT 3:14). Paul specifically has the Law in mind, so until the God defined some activity as unclean in the Law, it was not a “transgression of law.”

Abraham could not “transgress the Law” since there was no Law. There is a great deal in the Law that is a breach of ceremonial cleanliness. These things are not inherently evil or immoral. Until the Law said, “mold on your wall is a transgression,” it was not a transgression of Law. Until the Law said, “do not eat shellfish,” eating a lobster was not a transgression of Law.

Paul will pick up on this idea in Romans 7, stating he would not have known sin unless the Law had not defined sin. At this point in the argument of Romans, he is reinforcing the fact Abraham could not have broken or kept the Law because the time of the Law had not yet arrived.

Although this is more clear in Galatians 3, Paul argues the Law was given for a “time and a place” in the history of Salvation. It was a step in God’s plan to redeem humanity from sin, but it is a step that is now past. In the present age, people are able to be declared righteous by faith in Jesus, and they are unable to be declared righteous by keeping the Law.

This is an important observation for how we approach God in the present age. Does Christianity put too much emphasis on believing a set of facts or performing a series of rituals, rather than believing in God’s revelation through Jesus Christ? Is there a danger in emphasizing any practice over belief in Jesus?

Redemption through Jesus – Romans 3:22-25

Justification refers to God rendering a final verdict on the sinner. At the (future) final judgment, God will declare we are righteous, on the basis of the gracious gift of Jesus on the cross (in 3:20 the verb is future passive, although in the negative, no one will be justified by the Law). In other places, the same verb is in the perfect tense, looking back on the cross and its effects on the believer today. The verb in Romans 3 is in the present tense (present passive participle), we are being justified at the present time.

Image result for pay the ransomJustification is effected by God’s grace, as a gift. By definition, a gift is something given freely. If you try to pay for a gift, then it is no longer a gift and you run the risk of insulting the giver. By combining justification with grace (χάρις), Paul focuses attention on God as the one who bestows a gift on humans out of his gracious character. Grace is “God’s goodwill in action” often (but not always) in his gift of salvation (Kruse, Romans, 185).

Justification is also “through redemption in Christ Jesus.” The noun (ἀπολύτρωσις) is associated with paying a price in order to buy a slave or paying a ransom to win the freedom of a kidnapped person. There is an inscription dating before 100 B.C. which Moulton translated as “offering money for the ransom of other citizens, he showed himself gracious at every welcoming of those who from time to time safely returned.” (Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum15 325: τισὶν δὲ τῶν πολειτῶν ε[ἰς] λύτρα προτιθεὶς (sc. χρήματα) ἔδειξεν ἑαυτὸν πρὸς πᾶσαν ἀπάντησιν τῶν σωζομένων εὐομείλητον. See MM 554, Moulton, “Lexical Notes from the Papyri,” The Expositor VIII 1.3 (March 1911), 475-481).

In this case an offering of money was publicly presented as an act of grace (a free gift) to redeem citizens who had been taken captive by “barbarian invaders.” We cannot know the motivation for this benefactor’s gracious act on behalf of his fellow citizens. Presumably he did this for his own glory since he had his gracious deed inscribed on a monument.

In this metaphor for salvation, God is like a gracious benefactor who paid for the ransom to gain the freedom of those enslaved to sin. All of humanity was in rebellion against God, in a sense “captured by the enemy.” Beginning in Romans 1:18 Paul described God’s wrath as deserved because humans have provoked God by their rebellion and hypocrisy, so that all people fall under God’s just wrath. Now in Romans 3:3, God acts on behalf of rebellious humanity and obtains their freedom from their real enemy.

The Righteousness of God – Romans 3:21-26

This section is brief, but forms a theologically rich transition in the book of Romans. Having proven both Jew and Gentile stand before God condemned, Paul will now begin his argument that God himself has acted decisively to provide righteousness from God apart from the Law.

God Loved UsRomans 3:21-26 is one long sentence in Greek, although English translations usually break it up into several smaller sentences to assist readers to catch the flow of Paul’s thought. Several scholars have identified verses 24-26 as “early Christian confessional material.” Paul may have selected (and adapted) a well-known element of worship to support his thesis that God has provided righteousness through faith by means of the death of Jesus. There are several words Paul does not normally use (such as propitiation), implying he is adapting some existing confession of faith. However, since these verses are critically important to the argument of Romans, it seems unlikely

In contrast to his wrath (1:18), God is now revealing his righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ (v. 21-22). One problem with this paragraph is a single Greek word (δικαιοσύνη) can be translated as either righteousness or justice, two words with distinct meanings in English. Christianity tends to think of righteousness as a moral state (as opposed to sinfulness). Paul will use the word with that sense elsewhere, but here there is a contrast with the wrath of God toward those who have suppressed the clear revelation of God and rebelled against him.

Rather than venting wrath, God is now revealing how his justice will be satisfied. Humans are guilty of rebellion against God therefore ought to be found guilty when they stand before God as a righteous judge. But the death of Jesus serves as a propitiation, a sacrifice which turns aside wrath. Although this word is not particularly common in modern Christianity, both Jewish and Gentiles would have been familiar with a sacrifice which turns aside the wrath of a god. God is pleased with the sacrifice of Jesus and gives justice (δικαιοσύνη) for the sinner on the basis of that sacrifice.

A second problem is the meaning of the phrase “faith in Jesus” (pistis christou) in the NIV and ESV. The Greek does not have the preposition “in” so Paul may be referring to the faithfulness of Jesus in submitting to his death on the cross. This is a technical grammatical discussion and quite controversial in recent years. Usually the “new perspective on Paul” argues Paul meant the “faithfulness of Jesus” since the next phrase is “for all who believe.” If both phrases refer to our faith, then there is an awkward repetition. There are several other places in Paul’s letters where he uses a similar phrase and each might be interpreted as the faithful act of Jesus submitting to the Cross.

The traditional view is represented by the NIV and ESV is that the sinner’s faith in Jesus makes them right with God. When the sinner responds to God’s gracious offer of salvation, then they are “declared righteous” (justified) by God. This gets a bit ahead since the next two chapters of the book of Romans deal with how a sinner can be declared righteous by God.

There are several possible solutions in addition to these two popular suggestions. Paul does say “all who believe” (v. 22) and “received by faith” (v. 25), so even if Paul meant faithful act of Christ submitting to the cross in verse 22a, he is still clear that salvation is by God’s grace through our faith and not through works of the Law.

I have far more to say about justification as we move through chapters 4 and 5, but for now I want to focus on the shift from the wrath of God to the righteousness or justice of God. If Paul is right in his description of the total inability of humans to respond to God, then how does his solution in Romans 3:21-26 “solve the problem”? How does the offering of Jesus satisfy the justice of God?

Or to put it another way, how can we as Christians incorporate Paul’s view of propitiation into our theology and worship?

The Power of Sin – Romans 3:9-18

The final part of Paul’s claim that all humans are under the power of sin is a scriptural argument based in a series of verses strung together. The NIV translates the key phrase as “under the power of sin,” although the Greek is simple “under sin” (ESV, ὑφʼ ἁμαρτίαν). Both Jew and Gentiles alike are under controlled by sin and therefore are under the righteous wrath of God. This would be deeply offensive to some Jews who read this letter (Byrne, Romans, 118)!

chainsListing scripture to make a point is a rabbinic style of teaching, sometimes called a catena (see for example, Steve Moyise, “The Catena of Romans 3:10-18,” ET 106 (1995): 367-370). The list has an intentional structure, beginning and ending with similar words (on one), and the internal structure, sins of speech are grouped in vv. 13-15, sins of violence are grouped in vv. 15-17 (Moo, Romans, 202). One problem with this list is that read in their original context, none of these verses actually say there are no righteous people at all. If the words “no one is righteous” come from Eccl 7:20, Kruse argues the comment is on the fate of both the wise and the foolish (Kruse, Romans, 167).

In fact, the rest of the verses are in a context which specifically distinguishes the righteous from the wicked. Psalm 5:9 is specifically talking about the wicked; the verse does not say there are righteous (in contrast to the wicked). In two citations wicked Jewish people are in mind, on two Gentiles are in mind, and in the others the reference is general.

What has Paul done with this list of Old Testament texts? He has selected a series of verses which indicate there were wicked people within Israel. The “wicked” in the texts are other Israelites, not the Gentile nations.

Is Paul out of step with Second Temple Judaism in this condemnation of Jewish sin? There are quite a few pessimistic texts in the Hebrew Bible (Isa 59:12-15; 64:5-12, Ezra 9:6-15; Neh 9:16-38, Dan 9:4-19) as well as other Second Temple writers (Tobit 3:1-6; Jub. 23:16-21; 4 Ezra 7:22-24; 1QH 1:25-27, 29-31, 1 QS 11:9-10).

Jubilees 23:16-17 And in this generation children will reproach their parents and their elders on account of sin, and on account of injustice, and on account of the words of their mouth, and on account of great evil which they will do, and on account of their forsaking the covenant which the LORD made between them and himself so that they might be careful and observe all of his commandments and his ordinances and all of his law without turning aside to the right or left.  For they all did evil and every mouth speaks of sin and all of their deeds (are) polluted and abominable. And all of their ways (are) contamination and pollution and corruption.

1 QHa 1:25-27 (Sukenik Col. I; = 4Q432 2) How will a man count his sin? How will he defend his iniquities? How will an unjust respond to a just judgment? To you, you, God of knowledge, belong all the works of justice and the foundation of truth; but to the sons of Adam belongs the service of iniquity and the deeds of deception.

1QS 11:9-10  However, I belong to evil humankind, to the assembly of unfaithful flesh; my failings, my iniquities, my sins, {…} with the depravities of my heart, belong to the assembly of worms and of those who walk in darkness.

Paul is therefore in good company when he describes all humans, from idol-worshipping Gentiles to Jews who are making an effort to keep God’s law as sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Like the Qumran community Paul would agree humans “belong to the assembly of worms and of those who walk in darkness.”

The modern world seems split on the issue. Some books and movies seem to present humans as flawed, but improving. Perhaps humans can grow (evolve) out of the evil that seems so prevalent today (as in Star Trek or Doctor Who). Humans will make the right choice they are given an opportunity and are generally good people. On the other hand, there vivid representations of the darker side of humanity. Humans are twisted and evil (Fargo, Pulp Fiction).

So which is it? Are we flawed but improving? Or are we deeply evil, just one circumstance away from shockingly evil actions?

How can modern Christianity express a biblical view of humanity to a world which does not considered itself flawed?

The (non) Value of Circumcision – Romans 2:25-29

heart_circumcision_gwen_mehargSecond Temple period Judaism considered circumcision to be an important boundary marker. It was one of the key definitions of what it meant to be a Jewish person. Circumcision was a practice dating back to Abraham (Gen 17:9-14) and was intended as a physical sign of the covenant God made with Abraham to bless the whole world through his descendants. One of the factors in the Maccabean Revolt was a prohibition on circumcision of boys on the either day. At the time, some families did not perform the ritual in order to allow their sons opportunity in the Hellenistic world, but the Hasmoneans insisted on circumcision as a non-negotiable boundary marker.

Paul contrasts physical circumcision with an inward, spiritual circumcision (Romans 2:28-29). Even in the Old Testament there is a recognition that circumcision is of no value unless accompanied by obedience (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:26). This “spiritualized circumcision” is found in a number of Second Temple texts. For example:

Jubilees 1:23 But after this they will return to me in all uprighteousness and with all of (their) heart and soul. And I shall cut off the foreskin of their heart and the foreskin of the heart of their descendants. And I shall create for them a holy spirit, and I shall purify them so that they will not turn away from following me from that day and forever.

Odes of Solomon 11:1-3 My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up in it, and it produced fruits for the Lord. 2 For the Most High circumcised me by his Holy Spirit, then he uncovered my inward being toward him, and filled me with his love. 3 And his circumcising became my salvation, and I ran in the Way in his peace, in the Way of truth.

1QS 5:5 No one should walk in the stubbornness of his heart in order to go astray following his heart 5 and his eyes and the musings of his inclination. Instead he should circumcise in the Community the foreskin of his tendency and of his stiff neck in order to lay a foundation of truth for Israel, for the Community of the eternal 6 covenant.

4Q434 Frag. 1 i:3 (4QBarki Napshia) 4QBless, Oh my Soul In the abundance of his mercy he has favoured the needy and has opened their eyes so that they see his paths, and their ear[s] so that they hear 4 his teaching. He has circumcised the foreskin of their hearts and has saved them because of his grace and has set their feet firm on the path.

In Ephesians 2:11, Paul refers to the Jewish practice as “circumcision made in the flesh by hands” (ἐν σαρκὶ χειροποιήτου). In Colossians 2:11 Paul says those who are in Christ have been circumcised “with a circumcision made without hands… the circumcision of Christ.”

What is quite remarkable is Paul’s claim that someone could keep the requirements of the Law yet remain uncircumcised and be “regarded as circumcised.” By saying this, Paul is saying a Jew who is circumcised and does not keep the Law is “no better than a Gentile” (Kruse, Romans, 143). This is a radical statement in the context of Second Temple Judaism: A Gentile could (potentially) be closer to righteousness than a circumcised Gentile. There is nothing similar to this in the literature of the Second Temple (Barrett, Romans, 59).

Going a bit further, Paul says the uncircumcised law-keeper will condemn the Jew, even though the Jew is part of God’s covenant as demonstrated by obedience to circumcision. Scholars fret over who these Gentiles may be, I suggest this is similar to Jesus saying Sodom will “rise in judgment over Bethsaida and Korazim.” The worst sinners in history will be better than someone who was so close to the truth yet ultimately rejected it.

Circumcision therefore is “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (vv. 28-29). The “circumcision of the heart” is achieved by the action of the Holy Spirit, hinting at the activity of the Holy Spirit in salvation. What matters with respect to salvation is that the Holy Spirit has made the dead sinner alive again in Christ, not that the sinner was partially obedient to the Law.

The physical requirements of the Law are of no value if they are not accompanied by a real change of heart. Paul says that if a person tries to keep the law and fails he is not a Jew, the Law was not designed to provide salvation.

There are several implications which may follow from this. If the physical ritual did not really make a person right before God, could someone not practice the ritual and still be right with God? Paul certainly says this for Gentiles in Galatians, but for him to suggest this might be considered too radical for first century Jews. Is there any analogous practice or ritual in a modern Christian context which promises too much with respect to salvation?