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?

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?

An Atoning Sacrifice (Romans 3:25)

Paul uses a wide variety of metaphors for salvation in the book of Romans, but the idea of redemption and sacrifice would have been most clear to both Jews and Gentiles. It is God who provides salvation through the faithful act of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus did not offer himself independently, the Cross is God’s way of providing redemption from sin (3:24). The Cross was part of Paul’s gospel proclamation from the beginning, so the Cross and the Gospel cannot be separated.

Mercy SeatIn Romans 3:25 Paul describes the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin. The key metaphor used in Romans 3:25 is an atoning sacrifice (ἱλαστήριον). Some translations use the term propitiation in 3:25 (ESV) and others use “atoning sacrifice” (NIV). This reflects a problem understanding the word ἱλαστήριον. It can refer to the means by which God forgives sin, specifically the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. A Gentile might thing of sacrifices offered in order to placate angry gods. But the word also can refer to the mercy seat in the LXX, the lid on the ark of the covenant (כַּפֹּרֶת), the very place where sin is cover on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:15). The high priest entered the present of God in the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of a sacrifice to illustrate God’s continuing covering of Israel’s sin.

Does this word refer to the means of turning aside wrath or the place of propitiation? Did the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross “turn aside the wrath” of the angry God who is justly condemning all of humanity (Rom 1:18-3:20)?  James Dunn, for example, argued propitiation in the Hebrew Bible did not mean God was mollified by the Day of Atonement, as if he were a pagan god who was pleased with the sacrifices of his worshipers. In fact, it is God himself who has made the sacrifice which covers sin.

For Dunn, the atonement is a covering of sin rather than a turning away of wrath, although once the sin is covered, God’s wrath is appeased.  He suggests the background for Paul’s use of the word may be the growing Martyr Cult in Judaism (4 Maccabees, for example), in which people are willing to die for the traditions of their ancestors. But it could also be drawn from the regular practice of sacrifice at the Temple. Dunn points out this makes little difference since the martyr theology is an application of sacrificial language of Hebrew Bible anyway.

In Judaism, the sacrifice was for sin. The death of the sinful person is the only way to atone for sin unless a substitute as offered in the place of the sinner. For Paul, Jesus somehow embodied “sinful flesh” in order to deal with sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3). Jesus was “made sin” on our behalf (2 Cor 5:21).

What is remarkable about Paul’s theology in Romans 3:25 is that the atoning sacrifice was made entirely by God. He initiated the sacrifice and he was the sacrifice. Humans are in rebellion and completely estranged from God. Not only can humans not atone for their own sins, they refuse to believe that their sins separate them from God. Therefore God himself provides the means for humans to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus.

What are the implications of God’s gracious act in offering an atoning sacrifice and creating the possibility for humans to have sins covered?  There are some heavy theological implications, but if this is an accurate view of what God has done, how ought humans respond, both ethically and doxologically?

The Righteousness of God (Romans 1:17)

Longenecker and Still have stimulating section on the “righteousness of God” in Romans (Thinking through Paul, 174-7). Prior to the Reformation, the phrase referred to the justice of God and his righteous judgment of sin. Think of the Renaissance paintings depicting God as a fearsome judge presiding over the judgment of sinners.

RighteousnessAfter Martin Luther, however, the definition of the righteousness of God was expanded to include God’s graciousness and gift of mercy give to those who believe. Rather than the “justice of God” punishing sinners, justification referred to a gracious act of God by which he imputed his righteousness to those who have faith. This is the sense of justification has dominated systematic theology as well as Pauline studies since the reformation. In fact, “justification by faith” is usually made the “center” of Pauline theology.

This emphasis led to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism in biblical studies. First-century Jews become proto-Pelagians and Paul is similar to Martin Luther bashing the Roman church. Judaism was often described as the antithesis of Paul’s (Gentile) Christianity. Paul’s theology developed out of Paul’s personal struggle against Judaism. While this is very preachable, it may not accurately describe Paul’s thinking with respect to the righteousness of God and how that righteousness is applied to the sinner.

Ernst Käsemann argued the “righteousness of God” refers to God’s sovereign activity over all of creation (TTP, 175). More than only saving individual sinners, the righteousness of God that is being revealed in Romans 1:17 is a redemption of all creation. It is not simply that God imputes righteousness to the believer, but that God is ultimately faithful to his promise to redeem creation. This coheres well with the narrative shape of Pauline theology, according to Longenencker and still (176). Just as God revealed his righteousness by remembering his covenant and redeeming Israel in the past (Ps 98:1-3), so he now reveals his righteousness buy redeeming all of creation through Christ Jesus.

In the Hebrew Bible, this meant God kept his promises to bless Abraham’s children even though there were unfaithful. He kept his promise to Israel even though they were unfaithful to the Law. In the present age, God is still faithful in keeping his promise to redeem people from slavery to sin despite their longstanding rebellion against God. This faithfulness of God is sometimes described as “steadfast love” (חֶסֶד, Ps 98:3, for example).

Is this a better way of understanding the “righteousness of God”? It seems to resonate with what Paul says in the rest of Romans, but does it stray too far from “personal salvation”? Perhaps there is a danger in over-emphasizing the action of God for all of creation and missing the “call to salvation” the Gospel offers to individual sinners.

It is also possible Evangelical Christianity has so over-emphasized personal righteousness in salvation that we have missed Paul’s point: it is God’s righteousness that is demonstrated in his offer of salvation. Certainly Paul is talking about the problem of our sin, but the emphasis is on the sovereign God who solved that problem because he is a righteous judge.