Sunday, December 10, 2006

Romans 4:1-3

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God. What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness"[Genesis 15:6].

V1 — Proof that the gospel is rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul has repeatedly gone out of his way to establish this fact. (See Romans 1:2 and 3:21 and now 4.) Why? His audience was primarily Jewish Christians, and they had grown up learning the law from rabbis who taught justification by works. Paul just finished teaching justification by faith in chapter 3. When people are set in their ways, it’s hard to get them to accept change. That’s why Paul hammers on the truths he teaches as being rooted in the Old Testament. He first uses the example of Abraham, and then he uses David, perhaps 2 of the 3 greatest heroes of Judaism, to make his point. So Paul asks, “What does Abraham’s situation say about this?”

It’s very important to understand the context, the culture, the audience, and Paul’s purpose when reading chapter 4. Many Jewish Christians, being new in their faith in Christ, and certainly all Jews, would have struggled with justification by faith; they looked at Abraham as being righteous on his own. So Paul strived to take them to the traditional proof texts of the Jewish rabbis in order to show them that his teaching was true. Paul knew that his contemporaries would have appealed to Abraham to prove that salvation was by works, by one’s own righteousness, at least to some degree by one’s own merit. But Paul appeals to Abraham to show that, in fact, the Old Testament Scriptures teach the opposite. Salvation is by grace and received by faith. There is continuity here, as all people ever to be saved are saved by grace through faith, regardless of when or where they lived.

V2-3 — If salvation has anything to do with you, then boasting is possible. The Jews of Paul’s day taught that Abraham was chosen by God because of his righteousness. They taught that since he was the most righteous man of his day, God chose him to be the father of Israel. Furthermore, they also taught that Abraham was without sin, that he did not need to repent, and that he had kept God’s law perfectly throughout his life. Here are examples:

In the prayer of Manasseh, which was written a couple of centuries before the time of Christ, we read: “Therefore, You, O Lord, the God of the righteous have not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against you. But you have appointed repentance for me, a sinner.” There’s the suggestion that some people out there that don’t need to repent, that some haven’t sinned other than Christ.

From the book of Jubilees, a Jewish work written before the time of Christ, we read: “Abraham was perfect in his deeds with the Lord and well pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.” I wonder if the author of that read Genesis 12-17. The Abraham in Genesis 12-17 was a man who fell into sin and displeased the Lord and wounded his own people and had to be restored in his feeble faith. Yet this is what the Jewish rabbis taught.

Even in commenting on Genesis 15:6, which is quoted in Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited (or imputed, as we’ll see) to him as righteousness,” the rabbis said: “Our father, Abraham, became the heir of this and the world to come simply by the merit of faith. His faith was a work whereby he earned the right to the inheritance of this world and the world to come.”

This is what the Jews thought. And so Paul countered this by suggesting that Abraham, then, would have had a reason to boast before God. But the Jews couldn’t imagine boasting before God! Paul knew that they wouldn’t dare boast before God, so he closed the argument with “but not before God.” That helped make the point that the Jews already knew but did not admit: It’s not in us! If it was in us, then we’d have something about which to boast. The Jews hadn’t taken their beliefs to the logical conclusion. They just accepted what they had been taught without going deeper, without carrying it out. And that is dangerous to do for us today as well. If you say that God is saving you because of something in you, that’s wrong. Do you think God looked out and saw that you were good or saw something good in you that wasn’t in others, and that’s why He saved you? That’s wrong. If that were right, you could boast before Him. Paul makes that clear right here. There is no boasting before God.

To clarify, faith is the means of receiving righteousness. Faith is not righteousness, nor is it the cause of righteousness. Through the channel of faith, by faith, Christ’s righteousness is credited or imputed to us. Here’s a poor analogy: We would not say that the wire in our wall is the cable TV signal, nor would we say that the wire caused or merited or earned or deserved the cable TV signal. The wire is absolutely essential for our television to receive a cable signal. But in and of itself, the wire is not the signal. The wire is the conduit or channel by which we receive the cable TV signal. Faith is not righteousness / justification, nor does it cause or merit righteousness / justification. It’s absolutely essential for righteousness / justification. It’s the conduit or channel through which God accomplishes His justification and His salvation. God justifies us and credits Christ’s righteousness to us through faith. This question still remains: Why do some have faith and not others? Is it something in them? If so, how can they not boast?

No comments: