Romans 4

This review of Romans 4 is provided by Kullervo. He is a former Mormon and someone who investigated most forms of Christianity before finding a home in Paganism.

So, up to this point, Paul has been creating an argument that runs something like this:

1. Jehovah is evident in the created universe, which means everyone in the world is aware of Him. That means everyone who is not a Jew or a Christian is intentionally and deliberately rebelling against the one true God. They might not know the specifics of the Law (either the Old Law of Moses or the New Law given by Jesus), but they do know, deep in their hearts, whether or not they have ever heard Christ preached to them, that their religions and traditions are false. This is illustrated by the wicked, depraved lives they lead: since they reject God, God leaves them to wallow in their filth. Because everyone knows about God, everyone who does not choose God is culpable for that choice.

2. Believers, whether under the Old Law or the New, are even more guilty. Unlike the unbelievers who merely reject the notion of the one true God, believers know all about the Law. They know God, they know what God expects of them, and yet they do not do it. They preach Jesus Christ but they do not do what He taught. They are worse than depraved; they are hypocrites. With full knowledge of what God expects of them, they nevertheless act otherwise.

3. So whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, Greek or Barbarian, you stand condemned . God’s reality is evident, and His will is known. Those that don’t deny his existence and sovereignty despite the evidence are guilty of knowingly rejecting Him, and those that do acknowledge Him fail to do His will despite the fact that He has made it plainly known. So everyone fails, everyone is damned. God’s standard is perfection, and whether or not that standard is theoretically reachable by human effort, it is plain by looking around that no human has ever actually reached it.

4. Because, as a practical matter, our efforts always fail, the Law is not a practical way for us to meet God’s standards. It’s a safe harbor, but only theoretically, because no ships are ever in it. Instead, we have an alternate way to meet God’s standard: faith. Because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, we can be saved by our faith where we are condemned by the Law.

I have made my distaste for parts of this argument sufficiently clear (in the comments to the post on Romans 1) that I don’t need to go over that again. Nevertheless, although I find Paul’s specifics troubling, I think that the basic thread of the argument is still valid. If we assume that God has a standard for human behavior, and if we assume that the standard can only be met by perfect compliance, then it is plain that nobody ever meet’s God’s standard because nobody actually complies. At first glance it may seem unfair to also condemn the world’s unbelievers who have never heard of God’s law, but in reality, I think we can safely assume that even if they did know about God’s law, they wouldn’t be any better at following it than the believers are. Although the Gentiles and Barbarians may have never heard of Jesus or Jehovah, they still fail to even live up to their own ethical and moral standards. What would make me think that they would do any better with God’s standards of perfection? Show me the perfectly ethical and moral person and I’ll buy that someone might have wiggle room out of this.

So, assuming arguendo the existence of God, Law, and Sin, the basic idea, which is that we all sin and fall short, is not particularly hard to swallow. And if God sets out a perfect standard that we would all inevitably fail to live up to, it stands to reason that God would set out another way. And Paul says that way is faith. Our righteousness (or lack thereof) condemns us, but our faith justifies us.

And that brings us to Chapter 4, which is a chapter about Abraham. In the New Testament, there are two things about Abraham that are consistently significant, whether they are brought up when Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees or whether they are brought up in one of several epistles: first, Abraham is the primary ancestor of God’s covenant people, and second, Abraham was a man of incredible faith.

It’s no accident that Abraham is used as an example of faith. Paul is writing in a period of time relatively shortly after Jesus’s crucifixion, while the apostles were still living. Christianity was still struggling to define itself in relation to Judaism and to work out the borders between the two. And what better person to use as an example of (proto-) Christian faith than the founder of the entire nation? By invoking Abraham as an example of the kind of faith that leads to salvation, Paul is carefully and deliberately making a statement about the inferiority of the Old Law as compared to the New. By describing Abraham—the one person more significant to Jews than Moses—in terms of Christian faith, Paul unambiguously declares that the New Law is greater than the Old Law because it encompasses and transcends the Old Law. Christian faith is not an alternate path to God after all; it is in fact the only path that there ever was.

Thus the significance of Paul’s odd-seeming nitpicking about circumcision starting in verse 9. Abraham’s faith came first, before the covenant. Abraham’s faith thus transcends the covenant entirely. The Law is real, and the law is necessary, but the Law is subordinate to faith. Abraham consistently demonstrated that he believed that God would do what God said He would do. Hence Isaac, hence many nations, hence covenant, and hence the only real perfect righteousness that human beings will ever know. Perfect righteousness not by our perfect deeds, but God’s perfect righteousness as long as we trust God the way Abraham trusted God.

Abraham is an illustration of faith, but he is also more than that. Paul is doing more in chapter 4 than merely digressing from his argument to give us an example of a faithful person. He could have used any faithful believer for that. Paul is saying something more sophisticated about righteousness, the Law, and faith. He is showing that faith is not an alternate to the Law, or somehow secondary to the Law, but that faith is—and always was—the One True Righteousness. By our faith, we are counted as righteous in a way that we could never achieve by our deeds. Faith came first, and everything unfolded from there.


29 thoughts on “Romans 4

  1. Hello. I’ve only had time to breeze through this post as I’m in a rush at the moment. It’s truly impossible to please God without faith. This was true in the old testament as well as the new. Abraham believed God and his actions were proof that he believed God.

    When I saw the title of your blog on the WordPress readomatic feature, I was curious as to what the primary agenda was. I’ll swing by later as this is definately a place of much pondering.


  2. Romans 4:4-5 is really precious to me. I believe it is the passage that God used to conquer my heart, to win me over to himself, to bring me to the point of surrender. God justifies the ungodly, like me, only when I stop working for it, and start trusting the God who justifies the ungodly. The ungodly is counted/reckoned godly. And then he breaks out in song/Psalm:

    7-8: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

    On a related note, because verse five is so precious to me, it was all the more outrageous and revolting to learn what Joseph Smith did to it in the JST (God justifies “not” the ungodly).

    Grace and peace in Jesus,


  3. “Abraham is an illustration of faith, but he is also more than that. Paul is doing more in chapter 4 than merely digressing from his argument to give us an example of a faithful person.”

    Well said.

  4. Aaron: I would have thought you’d be even more offended by what Joseph did with v 16. I think he altered the meaning much more so there.

  5. Pingback: Paul’s Epistle To The Romans | Songs From The Wood

  6. It seems to me that Abraham is always invoked by the early apostles as the prime example of faith. I’ve often thought that this was simply because of the faith he showed in being willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, and the connection that can be made between Isaac and Christ – the father sacrificing the son. But it makes a lot of sense to realise that Abraham is invoked as a means of showing a man of perfect righteousness who lived before the time of the Law.

    I wonder how important it is that Abraham appears to be the one who lived righteously without any law or rules set forth. The scriptural accounts essentially tell us that Abraham was righteous, and God selected him to be the father of His covenant people as a result. Abraham followed not a higher law but the highest law–doing right because it is right.

  7. I’ve been reading the story of Abraham to my kids lately. I don’t see him being portrayed as man of perfect righteousness by any means.

    The book of Hebrews says that righteousness was credited to him because of his faith. But he wasn’t righteous. As Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

  8. The book of Hebrews says that righteousness was credited to him because of his faith. But he wasn’t righteous. As Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

    Assuming that to be “righteous” you have to live God’s standard perfectly. I’m not sure that even semantically makes sense. People say grass is green without it having to be pure green on the electromagnetic spectrum with no deviation. It’s “green” because it’s more green than anything else. It’s basically green. And we all know when we say “green” we mean anything that’s in the immediate neighborhood, with some margin for error.

    I don’t think the definition of “righteous” requires absolute perfection, by anyone’s dictionary. That’s not how we actually use the word.

  9. Abraham doesn’t even live up to a definition of righteousness that doesn’t require perfection. His sins are plainly stated in his story.

  10. Alex: “Abraham appears to be the one who lived righteously without any law or rules set forth…. Abraham followed not a higher law but the highest law–doing right because it is right.”

    While the scriptures don’t spell it out, I always read Abraham’s story as him living—at minimum—with the laws of the society in which he was raised. So he wasn’t totally without law. As for him doing right because it was right, I question that statement because Abraham most famously did what was wrong (attempt to kill his son) because he was told to.

    That said, I still appreciate how you point out that Abraham was living some kind of righteousness before any law was given to him from God.

  11. Alex and Brian, I have a book on my desk, entitled “Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives” (2009) by Robert R. Gonzales Jr.

    On the back cover, Bruce Waltke writes, “Although my library shelf holds many commentaries on Genesis, I eagerly anticipate turning again and again to Where Sin Abounds by Robert R. Gonzales Jr. In a fresh, comprehensive, and detailed theological exegesis, Gonzales empowers the patriarchal narrative, as well as the so-called primeval histroy, to express the spread of sin, its varied nature, and the divinely imposed consequences. Here is a monograph that the contemporary evangelical church, corrupted by the Marcionite heresy, needs desparately to hear.”

    Abraham is a chief example of a man who was a pagan, but where God’s tsunami grace abounded.

  12. Verse 5, in light of 1-8, is implying Abraham and David were “ungodly.” That’s not all Romans 4 says, but it is part of it.

  13. And I use to think that it was the strength of my faith that saved me.

    We can chuckle at that, but it does raise a question. What kind of faith is Paul talking about here?

    How many of us have the kind of faith that Abraham did? If he had had the faith of a mustard seed, would that have counted?

    Abraham is described as one not weak in faith, unwavering in belief and fully convinced. Is this the kind of faith that is needed to be justified?

  14. Eric, if it was the strength of my faith that justifies, I would be condemned. But fundamentally important to my salvation, no matter how weak my faith might appear at times, it must be centered on the right Object.

    The Object of my faith is the One who justifies.

  15. Let’s try to conceptualize this with an illustration.

    Each of those Chile miners showed faith when they stepped into that rescue pod which pulled them all the way upward into the glorious light.

    Some of them could have been a little more weak or nervous or fearful as they were carried upwards, but that didn’t stop them from being saved.

  16. TW said:

    Eric, if it was the strength of my faith that justifies, I would be condemned.

    You and I both.

    But do either one of us have the kind of faith that Abraham had? You might, but I don’t. It’s not strong enough that I would decapitate my son if I heard God tell me to (although it has been strong enough to send two of them off to secular colleges 🙂 ).

    So is Paul saying we need that strong of faith? I’m not disagreeing with you (so I’m playing devil’s advocate a little bit); at this point, I just don’t see support from Paul that a mustard seed of faith is what he’s talking about here. He seems to be talking about a faith that’s quite intense.

    Or perhaps Jared C is on to something: Perhaps he’s talking about a faith that leads to action of some sort. Maybe for some of us, the action that God asks of us is seemingly insignificant, but for others not.

    I’m thinking out loud here, trying to get a handle on what Paul is really saying and not trying to project my own thoughts onto him.

  17. Guys, which could be a takeaway from Romans 4?

    1. Lord, let me work just to be sure of my salvation.

    2. Work really has nothing to do with guaranteeing my salvation – to make it stable and valid before the all seeing eye of the Rescuer and Justifier. I am going to stop my work that I have been trusting in.

    Concerning Abraham, he wasn’t “dead” with Hagar some years earlier. Not showing faith, but good in sexual strength, he surely impregnates the woman.

    But now, with more passing of time, how can that dead man impregnate? And how in the world can the dead womb of Sarah produce. Neither one of them can muster up the work. They are helpless.

    But there is One outside of Abraham and Sarah and you and me, who can do the work – who has done absolutely all of it. This Superhero “quickeneth the dead” (makes me think of that famous passage in Ephesians 2).

    Faith is that fork that enables us to mightily partake of the gospel where we go from death to life. Abraham grabbed on with both hands the promise of God – the bare word of God.

    And as far as showing people around us our faith by our works . . . you bet . . . we must not cease our work day after day after day in “giving glory to God”. Now and stretching into eternity.

    And if there are “Christians” not awakened to that kind of work, they are still dead.

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