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.