12 March 2012

Romans 4:1-12

"For what does the scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'" (v. 3)


Paul, himself a highly qualified and well-educated Jew, was a continual irritant to his own faith community. His big-hearted acceptance of non-Jewish (or Gentile) Christians as equally valid 'children of Abraham' alongside those who came to faith in Christ from a Jewish background, angered many. Towards the end of chapter 3, Paul has stated that he does uphold the Jewish law, and also that "the righteousness of God" (Romans 3:21), which he is proclaiming, can be found in the law and the prophets. Now he has to provide evidence for those claims.

Perhaps as we read this passage it is helpful for us to imagine a court of law, for Paul uses terms and methods which would not be out of place there. The key 'charge' in this passage, and all the readings this week, concerns 'justification' - what it is and how one obtains it. A simple definition would be to see justification as being 'put right with God' - accepted by God without any sin marring that acceptance. Many Jews of Paul's day believed that such justification could be attained by 'works of the law', by obedience to a written (and non-written) moral code of vast dimensions. Paul's theology cuts across this; claiming that justification is always and only a gift from God that comes not through works, but through grace and faith. Although Paul's own understanding of this has only come to him through the revelation of Jesus Christ, he now believes, and seeks to convince others, that the way of salvation by grace is no innovation; any true understanding of the Hebrew scriptures is one which sees them as pointing forward to what God would do in Christ.

He begins by calling Abraham as a witness. Abraham was the founding father of the Jewish religion; the example above all others of a man who lived a truly righteous life. Perhaps typically of Paul, he uses as his first argument (in verse 3), a verse from Genesis which his opponents also used, but with a very different result!Genesis 15:6 states that "[Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness". Contemporary Jewish scholarship used the verse as a proof text that Abraham was justified on the grounds of his works; Paul claims quite the opposite, that the verse proves that Abraham's works were not the grounds for his justification. In essence Paul is claiming here that (even) Abraham was not, of himself, righteous. However, because of his faith he was treated as if he were. Therefore his standing before God (his justification) was not an attainment, but a gift (verses 5-8). He quotes from Psalm 32:1-2 in support of this; trusting in God includes trusting in God's forgiveness, and this brings about blessing.

Circumcision was, for Jews, the definitive mark of whether you were 'in' or 'out'. By pointing out that Abraham was reckoned as righteous by God BEFORE he was circumcised (which takes place inGenesis 17) Paul is able to claim the same benefits for Jewish and Gentile Christians alike.

To Ponder

Some Christians today can fall into the same tendency of thinking and living as though acceptance before God is something that can be earnt. How does this false belief show itself in your life or in the life of your church?

How can a guilty person today know the blessedness of which the psalmist speaks?

Is there an outward, physical sign of being 'in' or 'out' of the Christian faith today? If so, what? Is this important? And why (or why not)?

Bible notes author

Jill Baker

Jill Baker lives in Glasgow and is glad to be part of the small but distinctive Methodist Church in Scotland. She is a local preacher and local preachers' tutor in the Strathclyde Circuit, where Andrew is superintendent minister.