Paul’s contribution to the early church was of immense importance, so much so that God, working through the early church, ensured that his extant letters to believers throughout the known ancient world would be preserved as Canon.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome stands as a treatise on the justifications for, and recommended practice of this new faith for both Jews and Gentiles. And central to the Divine Doctrine he taught, was the expansive discussion on Faith for the Christian, which continues in Chapter 4.
Abraham Justified by Faith
1 What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
Thus Paul begins the great argument of the necessary (and wholly sufficient) faith. God had come to Abraham in a vision, and in this vision he was shown great things. In this vision, he was told that even at his advanced age, he would have an heir. He was told to count the stars in the heavens, and told, “So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) That is the promise, that was the vision, those were the words of prophesy that Abraham believed were truly from God, and that specific belief was what was accounted as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
If we believe what we see with our eyes and what we know from experience, how much faith does that require? If we count on those truths that we have already proven in count or by touch or from direct observation, we give but passive assent to that which is evident, that stands as solid as anything in the world.
But to believe a vision? Some imaginary flourish, that, as Scrooge would say, was some undigested bit of porridge, some fit of fancy?
If we then have faith in that which is unseen, as the letter to the Hebrews has it, faith being the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), then it follows that any work that we perform is in response to our feeling of indebtedness to Him, not as work in exchange for some future earning. And in that sense, are not engaged ion some kind of worldly exchange of value: as in the example, when we offer our labor as effort in some manner of exchange, we rightly expect that payment due, a transfer of some agreed upon equivalent in value.
As Paul says, such efforts, such works as are performed “for hire” may very well be subject of some pride, but only in the ways of men. God has not engaged us as journeymen for hire, nor do we earn anything by way of recompense that God now owes to us. And Paul goes on to underscore that exact point by reference to The Psalmist King David.
David Celebrates the Same Truth
5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, 6 just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
7 “ Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
8 Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.”
Men will ever sin, and there is surely time and place for repentance and a call to obedience. But here Paul use’s the words of David to underscore the vital correlation between faith and righteousness. By our deeds, we know “there are none righteous, no not one.” It is faith, pure and unmediated faith that is what God sees and acknowledges in His children that brings His blessing.
It is when we seek out God, that we trust in His word, that we believe what He says, and are willing to see Him at work around us and believe in the reality of His presence and work, that He can work with us. We are all imperfect vessels, and He knows that. But He can do nothing with us until we are ready to humbly accept that fact, but humbly seek him despite knowing our own weaknesses and unworthiness. That’s when He can work with us, that’s when we are as malleable as clay.
What of Abraham, what of circumcision? Oh, you can almost put yourself in the middle of the quarrels. This aspect of Jewish law, that aspect, the traditions of Jerusalem, the practices of Roman believers, and oh those heathen Gentiles! Here is where Paul points his argument directly at the schism of Jew and Gentile.
Abraham Justified Before Circumcision
9 Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. 10 How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
Paul makes the rather simple argument that Abraham was justified by faith quite a time before he was called upon to circumcise himself and his tribe. And yet, uncircumcised as he was, Abraham was accounted as righteous. Faith is altogether different than God’s instruction for the children of the Law to circumcise themselves in obedience to him, and as covenant that they would uphold his laws and ordinances.
God promised Abraham the rich abundance of His blessing not because of Abraham’s obedience under some law, but because Abraham was righteous in His faith in God and what God said. Abraham later obeyed God because he first had faith that whatever God wanted for Abraham was what Abraham would or should want too. He knew that God’s way was the best way, and thus later obeyed when called by God to do so.
The Promise Granted Through Faith
13 For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, 15 because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations”) in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; 18 who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.”
Paul declares that heirs are heirs by sharing Abraham’s faith, not by sharing in his circumcision. If heirs are heirs only if they obey the law, then as Paul says, faith is of no account, heirs achieve God’s blessing only through works under law. Again, this comes back to earning the promise as a wage slave for works. We put in the time, we do the job, we get the reward. What we think about the job, or our Master, is entirely beside the point. Otherwise, it’s, “You owe us our due, God.” And that would mean God is obligated to us, not showing us mercy in blessing us on the virtue of our faith, alone.
That is God’s amazing grace, that while we were yet sinners and not obedient to Him, came to believe, and God showed us mercy and offered forgiveness of sin by belief in His Son Jesus. Being an heir in a human sense can be precarious, you might be in competition with the other heirs in the eyes of the Lord of the Estate, promises can be made, but broken, earthly riches can evaporate.
As Paul said, God gives life to the dead and can speak that which does not exist as though they do, and thus speaks things into being that were not. He has promised Abraham heirs among many nations, not just one nation, and not just one people.
19 And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. 22 And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, 24 but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.
Faith comes first. We believe all these things are possible. God gives our hearts and minds this absolutely incredible, impossible-to-believe-idea, that the God of all creation has a heart that beats specifically for each of us. This promise to all who would believe had been prepared long before Abraham knew God, long before Abraham himself, and stands so today for all of his spiritual heirs. But it comes first. We believe, and that draws us. It compels us. It grows obedience in us, as we test His yoke and find the burden light. We test His promises and find them true.
God looks for that attentiveness in us. For it is then that He can work with us.
May He find you in a clayful mood.