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Paul's letter to the Romans

chapter  4

The faith of Abraham

How does this work out for Abraham,  our common ancestor?   If Abraham was justified for doing something then he has cause for self-congratulation.   But that's not what scripture says:  'Abraham put his faith in God,  and that faith was counted to him as righteousness   (Gen 15:6).'   If someone has done a job the wages are not 'counted' as a favour:  they are paid as a debt.   But if someone has nothing to show beyond faith in the God who justifies sinners,  then that faith must indeed be 'counted' as righteousness.

And the psalmist says the same:  you are blessed if God counts you righteous,  irrespective of good deeds  -

   'Happy are those whose sins are forgiven,
   whose wrongdoing has been covered over.
   Happy those whose guilt God does not hold against them
.      (Ps 32:1,2)'

Is this happiness only for the circumcised,  or for the uncircumcised too?   Think about it.   We say that Abraham's faith was counted to him as righteousness.   Was he circumcised at the time?   Indeed,  no.   Only later did he receive the sign of circumcision to mark the righteousness to which faith had already brought him.   That makes him the father of all who come into faith while uncircumcised.   Yet at the same time he is the father of those of the circumcised who do not rely on their circumcision alone,  but who,  like Abraham,  walk the path of faith.      [1-12]

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this passage is an ad hominem argument proving to Jews from their own scriptures that it is not circumcision that matters.   In actual fact,  in a letter to Gentile Christians,  the argument moves in a different direction.   It reinforces a perception that Gentile and Jew are intimately related in God's larger plan.   The new situation created by the movement of Gentiles into faith has not cancelled everything that went before,  but in fact harmonizes with it.
It wasn't through keeping any law that Abraham or his descendants received the promise of inheriting the world,  but through the righteousness that came through faith.   If only the law-obedient are heirs then faith is pointless and the promise means nothing.   What the law leads to is retribution,  although actually,  before the law was given,  there could hardly be law-breaking.   The promise came purely in response to faith,  so that it would be a matter of sheer grace,  and so that it might be there for all Abraham's posterity  -  not just for those who hold by the law but equally for those who share Abraham's faith.   We are all his children:  'I have made you father of many nations  (Gen 17:5).'   Abraham put his faith in God,  who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that did not before exist.

Hoping beyond hope,  he held to the faith through which he became 'father of many nations',  just as he had been promised:  'So shall your descendants be.  (Gen 15:5)'   Well aware of the deadness of his own body and of Sarah's womb  -  he was about a hundred years old  -  he did not waver in his confidence in God's ability to keep his promise.   This is the faith that was 'counted to him as righteousness'.

All this applies not just to Abraham but also to us.   It will be  'counted to'  us too,  if we have faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead  -  Jesus who was put to death for our wrongdoing,  and raised to life so that we might live before God.      [13-25]

  paraphrase and notes by Evan Lewis


Making connections with Paul the apostle
What Paul did NOT write

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