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Blogging Romans: The Reckoning

January 19, 2012

Our class this week finished off the first main section of Romans by reading chapter four.  We then turned to chapter five, which moves the letter in new directions.  In my early planning, I imagined that I would lightly touch upon Paul’s discussion of Abraham in Romans 4 and then spend the bulk of our time in Romans 5.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: I found myself engrossed by Paul’s depiction of Abraham, the father of many nations.

Paul’s jumping off point is Genesis 15:6: “And (Abraham) believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul makes the case for the universal failure of humanity to live into right relationship with God.  All have fallen prey to sin and idolatry (which for Paul are pretty much the same thing).  But Abraham was reckoned as righteous.  What distinguished him (and we would do well to include Sarah, too) from the rest of humanity?

Paul makes quick work of three prime candidates.  Abraham wasn’t declared righteous because of his works (4:2-8).  He hasn’t done anything when the call of the Lord comes to him in Haran.  Abraham does not find favor with the Lord through circumcision (4:9-12).  For one thing, Abraham is circumcised (Genesis 17) after he is declared righteous.  It is simply, therefore, a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, not its basis.  Paul also drives home an important side note: Abraham is reckoned to be righteous as a Gentile, one who is as yet ungodly in the sense that he did not know the Lord prior to the call and who does not yet bear the mark of the covenant in his flesh.

Finally, Paul dismisses the Torah as a basis for Abraham’s righteousness (4:13-15).  Again, the simple argument is one of chronology; the Law is not given until Moses and the people reach Mount Sinai more than 500 years later.  But there is a larger point, as well.  If the Law is God’s mechanism for declaring righteousness then faith is null.  It is unnecessary to believe, to trust, if we can earn righteousness through our behavior.  Furthermore, the promise would be void, for there is no one who would qualify, including Abraham.

Abraham doesn’t merit righteousness through his behavior, he doesn’t inherit it through his ethnicity, and he doesn’t qualify on the basis of the Law.  “For this reason it depends on faith” (4:16).  It depends on God’s reckoning, God’s decision to begin the project of reclaiming and restoring humanity through a covenant with Abraham.  Abraham’s only qualification is that he believes the Lord’s promises, ridiculous as they are.

The rest of the chapter plays out quickly but powerfully.  What promise does Abraham believe?  That he and Sarah will be the father and mother of many nations, even though Abraham was as good as dead and Sarah was barren.  There was no reason for faith other than simple trust in the ability and desire of the One who made the promise to keep the promise.  Notice the way in which Paul uses Abraham to prefigure Christian faith.  God has always been the One who could use the “good as dead” for his purposes.  In Jesus, he uses the actually dead to seal the covenant of life once and for all.

Abraham’s faith is therefore not held up simply as something to be imitated (though we could do worse).  Abraham’s faith in God’s promise becomes the beachhead God uses to inaugurate the plan that comes to fruition in Jesus Christ that we – Jews and Gentiles alike, just as Abraham was Gentile and Jew – might be part of God’s family.  Faith becomes our only qualification, the only thing necessary on our end of the bargain.  It’s important to hone this point.  For Paul, faith is not what we “do” to merit God’s favor instead of keeping the Law; it is not what we “do” because we have failed to do God’s will and hope that he’ll let us off the hook if only we believe.  That’s not how Law and Gospel relate to one another.  God, apart from any success or failure on our part, desires faith and has always done so.  As those who turned away from God, Paul can call us ungodly.  Faith is turning back and trusting – now, finally – in the God who can and does bring life out of death, the One who can and does call into existence the things that do not exist.  Faith is seeing that God has done this for us in Christ and recognizing that there is no longer anything for us to do.  Indeed, God was never really demanding anything to begin with outside of a faith that trusted him to make good on his promises for his people.

This righteousness that is reckoned to us by faith becomes the basis for our justification, the theme which Paul takes up fully in chapter 5.  In this justification, Paul assures us, we find peace with God, a grace to stand on, and a certain hope in sharing the glory of God.  After all, if God has done such a thing as give us Jesus to be crucified and then raised him for us, how much more certain is our hope of future glory, even if we suffer in the meantime?  The sin Paul spent so much time discussing at the outset of this epistle, now characterized by the primal sin of Adam, is suddenly no match for the “grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ (that) abounded for the many” (5:16).  Suddenly, where once sin and death reigned, a new kingdom of grace exercises dominion.  Why?  Because we are justified.  How?  Through the dying and rising of our Lord Jesus Christ.  With what requirement of us?  None, but that we believe in the God of Jesus Christ who, while we were still ungodly, died for us at just the right time and reckons those who were ungodly to now be righteous.

May we claim our identity as descendents of Abraham, members of God’s family of faith.  May the good news of the victory of grace keep us in hope.  And may the reckoning that has come to us call forth the faith to believe what God has already declared.

“Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendents be.’”  Romans 4:18

From → Scripture

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