Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Romans 4: Grace's Starting Point is Abraham


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Rom 4:1-12 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin." Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.


In order to established that salvation is by grace through faith, not works, Paul starts with Abraham, rather than Moses. Abraham lived some 400 years before Moses. He did not have Moses' Law (including the Ten Commandments) and therefore could not have been justified by the Law. So on what basis was he justified? He believed in God: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (v. 3; quoting Gen. 15:6). So, one does not need to know Moses' Law to be justified before God but rather faith in God: "Abraham believed God".

But what does it mean to "believed God"? Heb 11:6 gives us an explanation: "whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." The writer of Hebrews mentioned Abel, Enoch, Noah and the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) who were considered righteous because they "believed God" (Heb. 11:4-12). In other words, it is possible to be right before God even without knowing the Law (written revelation) simply through faith: "where there is no law there is no transgression" (Rom 4:15). They all lived by their conscience and intuitive knowledge of God. We can extend this concept to men and women everywhere at all times the same principle of righteousness through faith--those who walked with God but not mentioned even in Scripture (like the "wise men" from the East, in countries like Persia, India and China.

So, if Law is not a necessary requirement to be justified before God, then what is the purpose of the circumcision (which is a foreshadowing of Moses' Law): "The purpose [of circumcision] was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised" (v.11-12). The circumcision serves a dual purpose: (1) to declare the faith, not circumcision, is the basis of righteousness before God; and (2) to identify Abraham's descendants so that they might "walk in the footsteps of the faith that...Abraham had before he was circumcised." So, circumcision is evidence of faith, not the reason for faith. But circumcision is special mark of faith among the Jews, not necessary for the Gentiles who believe.

But for Gentiles in the Church of Jesus Christ, the evidence of our faith is not circumcision but baptism: "In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col 2:11-12). So for new covenant believers, the mark of our faith is baptism, but we are not justified by baptism but by faith.

Does it mean that baptism has no value? No, Paul says that in baptism we were "buried with him" and "raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God." What it means is that while we are justified by faith before baptism, we become empowered for a life of faith through baptism. The "burying" in water baptism suggests a spiritual severance from the past spiritual allegiances and the "rising" suggests a spiritual empowerment released through the laying of hands for the gift of the Spirit (Acts 19:6).

So baptism is not an empty ritual, but it releases the blessings of Christ's atoning sacrifice to the believer, so that he or she can walk in "newness of life" by cutting off all spiritual and emotional linkages with the past to receive the power of the Spirit for the new life. But we must be justified by faith before we can empowered by the Spirit. Jesus says that gift of the Spirit is given to God's children, not to strangers: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13).

So circumcision identifies the Jews as a people who has a special relationship with God founded on faith. Like baptism, it brought the special blessings of divine presence and protection to Israel so long as they continue to walk in the footsteps of faith of their father Abraham.

Thank You God for Your love for us. Thank You Jesus that You make God's love personal through the Spirit poured into our hearts. Amen.

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