Romans 4 has been a central text in historic debates about justification. Naturally so, since here Abraham is presented as the model believer, who is reckoned righteous because he believes God’s promises.
That’s accurate. Despite some denials from New Perspective commentators, Romans 4 does speak of Abraham as a model for faith (4:23), denies that righteousness is something Abraham earned by right (4:4), and emphasizes that Abraham’s sins are forgiven (4:6-7).
But that’s not all that the chapter is about. There are several complicating details.
The first is Paul’s opening question. It’s often phrased as if Paul were asking what Abraham found, setting up the answer: He found he was right with God by faith, not by works.
Richard Hays argues, however, that the question is different. Paul doesn’t ask what Abraham himself found, but how Abraham was found to be father. The question is, “Is Abraham found to be a father according to the flesh?”
The answer is No. He’s the father of the faithful (4:11-12). But the question implies that Paul’s argument isn’t simply about merit v. grace. It’s about Abraham’s fatherhood, and the kind of family that he fathers.
The second has to do with Paul’s use of Genesis 15. Many interpreters assume that justification happens at conversion, and so Paul must be talking about Abraham’s transition from “ungodliness” to righteousness.
We may assume Paul knows Genesis well. If so, he can’t believe that Genesis 15 is Abraham’s conversion. Before he’s reckoned righteous, he obeys Yahweh’s call to leave Ur (an act of faith, Hebrews 11:8) and worships Yahweh (Genesis 12:8, 13:3-4). Whatever’s happening in Genesis 15, it’s not Abraham’s first brush with God’s grace.
The answer to this second complication is found in the resolution of the first. Paul’s concern is about Abraham as father and founder, not merely Abraham as example. He’s the father of the circumcised who believe, and the uncircumcised who believe. Paul knows that because he’s reckoned righteous while uncircumcised, and later receives the seal of that righteousness. His children aren’t those who are descended by flesh, or marked in flesh; his children are those who are born of (ek, 4:16) the faith of Abraham.
A third complication is the meaning of pistis, which I discussed in an earlier post. It isn’t merely “belief” or “trust,” though it includes both. It means “loyalty” or “allegiance.” The faith of Abraham, like the faith of Jesus, is a generative faith. Because of his loyalty to Yahweh, he becomes a father to those who believe.
What does Abraham believe? He “believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” (4:5). That’s often taken as a description of Abraham himself: Abraham believes that God will justify him.
But Abraham is already a worshiper of Yahweh; how is he “ungodly”? Besides, the promise he believes doesn’t have to do with his own justification. Rather, God promises that he will be father of nations (4:17). The justification of the ungodly must have something to do with that promise. N.T. Wright argues persuasively that Abraham believes God will justify the ungodly Gentiles. God reckons him righteous because he trusts the God who promises to bless the nations through him.
He also believes that God will make him a father despite his “dead” state, and the dead womb of Sarah (4:18-20). He was loyal to the God who raises the dead, who calls things that are not as though they were and who raises children from dead wombs. That’s why Paul can slip easily from talking about Abraham’s pistis to talking about Christian pistis, directed to the risen Jesus (4:22-25). Abraham too expected resurrection.
As Doug Wilson said somewhere, many who insist on justification by faith give scant attention to the specific promise Abraham believes. He's not justified by believing justification through faith. He's not justified by believing he'll go to heaven when he dies.
Abraham is justified because he believes God has made him heir of the world (4:13). He believes his seed will be as numerous, as exalted, as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:6-7). He believes his children will fill the earth like sand on the sea, and will be kings and queens. He believes many nations will be “of” his faith. Abraham believes Yahweh will restore humanity through him. Believing that, he’s reckoned righteous.
If we're his children, shouldn't we believe the same?
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