For an introduction to this series, click here.
July 5, 2007
There are two significant Old Testament passages that are quoted in the New Testament epistles with varying effect. Both of them are found in Romans. The first is "The just shall live by faith," which is quoted at least four times in the New Testament, and "Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness," which we find here in this chapter and also in the book of James.
Paul began late in chapter 3 to make the transition from God's righteousness to man's sinfulness and utter hopelessness without God. Here the transition is complete. Read this profound statement about man's need of a Savior: "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," (4:2-5)
There are so many incredible passages here I almost feel like comments are unnecessary. But here I go again anyway.
Next Paul destroys those who said that it was necessary for new Christians to live like Jews. The ultimate symbol of Judaism is of course circumcision: "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." (4:9-11)
Paul cannot be more clear here. Abraham was converted and pronounced righteous by the Lord in Genesis before God gave him the sign of circumcision, not at the same time, and not after. Therefore Paul says the fact that even Abraham was "saved," to use a New Testament term, before he received circumcision means that no Gentile has to be circumcised in order to be saved.
The rest of the chapter tells how Abraham was an example of how we should be faithful. Paul makes a statement here that actually seems to be untrue: "He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised." (4:19-21)
Now I don't know about you, but when I read Genesis, I see Abraham as "weakening" and "wavering" all over the place in his faith. First of all he agreed to have a son with Hagar, Sarah's servant. Then when God told him he would have a son with Sarah, he laughed in God's face.
But the fact remains that he already had the righteousness of God, as Paul goes on to say:
"But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (4:23-25, ESV)
This statement is a comfort to me. My faith is not very strong, and I usually have a lot of problems. The fact that God acknowledges the sincere faith of our hearts and forgives us when our faith is not what it should be is very reassuring. From a human perspective, Abraham was not a perfect example, but God saw his heart that he really did trust God.