Rambling through Romans (21): 4:1-12
4 So what are we going to say? Are we going to find that Abraham is our ancestor on the basis of genealogy? 2 Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. 3 What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. 4 Workers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. 5 But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous. 6 In the same way, David also pronounces a blessing on the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from actions:
7 Happy are those whose actions outside the Law are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. 8 Happy are those whose sin isn’t counted against them by the Lord.
N.T. Wright offers this helpful comment on our passage:
“I therefore follow Richard Hays in reading 4:1: “What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?” (Implied answer: No.) But I diverge from his reading in terms of what this question means. Hays suggests that the “we” refers to Jews: “Do you think that we Jews have considered Abraham our forefather only according to the flesh?” I suggest, rather, that the whole of Romans 4 hinges on the question: Does this (i.e., 3:21-31) mean that we Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, now discover that we are to be members of the fleshly family of Abraham? It is the question, in other words, of Galatians, which explains why there are so many echoes of that letter just here. Paul imagines that some Roman Christians will want to say: if you are right, and the covenant faithfulness and promises of Israel’s god—yes, and the Torah itself—are fulfilled in Jesus, then you must be saying that Christians belong to the physical, fleshly family of Abraham. Romans 4 gains a new coherence, I think, when read as the answer to precisely this question. Verses 2-8: no, since “works of Torah” are clearly not involved as demarcating Abraham (or, for that matter, David) as god’s covenant people.” (“Romans and the Theology of Paul,” originally published in Pauline Theology, Volume III, ed. David M. Hay & E. Elizabeth Johnson, 1995, 30–67. Minneapolis: Fortress.)
The logic of the promise given to Abraham and Sarah in Gen.12 is that God choses them to (miraculously) be parents of a new people, chosen, blessed, and protected by God and through whom he will bless the rest of the world. After the end of ch.3 with Paul’s demonstration that God’s promise to include all among his people is realized “apart from the Law,” it is to be expected that the question Wright identifies above would come to mind. The Gentile mission and the transition to a Jewish-Gentile people of God was not an easy thing for either group to wrap their heads and hearts around. Though Paul clearly maintains the priority of the Jews in God’s purposes (chs.9-11), this is not because of ethnicity but because of election. Therefore the Law given to Israel distinguishes them as God’s people among the nations, but a people who live to bless others with the relationship to God with which they have been gifted. Election transcends ethnicity, it is not limited to it. Many Jews apparently forget this throughout their history and embraced the latter understanding. In becoming Christians, then, they easily assumed that others following this Jewish messiah, Jesus, would take steps to become Jewish as well. But that contravenes the logic of their election (Gen.12).
So what does it mean for Gentiles to follow a Jewish messiah and become a part of God’s people? It means, Paul claims here, that we emulate Abraham himself in becoming a member of God’s family through faith. For he himself was graciously included in God’s people by faith, long before the Law came along! So too for Paul’s churches.
Faith rather than the Law, particularly the laws that marked Israel out as Jewish – circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath – marks out the people of God. Thus we are left with Paul’s conclusion to this section: