Carrying on through the whole Bible, we come to Romans 4. Go ahead, take the time to read it. You can use this handy-dandy link to pull it up on the screen, and then just close that tab to come back here.
Paul has finished his introductory matter for his letter to the Romans. It has been a longer introduction than his other letters, partly because Paul has not yet been to the church in Rome. He has a general idea what is going on there, as the church is made up of people like the church anywhere—which means certain things are automatically true. We see those in Romans 1-3: the church is made up of redeemed sinners living in the midst of sinners.
Practical point 1: This bears making plain: churches are made up of redeemed sinners living in the midst of sinners. Therefore, there is no perfect church out there. Every gathering will have practical, doctrinal, missional, or other flaws in how they do what they do. Get over yourself and take part.
Now that Paul has established the overall need for grace in the first three chapters, he comes back to illustrate the point. His audience recognizes the Jewish heritage of Christianity which makes his first point logical: Abraham.
Abraham is honored as the patriarch of the Jewish faith as well as the origin point for the Jewish people. (Yes, there’s a difference: one can convert to Judaism, but that does not make one ethnically Jewish. Likewise, one can be a half-Jewish individual because of parentage.) Abraham is also hailed as one of the originators of monotheism in general. This attribution is debated, and those who recognize Genesis as accurate realize that it was God’s idea not Abraham’s, but still, the point holds.
Practical Point 2: If you want to make an argument, start from common ground. For some arguments and people, you may have to start with the idea that water is wet, but try to find a place of agreement and work forward.
Vocabulary Point: ARGUMENT: discourse intended to persuade or a reason given in proof or rebuttal. NOT always an angry moment.
Paul highlights the history of Abraham and draws from Genesis 15 where the text records that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Economics is the next digression for Paul, as he points out that what one works for is not “credited to him” but is owed to him. In the Roman economic system, something “credited” in this fashion was a favor bestowed undeserved.
The idea, then, is that Abraham acted by believing, but that this itself was not enough to be counted as righteous. Instead, the righteousness of Abraham is shown as a credited favor from the one in whom Abraham placed his faith. The quote from the Psalms (Psalm 32:1-2) bears out that God is the credit-grantor in this case.
Expounding on the heritage of Abraham, Paul highlights that this event is prior to the circumcision of Abraham, and even predates the birth of Isaac his heir. The promise to Abraham is fulfilled not simply by his fathering of Isaac but instead in his faith. Ultimately, the promise is found, according to Paul, in the coming of Jesus who was handed over for trespasses and raised up for our justification.
Practical Point 3: Doing what God commands does not earn us anything. God’s favor credits His people with righteousness, and so we work in response to Him. This is critical to our understanding of Christianity as life and religion: the favor of God is granted by grace alone and our actions follow that. Otherwise, we collapse toward self-serving behavior.
Today’s Nerd Note: One issue we have in Bible Translation is that there is no good English word for the Greek word “pisteuw” which is the verbal cognate of “pistis” that we translate as faith. The best we can do is to put this as “believe” but that leads to missing a few of the connections. Further, we have varying degrees of believing in things in modern America, and there really are not those nuances in Greek. To believe/have faith in/”pisteuw” is to fully trust.
So is there a better way to communicate this?