What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?
–Romans 4:1 (ESV)
Remember that in my reflection on Romans 3, Paul was toggling back and forth between Jewish obligation to the Law (Torah) and justification by faith, making sure that his audience, probably Jewish and Gentile believers in the synagogues in Rome (but talking about Gentile relationships with non-Jesus-believing Jews), understood the proper association, that Jews had many advantages including those Jews who had not yet come to faith in Messiah Yeshua, (Christ Jesus) but that only faith ultimately justifies one before the Almighty.
It must have been a struggle, especially for the Gentile Jesus-believers, to comprehend the relationship between faith and Torah observance. My reading of Romans tells me that these Gentiles might have been getting pretty arrogant, especially in relationship with the non-Jesus-believing Jews they encountered, because they had the Torah but not faith in Messiah. The Gentiles may have concluded that they were justified before God as were their Jewish Jesus-believing counterparts, but not the non-believing (in Jesus) Jews. After all, keeping the Law doesn’t justify.
Paul was trying to correct the error of the Gentiles’ thinking. Christians today tend to mess this up as well, but if we apply Paul to today’s Jewish communities, we see they too must have many advantages, and that God has not abandoned them or replaced them with the Church or even with the community of Jesus-believing Messianic Jews.
Chapter four sees Paul continuing to make his point and expand upon it.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 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 credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…
–Romans 4:1-5 (NASB)
Paul continues to state that Abraham wasn’t justified by what he did, by any works, including circumcision, he was justified by faith and his faith was credited to him as righteousness, even as faith is credited to his readers and to us as disciples of the Master.
But that didn’t mean Abraham wasn’t subject to behavioral expectations by God. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have to obey:
So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him; and Lot went with him. Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew, and all their possessions which they had accumulated, and the persons which they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan; thus they came to the land of Canaan.
–Genesis 12:4-5 (NASB)
Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
–Genesis 22:1-8 (NASB)
Abraham was faithful to God and obeyed him, even at great personal cost. Picture what it must be like to, at the word of God, pack up your family and all your possessions and head out in a direction with no stated destination in sight.
But that pales in comparison to the commandment to take your son and serve him up on the altar like a lamb to slaughter. As a father and grandfather, I can only imagine how Abraham’s heart must have been in anguish at knowing not only that his son would die, but that he would have to bind him and kill him with a knife.
Midrash says that Abraham believed that God would allow the sacrifice of Isaac but that God would resurrect him. However, the Torah is silent about this area of Abraham’s thoughts, so we’ll never be sure this side of Messiah what Abraham did and didn’t believe.
We only know that out of faith in God, he obeyed. Thus we can’t say that faith replaces obedience, only that it precedes it. From this I extrapolate that Paul is saying once justified by faith, Jews are expected to continue to observe the mitzvot and that in fact, their observance will have more depth of meaning because of faith.
But there’s something else:
David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
–Romans 4:6-12 (NASB)
In short, the forgiveness of sins is by faith, not by performance of the mitzvot, thus both Jews and Gentiles receive forgiveness by their faith and the Gentiles don’t have to be concerned that their sins will be counted against them if they don’t also observe the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews.
Remember I said that I thought the Gentiles were probably getting arrogant in their status of saved by faith apart from the Torah? It’s possible that the non-believing (in Jesus) Jews were “pushing back” with their advantage as Jews, having the Torah, the oracles of God, and maybe getting back at the Gentiles among them by pointing out what the Jews had that the Gentiles would never have.
If indeed there was a “war of egos” going on between the Jesus-believing Gentiles and the non-Jesus-believing Jews (with the Jesus believing Jews caught in the middle), then each party would be pressing their own perceived advantage against the other. Paul’s writing this letter to even things out. He’s saying that yes, non-Messianic Jews continue to have the advantages under the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, but that under one of the blessings of Abraham, it is faith that removes sin for all, not Torah observance, so everyone who has faith will be saved.
Also remember that the non-believing (in Jesus) Jews weren’t faithless. They had faith, probably great faith, not in Jesus being Messiah but rather in Hashem, God of Creation, Master of Legions. Yes, faith in Messiah as the first fruits of the dead is the next logical, historical, and Biblical step in Jewish faith in God and the advancement of God’s plan to bring the New Covenant into the world, but non-believing (in Jesus) Jews were not totally abandoned by God, nor were they bereft of His compassion.
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.
–Romans 4:13-15 (NASB)
This sounds like one of those either/or statements about faith being good and the Law bringing wrath, but what about the Law brings wrath?
If someone depended on their behavior alone with no faith in God and with the absence of intent to serve God, the response would be wrath, for without faith, no one can be saved from the consequences of their sin and from God’s righteous judgment. Yes, the Jews had the promises and they were (and are) heirs to the Land of Israel, but if observance is what you believe justifies you before God, then “faith is null,” as Paul wrote. Of course, the other side of that wrath is a Jew who claims to have faith in God but who is not observant. The Torah is clear about the consequences of disobedience or abandoning God’s Law for a Jew. But what about Gentiles in Messiah?
We see that there are two standards of judging obedience. They may overlap, but they’re hardly identical. If the Gentile disciples of the Master were not expected to observe the Torah in the manner of the Jews as per the legal ruling of the Council of Apostles and Elders (see Acts 15), then those without the Law (Torah), that is, the Gentile disciples, are not under the wrath of the Law. They are not expected to obey thus if they fail to observe the mitzvot, there is no transgression.
But as I said above, the other wrinkle is that even if a Jew has great faith and is justified before God, if he or she does not observe the Torah commandments (the conditions of fulfilling the Sinai Covenant), imagining somehow that they are like the Gentiles (and I can imagine that a few Jews may have taken this as Paul’s meaning), then that Jewish person would be under condemnation. Abandoning the Torah is written all over the history of the Israelites.
But to the wicked God says,
“What right have you to tell of My statutes
And to take My covenant in your mouth?
“For you hate discipline,
And you cast My words behind you.”
–Psalm 50:16-17 (NASB)
Just to show you that I’m not making up the idea that a Jew could misunderstand Paul’s intent in teaching Jewish Torah obligation and Gentile non-obligation…
And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
–Acts 21:20-21 (NASB)
Apparently some Jewish people got the idea that because Paul was teaching the Gentiles that they did not have to observe the Torah commandments (Moses) and they didn’t have to circumcise their sons, that Paul was also teaching the Jews the diaspora the same thing. Maybe some Jews reading Paul’s letters or hearing him teach actually thought he was applying the same “freedom” he was preaching to the Gentiles to Jewish believers in Yeshua.
Here was James’ solution to the problem and his attempt to clarify what Paul was really doing:
Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”
–Acts 21:23-25 (NASB)
Paul was to pay the expenses of four Jewish men under a vow (probably a Nazarite vow) in order to graphically illustrate that he continued to observe the mitzvot and that there was nothing to the erroneous rumors about him teaching “lawlessness” to diaspora Jews. Verse 25 presents the distinction for the Gentile believers, citing the Acts 15 letter, which limits the observance of the Messianic Goyim to a subset of the commandments.
Thus Paul was not teaching Jews that their level of observance was reduced to that of the Gentile disciples but rather, Paul remained a Torah-observant Jew teaching other Jews to keep to the commandments while at the same time, teaching the Gentile disciples a different or overlapping set of observances that were not nearly as strict or involved.
No wonder the Romans letter seems so difficult to follow. Paul was trying to explain circumstances that were (and are) very difficult to understand.
The common denominator for Jews and Gentiles in Messiah is faith. Faith justifies, makes one righteousness, and erases all guilt of sin (after repentance, of course), and only afterward are we to live a life of obedience by faith. Only then will God judge our hearts and hold us accountable to the level of our observance as specifically assigned to Jew or Gentile.
I know I’m going to get some “push back” for all that, but it’s the only way to explain what Paul is saying that makes any sort of sense to me.
For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.”
–Romans 4:16-18 (NASB)
Like I said, faith is the common denominator in accordance with grace. Abraham has two lines of descendants, those who are of the Law, that is, the Jewish people, and those who are of the faith of Abraham, that is, the Gentile believers. This isn’t to say that the Jews have only the Law and Gentiles are the ones with all the faith. Like I said, faith is the common link between Jews and Gentiles. But we Gentiles are joined to the covenant blessings by faith and we do not have the Law.
The Law, that is, the Torah, the conditions of the Sinai covenant between God and Israel, is particularly identifying of Jews. That’s why (in my opinion), Paul structured his sentence as he did. The Jews are the ones whose obligations to God are specifically defined in the Torah. The Gentiles, by contrast, are specifically identified, not by the Law obviously, but as children of Abraham by faith alone. The Gentile behavioral conditions are summarized in the Acts 15 letter. Remember, the Jews were also physically children of Abraham, so they had their link back to the Patriarch both by faith and by bloodline. Gentiles are Abraham’s children by faith alone. This is how Abraham would be the father of the Jews but also the “father of many nations.”
The final verses of this chapter pull Paul’s points together, citing Abraham’s faith in the promise of an offspring, even in the face of both his and Sarah’s great age, and repeating that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Paul then points all this back to Jesus, the keeper of the New Covenant promises, the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16; 3:29), the one God raised from the dead, the one who was delivered over to sinful men for the transgressions of the world, for the sake of the Jews but also the Gentiles, that through faith in him and the resurrection, we have the hope of living in the New Covenant age, in an age of peace and tranquility, in an age without strife or sin, with Messiah the King.