Theological Reflections – Romans 4:1-3

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for a theology class this summer. The course was dedicated to studying the book of Romans. I am thankful for the amazing amount of information I learned from the class, which also strengthened my faith, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts. 


 

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

 

Context and Content
This portion of Romans sits in the middle of Paul’s exposition on justification by grace through faith. More specifically, this portion of the text is the introduction to Paul’s utilization of Abraham’s story as a parallel with the previous chapter, in which he described how righteousness comes through faith, apart from the law. By doing this, Paul uses Abraham as an illustration of his main point in 3:28 – “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

Although Paul is writing these words for the purpose of teaching all Christians in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, Paul’s exposition on Abraham would have been especially engaging and perhaps challenging for the Jewish people, who venerated Abraham for his trust in God and his moral uprightness. At the time of the writing of Romans, the Jews’ perception of Abraham had been somewhat skewed and corrupted by some of the apocryphal writings of the intertestamental period. “Some of these documents claimed to be written by people in the Bible from long ago (Pseudepigrapha, credited to people such as Enoch, Adam and Eve, and Moses…).”[1] One such pseudepigraphical work, “The Testament of Abraham,” was influenced heavily by rabbinic Jewish mysticism and speculation, and not on the actual canonical information about Abraham that is found in Genesis. In 10:14 of “The Testament of Abraham,” God’s voice comes from heaven, proclaiming: “For behold, Abraham has not sinned and he has no mercy for sinners.”[2] Much of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, as demonstrated in this example, perpetuated a false image of Abraham as a perfectly righteous, just, and sinless man, ignoring the fact that Abraham doubts God’s promises multiple times throughout Genesis.[3]

Before Paul could utilize Abraham as an example of God’s righteousness being imputed freely, he sought to dispel the false notions of Abraham’s perfection. Many Roman Jews originally hearing the book of Romans might have (falsely) seen Abraham as an example of justification by works.[4] Paul challenges this stance, establishing with apostolic authority that Abraham had nothing to boast about before God.

To make his case even clearer, Paul makes a direct appeal to Scripture. He quotes Genesis 15:6 – “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” The Jews and Christians of Paul’s time would have been familiar with the Greek Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The original Hebrew root word for “credited” is “chashab” (חָשַׁב), which can be literally translated as “to count, reckon, impute.” In the Septuagint from which Paul is quoting, the word “logizomai” (λογίζομαι) is used, which can be similarly translated as “to reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over.”[5] The meaning of this wording is clear and carries a sense of transaction or a debt being paid. Abraham was not credited God’s righteousness because he had earned it through his actions. Rather, it was given to him on the account of faith and trust in God.

The righteousness spoken of in this verse does not originate from Abraham in any way. Rather, it speaks of God’s own righteousness, given to Abraham as a free gift out of grace and mercy. This gives rise to the question: how could a just and holy God, one who despises sin, ignore Abraham’s sinful status as a human? In reality, Abraham’s sin was not ignored in the slightest. It was completely paid for, linked to the cross of Christ through space and time, and atoned for through the vicarious atonement of Jesus. The just punishment for Abraham’s sin was placed upon Christ in order that Abraham could be declared righteous.

Abraham is not the sole beneficiary of God’s declaration of righteousness. Paul was using him as an example to illustrate the nature of justification through Christ, who suffered and died for all mankind. Not everyone will be saved and be brought to faith in Christ. However, Christ died for all of humanity, as Paul says in Romans 5:6 – “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” It is clear from chapter 2 of Romans that the term “ungodly” applies to everyone in the world, not just the elect. Christ’s atonement was universal, and paid off the sins of every human to ever live. In order for one to benefit from righteousness, one must have faith in Christ, through which God saves. This saving faith is not of our own doing. Rather, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9 – “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Reflection and Application
Justification by grace through faith is at the very heart of the gospel message and Christ’s redeeming work. The entirety of Scripture culminates in this doctrine, and it is the means by which God claims sinners as his own. It is the foundation of the Christian’s comfort in this sinful world. As Gene Edward Vieth states in The Spirituality of the Cross:

When we come before the Holy God, He does not turn away in judgment; rather, He sees us through the lens of Christ—we might even say, he sees us as Christ. Our mediator claims all of our sins and has paid for them with His blood. He provides all of the good works we need, clothing us in His—not our—righteousness. This is what it means to be saved. [6]

 

While one may recognize that it is exceedingly clear from Scripture that man can contribute absolutely nothing to his justification, there are still hazardous falsehoods that distort the Christian’s understanding of this important doctrine. When faith is created in the heart, and God’s righteousness is imputed, the sinful human mind can quickly turn faith into the one good work that saves. Treating faith as a good work rather than the gift of God can lead to a multitude of problems. It can lead to doubtful questions like, “am I really saved? Do I have enough faith in God? Do I really even have faith?” Once this misconception takes root, faith suddenly becomes the work and responsibility of the believer, and, in turn, makes justification dependent on the Christian. As Christians journey through life, still being sinful humans, it will not always seem to them as if they are saved. They will still struggle with doubt, denial, vices, and sorrow. When these trials arise, looking inwards to the state of their faith is perhaps the most damaging thing that can be done. All they will find is sin and wretchedness. Instead, Christians must always look outside of themselves for their assurance of salvation. Specifically, because Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us, we turn ourselves to face him and his cross. We recall to mind the mark made on us at baptism, where God declared us to be His own, despite our sinful protests to stay as far away from God as possible. Our justification comes from outside of us; thus, it is outside of ourselves where we look for our reassurance.

The other extreme on the spectrum must also be avoided. There are those who reason that because they are justified by grace, and there is nothing they can add for their salvation, that there is no need to serve God and their neighbor as fruits of their faith. The law seems to have no use in this line of thinking, completely disregarded because Christ has already fulfilled it for us. This is true: Christ did fulfill the law in its entirety in order to redeem us from our inability to obey God. However, good works are necessary in the life of the Christian. They do not, however, contribute to our justification in any way. As Edward Koehler writes on good works in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

Good works are necessary because God asks them of His children. Furthermore, they are the necessary fruit of repentance or the inevitable product of faith. Without good works, faith is dead…Good works are not necessary for justification and salvation…When God justifies a person, He does not in any sense take into account the good a person may have done. Instead, God looks solely at the merits of Christ…Nor are good works necessary to give our faith strength and saving power, for faith trusts in the merits of Christ, not in its own fruits. Nor are good works necessary to preserve faith in our hearts, for this is done by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. [7]

 


 

[1] Engelbrecht, Edward. The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes: English Standard Version. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2012.
[2] James H. Charlesworth, ed. “The Testament of Abraham,” in The Old Testament Pseudopigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. NY: Doubleday, 1983.
[3] See Ge 12:10-16, 16:1-6, 17:15-19, and 18:10-15 for examples
[4] Hoerber, Robert G., ed. Concordia Self-Study Bible. New International Version. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1986. 1721.
[5] Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
[6] Veith, Gene Edward. The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Pub. House, 1999.
[7] Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine; a Popular Presentation of the Teachings of the Bible. 3rd Rev. ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1971.

Reflections – 2 Timothy 4:17

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

2 Timothy 4:17 (ESV)

The apostle Paul wrote these words to Timothy, his son in the faith. He was referencing an event in which all of his friends deserted him – nobody came to his aid when he was being persecuted. Paul couldn’t rely completely on the faithfulness of his fellow Christians. When things got too dangerous, they fled away from him, frightened of the physical harm that might come to them on account of the Gospel.

Our friends and siblings in the Faith will definitely help us through the tough times in our lives. We will have to rely on their help when we face trouble in our lives. But they are still sinful human beings – they are prone to turning their backs on us when they are placed in harm’s way.

God, however, is faithful in all circumstances. Even when we are faithless towards God, He remains faithful to us. Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 2:13 – “If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” God has promised countless times in the Bible to remain faithful to His people, and He remains faithful to us through the work of the person Jesus Christ and our faith created by the Holy Spirit. God is faithful on account of what Jesus did for us, not because of anything we have done. If God was not faithful and merciful to all Christians, He would be denying the redemptive value of Christ’s atonement. Therefore, God must always remain faithful. To do otherwise would go against the very nature of who He is. When the LORD spoke through the prophet Malachi, He made this statement of faithfulness – “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6) He had mercy on the nation of Israel because He had made a promise to them – the promise that He would send the Messiah.

Back to the story of Paul – God showed His faithfulness to Paul by strengthening him and allowing him to escape from the danger surrounding him. Even more importantly, in the grand scheme of things, He rescued Paul for the sake of the Gospel. If Paul had died then and there, we wouldn’t have most of the New Testament. God preserved Paul so that we could hear the complete Word of God.

Eventually, God allowed Paul to die a gruesome death on account of his faithful proclamation of the Gospel. Does this made God unfaithful? Of course not. In reality, our death and departure from this sinful world is the point when we will fully taste the ultimate act of God’s faithfulness. God has conquered death, our greatest enemy, and transformed it into a gateway to eternal life through the death of Jesus. The end of our sinful worldly lives is also the beginning of our eternal reign with Christ.

Of course, God does clothe, feed, and provide for Christians in their temporal lives. He does this only out of His mercy and love. However, our lives in this sinful world will still be filled with sorrow and suffering. Jesus’ words to His disciples also ring true for us (though maybe not to the same extent) – “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name.” (Luke 21:16-17) It is in these times when we can look towards the ultimate act of God’s faithfulness – our redemption through the atonement of Christ. We should not expect our earthly lives to be blissful and enjoyable the whole way through – God’s blessing through Jesus comes to its fruition not in this world, but in the next. Jesus didn’t suffer for our ability to live prosperous and wealthy lives. (Looking at you, Joel Osteen.) Rather, He gives us the ultimate gift of wealth on account of Christ. We spend our entirely earthly lives focusing our eyes on the cross, running the race of faith, whose finish line is everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

2 Timothy 4:7 (ESV)

Reflections – Deuteronomy 8:3

“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Deuteronomy 8:3 (ESV)

The nation of Israel had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years. Though they constantly rebelled against Moses and complained about how God was treating them, God remained faithful. When they had no food, he provided for them. When they had nothing to drink, God brought forth water from a dry rock (Numbers 20:11). He remained faithful in His promise to lead Israel into the prosperous land of Canaan.

There is no shortage of parallels between the nation of Israel and the Christian Church. (By parallels, I mean typology, not allegory. They’re two different things.) In fact, one of the main themes of the Book of Hebrews is just how important the Old Testament nation of Israel was in foreshadowing Christ’s work for the church. How does this verse from Deuteronomy hold significance for us today?

The wandering of Israel in the desert provides us striking images that we can use to explain the Church’s sojourn on this earth. What did God do to Israel? He humbled them. Yes, He eventually led them into the Promised Land, but not before they were disciplined time and time again for their rebellion. They were taught that without God, they all would have perished in the wilderness. God wanted them to learn that without Him, they amounted to absolutely nothing. He taught them not to just live on bread and physical food, but also to yearn for and treasure the life given by the Word of God, with which preserved His people.

Hopefully you can see the parallels begin to line up between Israel and the Church. Does the Church exist apart from Christ and His work? Certainly not. Just as Israel would have perished without God, so too would the Church perish if Christ were not to have complete reign over it. The people of Israel attempted to wander off in directions that differed from God’s plan. Ultimately, He made it clear to them that He was in charge, not them. We are told by Paul in Colossians 1:18 that “[Christ] is also head of the body, the Church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” Christians, as the Church, are the body of Christ here on earth, with Christ Himself as the head and king. Jesus Himself is the one who ultimately provides for and preserves the Church.

God gave the Israelites the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where their wandering and sojourning would cease, where they could live in peace. God brought them to Canaan only after He had humbled and disciplined His people. They were taught to be completely reliant on God and the words of promise from His mouth. God richly rewarded in His mercy and grace, continuing to guide them despite their rebelliousness.

This is a picture of our lives as Christians. Every single day, we are disciplined by God’s law, broken down, made completely worthless in our sin, only for Jesus to pick us back up, wash our sins away through baptism, and speak to us the message of God’s faithfulness. We amount to absolutely nothing on our own. Our worth cannot be found anywhere apart from Christ. We were killed, buried, and resurrected along with Jesus when we were linked to His perfect righteousness in baptism. We spend our lives in a sinful world, constantly clinging to Christ’s promise of Heaven. We are taught not to rely on worldly things, but on the Word of God. Our Heavenly Father feeds us holy and faith-sustaining manna in the gift of communion. Christ reigns over us, over the Church, and promises to never forsake us. He will guide us until He returns, leading us into the Promised Land of Heaven, where we will live under Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.[1] We recall these words of promise given to us by God years ago:

“He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.'”

Isaiah 25:8-9 (ESV)

 

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism, Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed