I imagine that those listening to Jesus and the apostles teach in the first century may have had some catching up to do. There was a lot to learn from them. However, for those who had studied the Hebrew Scriptures (often known as the Old Testament in the Christian faith), many parts of God’s plan and Jesus’ teachings were already there.
At the start of Romans 4, Paul references an account from Genesis about Abram (or Abraham, the same guy). Since (I believe) the Hebrew people had access to Genesis since the time of Moses, this probably wasn’t new information to the first recipients of the book of Romans.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:1-3 NIV
Now, I think that we would consider Abraham to be a “pretty good guy”, at least by human standards. He showed trust in God by moving to a new land, and was chosen by God to be the father of God’s chosen people. A commentator lists some ancient references which reflect a belief that Abraham kept the law and didn’t sin, and points out that Jewish tradition in the first century apparently said that Abraham was indeed justified by works. [Cottrell, p.276-278]
However, Abraham wasn’t good enough to be fully – perfectly – righteous before God. He misled others about his relationship with Sarah (Genesis 20) and asked her to do so (see Genesis 12:10-20). He tried to do God’s work by having a son (Ishmael) through Hagar (see Genesis 16 and elsewhere). Even though Abraham gives us some positive examples, when his works are compared against the perfection of God, let’s face it: Abraham wasn’t perfectly sinless.
Abraham may have been bold with God, like when he “negotiated” with God about saving Sodom for just ten righteous (see Genesis 18:16-33; apparently, there weren’t even 10 in that city, though, since the next chapter describes that city’s destruction). However, Abraham couldn’t stand before God as perfect, according to the law (even the law of conscience). While the Law of Moses was given some time later, Abraham would still have known enough right and wrong to know that he had sinned.
However, Abraham was considered to have righteousness because of his belief in God. In Romans, it appears that he didn’t just believe “in God”, but he “believed God”. The fact that God exists is something that James tells us even demons believe (see James 2:19). However, Abraham believed God; that is, here it sounds like Abraham believed that what God said was true, and that God would keep His promises.
Now, if we go back to Genesis 15:6, the NASB reads, “Then he believed in the Lord; and He credited it to him as righteousness.” In fact, the footnote on this verse suggests that this idea of “credited” might be translated as “imputed”, which is an interesting term that – in my own words – means placing something from one source onto someone else. Abraham didn’t have righteousness on his own, but he received a status of “righteous” from God because of his faith.
God considered Abraham to have righteousness because of what Abraham believed, not because Abraham was perfect in always doing the right thing.
This is encouraging for those of us whose lives haven’t been sin-free. There is another way to obtain credit for righteousness, rather than being perfect (since “good enough” isn’t good enough). In fact, later verses in Romans 4 confirm that trying to achieve righteousness through law wasn’t how Abraham and his descendants obtained promises.
It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
Romans 4:13-15 NIV
In this passage, we find – again – that the promise to Abraham was through the righteousness that he received by faith.
So, if a Jewish person in first-century Rome (or elsewhere) believed that being born into God’s chosen people, and having the law (including things like circumcision) was enough to save them, they would have missed the point of Abraham’s source of righteousness (and they would have missed out on that righteousness).
If there was a way to become righteous (and to receive God’s promises) through the Law, then there would be no need for faith. In fact, if someone as faithful as Abraham could live perfectly, why would God have needed to grant him righteousness through faith? However, since we can’t keep the Law, the Law results in wrath, and if we intended to be saved by trusting in the Law (or our ability to keep it), then we wouldn’t qualify for the promise of righteousness through faith.
The good news, though, is that you can have faith in God, and change the course of your life now, even if you were previously trusting the law for salvation. Let’s take an inventory today of what we are trusting in to make us right with God, and make sure that it’s faith in a perfect Savior, rather than faith in our imperfect works.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for January 16, 2022
- The Lookout, January 16, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
- The College Press Commentary, Romans, Volume 1, by Jack Cottrell. College Press Publishing Company, © 1996.