Lent 2: 20 March Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Paul has just argued that all people need God's goodness and God's goodness is shown in Christ. No one is privileged. In particular, Jews like himself have no special claim despite their advantages in being blessed with the biblical heritage. Jewish sinners are no more healthy than Gentiles sinners. To assert human need in this universal way and to assert that in Christ God's goodness meets this human need is one thing. It is quite another to work out how this relates to what God has already been doing, in particular with Israel. Did they have nothing of value for dealing with sin? Were they really as hopeless as Gentiles? Doesn't that amount to saying that the Old Testament and everything it represents are useless? By promoting Christ in this way, is Paul not denigrating Israel, its scripture and, ultimately, God?
So Paul is always making his positive statement about Christ with this other agenda in mind. He needs to make his gospel credible to his fellow Jews and fellow Jewish Christians. Otherwise he had better stay away from Rome! We have already seen that he asserts that his approach upholds what matters in the Law. He certainly rejects the notion that he is saying God's goodness means we can do as we like and abandon the Law. Thus he ended chapter 3. Faith in Christ does not abandon the Law, the scripture.
It is all very well to assert this, but Paul has to mean it in a qualified sense. He does abandon parts of it, especially those which he saw as creating barriers for Gentiles. These included circumcision, but also much else that belonged to what we might generally call ritual law, including observance of sacred days, foods and places.
So having made his confident assertion in 3:31 he knows he has to back this up with further argument. He does this by referring to Abraham. In Galatians he also cited Abraham, but in a slightly different way. Abraham was acceptable to God before the Law as such existed. Here he argues slightly differently, perhaps because he sensed some weakness in his previous strategy. He is less interested in arguing from Abraham's priority in terms of time and more in arguing the quality of Abraham's response. God declared Abraham right with himself on the basis of Abraham's faith not on the basis of "the works of the Law", such as circumcision. Abraham received circumcision, but this followed his faith and was a sign of the relationship (4:11).
So Abraham did not argue he should be right with God because he had rightly observed the Law (4:2). That would put the cart before the horse. The right relationship was not something he earned for being good and observant (4:3-4). It was offered by God and received by Abraham simply by his believing the goodness which God promised (4:5). It sounds a bit like Abraham had faith in God and therefore God rewarded him with a right relationship, but this misunderstands Paul. Abraham's belief was an indication which God counted as showing that Abraham was in a right relationship.
Paul goes on in the verses not included in our reading (4:9-12) to argue that this happened before Abraham was circumcised. This makes him a model of what happens in Paul's time when both Jews (who are circumcised) and Gentiles (who are not) are equally and without distinction being brought into a right relationship with God independent of whether they are circumcised or not. Abraham then becomes in Paul's argument a model of what is actually happening for Gentiles. This is a strong argument and should caution us against being too statistical about Romans 1-3. True, all have sinned and fallen short (3:23) but it is not true that no one found a right relationship with God. Abraham obviously did and according to a natural reading of chapter 2 Paul contemplated that some Gentiles did as well.
Paul is sidelining "the works of the Law" without entirely disparaging them. What counts is independent of them, namely faith in the goodness of God and an engaged response to it which takes it on board. Circumcision, if it has value at all for Paul, functions as a sign of that relationship - for Israel, but is not to be required on Gentiles. So Abraham is the model of the faith that matters, the father of all who now respond with the same kind of faith (4:12, 17).
So Paul returns to the assertion in 3:31 when in 4:13-17 he shows this response of faith as having priority over the Law. The Law is still however something of a loose end. Why ever was there need for the Law if Abraham had all that was required? 4:15 suggests an answer - another one, because Paul keeps coming back to this difficult question. Here he claims the Law brought trouble. That trouble is the situation described in the section which begins with1:17. God is angry with what has happened. 4:15 suggest the Law contributed to the mess. So the Law brought anger. In 5:20 he asserts that the Law functioned to increase sin. In chapter 7 he explains how this happens. This is very precarious, but Paul tries to keep his balance, all the while avoiding the implication that God created or promoted sin. In chapter 7 he is at his most careful. There he explains that the fault lay not in any sin within the Law, but in what human beings did with the Law. It still means that the Law was somehow at fault or inadequate. Elsewhere (in Galatians) he suggests this was deliberate so that people would see the need to relate to God purely on the basis of God's goodness. The Law helped expose that need and expose human bondage to sin (see also 3:20).
The rest of the chapter plays with the story of Sarah's conception in old age. In some ways it is not a strong point in his argument. Faith can too easily be seen as believing in that kind of conception miracle. But Paul is wanting to weave some further connections: just as God helped Sarah do the impossible, just as God did the impossible by raising Jesus from the dead, just as God did the impossible by creating something out of nothing, so God could help people to new life through his goodness by dealing with their alienation and sin (4:18-25). Their faith lets God's impossible dream and promise come true.
All this in Paul's way (and the way people in those days argued using scripture) of saying: God's goodness manifest in Christ (but not absent beside or before him) offers life to people in the death of alienation and lostness and makes possible the miracle of a new beginning. No priestly manipulations, no religious powerbrokers, no secret or ceremonial rites, no works prescribed in biblical law are required. It just needs us to believe in this love. Then something new begins as we are swept into a sphere of powerful transforming love and find ourselves joined together with other "growers" in that body of Christ, all on the way and together in an ongoing process of allowing the same goodness of God in Christ come to reality within and through us. Paul will have much more to say about that.
Gospel: Lent 2: 20 March John 3:1-17
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