Was Abraham justified by obedience or by faith?
Having provided a technical definition and explanation of justification by faith in Romans 3:21-31, Paul now turns his attention in Romans 4 to the experience of Abraham. Paul specifically refers to Abraham seven times in the course of the chapter—a rather large number considering Abraham is only mentioned nine times in the entire book and only eighteen times in all of Paul’s letters. For Paul, Abraham becomes a key example of what it means to live by faith. But this leads to an interesting question:
1. Besides Abraham, what other individuals in the Old Testament illustrate that salvation is by faith and not works? And if Abraham is not the only example, why does Paul spend so much time on Abraham in Romans 4?
Abraham was a pivotal figure in Judaism. He was the father of the Jewish race, and also an example to Jews of what it meant to be really Jewish. In fact, Jews living in the first century B.C. and A.D. not only saw in Abraham an ideal example of the importance of obedience, but an example of justification by works. This can be seen in a Jewish book written in the second century B.C. called Jubilees. The book claims to be a story told by an angel to Moses during the forty days he was on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:18), and focuses specifically on the experience of Abraham. The stories, however, are not exactly like the ones in the Old Testament. In the case of Abraham, the author also introduces a number of apocryphal stories about Abraham’s childhood to illustrate that God chose Abraham because he was obedient. The author also whitewashes some of the more sordid tales from Abraham’s life. For example, in the story of how Pharaoh took Abraham’s wife Sarah, the author conveniently omits the part about Abraham lying about her identity as his wife.
The book of Jubilees also gives additional insight into the importance some Jews placed on circumcision. In Jubilees the angel tells Moses that in the future the sons of Israel will turn away from obeying the law of circumcision. As a result, “Great wrath from the Lord will be upon the sons of Israel…because they have made themselves like the gentiles…. There is therefore for them no forgiveness or pardon so that they might be pardoned and forgiven from all the sins of this eternal error” (Jub. 15:33). This sounds like something Paul’s opponents would have agreed with themselves.
Seen from this perspective, Paul’s focus on Abraham appears to be a deliberate attempt on his part to counteract the skewed picture of Abraham being advocated by other Jews.
2. Obedience was certainly an important part of Abraham’s life. What examples in Abraham life indicate that “faith” not “works” was the basis of Abraham’s acceptance with God? See Gen. 12:1-5; Gen. 15:1-6.
In both Romans and Galatians, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Paul specifically focuses on the word “counted” or “reckoned.” It is used a total of eleven times in connection to Abraham in Romans 4 (Rom. 4:3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24). Drawn from the business world, this terms means to “credit” or “to place something to an individual’s account.” According to Paul’s metaphor what is placed to our account is righteousness—the very thing we lack in ourselves. God does not count us righteous because of our obedience, as Paul’s opponents claimed. Scripture clearly says that it was because of Abraham’s faith that God counted him as righteous. Abraham’s obedience was not the ground of his justification; it was the result of it!
The basis of God’s covenant with Abraham centered on God’s promise to him. In the span of three short verses in Genesis 12:1-3, God says to Abraham four times, “I will.” “I will show you a land.” “I will make you a great nation.” I will bless you.” And finally, “I will bless those who bless you.” God’s promises to Abraham are amazing because they are completely one-sided. Notice how God does all the promising and requires Abraham to promise nothing in return. This is the opposite of how most people try to relate to God. We usually promise God that we will serve him, if he will do something for us in return. But that is legalism. God did not ask Abraham to promise anything. Instead, God asks Abraham to accept his promises by faith. Of course, that was no easy task. Abraham had to learn to trust completely in God and not in himself, something that goes against all worldly wisdom.
3. In his discussion of the experience of Abraham, Paul says Abraham “did not weaken in faith” (4:19) and that “no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God” (4:20). Is this entirely true? What struggles did Abraham have in trusting God’s promise? Is there any value in recounting Abraham’s struggles? What hope might we find for our own less-than-perfect history with the “rose-colored” version Paul tells?
4. Paul says that circumcision was a sign and seal of righteousness by faith (4:11)? Isn’t the act of circumcision all about behavior? In what sense can Paul say circumcision is connected to faith.
5. The law does not appear to have played a significant role in Abraham’s experience with God—at least not like it did with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. What role then does the law play in our salvation today? See Rom. 4:15; 5:20; Gal. 3:19
6. Although we might believe in the “idea” of justification by faith, in ways might we still be trying to earn God’s favor in the things we do or the way we act?