Commentary on Romans 4:13-25
Paul never took a homiletics class. He did not know, therefore, that you are supposed to save the powerful theological affirmations for the last.
He has a tendency to sprinkle his most profound and far-reaching insights into subordinate clauses–tossed off almost as asides in the larger argument.
Here the larger argument is about Abraham and how Abraham is the father of all the faithful–Jews and Gentiles alike. What Paul wants to point out is the depth of Abraham’s faith. What illustrates that faith is the story in Genesis 15 where Abraham receives the promise of a son with Sarah. Abraham is “about a hundred years old” and therefore, for purposes of procreation “as good as dead.” (Rom. 4:19) God promises Abraham that Abraham will indeed father a child. In the midst of this discussion comes the subordinate clause, the God in whom Abraham believed is the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Rom. 4:17)
In this aside Paul cites the whole working of God from creation to new creation, from the molding of the first Adam to the resurrection of the second Adam and the final redemption of the cosmos. What makes God God? That God has done and can do two things: create a world out of nothing, bring life out of death. And if God is able to do the first, who can deny that God is able to do the second, too?
Of course, this profound “aside” is part of a sustained discussion of who Abraham is and why Abraham is important for Paul’s time–and ours. No one knows for sure how Paul came to his strong sense that Abraham was “justified by faith” or “made righteous by faith.” We know the proof text that Paul uses, Genesis 15:6. “And Abraham had faith in the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (author’s translation). (see Rom. 4:22-24).
Perhaps Paul did not start with a doctrine but started with a problem. The problem was, how could Gentiles be brought into a right relationship with God? How could they be “justified”? He had always believed that Jews were made righteous through the law–but what about Gentiles?
Now here is the tricky thing, in order to answer his question about righteousness without the law, Paul had to look in the law, in the Torah, because the Torah was for him the authoritative revelation of God. But he could not look at Moses or at any Jew who came after Moses because all of them lived under the law and therefore could not be models for Gentile Christians.
So he looked before the law, at Abraham. And looking at Abraham he discovered two wonderful things. First of all, according to Genesis, Abraham was made right with God–not only before there was the law on Sinai, but even before Abraham himself got circumcised (in Genesis 17). Second of all, Genesis tells us what it was that allowed Abraham to have a right relationship with God: he had faith…Genesis 15:6.
For Abraham that faith was especially faith that God would give him and Sarah a son. But the great thing about faith–given Paul’s puzzle–is that you do not have to be Jewish to have faith in the God who “gives life to the dead.” Abraham had faith in the God who would give life to his loins, though he was good as dead. And now both Jews and Gentiles can believe in the God who gave life to Jesus at the resurrection. Jews and Gentiles can both have that faith whether they keep the law or not, or at least whether Gentiles keep the law or not. “(Righteousness) will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:24)
There is a great deal of discussion among scholars about whether Paul assumed that Jews would still keep the law along with faith or whether, like Gentiles, they could cling to faith and let go of the law. My own reading of Paul is that while Jews are free to keep the law (around issues like diet), no believer in Christ is any more bound by the law. That is how I interpret Paul’s strong word in Romans 4:14 “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be (Abraham’s) heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”
In any case it is absolutely clear what the good news is for Gentile believers. Their father in the faith is Abraham, not because they are biologically descended from him, but because, like him, they have faith in the resurrecting God. When the NRSV quotes Paul quoting Genesis it reads: “(for Abraham is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations.)” But surely Paul and the Roman Christians hear that word ethnē not (primarily) as “nations” but as “Gentiles.” God’s promise to Abraham is that Abraham will be the “father of many Gentiles.” Those many include most of the Christians at Rome.
The passage encapsulates and sums up one of the great claims of Romans. Because there is only one God, that God must be God of all peoples–Jews and Gentiles alike. In order to be God of all peoples God has become available through one man–Jesus Christ. The way that all people have access to Jesus Christ is through one way–their faith, or their faithfulness.
To this day, any time we are tempted to limit God to the size of our purposes or to doubt the breadth of God’s generosity or the surprising power of God’s activity we can return to Romans 4 as an astonishing elaboration of the familiar but life-changing claim: God is great; God is good.