Commentary on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Liturgical scripture readings and preaching have been sacred practices for Christians from the ancient Church to the present.
The reading for this second Sunday in Lent lends itself into the text of Romans 4, where Bible readers and Christian believers encounter Abraham, whom Paul refers to as the “Father of us all,” who have come to walk in the way of faith. A human family with no past, history, and story is bound to disappear with no trace at all.
Christians are one family, one people, and one tribe and have been incredibly blessed to have a recorded faith/spiritual ancestor. In other words, we are privileged and blessed to have a figure in the past who heard the voice and call of God. How do Christians live out this Pauline faith and spiritual declaration?
First, for Christians, the story of Abraham’s journey of faith is a divine drama of salvation available to all peoples, nations, races, and cultures of the global world. Biblically speaking, it is the unfolding drama about salvation of humanity and these verses in Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 that summons people to a place to meditate on a way through which God justifies humanity.
Second, the call is simply an acceptance and belief in faith because God did not see Abraham as capable of securing his own righteousness, but, as a creature, Abraham believed God and it was given to him as righteousness — a righteousness of faith, grace, and trust (see Genesis 15:6). It is an invitation to accept what humanity cannot do for itself. Christians are inescapably grounded and rooted in these heroic faith/spiritual figures from ancient Israel.
Therefore, in Romans 4: 1-25, Paul makes Abraham the “Spiritual — Faith Ancestor of All Christian Believers” and the Church must take a lead in teaching people about spiritual ancestors and spiritual matriarchs and our prayers should not only mention God as the God of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac but Sarah, Ruth, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Elizabeth and other female figures.1 The catalog of people who have been called by God does not lend itself into an ideal, moral, and ethical group of figures; rather, they all had rough edges, yet when God called them, they were willing to believe God’s voice and with that God credited them as righteous (Romans 4:3).
Abraham becomes a model for both Jews and Gentiles. When God instructed Abraham to have all his family circumcised, it was something to be honored as a seal of righteousness, but it never took the place of faith. Faith in this context is not merely a passive process; rather, it is lived out in real life of Christian believing, following God’s faithful purposes (Romans 3:1-3).
The word “credited” is used six times in Romans 4:3-8, which signifies that Paul as a believer resonated with the situation of Abraham and thus, appropriated the faith of the ancestor in his entire faith journey.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, is indeed an invitation to serious faith reflection, a faith reflection that invokes Christians to have a list of the non-negotiables, especially if one has come to allow Jesus in her/his heart and has come to believe in Jesus as the Lord and savior of life. The non-negotiable is that, believers must come to a point in their faith journey when they can claim Abraham as their faith, spiritual, and theological ancestor. The claim will hopefully lead to Christian formation and grounding (1 Corinthians 15:10).
The Church has not been unwilling to teach and move believers to a point where they claim some theological and spiritual truths. Yet, in Romans 4, Paul affirms and claims the ground of his theology and opens a new window to all seekers, looking for authentic life. Life without God is full of emotions and in many cases it is just as good as a wilderness mirage. But as Romans 4:17b says, God is the “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
This is a mystery to most North American Christians, whose world view has been tainted with false politicians, mass media voices, and an avalanche of best seller literature. On the contrary, Christians in the Global South — that is Africa, Asia, and Latin America — have come to boldly claim Abraham as the harbinger and progenitor of faith.
Abraham was put in a right relationship with God not because he offered a sacrifice or due to some works; instead his recognition of his status as a creature whose dependence is not on self but on God. Nations and peoples of the world require justification — meaning being in a “right relationship” with God because all humanity is under the grip of sin (Romans 3:9) and therefore in need of the gift of reconciliation with God and each other.
Theologically, Paul alludes to Psalm 143:2 and proclaims that “there is no one who is righteous,” and what that entails is that all nations stand in need of reconciliation with God. There is no way one can be right with God simply on the basis of works, but one has to submit to God by faith and allow God to work in and through him or her. Impressing God with works is not the channel but to approach God. This leads us to focus on the fundamental question of what is at stake in Romans 4.
At stake in Paul’s theological worldview is the issue of God as the “Subject,” of everything humanity does. The object of Abraham’s faith was not humanity but God — the giver of new life and the one who calls dead things to life (4:17b). Similarly, Paul calls on Christians to emulate the faith of Abraham, whose firm conviction in the power of God moved him to trust God in spite of obstacles found in this world. The point to be made is that the 21st century global Christian church needs to be confident that God keeps His promises and only Him can raise us from our human predicament (4:18-25).
Preachers, believers, and the Church must draw some lessons from this chapter and the following are some of the lessons we can draw from this reading. First, God calls us to believe in what he did through His Son Jesus Christ and that no human act can impress God. Second, faith is an active act of confidence in God who is always faithful and keeps his promises at all times. Third, Paul calls us to “embody or to actualize” faith in our everyday living, and this can be a move towards becoming what the Bible says. Fourth, Paul calls us to suspend our logical calculations and to trust in God who calls us to venture out into the unknown world.
In other words, faith negates our logical minds and sets us on the path of confidence in God. Salvation is not logical and so is faith and God’s ways are set in a mystery — a mystery that ancient spiritual and faith ancestors believed in and one in which we must emulate in the 21st century Christian world.
1 For a detailed study of ancestors of Faith, see Israel Kamudzandu, Abraham Our Father: Paul and the Ancestors in Postcolonial Africa, Fortress Press, 2013 (83-115); See also 1 Peter 3:6, Galatians 4:28-31, and Hebrews 11:11-12.