Paul continues his logical explanation of why salvation is apart from the law and only to be rooted in a true faith in Jesus Christ. Having shown the Jews how the father of their race, Abraham, was declared righteous by grace through faith, and not of his own merit, Paul turns his attention to a second icon of the Jewish faith—circumcision. If what Paul had written about Abraham in the opening verses of this chapter was revolutionary, this would be even more so!
Paul presents the case that Abraham did not receive his righteousness because he had been circumcised. Remember, this was the boast of the Jews back in Romans 3. If all else failed and it could be argued that they, too, were totally depraved, they still had the mark of the covenant to prove that they, unlike the Gentiles, were children of God.
Paul argues that Abraham’s righteousness cannot be credited to him because he was circumcised. After all, he was declared righteous by God in Genesis 15 and circumcised in Genesis 17, fourteen years later. If, then, Abraham is declared righteous prior to his circumcision, the declaration of righteousness is not based on the ritual of circumcision. The logical conclusion would be that Abraham cannot be declared as “your father” by the Jews simply because he and they were circumcised.
So how does Abraham become “your father”? That question has been wrestled with for many generations. In the broadest sense, Abraham is the father of all the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael (not to mention the children of Keturah). Muslims can claim Abraham as their father because they are descendants of Ishmael. A more narrow view limits the fatherhood of Abraham to the descendants of Isaac because Isaac was the son of the promise. This is what the Jews believed. Paul, however, places the fatherhood of Abraham on a more spiritual plane. He argues that Abraham is not a person’s father because he is circumcised or uncircumcised but because that person believes as Abraham believed. Abraham is the father those who have the same type of faith that Abraham had. They, like Abraham, are credited with righteousness.
The Law vs. Faith
Prevalent in Paul’s day were three teachings toward salvation. The Jews taught that a person was right with God only through perfect obedience to the law. Judaizers believed in the sacrifice of Christ but taught that salvation came through Jesus Christ and obedience to the law. Paul taught that salvation comes by faith alone.
A rich young ruler once approached Jesus and asked Him how to inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16; Mark 10:17). Jesus replied that he was to keep the law. The young man’s response was that he had, indeed, kept all the law since his was a boy. To that Jesus replied, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:18). The Bible tells us that the young man left very sad because he had great wealth. Often this passage is used as an argument against the wealthy. Jesus later said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). It was not, however, the wealth of the young man that Jesus condemned. Jesus squelched the self-righteous thinking of the rich young ruler. The young man must have been rather excited to hear that salvation was through the keeping of the law. After all, he thought he had kept the law since he was a little boy. In one sentence Jesus pointed out the fallacy in his thinking by declaring that he could not even keep the first of the Ten Commandments. He had replaced love for the one true God with his love for wealth (1 Timothy 6:10). So certain was he of his own righteousness that he failed to see the desperate need he had for the righteousness of Christ.
When a person seeks salvation through the law, faith has no value to him. That person would see no purpose in following Jesus, as was commanded of the rich young ruler. After all, if the law could save you (something Paul proved wrong), salvation would be self-motivated. It would be based on your own actions, and you would have no need of faith. On the other hand, if you think faith will save you, then the law is not unto salvation. Paul has already argued, however, that reconciliation with God comes only through faith in the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to the believer.
Furthermore, salvation through the law would make the promises of God worthless because they would become conditional. God would then say, “If you keep My law, then I will love you.” instead of “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Such was the teaching of the Pharisees. They built precept upon precept in an effort to gain the approval of God. Rather than assuring them of God’s approval, Jesus had some very harsh words for them in Matthew 23, calling them blind fools and whitewashed sepulchers.
Unfortunately, this also seems to be the thinking of many people today. How many parents don’t tell their children, “God doesn’t like it when you act that way”? Certainly, God does not like it when we break His law, but like the Pharisees, we add to His law by chastising our children with comments like: “God doesn’t like it when you don’t take out the garbage”; “God doesn’t like it when you don’t go to bed on time”; “God doesn’t like it when you eat so fast.” Those who use this tactic of “discipline” teach their children that God is some bad guy who hates everything we do. The only way we can please Him is through perfect obedience—an impossibility for those whose hearts are only evil all the time.
Finally, Paul teaches that those who seek salvation by means of the law are doomed to failure because the law can only bring wrath. It can do nothing but condemn. How do we know our sin and misery? It is through the law. Does that make the law evil? Certainly not. The law is to be used to point us to our need for the Savior that God has provided, Jesus Christ. A mirror is not defective when it shows you that your face is dirty. That is the purpose of the mirror. Likewise the law is not defective because it cannot save you. It was never meant to save anyone. It was given to drive us to God’s mercy and grace in Christ Jesus.
Faith vs. the Law
Just as the law points us to works and our failure to perform them, so also faith points us to grace. We must come to an understanding through the law that we cannot obtain salvation by our own merit. Therefore, we must trust that someone else will provide salvation for us. That Someone Else is the very God whose law we are unable to keep. It is no wonder that Paul later cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24). Only the God against whom we have sinned can rescue us out of our sin.
In addition, faith makes salvation certain. Obviously, if we would rely on works for salvation, we would have to comply with God’s standard set before us in the law. However constant that standard remains before God, sinful man would water it down, giving us a false assurance. Since no one is perfect, we would seek instead to be honest. What makes a person honest? One small lie is okay, perhaps two. Maybe three lies would be acceptable if he was a really nice person. Look how society has changed the standard of what is right and wrong over the last few decades. As in the days of Isaiah, we declare what is good as evil and what is evil as good (Isaiah 5:20). Over time, instead of seeking to be honest, we would teach that salvation is based on how nice a person is. Unable to be nice, we, like the military, would seek a few good men. How many funerals have you been to where, as the minister preached the person into heaven, you wondered if you were in the right place? Faith in the righteousness of Jesus Christ is complete, for it is rooted not in our works but in the work of our Savior. Clothed with His perfect obedience, we measure up to the perfect standard.
Finally, faith opens the door of salvation to all, Jew and Gentile alike. Salvation is not a matter of what outward rites or ceremonies to which we have subscribed. It is not limited to a certain race. It is a matter of faith. God justified those who actually and completely place their trust and faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. All who believe that Jesus kept the perfect standard set by God and that He was truly righteous not only have their sins forgiven but they also have His righteousness imputed to them. God has promised salvation to all who trust in His Son’s sacrifice, and to that promise God will most certainly be true.
Once more Paul returns to the faith of Abraham. That faith was rooted in the promises that God was able to do what God said He would do. The promised blessing did not depend on Abraham’s performance; the blessing came from the generosity of God. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, Abraham believed that he would become the father of many nations—because God had said so! According to human calculations the promise of God that Sarah would bear a child was impossible. She was beyond childbearing years; Abraham was old. Yet he knew God would keep His promises and give life to those who were as good as dead.
Abraham believed God would not lie; His faithfulness is beyond measure, and He is able to accomplish and fulfill His promises. Even when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and it seemed as if the promises of God contradicted the command of God, Abraham believed that God was truly almighty and could make the seemingly impossible a wonderful reality as He had promised. Isaac was as good as dead, but Abraham believed that God could bring Isaac back from the dead even if he died (Hebrews 11:19). So also the Seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, was literally raised from the dead.
Abraham glorified God by letting God be God and trusted Him to be true to His promises. That which God has promised shall come to pass. God treats all matters that have not happened as if they have already happened because He is in complete control. He is the sovereign God, directing all matters to their completion. God could declare Abraham righteous through Christ even though Jesus had not yet accomplished the atoning sacrifice for his sin. God is not limited to time, and in His mind the future is as certain as is the past.
The promises made in the Old Testament now have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Whereas Abraham looked forward to the promises, Paul argued that the church today must look back to the revelation of God’s faithfulness displayed and fulfilled. Jesus Christ was delivered over to death for our sins. He has paid the cost demanded by God in Genesis from all who disobey Him (Genesis 2:17). Those who believe that the death of Jesus was made on their behalf have their disobedience and sins imputed to Him.
Paul also writes that Jesus was raised for our justification. The perfect obedience of God’s Son is imputed to those who believe in Christ. Through Him they are declared righteous. Therefore, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ!
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Why did Paul make such a fuss about when Abraham was circumcised?
2. How does Paul argue against those who taught that salvation was by keeping the law?
3. What is the function of the law?
4. How does Paul defend salvation by faith alone through grace alone?
5. In what did Abraham place his faith? What assurance was found in that faith?
6. How did Abraham give glory to God?
7. How does Abraham’s faith relate to our faith?
8. How does our faith go beyond the faith of Abraham?