What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works:
‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’
Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Even the most tangled knot can be untangled with skill and patience.
The Letter to the Romans can be a challenging read: Paul sought to expound the new faith to a mainly Jewish audience with centuries of tradition.
When Alexander the Great encountered the Gordian Knot – a legendary knot of extreme complexity – his unexpected solution was to slice the knot with his sword.
Lawyers use legal precedent to strengthen their arguments; preachers quote well-known theologians to support their sermons. In a similarly skilful move, the Jewish scholar Paul slices powerfully into this theological question by referencing two ‘big names’ – Abraham and David.
The question Paul is seeking to answer is: how does a person ‘get in’ to be a Christian.
By skilfully choosing Abraham and referring to a time in Abraham’s life before the covenant (of circumcision), Paul explains that God’s promise of salvation is for all (v.11).
One of the many things I find inspiring in the Hebrew Scriptures is the very long-term patience. What was it that Abraham believed of God? Abraham believed God’s promise to give him countless descendants. According to Genesis 12-17, the promise was 24 years in the making to the birth of Isaac.
Paul’s quote from David refers to Psalm 32:1-2 and extends his teaching that the forgiveness of sins is also for all (vv.7-8).
Paul adds that salvation and forgiveness are gracious gifts from God, “irrespective of works” (v.6).
As the Roman recipients of Paul’s letter worked through theological change which brought God’s love to all, 500 years ago, in the Reformation, Luther and others tore down barriers which separated folk from a straightforward understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness to all:
sola gratia; sola fide; sola scriptura – only by grace; only by faith; only though the Scriptures.
Loving God, You are the living God, the only God, ever to be praised.
We acknowledge Your gift… giving thanks for the means of Your grace in Jesus.
We give You thanks for Your Word, alive for all people today, through the help of Your Spirit.
We give You thanks for our Faith: alive and active…renewed for every generation.
You are our Source, Guide, and Goal of all that is: to You be eternal glory. Amen.
Walt Johnson | Elder | Wilbraham St Ninian’s URC, Chorton, Manchester.