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.
Reflection Reading Romans suggests that Paul was instinctively a systematic theologian, with a brain the size of a planet. When he was persecuting Christians in Jerusalem, Paul must have thought that he had his theology taped. However, the vision which he had on the road to Damascus completely pulled the rug out from under his feet.
Paul’s conversion was to cause him a lot of soul searching, not least because he had previously been persecuting Christians and so now thought of himself as the foremost amongst sinners. On top of that, he would have to fundamentally rethink his interpretation of the scriptures on which his faith was based. No wonder he told the Galatians that he went to Arabia straight after his conversion and did not ‘confer with any human being’. Paul needed to spend time with God.
What we read today is a crucial part of the result. Paul concluded that we are saved not by anything we have done, not even by following the Jewish tenets including circumcision, but by faith alone. It was Abraham’s belief in God, which was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness’ not anything he had done. The same of course was true of Paul. He could only be saved by God’s grace, not by being ‘more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors’ than others of his age. (Galatians 1) Our ‘work’ comes in responding to God’s free gift not in obtaining it. Like Paul, it is our ‘confidence in God’s grace’ (cf Luther’s introduction to Romans) that can free us from the shackles of our past and allow us to open our hearts to whatever God wants to do in our lives today.
Prayer Living and loving God, We praise you for all that you have done for us and all that you offer to us Open us to accept your free gift of forgiveness, security and love. Help us to open ourselves not only to receive, but also to give in response. Show each of us how we can use all the gifts that you have given to us in the work of your Kingdom. Thanks be to God Amen
The Rev’d Jacky Embrey, minister in the Bolton and Salford Missional Partnership.