Romans Chapter 4
In chapter 3, Paul made the astonishing statement that “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (3:28), and so it is clear that Christians are “justified freely by His grace” (3:24). This flew in the face of the belief of the Jews of that time. The Jews were proudly the children of Abraham and believed that they “owned” God. In their own minds they belonged to God because of the law. So when the new message of salvation through Jesus came to their world, they still believed that they had a superior position in the Kingdom of God. After all these fellow Christians, who were Gentiles, could not possibly be seen as being on equal footing with them.
Paul, as the missionary to the Gentiles, fought this false perception over the years and was often persecuted for the stand he was taking. Even the leaders in Jerusalem had to be persuaded that is was permitted for Gentiles to become Christians. As recorded in Acts 15, it was at the Jerusalem Council that this permission was given, and even then with some restrictions (Acts 15:6-21).
Old habits do not just go away and so in the early church an attitude of “we are really better than them,” prevailed. In order to prove his point that all have equal access to salvation, Paul now turns to an Old Testament example, and specifically to that of Abraham. He uses the same example in writing to the church in Galatia, but not in as much detail (Galatians 3).
The argument is simple. Abraham was justified in God’s sight when he believed. That same belief then led him to do what God commanded him to do. He was not, as the Christians in every age are not saved by works, but by faith. James, in his letter, makes the argument that works must be the evidence of faith. But really he is in agreement with Paul. This is the miracle of God’s great love in that we receive mercy as a free gift and cannot earn it. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It was only Jesus who could provide the way to life.
Later on Paul is going to explain that we need to be born again in the waters of baptism “to walk in newness of life” (6:3-4). In the letter Paul is also going to explain that being a Christian means receiving the various gifts of the Spirit so that Christians can then serve others (12:6).
But here he is dealing with the problem that existed in the Church of his time. Some believed that they were more important than others, a problem that prevails in the church even today. We are all equally blessed by God’s great gift in Jesus (4:16).
Paul’s argument is logical and backed up by Old Testament scriptures and so the Jewish Christians in Rome could understand clearly that they were not superior in any way. When Jesus came, he found the same arrogance in the Jewish leaders in Judea who believed that they were after all Abraham’s offspring, according to the promise made in Genesis 12. Jesus rejected this totally by teaching that in their lives and worship they had failed to be what God required. While they believed that they lived righteous lives, their actions belied that fact, and so they needed the coming of the Messiah. The law did, in fact, not bring forgiveness as Paul will explain further in chapter 7.
In the church today it is equally important to realize that we all fall under the umbrella of faith and that our works cannot save us. It is only in a proper faith relationship that we can have the assurance that God provides. Once that is achieved we can live out our lives of service to our saviour and master. Unless we come to terms with this fact, we will continue to believe that we are blessed because of the actions that we take, and not because God cares for us like a loving Father.
Yes, the demands of the new life are real and demanding as the rich young ruler found out when he came to Jesus with the question; “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Because he lived under the law Jesus summarised his answer “Love God and love your fellow man.” Then Jesus told him that observance of the law was not enough, and that he had obviously failed to fulfil the spirit of the law. Jesus answered, go and sell your riches and give them away, a mission impossible for the man (Luke 18:18-23).
Once we move into a saved relationship with God we see the world through different eyes. Religious ritual and a superior feeling is not what God wants or accepts, but rather a life of sacrifice and service. Nothing else will do!