Read This Week’s Passage: Romans 4
Justification Is as Old as Abraham
Justification by faith apart from works isn’t something Paul invented. According to Paul’s careful reading of Genesis, Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). Paul wasn’t teaching a new theology. He was bringing to light what Scripture had taught from the very beginning.
It makes sense that Paul would continue his discussion of justification by faith by looking at Abraham’s life. Abraham was the prototypical righteous man and the father of the Jewish nation. God had given him and his family the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:10–27). Circumcision expressed their covenant commitment to God and their ethnic and religious identity as God’s righteous and just people. In the Jewish community of Paul’s time, there was an unwavering connection between works such as circumcision in the Jewish ethnic identity and justification or righteousness before God. Since circumcision was the command of God, it was unthinkable that anyone could be a righteous person who was not circumcised.
Through a careful examination of the life of Abraham, Paul discovers that circumcision wasn’t necessary for righteousness before God. Amazingly, Abraham was righteous by faith before his circumcision (Romans 4:10; Genesis 15:6; Genesis 17:10–27). Righteousness cannot therefore be dependent upon works. Since Abraham was declared righteous before any works such as circumcision, anyone can be righteous by faith apart from works as Abraham was. When it comes to justification, our works and ethnic identity don’t matter. What matters is receiving God’s gracious gift of justification, righteousness, and forgiveness (Romans 4:7, 8). Righteousness by faith apart from works transcends ethnic boundaries and can create a new community of those untethered by the ethnic identity markers that were so important to the Jewish community of Paul’s day.