“It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” Romans 4:13
The time when Paul was alive was a collision-point between two groups of people who considered themselves “God’s chosen”. Jewish children grew up learning that, for thousands of years, their race had been singled out by the LORD for special blessing, purpose, and obedience. They were descended of David, and the judges and prophets, Moses and Abraham; they had the land of promise, the Temple, and the Law. It was a trade-off, being God’s covenant people: you had certain rules to follow for holy living, certain practices to keep so that you might not be separated from God or your people; but you also had the blessing of God’s favor, and God’s promise to dwell among you and defend you.
This group, and all its tradition was being drawn into deep changes right in front of Paul’s eyes. Another group was taking shape behind faith in a man, Jesus. As they saw it, Jesus was the one that everything in the Jewish tradition had always been pointing toward and preparing for. This was the Messiah, the way God had been planning to “bless all peoples” even going back to Abraham. And because God was on earth, in person, walking and talking, the old rules of the covenant were shifting.
So much of what the religious leaders taught about the Law, their nit-picking and treating it as a burden, was challenged by this God-in-the-flesh. Ideas about food, sexuality, even Sabbath and the Temple, weren’t being done away with by Jesus, but they were being deepened. So much of the Law about uncleanness and sinfulness, and a need for sacrifice or atonement for forgiveness, was going to be fulfilled in a one-time, perfect sacrifice: the Messiah himself would suffer and die. There were even hints, while Jesus was still on earth, that God’s promise to redeem people would include people other than the Jews. As if the true chosen ones of God weren’t born into it, and didn’t earn their way into it through a Law book, but were the ones that could confess, repent, and believe in Jesus as God come to save us all. That’s the second group.
And its first members had been members of Group 1, Jewish people. Even though Paul had been a staunch member himself, a Jew among Jews, he eventually found himself numbered among the second group. Paul knew what it was to belong to both, and knew well where they both stood. And finding himself a leader in the developing Church, it was his task to take time with words like in “Romans” to unite God’s chosen under grace through faith in Christ Jesus. That’s why he spends so much time talking about the Law and circumcision, and anything else that could hinder faith in Christ.
What better way to get to the point than what he says here in chapter 4? It’s as if to say, “All of you members of Group 1, you long-time and old school Jews, if you’re going to put all your stock in history and tradition, then don’t stop short. Go waaaay back, all the way back. Back to a time when you were first called as a people but didn’t have the Law yet. It was a brief time when Abraham, your great ancestor, had just made the covenant with God, before he was even circumcised. The covenant was established on one thing: faith. Because Abraham believed in the One, True, Living God, God started a special relationship with him. And now that the Law has served its purpose, it’s time to return to that beginning. God has come to the earth to let us know he has fulfilled the great gap between us and God, and now all that’s left is to believe in him, our deliverer, Jesus.” Yes. Faith goes way back.
Now, I know that is adding much to Paul’s own words, but I think it’s the heart of his message. And it is still hugely significant for you and me, because this is where the covenant stands today. It begins with faith. Simple faith, in God’s love and action, embodied in Jesus whom we call Christ, God’s anointed. But often enough we add qualifiers, or little addenda to the formula. So, indeed, if you have any part in restricting God’s covenant, or limiting God’s grace, or excluding any single human soul from being considered potential as “God’s chosen”, then it may be time to remember how this thing got started. Ours is a law of Love and a covenant of Grace. If you ever restrict yourself from the love of God because of doings of your own, then know that you are far from God’s deepest heart and God’s intentions. We could all stand to remember how very weighty true faith is in the eyes of the LORD. Today, dig into that fact, and search for where your own faith stands. Is it alive and well?