The church where I grew up prohibited members from movies, dancing, drinking and card playing. Many Reformed churches today erect a rhetorical fence around the Lord’s Supper table to keep out unbelievers. My childhood church thus (unintentionally) implied being right with God was a matter of keeping regulations. Reformed churches today (unintentionally) imply that properly participating in the ritual is required for justification.
In Romans 4:1-12, Paul addresses Jews and meets both regulation and ritual head-on . . .
REGULATIONS RE: RIGHT WITH GOD
“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about– but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him'” (Romans 4:1-8).
Why was what Abraham found about how a person is made right with God important to Paul’s justification-by-faith argument? Abraham is revered as the father of the Jewish nation. And Paul is primarily addressing Jews here.
Can Abraham boast of his works? Not before God, replies Paul. Then, citing from the Greek translation of Genesis 15:6, he writes, Scripture says “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”. “Credited” is the Greek logizomai, meaning ”to credit to one’s account”. That is, his faith was the means right-standing with God was accounted to him.
This astounds the Jew. Abraham was justified, not by obeying the Lord and leaving his father’s household to settle in an unknown land. Nor by obeying the Lord and sacrificing his only son (the Lord stopped him at the last second). But Abraham was counted right with God by his faith. Therefore, Jews can’t appeal to Father Abraham as a model for justification by works; he’s a model for justification by faith.
Furthermore, a workman doesn’t get a gift of wages; a workman is due wages. But, when it comes to right-standing with God, a person must choose not to work to earn justification, but simply trust “God who justifies the wicked”. Thus “his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Paul next appeals to David, Israel’s greatest king. David, he says, agrees with Abraham: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man who sin the Lord will never count against him”—a citation of Psalm 32:1,2.
Do two passages in the Old Testament contradict God justifying the wicked? Exodus 23:7—“Keep your distance from a false charge—do not kill the innocent and the righteous, for I do not justify the wicked.” Proverbs 17:15—“Justifying the wicked and condemning the righteous—both of them are an abomination to the Lord.” The difference, however, is that justified now has been satisfied through Christ’s death, but it had not been in those Old Testament days.
RITUAL RE: RIGHT WITH GOD
“Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Romans 4:9-12).
God commanded Abraham to circumcise every male in his household (Genesis 17:10-14). It became the outward mark of belonging to God’s covenant people (Genesis 17:1-10). But did circumcision make a man right with God. Absolutely not! Abraham received the sign of circumcision (as a) seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” In fact, Abraham was 99 years old when he underwent that rite (Genesis 17:24).
Paul applies a staggering (to the Jew) “so then”: “So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised” . . . and “he is also the father of the circumcised” . . . who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
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In his definitive research (published in Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and in Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults), sociologist Christian Smith found that the majority of these groups believe “God wants us to be good.” What is being “good” but a casual way of trying to keep God’s regulations? But this is not what God wants.
Most Americans regard the sacraments (church rituals like the Lord’s Supper and baptism) as, in some way, “holy”. But rituals signify deeper realities (fellowship with the Lord, commitment to follow him, and especially faith in him) without which rituals are empty forms–certainly not redemptive.
On one hand, we might say Paul has brought us to a joyful place. Our sins doom us under God’s wrath–no escape by regulation-keeping or ritual-engaging. All we can and must do is trust in Christ’s redemptive death. Joy!
On the other hand, Paul has brought us to an uncomfortable place. We have all sinned. In anger, God has given us over to our lusts and their consequences. We are storing up wrath against ourselves for the day of God’s wrath. But God offers us Christ’s redemptive death to save us from sin and wrath and to put us in right-standing with himself. All we can and must do is trust. But trust means we can do nothing to justify ourselves. Trust means we must step out on the high-wire and walk by what we can’t see. Or in the words of the 18th century hymn, trust means singing . . .
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace . . . “