We have been examining the teachings of Paul on the subject of God’s Chosen People as particularly set forth in the first eleven chapters of Romans.
Paul was uniquely qualified to shed light on this due to his own personal background as a highly educated and very religious Jew and also by special divine revelation of God’s purposes—knowledge that had been hidden from earlier generations. Eph. 3:2-5.
Thus was Paul able to address with authority questions that were in the minds of many.
These questions included: What about the Jews? Where do they fit into God’s plan? What about Gentiles? What part does the law of Moses play? What about God’s promises to Abraham? How were they fulfilled? Were Jews “special” or “separate” in God’s economy? What about Israel’s unbelief and their rejection of Christ? How do you account for that and what does it mean?
Romans 1-11 sets forth in an orderly way the truth about salvation. Salvation, in its essence, is a deliverance from the wrath of God against man’s willful rebellion. It is the result of God’s power at work and comes to those who hear and believe the gospel—the good news.
We have thus far looked at the first three chapters and seen a discussion of man’s condition, his dire need before God. Repeatedly Paul establishes the truth that with respect to salvation Jews and Gentiles are equal. There is no difference. Whether men have the law or not, all are sinners and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:22-23). Not only is the need the same, the pathway to righteousness before God is exactly the same for Jews as it is for Gentiles.
Near the end of chapter 3 Paul says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” Verse 28.
This is a bedrock principle that places Jew and Gentile on the same ground before God.
What About Abraham?
He continues his argument in chapter 4 by appealing to Abraham. Now the Jews gloried in being descendants of Abraham, the heir of God’s promises. They saw themselves as having a special relationship with God because of His dealings with Israel, including the giving of the law through Moses. Their religion was built on that idea. They saw Israel as God’s kingdom on earth and the law as the only path to acceptance by God. Thus, to them, the only hope a Gentile had was to convert to the Jews’ religion.
But Paul saw Abraham in a different light. With divinely inspired insight he saw God’s dealings with Abraham as repudiating the Jews’ religion and upholding the principle of faith. How was it that Abraham came to be regarded by God as a righteous man? Did God give him some task to perform, some great quest, or some “rules to live by” and then declare him righteous as a reward for what he had done?
Not according to Paul.
Verse 2 says, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about — but not before God.” Why did he say it that way? Whenever a man supposes that his righteous standing before God rests on anything he has done, pride inevitably follows. In the vanity of his mind he compares himself to those around him and is sure, in one way or another, to seek the attention and praise of men for his supposed achievements. Of course, God knows better and is not in the least impressed. Such a man’s faith is not in God at all, but in his own ability and efforts. No one who stands before the judgment throne one day will have even the slightest grounds for boasting. No one.
To establish his point Paul quotes in verse 3 from Genesis 15:6—“Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This is such a foundational principle to the gospel that it cannot be overemphasized. It is totally opposite to every natural instinct in man. Pride and self-effort lie at the very heart of the human condition. Give a man some noble task, some religious standard to meet, and his pride may well drive him to take up the challenge. But tell him that he is morally bankrupt, helpless, and unworthy, that his only hope lies in humble surrender to the mercy and ability of another and most men will balk, highly offended.
In verse 4 Paul uses a simple natural illustration of the difference between faith and works. One man employs another to work for him. When payday comes does the employee say, “Thank you so much for your generous gift”? Of course not! There is an agreement in place. The employee works and the employer pays him wages. So when the work is done there is an obligation to pay him those wages. He has earned them by his own efforts. Conditions for receiving that pay were established and he has met those conditions. The employer has not “given” him anything.
But is it like that with God? Is becoming righteous and obtaining eternal life like earning “wages?” Can we do anything that will “obligate” Him to respond? Can we put God in debt to us? Does He “owe” us anything? Of course, the answer to all these questions is a resounding “No!”
Justifying the Wicked
And so, having proved through the scriptures how Abraham came to be righteous, Paul now states with great clarity the principle that is at the heart of the gospel as it applies to us (verse 5): “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Now clearly in this context Paul is talking about the kind of work one does in order to earn something. It is the arrogance of a man who rejects God’s offer of mercy and instead seeks to force God to admit that he is a righteous man because of his own efforts. It is the spiritual blindness of a Pharisee who vainly imagines, “I am not like other men.” Luke 18:11.
However, it is worth mentioning what James says about faith and works since on the surface there seems to be a conflict. James had encountered a kind of “faith” that was “without works,” that is, it was all talk and no action. It was just a mental thing with no real change in the life. It was the “faith” of a man who claims to have faith but has no deeds. The question becomes, “Can such faith save him?” James 2:14.
James likewise points to the example of Abraham. In James 2:21-24 he says, “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
Both Saying the Same Thing
Both Paul and James are really saying the same thing. Abraham’s deeds were not done to earn righteousness; rather they demonstrated that his faith was genuine. Suppose someone comes to two men and says, “You are in a place of great danger but I have made a way of escape, a bridge to a safe place. It is the only way out but you must hurry and cross.” Both men profess to believe the message of warning and even tell others about it — but only one actually crosses. Which one’s faith is genuine? Abraham’s actions throughout his life were consistent with faith in God’s promise.
Some men try to substitute works for real heart faith; others say they believe, but you can’t tell it by the way they live; still others truly believe and their actions prove that their faith is real. God is not looking for works, nor is He looking for faith plus works — and certainly not an empty profession. He is looking for faith that works. Coming to God means that we abandon our own efforts and trust completely in His promise. It is the man who “does not work but trusts God.”
His promise is an amazing one. Romans 4:5 says that He is a God “who justifies the wicked”! That should clinch it! The old hymn says it clearly: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, Oh, Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
The gospel does not tell a man, “Clean yourself up and God will receive you.” It says, “Come to God as you are; He will clean you up.”
These truths were a great stumbling block to a Jew.
How could a holy God justify a wicked man and yet remain righteous Himself? Does He just excuse the man? Does He simply feel sorry for him and let him off? Not at all. Not one sin goes unpunished. As we pointed out earlier, the law is completely upheld. The death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ gives a holy God the freedom to offer justification and life to wicked sinners who repent and put their trust in Jesus. The punishment for every sin was poured out upon our Savior. Justice was served.
The equality between Jew and Gentile in these matters was a bitter pill to swallow for many Jews. They couldn’t conceive of God saying to a Jew, “You are no better, no more worthy of my love and salvation than a Gentile. My salvation is for anyone who believes. I have no favorites.”
But Paul doesn’t refer only to Abraham. He also refers to David in verses 6-8. He quotes from Psalm 32:1-2, where David “speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” The word “blessedness” is significant. It is one more way to convey the truth that the righteous state of which he speaks is not something that is earned or deserved. It is a “blessing” that is conferred upon those who are needy by a “Blesser” who is able and chooses to meet that need. It is nothing less than divine favor, unearned and undeserved.
David wrote, “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
That is a foundation upon which anyone, Jew or Gentile, can safely stand. So long as our standing before God depends upon our efforts then we are building on “sinking sand.” As God foretold in Isa. 28:16, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”
Christ is that foundation and he was “laid,” not just for Jews, but for all men. 1 Corinthians 3:11, 1 Peter 2:6.
Who is the Blessing For?
Paul continues in Romans 4:9 with the question, “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” Circumcision of male infants was a physical sign of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham’s physical descendants. It was incorporated into the law of Moses and so serves as a way to refer to those who live under that law, believing it to be a pathway to righteousness before God. In other words the “circumcised” and “uncircumcised” are another way of saying “Jews” and “Gentiles.” So the question becomes, “Is this blessedness only for Jews who observe the law or also for Gentiles?”
For the answer to the question he poses Paul points out that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. Circumcision in the flesh became a sign and seal of the faith he already had.
What is the significance of this? This demonstrates that Abraham “is the father of all who believe,” not just those under the law. Some of those who believe are uncircumcised Gentiles. Others are not only circumcised Jews but ALSO “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” Verse 12.
The end result is the same: they are credited with righteousness even as Abraham was — by faith.
By the way, where does that leave Jews who do NOT walk in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith?
Heir of the World
What Paul says next is interesting: “It was not through 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.” Rom. 4:13.
What is that about? On the surface it sounds as though God had promised Abraham an inheritance and that inheritance was to be “the world.” I’m afraid that an inheritance like that sounds more like a curse than a blessing. Who would want to inherit “the world”? This world is on a rapid downhill course towards judgment and destruction.
But what was Paul saying? Consider an illustration.
In Abraham’s day it was the custom for a man’s firstborn son to be his heir. There were typically many other children in the family but the firstborn held a special place. He was a member of the family, yet of all the members, he was singled out as the heir. Put another way, he was the heir of the family.
This is what Paul is saying of Abraham. Paul saw God as looking down upon the world of men, desiring to impart a great blessing, an inheritance. He found Abraham, a man who had faith. Thus, just as the firstborn son is the heir of the family, Abraham became the heir of the world. The blessing that God longed to impart to men became the inheritance, not only of Abraham himself, but also of his descendants.
Upon what basis did Abraham become God’s heir? Was it through the law? No! It was based entirely upon “the righteousness that comes by faith.” As verse 14 continues, “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless….” All the law can produce is wrath, as verse 15 points out, since none of us can keep it. A promise of God based upon law would be worthless — forever out of our reach.
All Abraham’s Offspring
Verse 16 says, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.” Verse 17 quotes from Genesis 17:5 where we read, “I have made you a father of many nations.”
Verses 18-20 highlight the nature of Abraham’s faith. It became humanly impossible for him to father a child or for Sarah to bear one. A miracle was required. His faith is described as “being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” Many circumstances rose up to challenge Abraham’s faith, yet he stood firm, looking past every circumstance to the God Who not only meant what He said but Who also had the ability to overcome any obstacle in fulfilling His word.
That is the essence of saving faith: it is faith in the One Who raised Jesus from the dead, our Lord Jesus, Who “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Verses 24 and 25. Becoming righteous in God’s eyes is as impossible as Abraham and Sarah having a son in their old age. Only God is able to accomplish such things.
It should be obvious who Paul considered to be “Abraham’s offspring” and what the promise was that they inherit. He was not concerned merely with physical descendants or an earthly nation and its land. The promise that was the heart and focus of God’s purpose was that a righteousness that could be obtained through faith by His grace alone was to be made available to people of every nation through Christ and what He accomplished through His death and resurrection. The promise is not earthly and temporal but heavenly and eternal. It is for anyone, Jew or Gentile, who sees his need of God and puts his faith in the Savior He has provided. It excludes anyone, Jew or Gentile, who continues in rebellion and unbelief.
Romans, chapters five through eight, contain many rich truths as Paul expounds various aspects of the gospel. In chapter five we see the greatness of God’s love toward us, even while we were yet sinners. We see the power of grace triumphing over sin, even when sin has been magnified because of the law. We see the justification that brings life resulting, not from anything we have done or could do, but from the obedience of Christ. Rom. 5:18-19.
In chapter six we see that in our union with Christ we are united with Him in His death to sin and also with His resurrection to a new life. Because of Him, we are no longer slaves to sin and are therefore exhorted not to yield to it. Thus the gospel is not just about ridding us of our sins but also about enabling us to live a new life.
Ineffectiveness of the Law
Our focus in discussing Romans has been to consider questions relating to Jews and Gentiles in the plan of God. Paul has taken such pains to establish the equality of Jews and Gentiles in this regard in the first four chapters that it should be obvious that the truths he unfolds in chapters five through eight apply equally to both. He does, however, continue to touch on the law, the cornerstone of what it meant to be a Jew.
He had already shown clearly that the law had no power whatsoever to make a man righteous before God. This alone brings all men to the same place of need before Him. But as the argument unfolds Paul also makes it clear that the law is also powerless to help us live for God, even as a believer in Christ.
Romans 7 presents a powerful picture showing the law’s inability in this regard. All the law can do is to arouse the sinful nature we all have and against which we have no power. I am persuaded as I read Paul’s words that this truth is something he learned the hard way. The depth of emotion he expresses because of his failures is all too real.
I can just see Paul, the former Pharisee, having come to Christ and had his sins washed away, filled with a renewed passion and resolve to obey the law and please God. He knew the law was holy and good (verse 12). He had an honest desire to obey it (verse 18). But all he experienced was failure!
He discovered to his anguish that there was a sin principle dwelling in his flesh that continually made him a slave to sin (verse 23). He said in verses 18-19, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”
God was showing Paul in no uncertain terms that the law of Moses played absolutely no part in God’s plan of salvation — except to demonstrate to us that we need it! God has a different plan, not only to rid us of our sins, but also to enable us to live for Him.
A Higher Law
Paul gives us God’s answer to his failure and anguish in chapter eight. We find that there is a law greater than the law of sin and death. It is the Spirit of life that we receive through Christ (Romans 8:1-4). It sets us free from the law of sin and death. The righteousness contained in the law is actually fulfilled in those who live by the Spirit. It is not the power of our resolve to live for God that we need, but the power of the new life He gives to those who trust in Christ. In that strength, and that strength alone, we can live for God. That power is not accessed by striving but rather by believing and yielding, based on the promise of God.
Paul continues on to speak of the glories of being sons of God and His great purpose to make these sons like Christ. He speaks of the hope of resurrection when our bodies — and indeed all creation — will be delivered from the bondage of corruption. He speaks of the certainty of God’s plan, a plan that all the demons in hell cannot stop.
One thought bears emphasis here as it concerns being heirs: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Romans 8:17.
The entire book of Galatians was written to Gentile believers who had been influenced by false Jewish teachers. These teachers had told them that they had to submit to the law of Moses to be saved. Many of the same truths we have pointed out in our discussion of Romans are emphasized in Galatians as well.
Paul makes an interesting point in Gal. 3:16 — “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.”
Paul’s point is that the inheritance given to Abraham by promise, in its strictest sense, was passed down to just one man, Jesus Christ. It is only through Christ that the inheritance passes to the rest of Abraham’s children — including those who had lived and died before Him! As Heb. 9:15 says, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance — now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
In Matthew 21:33-43 Jesus told a parable to the chief priests and the Pharisees. He pictured a landowner who planted a vineyard, leaving some farmers to tend it for him. As harvest time approached the landowner sent many servants to collect his fruit. But the tenant-farmers beat and killed those who were sent. The last one sent was the landowner’s son. In Matt. 21:38-39 Jesus said, “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
The meaning of the parable itself was obvious. The religious leaders understood what Jesus was saying — and plotted to arrest him. But notice how Jesus described himself: “the heir.” Clearly the “landowner” is God but in the parable there is one “heir” and that heir is His Son, our Lord Jesus.
Who Are the Heirs?
If Jesus is the heir, who, then, are the co-heirs Paul refers to in Romans 8:17? We referred above to Christ being the seed (singular). Galatians chapter 3, written to Gentiles, concludes with the following words:
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Gal. 3:26-29.
It should be plain from all of these scriptures (and many more like them) that the key to being an heir of God’s promises to Abraham lay, not in being Jewish, but in belonging to Christ through faith.
In the next part we intend to explore this further in Romans, chapters 9-11, where Paul deals head-on with questions about Abraham’s physical descendants and where they fit in with all of this.
To Be Continued