Not by Works
“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (vv. 2–3).- Romans 4:1–3
From the very beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul wants us to understand that the gospel of God is not a message that is entirely new but is rather grounded in the Lord’s revelation to Israel and dealings with His old covenant people. The Apostle opens Romans with a reminder that Jesus is a descendant of David (1:3), quotes from Habakkuk to establish justification by faith alone (vv. 16–17), and cites many psalms to prove the universal sinfulness of mankind that establishes our need for divine grace (3:9–18).
What many Jews in Paul’s day found inconceivable was his assertion that we cannot be found righteous in His sight by relying on the law. Extrabiblical writings from the period show that while non-Christian Jews had a place for the Lord’s grace, they believed their final justification depended also on their obedience. They believed the Mosaic law teaches this, so they were astounded by Paul’s assertion that the law itself reveals that sinners cannot be justified—declared righteous in the Lord’s sight—by doing the works of the law. Paul’s controversial thesis demanded extraordinary proof, and he begins to offer it in Romans 4:1–3.
The Apostle turns to Abraham, the physical forefather of the Jews and thus a figure central to Jewish identity. In the first century, many extrabiblical traditions had sprung up related to Abraham that said the Lord chose him because of his righteousness and obedience. To this day, in fact, Jewish midrashim (interpretative stories) in many circles paint Abraham as one who obeyed the Mosaic law even though the Mosaic law wasn’t delivered to Israel until centuries after Abraham’s death. Given this background, we can see the power of Paul’s illustration. His use of Abraham to show that justification is not by works of the law defiantly opposes a key first-century Jewish interpretation of the patriarch’s life.
In Scripture, the term law can mean the set of commandments given to Moses or the five books of Moses (Genesis–Deuteronomy). So, Paul turns in Romans 4:1–3 to the law itself, specifically Genesis 15, to disprove the Jewish interpretation of Abraham’s life that said justification involves our own works of obedience. Citing Genesis 15:6, the Apostle shows that the Bible attributes the patriarch’s justification not to his works but to his faith. The reason Abraham was reckoned as righteous in the sight of the Lord had everything to do with his faith and nothing to do with his works of obedience. He could not boast of his own achievements in securing justification; all he did was rest on the promises of God.
We’ll consider the nature of justification and faith in more detail over the next few days. Today we note the significance of the opposition of doing and believing with regard to justification. Faith is something we exercise, but Paul does not consider it a work in the same way that obedience to the law is. Works involve the bringing of what we do to God and saying that we deserve justification. Faith involves the admission that nothing we can do makes us deserving of salvation.
Passages for Further Study
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