Romans 4: Believing promises, obeying contracts, and retribution

Romans 4: Believing promises, obeying contracts, and retribution December 8, 2012

One of the struggles I have with the word “covenant” is that it seems to be used to describe two entities which are quite different: God’s unconditional, unilateral promise to Abraham and the elaborate set of rules and practices given to the Israelites in the Torah. In Romans 4, Paul pits these two “covenants” against each other in order to radically redefine what it means to be God’s people. Paul argues that God’s people are more essentially those who share the faith of Abraham than those who follow the law of Moses. If we understand righteousness to mean trusting in God’s unconditional generosity rather than following rules flawlessly, this means replacing an ethos of retribution with an ethos of mercy. I think that the reason evangelicals so egregiously misinterpret Romans is because we don’t want Paul to be replacing contractual rules with trust, since that means giving up both retribution and our autonomy; we would rather make “faith” into a new rule that we get punished for not following, so that we can continue to deny our dependence on God and judge others, which completely sabotages Paul’s entire point.

Let’s look at the concern with which Paul opens chapter 4: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he would have glory—but not towards God.” (note: I fixed the NIV’s mistranslation). What scandalizes Paul is precisely the logic of retribution. If Abraham were self-sufficiently “righteous” by exhibiting perfectly blameless behavior, then he would have reason to glorify himself and not God. Thus the way that the problem is framed concerns whether God is glorified and honored, not whether Abraham deserves damnation for being imperfect.

God’s glory is preserved because of the way that Abraham’s righteousness is given to him by God as a product of his trust in God and not something which Abraham can produce from himself independently of God. (Now it’s a valid question whether we can say that a man really trusts in God’s promise if he allows his wife to join two different kings’ harems by lying that she was his sister to avoid getting killed and then impregnates his slave girl in order to have an heir, but we can play along with Paul’s hagiography of Israel’s patriarch.)

Verses 4-5 corroborate Paul’s initial concern with God’s sovereignty: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” If God is under obligation to His creatures, He’s not sovereign. They are their own gods. The patron-client hierarchy of ancient society was ordered according to gift-giving. The one who can give gifts that cannot be repaid is the sovereign, and those who receive these gifts are his vassals.

If humans are independent contractors under God’s rules instead of vassals under God’s promise, then love and gratitude towards God and mercy for God’s fellow human creatures are not part of the equation. The contractors must simply fulfill the exact terms of the contract to receive their wages. Beyond these minimal expectations, they can be as cruel and mean-spirited towards their fellow human beings as they want to. And as I’ve written before, few people are nastier and more resentful towards others than those who can say that they have followed every rule impeccably. It’s not their fault per se; living under retribution makes you a misanthrope.

In verses 9-12, Paul redefines what it means to be descendents of Abraham: “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 circumcision as a sign, 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 then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Circumcision rather than being the means by which God’s people belong is simply the mark of the faith that makes them Abraham’s descendents. Thus Israel is redefined as comprising Jews and Gentiles alike. That is the primary function of Abraham’s faith here in Paul’s argument. Paul is not arguing for an alternative contract by which God’s favor can be “earned” through “faith” but rather a complete reconfiguration of what had been misinterpreted as a contract (circumcision and all the Torah regulations that are represented by it symbolically). Though most Christians know that we’re not supposed to say that salvation is “earned” by “faith,” in practice so many of us treat faith as the “decision,” or act of willpower, by which we convince God to accept us (c.f. any “Four Spiritual Laws” tract) rather than the instilling of grace by which God convinces us to accept Him.

In the next several verses (13-16), Paul reveals the rhetorical function of the nihilism he had established in chapter 3 in saying that nobody can be righteous under the law: “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. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.”

If Paul were as committed to God’s essentially retributive, economic self-definition as we are in the era of capitalism, then he would not say, “Where there is no law, there is no transgression.” It is also very interesting that he says, “The law brings wrath.” What this suggests to me is that wrath has to do with the violence within our guilty conscience and not with a fundamentally retributive nature on the part of God, because otherwise our awareness of what God put in His law would make no difference. What Paul is taking pains to preserve is not that God has infinitely high expectations that must be fulfilled either through impossibly perfect obedience or Jesus’ blood as a penal substitutionary equivalent, but rather that God makes promises “by grace,” not by necessity. When you see a clause that begins with “so that” (ίνα κατα χάρις), then it screams, This is the point of what I’m saying! If we could earn God’s promise, He would not be sovereign.

This last excerpt that I’m going to share (19-21) establishes Abraham as a model for our struggle with the limitations of our flesh: “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” 

Just like Abraham, we have bodies that are “as good as dead.” Abraham’s frailty of flesh due to age is symbolically analogous to our frailty of flesh due to sin. Our deliverance is not going to come through the volitional power of our “decision” to stop sinning any more than Abraham could “decide” that he and Sarah were going to be fertile. It comes through trusting God “to do what he has promised.” This passage anticipates the climax of Paul’s account of the death of sin in which we live (7:24-25): “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Like Abraham, we have bodies that are as good as dead, but God can plant resurrecting seeds into us just like he planted a seed into Abraham and Sarah. Yet, as long as we think that our relationship with God is about obeying contracts rather than believing promises, we will remain impotent in our battle against sin. This is because without a knowledge of God’s grace as the foundation of our struggle, we’re going to try to deceive ourselves and God about how well we’re doing instead of gaining the insight to confront painful truths about ourselves with the assurance of God’s unconditional promise. We become people who can love and live under God’s Torah when we are most fundamentally God’s promise-believers rather than His contract-obeyers.

If believing God’s promise is merely a replacement contract and the most important thing to know about it is that God will !@#$%^&* us eternally if we don’t, that only replaces one self-defeating neurosis with another. Part of our conversion is seeing that we have a God of grace instead of a God of retribution. The fact that so many Christians have not made this conversion is quite frightening. I don’t know what’s in store for them. When I say that God is gracious rather than retributive, this by no means signifies that there are not dire eternal consequences for blowing off His promise and trying to find a way to earn salvation through a “faith” that isn’t really trust in anything other than our own willpower. Once again, God will protect the people who trust Him from those who have become monsters through their sense of entitlement and infallibility (which is what makes many Christians look nothing like Jesus).

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