For the next two Sundays, the Epistle reading offered by the lectionary comes from the longest and most theologically weighty letter written by Paul—that addressed “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). Although it has this specific, localised audience in view, the letter has become a declaration heard and taken up and studied carefully by Christians right around the world, across millennia of years.
It is generally regarded as the most explicit and detailed exposition of the theological commitments which had energised Saul of Tarsus to spend years of his life “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:16). For this enterprise, he is well-known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles”.
The passages on offer this coming Sunday (Rom 4:1–5, 13–17) and the following Sunday (Rom 5:1–11) come from the heart of the letter, the long section often described as presenting Paul’s key theological understanding of the grace of God by which people of faith are justified (reckoned as righteous, or put right with God). This theological understanding is set forth, initially, through a quotation from a short book in Hebrew Scripture, that of the prophet Habakkuk.
Habakkuk is a shadowy figure, known, really, for only one statement—just half of one verse. That is the short statement, “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b), which stands as the text upon which Paul developed his important theological statement in Romans: “in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). As well, Paul quotes this verse in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 3:11) and the verse is cited in the “word of exhortation” sent to the Hebrews (Heb 10:38). So it appears in significant writings of the early Christian movement.
In the context of Habakkuk’s prophetic activity, the affirmation that “the righteous live by their faith [or faithfulness]” (2:4b) is the word that God gives to the prophet, responding to his complaints about what sufferings are taking place. Habakkuk’s complaints come because God is “rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own” (1:6), and through their dreadful and fearsome activities, God is “destroying nations without mercy” (1:17).
That God is using foreigners to deal with Israel is a striking theological development—one that is at odds with the traditions that emphasise Israel as a chosen nation, holy and set apart, dedicated to the Lord; the nation alone through whom the Lord God works. That this God will use foreigners is a theme found also in the later writings of Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40–55), where Cyrus, the Persian ruler, is acclaimed as the one chosen by God, the Messiah, to allow the people of Judah to return to their land (Isa 44:24–45:13).
That God is at work amongst people who are not of Israel resonates, of course, with the activity that Paul and his fellow-workers had been undertaking amongst the Gentiles (those not of the people of Israel)—although Paul is not working in a context of oppression and threatening invasion. So this brief citation from Habakkuk is entirely apposite for Paul’s work and his writings. And as the later chapters of Roman clearly show, God has indeed been at work amongst the Gentiles in Rome.
Paul quotes a string of scriptures to demonstrate “that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom 15:9–12); he writes of his goal “to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom 15:18–19); and he affirms “all the churches of the Gentiles” (Rom 16:4). The letter concludes with a prayer of thanks (although most likely not from the hand of Paul), celebrating that “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles” (Rom 16:25–26).
Habakkuk laments and complains about the situation in Israel of his time (the years immediately before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BC). God instructs him to “look at the proud—their spirit is not right in them”, and to be assured that “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). The theme of the faith of the righteous that is signalled here by the prophet is a central motif in Hebrew Scriptures. It appears in the ancestral stories concerning the key figures of Abraham (Gen 15:6), Saul (1 Sam 26:23), David (2 Sam 22:21–26; 1 Ki 3:6), and Solomon (1 Ki 10:9). It is the motif that Paul takes up for his magnum opus, his theological bequest to later believers.
The theme articulated in Rom 1:17—the claim that it is in the Gospel that “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith”—is set forth in more detail at 3:21–26. Paul declares that “the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, and proceeds to explain that “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith”. This was evident in the past (in the story of Israel), and is further evident in Paul’s time, demonstrating that God “himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus”.
This explanation is dense, compressed, and complex. Interestingly, the lectionary completely avoids this seminal theological passage, which has been so important for the development of the classic doctrine of the Atonement! (By contrast, portions of chapter 5 appear in the lectionary on four different occasions, and parts of chapter 8 on seven occasions.) There are many key theological terms in 3:21–26 which require unpacking and explanation. Paul proceeds to offer that in the chapters that follow.
Chapters 5–8 have classically been regarded as an extended exposition of what 3:21–26 has set out, climaxing in the doxology of 8:31-39 as the climactic moment of the letter (“[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”). In more recent interpretation, chapters 9–11 have been seen, not as an addendum (as earlier interpreters argued), but as a flourishing of the argument set out from 3:21 onwards, heading steadfastly to the doxological prayer of 11:33–36 (“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God … to him be the glory forever. Amen.”)
My own reading is consistent with this latter line of interpretation. See
Before all of this, however, Paul starts with the example of Abraham—for in Paul’s mind, the words written about Abraham in Genesis 15, ‘it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, “were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom 4:23–24; the citation is from Gen 15:6).
The argument develops—unsurprisingly—in typical Pharisaic/rabbinic midrashic style—by posing questions, drawing on biblical texts, exploring details, and concluding with the text that draws the argument together—Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).
So we find the argument containing, first a general reference to Abraham (4:1–2), set forth as a rhetorical question which Paul nevertheless processes to answer! He does this by first quoting the key verse in his argument (4:3, quoting Gen 15:6)—introduced with a second rhetorical question—and then discussing what it means to “reckon” or to “justify the ungodly” (4:4–5).
Next, a quotation from the Psalms, beginning “blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven” (4:6–8, citing Ps 32:1–2), which occasions a third question, posed in order to be immediately explored: exactly who is forgiven (4:9a)? Is this blessedness only for those circumcised (Jews), or does it encompass those beyond (Gentiles)?
Gen 15:6 is cited, for a second time, at 4:9b, opening the way for a discussion of when Abraham was “reckoned as righteous”—was it before he was circumcised, or after? This matter is stated in two short rhetorical questions (4:10a), followed immediately by the answer (4:10). The answer is obvious from a straightforward reading of the Genesis narrative; it was after Abraham was blessed by Melchizedek (Gen 14:7–15:6), before he was circumcised, after the birth of Ishmael (Gen 16:15–17:27). Circumcision, says Paul, is “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (4:11), thereby making Abraham “the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised” (4:11), as well as “the ancestor of the circumcised” (4:12).
This conclusion will prove to be foundational for Paul’s subsequent argument in the letter, which he has already flagged in earlier chapters: the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16), and then, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9), and finally, “the righteousness of God [is available] through faith in [or, the faith of] Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22).
Accordingly, he declares (in typical style, with questions driving to the obvious answer), “is God the God of Jews only? is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (3:29–30). The universal scope of God’s providential grace is clear; this is how God meets the universal spread of sinfulness amongst human beings.
In a following post, I will explore the origins of this style of developing an argument (quoting sources, posing questions, immediately providing answers) and continue on with an analysis of Paul’s argument in Romans 4.