This Sunday, we start into a series of readings offered by the lectionary 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.
A reading from Romans will be offered each week until the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (this year, 2023, that falls on 17 September). So we will have many weeks to consider the theological exposition that Paul provides. This letter 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”.
In the structuring of the lectionary, the sequence of excerpts from Romans should begin with a declaration of the central theme of the letter (1:16–17) and the rich passage that details how God death with human sinfulness through Jesus (3:21–28). These two short, but central, sections of the letter are offered on the Sunday known as Proper 4, the first Sunday after Pentecost.
However, because Easter was (relatively) later this year, Pentecost is also later, and so this reading is not offered by the lectionary this year. Proper 4 is to occur “on the Sunday in between May 29 and June 4 inclusive, if after Trinity Sunday”; as Trinity Sunday this year fell on 4 June, there is no Proper 4 in 2023.
So we begin with Proper 5, for “the Sunday between June 5 and June 11 inclusive”—this year, Sunday 11 June. Which means that we have missed the initial declaration of the Gospel which Paul proclaims in this long letter; the Gospel which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”, the Gospel in which “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (Rom 1:16–17).
This theological understanding is set forth, initially, through a quotation from a short book in Hebrew Scripture, that of the prophet Habakkuk. This prophet 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).
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).
You can read more of my take on the short book of Habakkuk at
The claim 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.
On the overall theological argument developed in Romans, see
So in the passage that the lectionary offers us for this Sunday (4:13–25), we have the second part of Paul’s discussion of the patriarch Abraham—“the father of all nations” (4:17, citing Gen 17:5) and the figure who stands as the archetype for the message of the Gospel, that “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (1:17, citing Hab 2:4).
In this discussion, Paul is insistent that Abraham stands as the example supreme for that Gospel, since “his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness” (4:3, quoting Gen 15:6, and repeating this at Rom 4:9 and 4:22–23). And more than this: what was done with Abraham “will [also] be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24).
This second half of the discussion of Romans 4 comes after Paul has established the universal scope of God’s providential grace—for this is how God meets the universal spread of sinfulness amongst human beings. So Paul focusses on the faith that Abraham showed, and its importance for believers in Rome (and elsewhere). The thesis for this part of the argument is that the promise to Abraham (which he was given in Gen 12:1–3) was “not through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13).
First, Paul indicates that the promise cannot be fulfilled only through “the adherents of the law”, for “the law brings wrath” (4:14–15; he expands on this in chapter 7). Then, he asserts that the promise must rest on faith, both to those who adhere to the law but also “to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16). Abraham is here described as “the father of all of us”, drawing on yet another scripture citation (Gen 17:5; Paul uses the same argument at Gal 3:15–18, and the phrase is also at play in the debate reported in John 8:41–59).
Then follows further explication of this scripture (Gen 17:5), particularly explaining how Abraham, “hoping against hope”, became “the father of many nations” (4:17b—21). Despite the barrenness of Sarah’s womb (4:19), Abraham “was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:21). To conclude this exegetical foray, Paul quotes, for the third time, the foundational text: “his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (4:22, quoting Gen 15:6).
Paul then explains that these words describe not only the situation of Abraham, long ago in the past, but also the immediate situation of those to whom he writes (4:23–24). This is a foundational aspect of Paul’s hermeneutic; he restates it at Rom 15:4, declaring that the scripture “written in former days was written for our instruction”. See
And so the argument draws to a close, moving back into the heart of Paul’s concern, to expound the Gospel concerning God “who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” (4:24–25). The final verse is most likely a traditional formulaic expression; we find a similar pattern at 1 Cor 15:3–4, a midrashic-style reflection on this pattern at 1 Cor 15:42–44, and a variant form at 2 Cor 5:14–15.
There is also an extended discussion later in the letter to the Romans using the pattern of “Christ, dead and raised”, as the model for believers: “we are buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Paul provides a fuller discussion of this paradigm at 6:3–11, and there is a similar discussion, albeit varied for the different context, at Col 3:11–15.
And so the extended argument set out in all of this chapter takes us from an initial question about Abraham, through an exploration of the story of Abraham and Sarah, to a conclusion about the life of those who place their trust in what God has done through Jesus Christ. That God “will justify [or, reckon as righteous] the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (3:30) is the foundation for then claiming that, in like manner, “it will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24). It is all about being reckoned as righteous on the basis of faith. Thanks be to God!
On the diatribe style that Paul uses here and throughout much of the letter to the Romans, which is reflected in that pattern (“it was reckoned to him … it will be reckoned to us”), see