Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Inheritance of Eternal Life through Faith instead of Law in Romans 4:13

In Rom 4:13 the Apostle Paul says that “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” It is often concluded on the basis of this verse that Abraham would inherit eternal life solely through faith in God’s promise and not by obedience.

But this is to misunderstand Paul’s meaning. The law in question in the phrase through the law in Rom 4:13 is not law in general but specifically the law of Moses. What Paul is saying is that the revelation in which God promised life to Abraham was not the law of Moses. He is saying that God promised life to Abraham and his seed before the Mosaic law came into existence. Romans 4:13 is a shorthand form of the argument that Paul makes in Gal 3:17-18: “the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” In other words, while Abraham was still uncircumcised (i.e., still a Gentile), he was already an heir of the promise of eternal life.

Paul is not saying in Rom 4:13, therefore, that Abraham solely inherited life through faith apart from obedience. To interpret Paul in this manner is to make him contradict the plain teaching of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Abraham narrative in Genesis do we see faith spoken of in a way that is exclusive of obedience. In fact, I will show in the next few posts that the Abraham narrative clearly states in a number of places that obedience was necessary for Abraham and his seed to inherit the blessing.

To start off with, please consider Gen 12:1-3:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Looking at the clause structure of the Hebrew of vv. 2-3, it is clear that v. 2 contains three sequential imperfect clauses and one sequential imperatival clause. Verse 3 contains another sequential imperfect clause, a disjunctive imperfect clause, and a modal perfect clause. These clauses are all dependent on the imperative go in v. 1.

The function of the sequential imperfect clause in Hebrew is most frequently to indicate purpose or result. In other words, Abraham was commanded to leave his country in order that God might bless him. Abraham had to pack up his bags and leave. The blessing would not come without Abraham obeying God.

The Hebrew clause structure of Gen 12:1-3 is clear evidence, therefore, that right from the start of God’s relationship with Abraham, obedience was necessary in order for Abraham to be blessed. How many times do we hear people say that God's blessing of Abraham was unconditional? I sometimes wonder if the people who say that have ever read Gen 12:1-3, or at least read it carefully.

Genesis 12:1-3 also clearly shows that God’s revelation of promise to Abraham was not pure promise as many Protestants are inclined to think. In terms of linguistic categorization, Gen 12:1 is command, and Gen 12:2-3 is promise. This goes to show that Paul’s use of the term promise in Rom 4 cannot be a category of linguistic or literary genre. Rather, Paul’s idea of promise is a salvation-historical category. That is to say, by the term promise Paul designates the totality of the revelation that God gave to Abraham. Paul’s promise versus law contrast is a contrast of Abrahamic revelation (promise) with Mosaic revelation (law). To interpret the term promise in Rom 4:13 as indicating pure (i.e., command-less) promise is to contradict the reality of what exists in Gen 12:1-3, where promise is linguistically and logically dependent on command.

In a similar way, to say that Paul viewed eternal life as being inherited by faith alone apart from obedience is to make Paul contradict Gen 12:1-3. On the basis of the principle of the analogy of Scripture, Paul must be understood in a manner that is consistent with what God has already revealed. God is not a God of contradiction. The Old Testament functions as the Spirit-inspired foundation and framework upon which New Testament revelation, including that of Paul, is built. The remainder of the house must be consistent with the foundation and basic framework that has already been erected.

In sum, therefore, Paul is not saying in Rom 4:13 that eternal life is inherited by faith alone as if such faith did not include obedience as part of its meaning. If that were true, then Abraham could have stayed in Ur. But because command was an integral part of the promise of God in Gen 12:1-3, Abraham’s faith necessarily included obedience as part of its meaning.

Please consider the following question: If Abraham had simply said to God: “I believe in your word of blessing” (as contained in Gen 12:2-3), but did not leave Ur, would he inherit the blessing? This is not possible in terms of the Hebrew sense of Gen 12:1-3. God told Abraham to go in order to inherit the blessing! This means he had to obey in order to inherit the blessing. Abraham going is Abraham accepting the word of God, and accepting the word of God is saying amen to the word of God, and saying amen (אמן) to the word of God is faith (אמונה). In Gen 12:4, Abraham’s faith is clearly portrayed as being the faith which obeys God’s commands and which believes his promises. Abraham’s faith was the faith of obedience.

To say that eternal life is inherited by faith apart from obedience logically requires that the Apostle Paul either did not know or did not accept the plain meaning of Gen 12:1-3. I find it difficult to accept that a Hebrew of Hebrews would have failed to understand and accept the import of the Hebrew of Gen 12:1-3.


Dave said...

Hi Steve! I am back, but really just to say that I find my time stretched and therefore feel I am unable to continue in the discussion. I have not had time to read everything that you have posted while I have been away.

Thanks for the discussion and the blog. I hope you continue to put your ideas out there to challenge and be challenged. It is a great way for us all to learn!

In closing, I think that the discussion has shown me that you were coming from where I thought you were, though I am still fuzzy on some details. I see your paradigm through which you view scripture as different to mine (mine, of course, is the correct paradigm!!).

This last post highlights that difference. To me you have distorted the plain reading of Genesis 12:1-3 to come to the conclusions you do. The passage is clearly concerning faith IMO. How do we know that Abraham believed (had faith) in the promises of God? Because he went - so that the promises that were made of things yet unseen would become a reality. This IS faith. Real faith changes our involves actions!!

If Abraham said he believed in the promises but did not leave Ur, then he would also have accepted the fact that the promises would not come about as he was told they would come about IF he left. But, if he really believed them AND wanted to recieve them then he would have to go to show that he believed in them.

It is ALL about faith Steve!

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Dave. Glad that you're back safe and sound.

Yes, it's all about faith, and faith (from the OT Hebrew perspective) says "amen" to the whole counsel of God, not just the promises.

God bless!