Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Covenantal Logic and Meaning of Paul’s Argument in Romans 4:15–17a

In Rom 4:13–17a, Paul gives a succinct explanation as to why the promise of the blessing of life must ultimately come through faith rather than through the Mosaic faith of obedience to torah. This further strengthens his argument in Rom 4:1–12 that the example of Abraham proves that the blessing of justification comes through faith rather than through the works of the law of Moses. The fact that Abraham was right with God even before he was circumcised proves that justification is not limited solely to bona fide members of the Mosaic covenant, contrary to what Paul’s non-Christian Jewish opponents and the Christian Judaizers were advocating; but this needed further explication.

Therefore, in Rom 4:13, Paul considers the issue of how the promise that God made with Abraham (for him and all of his spiritual descendants to inherit the world) would be realized. The promise was not “through the law … but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13). It is very important to realize that the word law in Rom 4:13 refers specifically to the law of Moses. The word law in Rom 4:13 is not law in general, but specifically the law over which Paul and his Jewish opponents were arguing, i.e., the law of Moses. We need to recognize at this point that the divine promise of blessing given to Abraham in Gen 12:2–3 is grammatically, and therefore logically, dependent on the command of Gen 12:1 (see “The Inheritance of Eternal Life through Faith instead of Law in Romans 4:13” for a more detailed explanation of this). But the law of command given to Abraham in Gen 12:1 is not law in the sense of being Mosaic law. As Paul points out in Gal 3:17, the law of Moses did not arrive on the scene until 430 years afterwards. In other words, the promise of the blessing of life that God graciously made with Abraham was not subject to the Mosaic covenant when it was first made. Even though this promise would effectively come under the regulation of the Mosaic covenant after Sinai, the promise was larger than the law of Moses. The Abrahamic covenant was not a subset of the Mosaic covenant; rather, the Mosaic covenant was a subset of the Abrahamic.

The significance of the promise being realized through the righteousness of faith for Abraham in the beginning is that, if the giving of the law some 430 years later were to change that original condition, then God would have shown himself to be inconsistent and unfaithful to his word. If the giving of the Mosaic law changed the original condition regarding the realization of the promise, then this would be to render faith useless, and the covenant of promise itself would end up being annulled (Rom 4:14). Implied in Paul’s argument in Rom 4:14 is that God would not do such a thing as this. Having entered into an agreement with Abraham concerning how Abraham and his descendants would be blessed, God could not rightly change this commitment midstream.

This then prompted the question (particularly to Paul’s Jewish opponents) concerning why the Mosaic covenant was given in the first place. If the Mosaic covenant is not the ultimate regulator of the realization of the promise, then why was the Mosaic covenant made in the first place? Why save Israel out of Egypt to place the nation under the law? Paul answers this question very succinctly in Rom 4:15: “For the law produces wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression.” What Paul is really saying here is that the primary function of the law in old covenant Israel was to bring about God’s wrath against the people. This is not to say that obedience to the law was not the way of life for the small minority of Israelites who had the law written in their hearts during the old covenant age. Paul is speaking in Rom 4:15 in terms of the broad sweep of salvation history during the old covenant age. Romans 4:15 is not an abstract theological statement, but a statement explaining the function of covenant failure in salvation history. The law of Moses, far from being the solution (as Paul’s Jewish opponents were advocating), was part of the problem. The main purpose in God giving Israel the law was so that God’s anger would be revealed against sinful Israel, i.e., that Israel would be rendered guilty before God, without excuse (Rom 3:19–20).

In Rom 4:16 Paul explains the deeper purpose behind the primarily negative purpose in God giving the law. He identifies two main reasons. Firstly, the law was given to Israel so that God’s dealing with humanity might be “according to grace.” If Israel had kept covenant with God, and received blessing as a result, that would still be the work of God; but Israel initially failing, only to be restored later on, makes for a better story in the sense that the gracious side of God’s character has an opportunity to be revealed. It is almost as if God, wanting to prove his greatness and humanity’s total dependence on him, has deliberately set things up for humanity in Adam, and Israel in Moses, to fail, “in order that every mouth might be stopped, and the whole world come under the judgment of God” (Rom 3:19–20), in order that his gracious response might be seen and appreciated. Simply put, the fact that the promise of eternal life ultimately comes through faith in Jesus rather than through submission to the Mosaic covenant serves to highlight God’s grace. Secondly, justification by faith also means that salvation is not just limited to Israel, but every believer (regardless of ethnic origin) can participate in the promise. Didn’t God say in Gen 17:5 that Abraham would be “the father of many nations” (Rom 4:17)? In fact, that is the meaning of the name Abraham! “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5).

Paul’s Jewish opponents found it hard to accept, but Paul argues strongly in Rom 4 for the primacy of the new covenant in Christ over against the old covenant in Moses. That, in the salvation historical purposes of God, the Mosaic covenant would be superseded by a new covenant in Christ Jesus serves to highlight God’s grace and to open up salvation to the Gentiles in fulfillment of God’s promise of Gen 12:3.

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