Crucially, as we continue to progress through this fourth chapter of Romans, as it is dictated by the communal conception and remembrance of Abraham, the doing of good works, which is so often confused with the keeping of the law as a means of attaining salvation is nowhere in sight. It is not only not in sight in the sense of being the antithesis of the message of justification by faith, it is also nowhere in sight in terms of it being a recognizable category for Paul. We cannot foist the dichotomy of faith versus works on to what Paul sees as the crucial issues of justification, which are the inclusion of Gentiles, the basis of their inclusion, the transformation of the recognized covenant markers because of the cross and the Resurrection, and the fulfillment and extension of God’s covenant through what took place in and with Jesus as the Messiah.
With that said, we move to the thirteenth verse and Paul’s insistence that “the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (4:13). Though it has been said over and over, mental habits that have been constructed over extended periods of time must continue to be resisted, with this best achieved by constant reminders concerning the terminology with which Paul operates. The tendency to allow ourselves to mentally regress to thinking of “law” as “the doing of good works,” rather than properly thinking of “law” as shorthand for the covenant markers of Judaism (circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and dietary laws---with circumcision often also functioning as shorthand for the three) that identified someone as being a covenant member, with the ongoing recognition of the value of these things lying in the fact that they are reminders of belief in the faithfulness of God in general and His faithfulness to His covenants with Israel in particular.
Though it seems to require significant mental exertion, and though it certainly requires us to hold together different ideas, right understanding dictates a realization that the performance of these covenant markers did not cause one to be in covenant, just as it was not the confession of Jesus as Lord that caused one to be in covenant. The performance of the covenant markers (be it the Jewish covenant markers that served to isolate the people of God and wall off the covenant, or the confession of Jesus’ Lordship in the world and over one’s life), as was the case with Abraham and his circumcision, is the reminder of the belief in a faithful God. It may be the case that this understanding had become blurred, in that there was a conception, perhaps held by some Gentiles, though it may be the case for Jews as well, that it was the performance of the covenant markers themselves, rather than the belief that stood behind that performance, that actually produced and induced an individual’s justification. This runs back to what was said in verse twelve, which was “he is also the father of the circumcised… who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised.” Belief, whether under the old covenant markers or the new covenant marker, was and is the means of entry into the covenant.
The point that Paul is making, which is that from which he builds while also being that to which he is heads, is that the presence of God in Christ, with all that has attended that grand event, has generated a massive change, and that the new reminder of belief that creates covenant (justifies), the declaration of which also possesses the power to generate belief on the part of those that hear the declaration, is the confession of the Lordship of Jesus, with this being inseparable from the realization that the kingdom of God has come upon earth (as announced by Jesus), that this kingdom was truly inaugurated at the Resurrection (introducing the renewal of creation into the world), and that it will be fully consummated at some point in the future (a course of events that was completely unexpected). So when Paul reminds his hearers, who, like us now, are familiar with the story of Abraham, that the promise did not come to Abraham because of his adherence to the covenant marker (which came later), and that Abraham received his righteousness (standing inside the covenant, justification, salvation, right standing with God---all of which comes with responsibilities for this life and in this world, having little if nothing to do with the destination of one’s eternal soul and whether or not one ends up in heaven or hell) through faith, he is not juxtaposing works and faith in relation to justification. Rather, his focus remains on covenant markers and legitimating Gentile inclusion, with the latter being an obvious part of God’s plan from the very beginning. It seems clear that Paul recognizes, in Jesus, at least a partial (if not complete) fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, so the spreading of the Gospel message (Jesus is Lord) to the Gentile world, with the subsequent submission to that message and to the Lord of the message, is a very natural progression. Accordingly, this fits very well with, and makes much sense of the words of the prophets of old that are very obviously world-encompassing.
With verse fourteen, Paul points up the inherent conflict involved in ascribing justifying activity to adherence to covenant markers (thus contributing to the possibility of a mental blurring of lines that we mentioned before), when he writes “For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified” (4:14). Again, covenant membership (justification) does not and cannot come from the covenant markers. The markers are reminders of belief. Importantly, God has not changed His mind (we can relieve Him of the charge of schizophrenia when it comes to His plans for His world and His people). The example of Abraham proves this. He was in covenant because of belief. If this is not so, and if he was not actually in covenant until the event of his circumcision, then belief is indeed empty, for it produced nothing. The promises made to him then, all of which came before his circumcision and from the very beginning point to the global people of God that become His people through the same means employed by Abraham (faith), are null and void. Though Abraham obviously is not in a position to confess Jesus as Lord, we see the story of his life as his confession, reflecting His unswerving loyalty to the God of the promise. Those of us now in the position to confess Jesus as Lord should similarly seek that the story of our lives be the silent confession of the same unswerving loyalty, generating the opportunity to offer verbal, public declaration.