Near the close of the third chapter of the letter to the Romans, we hear Paul say “Since God is one, He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (3:30). If we are hearing Paul from within his appropriate first century context, and hear him as a Jewish Jesus believer that does not have a conception of salvation or justification that pits “works” versus “grace” as the means to obtain righteousness and to go to heaven as the goal of one’s life, it should be impossible for us to disconnect justification from the issues of covenant markers and covenant inclusion. Paul is more than abundantly clear that righteousness (justification) is realized by all, Gentile and Jew, through adherence to the covenant marker of confession of Jesus as Lord (believing in Him), with the covenant markers that are collectively addressed under the title of “circumcision,” which had been used to separate and divide and limit who could be recognized as the people of God, falling to the wayside.
This is what Paul is addressing when he deals with the issue of justification. This is the ground of the discussion about righteousness. Any thought that Paul has the imputation of an alien righteousness, or an exchange of sinfulness for righteousness, anywhere in sight when he addresses the issue of justification or the attaining of a state of righteousness, is beyond the pale of what is to be found in Romans, Galatians, Philippians (or any other Pauline work). That is not to say that it is impossible that God grants His righteousness, as a quality, to those that believe in Jesus, and does so because of their faith, because God is certainly not bound against doing such a thing. The point, however, is that this is not communicated in any way by Paul (or any other New Testament author).
However, while we will allow that qualifying statement to be on offer, we should also accept, and do so without any equivocation or qualification whatsoever, that Paul (as is also the case for every other New Testament author) does not present the “works of the law” as a means to work one’s way into a state of God’s favor (whatever form or state one believes that favor may take), and that this is to be juxtaposed with faith as a gift of grace that stands in diametric opposition to works, and that this is what Jesus was presenting, was the source of the opposition against Him, and what ultimately got Him killed. Such a proposition lacks any historical, cultural, or religious grounding and needs to be finally and completely dismissed, with all the prejudice one can muster. Quite simply, such an idea has no place within a discussion of the message of Jesus and the subsequent ministry of His disciples and apostles, for this idea had no place in the time in which Jesus lived or within the worldview from which Jesus fundamentally operated. “Works of the law,” or “works,” are the catch-all term for Jewish covenant markers, and Paul is never to be found discussing justification without reference to them, without reference to Jew and Gentile relations, or without reference to Gentile inclusion in the covenant people. Undeniably then, producing an exegesis on Paul’s thoughts that starts from and includes such a premise, can only lead in unfortunate and ultimately irrelevant directions.
In Romans, as Paul makes his points concerning Gentile justification as Gentiles that believe in Jesus, rather than Gentile justification (inclusion in the covenant people via adopting Jewish covenant markers) we come face to face with Abraham. In what is obviously a continuous stream of thought, as he continues what he has been doing from the start of the letter and his first mention of Jew and Gentile in verse sixteen of chapter one, Paul transitions from “is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too! Since God is one, He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (3:29-20), to “What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter?” (4:1)
What matter is this? It is the matter of justification---of the determination of who is to be considered as the righteous ones, along with how they reach the point at which they are so considered. As it is worthy of endless repetition, Paul’s answer to this is “belief in Jesus as Lord/Messiah/King/Christ/God-manifest.” The story of Abraham, with Paul’s recapitulation of that story following his discourse on justification which is about defining the covenant people of the covenant God, is the clincher for Paul’s argument, as Abraham is well understood to be the father of the faith. Abraham’s position is unchallenged. His story is well known and oft-rehearsed. If Paul can make his case concerning the justification of Gentiles, and do so in a one-to-one correspondence with the story of Abraham, then he will have won the day.
Before diving further into this fourth chapter of Romans, we do well to consider that which, when discussing justification and so bringing thoughts of covenant and its promises and blessings into play, comes to mind when Abraham is mentioned. Naturally, because Paul is talking about God’s calling and election of a covenant people, the calling and covenant with Abraham is foundational. This turns us to chapter twelve of Genesis, and the genesis of the Abraham story, which begins with “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (12:1-3). There are additional covenant speeches, made by God to Abraham, which we will recount shortly; but undoubtedly, when we consider what we have heard from Paul to this point in Romans, as he has made his case for Gentiles and their justification (their righteous covenant standing in the eyes of God/their righteousness), the words of “all the families of the earth,” and the collective awareness by the Jews of those words spoken to Abraham, not to mention their connection to “bless,” would be of special significance to Paul.