Friday, October 12, 2018

Revisiting Abraham's "faith reckoned as righteousness" (A 'new' insight on Romans 4 and Romans 2)

The other day I was thinking about Genesis 15:6 and felt I had gained a new insight. Even though I've held to elements of this before, I think this 'new' insight will help tie things together. I'm not saying I'm the first to do this, only that this was a sort of 'aha' moment for me.

The first time the term "righteousness" appears in the Bible is in Genesis 15:6. The big question is: what is righteousness? We all have a general intuitive idea, and I wrote a post on this (HERE), but I think in this case Paul was getting at something important that we end up overlooking. 

While many think of righteousness/unrighteousness in a generic sense, that's not how we should approach the Bible. It is crucial to realize that Paul's opponents saw righteousness as synonymous with living in conformity with the Mosaic Law, which was God's Law (the Torah). But Paul noticed something fascinating: Abraham was counted as righteous before God's law formal standard (the Mosaic Law) even existed. But how can Abraham be considered righteous without there being a law from which to measure his righteousness? Paul is apparently teasing out the fact that some law/covenant must have existed prior to the Mosaic Law, and that by God counting Abraham's faith/faithfulness as righteousness means God counted Abraham as living in conformity to this 'mysterious' pre-Mosaic law/covenant. 

If that's the case, then reducing our view of Romans 4 to the popular apologetics claims like "Genesis 15:6 wasn't the first time Abraham believed" (cf Gal 3:6-9; Heb 11:8; Gen 12:1-4; Rom 4:17-22) kind of miss the bigger point, even if they are true claims. What our emphasis should be on is that Paul is not  concerned about God crediting Abraham's faith as some generic righteous deed, but more specifically Abraham was righteous per some real covenant than preexisted Moses' Covenant. This means that Genesis 15:6 is saying God either was right there establishing a new unnamed covenant, or God was affirming Abraham was already living a righteous lifestyle under this unnamed covenant. 

This conclusion would fit perfectly with Paul calling Abraham "ungodly" (Rom 4:5), since this term would be referring to sinful/uncircumcised living per the Mosaic Standards. Similarly, Paul brings up David as a secondary example of "ungodly" because he gravely sinned under the Mosaic Standards, which puts one out of the Mosaic Covenant, 'nullifying' their circumcision (Rom 2:25). So in Romans 4:6-8, Paul is saying David prayed Psalm 32 (and Psalm 51) and received forgiveness under some other covenant, since the Mosaic Covenant did not forgive murder (Num 35:33).  Furthermore, David says nothing about 'faith' or 'works' in Psalm 32, meaning we shouldn't have some generic view of 'faith' or 'works' in mind. I wrote about this in an older post (HERE and HERE). 

Finally, some passages to consider in support of this 'thesis':
  •  If we look at Rom 3:6, righteousness is placed in parallel with faithfulness, where Paul contrasts God's fidelity to the Covenant promises to the Jewish nation's unfaithfulness to the Covenant. From this we can reasonably assume faithfulness for Abraham was fidelity to that pre-Mosaic covenant, and less likely about a one time act of faith (or even his first act of faith).
  • Paul frequently mentions Abraham was living under conditions prior to the Mosaic Law, and that the promises to Abraham pre-exist the Mosaic Law, e.g., Rom 4:13-15; Rom 5:12-14; Gal 3:17-18. The Romans 4 text here is especially noteworthy, since it's right in the context under consideration.
  • This thesis fits with Genesis 26:4-5, "And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws." This older covenant probably even contained the original liturgical rites, as we see Abraham building Altars and such (see HERE, Gen 12:8; 13:3-4; 21:32-33).
  • Romans 2 seems to be the missing interpretive key for Rom 4, which most people forget:
    25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. [David sinned and became a Gentile, Rom 4:7-8]
    26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be imputed as circumcision? [Abraham prior to his circumcision, his faithfulness was reckoned as (carrying the same value as) circumcision, Rom 4:9-12]
    27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. [Gentile Christians versus unbelieving Jews]
    28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. [Abraham, David, Christians, not the Mosaic Law]
Final random thought: Perhaps the Mosaic Covenant built on to this older covenant, in an inverted grace builds on nature sense. Or maybe this was a 'covenant with the Gentiles' so that God could pull this card out if the Jews got too arrogant?


Daniel said...

Noah is called righteous in Genesis 6:9, the first covenant was with adam, then with noah, then with Abraham.

Nick said...


Good catch. I was using the Lexicon and it shows the verb righteousness was first used for Abraham in Genesis 15:6, but now that I looked up the other forms, you are correct, the adjective righteous is used for Noah in Gen 6:9. Thanks for finding that! I'm in a time crunch now but I hope to update my post with that detail when I can.