N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 30 (Abraham and Faith)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Rom 4:9-12

(Rom. 4:9-12 ESV)  9 Is this blessing [that faith would be counted as righteousness] then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness [covenant faithfulness].  10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.  11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness [covenant faithfulness] that he had by faith[/trust/faithfulness] while he was still uncircumcised.

The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe[/trust/are faithful] without being circumcised, so that righteousness [covenant faithfulness] would be counted to them as well,  12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith[/trust/faithfulness] that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 

This is a simple and yet powerful argument. Abraham’s faith was counted by God as righteousness in Gen 15. The covenant of circumcision came later — in Gen 17. Therefore, Abraham is the “father” not only of the circumcised but also of the uncircumcised Gentiles who approach God with faith.

Rom 4:13-17

(Rom. 4:13-17 ESV)  13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world [the NHNE, not just the Promised Land] did not come through the law [Torah] but through the righteousness [imputed covenant faithfulness] of faith[/trust/faithfulness].  14 For if it is the adherents of the law [Torah] who are to be the heirs [of the land/earth], faith is null and the promise is void [because no one can fully meet its demands and what would be the point of faith?].  15 For the law [Torah] brings wrath, but where there is no law [Torah, as in the case of the Gentiles] there is no transgression.

 16 That is why it [the promise to Abraham to be heir of the world] depends on faith, in order that the promise [that his descendants would inherit the world] may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring — not only to the adherent of the law [Torah, that is, the Jews] but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham [such as the Gentile converts], who is the father of us all [Jews first, but also Gentiles],  17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” — in the presence of the God in whom he [Abraham] believed, who gives life to the dead [the resurrection of Jesus and the salvation of the damned by that power] and calls into existence the things that do not exist [making Gentiles into descendants of Abraham]. 

Paul’s writing is very dense. He collapses many themes and ideas into a very few words, requiring some unpacking. Some of this unpacking would have been easy for his original readers, because they were very aware of the Jew/Gentile issues he wrestles with and because they knew “law” refers to the Torah and “righteousness” to covenant faithfulness. Even so, it surely required close and prayerful reading to follow Paul even back then.

It’s much more difficult today because we’ve been taught that “law” means “any meritorious work, indeed, anything that is not mere intellectual acceptance that Jesus is Son of God” and that “righteousness” means “goodness.” Well, that sometimes produces a sensible result and sometimes not.

But when we get the definitions right, Paul actually makes quite a lot of good sense — when we start with a good translation, such as the ESV or NET Bible (again, the NIV is excellent for many purposes but really weak in Romans and Galatians).

Paul here is dealing with several issues, largely tying Abraham to points made in the earlier chapters. But he also begins to address the role of the Torah in making the Jewish people more accountable for sin. In a huge irony, because the Gentiles were without the Torah, they were less accountable for obedience than the Jews — in a sense, putting the Gentiles in a superior position before God’s judgment. The Jews — who were in Exile for very good reason — had more of God’s wrath to contend with than the Gentiles!

“Calls into existence the things that do not exist”

The phrase “calls into existence the things that do not exist” is, of course, a reference to the Creation of Gen 1, which seems out of place. The Word Bible Commentary has the best explanation I’ve found, by James D. G. Dunn, another New Perspective commentator —

Unless God is inconsistent, the same principle will govern God’s dealings as savior: he redeems as he creates, and he reckons righteous in the same way in which he makes alive. That is to say, his saving work depends on nothing in that which is saved; redemption, righteous-reckoning, is not contingent on any precondition on the part of the recipient; the dead cannot make terms, that which does not exist cannot place God under any obligation—which is also to say that the individual or nation is dependent on the unconditional grace of God as much for covenant life as for created life.

It was this total dependence on God for very existence itself which man forgot, his rejection of that dependence which lies at the root of his malaise (1:18–28). The tragedy of contemporary Judaism for Paul is that his compatriots were actually making the same mistake—thinking that in the covenant with Abraham God had taken upon himself obligations on which all loyal Jews, but only loyal Jews, could count. In Paul’s view, no matter what Gen 17 may seem to say, that cannot be the case, precisely because it conflicts so sharply with what all Jews recognize to be the basic character of God both in creating and in renewing life.

James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Word BC 38A; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 237.

In other words, God is under no obligation to limit his grace to the Jews. He must be true to his character — just, loving, faithful to his promises. But he can do more should he be so inclined. And if he wants to invite the Gentiles in based on faith and without regard to circumcision, we created beings have no standing to complain. God is fair, and he can be more than fair whenever it suits him. He can never be less than fair — but in fairness, the Jews ought to be damned because they’ve failed to fully honor Torah. And so God saves Jews of faith because of their faith — and he’ll do the same for the Gentiles, even though they are not descended from Abraham.

Rom 4:18-22

(Rom. 4:18-22 ESV)  18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”  19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,  21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 

Notice that in recounting Abraham’s faith, Paul makes the point that Abraham’s faith led him to worship (“gave glory to God”) the one true God. God’s covenant promises led to true worship. His worship of God alone and his trust in God (an element of “faith”) is what led to God’s grace.

Now, some want to insist that “faith” is solely intellectual acceptance — mere belief that God exists. When I (and Wright and many others) argue that “faith” includes faithfulness, many believe that this makes “works” part of salvation. But Paul disagrees. Notice his words. What led to faith being counted as righteousness? Not just “faith” but also not wavering, growing strong in faith, worshiping God, and being fully convinced of God’s covenant faithfulness.

Now, all of these have to do with whom we believe God to be. It’s not just that he’s the Creator, but also that he is to be worshiped to the exclusion of idols and that we trust his promises so much that we live based on those promises.

Abraham is, of course the father of the faithful — and Paul hasn’t expounded a list of rules for how to worship God or how to be strong in faith or how not to waver. But true faith has consequences in the life of the believer — and should be evident. I mean, how will we be a light to the nations if all we can muster is faith that God exists but not enough faith to live as God would have us live — as unwavering worshipers?

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  1. Jay

    I am appreciating this series of blogs on Romans more and more. It really brings home the fact that our covenant with God is based on the same covenant God made with Abraham, that his descendants will inherit the earth. And that we are considered keepers of the covenant and Abraham’s descendants because of our faith.

  2. Another good lesson from this blog: Be careful about adding “never”, “always”, or “only” to the Biblical text, as the Jews did to Gen 17 : “Only those circumcised will share in God’s promise to Abraham”. Not a small portion of Church of Christ teaching is derived by adding those three words to the meaning of the text. Of course we are not the only ones who do that.

  3. David,

    Thanks. I worry that such a long series will be too much, but I’ve learned more about Romans writing this series than any other series I’ve done on Romans. Glad to hear that it’s helping others besides me!

    Wright has written several expositions of parts of Romans as well as two commentaries (the NIB and the NT for Everyone) on all of Romans. I find it difficult to follow him at times because he assumes I know the text better than I do. And so I thought it would be interesting to try to piece it all together into a whole.

    I think chapter 4 is probably the most important for a Church of Christ audience because of its treatment of faith. I mean, if you get chapter 4, you are forced to rethink a lot of other things.