Romans 4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Paul continues challenging the “Judaizers” – those who taught that Christians (Jews and Gentiles) must follow the law of Moses. For such persons the story of Abraham is problematic since Abraham is considered the father of Israel yet did not follow the law of Moses. Why? The law did not come into existence until long after Abraham’s death. Nevertheless Abraham was considered “righteous” in the eyes of God and of Isreal. Abraham’s was a righteousness of “faith” (trusting in the Lord and believing his promises) not of fidelity to the law.
I get the sensitivity of the Jews around the issue of adherence to the law, given the widely-held belief that Israel’s historical struggles were fundamentally a result of violating the law. Yet Paul reminds the Judaizers their history is a bit more nuanced than “follow the law or else”. There is precedent in Israel’s history for a righteousness by faith, which is a fundamental theological foundation for Christian believers then and now.
We Christians are constantly being challenged to apply historical theology to our modern context. As one who tends to take a more traditional view of theology and faith, I appreciate the impulse of the Judaizers to lean into historical orthodoxy. Without a firm foundation, the faithful would surely be lost. But as Paul illustrates for us, orthodoxy too narrowly applied can create problems of its own. And so we live in the tension of the past and the present. Now more than ever. We desperately need the wisdom of God to guide the Church faithfully into the future. Lord let it be so. Amen.