In my sermon two Sundays ago, I talked about the theme verses of Romans in which Paul indicates that the gospel is the power of God for salvation because in it God's righteousness is revealed. I also mentioned that Paul would take the entire rest of the letter to the Romans to develop this theme of God's righteousness being revealed through Jesus Christ.
Paul begins to unfold the depths of these themes in the second half of chapter one where he describes the unrighteousness that exists among Gentiles. He then does the same thing for Jews, accusing those who simply bear the title "Jew" but do not live righteously. Paul wishes to make clear in the first half of chapter three that this does not mean there is no advantage to being a Jew; Israel is still God's chosen people. However, he does wish to say that Jews and Gentiles alike are both considered unrighteous before God. As he will make even more clear in chapter 7, this is because the Law is powerless to combat sin. The Law only points to sin, making its existence known. Therefore, a Jew might uphold every part of the Law, as Paul himself did, and still be considered unrighteous before God since sin is powerful enough to twist even God's good Law.
That is why Paul will go on in Romans 3:21-29 (which Rev. Pavey preached from last week while I was on vacation) to say that now God's righteousness is revealed apart from the Law. Jews in Paul's day believed that God's righteousness (God's faithfulness to the promises to Israel, God's ability to set things right in the world) was revealed through the Law. However, because of his experience of Jesus Christ, Paul has become convinced that this is not the case. The Law is a good thing but it can not always be trusted to reveal God's righteousness because even it can lead to sin. (For example, the Law led Paul to kill Christians because he believed they were false prophets. The power of sin twisted God's good law to cause Paul to do something entirely ungodly.) Therefore, Paul says that God has revealed God's righteousness apart from the Law "through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all those who believe". (Most translations read "faith in Jesus Christ" at v. 22 but "the faithfulness of Jesus Christ" is a better translation in my view for too many reasons to outline here.) In other words, Paul's point in Romans 3 is an elaboration of the point he began in 1:17; God's righteousness is revealed in Jesus Christ rather than the Law.
Our sermon text this week is Romans 4:13-25 which is basically an illustration (a very powerful illustration for any Jew who would consider himself or herself a child of Abraham) of this point that Paul has made in Romans 3:21-26. This illustration goes back to Genesis and the roots of Israel's faith and identity where God promises to Abraham that he will be the father of many nations and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Paul argues that God made this promise to Abraham before the Law existed. God choose Abraham, called Abraham, and made promises to Abraham before Abraham was ever circumcised (the sign of a Law-abiding Jew) and long before the Law was ever given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Therefore, Paul argues, the promises that God made to Abraham (and therefore to Israel) were never dependent on the Law or on Israel's obeying the Law because the promise came first. This is concurrent with the larger point that Paul is making; that God has revealed his righteousness (his promise keeping ability, faithfulness) apart from the Law. The story of Abraham is a perfect example of how God revealed his righteousness apart from the Law and Abraham is a model of what it means to trust in God's promises apart from the Law. Paul is saying that God has done the same thing in Jesus Christ. God has kept his promises to Israel through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ rather than through the Law and this reality does not make God any less righteous (however surprising that may seem to Paul's fellow Jews). In such a situation, Abraham models the appropriate response; trust in God's work apart from the Law.
This has a number of important implications for us as the Church today. The first is that it is only because God has chosen to reveal his righteousness apart from the Law that we get to be a part of the people of God at all. If God had chosen to reveal his righteousness through the Law that would mean the appropriate response to God would be to follow the Jewish Law, we would, in effect, have to become Jewish in order to be apart of the people of God. In contrast to this, Paul is saying that it is precisely because God has revealed himself apart from the Law that Gentiles (like us) can place our trust in God without following the Jewish Law just as Abraham placed his trust in God before the Law was given. The appropriate Gentile response to the God of Israel is the response of faith.
However, human response to God's action is actually the lesser half of the equation in Romans. Although human faith is clearly an important theme in Romans, Paul's real concern is the action of God himself, the faithfulness of Israel's God. Above all else, Paul wishes to show that God is righteous, faithful to his promises to Israel even though it is Gentiles who are being saved. In Romans 4, Paul is showing that God's work to include Gentiles apart from the Law is not a breaking of the covenant promises to Israel because those promises were made to Abraham and Israel apart from the Law from the start. Inclusion in God's people was always about trusting in God and living faithfully in God's promises. Therefore, it was not a lack of righteousness or faithfulness to Israel on God's part when God chose to save Gentiles apart from the Law through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The resounding theme of Romans 4 (and all of Romans for that matter) is that God is faithful to his promises even when he keeps them in unexpected ways.