The reason Paul introduces Abraham and David’s faith here is to show what marks out the one family of God. Paul isn’t considering Abraham from the point of view of our modern cultures, about our privatised faith, but from what the Hebrew people understood all conversations about Abraham were really about: the Hebrew calling to inherit and renew the world. “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (Romans 4:13) Paul is considering here how Abraham’s calling to renew the world will come to pass. It would come about by God building one new family of Jews and gentiles. But this new family wouldn’t be marked by the ceremonial aspects of the law, such as circumcision, but by the “righteousness of faith,” meaning faith that does the law, that loves and serves the neighbour.
The Jews of Paul’s day were trying to bring about God’s promises of a transformed world by imposing the ceremonial aspects of the law upon others. Paul was saying that this wasn’t how God’s promises to Abraham were to be fulfilled.
Circumcision spoke prophetically of a new heart, and this new heart was to be fulfilled in the “righteousness of faith.” This whole discussion in Romans was about how the Hebrew expectation of a new creation was to be fulfilled through Israel, through their Messiah. It wasn’t a discussion about personal salvation. It was a discussion about the church, how the church was made up all saved/ transformed people.
“For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith (faithful love) is nullified and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Romans 4:14-15) If the family of God was to be based on the law, then the promise would fail to come to pass. Instead of love, the law would bring about wrath, meaning destruction of each other, as the Jews and gentiles had been doing for generations. But where the law (the ceremonial distinction between the peoples) is taken away, then the service of love from the renewed heart can take over at one table.
“I have made you the father of many nations” (Romans 4:17) This is the promise Paul was speaking about, not a promise of privatised salvation that we often think Paul was focusing on.
And God’s promise to Abraham of one new family from all people, can only come to pass through the service faith, not through the separation-ism and hostility of law. And Abraham received his promise of a child through faith, through God’s loving commitment to him, not by Abraham fulfilling any law.
That is how we are to live out God’s promise as one family in the world, though the faithfulness of loving commitment to one another.
Abraham was justified by counting on God’s love and goodness, not on his works, and this is how community will be justified (will flourish), through receiving and passing on to others the same love and goodness of God. The law, on the other hand, pulls us apart, leaving us falling short, unjustified individually and unjustified by love as a community.
Paul wasn’t against the Jewish ceremonies of circumcision and other ceremonies like that. Jews were free to continue in these, just as Paul himself continued to observe temple ceremonies as a Jew. But Paul was speaking about the issue that marked out the entire family of God and how the gentiles would be included in that family. The ceremonies were shadows, which pointed to the faithfulness of love, and this is what all Jesus followers were required to live out, whether they were Jews or gentiles. And it was this faithfulness of love that would renew the world, bringing about God’s promises to Abraham that he would be the heir of the new creation through his children from all the nations of the world coming tougher as one.
Romans 4 isn’t a chapter where Paul expels those from the faith who observe the ceremonial traditions. It is simply saying that these ceremonies should not lead us to exclude those who don’t observe them. An incorrect understanding of Paul’s message has led us in recent generations to expel the Romans Catholics from our fellowship because of their ceremonies, claiming these are contrary to faith. Rather, the point Paul is making is that we should receive one another in the faithfulness of love. This way we learn from each other and fulfil what is lacking in each other’s faith. We become complete in Christ.
We might ask, “What about the traditions of the Catholics or others that are wrong?” Paul speaks about this in Galatians 6 also, where he says we correct ourselves in the body of Christ with a spirit of humility, in fellowship, not in exclusion. This means we think of our own faults first, which we are often blind to, and then try to understand others and their traditions next. Then we pray for one another and seek each other’s restoration. If people are arrogant towards us, we shouldn’t return this arrogance to them.
Paul was proclaiming the gospel of one table, not the gospel of personal separation from those who observe works we don’t consider to be faith. When Paul spoke in Galatians about there being only one gospel, it was this one table, which Paul was calling Peter back to with his gentile brothers and sisters, that Paul was speaking about. This is the one gospel: the gospel of our complete family as one in Christ. This was the gospel people fought against in Paul’s day, as people sometimes do today.