Archive for the ‘Epistles’ Category

Romans Four

March 6, 2010

There’s a reason Paul and his companions were called “These that have turned the world upside down” (KJV Acts 17:6).  It’s because what they said and what they did was a radical threat to everyone’s assumptions.  It’s because they preached that the Son of God had come down and been crucified as an enemy to Rome and a heretic to the Jewish religious establishment.  And I think it’s because they talked about a “God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (4:17).

By now, we’re used to the idea of a God who gives life to the dead.  But one who calls thing that are not as though they were?  What kind of God is that?  Isn’t that what lying is?  And isn’t our God a God of truth?  And anyway, what purpose would God have to call things that are not as though they were?  What sort of game is that to play?

Yet this is emphatically the sort of God Paul declares.  And, for anyone who considers Genesis and the Psalms to be authoritative, he furnishes some pretty good evidence. After all, Genesis says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3).  And faith certainly isn’t part of what the Jewish establishment thinks of as righteousness; faith is a good step, but righteousness is the works of the Law, isn’t it?  Even if faith might be part of righteousness, Paul takes a look at that word ‘credited’.  When you work, he says, you don’t get wages as credit, you get them as your due.  But God credits Abraham’s faith as righteousness, in effect saying “It’s not the same thing, but I’ll count it.”  Which means that God is calling a thing which is not as though it were.

And then there are the Psalms, which Paul quotes as saying “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (4:8). Sin is sin, and yet here is God openly saying that he’ll choose not to count some sins against some people.  God is calling a thing which is as though it were not. He’s making things utterly unreliable.  How are we supposed to distinguish between the righteous and sinners if God will ignore the sins of some and credit righteousness to others?

I’m all prepared to get terribly unhappy with God for this kind of irrational behavior when I remember something very important (which Paul has already covered at length in Chapter 3).  If God calls things the way they are, then I’m in trouble. Because I’m a sinner.  I can’t count on the rules, or the way things are, to save me one bit: I’m on the wrong side of that equation, just like everyone else.

And the thing about God’s way of accounting, as Paul describes it, is that it never works out against the one in debt.  Someone like Abraham, who hasn’t yet fulfilled the works of the law, has his sheer willingness to rely on the promises of this God credited to him as righteousness.  And the sinner’s sins don’t have to be counted against him.  No one who is righteous gets counted as a sinner in this system, and sinners (like me) have a chance to get counted as righteous.

But let’s get back to that faith of Abraham’s. God calls things which are not as though they are.  And Abraham’s faith is not just a belief that God is.  It’s a belief that they way God calls things is the way they will be, even when it seems completely impossible. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” Paul says, and in that phrase captures the essence of Christian faith (4:18). Against all evidence and hope in this life, we hold fast to the hope that Christ died and rose again, that because of him we will all rise.  Against all evidence and hope, we believe firmly in a God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they are.  And by doing so, we truly turn the world upside down.