Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 – One Who Lives By The Law Dies By The Law

[Reflections on the New Testament Lectionary Reading for Mar 20, 2011]

Jesus was a radical.  He preached a gospel of faith. Faith runs counter to every fiber of our mind. In order to meet a goal, we want to plan and execute. We want to accomplish our goals through works, for after all that is how things are done here in the world. Yet Jesus called us to live by faith in our Creator. He presented the radical notion of turning the control of our lives over to God.

If our goal is to inherit the world from God and life eternal, then we must live by faith. Our natural instinct is to try to live by our own works. We hope to impress God on Judgment Day with our good works. We figure that if we can only manage to keep all of God’s rules, then God will be impressed by our accomplishment.  The only problem is that no one is without sin. No one will succeed in living by the law.

Paul discusses this radical theology in his Letter to the Roman’s.  He says, “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. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 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” (Rom 4:13-16a, NRSV).

God’s law is eternal; it will not go away just because our society has decided to ignore some of the more difficult bits. Our tendency to ignore the parts against which we have transgressed reveals the degree to which we are still striving to fulfill the law for our own salvation.  The law brings wrath.  If we choose to face our maker having only lived by the law, then we will surely experience wrath.

Jesus came to show us another path toward salvation.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, NRSV).  Jesus came to show us that path of faith to salvation.

But what does it mean to live by faith?  It is simple, but hard.  Rather than evaluating every decision against a metric of self-interest and expected outcomes, we simply rely on God to guide us. Paul points to Abraham as an example.  God made a promise to bless Abraham if he would go from his country and his kindred and his father’s house to the land that God would show him (Gen 12:1, NRSV).  God didn’t give Abraham details of the objective.  God didn’t tell him where God was going to lead Abraham.  God demanded faith. Abraham had to give up everything he knew and step out in faith.  He had to surrender and trust God.

Abraham could have decided to try to inherit the blessings from God by diligently trying to obey every law.  Instead, he was able to bypass the inevitable wrath that comes to those of us who have transgressed the law by faithfully following where God led him.  We have the same choice in life.  We can focus our lives on crafting an impressive legacy of good works, or we can let that go and trust God enough to look to God for direction in our life.

The irony is that I seem to be able to come closer to fulfilling the law once I stop making that my goal and make my goal placing my faith in God instead.  When I look to the Holy Spirit for direction, God leads me down a more righteous path.

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  • Jim Wheeler  On March 12, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    Interesting piece of theology, John. If you allow me to paraphrase the lesson then, “God has set up stringent laws which mankind has little or no hope of keeping perfectly, but He also provided an escape clause, to wit: Simply abandon rational attempts to achieve perfection in obeying the law, such as avoiding difficulties and dangers, and instead choose to be led by faith alone.

    Now I have two questions.

    1. Is this not the path followed by the wealthy Christians last month who, in the process of distributing bibles sailed their yacht in Ethiopian waters and were captured and killed by pirates?
    2. Do you think this result was God’s will?


  • jwhester  On March 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    I wouldn’t quibble much with your paraphrase (except for your clause about avoiding difficulties and dangers because I don’t see the quest to fulfill the law perfectly as one that is about avoiding dangers. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law and yet he met all sorts of difficulties and dangers.).

    To answer your two questions:

    1 – I cannot judge whether others are following the Holy Spirit or not, but I see no reason to say that they were not. Their fate certainly is no evidence to the contrary. The early Christian church had plenty of martyrs.

    2 – I cannot know the answer to this question either, but I see no reason to say that it was not God’s will for these people to die in this manner. Their sacrifice is known far and wide, and God may be using this event for a good purpose.

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