Paul Sends Abraham to Rome

In Romans 4, Paul sets Abraham before his audience for consideration.  Why does he do this?  Is it to give an Old Testament example of justification by faith?  Not exactly.

Following the grammar in vv. 13-16, it’s apparent that Paul calls upon Abraham to advance his argument that the divided factions in the Roman church must be unified.

It’s not too fanciful to imagine that Paul sends Abraham to Rome to visit the church(es).  He sets him squarely within the divided Roman church(es), provoking the question of which side can claim the support of Abraham against the other.  Whose side is he on?  For whom is he a cheerleader?

The Jewish-Christian faction would immediately assume he would support their case for privileged status in the Roman church(es).  After all, a number of Jewish texts portray Abraham as the ideal Law-observer.

Do they have a case?  Can they so easily assume that Abraham would endorse their claims?

Well, let’s take a look, says Paul.  Was Abraham justified by deeds that distinguish a person as a faithful Jew?

While Paul does not use the phrase “works of Law” in v. 2, he is still referring to such works.  The tension between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians dominates Romans 1-3 and leads into this discussion in Romans 4.  And Paul returns to Abraham’s relation to the circumcised and uncircumcised in v. 9.  Since this problem frames the passage, it’s likely that Paul has it in mind here, too.

If Abraham were justified by faithfully embodying Jewish identity, then he can boast alongside the Jewish Christians over-against the non-Jewish Christians.

Paul makes clear in v. 2 that he isn’t speaking about boasting “before God.”  He still has in view the boasting of one group over another from a few verses earlier (Rom. 3:27).

If Abraham was justified by deeds that indicate faithfulness to Jewish identity, then he takes one side in the conflict in Rome.

Paul cites Gen. 15:6, which states that Abraham believed God and that God reckoned Abraham righteous because of his faith.  And this was before Abraham was circumcised (v. 10).

After that, however, Abraham was circumcised so that he might be the father of the uncircumcised believers and the circumcised believers (vv. 11-12).

When Paul sends Abraham to Rome, therefore, Abraham puts his arms around everyone—all those of faith, without reference to their being Jewish or non-Jewish. 

Abraham doesn’t take sides in the Roman conflict.  No side can claim Abraham because Abraham claims everyone!

God promised Abraham that he’d be the agent of universal blessing, and God fulfills his promise only by his grace.  Because it is by grace, it can only be received by faith.  No group can claim exclusive rights to the blessing by belonging to any singular ethnicity.  That would eliminate the gracious character of God’s promise.

God’s blessing is enjoyed by faith so that the promise can maintain its character as grace, “so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (v. 16).

Paul sends Abraham to Rome not to serve as an example of the abstracted concept of justification by faith, but to unify the church.

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9 responses to “Paul Sends Abraham to Rome

  • joegrom5

    If Paul is arguing here that the Abrahamic covenant is all inclusive for people of faith, would he then still insist that there is still a special future for the Jewish people outside of the people of faith?

    • timgombis

      At this point, he’s arguing that all those in Christ are one singular family and thus must embrace one another. His argument will, of course, raise the question of God’s specific promises to Israel, which he addresses in chapters 9-11.

  • Brian LePort

    Well said, Tim! It seems like we can read Paul as doing this sort of thing throughout Romans. He introduces characters–sometimes personalities like Adam or Abraham, sometimes personifications like Death and Sin–that create his epistle-narrative. Have you written anything on this or do you know of anyone who has dealt extensively with this aspect of Paul’s writing?

    • timgombis

      Hey Brian, I don’t know of anything on that, beyond Andrew Lincoln’s article (book chapter?) on Abraham going to Rome. I still need to engage a bit more with Thomas Tobin’s book on Romans, and I imagine that he’s as attuned as anyone to some of these dynamics in Romans.

      Interesting that with so much already done on Romans, there’s still plenty of room for fresh insights!

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  • Andrew

    Jesus clearly antagonized the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees. His exegesis and understanding of the old covenant was diametrically opposed to theirs. In some sense the opponents of Jesus represent how we now understood ‘Jews’ and ‘Jewish’ thought to have been, except that Jesus himself waged a war against them, and their teleological understanding of the old covenant. He called them hypocrites, blind, foolish, wrong.

    Does this not imply that whatever understanding the Pharisees and Sadducees had, it was not the Judasim of David, Solomon, or the faith of Old covenant prophets? If we were to meet Abraham, Isaiah, or Elijah, would we not see Christ-like men, with Christ-like belief (and faith), albeit less perfectly formed than Christ’s?

    If Christ was waging a war against the false surrogate faith that people wrongfully credit to the old covenant, why do we now continue to credit it to the people of the old covenant and Pauls audience? I assume when Paul went to Rome, he did so to continue fighting the war Jesus began – a continuation of the battle against false belief Jesus initiated. So Israelites who became Christian’s must have ceded this false Pharisaical belief, when they adorned their new faith (which was really a restoration of the same original faith of the Prophets. (Yes, I’m arguing Christianity is older than Pharisee-ism, but isn’t that what [Matt 5:17][Luke 24:44][John 15:25] and [Heb 7] say?)

    It may be true that there were residual doctrines still corrupting belief in the Roman Israelite/Judean community, but as Christians, shouldn’t we stop seeing those believers through the lens of false religion – as some type of Christ-following Pharisee? Pharisee’s who followed Christ ceased to be Pharisees, as we can see from Paul. If they were Christian’s, they were wise enough to:

    1. Recognize Pharisee-ism and Sadducee-ism as false surrogate bankrupt religions.
    2. Recognize Christianity as a manifestation of the true faith of the prophets, including the faith of Abraham
    3. Recognize that Pharisee-ism and Christianity could not co-exist.
    4. Recognize that the relationship between the Christian faith and the originate Israelite faith was one of continuous progressive fulfilment (with nothing to do with those other false faiths).

    We have to stop assuming Abraham and the prophets were like the Pharisees and start seeing them more like immature-Christs who didn’t see the entire picture clearly. Similarly, we have to stop seeing Judean/Israelites who became Christian’s as having some compulsive desire to defend those other false religions.

    It is more helpful for us to see the dialogue Paul had with the Romans as being a constructive dialogue that was taking place between reformed Israelites (of Judah) who had come back to faith, and paganized Israelites who had not yet come back to faith. (This last assertion is based upon how Paul actually used OT scripture in his arguments to speak with non-believers as though scripture he used held traction with them; or about how he used scripture to build a bridge between the believing Israelite community and the non-believers he was trying to reach).

    Regardless, it’s likely not true that those believers Paul addressed saw the Pharisees when they ‘struggled with the law’ or looked to Abraham (or the Prophets). Rather it’s clear who they recognized was Christ.

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