Romans 4:13-25 New International Version (NIV)
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
I believe I was in third grade when I was introduced to the idea of poetry. I’ve never been a big fan of poetry, I’ve not written much poetry, and about the only poem that I can recite from memory is “Roses are red/ violets are blue./ Sugar is sweet,/ and so are you.”
We learned about the normal conventions of writing in the 3rd grade. We learned where to use commas, exclamation marks, and paragraph breaks. And by this time we were well versed in the rules of capitalization. You capitalize the first letter of a sentence and the first letter of a proper name. That stuff was understood by the third grade.
So when we were introduced to poetry, many of us were surprised. This stuff didn’t follow the rules that we had been taught, and these poems were considered “good?” The last straw was when we were introduced to a poet by the name of Edward Estlin Cummings. You may know him better by the stylized name that he used to sign his poems, “e.e. cummings.” It was bad enough that Cummings didn’t follow the normal patterns of poetry. His lines didn’t rhyme and he didn’t seem to care about the meter of his poetry. This guy was all over the place! But what was worse was that he did not capitalize any of the letters of his name. And in my third-grade mind, after three years of learning the conventions of writing, I simply couldn’t stand for it. Rules have always been important to me!
My teacher explained to us that Mr. Cummings had what she called a “creative license,” which allowed him to not need to hold fast to every rule associated with what we traditionally would call good writing. And I remember, even now thirty years later, wondering just where I could get one of those licenses.
(I’m borrowing and adapting this illustration from: http://scarletletterbible.com/rules/)
Here is the thing, Cummings knew the “correct” way to write. In fact, he could write very well. He knew the rules, and he knew that he was not following the rules. But he also wasn’t just breaking the rules to break the rules. He felt that in this specific instance or that particular case, the rules were not what was needed. Yet he could only make those decisions because he had already mastered the standard conventions of writing.
I’ve heard something similar about the cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. I know even less about playing the cello than I do about writing poetry, but this makes sense to me. Yo-Yo Ma is known for making adaptations and changing music as he plays. He integrates elements of syncopation and changes the length of notes for dramatic effect. Again, this is a creative license. It isn’t that Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t know that a whole note should be held for four beats or that he should be clapping on two and four. But he plays off the beat and in ways that may not be what you expect. But this isn’t because he doesn’t know the rules and it isn’t because he wants to break the rules. In fact, with poets like Cummings and musicians like Ma, they know it so well that they understand when they can exercise some flexibility.
When we read our text for this morning, it can seem like Paul, and Abraham before him, is playing pretty loosely with the rules. Elsewhere Paul can seem even more dismissive of the rules. Paul says at one point, if the rules could save us, then Christ died for nothing! (A bit of a paraphrase, I know.) And in Paul’s day, the rules were often called “the law,” or “the Torah” in the Hebrew.
Yes, Paul broke the Law. But he didn’t break the law just to break the law. Like Cummings and Ma, Paul knew the rules so well that he understood the reason behind the rules.
Our text for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. There would have been some Christians of Jewish ancestry in Rome in those days, but most of them would have been converts to Christianity. They were Gentiles. So as we often find in the writings of Paul, we see here the struggle between whether or not it is necessary for those who have come into Christianity through other religious backgrounds to also take on the teachings of Judaism. Christianity clearly began as a sect of Judaism, so many argued that it was necessary for all Christians to keep the Jewish Law. Ritual washings, clean and unclean foods, and of course, circumcision were all highly-debated topics. In all, someone with too much time on their hands counted 613 different commandments in the Hebrew Bible.
If you read through Paul’s writings, it is clear that he does not believe that it is necessary to keep all of these commandments. They aren’t bad commandments; they had a time and a place. But now there is a new way in which people enter into the family of God: through Christ. I kind of look at Paul as a prototype of ee cummings or Yo-Yo Ma. He understands the rules, and he understands them so well that he also knows why they exist. For Paul, these rules, the Law, the Torah was all about pointing to Jesus. And now that Jesus has come, the Law is not necessary.
One of Paul’s go-to arguments, especially in Romans, is to found in the person of Abraham. Abraham, as you may remember, was a pagan man who heard God call him one day. God said to go, to leave his father’s land behind, and head to a place that God would show him. It was more than a little unclear where that would be. But Abraham picked up his things, somehow convinced his wife, and they left for an unknown place. And several times God promised Abraham that not only would he be blessed with a new land, he would be blessed with a family. Then it says in Genesis 15, and Paul repeats in Romans 4, Abraham believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
It was Abraham’s faith that made him right with God. It was because of Abraham’s faith that God chose to start a new people group through him. And it was because of Abraham’s faith that all the world would be blessed through this family.
So as Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, they are going through this debate about whether or not it was important to keep every aspect of the Law, and Paul builds his argument on this story from Abraham. New Testament scholar, NT Wright, says in his commentary on Romans that many believe that the stories of Abraham had spread widely in those days and that he was a well-respected man of faith. Even among other religions. Perfect guy to use as an example, right?
Here’s why Abraham is perfect for Paul to make his argument that the Law is no longer valid. This well-respected man of faith did not keep the Law. He didn’t play by the rules. He did not observe Torah. And you can’t argue otherwise because the Torah didn’t come along for several centuries, close to a millennium after Abraham was called by God, was faithful, and was credited with righteousness.
This is good news to us today, especially those who aren’t interested in eating kosher or observing all the 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. I’ma gonna go all ee cummings and Yo-Yo Ma on ya here and say that we don’t need to follow all the rules. Rules aren’t what will get you into heaven. Rules aren’t what will make you right with God. But with Cummings and Ma as our guide, that doesn’t mean absolute anarchy and that rules no longer matter. Paul, after all, is always giving rules and ethical teachings.
I want to offer a bit of a disclaimer here before I go on to say what I plan to say. First of all, not all of the commandments in the Torah are the same. There are purity laws and there are ethical teachings. I also would say that what I am about to say sounds a little patronizing toward those at other places in their faith journey, but I’m going to say it as carefully as possible. With that out of the way, let’s go on.
I believe that in many ways the Torah was given to the people of God because they were not mature enough for the freedom we have in Christ. I’m speaking specifically of some of the ethical teachings. Like in 1 Corinthians 3, where Paul talks about giving the new Christians milk because they can’t handle solid food, some of the teachings of the Torah make it easier to be a follower of God. Clear-cut rules can make it easier to know what one should do. But the more you study and understand these rules, the more you realize that they are there to point to something bigger. So after over 1,000 years of following Torah, Paul now says, “We don’t need 613 commandments.” Now, following the teachings of Jesus, we can say that we only need two: Love God and love your neighbor. As I’ve said before, everything else is just commentary.
Again, that doesn’t mean that we throw out all of the rules. A lot of those rules help us to love God and love our neighbor. But like E.E. Cummings and Yo-Yo Ma, the more you know, the less clearly these things need to be defined.
Yet when we get right down to it, this passage really isn’t about breaking rules. All the talk about Abraham, the Torah, and breaking rules only serves as Paul’s example to hammer home a central theme in Paul’s writings: this is about entering into a covenanted relationship with God.
God made a covenant with Abraham to blessing him with land and with family. And if you read this story in Genesis 15, you will find that God doesn’t say he will do this after Abraham circumcises himself or after he keeps the Torah. Nope. Abraham believed God. Abraham put his faith in God, and that was what it took.
Paul continues in verse 16, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”
The promise, the covenant, the agreement between God and Abraham is to all those who like Abraham put their faith in God. Remember that Paul is writing this to those who are arguing about whether a person needs to become a Jew in order to be a Christian. He is saying that the covenant with God doesn’t come through the Law, it comes through having faith like Abraham.
I know that the word “covenant” can be a bit confusing to us, as we really don’t talk about covenants today. We have contracts. I would differentiate between the two by saying that a contract is a legally-binding agreement. If one party in a contract fails to fulfill their part of the contract, there can be legal ramifications. A covenant is not necessarily a legal agreement, but a “gentleman’s agreement,” an understanding, and an expectation. It is a vow. It is giving your word. It is a promise. If you break a promise, you might lose credibility or even a friend, but there isn’t usually a court case to determine who was at fault.
One of the most common forms of a covenant that we find today in our society is the covenant of marriage. We have made marriage a legal agreement, but at its roots, marriage is a covenant between two people who promise to love, honor, and adore/obey one another as long as they both shall live. You enter into this covenant with the belief that your spouse is going to hold true to their part of the covenant. If you get married thinking, “Eh, he probably won’t be faithful to me, but I’m going to marry him anyway,” that probably isn’t a healthy covenant to enter into. No, covenants require faith. Covenants require you to believe the other person.
In our marriage, just like every other marriage, we have our expectations of one another. I usually wash the laundry and Sonya folds it. I get the kids on the bus, she often gets them off. And we seem to have an agreement that nobody will ever clean the microwave. Seriously, that thing is nasty.
What we don’t have are laws. We never sat down and wrote out an official document stating that under penalty of the law we would pick up after ourselves and make sure that all of the toothpaste washes down the drain rather than sticking to the side of the sink. We don’t need laws when we know one another and when we know one another’s expectations.
So I wash that last bit of toothpaste down the drain. I don’t leave my sweat socks on the couch. And I learned a long time ago that it is a lot easier to put the toilet seat back down when I am done than it is to deal with an angry wife.
Paul’s not against the Law, the Torah, or even rules. What he is saying is that these things are not the conditions for being a part of the covenant that God made with Abraham all those years ago. Faith is the only condition. Faith that he who began a good thing will see it through. It is our faith in Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection, that we are included in the covenant. And when you think of our relationship to God through Christ as a covenant like a marriage, we see how wrong it is to ask “is this about grace through faith or works?”
For those of you who are in healthy relationships, does your marriage work because of your faith that the other person will hold up their end of the agreement, or does it work because you hold up your end of the agreement?
The answer is yes.
And when you know someone so well, whether that person is your spouse, a friend, or your God, when you know them well, you don’t need rules. You just need to want to show your love and appreciation for that person. And together we can create something beautiful, even more beautiful than anything from Yo-Yo Ma or EE Cummings.