Discussions with non-Catholics often center on the role of faith and good works. Many non-Catholics believe we are made right with God through faith alone, and to prove this commonly appeal to what Paul says about Abraham in Romans 4:1-5: “If Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, he has reason to boast; but this was not so in the sight of God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:2-3).
It seems as though Paul is saying Abraham was made right with God by faith alone apart from anything he did (i.e., works). Is this true?
What non-Catholics often miss, though, is that Paul’s appeal to Abraham is part of an argument he is making against a group known as the Judaizers, and that Paul’s point is much more profound than they realize.
Who were the Judaizers? They were Jewish converts to Christianity who believed it was necessary for gentile Christian converts to first be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law in order to become Christian (Acts 15:5). For them, circumcision was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1). Not only was it necessary, but they also believed that by being circumcised and following the Old Testament ceremonial law (which Paul sometimes calls “the works of the law”) they could live immorally and still escape God’s wrath (Romans 2:3).
Paul takes on the Judaizers’ presumption in a number of ways in Romans 2-3. He argues that all people, Jew and gentile, will be judged according to their deeds (Romans 2:2-11) and that merely possessing the Ten Commandment without doing them will not make you right with God (Romans 2:12-16). And he also argues that the moral law, being faithful to God from the heart, is superior to the ceremonial law (i.e., circumcision) (Romans 2:17-29), and that even some of the circumcised (whom the Judaizers believe are righteous in virtue of their circumcision) were condemned in Scripture as unrighteous and wicked (Romans 3:9-19). Finally, Paul argues that God makes no distinction between Jews and gentiles (circumcised and uncircumcised) because both have sinned and both are freely justified by God’s grace through faith (Romans 3:21-31). God is not partial (Romans 2:11). God’s doesn’t play favorites.
This sets up Paul’s remarkable argument about Abraham in Romans 4:1-5. God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision and the Judaizers prided themselves of being the children of Abraham.
Paul states, “If Abraham was justified on the basis of his works (i.e., circumcision and the Mosaic Law), he has reason to boast; but this was not so in the sight of God.” Then Paul appeals to Genesis 15:6, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” What’s remarkable about Paul’s argument is that he shows that Abraham was declared righteous before God before he received the covenant of circumcision. God calls Abraham righteous in Genesis 15:6, but Abraham didn’t receive the covenant of circumcision until two chapters later in Genesis 17, some 29 years later. What does this mean?
Paul asks, “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was he circumcised or not? He was not circumcised, but uncircumcised” (Romans 4:10). In other words, Abraham was righteous by faith as a gentile (i.e., someone uncircumcised). This clinches Paul’s argument. It wasn’t circumcision that made Abraham acceptable to God or righteous, but his faith. If that’s true for Abraham, it’s also true for all gentiles who come to faith in Jesus. They too are made acceptable to God by faith.
According to Paul, Abraham is the father of the uncircumcised (i.e., the gentiles) who believe, and also the father of the circumcised who “…follow the path of faith that our father Abraham walked while still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11).
Romans 4:1-11 is not arguing that we are made acceptable to God by faith alone (apart from any good deeds we do after baptism), but that it is faith, not circumcision, that makes all people, Jews and gentiles, right in God’s sight.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.