When in Romans: Reckoned Righteous


Dr. Jim Somerville


Romans 4:13-25


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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.

            You may not be aware of this this, but when I am planning my preaching for the year I try to think about how to provide you with a balanced biblical diet. I want to make sure that you get generous helpings from the Gospels, but also some tasty side dishes from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Psalms. We’ve just finished up a series from the Gospels; before that was a series from the Old Testament; every Sunday we hear from the Psalms; so maybe it’s time for the Epistles, and some of you might say it’s past time. You love Paul almost as much as you love Jesus. Well, get ready, because today we begin a summer sermon series called “When in Romans,” and we will be in Romans from now until September 17.

            But I don’t want to bore you with expository preaching: that is, I don’t want to simply go through the letter verse-by-verse. I want to see if we can get a glimpse of the big picture this summer, as if we were visiting first-century Rome and trying to understand its language, customs, and culture. And I want us to get to know Paul in ways we never have before. I want us to think about what could possibly persuade a Jewish rabbi to preach the Christian gospel in a pagan culture.

            Maybe that’s where we should begin.

            You know some of Paul’s story. In Philippians 3 he writes that he was, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). That line about being a persecutor of the church takes us to the end of Acts, chapter 7, where we learn that while Stephen was being stoned “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Paul’s Hebrew name). Luke tells us that a severe persecution against the church broke out that same day, and in the next chapter he tells us that Saul was “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1-3).

            But something happened, right? In Acts 9 we read about Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he intended to round up any followers of Jesus and bring them bound to Jerusalem, when suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was the voice of the risen Jesus, who told him to get up and go into the city where he would be told what to do. And then Jesus told a disciple named Ananias, who lived in Damascus, to go to Saul, to lay hands on him that he might regain his sight, to baptize him so that he might receive the Holy Spirit, and then to tell him that he had been chosen as an apostle to the Gentiles.

            Let’s pause there for a moment to appreciate what a life-altering experience this was. Paul, as he tells us in Philippians 3, was a Pharisee; he had voluntarily separated himself from anything that was not kosher; he was as Jewish as a Jew could be. He had trained to be a rabbi at the feet of the famous Gamaliel. As to “righteousness under the law” he considered himself blameless, meaning that to the best of his knowledge he had kept all the commandments. He was a Jew among Jews, and according to the Law he was to have nothing to do with Gentiles. They were the uncircumcised, sometimes called “dogs,” who were not counted among God’s chosen people. And yet here was Saul, blinded by his encounter with the risen Christ, sitting in the home of a man named Judas, eating and drinking nothing for three days, while waiting for someone to come to him with a message. And when Ananias came the message was this: “Yes, Jesus is Lord, and the Lord wants you to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.”

            There are two words for repentance in the Bible: one means to turn around and the other means to change your mind. Saul had to do both. First, he had to change his mind about Jesus. He had thought that he was just a troublemaker: a poor carpenter from Galilee claiming to be somebody, maybe even the Messiah. Saul thought he was doing God a favor by keeping people from following this pretender. But then he received a visit from Jesus himself and it changed his life. The scales fell from his eyes. He saw the risen Lord and began to proclaim him in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God!” Saul repented in that way: he changed his mind about Jesus. But he also repented in the other way: he turned himself around. I don’t know that there has ever been such a complete turnaround, from persecuting the church of Jesus Christ to proclaiming him as Lord and Savior, and not only to his fellow Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

            I want you to think about that for a minute. Suppose you were the rabbi of a local synagogue and you became convinced that God wanted you to let the Gentiles in. What would you do? What would you say? And not only what would you say to them—to the Gentiles—but what would you say to your fellow Jews, especially the members of your governing board? How would you answer their protests that the Gentiles were not among God’s chosen people? See, I believe there is a way to read the Bible that excludes, and if you are looking for a reason to exclude the Gentiles you can find it, but I also believe there is a way to read the Bible that includes, and if you are looking for a reason to include the Gentiles you can find it. I think that’s what Saul spent the next few years of his life doing: poring over the pages of Scripture to see if he could find any way that Jesus could be the Messiah, and then searching through the pages of Scripture to see if he could find any reason for including the Gentiles. He had to have some answers, not only for his opponents, but for himself.

            I believe he found them, and then I believe he spent some time thinking about how to make his arguments compelling and how to make his preaching persuasive. In the Book of Acts Luke suggests that whenever Paul came to a new town on his missionary journeys he would go first to the synagogue and try to convince the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah they had been waiting for. But after they kicked him out he would go to the Gentiles with a different message. Because the Gentiles weren’t waiting for the Messiah. They couldn’t care less about that. Paul had to come to them with something they would care about and so he came to them with a message of salvation. I can almost see him out there on the street in front of the synagogue, still brushing the dirt from his clothes, asking the Gentiles passing by, “Do you want to be saved?” “From what?” they might ask. “From this!” Paul would say, meaning the entire pagan world.

            Because I’ve been reading up on the Roman Empire in the first century, and although there is a lot to be said for it in terms of civilization, there is also a lot to be said for it in terms of moral depravity. The Emperor Caligula comes to mind. He took the throne when he was only 23 years old, and is said have considered himself a god, who sometimes reminded others that he had the right to do “anything to anybody.” And he did. He turned murder into a sport, attacking people at random.[i] He slept with other men’s wives, including the wife of a senator. He spent enormous amounts of the people’s money on his personal building projects. Beyond that he had an insatiable sexual appetite for both men and women and is said to have turned the palace into a “brothel” where drunken orgies went on night after night.

Caligula was no longer emperor when Paul wrote Romans, but his decadence had become the stuff of legend. I think it may have been Caligula and his court that Paul had in mind when he wrote, in Romans 1: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,and in the same way also the males, giving up natural intercourse with females, were consumed with their passionate desires for one another…and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” Paul may have been thinking of Caligula himself, who was assassinated four short years after he began to reign.

I can almost picture Paul inside the synagogue, pointing out the depravity of the Gentile world just outside the doors, whipping those faithful Jews into a frenzy of self-righteousness before saying, “But you are without excuse, whoever you are, for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (Romans 2:1). A little further down in chapter 2 he writes: “If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what really matters because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, who teach others, will you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by your transgression of the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you’” (Rom. 2:17-24).

What Paul is doing here, rhetorically, is genius. He’s getting the righteous people all lathered up about the unrighteous before telling them that they are just as bad as they are. On the one hand here are the Gentiles, frolicking in an ocean of filth, but on the other hand here are the Jews, trying to swim across that same ocean by keeping the law. What Paul is saying is that neither group is going to make it. Some of the Jews might swim farther than others; Paul might have swum farther than any of them; but the ocean is big, and not even the most righteous Jew can make it across. Along with the Gentiles they are “sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.” When along comes Jesus, in a boat, to pluck them out of the water—Jew and Gentile alike! That’s Paul’s message. It’s not complicated. But he has as much trouble getting the Jews to accept it as the Gentiles. So, in today’s passage he appeals to Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, and if you thought his reasoning was genius before, just wait.

He begins: “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.” And that needs a little more explanation. For Paul the word righteousness was one of the most important words in the dictionary. It’s the Greek word dikaiosune, and for him it means something like “the right-making power of God.” When Paul talks about the “righteousness of faith,” he is talking about the righteousness that is ours not because we keep the law, but because we believe God has the power to make us right. And he uses Abraham as an example. Think about it: Abraham lived centuries before Moses, before the covenant at Mount Sinai, before the Law. He couldn’t have been justified by keeping the Law; it hadn’t been given yet. And get this: Abraham wasn’t even a Jew. He hadn’t been circumcised. That command hadn’t been given. So, here’s this person who isn’t a Jew, isn’t a Christian, hasn’t been circumcised, hasn’t been baptized. He has no claim on salvation, and yet God tells this wandering Aramean, who is nearly a hundred years old, that he’s going to be the father of a great nation, that his descendants are going to be like the stars in the sky, like the sands of the sea, and Abraham believes him. When he does God says, “That’s the kind of faith I’m looking for! That’s the kind of faith I can build my Kingdom on!” And in that moment God reckoned him righteous: a word from the marketplace that meant something like “paid in full.”

“So,” Paul concludes, “our righteousness doesn’t depend on keeping the Law, as much as we Jews like to think it does. But that’s probably a good thing. If it did, none of us could be saved. No, our righteousness depends on faith, the kind of faith that Abraham had. If God could save him, then God can save us, God can save anyone. Unlike Caligula, God really can do “anything he wants to anybody he wants,” and what he wants to do, apparently, is save us from a corrupt world, bring us into his household, make us members of his family, call us his beloved children. What is our role in all this? Simply to believe, as Abraham did, that God can do it.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] https://www.thecollector.com/caligula/