What I’m Thinking: First and Last Grace

The Apostle Paul used a (rather confusing) analogy involving Abraham believing in what had been promised to open up the grace of God to a wider circle than he’d previously believed. Grace came first.

Here’s a transcript.

I’m thinking about what the Apostle Paul was thinking in writing the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans (Romans 4:1-5, 13-17). Frankly, it’s rather confusing and our lectionary editors haven’t helped by leaving out a section.

This portion of the letter is one in which Paul uses the figure of Abraham as a way of explaining the importance of faith in this developing Christian community and this emerging Christian theology. Faith rather than law; law, which had been the foundation of Judaism for the hundreds of years since they had been taken into exile and then lived under one empire’s domination or another’s for most of the intervening years.

To Paul, Abraham becomes a figure of faith. Living before the law was given to Moses and nevertheless found faithful, but also that Abraham had been somebody who lived essentially with promises. He saw only the birth of a son. He did not see the birth of generation after generation. Those descendants were part of a promise that God had made. They were not something that he could ever truly hope to see. He would pass away as they went on – at least as long as God kept the promise.

Paul uses this example in part to include the Gentiles, the non-Jews who were a growing part of the Christian community. There was still a good deal of tension between those who had been raised within the Jewish faith and adopted Jesus as Messiah, and those who had become part of these growing Christ-worshiping communities but did not have that background, came from the faiths of Greece and of Rome.

No, they too are part of the promise, said Paul, because the promise comes even in the absence of law.

Law and promise are less a point of debate amongst us in these days, but we do, from time to time, act as if we deserve, as if we earn the grace of God. And this, I think, is a crucial insight of the Apostle Paul.

We do not earn the grace of God because it precedes everything.

The law, in fact, was a gift of God, something that was intended as a blessing upon us, to guide us into better, more fulfilled lives. But the grace of God comes before it all. The grace of God carries us always. The grace of God will be there when all else is done.

So whether we are in the position of Abraham, thinking about the promise of a future we know we will never quite see, or whether we are those new people gathered into a fairly insular community that has now said, “Look, we understand that God is for more than just us;” if we are part of those longstanding communities and suddenly remember our neighbors are as beloved of God as we are, well: then the Apostle Paul has spoken to us, has given us once more a truth, has revived our faith.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’m curious to hear what you’re thinking. Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below; I’d love to hear from you.

Categories What I'm Thinking | Tags: , | Posted on March 1, 2020

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