Chapter Four of the Letter to the Romans deals with the issue of circumcision, one of the main issues of the letter. Paul is likening works with the flesh, the law, and therefore, condemnation, while faith is spiritual and deals with justification, righteousness and ultimately salvation.
Abraham did do good works, but was a sinner. He was not perfect. He was a human like any of us, trying to do his best for what he knew. Paul points out that scripture (Old Testament) says, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (v3). Paul was referencing the book of Genesis, Chapter 15, verse 6. Paul further explains his logic in verse four of Romans, “A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due.” So if salvation is given because of works, then we would have a right to demand salvation as being simply just. God would owe it to us, or we would be condemned as an act of justice. Mercy would never be known. Neither would love.
Faith depends on the relationship that God gives us with His very self (v5). If a child really does something bad that they know their parents would be upset with, it takes faith for that child to trust in that parent to reveal what they had done. Their trust in that parent would speak volumes of the goodness of the parent and the love and mercy they have for their children. That child who trusts in their parent glorifies that parent and testifies to the goodness of that parent by the very fact that they were willing to tell the truth. So it is when we trust in God; it glorifies God that we trust in Him. I think of verses 6-8 where Paul recounts David’s psalm (32) as David remembers God’s mercy and the joy of receiving it; the faith that David had even though he had committed adultery and murder.
Paul reminds his readers that Abraham was blessed long before circumcision was around. In fact, it was Abraham’s faith that called God to make a covenant relationship with him in the form of circumcision. In other words, faith was the whole reason why there is even a circumcision. Most men would know it would take faith to receive the circumcision! That is how strong his faith was! He believed in the promise God made to him and his descendants.
Paul goes back to the idea of works demanding justice in verses 13 through 15. If works gets us to heaven, then what is the point of faith? God’s love and mercy would be null and void (v14). The other edge of the sword is that if evil has been done, then there is only condemnation and there is no hope of heaven (v15). Faith cuts through the complications of works alone and brings hope to all people. Abraham’s faith was in the promise of the one who gave that promise. He trusted that what God said was true and would most assuredly happen as sure as the sun would rise the next day. This faith did not just benefit Abraham; it benefits us also.
Because of Abraham’s experience of God’s promise and that promise fulfilled, we can hear the story of our “father in faith,” as we say in the Mass, and know how God has been good to us. It is a family story that our ancestor experienced. Many people like to find out about their ancestors. We learn about our ancestors and somehow, a void is filled. That story is part of us, with all its interesting stories, good and bad. The Bible and the stories in it are from our spiritual ancestors. They too make up part of our lives and who we are. They teach us so much that our spiritual family has learned. How good it is to be in this family of faith!