Romans 4: Believing promises, obeying contracts, and retribution

One of the struggles I have with the word “covenant” is that it seems to be used to describe two entities which are quite different: God’s unconditional, unilateral promise to Abraham and the elaborate set of rules and practices given to the Israelites in the Torah. In Romans 4, Paul pits these two “covenants” against each other in order to radically redefine what it means to be God’s people. Paul argues that God’s people are more essentially those who share the faith of Abraham than those who follow the law of Moses. If we understand righteousness to mean trusting in God’s unconditional generosity rather than following rules flawlessly, this means replacing an ethos of retribution with an ethos of mercy. I think that the reason evangelicals so egregiously misinterpret Romans is because we don’t want Paul to be replacing contractual rules with trust, since that means giving up both retribution and our autonomy; we would rather make “faith” into a new rule that we get punished for not following, so that we can continue to deny our dependence on God and judge others, which completely sabotages Paul’s entire point.

Let’s look at the concern with which Paul opens chapter 4: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he would have glory—but not towards God.” (note: I fixed the NIV’s mistranslation). What scandalizes Paul is precisely the logic of retribution. If Abraham were self-sufficiently “righteous” by exhibiting perfectly blameless behavior, then he would have reason to glorify himself and not God. Thus the way that the problem is framed concerns whether God is glorified and honored, not whether Abraham deserves damnation for being imperfect.

God’s glory is preserved because of the way that Abraham’s righteousness is given to him by God as a product of his trust in God and not something which Abraham can produce from himself independently of God. (Now it’s a valid question whether we can say that a man really trusts in God’s promise if he allows his wife to join two different kings’ harems by lying that she was his sister to avoid getting killed and then impregnates his slave girl in order to have an heir, but we can play along with Paul’s hagiography of Israel’s patriarch.)

Verses 4-5 corroborate Paul’s initial concern with God’s sovereignty: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” If God is under obligation to His creatures, He’s not sovereign. They are their own gods. The patron-client hierarchy of ancient society was ordered according to gift-giving. The one who can give gifts that cannot be repaid is the sovereign, and those who receive these gifts are his vassals.

If humans are independent contractors under God’s rules instead of vassals under God’s promise, then love and gratitude towards God and mercy for God’s fellow human creatures are not part of the equation. The contractors must simply fulfill the exact terms of the contract to receive their wages. Beyond these minimal expectations, they can be as cruel and mean-spirited towards their fellow human beings as they want to. And as I’ve written before, few people are nastier and more resentful towards others than those who can say that they have followed every rule impeccably. It’s not their fault per se; living under retribution makes you a misanthrope.

In verses 9-12, Paul redefines what it means to be descendents of Abraham: “We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Circumcision rather than being the means by which God’s people belong is simply the mark of the faith that makes them Abraham’s descendents. Thus Israel is redefined as comprising Jews and Gentiles alike. That is the primary function of Abraham’s faith here in Paul’s argument. Paul is not arguing for an alternative contract by which God’s favor can be “earned” through “faith” but rather a complete reconfiguration of what had been misinterpreted as a contract (circumcision and all the Torah regulations that are represented by it symbolically). Though most Christians know that we’re not supposed to say that salvation is “earned” by “faith,” in practice so many of us treat faith as the “decision,” or act of willpower, by which we convince God to accept us (c.f. any “Four Spiritual Laws” tract) rather than the instilling of grace by which God convinces us to accept Him.

In the next several verses (13-16), Paul reveals the rhetorical function of the nihilism he had established in chapter 3 in saying that nobody can be righteous under the law: “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. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.”

If Paul were as committed to God’s essentially retributive, economic self-definition as we are in the era of capitalism, then he would not say, “Where there is no law, there is no transgression.” It is also very interesting that he says, “The law brings wrath.” What this suggests to me is that wrath has to do with the violence within our guilty conscience and not with a fundamentally retributive nature on the part of God, because otherwise our awareness of what God put in His law would make no difference. What Paul is taking pains to preserve is not that God has infinitely high expectations that must be fulfilled either through impossibly perfect obedience or Jesus’ blood as a penal substitutionary equivalent, but rather that God makes promises “by grace,” not by necessity. When you see a clause that begins with “so that” (ίνα κατα χάρις), then it screams, This is the point of what I’m saying! If we could earn God’s promise, He would not be sovereign.

This last excerpt that I’m going to share (19-21) establishes Abraham as a model for our struggle with the limitations of our flesh: “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. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” 

Just like Abraham, we have bodies that are “as good as dead.” Abraham’s frailty of flesh due to age is symbolically analogous to our frailty of flesh due to sin. Our deliverance is not going to come through the volitional power of our “decision” to stop sinning any more than Abraham could “decide” that he and Sarah were going to be fertile. It comes through trusting God “to do what he has promised.” This passage anticipates the climax of Paul’s account of the death of sin in which we live (7:24-25): “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Like Abraham, we have bodies that are as good as dead, but God can plant resurrecting seeds into us just like he planted a seed into Abraham and Sarah. Yet, as long as we think that our relationship with God is about obeying contracts rather than believing promises, we will remain impotent in our battle against sin. This is because without a knowledge of God’s grace as the foundation of our struggle, we’re going to try to deceive ourselves and God about how well we’re doing instead of gaining the insight to confront painful truths about ourselves with the assurance of God’s unconditional promise. We become people who can love and live under God’s Torah when we are most fundamentally God’s promise-believers rather than His contract-obeyers.

If believing God’s promise is merely a replacement contract and the most important thing to know about it is that God will !@#$%^&* us eternally if we don’t, that only replaces one self-defeating neurosis with another. Part of our conversion is seeing that we have a God of grace instead of a God of retribution. The fact that so many Christians have not made this conversion is quite frightening. I don’t know what’s in store for them. When I say that God is gracious rather than retributive, this by no means signifies that there are not dire eternal consequences for blowing off His promise and trying to find a way to earn salvation through a “faith” that isn’t really trust in anything other than our own willpower. Once again, God will protect the people who trust Him from those who have become monsters through their sense of entitlement and infallibility (which is what makes many Christians look nothing like Jesus).


13 thoughts on “Romans 4: Believing promises, obeying contracts, and retribution

    • “Thus the Protestants creed: the spirit of the law; is greater then the letter.”

      That depends>
      Or is that statement a law in itself?

  1. Wow…So much to talk about in this thread.
    First of all Calvary does not even hint to what God is unable to do.
    Calvary proves what God came to do.

    You will note Christ said :
    “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”John 10

    By this statement, and in my opinion a literal translation is accorded, Christ makes clear who is in charge.

    . “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”
    Calvary was planned and deliberate foretold and executed.

    “Thus, what is needed is a Romans 8:1-4 where Christ and the Spirit enable us to fulfill the Torah without having to keep it in a strict sense”
    The term strict sense would have to explained.
    What exactly does that mean?
    By Torah I assume you mean the Law?

    Why God created man?
    Was it not for God’s own glory?
    Mans importance and relevance exist because God deems it so.

    “foolishly making ourselves a false center of reality. “

  2. In regards to covenants. First, I agree that there are two “types” of covenants being here discussed, one promissory the other conditional. But though these are not the same type of covenant, they do, at least in the Scriptural narrative, play off each other—nay, they depend on each other. The Sinaitic/conditional covenant and hence Israel’s faithfulness to the Torah are precisely how YHWH determined to fulfill the promissory Abrahamic covenant; “through your seed.” God put himself on the line so to speak by promising Abraham that his descendants would bless the whole earth; now God’s own “righteousness” (understood as covenant faithfulness) is up for question if Israel fails. Israel’s obedience is not in end in itself, it is a means to a greater end that YHWH has covenanted to fulfill at all cost. Paul’s discourse in Romans is not so ahistorical then, dealing with all people’s everywhere at anytime whenever they are choosing between grace and legalism, but a redemptive historical drama.

    Second, I agree with you, the Torah, as Campbell does point out, never envisages “flawless” keeping of the Torah (Campbell believes such an unattainable goal “unjust”), but Israel’s collective essential obedience with offerings to deal effectively with their transgressions both national and individual alike. The problem is national apostasy which of course makes it impossible for God to fulfill his promissory covenant with Abraham. This is precisely what Paul is driving home in Romans 3:1-3. By making this point we can keep the covenants as outlined above in their proper perspective and relation to each other.

    With that said, Abraham is key to undercutting Israel’s boast of national favoritism because of their election and possession of Torah. It’s as if the promissory covenant was really meant to be the answer to the conditional all along. This does not mean that Jesus does not fulfill the “righteous requirement” of Torah on behalf of Israel, but the covenants remain mutually interpretive precisely at this point; fulfilling each other however paradoxically and unexpected.

    With these facts in view it is difficult for me not to find a level of covenantal arrangement provided under the new age inaugurated at Christ’s death. Yes, God gracefully initiates the covenants, but there seems to be a binding obligation which God permits himself to fulfill if the covenant stipulations are met, even if its trust in Christ and not of oneself. I’m not sure this is a slight on God’s “sovereignty” as some would understand. The Scriptures never paint God as simply being able to do whatever he wants, Calvary shows us that he cannot. God receives glory and honor because he makes promises and keeps them, even if he gives them to wretched creatures. Even in Romans 8 there is a condition laid upon Christ followers: “If you suffer with him.” In another place Jesus even says that God will tell people at the great assize, “Well done good and faithful servant enter into eternal life which has been prepared for you.”
    You stated:

    “If Paul were as committed to God’s essentially retributive, economic self-definition as we are in the era of capitalism, then he would not say, “Where there is no law, there is no transgression.” It is also very interesting that he says, “The law brings wrath.” What this suggests to me is that wrath has to do with the violence within our guilty conscience and not with a fundamentally retributive nature on the part of God, because otherwise our awareness of what God put in His law would make no difference.”

    However, if what I stated earlier about the covenants rings true, the “wrath” here is in regards to that which befell Israel for its covenant unfaithfulness (remember Romans 3:1-4). If Torah is attempted then Romans 7 happens and then disobedience occurs bringing down God’s wrath for breaking of the covenant terms. Thus, what is needed is a Romans 8:1-4 where Christ and the Spirit enable us to fulfill the Torah without having to keep it in a strict sense. This process of being transformed into Christ is initiated by faith/trust and continued on in obedience and perseverance (Romans 5:1-5).

    These are some of my quips with the aversion to the covenant worldview. I like what you’ve got to say elsewhere, but without a robust covenant-historical drama I’m convinced Romans cannot rightly be understood. Bout ime someone brought Romans up for discussion! Good work!

    • Thanks Lawrence. Very helpful observations. I don’t have a lot of experience with reformed theology. Covenant just doesn’t figure very prominently in how Wesleyans talk.

    • Based on its use in Romans 1, Ephesians 2, 1 Peter, and now here in Romans 4, God’s wrath seems more to me like an organic consequence of disordered love from the One who is the source of our being rather than a casually unlinked punitive response from a nominalist deity whose being is no different in nature than ours. When we talk about God’s wrath, judgment, punishment, etc, we can never lose sight of the analogical nature of these terms. The reason the “wages of sin are death” is because God is the source of our being and sin is opting out of dependency on Him and foolishly making ourselves a false center of reality. When we replace the ancient Christian ontology with the modern one which is what popular Christianity had done, we essentially make God into a Deist watchmaker who also intervenes magically in the world instead of the “I am who is” before any of us are.

  3. You are missing one important element…..”Sin”
    Sin is in the world and was in the world before “the Law”was given.

    Sin is what seperated man from God ….not the law.
    The law simply defines sin and makes man aware of his sin condition.

    Paul is explaining to the Jews, who became way to law bound, and way to faithless what their mistake was and why.
    Circumcision was used as an example of why salvation is not dependent on circumcision.
    (Any study of the practices of the Jewish community at that time in history reveals that truth.)
    Paul goes on to explain they are not exempt from the law.
    Luther, Wesley, Calvin, Spurgeon and many others have written on law, grace and covenant.

    “The Reformed scholastics used the category of covenant precisely because they found it in the Bible, both OT and NT.”

    The term covenat, which is a contract, is a perfect discription.
    Both OT and NT are conditional.
    The new and better covenant of the NT would be expanded to include the gentile true but the only thing really new was Christ.
    And what would Christ provide that the old covenant did not?
    What would change?

    • Covenant is different from contract. The fact that we make no distinction is a huge problem in our Biblical interpretation that reflects how we read Luther, Calvin, et all from our 21st century liberal capitalist context. Sin is caused by spiritual pride which is the delusion that I am capable of doing good without God, i.e. obeying a contract instead of believing a promise.

  4. Morgan, once again, so much to like in this post, maybe a couple push-points. Actually, I re-read it and deleted a couple of things because I saw more clearly where you were going and liked it even better. A few semi-connected comments:

    On the covenant with Abraham (Gospel)–Paul is establishing as the basis for the identification of the people of God. In contrast to what his opponents are saying, God is fulfilling his promise of descendants through the faith of uncircumcised Gentiles who are much as Abraham was at the time, an uncircumcised Gentile, not a Torah-keeping Jew–not according to the Sinai covenant (Law) in the way they were probably thinking. Totally agree here. A lot of people treat faith as a work to be performed according to the Sinai model, a weaker demand, rather than promise-believing like Abraham. They treat Gospel like Law.

    The thing we’re going to have to see though is that the Sinai covenant is not merely annulled or set aside though–it is fulfilled down to the last jot and tittle in Christ, the true Israel who keeps the Sinai covenant (and the Creation covenant) and renders up the obedience that leads to the blessing God promised Adam in the tree, and Israel in the “land”, only on an eschatological scale. We have to keep in mind that God’s word in his Law is not a lie. He promises blessing according to obedience and curse according to disobedience. Christ has suffered and secured both for his people who are bound to him by faith. This is part of Romans 5-8 is about.

    This is actually what secures us against some of the nominalism and nihilism you’re always worried about. I agree that God is not “essentially retributive”, but I do think that there is a place for rooting “retribution” in God’s character as just, that manifests itself in the presence of sin (much as God is not merciful until he has sinners who provoke his mercy.) I don’t think that wrath mainly “has to do with the violence within our guilty conscience”, because I don’t think that’s the intent of “the law brings wrath” or “where there is no law, there is no transgression” comment. His point is that if you keep on bringing the law into the equation, you’re not going to get the promises, you’re going to get wrath because you’re not law-keepers, which he’s already established, and will reaffirm (Rom 7-8).

    No, God’s wrath and judgment for covenant-breaking is not just for our consciences but it has to do with God’s character, his justice and faithfulness to his word, both in grace and in judgment–which he proves in Christ. (Rom. 3:25-26) This is actually one of the great tensions in scripture: how can God be faithful to both his unilateral grace promises while at the same time maintain the law-covenants of Sinai and Eden? The tension is resolved in Christ.

    Also, didn’t know where to put it, but I am going to point out that the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 15), had a judgment-death implied as only God walks through the two halves of the animals sacrificed to symbolize what would happen to the covenant-breaker. God promises Abraham that he’ll give him descendants or he’ll take judgment on himself–turns out that was how he gave them to him.

    Great stuff, Morgan,

    • Here’s my only thing: I think we need to name that what God said to Adam and what God said to Abraham and what God said to Moses are all very different things. I’m not sure we should use the same word for those three things. We’re stretching the text too much to superimpose a contract onto God’s promise with Abraham because Abraham basically did what he was going to do anyway and didn’t get rebuked or punished even though his whoring out Sarah and knocking up Hagar caused a lot of problems. When he did those things, he broke the contract if there was a contract.

      Also if Paul says, “The law brings wrath,” we should wrestle with the grammar as written and not fill in a bunch of blanks. I’m really being drawn more to a solidarity understanding of judgment than an abstract retributive one. Either you’re under the mercy or you’re not. If you’re not, you have no place in the body.

      Or how about narrating it this way? Retributive justice has the purpose of silencing us before God if we think we’ve got any grounds to oblige Him to anything (Romans 3:19). There are so many references in the epistles to the telos of mercy and judgment being “so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9, 1 Cor 1:29, Rom 3:27). We need to be put in our place, but not because God needs or is forced to be “just” in an abstract sense; it’s so that God can accomplish justice by having a body of completely dependent, grateful people to whom He can command mercy.

      Maybe it’s just taking the north route up Everest instead of the south route. I don’t know. I got your man Horton’s book yesterday so I’ll see what he has to say and I’ll try to be open to it, but I do want to be very intentional about staying with the text and not superimposing systematic categories onto it.

      • Morgan,

        I use the word ‘covenant’ for all of those because the Bible does. I’m good with saying promise-covenant v. law-covenant, or promise v. law, because the relationships created by the two types are different. Yes, the Abrahamic-covenant is not a contract in the sense that the Sinai one was. It’s still called a covenant, though. The Reformed scholastics used the category of covenant precisely because they found it in the Bible, both OT and NT.

        Also, I don’t know how many times I have to say it, I am not advocating an “abstract” retributive one. I’m advocating for God’s own, very personal, yet very-public (as King) justice, where violations of God’s law are an assault on God’s person, God’s word, etc. God isn’t being “forced” into being just. God is being just, he is being true to his own character as just.

        In any case, yes, I think we’re getting closer to each other via different routes, I don’t know if you’ve noted some of my own movement on various subjects. Still, I have my sticking points.



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