Where is God working? Of course this question assumes that God exists, and that He starts and brings to completion, and the question hopes that what He is working will turn out to the good. We assume and hope all that.
But we also believe that some things will turn out miserably. That some people will continue under the original curse and end themselves in hell, away from God and life forever.
So the question is urgent. Where is God issuing the blessing? Genesis 12 helps us refine the question: Who are the children of Abraham, the people inheriting the place, protection and blessing from God?
Out of all the possible answers to that question, there came a consensus. The children of Abraham were those who were under Torah. God was rescuing people who were under the Law, having attained that elite position either by birth or through signing on in detail to the ancient, Divine constitution. Because that’s what Torah was: the Divinely given Constitution of the children of Abraham!
Much like freedom of speech has become the epitome of a democratic society, circumcision was the rite that epitomized Torah observance. So circumcision was an ethnic marker but also signified God’s uncommon blessing begun in Gen 12. And we also note that circumcision was applied to the organ of biological continuity (I’m trying to be delicate!). So built into Torah was the assumption of biological perpetuation of the children of Abraham.
In short, the consensus was that the children of Abraham were Isrealites.
Paul is challenging this belief in Romans 4. Paul was announcing a shift in God’s redemptive purposes. Not an abandonment of an original plan; not a shift that wasn’t without historical causes; but nonetheless a real shift.
We sympathize with the Jewish people in Paul’s day for holding on their belief in Torah as the sign of the people of God, because for a long time Torah was the divinely sanctioned indication that its adherents were the children of Abraham. In fact, the details of Torah were intended to give ethical and spiritual substance to the pronouncement of Jews being Abrahams’ children. So the Jews were wrong, but were understandably wrong.
Today there are still wrong ideas of who are the children of Abraham. We’re looking for signs of connection to Abraham. Surely the sparkling, the drivers of the BMWs, (Just kidding, don’t be so sensitive!) the strong, the wise of the world, the shakers and shapers.
Or more subtly, the westerners or the easterners or the oppressed or the oppressor or those of this church or that. The authentic, the Catholics, the Protestants, those who partake of the Sacraments, the baptized, the moral, the immoral “keeping it real,” those standing in a tradition of godliness
The point is, from either sacred or profane base-line understandings, we’re trying to lay claim to being the “children of Abraham”: Who’s the lucky or who’s the called. And we’re looking for some “bling” or sign to substantiate the claim – bling of power, success, authenticity, spirituality, materialism, anti-materialism…
The 1st century Israelites had historical grounds for their claim to being descendents of Abraham. As I said, they were wrong; they faced horrors for not accepting God’s new word, but we can see why they mis-stepped.
Paul says in Romans 4 – the children of Abraham (concentrate enough to value the term!!) are those who believe in Jesus as Messiah. They hear of Jesus, hear what happened through and to Him, hear what it means, and receive Him as God’s Word.
What joins them in Abraham? Partly they are joined to him because they come into God’s blessing (the reckoning of righteousness) as Abraham did, by hearing God’s word and believing it. This hearing-believing links a person to Abraham more truly than any “sperm-egg reality.” It is the believers who are Abraham’s seed.
And of course the children of Abraham share a look with their father: faith appears the same across the centuries – lived out in hopeless conditions, enduring, even growing, bringing God glory.
And finally they enter into the same promise – but more on that later.
Incredibly, Romans 4 doesn’t mention the Messiah until the end of the chapter. Paul’s task in this chapter was “merely” to link the Christ-believers of today with Abraham and his promise. It will become his task in other places to link Abraham and his promise with Messiah.