American Christians don't ask questions about Father Abraham. Abraham is nothing but an old man, a character in one of the old stories we don't read in the Bible. To us, Abraham has very little to do with Jesus and His sacrifice for us on the cross.
Many of us came to Jesus without knowing of Abraham, and we have maintained our relationship with Jesus without any real further acquaintance with him. It's a problem that many don't see this situation as a problem. But our lack of familiarity with Abraham reveals our lack of comprehension of the fullness of the Gospel and leads to many confusions in scripture interpretation.
Countless Christians have come to Jesus through “the Romans road,” a sequence of scriptures from the book of Romans that explains some simple truths about God and humanity. The first verse quoted on the Romans road is Romans 3:23
“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
The evangelist usually uses this verse to conclude that you and I are sinners deserving punishment. And the assumption made by both the evangelist and the evangelized is that the “punishment” for sinners is eternal torment in Hell.
The second verse is Romans 6:23b:
“For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
That we are destined to die and go to hell (though Paul never mentions Hell in Romans) because of our sins, but we can choose to go to heaven (though Paul never refers to Heaven as the goal of the Gospel), if we accept Jesus’ free gift, is the common conclusion or translation of this stop on the Romans Road.
The evangelist traveling down the Romans Road will then backtrack in Paul’s letter to quote Romans 5:8 to reinforce the assurance of salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice:
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The next part of the Romans Road is Romans 10:9, which we commonly believe to be instructional for how to switch your destination from Hell to Heaven, something we have assumed to be the goal of religion in general:
“That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
And Romans 10:13:
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Finally, the “Romans Road” concludes by going backward in Paul’s letter to assemble a collage of assurances for the person who prays the prayer of conversion from one destination to the other.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Romans 8:1
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39
The traditional conclusion is: If you prayed the prayer, your sins can no longer be counted against you, you don't have to fear punishment or Hell, and you can never lose this guarantee of a blissful afterlife.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with using the “Romans Road” to evangelize. When presenting the Gospel, it is necessary to keep things simple. I find no fault with that. The problem
is that we have believed, full stop, that the Romans Road IS the Gospel, which it is not. The “Roman’s Road” says nothing about the arrival of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus proclaimed as “the Gospel” (See Mark 1:14-15). Our preconceived notions have distorted the precise meaning of these texts in Romans so that we don't understand as much as we think we know. We do not hear the Apostle Paul’s message in Romans as much as we hear a late Western conception of a would-be Christian version of a platonic worldview. In other words, we have made the letter Paul wrote to the Roman church answer questions that concern us without any regard for the questions that concerned Paul when he wrote the letter.
One piece of evidence for this claim that we missed Paul’s agenda for our own is that we bounce back and forth throughout Paul’s letter, quoting things here and there without context or sequential order. We have abandoned the Apostle Paul’s thought process in favor of our own, thus missing many vital points of his letter. And for these reasons, Abraham, whom the Apostle was very concerned with, never appears on “the Romans Road.”
If we were to read Paul in his own right, we would come to Romans 4:1:
“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” (NASB)
Here is where we begin to go deep in theology, exegesis, and church history. These depths will force whoever dives into them into a season of deconstruction, not because we are losing our faith but gaining it. We must remedy a misaligned foundation to construct a sound house. Sometimes, we must deconstruct walls and then reconstruct them with proper adjustments.
The Romans 4 passage I quoted above from the New America Standard Bible is consistent with virtually all English translations of Romans 4:1, but almost all
of them get it wrong because of the Western assumptions of the translators.
Almost all the translations of Romans 4:1 assume that Abraham was looking for a way to be justified so he could go to heaven. But in reading through the account of Abraham in Genesis 12-18, we find that Abraham never went searching for anything. God came to Abraham in those foundational chapters of world/Biblical history and made a promise. Abraham did not go searching for God.
N.T. Wright, one of the premiere Biblical scholars and theologians of our day, says there is nothing in the original Greek of Romans 4:1 to suggest that Abraham went looking for something. However, because of the assumptions of the translators concerning Paul’s intention, the passage has been rendered to reflect Abraham’s
supposed search for justification. But as we read through Abraham’s encounters with God in Genesis 12-18, it is clear that God approached Abraham and not vice versa.
Paul did not write Romans to tell people
how to get to Heaven but to address some problems in the Christian community between Jews and Gentiles who were sworn enemies before the cross, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, before the arrival of God’s kingdom. The entire subject matter of Romans 1-3 deals with the relations of Jews and Gentiles through the Gospel and Abraham, whom Paul brings up in Romans 4:1 as the quintessential Jew, the man who defines true Jewish faith.
The Jews had long considered the Gentiles to be a threat of pollution to their people because the Jewish people had often gone astray from the covenant with Yahweh to worship the idols of the Gentiles. But now, Gentiles were welcomed in the community redefined around the Messiah, Jesus. This new situation took a great deal of adjustment, like a religious person learning that it is more than okay to sing, dance, clap, and shout in Church.
The Gentiles, on the other hand, were used to despising the Jewish people and their strange habits and attitudes. Many prejudices on both sides were still present even after encountering the saving love of God in Jesus. Around the time that Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church, Jews, who had been exiled from Rome for a time by order of the Emporer, were returning. With their return, many prejudices also returned. Christian Gentiles took the attitude that, because they had rejected the Messiah, God had rejected the Jewish people so that they were now the outsiders and Gentiles were the insiders. And many Jews still held the opposite notion that Gentiles could only benefit from the Messiah by becoming ethnic Jews through circumcision. Paul wrote his letter into this tense atmosphere to bring unity through the truth of the Gospel in the scriptures. And central to everything in the Gospel and the Bible is the person and circumstance of Abraham.
The question that concerns Paul is not about what Abraham found but about how God found Abraham. N. T. Wright’s translation is as follows:
“What shall we say, then? Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?” Romans 4:1 NTE
The closest thing to a literal, word-for-word translation of this passage reads:
“What shall we say to have found Abraham our forefather according to the flesh?”
So, you can see the good sense in NT Wright’s translation above. (See NT Wright’s book: “Justification” pages 218-219)
The question is, when God promised Abraham the inheritance of the world (Romans 4:13), was Abraham ethnically a Jew? (The ethnicity, in this case, is defined by circumcision, not DNA.) The answer is clearly no. Abraham was not ethnically a Jew when God declared he would inherit the promises.
“So then, does this blessing come on circumcised people or on uncircumcised? This is the passage we quoted: ‘His faith was calculated to Abraham as indicating that he was in the right.’ How was it calculated? When he was circumcised or uncircumcised? It wasn't when he was circumcised; it was when he was uncircumcised! He received circumcision as a sign and seal of the status of covenant membership, on the basis of faith, which he had when he was still uncircumcised. This was so that he could be the father all who believe even when uncircumcised, so that the status of covenant membership can be calculated to their account as well.”
What happened between God and Abraham was vital for Paul, the Church in Rome, and today's world because the Gospel is built on what God promised Abraham and under what conditions Abraham stood to benefit from it. Everyone who would become a covenant member must emulate the faith of Abraham. The covenant God made with Abraham, including how He made it, is the foundation for everything in the Bible that follows.
Paul aimed Romans 4:1 at Jewish believers who insisted that God’s
people be circumcised (I.e., Become Jewish). This is the logic and flow of Paul’s thought: “How do we find Abraham when God declared that he was in good covenant standing (I.e., “Righteous”) and would inherit the world? We find him uncircumcised. Later, he would get circumcised as a sign of his already justifying faith. But God justified Abraham without circumcision. Therefore, now that the Messiah has come, the sign of circumcision is outdated, and the Gentile believers can be declared covenant members without it, just as God did for Abraham. For it was never circumcision that justified anyone. It was faith that justified Abraham, which circumcised and uncircumcised people may each have.”
The logic of Paul’s argument centers around Abraham. To know what God promised and under what conditions humans benefit from it, you must look at Abraham. You must become a child of Abraham. If Jesus did not make sense according to what God promised Abraham, the apostle Paul would never have followed Him. Jesus didn't invent a new religion; Jesus didn't abolish the Torah or the covenant made with Abraham. Jesus fulfilled the covenant. The true children of Abraham recognize Jesus as the “seed” God promised and through which all men must be “saved,” delivered from slavery.
So, what difference does this emphasis on Abraham make? The Romans Road gets it exactly right concerning our need to put our hope, confidence, and faith in Jesus and not in ourselves. The use of the Romans Road gets it exactly right when it teaches us to acknowledge and repent our sins, leading to death. And the Romans Road correctly teaches us that faith in Jesus will bring life. But what we gain by returning Abraham to his rightful place in the story's center is an accurate vision of the future and a vitally important understanding of the present. When we concern ourselves with being Abraham’s descendants and heirs, we will then ask the appropriate question: What do we inherit? What did God promise Abraham?
The Apostle Paul said that God promised Abraham “the world”:
“The promise, you see, didn't come to Abraham or to his family through the law—the promise, that is, that he would inherit the world. It came through the covenant justice of faith.” Romans 4:13
Notice what matters to Paul: What did God promise? The World. Who did God promise the world to? Abraham’s family. And what defines a family member? Loyalty to the covenant expressed in faith.
The thing that God promised to Abraham, which, forgetting Abraham, the Western world has completely missed out, is the inheritance of the world. By leaving Abraham out of the formulation of the Gospel message, the Western world has been able to rewrite theology and redirect the destination of God’s children away from the here and now, away from planet earth, and to fixate on another-world after-life. In other words, the devil has tricked us into thinking our “real inheritance” is “up there” so that he can still claim everything “down here.”
When satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he showed him all the kingdoms of the earth in their glory, and he said, “All this is given to me, and I will give it to you if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus, at that time, did not argue with the devil about whom the world's kingdoms belonged. But later, as the disciples returned rejoicing that demons were subject to them in His name, Jesus said, “I saw satan falling from heaven like lightning.” In Revelation 11:15, an angel proclaims: “Now the Kingdom of the world has passed to our Lord and Messiah and He shall reign forever and ever.” Satan tempted Jesus by offering what Jesus came to claim but without the cross. Jesus said, “No, thank you,” and proceeded to arrest satan’s kingdom from his hand the way God ordained it to happen. This is the Gospel, that the Kingdom of the world has passed into the hands of Abraham’s descendant, who bequeathed it to Abraham’s family as God promised so that all of Abraham’s children can be restored to the original human vocation to rule and reign on the earth as extensions of God’s hands and feet, as His image bearers. It wasn't for nothing that Jesus said, “The meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
By deceiving us about our inheritance, where it is, and what it is, Satan has bought himself more time on the playground even though the recess bell has been rung. We are the enforcers of God’s will that the playground should be cleared of bullies and thieves. In Jesus’ name, it is our playground, and satan must vacate it. Clearing the playground for God’s children, aka, children of Abraham, is the ministry of deliverance. Because of the Gospel, that Jesus has taken up his power, has begun to reign, and has shared His authority with His followers, the inheritance of the world has been rightfully granted to the children of Abraham. As some of us sang in Sunday School:
Father Abraham had many sons.
Many sons had father, Abraham
I am one of them, and so are you
So, let’s all praise the Lord.
Satan deceived the Christian Western world into believing that we are children of Plato, with our “real home” being a disembodied reality in another realm instead of the children of Abraham who inherit the earth. As a side-effect of this lie, Satan also wreaked havoc on our theology and created many riffs, divisions, confusions, and false doctrines. The absence of Abraham from our soteriology (how someone gets “saved”) distorted the whole Gospel.
Satan is a defeated foe, but he still has venom in his fangs. But when we put Abraham back where he belongs in the grand meta-narrative of the Bible, we rediscover our inheritance and begin to take dominion over the earth, as God intended, prophesied, and made happen in Jesus.