Paul wrote of two competing laws in Romans 3 as he scolded some of the Jews in Rome for the moralistic demands they placed on Gentile believers. In his view a “law of works” set up self-focused “boasting” about the role we have in faith:
“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Ro. 3:27).
I preached on Romans 4 this weekend (Good Shepherd Community Church, Oregon) and I saw that Paul’s discussion of Abraham placed the patriarch as the ultimate model of the “law of faith”. The challenge, however, was to unpack what the difference is between works and faith. So I offered a homey parable to explore the point.
A son came home from university for the weekend. After breakfast he put $5 on the table as he got up.
“What’s that?” asked his dad.
“It’s what I owe you for breakfast,” replied the son. “And in my bedroom I’ve left you $20 as last night’s room rental.”
The father frowned. “But you’re our son—you don’t owe us anything.”
“I knew you’d say that,” the son answered, “because you’ve always tried to make me dependent on you and now it’s time for me to be independent—to be a true person.”
“What led to this?” the father asked.
“In my course on personal development Professor Diablo taught us about the law of true personhood: to be an ‘authentic person’ I need to be independent so that’s my new law of life.”
His father looked puzzled. “But what about the ‘law’—if that’s the language you want to use, ‘of the family’? In a family we’re always depending on each other—that’s what love does.”
“Sorry, Dad—or, maybe I’ll just call you Jim from now on,” said the son, “I see myself as an independent person and that’s the law we’ll all need to recognize from now on.”
The son left the room and Jim, his saddened father, went to his study. He was a very successful accountant so for the rest of the morning he did what he knew best.
At noon the family enjoyed soup and sandwiches and the son, once again, put down a $5 bill. But this time the father had something to say.
“Hold on, Harry, we’ve got something more to talk about here. Since you’ve chosen to live by Professor Diablo’s law of life instead of our own law of a bonded family, I did some homework. Ever since you were born your mother and I have been investing in you and by your new law the bill has come due. So you actually owe us $282,532 including interest and I’d like that as a lump sum by tonight. Or if you prefer monthly payments I can set up a financing plan with interest of less than 10%.”
“But if you were willing to live by the law of a caring family your mother and I will be happy to view it as a gift. Just let me know by dinner time if you don’t mind.”
I ended the parable with the son’s response open. My hope is that listeners will recognize the relational basis of faith: God is a loving “promiser” whose grace elicits the response of faith. In other words faith isn’t a duty—a token payment of our will—but a moment that comes when our hearts become aligned with God’s heart as took place for Abraham in Genesis 15. God took him outside to count stars and promised, “If you’re able to number the stars, you’ll see how many offspring you’ll have.” He believed God and God counted that faith as righteousness.
So Abraham’s faith was based on the promise of a coming seed—a single offspring among the many—who would be the blessing to the nations. In wider reading we can presume it referred to the woman’s “seed” in Genesis 3:15, meaning the one who would come to defeat the Serpent’s seed. That blessing-seed ultimately came to be born as Jesus.
For Abraham to be “counted righteous” in Genesis 15 because of his simple faith was crucial for what Paul taught about justification in Romans 4. This faith came before any moral regulations—epitomized by circumcision—appeared. In fact was many years later that circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of devotion, in Genesis 17. So in Romans 4 Paul’s point is that the duty of circumcision in Genesis 17 is not to be conflated with the promise of Genesis 15.
I hope the parable helps us see God’s plan from a Father’s point of view.