There are a number of things that can be formative in shaping someone’s identity: career, activities, friendship networks, allegiances, location, etc. Family is one of these things – either with the immediate family or with one’s broader heritage. This is largely harmless, but there are some dangers to it.
Many people in Jesus’ time (and in the centuries before) placed emphasis on their lineage to Abraham, who was a founding father in the faith. Originally called of God when he was old and childless, he was promised a great legacy and multitude of descendants (in Genesis 15:1-6). In the New Testament era people were claiming this for a false assurance of salvation – which made John the Baptist take a confrontational approach: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7b-10).
The apostle Paul had the same doctrine but he was more pastoral in his approach when he wrote his letter to the Romans. This is probably because he was writing not to confront but to introduce himself. He was making plans and hoped to visit the Roman church on a future missionary expedition to Spain (see Romans 15:23-24). Since he had never met the Christians in Rome, he wrote the epistle first to introduce his theology (in chapters 1-11), and also to explain his understanding of Christian practice (in chapters 12-15).
Recently I was studying Romans 4:1-8, and I thought of some questions that Christians have asked when it comes to evangelism: One of them is this: “If you were to die tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Another one is “How do you get right with God?” These are important questions, but they are not the ones Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Roman Christians. Instead, he was thinking of this question: Who are the real children of Abraham?
Paul was famous for his missionary outreach to Gentiles (i.e. to non-Jews), and some questioned the basis for bringing these new converts into the church. Remembering that Jesus was a Jew, they drew a hardline emphasis that basically said you have to be Jewish in order to be a Christian. This meant observing the numerous Old Testament laws, Jewish holidays, dietary scruples, etc. Paul disagreed with this approach: He taught that salvation is by faith alone, emphasizing that this was how it began for Abraham back in Genesis 15:6. Abraham (or “Abram” at the time) didn’t know God before his encounter with Him. He had no Torah, no circumcision, no temple in Jerusalem to worship at, no system of offerings and sacrifices. What he did have, though, was faith. God made a promise. Abraham believed it, trusting in God – and that was what brought him into right-standing with the Lord, since salvation comes to those who respond in faith to the revelation that God has given them (Romans 4:1-3).
Part of Paul’s pastoral approach was not to scold, but to help people see this as a great blessing. So he paraphrased and then quoted Psalm 32:1-2 (in Romans 4:6-8) emphasizing the experience and perspective of the Old Testament king David. There are many different beatitudes in the Bible; these ones speak of a happiness that comes from forgiveness of sins: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”
I thought of this while reflecting on a popular quote from the Dalai Lama: “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.” For Christians, the emphasis is different. Kindness is certainly a part of our faith (e.g. Galatians 5:22), but it’s seen more as a byproduct than as the central thing. So we might hearken to a natural follow-up question: “What do you do with all the times when you haven’t been so kind?” It’s important to be realistic enough to recognize our imperfection: no one lives up to their ideals 100% of the time. And this makes us realize our dependency on the grace of God. Martin Luther said it so well: “God does not accept the person on account of his works, but He accepts the works on account of the (believing) person. He first accepts the person who believes in Him and then accepts the works flowing from faith.”
God bless you, Pastor Andrew
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals. Opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of organizations I have been with.