John Barclay in a lecture before the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome gave the essence of his treatment of Galatians and Romans, which also appears in the book, Paul and the Gift.
We come to his discussion of Romans.
He says that Romans 5:1-11 is a bridge passage that gives us the core proclamation of Romans that Christ died not for the good, but for people he calls “ungodly”, “sinners” and “enemies of God”. This is the basis for Paul’s mission to non-Jews as well as Jews. God does not discriminate but acts to reach all people without regard to their worth or any special merit.
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-7 NET Bible).
The parenthesis in the above passage relates to the ancient world’s view of gift giving. Possibly you might even give a gift that cost your life if the recipient was worthy. But Christ has acted in a wholly incongruent way, ignoring all our definitions of value.
Then Barclay goes back to treat the first chapters of Romans. Of particular interest is his discussion of the passage about Abraham in Romans 4. Why did God call Abraham? Barclay says that most Jewish interpreters of Genesis answered that there was something special about Abraham that caused God to call him. Some speculated that Abraham turned against idolatry and that God rewarded him. The motive for these interpretations was to keep God from seeming to act arbitrarily.
But Paul goes entirely against this interpretation. Perhaps, because he had personally experienced a call that came when he was totally unworthy of God’s call, Paul also sees no worth in Abraham that caused God to grant him the grace of a call and the promise of descendants. There was no “criteria of correspondence” that brought about Abraham’s call.
This means that God’s gift is not contained within limits. For instance, the call of Abraham came before Genesis tells about the institution of circumcision. Therefore, that rite could not be a credential for receiving God’s promises.
Barclay’s understanding lies within the New Perspective on Paul. When Romans 4:5 speaks of the one who does not work but believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, the passage is not about a doctrine of imputed righteousness. It means that people need to trust in God’s gift rather than their own possession of markers like circumcision, knowledge of the Torah, or even their moral status.
Just so we know what is at stake, here is part of Theopedia’s discussion of imputed righteousness:
A primary line of argumentation for this doctrine maintains that perfect righteousness or holiness is necessary to be with God. All mankind “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) because all their ‘righteousness’ is like filthy rags (Is 64:6) before the throne of God, and so all are “dead in their trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), and as a result “will not come into [God’s] light for fear that their evil deeds will be revealed” (John 3:20). All mankind is in this predicament because all are the offspring of Adam and Eve (Rom 5) who originally sinned against God. As a result of Adam’s fall, the world was cursed and sin entered the world. But upon confession of one’s own sin and faith in Christ’s death and resurrection, the sinner is justified and counted as having the righteousness of Christ.
Many of us who have been around Protestant evangelicalism have heard, or even made, this argument. One of the problems with it is that it sets up Paul as engaged in a polemic against a Jewish view of vindication by works, meaning moral and religious perfection.
But Judaism emphasized the mercy of God. Barclay makes clear that those who sought a rationale for Abraham receiving the promises of God did so to avoid making God seem arbitrary. This is a more nuanced point than the belief that people have to be perfect or earn God’s grace.
I will need another post to finish up Barclay’s discussion of Romans.