A Concise Resource on Justification by Faith Alone from Romans 4:3-5

With the confusion that is often sown regarding the doctrine of justification by faith alone, I wanted to review and clarify in my own mind my understanding of this essential doctrine. Especially in light of just celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, writing down my thoughts is a good exercise in application. Yet I wanted to be sure this clarification came from a study of Scripture, not only just from reading what others have written about it.

Thus, I returned to the crystal clear teaching of Romans 4:3-5 on this subject. How refreshing it is! This text says, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (NASB).

I thought I would share my thoughts with you. To that end, I offer below why this subject continues to need to be treated, a concise exegetical treatment on how to understand this text, a short summary statement on justification from my study, and then a guard produced by others to protect the church against those who would try to teach contrary to this doctrine. I hope this is a handy resource here on Gentle Reformation.

Modern Confusion

For there is confusion. The last few decades have shown us that. Examples abound. Norman Shepherd stating that “The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Christ, but his obedience, which is simply the perseverance of the saints in the way of truth and righteousness, is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification” (Call of Grace). Pastor Steve Schlissel saying at the Auburn Avenue conference that “anyone who believes that the main message of the book of Romans or Galatians is justification by faith is a nutcase.” N.T Wright declaring that “justification…is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community” (What Saint Paul Really Said). Recently, Kyle wrote this post on yet the latest controversy surrounding this topic.

Remembering we need sola scriptura to uphold sola fide, let’s look then at this passage. We will consider first the context of the verses under study.

The Context of Romans 4:3-5

Contrary to the statements above, one of the main teachings of all of Scripture, and particularly the Book of Romans, is justification by faith. Looking back at the previous chapter, we read that we are justified “through faith” (dia pisteuo in the Greek of Romans 3:25), “by faith” (pistei in Romans 3:28 is an instrumental dative), and “from faith” (ek pisteuo in Romans 3:30), but never “on account of faith” (dia pistin) as indicated by some of the quotes above. Faith is the instrument of our justification, but not the meritorious grounds of it. Faith is expressed as trusting Christ for our salvation.

Coming to our immediate context, Paul makes clear that Abraham was not justified by works (Romans 4:1-2). The thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 4 is that Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised, making him the father of all – Jew or Greek – who believe in Christ (Romans 4:9-12). Paul then speaks with undeniable clarity in our verses regarding this truth.

Studying Our Text

Paul’s chief statement regarding justification by faith is in Romans 4:3 where he quotes from Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This quote comes from Abraham’s story where the LORD promised him that his seed would number as the stars. In the Hebrew Old Testament of Genesis 15:6, the word “believed” is a form of the Hebrew word “Amen,” which indicates ideas such as “certainly, truly, solemn ratification, hearty approval.”  In its verb form, the word means “to stand firm in, to trust in, to be certain in, to believe in,” and always has an object, which in this case is the Lord.  The Lord must provide the salvation and blessing he has promised, and this is what Abraham believes or says “Amen” to. Abraham could not have been justified by works anymore than he could have counted all the stars that the Lord showed to him.

Interestingly, Genesis 15:6 is quoted twice more in Romans 4, in verses 9 and 22. By setting it against Abraham’s circumcision in verse 9 and Abraham’s “good as dead” body in verse 22, Paul deepens the sense of man’s complete inability to achieve righteousness. The only way justification can occur is by faith in Christ who was delivered over for our transgressions and resurrected from the dead for our justification (Romans 4:25). Further, Galatians 3:6 also quotes Genesis 15:6, so this text should be consulted in interpreting correctly the passage.  Again, contrary to the quote above about Galatians, the main subject of Galatians 3 is justification by faith and how the Galatians had been “bewitched” in leaving it.

The word “credited” in Romans 4:3 is the Greek word logizomai, which is used nineteen times in Romans. Eleven of those times are in chapter 4 with three of them right here in our text of study! This word was used to describe financial transactions, as in the transfer of credit being put on ledger or in the account of another.  Here Paul is clearly stating that righteousness is credited by faith. The aorist tense of the Greek verbs for “believed” (episteusen) and “credited” (elogisthe) speak to the definitive, decisive act of justification. In contrast, the “one working” is not credited with favor or righteousness, but just getting his due (which Romans 6:23 would tell us is death) and is in contrast to the “one believing.”

Thus, the “scandalous” truth of this text is that it is not the one who does works of righteousness that is justified before God, but the person who believes in the One who justifies the ungodly or profane.

Looking at the Light Given to Others

Many faith-filled commentators are in agreement with this understanding of the text. Here are a few of my favorite quotes regarding it.

Because if this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.” -Martin Luther

The whole Pauline gospel could be summed up in this one word— God justifies the ungodly.” -A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament

It is true, whom God justifies he also sanctifies; but justification is not sanctification, and the imputation of righteousness is not the infusion of righteousness. These are the first principles of the doctrine of the Reformers.” –Charles Hodge, Commentary on Romans

Although God justifies the ungodly, i.e., him who was antecedently ungodly, and who in a measure remains, as to his inherent character, unjust after justification, yet it has its proper ground in the satisfaction of Christ…The Papists understand by justification, the infusion of inherent righteousness, and thus confound justification with sanctification…” -Anthony Tuckney, one of the leading members of the Westminster Assembly and principal author of the Shorter Catechism, in his Praelectiones (pp.213-220)

Those whom God effectually calleth, He also freely justifieth (Rom 3:24; 8:30): not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them (Jer 23:6; Rom 3:22, 24, 25, 27, 28; 4:5-8; 5:17-19; 1 Cor 1:30, 31; 2 Cor 5:19, 21; Eph 1:7; Titus 3:5, 7), they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God (Acts 10:44; 13:38, 39; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:7, 8; Phil 3:9).” –Westminster Confession of Faith, 11, Par. 1, “Of Justification”

Romish expositors and Arminian Protestants make this to mean that God accepted Abraham’s act of believing as a substitute for complete obedience. But this is at variance with the whole spirit and letter of the apostle’s teaching. Throughout this whole argument, faith is set in direct opposition to works, in the matter of justification—(especially) in Romans 4:4-5. The meaning, therefore, cannot possibly be that the mere act of believing—which is as much a work as any other piece of commanded duty (John 6:29; I John 3:23)—was counted to Abraham for all obedience. The meaning plainly is that Abraham believed in the promises which embraced Christ (Genesis 12:3; 15:5, etc.), as we believe in Christ Himself; and in both cases, faith is merely the instrument that puts us in possession of the blessing gratuitously bestowed.” -Jamieson-Faussett-Brown in their commentary on Romans

In Romans 4:3-5, Paul carefully safeguards this saving faith from any formula that includes works as part of that faith. Here, he carefully distinguishes between faith and what the Federal Vision writers and others set forth as faithfulness.” -Richard Phillips, “Covenant and Salvation,” The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, p. 81

Simple Clarifying Statement

With these thoughts now in mind, we are set to make a clarifying statement on justification by faith alone:

Any of the following types of theological confusion, such as 1) mingling justification with sanctification; 2) equating  justification with church membership; 3) describing saving faith in terms of a saving faithfulness; 4) teaching that faith or righteousness is conferred by a sacrament rather than that faith is sealed by a sacrament; or 5) claiming that faith is the basis for justifying righteousness rather than the instrument by which it is imputed are contrary to the teaching of this passage. Rather, the elect are justified by faith (the sole, God-granted instrument) in Christ alone as God definitively imputes to them forever the perfect righteousness of Christ even as their sins and the eternal judgment they deserved are transferred to Christ.

Protecting the Church

The Scriptures teach and history shows that confusion on this subject invariably leads to a distorted gospel of justification by works. Since we need to work diligently to protect the church from false influences, we should be alert to these influences on men preparing for pastoral ministry. As one involved in the training and ordaining process, having diagnostic tools to examine candidates preparing for ministry would be helpful. Thankfully, Drs. Douglas Kelly and Ligon Duncan have already provided such tools. Below are two sets of possible questions to ask pastoral candidates to check for false influences and the candidate’s commitment to this doctrine.

Sample Questions on Justification and ‘the New Perspective’ | Douglas Kelly, Ph.D.

  1. What is your understanding of ‘the New Perspective’ on Justification, as represented by such scholars as Sanders, Dunn and N. T. Wright?
  2. [‘I think it is very helpful.’]  What in particular do you find helpful about it?
  3. Do you consider the new perspective to be correct in redefining ‘the works of the law’ in ‘Second Temple Judaism’ (i.e., as ‘covenant badges’ of membership in God’s people, rather than earning salvation, instead of relying on grace)?
  4. Would you agree with N. T. Wright (and the others of this persuasion) that Luther and the Reformers misinterpreted ‘the works of the law’ by reading back into Paul’s discussion of it their controversy with Medieval Roman Catholic over meritorious works as a necessity for salvation?
  5. Do you think Sanders was right in his theory on ‘covenantal nomism’ (i.e., that the Jews of Paul’s time understood themselves to be keeping the law, not to get into the covenant people, but in order to stay in)?
  6. If the new perspective is right, why did Jesus tell Nicodemus in John 3 that he needed to be born again in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven?
  7. What do you think about Wright’s assessment of the doctrine of imputation as ‘a cold piece of business’?
  8. What is your understanding of the New Testament teaching on imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers and the non-imputation of their sins to him?  Could you mention one or two major scriptural passages about imputation and non-imputation, and make some comment on them?  [e.g., Rom. 3, Rom. 4, II Cor. 5]
  9. How would you briefly summarize the main teaching of chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (i.e., on Justification)?  Please tell us what you make of this chapter’s distinctions: a. (in paragraph 1) between ‘infusing righteousness’ and ‘imputing righteousness’? b. (in par. 2) between faith as ‘the alone instrument of justification’, but ‘not being alone in the person justified’?
  10. What does chapter 11 (paragraph 3) mean when it says that Christ made full satisfaction to his Father’s justice on behalf of the elect?  Do you agree with this teaching?
  11. What do you think about the distinction made by the Westminster Confession between Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace (ch. 7)?

Justification and the “New Perspective on Paul” | Dr. J. Ligon Duncan

  1. Do you hold to traditional covenant theology (that is, bi-covenantal, covenant of works/covenant of grace framework)? Why ask this question?: Those who hold to the “new perspective” approach to justification generally have adopted a biblical theology vs. systematic theology paradigm and will have problems with various aspects of historic covenant theology.
  2. Do you hold to the classic Reformed understanding of justification? Why ask this question?: Those who hold to the “new perspective” – if they know any historical theology at all – have to express disagreement with numerous aspects of the Confession’s doctrine of justification (imputation, the extrinsic ground of justification, faith as the alone instrument, sola fide, and more).
  3. Do you believe that the Confession’s teaching on imputation is exegetically and theologically sound?  Why ask this question?: See #2 above. N. T. Wright explicitly denies that “imputation” is a biblical or exegetical category. According to him it is an example of Reformational eisegesis (reading something into or onto the text). You cannot agree with Wright on this, even mildly, and at the same time affirm the Confession.
  4. What is your opinion of the views of E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and N. T. Wright regarding the Pauline doctrine of justification?  Why ask this question?: The answer to this question will let you know whether they have a clue about this debate, whether they know the differences between these three proponents, and whether they have sympathy for their various “insights.”
  5. Do you have any reservations at all regarding the Confession’s assertions or emphases relating to justification by faith?  Why ask this question?: See #2 above. The Confession and the new perspective(s) are antithetical at numerous points.
  6. Do you believe that new discoveries regarding “Second Temple Judaism” require us to rethink the Reformers’ understanding of Judaism and the Pauline Gospel?  Why ask this question?: Another way of ascertaining sympathy for “re-thinking” the Reformational doctrine of sola fide and justification by grace through faith alone.
  7. Is the Gospel encapsulated in Romans 1:1-4 or in Romans 1:16-17 (or 3:21-28)?  Why ask this question?: Wright argues that the Gospel is Romans 1:4 (Jesus is Lord and Messiah) not Romans 1:16-17 (justification by faith). Of course, such is a false antithesis, but his followers have imbibed it.
  8. Do you believe there are errors of statement, emphasis, exegesis or theology in the Standards’ treatment of justification? [Wright says that traditional Reformed, evangelical, Protestant theology has just missed Paul’s point on justification.]
  9. Do you believe that “justification” refers to “how you get in,” “how you stay in,” or “how you know that you are a member of” the covenant community? [Answer: none of the above. It refers “to an act of ‘God’s free grace whereby …’” {WLC 70, WSC 33}. Wright says that justification is about “how you know you are a member of the covenant community”.]
  10. Do you believe that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, as set forth in our Standards, is exegetically and theologically sound? [N. T. Wright denies that “imputation” is a biblical concept, and says that “Christ’s righteousness” is an unbiblical concept, and says that “God’s righteousness,” which he admits to be biblical, is God’s alone and thus non-transferable, thus he thinks the traditional Reformed teaching on imputation to be an exegetical blunder and a theological category mistake spawned by a vocabulary/translation error.
  11. Do you agree with Norman Shepherd, that justification is by grace alone, but received by the dual instruments of faith and works? [Faith is the sole instrument.]
  12. Do you believe that we have underemphasized the relational dimensions of justification in stressing the forensic aspect? [Wright wants to move to relational categories and away from the forensic – which is, of course, a false dichotomy – a forensic relationship IS a relationship!!!]
  13. Is justification more about how we relate to other Christians or about how we relate to God? [Wright says the former. The Bible says the latter.]

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Concise Resource on Justification by Faith Alone from Romans 4:3-5 - The Aquila Report - December 6, 2017

    […] Paul’s chief statement regarding justification by faith is in Romans 4:3 where he quotes from Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This quote comes from Abraham’s story where the LORD promised him that his seed would number as the stars. In the Hebrew Old Testament of Genesis 15:6, the word “believed” is a form of the Hebrew word “Amen,” which indicates ideas such as “certainly, truly, solemn ratification, hearty approval.”  In its verb form, the word means “to stand firm in, to trust in, to be certain in, to believe in,” and always has an object, which in this case is the Lord.  The Lord must provide the salvation and blessing he has promised, and this is what Abraham believes or says “Amen” to. Abraham could not have been justified by works anymore than he could have counted all the stars that the Lord showed to him.  Continue reading… […]

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