Justification by Faith (Genesis 15:6)
This is the second study dealing with the Reformation doctrine “Justification by Faith”. Previously, we looked at Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17; today we will examine his treatment of Genesis 15:6. Paul cites and expounds this verse on two different occasions in his letters—in Galatians 3 and Romans 4. I will deal with the Galatians passage first. This Reformation-oriented series is intended to demonstrate some of the ways in which Biblical criticism relates to theology (and the history of doctrine). The Reformers were heavily indebted to Paul’s rigorous treatment of the subject of faith and “justification”, as presented in Romans and Galatians, examining the words and phrases, the line of argument, very carefully, including a study of the text in Greek. At the same time, Paul himself was working from the Old Testament Scriptures, studying and interpreting those texts with at least as much care. For most Christians—and for committed Protestant believers, in particular—theology and doctrine cannot be separated from a (critical) examination of Scripture.
The fact that Paul draws on the example of Abraham, and the declaration in Gen 15:6, on two different occasions, shows how important this tradition was for him. Abraham, of course, was a central figure in Jewish thought, a paragon of faith and obedience, for Israelites and Jews in every age. The deutero-canonical book of Sirach (44:19-21) provides a good (early) summary of this belief; see also the book of Jubilees 23:10. Gen 15:6 is part of a complex of ancient Abraham traditions given distinct narrative shape in chapters 14 and 15ff of Genesis, and which were highly influential in shaping this belief. Chapter 15 is the great covenant-vision scene set around the divine promise of an heir (male child) for Abraham, in spite of his old age and the barrenness of his wife Sarah. In vv. 4-5, God announces to Abraham that, not only will he indeed have a child of his own, but that his descendants will come to be a vast multitude of people, like the stars in the sky. Here it is said of Abraham in verse 6:
“And he had firm (trust) in YHWH, and He reckoned (it) for him (as) ƒ®d¹qâ.”
The Hebrew word ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) has a relatively wide range of meaning. It is usually translated “righteousness”, but may also denote “truthfulness”, “loyalty”, as well as the legal sense of “justice”. The fundamental meaning of the ƒqd root appears to be something like “straight”, or perhaps “clear”. Abraham’s trust in God shows him to be a true and faithful friend (or vassal in the context of the covenant), and so God considers him to be a right follower. Paul, in citing Gen 15:6, generally follows the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, which is also a reasonably accurate rendering of the Hebrew:
“Abraham trusted in God, and (this) was counted for him unto dikaiosýn¢” (Gal 3:6)
As noted in the previous study, the verb dikaióœ (dikaio/w) means “make right”, and the noun dikaiosýn¢ (dikaiosu/nh) something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, usually rendered in English as either “righteousness” or “justice”, both of which can be rather misleading in modern English. The dik– word-group is notoriously difficult to translate, especially as used repeatedly by Paul in his letters. It is clear, however, that Paul is using dikaiosýn¢ here is a somewhat different sense than the Hebrew ƒ®d¹qâ of the original Hebrew. For Paul, the word relates to a person’s standing before God—as one who needs to be “made right”. This legal sense, I would argue, is rather different from the covenant-language in Genesis 15 (on this see above, and also the earlier Saturday Series study on the covenant scene of Gen 15). And yet, Paul certainly has the context of covenant in mind, as can be seen from the remainder of chapter 3.
Paul is attempting to reconcile two basic truths, which relate to the new religious identity he sought to define for believers in Christ:
- Truth #1: Salvation comes through trusting in Jesus—this is the essential Gospel message, which was accepted by at least as many non-Jews as Jews
- Truth #2: Israelites (i.e. the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob) represent the people of God
These can only be reconciled by positing that those who trust in Jesus and the descendants of Abraham, are, somehow, one and the same. The declaration in Gen 15:6 provided a solution. It allowed one to identify faith/trust in God with Abraham and his descendants. That this association was immediately (and primarily) in Paul’s mind is clear from the interpretation he gives in Gal 3:7:
“Then you must know that the (one)s (born) out of trust—these are the sons of Abraham”
This results in a powerful reinterpretation of Israelite religious identity, now being applied to believers: those who trust in Jesus are the true descendants of Abraham. The line of argument which follows in vv. 8-14 (and on through the rest of chapters 3 and 4) is quite complex, and is meant to address the fundamental message of Galatians: that it is not necessary for (Gentile) believers to observe the regulations and commands of the Torah. I discuss this at length in the series of articles on Galatians in “Paul’s View of the Law” (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”). The main issue involved circumcision—in many ways the central command related to Israelite/Jewish religious identity. But, as Paul makes clear, circumcision was instituted for Abraham (and his descendants) prior to the Torah, being the sign of an earlier covenant established between God and Abraham. This covenant was not based on anything Abraham did, but was God’s own initiative, being predicated upon Abraham’s demonstration of trust. This is the significance of Gen 15:6 (and its context) for Paul. Believers—Gentile believers, in particular—are saved and “made right” before God through faith in Jesus; as a result, they are shown to be Abraham’s very descendants (his true, spiritual descendants). One is not saved through the observance of the Torah (much less circumcision itself), but through trust in Jesus. Paul affirms and argues this over and over again throughout Galatians (and again in Romans, as we shall see).
In Romans 4, Paul repeats the argument from Galatians, using the same example of Abraham (along with Gen 15:6), but accompanied by a more thorough exposition. The polemical tone of Galatians has been replaced by a carefully structured theological treatment of the theme, in which Jewish and Gentile believers are shown to be united, related to one another as true equals in Christ. Several times Paul asks, essentially, “what does the Jewish (believer) have over and above the Gentile?” The line of argument throughout chapters 2-11 of Romans is especially complex. In various ways, Paul seeks to retain the position of the covenant God established with his people Israel (i.e. Abraham, in chap. 4), once again reinterpreting it so that believers in Christ become the true (and complete) fulfillment of the covenant—Jewish and Gentile believers both as the people of God. The increasingly larger percentage of non-Jewish believers created a difficulty for Paul in this regard, and he addresses it particularly in chaps. 9-11. The illustration of Abraham is made to apply more generally to the Gentile believer by the repeated emphasis that righteousness (or right-ness) is something given by God (as a favor), rather than something earned by the person’s own work (vv. 4-5). This would come to be the emphasis that dominated the Reformers’ thought (see below).
Paul deals with the (Greek) text of Gen 15:6 in more detail here than he does in Galatians, especially the phrase “and it was counted for him unto justice/righteousness” (kai elogisth¢ autœ eis diakosyn¢). The verb logízomai (logi/zomai) is related to the noun lógos (“account”), and refers to giving an accounting (of something), used essentially as a bookkeeping term. The passive sense (“it was counted…”) here is an example of the so-called “divine passive”, where God is the implied actor. Quite literally, God records something in the ledger (the book, or account) on behalf of the person. This draws upon the traditional image of the (heavenly) book in which a person’s deeds are recorded, and which will be opened on the great day of Judgment. A similar idea is the “book/roll of life”, on which the names of the elect (i.e. citizens of heaven) are recorded. The corresponding verb in the Hebrew (µ¹ša»), has a rather different sense, and is also in active form (“he considered”). Fundamentally, it refers to the work of the mind (thought, thinking), sometimes in the specific sense of creative/artistic work, imagination, planning, and so forth. In Gen 15:6 it is best rendered as “consider”, or somewhat more forcefully, “reckon”—God considered Abraham to be a true and faithful friend.
Protestant commentators tended to emphasize the legal, forensic aspect of the Greek verb logízomai even more than Paul did, though he points in that direction himself in vv. 5-8. There, in good Rabbinic fashion, Paul finds a Scripture with similar wording to Gen 15:6 [LXX], bringing in the point of similarity as a way of explaining the earlier passage. He turns to the Greek of Psalm 32:1-2:
“Happy (are the one)s for whom the (deed)s without law [i.e. lawless deeds] were released, and for whom the sins were covered over! Happy the man for whom the Lord does not make an accounting of sin!” (vv. 7-8)
The “accounting unto righteousness” is parallel with “no accounting of sin”. In other words, God leaves the reference(s) to sins out of the ledger completely, ignoring them or “covering them over”. The idea of a forensic “declaration” or “imputation” of righteousness was certainly influenced by this line of thought in Romans. For Paul, however, it was the idea of the last Judgment that was largely in mind with this sort of language. Believers will escape the coming anger of God (1:18ff) and will be able to stand before God in the Judgment, because of the sacrificial work of Jesus on our behalf, and the trust/faith we have in him. All of this is given freely to us by God, as a favor (cháris, xa/ri$). Paul states this clearly in verse 4, and it is given an even more succinct, axiomatic formulation in Eph 2:8. Yet, it is insufficient to view this “righteousness” (dikaiosýn¢) simply in the negative sense of the absence/covering of any record of sin. We must keep in mind the foundational statement in 1:17 (see the previous study), in which the positive aspect is emphasized—the righteousness of God Himself, which brings life to us, through our trust in Jesus.
Throughout Galatians and Romans, Paul is dealing primarily with the question of religious identity, which, for Israelites and Jews, involved circumcision and the observance of the Torah (as the terms of the covenant). Paul fully realized that this could no longer serve as the basis for the identity of believers in Christ, and he argued repeatedly that faith in Jesus took place entirely apart from (chœris) observing the regulations of the Torah. He states this in no uncertain terms in vv. 13ff, and even more absolutely in the famous declaration of 10:4: “For (the) Anointed One [i.e. Christ] is the completion [télos] of the Law, unto justice/righteousness [dikaiosýn¢] for every one trusting (in him)”.
Protestants, however, tended to turn this into a more general religious principle. Instead of referring specifically to Torah observance, “works” (érga) meant any sort of human effort or work in addition to faith in Jesus. Paul himself introduced this generalization at a number of points, such as here in verse 4:
“for the (one) working, the wage is not counted according to favor, but (rather) according to what (is) owed“
This sort of illustration supplies the basis for the sweeping idea that salvation/justification comes by “grace and faith” alone, not from any human effort (Eph 2:8). Protestants were well aware of the religious tendency to emphasize the importance of certain actions—both ethical and ritual—and to rely on these for one’s identity. At the time of the Reformation, Roman Catholic tradition was filled many authoritative laws, customs, and so forth, considered to be binding upon believers. The Reformers and early Protestants fought against the bulk of this tradition, symbolized most vividly by Luther in his public burning of the corpus of Canon (Church) Law. The doctrine of sola fide—salvation by faith alone—was a most radical solution to the religious problem. At a single stroke, it effectively eliminated vast swaths of Christian tradition—and Christianity in the West has been grappling with the impact of this ever since.