Romans 4 - Justification, Abraham and David - Imputation or Process?
Romans 4 - Justification,
Abraham and David -
Imputation or Process?
By Matt1618

In this examination we will look at the implications of Paul's writing in Romans 4 on the justification of the life of Abraham and David. Romans 4 is often used as the 'proof-text' against the Catholic view of works and salvation. It is used to show that works can never be any of the grounds of one justification. Also, it is used to prove that justification is a one time imputation, not a process, as Catholicism holds. Before we dive into Abraham and David and whether or not they show that justification is a one time imputation or a process, we need to look at a little background.

RC Sproul, in the book, Faith Alone writes, "Paul labors the point that Abraham was not justified by works: Paul declares that Abraham was justified before he performed works. He was justified as soon as he had faith (in Gen. 15)"... In alluding to James, Sproul writes "James was clearly aware that Abraham had already been reckoned righteous by God in Gen. 15 (p. 166)". James White sees Rom. 4:1-8 as proof that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian by faith, and, on the basis of Roman 4:1-8, uses it to oppose the Catholic teaching Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 137. Abraham is justified first in Genesis 15:6. James Buchanan uses Romans 4 as a way of setting grace against any type of works, as having any part of the grounds of justification, James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 316. Buchanan uses it to affirm that the righteousness of Christ is based by imputation, not by infusion, p. 323. Buchanan goes out of his way to "prove' that Abraham was first justified in Genesis 15:6. Buchanan in battling James 2 where it says that Abraham was justified by works, says that"Abraham was a believer, and as such, a justified sinner, many years before Isaac was born: and the first notice of his justification makes mention only of God's promise, and of Abraham's faith; for 'he believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness (Gen. 15:6)." (Buchanan, p. 244). For a closer examination of James 2:14-16, click here. Besides ignoring what James really says, but that is another issue, these authors show that it is essential to the Protestant/Calvinist position, to say that Abraham is first justified in Genesis 15:6.

Central to this passage is Paul's use of the lives of Abraham and David. We must assume that since Scripture is consistent with Scripture, and Paul knew the Old Testament well, that his use of Abraham and David as models of how we are justified, show us indeed how we are to be justified.

Let us examine the text itself of Romans 4:

2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 4 Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. 5 And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: 7"Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin."

For those ill-informed on what Catholicism teaches on grace and works, Paul seems to speak directly against the Catholic view. Even for those with the correct Catholic view, Paul at first glance seems to speak against works of any kind as being the grounds of one's justification. However, this is only a superficial look at the text. Before we dive into Paul's use of Abraham and David in Romans 4, a few points must be considered on Paul's negative usage of the word works in relation to justification: What is the kind of works that is critiqued? Paul shows us the following points:

A) Paul says that works, in and of itself, does not justify oneself before God. We don't earn salvation. This actually perfectly fits the Council of Trent, where it says that to hold that one's works justify oneself before God, anathematizes himself from the Catholic Church. Canon 1. "If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema."

B) The works that don't justify are those that apart from God's grace. Abraham did not boast about how good he was. The boasting aspect of the "works of the law" is what Paul condemns in other passages (Rom. 2:17, 23; 3:27; 4:2; Eph. 2:9). For a detailed look at the meaning of works of the law please click on Galatians 3:10-14, Faith, Works, and Works of the Law This is similar to Jesus critique of the Pharisees. Anyone who attempts to make himself right with God by his own works is one who is "puffed up", one who "boasts" of his own goodness and is filled with his own self-importance and significance (cf., Luke 16:15; 18:9). This is what Paul is contending against in this passage.

The only kind of works that we have that are any good, is the kind that comes exclusively from God's grace. 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20). Those that are done with a boastful attitude do not suffice before God. Augustine sees Paul condemning those "because they were working it out as it were by themselves, not believing that it is God who works within them... Then are we still in doubt what are those works of the law by which a man is not justified, if he believes them to be his own works, as it were, without the help and gift of God, which is by the faith of Jesus Christ?" (Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, ch. 50, Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, p. 105).

Everything that we do right is exclusively from God, and thus we do not want to boast in anything but what God does for us. As Augustine (Letters 194:5:19 [A.D. 412]).succinctly writes: "What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us?"

c) Notice the category of works in Romans 4:4 which Paul specifically says will not justify. That where one earns a wage. 'Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due.' Specifically note that the category which Paul goes on to say that does not justify is where thus, one puts God in a employee- employer relationship. As though one just works, and God owes him something. Paul categorically condemns this. Salvation is not our due: It must be noted, though, that Paul specifically does use the term wages in a positive sense, in Galatians 6:8-9, where it says the wages of faithful good works is eternal life (Gal. 6:8-9). However, the context in Galatians, as in Romans, speak of good works done in God's grace, in the context of a Father-Son relationship (Rom. 8:14-17, Gal. 4:4-7). Those are not wages in a strict sense. Those are instances where God rewards faithfulness. However, it was not that we obligate God. He rewards based on him looking through his eyes of grace, not because he owes us. In Romans 4 on the other hand Paul specifically contrasts the concept of wage, as an obgligation, or due, to gift, in the sense that we do not have the right to tell God "You owe us salvation.". The Catholic Church likewise condemns and does not tolerate the idea that one earns salvation as though God owes us. Whatever we have, is truly a gift from God. God is not a debtor. Paul and the Catholic Church condemns in Romans 4:2-4 the idea of a employee-employer relationship where one earns salvation as though God must fork over salvation because of our works. However, we are in a Father-Son relationship (Gal. 4:4-7, Rom. 8:14-17, Heb. 12:5-12). It is not our due. It is exclusively God's grace and beneficence that justifies us before God. The Catholic Church and Paul recognize this. The only way that we can be justified before God is when he looks at us through the eyes of grace, and not law. If he looks at us through the eyes of law, we will be condemned. If we are in a Father-Son relationship, he looks at us through grace. When our works are looked through God's eyes of grace, God does reward because of his beneficence. This will help to make sense of our examination of Romans 4 and is born out by Paul's examples of Abraham and David.

This quick look at Romans 4 gives us the background to now look at how Paul's use of Abraham and David do suffice for justification. The Protestant view (more specifically the Calvinist/Baptist view) is that Paul in Romans 4 here shows us, through the examples of David and Abraham is here is where they were justified, as we have noted from prominent Reformed/Protestant authors.. Paul refers us to Abraham first, as the model of how we are justified. The Calvinist view is of a one time imputation of righteousness as the sole grounds of righteousness. Christ's righteousness is imputed to our account, and faith alone is the sole means of appropriating that righteousness. Works will necessarily follow, but they are only the fruit, and never the grounds of one's justification. For this view, Genesis 15 is where the one time imputation occurs. Anytime before Genesis 15 Abraham is not justified, and anytime after (such as Gen. 22 and his offering of Isaac) is just the fruit of his already being justified, not any of the grounds itself of his justification. Catholics on the contrary say that Genesis 15 is a continuation of Abraham's process. This justification is an ongoing process that started at least in Genesis 12, and continues to the end of his life. The Catholic views justification as an ongoing process contingent upon Abraham's obedience.

As the Protestant view is that here in Genesis 15 is when Abraham became a believer, and was justified, we must examine Genesis 12 to 15 to see if indeed up until that point, Abraham was an unregenerate man, an unbeliever, as the Calvinist view admittedly calls for:

A) Genesis 12 through 14 - God makes the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. An unbeliever would not respond positively. What does Abraham do? He departs as the Lord had said, took all his possessions to the land of Canaan. He leaves house and home to who knows where, just at the Lord's bidding , and are we supposed to believe that he is a pagan? Abraham next builds an altar dedicated to the Lord (12:7). Abram calls on the name of the Lord (13:4). After separating himself from Lot Abraham is reminded by God of his promise (13:14-17) and tells him what land to go to. In response, the supposed unbelieving Abram moved his tent, and built an altar there to the Lord (13:18). Next Abram rescues his brother Lot. Melchizedek king of Salem then blesses Abram and said (14:19) "Blessed be Abram of God most high, Possessor heaven and earth;.." Thus, God is already Abram's God. Abram responds by proclaiming that he had lifted his hand to the Lord, God most high, the Possessor of heaven and earth (14:22). Any honest reader will see that Abram was already a believer in Genesis 12 through 14. Paul knows well this background to Genesis 15. Any attempt to say that Paul was saying that Abraham was an unregenerate pagan would make Paul make folly of Scripture. As an inspired writer he could not do such a thing. Abram was a man of faith so in love with God that he did marvelous things that most believers, including me would pale into comparison. If he was not justified then, who in the world would ever be justified? The view that does not acknowledge that Abraham is justified in Genesis 12, makes justification by 'faith alone' harder than justification by works!!!

B) Hebrews confirms that Abraham already was a believer years before Genesis 15. Some may say, well, here Paul is not here talking of the faith that justifies. (Much of tradition holds that Paul is the author of Hebrews, and though authorship is in dispute, I will designate Paul as author). However, Hebrews 11:8 reads "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." Paul specifically refers us here to Genesis 12, some 25 years before Genesis 15. What kind of faith does he have, where he does not even know where he was going, yet goes at God's bidding, if this is not saving faith? Paul in chapter 11 is not speaking of a pagan faith of unregenerates here. In fact, the surrounding context of Hebrews shows us what kind of faith pleases God. In Hebrews 11:6, just two verses prior to the reference to his mention of Abram he writes: "And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." Notice the kind of faith that Paul commends. In the surrounding context Paul speaks of men of faith (and thus justified as Abel, Enoch and Noah) who all did specific acts that pleased God. These acts were intrinsic to their justification before God. In fact, we have an example of Abel offering sacrifice to God where he was 'deemed righteous,' (Heb. 11:4, language similarly used by Paul in Romans 4). All the acts shown were righteous deeds that God rewarded. In not one of the cases in all of Hebrews 11 were any of the OT saints deemed as unbelievers. Paul is lauding the faith of believers. Yet for the Calvinist, we are supposed to believe that in Abraham, Paul is lauding the faith of an unbeliever, as according to his view of Romans 4, Abraham is only justified in Genesis 15:6. Paul in Hebrews 11 is speaking of faith that pleases God, and is a rewarder of those who seek him. Exactly in that context he puts Abraham right in the center. Notice, BTW, that Abraham is thus approaching God through grace, and faithfulness. God will reward meritoriously, according to Paul those who approach God via grace. That is exactly the Catholic view. Paul in Romans 4 can only be consistent with what he wrote in Hebrews 11. Paul knows very well that Abraham was already justified back in Genesis 12. Abraham did not approach God through law, where even one violation would condemn him.

To confirm even more that we know that Abram is justified in Genesis 12, we see in Heb. 11:8 it is written that Abraham "obeyed and went…" What does obedience bring to Paul? Hebrews 5:9 explains: "and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him." (also see Rom. 6:16) We thus see Abraham already justified years before Genesis 15. Paul here in Hebrews 11 shows what any honest reading of Genesis 12 through 14 shows, a justified man performing marvelous acts of faith in God. To say that Abraham was not justified during this time makes a mockery of Scripture, in order to desperately maintain a one time imputation theory.

c) Paul declares Abraham as accounted Righteous (Rom. 4:3, Gen. 15:6). For this to help the Protestant, Abraham should have believed in a forensic imputation of an alien righteousness. Is that what happened in Genesis 15:6? Abraham, through God's grace believes that God will provide a child for Abraham. This is a profound act of faith, indeed, but absolutely nothing in regards to merely trusting God as Savior for an alien righteousness being charged to one's account. Instead, it is God rewarding an act of faith done in God's grace. It is not something that God owes, but something that he does, as an act of God's mercy.

Romans 4:3, quotes Genesis 15:6 when it says: "For what does the scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'"

There is one vital Old Testament passage that uses the exact same language of Paul in relation to justification before God. It is about Phinehas, Psalm 106:29-31. There was abundant sexual sin and idolatry rampant. Phinehas did something to stop that:

29 they provoked the LORD to anger with their doings, and a plague broke out among them. 30 Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. 31 And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation for ever. "Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed, and that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever." Reckoned to him as righteousness, the exact language that Paul uses in Romans 4:3. Is this an external imputation? No! This shows that Phinehas was a righteous man who did a righteous action, (actually killing fornicators, cf. Num. 25:25-30).. As a result of this action, God reckoned him as righteous and stopped the plague. He recognized a righteous action by a righteous man who was already justified. Exactly the same as Abraham. There is no hint of a merely external righteousness getting imputed to Phinehas' account.

Why do Protestant exegetes ignore the only exactly parallel passage to Gen. 15:6 and Rom. 4:3? Because it destroys their argument. In fact Psalm 106:31 so much destroys the Protestant position on Rom. 4 and Genesis 15 that John Murray writes: "If Paul had appealed to Psalm 106:31 in the matter of justification, the justification of the ungodly, then the case of Phinehas would have provided an inherent contradiction and would have demonstrated justification by a righteous and zealous act.." John Murray, Commentary on Romans, Vol. 1, p. 131. Psalm 106:30-31 refers to the incident recorded in Numbers 25 in which the men of Israel had sex with Moabite women. The Lord ordered Moses to kill them. Phinehas grabbed a spear and killed a man and woman who were engaging in this sexual sin. God tells Moses that Phinehas was zealous for God's honor, and that as a result of his act Phinehas turned God's wrath away. This is the act that Phinehas is accounted for righteousness. Nothing about an alien righteousness. Phinehas is not merely considered righteous, but this righteousness is inherent. Phinehas' act is a righteous act where God rewards faithfulness. In the same way, Genesis 15 is where God rewards Abraham as he continues in the faithfulness that he has had for years. Abraham continues to be justified.

Of course, Abraham's justification continues in Genesis 22. James specifically says that Abraham is justified by works (James 2:21-24). To the idea that he is only 'showing' his justification before men based on v. 18, is James answer, that what he is showing is that he is justified by works (v. 21). (done in faithfulness, and under the auspices of God's grace). Of course Abraham was all by himself and there was no justification before man, when he offered Isaac on the altar. His continuing justification is dependent upon Abraham's actions. Works don't merely qualify the faith that he has, they complete the faith (v.23), and is necessary to be efficacious for salvation. Just as Paul writes "If you have all the faith to move mountains but do not have love, it is worth nothing," (1 Cor. 13:2), James writes that what separates you from salvation, is if you lack works (James 2:21-26). Again, for a closer look at James and Abraham please see this.

Thus, the Bible is clear that in Romans 4, it is absolutely impossible to say that the justification talked of about Abraham, in any way possible could be a one time imputation of forensic righteousness imputed to Abraham's account, and therefore he was set for life, and all the other stuff was merely fruit. Instead, it shows justification to be an ongoing process.

The problem is that this view not only distorts the life of Abraham a few verses earlier, but also the life of David, which Paul uses as an example to prove in verses 6-8 what he is saying in Rom. 4:4-5. In v. 6 Paul writes, 'So Also' to say that David is saved in the same way as Abraham. To prove his point Paul quotes a Psalm of David from which he elucidates his theology. Let us examine the background and the context of the psalm that Paul is quoting from. The Protestant understanding must be that here is where David is justified, and his righteousness is credited (forensically imputed alien righteousness). Since this is the point of David's justification, this must be the first and only time that David is justified. Anything done before this point of time, David is an unregenerate man, and anything after Psalm 32 David is merely for the fruit of justification, or sanctification. If David had already been justified beforehand, and here is again justified, defacto it shows that justification is a process. Any response must take this into account:

Psalm 32:1 "Blesses is he whose transgressions are forgiven, who sins are covered. Blessed is the man who sin the Lord does not count against him." David is rejoicing here, (as in Psalm 51) that God is here forgiving him for his sins of adultery and slaying of Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. The time of the events that he is getting forgiveness for is 2 Samuel 11-12.

An important question that concerns us, is this the time of David's one and only justification, as a Protestant of the Calvinist leaning must hold? Everything done before this time he is an unbeliever, and everything after is only the 'fruit' of his justification, supposedly. On the contrary, David since his youth knew and loved the Lord. He sang Psalms to God to soothe Saul. He was not unregenerate then. In 1 Samuel 13:14, years before 2 Sam. 11-12 and Psalm 32, David is called a "man after God's own heart" a distinction given to NO OTHER MAN IN THE BIBLE. And yet, we are supposed to believe that David was an unregenerate man then in order to maintain the one-time imputation theory? In his youth, David called on the Lord to defeat the mighty Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Was he merely a pagan then, according to the one-time imputation theory? David showed his love for God by dancing with all his might (2 Sam. 6:14). The Psalms prior to the time of Psalm 32 were also written well before the events of 2 Sam. 11-12, which were the occasion for Psalm 32. This shows indeed that David was a true child of God before the events of Psalm 32. Otherwise, we would have Psalms written before the time of Psalm 32 by an unregenerate pagan who had no real relationship with God. It would be quite unlikely that the Psalms were written by unbelievers.

Although David earlier in his life was a true child of God, he did something to make himself ungodly. He committed major sin (per. 1 John 5:17, Gal. 5:19, 1 Cor. 6:9, Gal. 5:5) with Bathsheba and Uriah to make him become ungodly (2 Sam.11-12). He disinherited himself. That is how he could be called ungodly coming into Psalm 32 (and thus explains how he was termed ungodly in Romans 4:5). How was he forgiven? By sincere repentance given in the grace of God as so heartfelt to put it in Psalms 32 and 51. He did not earn his way back through law, as Paul clearly states one can not do. In this state of mortal sin, he responds to God's grace and is rejustified. He is put back in God's grace. However, it is not David earning his way back into God's grace, not as an employee from an employer. It is a Father-Son relationship. Paul shows that works do not earn his grace back, but his justification is won back by repentance, which is the very point of Rom. 4:4-8. Paul's sees David's acknowledgment and confession of his sin, a total reliance and recognition of God's beneficence, grace and mercy, reflecting the Catholic position. He is here credited as righteousness. The fact of David's earlier Godly life, with the fact that he put himself outside of God's grace, and the fact that his repentance led him to justification shows several things fatal to the Calvinist understanding of justification:

1) The language used here is not meant to imply a forensic view of a one time justification. David already was a believer well before this point in time.

2) David, although he was quite clearly a believer who loved God with all his heart, fell out of God's grace by mortal sin. That is why he needs to be forgiven to be put back in God's grace. David's grace-driven repentance puts him back into God's favor.

3) The crediting of righteousness is based not on an acceptance of an alien righteousness. His repentance was needed to get back into God's righteousness. When one is in this state, then one has a Father-Son relationship at the heart of justification. Then, under the auspices of grace, out of love, the Son responds with works of love that is necessary for ultimate justification (Rom. 2:6-13, 6, 8:1-39, Gal. 5-6) and one becomes a doer of the law in the realm of God's grace.

4) The next question that must be faced is when it says that God justifies the ungodly, does it mean that the grounds of one's justification before God is separate from an infusion of grace, as Calvinists maintain.? For a fuller examination of this specific issue, and other aspects of David's justification on Romans 4 see the following: Romans 4:4-8: Proof for Justification by Faith Alone?

5) Most importantly to the issue that we are addressing, it shows that justification is a process. David we know was justified before 2nd Sam. 11-12. However, his sin made him ungodly, and he had to be fully cleansed. He was out of grace, and the repentance by him showed in Psalm 32/51 had to be done by him in order to get back into God's grace. The fact that this repentance was necessary to get back into God's grace shows that justification is a process, and not a one time thing, so foundational to the theologies of the likes of Calvin, Buchanan, Sproul, and James White. Paul knows these things about David's life before Psalm 32.

Paul is appropriating the lives of Abraham and David specifically to how we are justified. We can not merely say well that is the Old Testament way of justification, because Paul specifically uses the lives of Abraham and David to show how one is justified today. Justification is a process, not a one-time event. Paul's use of the Old Testament to show how we are saved in the New Covenant, not only does not show the errors of Catholicism, he perfectly shows how it fits the Catholic view, and destroys the Calvinist view of a one time imputation of righteousness.

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© 1999Romans 4 - Justification, Abraham and David -Imputation or Process? ....By Matt1618. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.
This article created, August 11, 1999