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