Before the Council of Trent, Ruffinus, Basil, Tertullian, Hilary of Poitiers, Bernard of Clarivaux, Aquinas, Augustine, Ambrosiaster, Chrysostom, and others had no problem elucidating ideas most clearly represented today by Reformed theologians. In Chapter 4, Paul substantiates his case that righteousness comes by faith and that works are completely irrelevant when God imputes righteousness to a believer.

Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.

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4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

Abraham has found that he has nothing to boast about, because he was not justified by works. Even though some argue from James 2 that Abraham WAS justified by works, this would contradict what Paul says here and the next few verses. We need to interpret the Scripture as a whole consistently.

3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

The Scripture is clear; Abraham was credited righteousness as a result of his belief and not of works.

Belief in what? Simply trust in God just about anything does not save. We can be Deists and trust God to make the sun rise tomorrow. Such trust does not save.

Abraham was saved because he believed what God told him:

This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir…Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be (Gen 15:4-5).

Why is it significant to believe that God will give him an heir and through the heir, many descendants? It is because through the descendant shall come the Christ, and His bride will be made up of innumerable descendants.

Origen concurs:

Abraham’s faith contained within it the form and image of this great mystery. For when he was ordered to sacrifice his only son, he believed that God would raise him from the dead. Moreover, he did not believe this of Isaac only, but also of his seed, which is Christ (Commentary on Romans quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI, p. 124)

So does Ambrosiaster:

What did Abraham believe? He believed that he would have a descendant, a son in whom all the nations would be justified by faith while they were still uncircumcised as Abraham was (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI, p. 115).

Paul substantiates this by saying that this event occurred “not while circumcised, but uncircumcised” (Rom 4:10), showing that the righteousness was credited before any work was done to verify its existence. If Abraham were to die right then he would have been righteous before God.

We have good reason to believe that this was a one time event in which Abraham was declared righteous, not an ongoing event:

An eternal rest remains to those who in the present life have wrestled legitimately which rest is given not according to the debt of works in way of just retribution but is bestowed to the grace of an abundantly bountiful God to who have hoped in Him (Basil, Homily on Psalm 104).

In Basil’s theology, righteousness is something that has already been attained, which is why it can remain in those who work out their salvation in fear and trembling. So, when Abraham believed God and had hope in His promise, he entered the rest that is spoken about in Heb 4. When we live by faith, this rest remains. We do not grow more rested, or more justified. It is a completed state.

Other Early Church Fathers taught this. Tertullian wrote:

Accordingly it is patience which is both subsequent and antecedent to faith. In short, Abraham believed God, and was accredited by Him with righteousness; but it was patience which proved his faith, when he was bidden to immolate his son, with a view to (I would not say the temptation, but) the typical attestation of his faith. But God knew whom He had accredited with righteousness (On Patience, Chapter 6).

Chrysostom wrote:

For Abraham also, when he had stretched forth his affections towards God and set before Him his fixed resolution,what else had he need of? Nothing: but “he believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” ( Gen. xv. 6.) But Faith [comes] of a sincere will. He offered up his son, and though he did not slay him, he received a recompense as if he had slain him, and though the work was not done the reward was given (Homily 34 on Hebrews).

Chrysostom’s understanding of the event in Gen 15:6 (Rom 4:3) is that because Abraham was righteous by faith, He was in need of absolutely nothing subsequently. The proof that Chrysostom enlists in support is the time Abraham offered Isaac for a sacrifice. Clearly, Chrysostom understood that the later work was just the legitimate outpouring of a sincere will which had in fact already made Abraham righteous to begin with.

This is a point that Hilary of Poitiers made in On the Trinity:

We cannot, then, doubt that the knowledge of God depends on the occasion and not on any change on His part: by the occasion being meant the occasion, not of obtaining but of declaring knowledge, as we learn from His words to Abraham, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him, for now I know that thou fearest thy God, and hast not withheld thy beloved son, for My sake. God knows now, but that now I know is a profession of previous ignorance: yet it is not true, that until now God did not know the faith of Abraham, for it is written, Abraham believed in God, and it was counted to him for righteousness, and therefore this now I know marks the time when Abraham received this testimony, not when God began to know. Abraham had proved, by the sacrifice of his son, the love he bore to God, and God knew it at the time He spoke: but as we cannot suppose that He did not know before, we must for this reason suppose that He took knowledge of it then because He spoke (Book IX, Chap 64).

This is why Bernard of Clarivaux writes that God gives the fruits of good works (i.e. magnifies a man) who He already made righteous (presumably by faith:)

Besides, what are called our merits may be properly described as seed plots of hope, incentives of love, tokens of a hidden predestination, foretastes of future felicity, the way by which we reach the kingdom, not the cause of our kingship. In a word, not them who He found righteous, but them whom He made righteous, did God also magnify (Concerning Grace and Free Will, trans. Watkins W. Williams in 1920, p. 91).

It is worth noting that Abraham was righteous more than 400 years before the existence of the Mosaic Law. So, faith was always the intended means to make men righteous.

4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.

Paul obviously disallows that any work, either wrought in holiness of heart in the faith or apart from the faith can add to our justification in any way. If it did, then God would justify us as a due wage for our works on some level.

Of course, the Church historically has not understood justification in this way. The earliest extra-Biblical writing there is, 1 Clement, written by Clement the Bishop of Rome states that:

And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen (32:4).

It is for this reason that a man can be justified instantly, because belief is instant while works are not. Again, the Early Church has understood this:

Through faith without the works of the Law this thief was justified because for that purpose the Lord inquired not what he had previously wrought nor yet waited for his performance of some work after he should have believed but when about to enter into Paradise he took him unto himself for a companion justified through his confession alone. I can scarcely persuade myself that there can exist any work which may demand the remuneration of God as a debt (Ruffinus, quoting Origen in Epist ad Rom iii).

Oh the great loving-kindness of God! For the righteous were many years in pleasing Him: but what they succeeded in gaining by many years of well-pleasing , this Jesus now bestows on you in a single hour. For if you shall believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved, and shall be transported into Paradise by Him who brought in there the robber. And doubt not whether it is possible; for He who on this sacred Golgotha saved the robber after one single hour of belief, the same shall save you also on your believing (Catechetical Lecture 5, Chap 10).

5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,

In view of the law of nature and Mosaic Law just discussed, Paul’s example of Abraham shows that man has always been made righteous by faith and not by works. Abraham did not have the Mosaic Law, so he would have been under the law of nature.

Aquinas comments:

Then (v. 5) he shows how the eternal award is related to faith, saying, but to one who does not work outward works, for example, because he does not have time to work, as in the case of one who dies immediately after baptism, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, namely, in God, of whom he says below (8:33): “It is God who justifies,” his faith is reckoned, i.e., faith alone without outward works, as righteousness, so that in virtue of it he is called just and receives the reward of justice, just as if he had done the works of justice, as he says below (10:10): “Man believes with his heart and so is justified,” according the purpose of the grace of God.

Even under the law of nature, Paul says that if Abraham was justified by doing the good work God told him to do, it would be a payment for such work. Paul excludes any such notion that man is repaid for his own works in a positive sense. Catholics would view this as incorrect, because we are judged according to our deeds. However, there is no contradiction in God not crediting us as righteous because it is “what is due” to us for our works, and Him judging us by our works.

This is because it is totally consistent that God credits those who believe in Him, though they be ungodly as a whole and break the law of nature or the Mosaic Law, with righteousness if they live by faith. Therefore, the judgement of works condemns those who trying to be right with God by their works cannot meet God’s perfect standards, but it exalts those who humble themselves and trust in God. This work of belief, though really not a work at all, is the lifeforce behind the life of deeds which God will credit as righteousness in a man. So, it is never the deeds themselves that result in God’s approval upon judgement, but the faith that creates the deeds.

Augustine observes:

When someone believes in Him who justifies the impious, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer, as David too declares that person blessed whom God has accepted and endowed with righteousness, independently of any righteous actions [Rom 4:5-6]. What righteousness is this? The righteousness of faith, preceded by no good works, but with good works as its consequence (Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, Paragraph 6).

Some will point to the Scripture and argue “Abraham our father [was] justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar” (James 2:22). Taken out of context, this obviously contradicts both what Paul wrote and also how the Church has historically understood Romans.

However, it is important to remind ourselves that James is not speaking of another way to be saved, as the Scripture excludes “works, so no one may boast” (Eph 2:9). Instead, he is merely commenting that good works are the consequence of real faith. Or, in other words, people that really believe something put their money where their mouth is.

The first interpretation of the passage in Church History concurs with the one we just gave. Clement writes:

Abraham, who was called the friend of God, proved himself faithful by becoming obedient to the words of God….For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself as a sacrifice (1 Clement, Chapters 10, 31).

Bede comments:

Abraham had such a vibrant faith in God that he was ready to do whatever God wanted him to. This is why his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, and it was in order that we might know the full meaning of this that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son. It was by his perfect accomplishment of God’s command that the faith which he had in his heart was shown to be perfect (Concerning the Epistle of St James).

Cyril of Alexandria comments:

What can we say to those who insist that Abraham was justified by works because he was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac at the altar?…Abraham piously believed that all things are possible with God and so exercised this faith…So even if Abraham was also justified by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this must be regarded as an evident demonstration of a faith which was already very strong (Explanation of the Letter to the Romans, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI, p. 110).

We may safely conclude that it was “[b]y faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Heb 11:17). Passing the test did not justify him, but because he was justified he passed the test.

6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

7 Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,

And whose sins have been covered.

8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”

After Rom 4:5, Paul quotes David in Ps 32 to support the notion that we just saw so clearly explained: God justifies the ungodly that believe in Him. This we can see is because those who are blessed have had lawless deeds and sins forgiven of them. Ps 32:2 goes a step further and even shows how upon judgement, those who are blessed are not judged according to their own sinful works, as their sin is not taken into account. How is this possible? “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13) because “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Is 53:5). He took the punishment we deserved, because God justifies the ungodly that believe in Him.

Some Catholic apologists point to Ps 32:5 as proof that what Paul was speaking of was David being forgiven for his sins because he partook in the sacrament of Confession. However, this does not make any sense in the context of what Paul is talking about in Rom 4. Paul explicitly states how Abraham, before doing anything, was made righteous by faith.

David is specifically quoted in support of this notion, particularly that in Rom 4:4 concerning God justifying the ungodly. If we were to take Paul’s citing of Ps 32 as evidence of David doing something Godly (confession) in which to thereby be justified, it undoes Paul’s whole argument. We should be careful to preserve what Paul is trying to actually substantiate instead of explaining away his conclusions.

9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised;

The blessing in view in verse 9 is that found in verses 7 and 8. It is the blessing from God in spite of one’s impious deeds. Self-righteous Jews would argue that David’s righteousness is only available to him because he is a repentant Jew with the benefit of circumcision. Paul now connects verses 7 and 8 to verse 3: when was Abraham made righteous? Obviously before he was circumcised. Paul’s reasoning is that righteousness therefore comes from belief and not from being a member of the Jewish people via circumcision. This connects later with what Paul writes in Gal 3:7–”those who are of faith…are sons of Abraham.”

11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them,

While there is much speculation concerning the symbolism of circumcision, Paul simply calls it a “sign.” There is nothing mysterious about the word in Greek, though it is usually a euphemism for a miracle (i.e. “show us a sign that you are this or that!”) So, a sign merely verifies the veracity of something in its usage in Greek. Therefore, circumcision is a physical sign that is a reminder of the righteousness that existed by faith. The circumcision itself does not make one faithful.

In the same way, baptism also does not make one faithful. The early Church beginning in the third century started teaching the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. It was so popular, it was almost the universal teaching of the Church and it has never been explicitly taught against until the Protestant Reformation. However, it was at the same time taught that baptism by water WAS NOT an absolute requirement for salvation.

Aquinas, summing up the matter, wrote in Article 68, Paragraph 2 of Book IV of Summa Theologica:

[T]he sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire: for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism. And such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of “faith that worketh by charity,” whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen: “I lost him whom I was to regenerate: but he did not lose the grace he prayed for.”

So, Jews would have viewed circumcision very much in the same way as Catholics view baptism–the sacrament in effect can make someone righteous. However, even if we hold to the sacramental view, Paul obviously asserts that the outward sacrament itself is meant to be a sign of a spiritual reality, and apart from the spiritual reality it is void: “if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (Rom 2:25). In the same way, if one rejects Christ, one’s outward baptism in the faith has become unbaptism.

Paul says that Abraham received this seal for a reason: so that he might become the father of those uncircumcised men who believe. Why does Paul say this? The best we can gather is that Paul believes that the seal of circumcision is a reminder to Jews that Abraham was righteous before actually receiving the procedure, and so gentiles who are likewise uncircumcised can realize the same righteousness.

12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.

Paul simply adds that Abraham is obviously the father of the Jews, who are the circumcised, as well. He takes the opportunity to reiterate that this also includes the faithful gentiles.

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified;

Paul asserts that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father to many nations (Gen 17:5) was not through the Law. This is obvious, because the Law did not exist. Therefore, it is through the righteousness of his faith when he believed the Lord that he would have many descendants (Gen 15:5-6) that God fulfills His promise to Abraham. Paul opposes the Jews when they claim that the Law testifies that they are the only rightful heirs of God’s promises. Why? It would invalidate God’s promise made to Abraham that by his faith he would be the father of many nations.

15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

This verse seems out of place, but it appears that Paul is reminding the audience of what he already taught in Rom 3:20 that “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” So, the Law and ordinances in it, such as circumcision, have one sole purpose: to remind us that we are unrighteous and under God’s wrath apart from there being a savior for us. The comment that “where there is no law, there also is no violation” serves as a reminder that self-righteous men shouldn’t boast in the Law; they should wish there wasn’t one! Even the law of nature condemns man. Aquinas observes this when commenting on this verse:

Yet every sinner can be called a transgressor, inasmuch as he transgresses the natural law: “I have accounted all the sinners of the earth transgressors” (Ps 119:119). However, it is more grievous to transgress at once the law of nature and the written law than the law of nature alone.

Therefore, where there is law, there is violation. It does not justify man like faith can, because it cannot.

16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,

Verse 16 essentially recapitulates verses 12 and 13. It reiterates salvation by faith, and not of the Law which cannot save as discussed in verse 15.

17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.

Indeed, Abraham is the father of all us faithful because God promised that he would be “a father of many nations.” This same Abraham is presently in the presence of God whom he has believed. Though this is not the thrust of the verse, this does denounce the false doctrine of soul-sleep. The reference to God giving life to the dead and calling into being which does not exist are references to God making faithless men faithful.

18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.”19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.

Verse 17 proves to be a brief aside from the thrust of Paul’s point: Abraham lived by faith as evident in his works. He sought to have children though his wife should have been infertile, ultimately not wavering so that he “was able also to perform” (i.e. do the works that are the result of true faith.)

22 Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.

This is simply a bad translation. The Greek rendering is identical to Rom 4:3 and the literal translation is, “Therefore, [Abraham believed God] and it was credited to him as righteousness.” The word “also” just makes the sentence confusing. So, while Abraham did good works, Paul simply takes this to mean that his faith was genuine. Therefore, this faith was credited to him as righteousness.

Cyril of Jerusalem comments:

Abraham was justified not by works but by faith. For although he had done many good things, he was not called a friend of God until he believed, and every one of his deeds was perfected by faith (Catechetical lectures 5.5).

23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,

This whole episode about Abraham in Genesis (and likewise in Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and James) was not written just to show us what happened for Abraham’s sake. It is to be instructive for all of those who believe that Christ rose from the dead.

25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

Jesus being delivered for our transgressions saves us from the Law which brings about wrath (Rom 4:15), because he paid our penalty. He was raised for our justification, because those who are in union with Christ will raise with Christ to eternal life. This is speculative, and not within the scope of this epistle, but if the Church is one flesh with Christ (Eph 5:31-32) aren’t they accounted as one of the same upon judgement? So, if Christ lived a righteous life and can stand before the Father as just, aren’t all those literally one flesh with Christ identically righteous?

Catholics now reject that Christians are imputed Christ’s active obedience (i.e. His perfect righteousness) upon judgement. This was not always the case, as Athanasius wrote, “Hence the full accomplishment of the Law which was made through the first fruit [Jesus] must be imputed to the whole mass” (Athan Synops Sacr Script lib vii in Epist ad Rom Oper vol ii p 122). However, what does Christ’s raising have to do specifically with our justification if His righteousness does not play a role in justifying believers?

Aquinas writes:

And raised for our justification, i.e., to justify us by rising: “So that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4)…the Apostle says that Christ’s death, by which mortal life was extinguished in him, is the cause of extinguishing our sins. But his resurrection, by which he returns to a new life of glory, he calls the cause of our justification, by which we return to the new life of righteousness.

So, we must keep in the back of our minds: Are we justified because we are infused Christ’ righteousness as we walk “the new life of righteousness” instead of being justified on the basis of Christ’s works in His own body alone? We will return to this as we work through chapters 5 and 6.