A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 4: 1-8. a).
Abraham was not justifies by works.
Paul begins with a question: ‘What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?’ (1, RSV). The NIV omits the two words *kata sarka*, ‘according to the flesh’. And it is uncertain in the Greek text whether they are intended to qualify the verb ‘discovered’ or the noun ‘our forefather’. If the former is correct, Paul’s question is: ‘What shall we say that Abraham has gained by his natural powers unaided by the grace of God?’ But the best manuscripts support a different order of words, by which *kata sarka* qualifies Abraham himself as ‘our ancestor by natural descent’ (REB). This seems to be right and may well be intended to prepare the way for Paul’s later statements that Abraham is ‘the father of us all’ (16) and ‘our father’ (17) if we share his faith.
Responding to his own question about Abraham (1), Paul immediately sets in antithesis the wrong answer (2), namely that he was *justified by works*, and the correct answer (3), namely that he *believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness*. The first reason the very concept of Abraham having been justified by works is so fiercely repudiated by Paul is that this would have given him *something to boast about*, or might have appeared to. But Paul will allow his imaginary interlocutor to go no further. He interrupts indignantly: *but not before God* (2). Some may boast before their fellows, and others may entertain boastful thoughts in secret. But Paul rejects any possibility of human beings boasting before God, either creatures before their Creator or sinners before their Saviour. Whether the subject of boasting is national privilege or personal piety makes no difference. Both forms of boasting are expressions of self-righteousness, and to suppose that the unrighteous can establish their own righteousness before God is to think the unthinkable.
Then there is a second reason for Paul’s denial that Abraham was justified by works, and that is the text of Scripture. *What does the Scripture say?* he asks (3). Consider the implications of this apparently innocent question. First, the singular form (‘the Scripture’), like our ‘the Bible’, indicates that Paul recognizes the existence of this entity, not just a library of books but a unified body of inspired writings. Secondly, his quasi-personification of Scripture as being able to speak indicates that he draws no distinction between what Scripture says and what God says through it. Indeed, throughout the New Testament we seldom know whether to translate *legei*, when it has no subject, as ‘he says’ or ‘it says’. Thirdly instead of the present tense, ‘What does the Scripture say?’ Paul could have used the perfect tense and asked ‘What was written?’ or ‘What stands written?’ (*gegraptai*). For ‘the Scripture’ means ‘what is written’, and in asking what it ‘says’, the apostle indicates that through the written text the living voice of God may be heard. Fourthly, to ask the question is to turn to Scripture for authoritative guidance. It implies that, as with Jesus and his critics, so with Paul and his, in every controversy Scripture was acknowledged as the final court of appeal.
In answer to his query as to what Scripture says, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6: ‘*Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness*’ (3). He then proceeds in verses 4-5 to draw out the significance of the verb ‘credited’ (*logizomai*), which he here uses for the first time, and uses five times in six verses (3-8). It means to ‘credit’ or ‘reckon’, and when used in a financial or commercial context, it signifies to put something to somebody’s account, as when Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus: ‘If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.’ (Phm. 18) There are, however, two different ways in which money an be credited to our account, namely as wages (which are earned) or as a gift (which is free and unearned), and the two are necessarily incompatible. *Now when a man works his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation* (4), literally, ‘not according to grace (*charis*) but according to debt (*opheilema*)’. This is emphatically not so with our justification, however. In this case, talk of ‘work’, ‘wages’, ‘debt’ or ‘obligation’ is entirely inappropriate. Instead, *to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness* (5).
The contrast between these two kinds of ‘crediting’ should now be clear. In the context of business, those who work have their wages credited to them as a right, a debt, an obligation, for they have earned them. In the context of justification, however, to those who do not work, and therefore have no right to payment, but who instead put their trust in God who justifies the ungodly (a marvellous phrase we have already considered), their *faith is credited* to them *as righteousness*, that is, they are given righteousness as a free and unearned gift of grace by faith. Paul cannot be teaching that faith and righteousness are equivalents, and that when righteousness is lacking faith is acceptable as a substitute. For that would make faith a meritorious work and play into the hands of the Rabbis, who thought of Abraham’s ‘faith’ as his ‘faithfulness’. If anything is clear in the antithesis between verse 4 and verse 5, it is that the crediting of faith as righteousness is a free gift, not an earned wage, and that it happens not to those who work but to those who trust, and indeed who trust the God who, far from justifying people because they are godly, actually justifies them when they are ungodly. This emphasis on faith (*Abraham believed God*) plainly shows, then, that God’s ‘crediting faith as righteousness’ is ‘not a rewarding of merit but a free and unmerited decision of divine grace’. Faith is not an alternative to righteousness, but the means by which we are declared righteous.
Tomorrow Rom:4:1-8 a). Abraham was not justified by works (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans: Christ the Controversialist. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.