Some Thoughts on Romans 4
I’m feeling a little cray cray, like I want to get all exegetical up in here. And stumbling across PCA pastor Nick Batzig’s post, “Abraham and the Time Frame of Justification,” provides me with a perfect opportunity to do so. Plus, some of you have been nagging me to delve back into Romans, so. Concerning the issue of “eschatological justification,” Nick writes:
The most significant passage of Scripture in this regard (and yet one that has been often overlooked) is Romans 4:10. In the context of chapter 4, the apostle Paul explains the nature of justification by faith alone from the example of Abraham. Repeatedly citing the locus classicus, Gen. 15:16, Paul develops his argumentation based on the application of the covenant sign to Abraham. In one short passage, Paul posits justification at a specific point in time. He asks, “How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised?” Paul replied with a unhesitating, “It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” The apostle eliminates the possibility of understanding justification as occurring after Abraham was circumcised. Our Reformed and Confessional statements on the doctrine of justification insist that it is a once-for-all ”act of God’s free grace” (WSC. 33). There are actually quite a number of implications that we can take away from this observation. . . .
The first thing I would point out (and I’ve argued it before) is that I think Nick is spot on in his identification of Paul’s overall argument in this chapter: The apostle is seeking to demonstrate that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. I also agree that Abraham was justified “at a specific point in time” (although I think this works against Nick’s theology of justification, as I will show in a moment). I would point out, however, that Nick moves seamlessly from what Paul said to what the Westminster Divines said, with nary a justification (ahem) for that move. He goes from citing Paul himself to reminding his readers that “our Reformed and Confessional statements on the doctrine of justification insist that it is a once-for-all ‘act of God’s free grace’ (WSC. 33).” Of course, nothing in this passage hints at such an idea, but we’ll get to that eventually. Nick then highlights four points that he feels derive from the passage he is considering:
(1) The Jews do not have any special privileges above the Gentiles after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
(2) Abraham was justified at a particular point in time, as is true of those who believe after Abraham. He was not counted righteous after circumcision but before he was circumcised. We must make clear that there is no future imputation of righteousness. Was Abraham justified while circumcised or while uncircumcised? Not while circumcised but while uncircumcised.
While it is true that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, it is a non-sequitur to therefore insist, as Nick does with no argumentation, that subsequent instances of justification were impossible. In fact, not only does James explicitly say that “Abraham was justified when he offered Isaac” in Gen. 22 — citing the same passage Paul cites here in Rom. 4 (Gen. 15:6) — but this very text is proof itself that justification is not once-for-all. If, as Nick insists, justification is a non-repeatable and once-for-all event, and if it happened for Abraham in Gen. 15, then all the history of Abraham’s life from his call to leave Ur onward is the history of an unjustified pagan. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews cited the response of this unjustified pagan as the example par excelence of the faith without which it is impossible to please God (11:6).
(3) Personal Law-keeping played absolutely no role in Abraham’s justification. In fact, the law came 430 years after Abraham (Gal. 3:17). It is completely out of the question when it comes to Abraham’s right standing before God. This is no insignificant detail, as Paul consistently takes us back to Abraham as the example of the “justified man.” It is by faith alone that Abraham was accepted as righteous before God. “Abraham believed in the LORD and He accounted it to Him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
Nick makes a couple mistakes here. He seems to assume that “personal law-keeping” can only happen after the giving of the Mosaic law on Mt. Sinai (a position that is so easy to refute it’s barely worth the effort). But more importantly, Nick assumes here that because Abraham’s initial justification occurred irrespective of any works of sacrifice or love, that therefore there could not have been a subsequent increase in justification that did in fact take such works of sacrifice and love into account. And as I mentioned above, since James explicitly says that Abraham was justified when he offered up Isaac, I’d say that such a view is more than warranted (which makes Nick’s point completely false). Plus, it’s head-spinningly ironic that Nick can say that “it is by faith alone that Abraham was accepted as righteous before God. ‘Abraham believed in the LORD and He accounted it to Him for righteousness’ (Gen. 15:6),” when James cites that very passage to show that “Abraham was justified by works, and not by faith alone” (2:21).
(4) Abraham was not regenerated or justified by the sacrament. Abraham believed and was justified 14 years prior to receiving the sign and seal of the Covenant. The argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans 4:9-12 is one of the strongest against any sort of sacramentalism. This does not mean that the sacraments are empty signs–as Paul goes on to explain that the circumcision that Abraham received after he believed and was justified was a “sign and a seal of the righteousness of faith.” The sacrament signifies and seals God’s promises to His people.
Implicit in Nick’s argument here is the assumption that what was true about circumcision’s inability to justify is necessarily true of “any sort of sacramentalism,” a position he assumes but does not argue for. The underlying presupposition is that when it comes to the sacraments, the New Covenant is no better than the Old, and its sacraments are just as powerless to effect spiritual change as they always were in times past. Given the New Testament’s clear statements about baptism (“be baptized for the forgiveness of sins”; “Be baptized and wash away your sins”; “As many of you as were baptized have been united to Christ,” etc.), I would maintain that drawing a one-to-one correspondence between circumcision and baptism is something that needs to be defended rather than merely assumed, for it betrays a radically under-realized eschatology.
I’d like to conclude with a brief sketch of what I think Paul is actually trying to say in Romans 4. As I indicated above, Paul’s basic point in this chapter is to demonstrate to his fellow Jews that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. His reason for insisting on this is quite simple: If Abraham did not need circumcision to be justified, then neither do his children under the New Covenant (which is why he mentions circumcision like ten times in this chapter). This is precisely the apostle’s point when he speaks of the one who does not work. His phrase “the one who does not work, but trusts in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” is perfectly parallel with what he says a few verses later: “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness while he was uncircumcised.” The purpose in bringing this up is not to demonstrate the impotence of baptism or to eliminate the possibility of subsequent increases in justification, but simply to show that Abraham, by initially being justified without having been circumcised, is now “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (v. 11).
In short, this chapter has nothing to do with the role of Spirit-wrought works in justification (although Paul does address that issue elsewhere), and neither is it about what baptism doesn’t accomplish. It’s about one thing and one thing only: When God initially justified Abraham, he did it prior to the work of circumcision, instead counting Abraham’s faith as his righteousness. This means that Abraham’s spiritual offspring may be justified without circumcision as well (and without any works of the law, for that matter). To borrow the language of Galatians, the New has come and the Spirit has fallen, and therefore we have reached the age of maturity and no longer need the Mosaic babysitter.