The argument that St. Paul makes in Romans 4:1-9 is at the center of the debate between Catholics and Protestants. I’m gonna give a light commentary on how a Catholic might read these verses, and show how the Protestant exegesis is not the only deducible meaning. At the outset, it should be recalled that the specific context of St. Paul is the early dispute between Christian Judaism and the Gentile mission. The former held that for the Gentiles to be justified, or “saved,” (i.e. partaking of the saving benefits of the seed of Abraham), they had to follow the Torah of Moses, of which physical circumcision is the outward sign of initiation for males. When Gentile believers were simply baptized, had hands laid upon them for the Holy Ghost, and were brought into the community of the redeemed, these Judaizers would cry out on how this was not sufficient to accomplish their inclusion into the plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. In addition to circumcision, these Gentiles were, according to the Judaizers, to maintain the holy feasts of the Torah, abstain from “unlawful” foods, and abide by all the 613 Mosaic commands. It simply was not enough to repent towards God, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and live a holy life following the greatest commandments to love God love your neighbor as yourself. St. Paul’s argument against this, en nuce, is that a new epoch has entered into history through the appearing of God’s Son in the Lord Jesus Christ which has rendered the Law of Moses both fulfilled and complete. The long-awaited Covenant with Israel prophesied about in Prophets had arrived where the Holy Spirit of God has been poured out into man to both cause him to walk in the law of the Lord as well as to give the full remission of sins. With this epochal shift, the Mosaic Law, as well as the physical sign of male circumcision, was no longer necessary in light of the new reality, unto which the former things were shadows. The initial error of the Judaizers was that they did not understand the full implications of the New Covenant, but their primary error was in thinking that what human beings do within the realm of works is what makes a man “just” in God’s eyes. The reason that outward circumcision and the commands of the Torah do not create justice in man is because of the fall of man into sin beginning with the first man. Adamic fallen nature is deprived of the powers and abilities of both soul and body to walk righteously before the eyes of God. The pure and holy commands of God will not liberate man from this prior problem. This is why Paul refers to the Mosaic Law as a “letter” written “on stones,” which “kills” and is, summarily, a “ministry of condemnation.” The new epoch in Christ has brought the Spirit who writes God’s will in the heart , or “tablets of flesh.” The letter written on stone is “outward” whereas the Spirit bringing our hearts alive to God is “inward.” This outward vs. inward dichotomy between the Law and the Spirit represents the dichotomy between the Old Covenant versus the New Covenant, between faith and works, and the condemnation of humanity versus the justification of humanity.
This framework gets to the crux of the situation Paul is dealing with in the early Judaizer controversy. The Gentile Christians were repenting, believing, getting baptized, receiving the Holy Spirit, walking in faith, hope, and love, obeying the law of Christ, and keeping the religious tradition delivered by Paul. Yet for the Judaizers, they were lacking the outward conformity to the Law of Moses, believing that all of the 613 commands of the Torah were needed to purify mankind and make him fit for the coming day of judgment. Paul’s answer to this is that just like Abraham, the father of the covenant, could walk in faith without the Torah purity, so also all men could walk in the same faith and be saved. This is where Paul is going in Romans 4, and his primary focus is the exclusion of the ritualism and sacramentalism of Judaism. His teaching on the grace of justification by faith is not to be shortened to merely exclude Jewish boundary markers, since the parameters of the justification of a human being go as wide as the fall of both Jews and Greeks under sin from Adam. But his focus is particular in Romans 4.
“What shall we say then that Abraham, our father, as pertaining to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God.” (v1-2)
St. Paul here is pointing to an example of the father of Israel to prove that justification before God is not by works, but is by faith alone. I am of the opinion that “faith alone” is entirely justified by the context, since Paul is simply making a dichotomy between human-working-to-earn-justification versus believing-to-gifted-justification. The way of works is antithetical to the way of faith. That’s intrinsic to St. Paul’s argument. Secondly, to “be justified” is clearly given a forensic meaning, which means that a human being shows up in God’s examination as passing all his standards for being holy and righteous. Third, St. Paul implies a hypothetical scenario where if Abraham had been justified by works, he would have utilized the state of being “in the flesh” (natural human operations) to achieve a right-standing before God. As such, he would have grounds to “glory” or “boast”. This last point is determinative in whether we have a Catholic or a Protestant reading of the rest of the passage. For a Protestant, St. Paul means by “works” any human working at all whatsoever. If we define “works” as any operation of the human being, the Protestant interpretation is absolutely forced, and one simply cannot uphold the Tridentine decrees on justification in the text of Romans 4:1-8. However, does St. Paul really mean here human works in all senses?
He can’t. We know this because elsewhere in the New Testament, St. Paul describes human works which, although being works, does not allow for boasting. In Rom 11:3-6, St. Paul recalls the cry of Elijah, “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life,” to which God responds, “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Paul then describes these folks who persevered in difficulty and shunned idolatry as a “remnant chosen by grace.” In other words, these 7,000 human beings whose hearts and actions were dead-set on being faithful to God through adversity, rejecting to bow the knee to Baal, do not put God in debt for their holy actions, but are categorized as persons who are “under grace.” These works cannot permit the doers to boast before God because God put it in them by grace. Therefore, it is possible to perform human works which do not evoke a create commercial debt upon God to justify the human worker according to strict justice. Now, God might reward these 7,000 men for their perseverance but only by a value that God put in them in the first place (maintaining the reality of a gift). There is the other famous citation of Paul : “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” (1 Cor 15:10). Paul describes his “labor” but that labor doesn’t oblige God with a debt of acceptance. Rather, he points to grace as the root of his human laboring.
Therefore, there is such a thing as human working which does not evoke the debt-wages construct and which does not permit the human worker to boast in his worthy earnings. But Paul seems to think that “works” in Roman 4 automatically entails the permission to boast. It must be, therefore, that when Paul asks, “If Abraham was justified by works, he would have reason to boast,” he does not mean by “works” every single kind of human working, but rather natural human working (or working in the flesh). If it were the case that “works” means any and all kinds of working, then Lutherans and Calvinists would have to say that at least the progressive sanctification of the human being in this life warrants the sanctified human to boast before God, since it is he who is working in the pursuit of holiness. But such is absurd.
“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” (v 3)
So here, Abraham does something which is credited in God’s judgment as “righteousness.” What does he do? He believed God’s word of promise for his seed to be as plentiful as the stars of the sky at night. Abraham’s believing in God’s promise is calculated by God to be righteousness. Now, since Protestants understand that Paul is excluding all human-working of any kind, the act of believing itself must be understood as functioning as a mere passive reception of God’s gift. Protestants speak of this as the “empty hand” of faith, because faith comes with the capacity to merely intake what God is offering by his grace. Is this how Paul understands it?
We know that he does not. In the first place, we know that Paul isn’t referring to the instantaneous conversion of Abraham, since he elsewhere (I hold to Pauline authorship of Hebrews) states that Abraham had both saving faith and the obedience that flows from it way back in Genesis 12 when God first called Abraham out of Ur (c.f. Heb 11:8-9). Therefore, whatever Abraham did in Gen 15:6 isn’t to be construed as Abraham’s act of freshly placing his faith in God. Abraham had been a man already converted to the Lord, and humbly seeking God’s plan for his life. Already then, what we have here is an act of the already converted Abraham which is credited in God’s judgment as an act of righteousness. This therefore excludes one of the Protestant interpretations that seeks to see this as Abraham’s moment of regeneration and entrance into the ordo saludis. It also excludes one of the Catholic interpretations that seeks to see this as Abraham’s initial justification. Both interpretations fail to match what is going on. It has to be something within the midst of Abraham’s converted life that God deems to be righteousness. In the second place, we know that Paul doesn’t intend by the aorist tense of the word “Ἐπίστευσε” (believed) to be simply one act in a person’s life. Later in the same chapter, Paul says that righteousness is credited to those who, with Abraham, embark on the “steps” (ἴχνεσι) of faith (4:12). This word ἴχνεσι is plural for footsteps, which means a course of life. This also indicates that, for Paul, what Abraham did, and which was counted as righteousness, is not simply an act of trust, but also the life that this trust entails. Proof of that comes in the later part of the chapter. Whereas Protestants wish to strictly limit the imputation of righteousness to a transfer by means of a passive-receptive trust in order to get the extra nos (alien) righteousness of Jesus Christ, Paul here is busy exalting the God-glorifying nature of the life of faith which grounds the imputation of righteousness. Paul writes:
“And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.” (4:19-22)
The crediting of righteousness to Abraham is founded, not upon an empty hand receiving a transaction from the righteousness of an alien subject, but rather upon the God-pleasing character of Abraham’s perseverance in the faith. One thinks of the life of the Hebrews for which Paul wrote his famous epistle. These were people who were Jewish Christians, but then were tempted to “draw back” from the faith. Paul writes:
“For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come with come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:36-39)
If only Protestants can read Romans 4 in light of the Book of Hebrews, they might see that Paul (who we think wrote Hebrews) can’t be excluding all human-working and all human-obedience as the condition for receiving the promise of God and everlasting salvation (i.e. the status of justification). Here, Paul says that it is only after having done the “will of God” through the virtue of “patience” that we might receive the promise of God. Whereas many Protestants read Romans 4 where faith and the promise are construed as being elements which are completely evacuated of human working and obedience as conditions for their full realization. Here, Paul uses the very same verse from Habakkuk 2:4 “the just shall live by faith” as referring to the everlasting salvation of the human being who perseveringly does the will of God. Imagine that. Heb 2:4 is thought to be the verse which in Romans and Galatians is supposed to teach this absolute evacuation of human works in all senses for the sole imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and yet here it is used to describe the conditional fulfillment of salvation on the basis of patient obedience to the will of God.
But Paul isn’t really that much divided in his thought between Hebrews 10 and Romans 4. It was already shown above that Paul isn’t referring to a mere act of trust in the promise but also the “footsteps” of the life of faith, and then towards the end of romans 4, the patience perseverance of Abraham’s faith as the ground upon which rests the imputation of righteousness! Now, Protestants usually recognize this and try to then say that Paul is simply describing the nature of saving faith, all the while maintaining that the free transaction of an alien righteousness is still there in the background. While that construal is a reasonable one, it doesn’t seem to be the best capture of what Paul is saying. Not only does Paul fail to just tell the reader that faith is the free instrument through which the transaction of Christ’s righteousness comes to the believer, he risks the Greek construction of saying that faith itself is credited as righteousness, and then goes on to describe the God-pleasing footsteps of Abraham’s faith as the grounds upon which he was calculated righteous in God’s eyes. That seems to betray the typical Protestant meaning of Romans 4. Naturally, if Luther or Calvin were to write Romans 4, it would look a whole lot different.
“Now to that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (4:4)
The principle here is straight forward. When someone puts in their work, they are owed the wages they earned by their work. Paul excludes this completely from the act of the justification of a sinner. But once again, Paul can’t be thinking that all human working evokes this debt-wages construct, as shown above. For Paul, the Christian obedience to God, elsewhere called slavery to righteousness, is not an affair which puts God in debt. It is all “under grace” (Rom 6:14). All the human working in this sense is operating on the grace of God, can’t ever merit the boast of man before the Lord. Now, the Protestant might here say that the activity of sanctification, or the progressive lifestyle of the Christian, doesn’t allow one to boast because it doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect as in the case of the status of justification. But this reasoning doesn’t follow because the only reason why one would be able to boast in themselves for achieving justification through works would be due to the fact that the cause rests alone with their earning it by themselves. Therefore, if the Christian obedience (Rom 6:14-21) were thought to be excluded from the grace of justification because it would render the human capable of boasting in his or her own worth, then by the same reasoning the same person would be able to boast for the status of his or her sanctification. But we know that Paul excludes all boasting from the totality of Christian life, even the meticulous obedience of the Christian life. And that is because the Christian obedience rests upon the gracious liberation that has come with the love of God in Jesus Christ and the ever-present power and influence of the Holy Spirit. Such excludes all human boasting.
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom 4:5)
It is also important to realize that for Paul, the possession of faith in God is not merely the instrument of salvation, but faith itself is a prior gift that God gives to the human being which then serves as an instrument of the fully efficacy of salvation. The perfect place to prove this is the first 2 chapters of 1st Corinthians. There, Paul tells the Corinthians that they have no reason to boast because everything they have in Christ Jesus, whether it is their faith in Christ, or in “righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30-31). These all come from God and not from themselves. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor 4:7). The Corinthians were on the verge of even making “faith” a reason to boast, as if believing in Christ were a matter of the flesh to one-up others with. Paul makes it clear that faith itself is a gift given by the merciful election of God. Faith being a saving gift itself, a priori to other salvific benefits, wholly excludes the kind of human working that would permit boasting before God as if one’s salvation was earned by themselves.
When Paul says “to him that worketh not,” it should be obvious by now that Paul is not excluding all human working altogether. He is excluding the kind of human working which would be the natural power and flesh of the human being earning a righteous and holy standing before God’s Law. Abraham’s life of faith, his refusal to stagger in doubt, his patience in following God’s plan for his life, and his refusal to draw back in unbelief were all activities which can be called “doing the will of God” as Paul says in Hebrews. However, this sort of doing God’s will is founded upon grace and the merciful forgiveness of God, and thus can apply to all men everywhere.
In conclusion, Paul is simply saying that the life of Abraham, which consisted of a life of fidelity, faithfulness, and obedience to God, was not a life which evokes the debt-wages construct in God’s eyes. Abraham’s strong faith was credited as righteousness, and this without any keeping of the Torah purity, and was even there before circumcision. Therefore, both uncircumcised Gentiles and circumcised Jews are to be credited with righteousness in the same exact way: faith. The virtue of faith also coincides with the interior grace given in the New Covenant, and which transcends cultural and worldly divisions. As elaborated in the book of Hebrews, all the Patriarchs of salvation walked in faith and obedience, and by it, were given the reward of future salvation. Contrary to this, the Protestant seems to want to make Paul’s argument in Romans 4 about a total evacuation of human works in all sense, even the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:1-4) and even the Christian righteousness lived out in this life. It devolves into a purely passive trust, i.e. an empty hand, into which plops the external righteousness of another. When Romans is read in its immediate context, and when it is further illuminated by the Pauline conception of faith and salvation in his book to the Hebrews, we see something far more akin to the Patristic understanding of salvation. Even in St. John Chrysostom, whose Romans commentary can almost appear to say precisely what Luther taught in his Lectures in Galatians, we find that Chrysostom is busy focused on the praise-worthiness of faith, as well as its close association to the virtue of charity towards God. Far be it from Chrysostom to suggest that the righteousness of faith is located far off in the person of Jesus and not in the mechanics of faith itself. In his commentary on Romans 4, Chrysostom states:
“For those things which the nature of the visible world tells him not of, in receiving these by faith in Him, he at once displays sincere love towards Him, and heralds His power clearly forth. Now this is the character of the noblest soul, and the philosophic spirit, and lofty mind. For to abstain from stealing and murdering is trifling sort of acquirement, but to believe that it is possible for God to do things impossible requires a soul of no mean stature, and earnestly affected towards Him; for this is a sign of sincere love. For he indeed honors God, who fulfils the commandments, but he does so in a much greater degree who thus follows wisdom (φιλοσοφὥν) by his faith. The former obeys Him, but the latter receives that opinion of Him which is fitting, and glorifies Him, and feels wonder at Him more than that evinced by works. For that glorying pertains to him that does aright, but this glorifies God, and lies wholly in Him.”
And so what does this all entail for the doctrine of justification according to the Tridentine decrees? We can certainly say that the absolute exclusion of all human working pertains to the beginning of salvation, as St. Paul states in Titus 3:6-8. However, Abraham’s justification in Romans 15 isn’t his beginning, but in the midst of his walk with God, and thus cannot be wholly without works. Yet, Paul does exclude works from it. We thus must interpret it as an exclusion of all works done from the natural power of the human being which calls up a debt-wages construct, making God owe Abraham for his earnings. That is wholly excluded, but the kind of faith in the heart which works through love, as Chrysostom seems to say, and as Paul elsewhere describes (Gal 5:5), is itself founded upon the gracious intervention of God upon the soul to make it alive to God (Eph 2:1-5), and thus excludes all human boasting and strict debt. When all of this is understood rightly, then we can say that Abraham walked humbly and obediently in faith towards God, persevering in hope against hope, and therefore this fidelity was accredited as righteousness. This achieves the focus of Paul on the acceptability of the converted Gentile who lacks the Torah purity and the outward rite of circumcision, and shows that both the Jews and the Gentile come to God through interior virtues that are won by God’s grace, purchased by the infinite merits of Christ’s blood.