ROMANS CHAPTER 4: FATHER ABRAHAM—JUSTIFIED BY FAITH
Almighty God and Father,
In Abraham You called forth the physical father of Your Covenant people Israel and the spiritual father of all who in faith come to the sacrament of Baptism in Jesus Christ. He is the Old Testament model of obedient faith as he cut himself off from all earthly ties to set out with his wife, at Your command, for an unknown land and an unknown future. This was Abram's first act of faith and it was renewed when he offered You his beloved son'the son of Your promise. For his unswerving faith and obedience You added grace to his name and Abram became Abraham. It was to this man of faith that Your chosen people owed their existence and destiny'not only Abraham's physical descendants but all who, in virtue of this same faith, become his spiritual children with a share in that promised destiny. Send us Your Spirit, Lord, to guide us in our study. We pray in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Father Abraham, pray for us!
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"Paul shows that the Jews, by trying to put the Gentiles in their place, were insulting God's glory by not allowing Him to be the God of all. But if God is God of all, then He takes care of all, and if He takes care of all, then He saves all alike by faith." St. John Chrysostom Bishop of Constantinople, Homilies on Romans # 7
"How should the law be upheld if not by righteousness? By a righteousness, moreover, which is of faith, for what could not be fulfilled through the law is fulfilled through faith. St. Augustine, Homilies on Romans
"Not only does Paul say that there is only one God for both Jews and Gentiles, but he adds that this God is the one who justifies the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.... Neither the circumcision nor the uncircumcision enjoys any advantage in this. Origin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans
In chapter 4 Paul will use a Scriptural defense in support of the claim he makes that salvation is a gift by faith and not only by works of the Old Covenant Law, and that the justification of all mankind by grace through faith does not dismiss the Law of Moses but upholds it. Paul will present a Scriptural defense that points to an inclusive covenant in the Gospel of Jesus Christ—a principle that was already operative in the Old Testament. In Romans chapter 1 Paul maintained that God's righteousness is revealed to all mankind both through natural law—apart from the Law of Moses in the Sinai Covenant—and also to the children of Israel through the Law of the Sinai Covenant. In chapters 2 and 3 he pointed out that this revelation was also revealed through the prophets who witnessed to the truth in the Law of Moses [see Romans 3:21-23]. In both cases God's Law worked in the lives of men beyond the visual and the physical—the true believer is the one who offers his life as a sacrifice to God—a sacrifice witnessed by a "circumcised heart" [Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4]. Now Paul turns to Scripture to prove his argument in the figure of the model of faith for all Old Covenant believers.
Question: Who is it in the Old Testament who is the first model of faithful covenant obedience and in whom all future covenants between God and man will be linked?
Answer: Father Abraham:
Paul will focus his argument on Genesis chapters 15-17. It is in father Abraham that the Jews derive their special relationship with Yahweh as His chosen people. It is in father Abraham that the entire Jewish identity and the promises of the Covenant with Yahweh are centered—promises that all Jews believed would be fulfilled in the Messianic Age.
In using father Abraham as his model, it is necessary for Paul to demonstrate that Abraham was justified in the eyes of God by his faith. But Abraham is also a model of obedience and so Paul must achieve two points in the representation of Abraham as a person first justified by faith. He must demonstrate that Abraham's righteousness was not through nature or through the Law but through the righteousness of faith and as a result the obedience of Abraham's faith is manifested through his deeds. To succeed in this argument Paul develops two themes:
In establishing these two themes Paul will be able to define Abraham's fatherhood to the Covenant people as Abraham the father of all New Covenant believers—Jews and Gentiles—all who are justified on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. It is in this theme that St. Irenaeus wrote in the late first century: "We were prefigured in the Jews, and they are represented in us, that is, in the Church, and they receive the reward for what they achieved." St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, Against Heresies 4.22.2. Paul's intention then is nothing less than to present the true definition of Yahweh's eschatological people as the progeny of the Gentile Abraham and the rightful heirs to the promised blessings of the world-wide inheritance of the Kingdom of God!
Please read Romans 4:1-12, Abraham is justified by faith:
"1 Then what do we say about Abraham, the ancestor from whom we are descended physically? 2 If Abraham had been justified because of what he had done, then he would have had something to boast about. But not before God: does not Scripture say: 3 'Abraham put his faith in God and this was reckoned to him as uprightness?' 4 Now, when someone works, the wages for this are not considered as a favor but as due; 5 however, when someone, without working puts faith in the one who justifies the godless, it is this faith that is reckoned as uprightness. 6 David, too, says the same: he calls someone blessed if God attributes uprightness to that person, apart from any action undertaken: 7 'How blessed are those whose offence is forgiven, whose sin is blotted out. 8 How blessed are those to whom the Lord imputes no guilt.' 9 Is this blessing only for the circumcised, or is it said of the uncircumcised as well? Well, we said of Abraham that his faith was reckoned to him as uprightness. 10 how did this come about? When he was already circumcised, or before he had been circumcised? Not when he had been circumcised, but while he was still uncircumcised; 11 and circumcision was given to him later, as a sign and a guarantee that the faith which he had while still uncircumcised was reckoned to him as uprightness. In this way, Abraham was to be the ancestor of all believers who are uncircumcised, so that they might be reckoned as upright; 12 as well as the ancestor of those of the circumcision who not only have their circumcision but who also follow our ancestor Abraham along the path of faith that he trod before he was circumcised."
In this passage Paul presents his argument in 3 stages:
Question: In Romans 4:1-2 Paul writes that if Abraham had been justified by his works then he would have had something to boast about to men but not to God, "If Abraham had been justified because of what he had done, then he would have had something to boast about. But not before God..." Why didn't Abraham have something to boast about before God? What about before man? What did Paul say about "boasting" in Romans 3:23-28.? What is the key phrase in this passage?
Answer: Abraham's righteous works might have been something to boast of to other men and women because his deeds were good and in the eyes of others were worthy deeds, but Paul is linking this question to his statements in 3:23-28 that there is no room for boasting because "faith is what counts, since, as we see it, a person is justified by faith and not by doing what the Law tells him to do." Paul's point is that Abraham's justification and the works that resulted had their source in the first stage of the process of justification—which is in the supernatural gift of faith—which comes from the divine grace and favor of God [CCC# 153].
Question: Why might this be a hard teaching for Paul's Jewish audience?
Answer: This is a hard teaching for Paul's Jewish audience, who through their tradition, have been preoccupied with Abraham chiefly as a model of works of obedience no matter what the trial:
But Paul's point is that faith and obedience in deeds are so interdependent that they cannot be separated and yet it is the gift of faith that must come first in order for the works of faith to be generated. The gift of faith is the first step in obtaining justification/salvation: "The necessity of faith: CCC# 161, Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. Since 'without faith it is impossible to please [God]' and to attain to the fellowship of his Son, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life 'but he who endures to the end.'" [quoting Dei Filius 3; Matthew 10:22; 3; 24:13; 3; Hebrews 11:6; Council of Trent: DS 1532]. The Council of Trent stated that this initial act of faith "moves the person to recognize God, to repent of his sins, to put his trust and faith in God's divine mercy and to love him above all things; and to desire the sacraments and resolve to live a holy life.." The Council of Trent, De Justification, chapter 6.
In Romans 4:3 Paul begins his Scriptural proof in support of Abraham's initial justification by faith by quoting from the key text in Genesis 15:6, "Abraham put his faith in God and this was reckoned as uprightness..." Paul will quote Genesis 15:6 three times in Romans 4:3; 4:10; and in 4:22. In quoting this passage Paul asks a question:
Answer: Once again Paul is quoting from the Greek Septuagint translation. In Genesis 15:6 God made the promise of numerous descendants. Abraham had no evidence to support the validity of a promise that no mere human's word could guarantee, but he had faith in God's promise. In other words he accepted in trust the truth of Yahweh's word, and this faith was credited as uprightness with God. This text in Genesis supports Paul's argument by making the link between faith and being found righteous in God's eyes. God reckoned Abraham's faith as something which deserved to be rewarded. It is faith that leads to justification and justification renders a believer's good works God's works and meritorious of eternal life. In Galatians 3:6-14 Paul wrote that it was Abraham's faith which had brought about the events in the Church in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—Paul wrote, "Abraham, you remember, put his faith in God, and this was reckoned to him as uprightness. Be sure, then, that it is people of faith who are the children of Abraham. And it was because Scripture foresaw that God would give saving justice to the Gentiles through faith, that it announced the future Gospel to Abraham in the words: 'All nations will be blessed in you.' So it is people of faith who receive the same blessing as Abraham, the man of faith." Galatians 3:6-14
Then in Romans 4:4-5 Paul takes an example from everyday life in an experience with which most of his audience can relate: the right of an employee to receive just compensation for work done and on the other hand, the lack of right to such compensation for one who has failed to do any work.
Question: What is Paul's point? Hint: the phrase "in the one who justifies the godless" or "in the one justifying the godless" is an allusion to Exodus 23:7 and Isaiah 5:23 in which it is forbidden in the spirit of justice for men to acquit the guilty.
Answer: Paul makes the point that someone who has worked is entitled to receive a wage comparable to the work they have completed—it is their just reward that they have earned for themselves through their efforts. However, if any benefit comes to an employee who has not worked and has not earned the wage through his own efforts then their wage rests purely on the favor or mercy of the employer. Such an employee has no legitimate claim to a wage. For the Christian faith is "credited as righteousness" when one's faith is recognized by God as meriting His grace because one's faith becomes the advanced promise of the good deeds that will in the future be credited to the believer's righteousness. It is the gift of faith that gives us, as it were, the trust of the "employer" that the "employee" will live up to his obligations. The "one who justifies the godless" is of course a liberty that belongs to God Himself. Man cannot purchase his salvation through good works like a laborer works for a wage: "If anyone saith that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema" [Council of Trent, On Justification, canon I]. God in His desire to bring man to salvation does not simply confirm the good deeds that people may do but He takes the initiative to do for His children what they cannot do for themselves to bring a sinful humanity into a right relationship with Himself—and for our part, in the exercise of our free will, we cooperate with His grace so that the "credit" is translated into acts of love and mercy.
Then in Romans 4:7-8 Paul equates this example of the employee who receives merciful compensation over the just wage by linking justification by faith and salvation to David's beatitude in Psalm 32:1-2. Paul is again quoting from the Greek Septuagint. Please read Psalm 32:1-11
Question: What is the theme of David's psalm?
Answer: David's admission of sin and repentance and Yahweh's merciful reply. This psalm is in essence a prayer of thanksgiving expressing David's faith in God's forgiveness, healing, and restoration. So now, in addition to quoting from the "book of Moses", Paul is also citing from the Old Testament "writings" to illustrate his thesis—both Old Testament fathers, Abraham and the great King David support Paul's thesis of God's grace and justification/salvation through faith—a teaching, Paul tells his audience which is upheld by inspired Scripture.
Question: What series of questions does Paul ask in Romans 4:9-10?
Answer: Paul asks if David's blessing in Psalm 32:1-2 is only for the circumcised or is it also for the uncircumcised. Circumcision was to become the key sacrament of the covenant with Abraham which was transmitted to all future covenants until the coming of Christ. Please read Genesis chapter 17:1-27.
The circumcision of Abraham at age 99 is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant: "You for your part must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you, generation after generation. This is my covenant which you must keep between myself and you, and your descendants after you: every one of your males must be circumcised. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you. As soon as he is eight days old, every one of your males, generation after generation must be circumcised, including slaves born within the household or bought from a foreigner not of your descent. Whether born within the household or bought, they must be circumcised. My covenant must be marked in your flesh as a covenant in perpetuity. The uncircumcised male, whose foreskin has not been circumcised—that person must be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant." Genesis 17:9-14
Circumcision was not unique to the people of Israel. Many other peoples of the region used circumcision as a rite of passage into manhood and as a rite initiatory to marriage. The oldest depiction of circumcision is on a relief from the tomb of Ankhmahor, vizier of Pharaoh Teti from the 24th century BC [circa 4-6 hundred years before Abraham], and the oldest text reference is from an Egyptian inscription from 2300 BC. Infant circumcision was unique to the Israelites and the 8th day prescribed is also significant.
Question: What is the significance of the number 8 in Scripture? See the document The Significance of Numbers in Scripture in the Documents section of Agape Bible Study.
Answer: 8 is the number of redemption, resurrection, and regeneration. 8 people were saved in Noah's ark and Jesus was raised from the dead on Sunday which was not only the first day of a 7-day week but also in sequence can be the 8th day. Recognizing this significance all of the earliest Christian churches of the Byzantine era were 8-sided—including the early church of the faithful who gathered in what had been Peter's house in Capernaum.
In Genesis chapter 17 circumcision becomes a "sign" like the covenant sign of the rainbow in Genesis 9:16-17, to remind Yahweh of His covenant commitment and humans of their covenant obligations. However, according to God's plan, circumcision was only an external sign of Abraham's justification—not the cause!
Paul insists that the blessing in Psalms 32:1-2 is not limited to the circumcised Jews. The force of Paul's questions center on Abraham and whether he was circumcised when he was first justified by faith. He was not. Abraham was justified by his faith in Genesis chapter 15 but was not circumcised until chapter 17. Paul argues the status of the individual depends on his uprightness before God'whether or not he came to God in faith—because in Abraham's case justification came about through faith and not by "deeds of the Law" like circumcision. It is, as Paul explains in Romans 4:11, the "sign and a guarantee that the faith which he had while still uncircumcised was reckoned to him as uprightness." It is the time sequence that is Paul's focus in the Genesis story. Abraham was judged as righteous in Genesis 15 but was not circumcised until Genesis 17; therefore, circumcision had nothing to do with Abraham being reckoned as upright. Circumcision was a "sign" to seal the Covenant with Yahweh to be handed on to Abraham's posterity, but it was a sign given to Abraham as a person of faith. Abraham, through the gift of faith, believed in God and God made a covenant with him, and circumcision became a sign of that covenant and a seal of his justification through faith!
Question: And so in Romans 4:11-12, according to Paul whose father does Abraham become?
Answer: Abraham's spiritual paternity is as important as his physical paternity and it is the spiritual paternity that makes him the father of all believers who imitate his faith and turn to faith in Jesus Christ whether they are circumcised in the flesh or not.
Please read Romans 4:13-17, Justification is not through obedience to the Law of Moses:
13 "For the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he should inherit the world was not through the Law, but through the uprightness of faith. 14 For if it is those who live by the Law who will gain the inheritance, faith is worthless and the promise is without force; 15 for the Law produces nothing but God's retribution, and it is only where there is no Law that it is possible to live without breaking the Law. 16 That is why the promise is to faith, so that I comes as a free gift and is secure for all the descendants, not only those who rely on the Law but all those others who rely on the faith of Abraham, the ancestor of us all 17 (as Scripture says: I have made you the father of many nations). Abraham is our father in the eyes of God, in whom he put his faith, and who brings the dead to life and calls into existence what does not yet exist."
Romans 4:13-14, "For the promise to Abraham and his descendants that he should inherit the world was not through the Law, but through the uprightness of faith. For if it is those who live by the Law who will gain the inheritance, faith is worthless and the promise is without force..."
Question: If salvation was only through the observance of the Law of Moses what would be the result?
Answer: The result would be that faith as a supernatural gift of God would have no role in God's plan of salvation for humanity. Faith would be "null and void" of any meaning or impact and God's promise of justifying Abraham's faith could not be fulfilled. The "uprightness of faith" that Paul mentions is the obedience of faith that is evidenced by a living and active faith in Abraham's life. God awarded the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 because of his faith. It was an inheritance that wasn't given as a reward for a duty performed or as a contract fulfilled [Abraham hadn't even left for Canaan] but was given in faith to be redeemed by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
In Romans 4:15 Paul is repeating what he introduced in Romans 1:18 and then taught more fully in 3:19-20, "Now we are well aware that whatever the Law says is said for those who are subject to the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world brought under the judgment of God. So then, no human being can be found upright at the tribunal of God by keeping the Law; all that the Law does is to tell us what is sinful."
Question: What point is Paul repeating? How is the Law of Moses limited?
Answer: The Law was given to identify sin; it cannot eliminate sin nor can the Law bring about salvation.
Then in completing his thought in Romans 4:15 Paul makes a curious statement. He writes, "...it is only where there is no Law that it is possible to live without breaking the Law", which can also be translated as "but where there is no law, there is no transgression."
Question: What is Paul's point?
Answer: A "transgression", or "breaking of the Law" implies an act that violates the law that has been prescribed. So, if there is no law prescribed then there can be no violation of the law—and yet if there is no law at all sin abounds even when it is not labeled as sin. Paul will develop this further in Romans 5:11-13
Romans 4:16, "That is why the promise is to faith, so that it comes as a free gift and is secure for all the descendants, not only those who rely on the Law but all those others who rely on the faith of Abraham, the ancestor of us all.."
Paul is presenting the alternative to disobedience to the Law which leads to transgression of the Law and God's wrathful judgment through God's promise of salvation in the gift of unmerited grace and faith.
The Law ŕtransgressionŕwrath
God's promisesŕunmerited graceŕfaith
Romans 4:17: "as Scripture says: I have made you the father of many nations.." Paul is citing Genesis 17:5 according to the Septuagint. The term "many nations" is a term for the Gentile peoples in general who will become the children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul tells his audience, while they may have assumed God's promise to be in the physical sense, the promise was intended to have a fuller more profound spiritual fulfillment. Scripture, anticipating that God would justify the Gentile nations through faith in Jesus, records the preaching of the Gospel in advance to Abraham with Yahweh's promise "I have made you the father of many nations."
Question: In Romans 4:13-17 what does Paul establish as the consequence of the "spiritual fatherhood" of Abraham?
Answer: It fulfills the promise God made to Abraham that is an intrinsic aspect of God's salvific plan for all humanity—the world-wide blessing through Abraham which is repeated 5 times in Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14 and which is fulfilled in the spiritual descendants of Abraham who are New Covenant believers living in one end of the world to the other. Now both Jews and Gentile come to God through the Lord Jesus Christ and are incorporated into one family—the universal Catholic Church.
In Romans 4:17 Paul writes, "Abraham is our father in the eye of God, in whom he put his faith, and who brings the dead to life and calls into existence what does not yet exist", Question: What significant link is Paul making between revelation of God in the Old and New Testaments in this passage?
Answer: Paul is providing his hearers with the link between the miracle of Creation and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which will generate a new Creation—Jesus is resurrected on the same day that according to Jewish tradition the first Creation took place—the first day of the week, Sunday [you will recall that Sunday, the Sabbath, is the 7th day].
Please read Romans 4:18-25, Father Abraham's faith is a model for Christian faith:
18 "Though there seemed no hope, he hoped and believed that he was to become father of many nations in fulfillment of the promise: 'Just so will your descendants be.' 19 Even the thought that his body was as good as dead'he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah's womb was dead too did not shake his faith. 20 Counting on the promise of God, he did not doubt or disbelieve, but drew strength from faith and gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that whatever God promised he has the power to perform. 22 This is the faith that was reckoned to him as uprightness. 23 And the word 'reckoned' in Scripture applies not only to him; 24 it is there for our sake too—our faith, too, will be 'reckoned' 25 because we believe in him who raised from the dead our Lord Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification."
Question: Why would there seem to be no hope for the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham? What was the necessary condition that had to be completed for the promises to be fulfilled? See chart of promises from Genesis chapter 12 and read Genesis chapter 17:1-22
3 BLESSINGS PROMISED TO ABRAM FOR FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE
1. "I shall make you a great nation": This is the promise of a nation that will belong to Abram's descendants and over which they will rule.
2. "I shall bless you and make your name famous": This is the promised of the blessing of descendants. A man's name was carried on by his offspring.
3. "All the nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants": This is the promise of a world-wide blessing that will come from the children of Abram.
These promises will become the 3-fold Covenant with Abram and his "seed"/descendants in chapters 15, 17 and 22, a period that covers approximately 40 years.
Answer: Abraham would have to have children—all the promises are based on descendants. He was elderly and his wife was beyond childbearing years—in Genesis 17 he is 99 and Sarai is 89 but he believe and miraculously Sarah conceived the child through which the promises would be eventually fulfilled and gave birth when she was 90 years old. Abraham's son Isaac—born when his father was 100 years old—would father Jacob who would be renamed by God as Israel and Jacob/Israel would become the physical father of the 12 tribes of Israel, and Jesus the Messiah would be born from the 4th son, the tribe of Judah.
Question: Paul is presenting Abraham as a model of faith but was there a time when Abraham's faith in the physical fulfillment [not the spiritual fulfillment] of the promises was weak?
Answer: Earlier in his walk with God Abraham had tried to take the fulfillment of the promises into his own hands and the result was Ishmael, Abraham's son by Sarai's Egyptian slave girl, Hagar [Genesis chapter 16]. However, in Genesis chapter 17:1 God repeats His promise adding in 17:15-19 that a son is to be born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age.
Question: Turn to Genesis 17. What request does Abraham make in Genesis 17:18? What is God's answer?
Answer: Abraham is elated to be told Sarah will bear him a son but he reminds God—look here is a perfectly fine son [Ishmael] who can inherit the promises "that will be enough.". But God's answer is that the Covenant is to only pass through the Hebrew bloodline of Abraham and Sarah—the son of the promise in whom the promised "seed" of Genesis 3:15 is preserved. This is the line through which the Messiah will come. Abraham believed and his reward was the fulfillment of the promises.
Question: In Romans 4:20-21 what does Paul write that Abraham's faith achieved for him?
Answer: The exercise of faith strengthens the believer—even when the believer is physically or spiritually weak. Even a little faith is enough for God's grace to work in our lives for faith is all powerful and allows God's power to yield miracles in our lives. Paul confirms this "strength" in weakness when he writes to the Church at Corinth: 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, "for power is at full stretch in weakness. It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me; and that is why I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions and distress for Christ's sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong." Using Abraham as an example, we can say in Genesis 17 that Abraham did not trust in his own powers or body [as he had in the past]; instead he trusted only in God. It is not our own strength we must depend upon, but in faith we depend upon the strength of God the Father. Recalling Romans 4:17 and the power of God as Creator, Paul writes that Abraham was "... fully convinced that whatever God promised he has the power to perform." This was a profession of faith that took a life journey for Abraham to reach—in faith he reached the point of abandoning himself in faith into God's hands.
Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 for the third time in Romans 4:22 and then writes, "And the word 'reckoned' in Scripture applies not only to him; it is there for our sake too—our faith, too, will be 'reckoned' because we believe in him who raised from the dead our Lord Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification." The hearers of the letter realize in this part of his letter [Romans 4: 23-25] that Paul, now using the first person plural ["our"], has cited the story of Abraham to apply it to himself and to the Roman faith community in their walk of faith. Therefore, Abraham's faith becomes the pattern for our Christian faith because the object is the same—the faith that the God who promises to make the dead live again and who promises to justify the sinner is the same God who fulfilled His promises to Abraham 2000 years earlier. If Abraham trusted in faith and was justified, then so too will we be justified by our faith—a teaching Paul used in 1 Corinthians 10:11 when Paul wrote concerning the stories in the Old Testament: "Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were described in writing to be a lesson for us, to whom it has fallen to live in the last days of the ages."
Notice in Romans 4:25 that Paul's reference is not only to Jesus' sacrificial death but also to His glorious Resurrection. Paul never writes of the death of the Savior in isolation from His Resurrection. The faith which leads to our justification is accomplished by entering into the life of the Resurrected Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of Baptism:
Martin Luther interpreted these passages in Romans chapters 3 and 4 to support his doctrine of salvation by "faith alone"—rejecting the "justification by deeds in chapter 2 as an "unfulfilled plan" on account of man's sinfulness. His interpretation of these passages was that justification is a state in which man is only declared "just" generated by faith in Jesus Christ; that this is only a legal declaration—not a transformation, and that justification is not concerned with works. Most Protestants view the different aspects of salvation: sanctification, justification, redemption, and forgiveness as past events and justification only as a state into which the believe is placed upon a one time profession of faith. But according to sacred Scripture all the different aspects of salvation share past, present and future dimensions including justification. Catholic doctrine does agree with our Protestant brothers that justification is a state conferred by God's grace through faith [that is initial justification]; however, Catholic doctrine teaches that justification is a state as well as a process, and that justification has past, present and future dimensions. We do we not agree with our Protestant brothers and sisters who reject justification by works as a part of the salvation process.
Sacred Scripture supports the 3 different dimensions of justification as a life process. Romans 5:1-2, 9 and 1 Corinthians 6:11 are some examples of Scripture that speak of justification as a past event, but the Bible also teaches that justification is not simply a "one-for-all-time" event but is rather also an on-going and not yet completed process in which works of righteous faith are a key part of the process.
Some Scripture passages that identify justification as a process:
Justification as a past event
Justification as a present event
Justification as a future event
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2006 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.
The story of Abraham that Paul used in chapter 4 and the references to God's promise of descendants in Genesis 15:5-6 is one of the classic Old Testament texts on the doctrine of justification. St. Paul uses this text in Genesis and the story of Abraham as an example of justification in both the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Galatians. Let's reexamine what Paul wrote in Romans 4:1-5 concerning Genesis 15:5-6 when God told Abram "'Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so will your descendants be,' he told him. Abram put his faith in Yahweh and this was reckoned to him as uprightness [justification.]" Paul then continues in Romans 4:2, "If Abraham had been justified because of what he had done, then he would have had something to boast about. But not before God: does not Scripture say: 'Abraham put his faith in God and this was reckoned to him as uprightness?'" We have already noted that this passage, which conforms with Paul's teaching as a whole and with James chapter 2, is that with God faith and righteousness expressed in deeds are so interdependent as to be inseparable.
Romans 4:3 teaches that Abraham was justified when he believed God concerning the blessing of numerous descendants. But, if justification is a one-time event rather than a life-long process then we would have to conclude that Abraham could not receive God's justification either before or after Genesis 15:6. Scripture, however, proves the contrary. Abraham's justification was not a once-in-a-lifetime event but rather Scripture confirms that he received God's justification both before and after Genesis 15:6!
Scripture clearly teaches that Abraham was justified at least on 3 separate occasions:
Each of the 3 promises and Abraham's subsequent "justification" follows the 3-fold Abrahamic Covenant
Hebrews 11:8-9 referring to events that took place in Genesis chapter 12 states: "It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going. By faith he sojourned in the Promised Land as though it were not his, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise." The subject of this passage in Hebrews is "faith reckoned as righteousness" or "saving faith." Therefore, according to Scripture the faith we are told that Abraham received in Genesis chapter 15 must be the same faith Abraham received in Genesis 12:1-4 when he was called to leave his homeland and travel to Canaan—the Promised Land, which "was the inheritance given to him and his descendants"[Hebrews 11:8]. This faith which was reckoned as righteousness that was Abraham's by the grace of God in Genesis chapter 12 was faith that was demonstrated three chapters before and years and years before Abraham believed God's promise of descendants as numerous as the stars in Genesis 15.
Not only was Abraham justified by his faith prior to Genesis 15:6 but years later in Genesis chapter 22 as St. James teaches in James 2:18-24, Abraham was also justified by his deeds—a teaching introduced by Paul in Romans 2:5-10. St. James writes in 2:18-24, "But someone may say: So you have faith and I have good deeds? Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith. You believe in the one God—that is creditable enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear. Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar? So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by whet he did. In this way the Scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name 'friend of God.' You see now that it is by deeds, and not only by believing [faith alone], that someone is justified."
The justification that Abraham received in believing God's initial promise of his descendants was fulfilled in the action/deed of obeying God and offering his beloved son Isaac on the altar as a sacrifice [see Genesis 22:2; 15-18]. Hebrews 11:17-19 concerning this event records: "It was by faith that Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He offered to sacrifice his only son even though he had yet to receive what had been promised, and he had been told: Isaac is the one through whom your name will be carried on. He was confident that God had the power even to raise the dead; and so, figuratively speaking, he was given back Isaac from the dead."
Therefore, taking Scripture as a whole it is clear that justification is a process. The process begins with the first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit in our conversion and our initial justification through faith merited in the saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—we are Baptized by water and the Spirit and reborn as transformed, holy children into God's covenant family. That justification continues after our Baptism into the family of God as we struggle on our journey—turning away from sin and turning back to God, renewed and justified through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and sanctified by the works of God work through our lives in deeds of love and charity—a process that continues until our individual judgment or the Resurrection of the dead and the Final Judgment. When we face the judgment of God we will be judged according to our deeds and, by the grace of God the righteous who persevered in faith demonstrated in works of love will receive the gift of eternal life [see CCC # 1987-1996].
While it is true that many of our Protestant brothers and sisters conceive of the doctrine of justification as a state rather than also as a life-long process, it is ironic that Martin Luther, the first "Protestant" did conceive of justification in the Catholic sense as both a state and a process. Luther wrote, "we understand that a man who is justified is not already righteous, but moving toward righteousness.." He also wrote, "our justification is not yet complete..[...]. It is still under construction. It shall, however, be completed in the resurrection of the dead." [The Salvation Controversy, page 23].
Questions for group discussion:
Question: How does man cooperate in his own salvation? How has God chosen to associate man with the work of His grace and how does justification establish cooperation between God's grace and man's free will?
Question: CCC# 1990 says that "Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God's merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin and it heals." What part does justification play in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
Question: How does one avoid falling into error when interpreting sacred Scripture?
Answer: In the case of the doctrine of justification as in all matters relating to Scripture, it is the entire body of Scripture that must be addressed in seeking a correct interpretation—not only those passages that fit a preconceived notion. One cannot accept certain passages of the sacred text and reject others. Such a practice leads to false interpretation and ultimately to heresy. Pope Leo XIII [1878-1903] stated in the document Providentissimus Deus 20: "it is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred." In addition, Pope Leo condemned those who viewed difficult passages in Scripture as an indication that some of the text was Holy Spirit inspired while other parts of the text were not when he wrote that the Church condemned, "the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond." Continuing the doctrine that Sacred Scripture is without error the great council of Vatican I  affirmed in De Fide Catholic 2:7 that "the canon of the Bible is sacred and canonical, not because having been composed by human industry they were afterwards approved by her [the Church's] authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author." And Pope Pius the XII [1939-1958] in the document Divino Afflante Spiritu 1, citing this passage from Vatican I in De Fide Catholica, stated that this passage was a "solemn definition of Catholic doctrine. By which such divine authority is claimed for the entire books with all their parts as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever." He condemned those who would dare to "ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals" thereby limiting the accuracy of the entire body of Sacred Scripture. Vatican II, the most recent Great Council of the Universal Church reaffirmed the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture in the document Dei Verbum 11 which the Magisterium teaches: "In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things that he wanted. Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth that God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2006 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.
Catechism references for Romans chapter 4 [*indicates passage quoted]
Resources used in the lesson:
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Dogmatic Canons and Decrees: The Council of Trent; Vatican Council I; etc.
The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II
The Salvation Controversy
Romans, Joseph Fitzmyer
Romans, Brendan Byrne
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture—Romans
Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians"
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.