Romans 4 – Abraham, Faith, and Obedience

In a paper read at the 2010 Regional ETS Meeting in Cincinnati, Tim Gombis described Romans 4 as the “last holdout against the new perspective.”  Since I have recently given a brief overview of the New Perspective on Paul I will not repeat that material here.  Briefly, the New Perspective thinks that most of Pauline scholarship has missed Paul’s point by assuming that Judaism was a “works-for-salvation” religion.  Paul’s emphasis on grace not works, so the traditional Reformation view of Paul is that one is justified, or “declared righteous,” by faith, not by works.  Gombis made the point in his paper that an unfortunate legacy of “our reformation heritage” is “faith versus obedience.”  This is a good point, faith and obedience ought not be polar opposites.  In fact, in Paul’s letters, these faith and obedience are finely balanced.

Paul uses an analogy from Genesis, a story that would have been familiar to all his readers, the life of Abraham.  Cranfield says that the purpose of chapter four is to “confirm the truth of what was said in the first part of 3:27, that men are justified by faith and not works” (Romans, 1:224).  Abraham is used as an example because he was a paradigm of faith for the Jew, but he expressed that faith prior to circumcision.  He is therefore also a paradigm of faith for the Gentile.  If the faithful Abraham was not justified by his works, then no man could possibly be justified by works.  Abraham is the most obvious possible objection to the teaching of 3:27, that there can be boasting because one is keeping the Law.

Paul points out that Abraham was considered righteous before he was circumcised, and therefore could not be said to be righteous on the basis of works of the Law.  Genesis 15:6 may be the exact verse to which a Jewish opponent would appeal to try to show that Abraham was an example of one who could boast in their own righteousness.  Paul’s point is that with Abraham’s faith was “reckoned” to him as righteousness long before the Law was given.

The verb λογίζομαι (logizomai) has the meaning of reckoning or evaluating, and was used for determining the amount of a debt (Demosthenes Or. 27, 46).  But this meaning dates well before the New Testament era and may not be the background Paul has in mind.  More fruitful is the use of the verb in the Septuagint.  The LXX uses λογίζομαι to translate חשב, which is normally translated as “think, account,” but usually with the sense of “hold in high esteem.”  In Genesis 15:6 (quoted by Paul in Romans 4:3), the word is use to say that Abraham’s faith was considered to be as righteousness. The word is occasionally used in a “legal” context – Psalm 32:2 is perhaps the best example, but 2 Sam 19:20 has the same sense.

Heidland makes the point that there was nothing intrinsically good about the faith of Abraham, it is only because it please God that his faith was considered to be righteousness.  This is in contrast to the view of the Jews of the first century who saw Abraham’s faith as meritorious (TDNT 4:284-92).  For example, 1 Maccabees 2:51-52 says “Call to remembrance what acts our fathers did in their time; so shall ye receive great honor and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness?”

It is Paul that gives the word a theological meaning in the New Testament.  Paul uses the word in Romans 4 and in Galatians 3:6 to described God’s declaration on the believer in Christ, making him righteous.  This is the crux of salvation, moving the believer from death to life.  But this does not mean that Paul did not think that obedience was not necessary.  On the contrary,  like most Jews in the first century, Paul thought that one was right with God because God has done a gracious act  of salvation.  But the natural response to that salvation was obedience.  Since Abraham believed, he was declared righteous, and the only response possible was total obedience to the will of God.

I think that this balance may help to temper legalism or total libertine freedom in the church today.  Neither is particularly helpful, nor are they scriptural.

11 thoughts on “Romans 4 – Abraham, Faith, and Obedience

  1. Hi, In looking up Romans 4 and logizomai, I came across this passage from Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, an apparently popular commentary (available online):

    Was counted – ἐλογίσθη elogigisthē.
    The same word in Romans 4:22, is is rendered “it was imputed.” The word occurs frequently in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, the verb חשׁב chaashab, which which is translated by the word λογίζομαι logizomai, means literally, “to think, to intend,” or “purpose; to imagine, invent,” or “devise; to reckon,” or “account; to esteem; to impute,” that is, to impute to a man what belongs to himself, or what “ought” to be imputed to him.

    It occurs only in the following places: Psalm 32:2; Psalm 35:4; Isaiah 10:7; Job 19:11; Job 33:10; Genesis 16:6; Genesis 38:15; 1 Samuel 1:13; Psalm 52:4; Jeremiah 18:18; Zechariah 7:10; Job 6:26; Job 19:16; Isaiah 13:17; 1 Kings 10:21; Numbers 18:27, Numbers 18:30; Psalm 88:4; Isaiah 40:17; Lamentations 4:2; Isaiah 40:15; Genesis 31:16.

    I have examined all the passages, and as the result of my examination have come to the conclusion, that there is not one in which the word is used in the sense of reckoning or imputing to a man what does not strictly belong to him; or of charging on him what ought not to be charged on him as a matter of personal right. The word is never used to denote imputing in the sense of transferring, or of charging that on one which does not properly belong to him. The same is the case in the New Testament. The word occurs about forty times (see “Schmidius’ Concord),” and, in a similar signification. No doctrine of transferring, or of setting over to a man what does not properly belong to him, be it sin or holiness, can be derived, therefore, from this word. Whatever is meant by it here, it evidently is declared that the act of believing is what is intended, both by Moses and by Paul.

    What are your thoughts on this?
    If the Greek term Logizomai doesn’t mean “impute” but rather “consider something as it really is,” then how can imputation be supported?

    • Hello Nick, this is something that is discussed in the “new perspective on Paul” studies I covered in some earlier posts. N.T. Wright, for example, would deny that the doctrine of imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a valid, biblical doctrine. He fully believes you are saved by the work of Christ on the cross, by grace through faith, etc. But he thinks that the idea that God “credits” Christ’s righteousness to your account is not biblical. Your citation of Barnes is a good example of the classic, or “old” perspective on Paul, in which justification is an imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, making them right with God. I think that the doctrine is taught in scripture, the prime text is Romans 5:12-21. In this, I think that Wright is protesting too much.

      • Hello Phillip,

        Barnes appears to be denying “imputation” based on a lexical study of the word. His conclusion is that the word logizomai never means “impute” – so does Wright teach that as well?

        p.s. I don’t see the term logizomai – or any similar term – appear in Romans 5:12-21.

  2. Legalism and libertine freedom are common perspectives held by Christians. I have known some people who are legalists who think that we must do things simply because they claim “it is the right thing to do”. But I think a more common form of legalism is the belief that their Christianity depends on how ‘good’ they have been. I think we all feel sometimes that we have been acting sinfully lately and we feel that our salvation is in question. That might not be what we really believe, but it is a feeling of doubt. I do not think this disappointment in ourselves is necessarily bad if it convicts us to combine our faith with obedience. Obedience is not what saves us, but it is our outworking of our faith. Polhill says, “He declares us innocent of our sin when we are in fact guilty” (289).
    On the other hand, I have also known people to believe that they can do whatever they want. I think that these people take too lightly the seriousness of sin. They think that God has saved them, so they can sin. But as I mentioned before, that is not the proper response. Faith and obedience work together. Ephesians 2:8-10 is an example of how we are saved by grace so then we can do good works for God. Faith without works in my mind is a questionable faith. One who truly believes in God and what He has done for them has only one option: to obey Him.

  3. I read a quote in a book recently that said something along the lines of, “committing your life to Jesus marks the end of your faith… The beginning end of it.” I am not sure who said it but it is a very powerful statement that goes well with the relationship of faith and obedience. Like Josh said, so many people think of faith in Christianity as, “on how ‘good’ they have been.” I hear sayings like “I screwed up so I better go to church this week.” Most of the time they are people who don’t have a strong relationship with God but I know it is definitely a view many people have. We should obey God out of what He has done for us. On the other hand we shouldn’t go on sinning because we have experienced God’s unending mercy and forgiveness. Romans 6:15 says, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” By Paul addressing this, it makes me wonder if this was a common excuse many new believers had. 1 John 3 speaks about this issue as well. Verse 6 says, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” By surrendering to Jesus we should have true life change evident in our lives. Romans 5 talks about being made new in Christ. Polhill says, “He grants us his spirit to enable us to grow in to the full measure of his standards, his ‘righteousness’” (289). God did not intend for us to stay the same after our commitment. We now need to go produce fruit because of the great gift he gave to us. By actually thinking about this subject it makes me ask the question, do I actually obey God because I love Him?

  4. This was helpful in adding some more depth to the conversation about Abraham’s faith being credited to him as righteousness. Growing up, I’ve been taught that this passage meant that Abraham’s faith in God made him righteous, and not the works or laws that God brought about in Exodus 20. It seems to me that God giving the Ten Commandments after the nation of Israel had already been started is much like the concept of living in obedience to God after starting a relationship with him post Christ’s death on the cross. I think that was a part of what Paul is doing in this passage. He’s showing the importance of obeying God, yet as a response to living in relationship with him and not as the key to gaining relationship with him. Ephesians 2:8-9 comes to mind in this conversation. We are given grace through faith, and that has nothing to do with works. The obedience of God follows after the relationship with him has begun.

  5. Faith and obedience are not polar opposites but work together. In the account of Abraham used by Paul , he points out the significance of Abraham being found righteous before circumcision, before he did any works. It was by Abraham’s faith that he was found as righteous. The part where I see works plays a rule in Abraham’s account is in chapter 4 verse 20, “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” Abraham was found righteous by his faith and grew stronger in that faith “as he gave glory to God”. This is a great picture of the Christian life. We can only be righteous through faith in Jesus Christ, but our faith grows as we give glory to God. We give glory to God by following what God wants in our lives. Thus, faith makes us righteous and works strengthens the faith.

  6. Faith and works go together so well. As P. Long points out the only response for someone once they are saved by Christ is to be obedient to God. As Rich Mullins says in his song: “It’s about as useless as a screendoor on a submarine. Faith without works baby, It just ain’t happenin’.
    One is your left hand. One is your right. It’ll take two strong arms to hold on tight”. Legalism gets such a bad rap and rightly so. It is something that perverts the gospel and what Christ did for us. It makes following Christ into a bunch of rules and regulations that are not helpful in coming closer to Christ. On the other hand, total libertine freedom is often seen as well. This doesn’t get quite as bad a wrap but it is also quite destructive towards the Christian faith. Christ says to: “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Should we continue in sin simply because we have grace? God forbid! Faith and obedience go hand in hand for a follower of Jesus Christ. Those that are planted and watered by Christ will give forth fruit that shows such.

  7. In Romans 4:18, Paul writes, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.'” Abraham had unquestionable faith. He was also obedient. It was not because he wanted to that he almost sacrificed Isaac, but rather because he was obedient to what God wanted from him and his life, and he had faith that God would make every situation work out for His plan. Most people will say, “Yes, Abraham had faith, and yes, he was obedient.” But, at least for me, the realization that he was both when it is often hard enough to be one has never really hit me until now. He believed that God would fulfill all of his promises, but he was also willing to do whatever God called for him to do even if it seemed like it went against everything that God had going for him. Paul writes later in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Am I faithful or obedient enough to be one of the heads of many nations if that was what God called me to do?

  8. Faith and obedience hand in hand make a great duo. In church this week we started a series called wide open. The premise is about this very subject. Living our lives wide open to guide will only be about doing his will for our lives. They are meant for each other. Abraham knew this when he left his fathers home. He left with a faith and obedience that we’re together at the same time.

    Because Christ came and died and brought salvation to all who believe, we cannot help but have faith in it. Out of this faith that we have we cannot help but be obedient to what his will for our lives is.

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