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.