Romans 4 is perhaps one of the stickiest passages in Paul. To tackle it we must come up to speed on Paul’s thinking. Paul has explained elsewhere that the key to everything is the ‘faithfulness of Messiah’ rather than ‘faith in Messiah’ as it is usually put. I quote from Gal. 2:16, “Even we to Messiah Yĕshua have become trustingly faithful, so that we may be corrected by the faithfulness of Messiah, and not by traditional works, because by traditional works no flesh will be corrected” (GNM4) Paul explains our end of the covenant with a verb phrase, ‘become trustingly faithful.’ If we do that, then we can be ‘corrected’ by Messiah’s faithfulness (i.e. justified, straightened out). This has a two fold application. First there is the punitive correction that Messiah paid by his death. Second there is a correction of life, that lasts until His return. We are corrected by his righteousness, a process which is also called sanctification, by the power of his resurrected life.
When Paul quotes Hab. 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faithfulness” he is dealing with an audience that uses the Greek version of the Torah and Prophets, also called the Septuagint (LXX). And in this version, Hab. 2:4 says, “The righteous shall live by My faithfulness” (ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεώς μου ζήσεται). The Hebrew text reads, “The righteous shall live by his/His faithfulness.” The question is whose faithfulness ‘his’ refers to? The righteous person or the Most High? Paul’s short answer was both. So when he quoted the text he deleted the ‘My’ (μου). He did not replace it with ‘his’ because he wanted it understood by his Greek reading audience that ‘faithfulness’ was a composite of divine faithfulness and faithful response on the part of the saints. He explains in Rom. 1:17 that righteousness is “from faithfulness to faithfulness” (GNM3-4). It starts with divine faithfulness and results in the faithfulness of the saints. Generally, Paul reserves the noun for divine ‘faithfulness’ and speaks of the ‘faithfulness of Messiah’ and uses a verb phrase to describe the commitment of the saints, “become trustingly faithful.” All forms of the word ‘believe’ should be rendered to connote loyalty, i.e. trustingly faithful, or being faithful.
If we visit Eph. 2:8, briefly, it says “For by loving-kindness you have been saved, (through faithfulness). And this is not from you...” (GNM3-4). What is not from us? Paul is speaking here of salvation from the penalty of sin, eternal death. For by loving-kindness refers to mercy or grace. Paul’s word is broader and comes from the Hebrew חֶסֶד chesed. Paul’s phrase, ‘this is not from you’ refers not to ‘faithfulness’ as the syntax would conflict. ‘This’ does not agree with the gender of faithfulness, but is neuter to agree with the mixed genders of the first phrase, “For by loving-kindness you have been saved.” To make it clear in English we would have to add a phrase for clarity, “For by loving-kindness you have been saved, through faithfulness, and [this salvation by grace] is not from you....” Of course, if Paul here meant Messiah’s faithfulness, which he could have, then at least his faithfulness could be included in the words ‘this is not from you.’ But I think not in this case. “Through faithfulness” is included to indicate a condition necessary to receive the grace. One can refer to Exodus 20:6 to see this: “showing loving-kindness to thousands that love me and keep my commandments.” It also says, “If you will keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; just as I have been keeping my Făther’s commandments, and remain in his love” (GNM4) (John 15:10).
Theologians have called what I am talking about here as synergism or the cooperating faithfulness of the saints. Most have given into the thinking of Augustine and Calvin and do not accept synergism. Their solution is to say that ‘faith’ itself is a gift, and hence there is nothing man can do in way of response to divine faithfulness. Let us now turn to Roman’s 4 and see if this is so. “What then will we say our forefather Abraham found according to the flesh? For when Abraham, was made righteous by works, he had praise, but not against the Almĭghty” (GNM3-4; Rom 4:1-2). We have to remember that Abraham obeyed Yahweh, when he was asked to offer up Isaac, and that this act was termed righteousness by works (Jas. 2:24), and a fulfillment of Gen. 15:6. Therefore, I don’t translate ‘if Abraham was made righteous by works’ but ‘when’ according to the Hebrew use of אִם. Paul then says ‘he had praise.’ He is conceding the point, if it had been a point against him by some opponent. But he does add “but not against the Almighty” using the word ‘toward’ (πρὸς) in a manner common to Hebrew idiom (אֶל). Such usage is found in Gen. 4:8. Abraham’s righteousness by works is not a theory or hypothetical as some wish to make it. It was as real as his faithful trust in Yahweh, and was accounted to him as righteousness. And Paul now quotes it, “For what is the Scripture saying? And Abraham was trustingly faithful in Yăhweh, and it was accounted to him as righteousness” (GNM3-4).
Paul’s genius shows itself in a fast switch to drash (homily) in vs. 4-6, but us poor earthlings need to pay attention so that we are not left behind: “4 Now with respect to the working the reward is not accounted as a favor, but according to what is due. 5 But with respect to the not working (but faithfully trusting upon the one who renders justice to the ungodly) His faithfulness is accounted as justice, 6 just as David also speaks about the blessing of the man to whom the Almĭghty is accounting justice apart from works” (GNM3-4).
Firstly, Paul is not contrasting two people, one who works for salvation and one who does nothing at all. He is talking about two behaviors in the same person, namely Abraham (as his example), who at times does what is he supposed to do, and is accounted righteous, and at others does not do what he is supposed to do, and some bad things happen because of it (remember Hagar and Ishmael) or Abraham’s fib to Pharaoh in Egypt? Abraham is not here sinning with a high hand, but in ignorance and in circumstance. So he is still faithfully trusting the one who renders justice to the impious. Paul talks about this in Roman 7. In his heart he serves the law of the Most High, but his flesh the rule of sin.
Here is Paul’s stroke of genius, “ But with respect to the not working (but faithfully trusting upon the one who renders justice to the ungodly) His faithfulness is accounted as justice.” He is now drashing Gen. 15:6, “He had been putting his support on Yahweh, and IT (the support) was counted as justice.” What is the support? The support is the faithfulness of Messiah. Furthermore, Paul has used a sense of ‘righteousness’ meaning ‘justice’ and has referred to Messiah’s work at the crucifixion. The point is that if we sin, then Messiah has paid the penalty, and justice is accounted to have been done on the tree.
Remember, the ungodly are not justified (declared righteous), but Yahweh does justice to them. If we keep this in mind, then we understand that Messiah’s faithfulness to die for our sin is needed to complete the Most High’s justice. Paul picks the word tzedakah in Gen 15:6 (צְדָקָה), and he gives it the meaning ‘justice’ which is native to the Greek equivalent (δικαιοσύνην). I have corrected the meaning of ‘justify’ in other articles. It means ‘to do justice (to)” someone, and this is the usual sense in Greek. It is a corrective justice. As for being declared righteous, no one who is guilty can be declared righteous. Acquittal is out of the question, and actually the Torah prohibits declaring the wicked righteous in any case.
Now of course, we know that in Gen. 15:6 it was Abraham’s trusting faithfulness in Yahweh that had been counted as righteousness. What Paul has done is drash the verse as if the beginning of it went like this, “And He (Messiah) has been trustingly faithful (to die for sin) in Yahweh, and IT was counted to him (Abraham) for justice.” Now I say drash or homily, because in this method of interpretation almost anything goes that is theologically acceptable. Drash is not a method of proof. It is a method of illustration, of saying more than the text says by connecting words and phrases in the text. It could be termed fancy literary allusion to say something old or new in an interesting way.
Let us go back to Gen. 15:6 and see that Paul’s drash is a bit tighter (closer to the facts) considering the Hebrew. The Hebrew root אמן means ‘to support’, and underlies the sense of faithfully trust. Literally the text means, ‘he had been putting support on Yahweh’ (הֶאֱמִן ביהוה). Now to put support on someone means that that someone has to themselves be a support. That is the meaning of covenant. The very first use of אֱמוּנָה in the Scripture is in Exodus 17:12, where is is really a passive participle: אֲמוּנָה. This means ‘being supported’: ‘So his hands were supported until the going down of the sun.’ The LXX agrees, ‘ἐστηριγμέναι’, ‘having been supported.’ ‘And he put his support on YHWH (who is support) and it was counted to him as justice.’ Now there is no word ‘it’ in Hebrew. The word ‘it’ is in fact feminine: וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ. Please note the הָ on the end. The word אֱמוּנָה is also feminine. Yet the verb construction הֶאֱמִן, and he made support, is all masculine. So the הָ refers back to the underlying ‘faithfulness’ which is mutual. ‘So he had made support on Yahweh, and it (support) was accounted to him [as] justice/righteousness.’
Paul is simply extracting two aspects of Gen. 15:6, ‘So he made support on Yahweh.’ This connotes both giving his active support, loyalty, being faithful, and also making Yahweh is support. In this latter sense Yahweh is the support. The Most High is the faithful one who keeps his covenant and upholds Israel. So where our faithfulness fails in perfection due to the flesh, Messiah’s faithfulness satsisfies the justice of the Almighty, “just as David also speaks about the blessing of the man to whom the Almĭghty is accounting justice apart from works.” Messiah’s stepping in and taking the stroke due to us was His work. Therefore, it is apart from our works. Now let us return to the popular version of Rom. 4:5-6, “But to the one [a separate person from vs. 4] who does not work [obeys no commandments], but believes [only] in Him who justifies [declares right] the ungodly, his [own] faith is reckoned as righteousness...righteousness apart from works:” Yep this is the popular version, and it contradicts Scripture left and right. The Calvinists and Augustinians interpret it this way, and pronounce damnation on anyone who does not see it their way. The faith of the believer is now totally disconnected from doing anything. Taken this way ‘faith’ is believe only, without works.
The truth of the matter is that Paul is talking about Messiah’s faithfulness without our works in the matter of making forgiveness of sins. So once again here is what Paul really meant, “But with respect to the not working (but faithfully trusting upon the one who renders justice to the ungodly) His faithfulness [on the cross] is accounted as justice, 6 just as David also speaks about the blessing of the man to whom the Almĭghty is accounting justice apart from works.”
Now this essay has gotten long I know, but I really wish to get the knife deep into Calvinism. We don’t want the zombie to revive. The translations put “to the one working” making it sound like a different person than vs. 4. Paul’s Greek is simply, “to/for the yet working” (τῷ δὲ ἐργαζομένῳ). There is no ‘one’ the text. Paul simply means ‘the /case/’ of not working, which is really saying ‘in case our obedience is incomplete.’
Now Paul is not teaching a way to be perfect here. Our faithfulness such as it is is short of perfection. And Messiah’s faithfulness to die for the sin only pertains to taking the penalty that was due to us. It does not yet render us perfect, or even accounted as perfect. Messiah’s righteousness (faithfulness) does render us perfect when he returns. So his faithfulness is imputed to us in the final sense in the eschaton, i.e. last days. The Most High does not need to view us as perfect to forgive our sin in the present before we are perfected.
The Calvinistic notion of imputed righteousness actually claims that the believer must be seen as completely righteous to be acquitted. This view of the matter fails to reckon with the permenant results of sin. For while some may repent and be forgiven, any sins the saints have done go on to deal out death to others, to cause everlasting harm. For because of Adam’s sin many die, and many will end up in the lake of fire, yet Adam himself repented, and the promise was given. The eternal results of sin are such that the Most High regretted that he had made man. Therefore, the notion that the Almighty can be totally compensated for sin is nonsensical. To be compensated in full requires that all the results of the wrong be rewound and undone! Messiah therefore took the stroke that was due to us, such as the Almighty in his mercy required for His justice. But Yahweh’s justice is not the justice of the Calvinists. Their justice is based on a philosophy of utter and complete compensation for everything. If you think about it, such justice has no mercy in it, but has painted the Almighty as a hard and cruel despot, whose ‘glory’ prevents him from simply forgiving the unpayable (uncompensatable) part of the debt. Make no mistake about it, Calvinism and Augustianism epitomize the mystery of lawlessness.
1. ^ The quoted text is from the fourth edition of Good News of Messiah (not available yet). The third edition reads, "Even we to Messiah Yeshua have pledged trusting faithfulness, so that we may have justice satisfied by the faithfulness of Messiah on the cross, and not by the customary works, because by the customary works will no flesh satisfy justice." It is very difficult to render an ancient text that requires the meanings of two or more Enlgish words to explain. The third edition is not incorrect, but tends to obscure the idea of ongoing correction of life by the faithfulness of Messiah too much in my opinion. This fault is due to the limitations of the English language, and my imperfect ability to squeeze every sense communicated by the Greek into English. GNM3 = third edition, GNM3-4, the third and fourth; GNM4 = fourth is not exactly the same as the third. No distinictions are for 1st and 2nd edition. I will probably keep the 3rd edition available.