Christian TraditionsRoman CatholicSalvationTheology & Spirituality

Justification in Catholicism, Part II: Romans 4

In my last post, I promised my readers that I would post a follow-up argument from the Scriptures on behalf of the “Catholic interpretation of ‘justification by faith:’ i.e., continual, infused righteousness, sacramentally transmitted, on the basis of faith that is ongoing and uninterrupted by mortal sin.” After I began an outline for that argument, I quickly realized I could not do it justice in a single post. Therefore, I have narrowed my argument in this second part to an examination of Romans 4, one of the key texts (if not the key text) in the Protestant-Catholic debate on justification. I hope that my interpretive efforts will be sufficient to clarify Paul’s beliefs about justification, as well as to lay a groundwork for a traditional, Catholic understanding of the salvation process.

The Apostle uses two texts to drive his point on justification home: Genesis 15 and Psalm 32. Both texts are extremely informative. Paul’s decision to quote Genesis 15, the passage where God promises descendants to Abraham, is revealing for several reasons. First, Genesis 15 is not the point where the Bible first speaks of Abraham having justifying faith. In fact, Abraham first displayed God-pleasing faith when he left Ur to follow God in Genesis 12: as Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance” (Hebrews 11:8). Importantly, the author of Hebrews (regardless of whether or not he was St. Paul) indisputably uses “faith” in the Pauline sense of the word, so attempts to argue that Abraham only showed a dead faith in Genesis 12 bear little weight from a Protestant or Catholic perspective.

However, if Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 12, then the traditional Protestant understanding of justification demands that his justification end there. Unlike sanctification, justification is a one-time, imputed event in Protestant theology. It is not repeated and not continual. Abraham cannot be justified in Genesis 12 and also in Genesis 15.

However, this is exactly what Romans 4 indicates. The Apostle clearly believes that Genesis 15 was a justifying event. St. Paul quotes Genesis 15—“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3)—and uses that verse to prove that justification is through faith, not works of the law. This statement is easy to accept if one understands that justification is a continual process, but difficult to believe otherwise. If justification is a one-time event, then Paul has misidentified Abraham’s moment of justification, since that process already occurred in Genesis 12.

My most intelligent Protestant friends tell me that Paul is not concerned with the specific moment of justification when he quotes Genesis 15. Rather, he uses Genesis 15—a passage which, they tell me, merely gives the reader further evidence of Abraham’s justification by faith in Genesis 12—to establish that justification is through faith. In this understanding of the text, the precise events and timeline of Genesis 15 are unimportant. Only the principle of faith and justification is important for Paul’s purposes; Genesis 15 is a reflection of that principle, not an account of Abraham’s moment of justification.

This approach runs counter to the rest of the text. Paul is imminently concerned with proving that Genesis 15 is an actual moment of justification. He takes the time to point out the timeline in which the events of Genesis unfold: “How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised” (Romans 4:10). The only reason why Paul would point this out is if he believes that the moment in time that Genesis 15 occurs in is an actual moment of justification.    

The text of Genesis 15 itself also leaves little doubt that Abraham’s reckoning of righteousness was a direct result of his belief of God’s promise in Genesis 15. The Scripture simply reads that the Lord “brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:5-6). There is no gap between the specific, Genesis 15 promise and the act of reckoning; there is nothing to lead the reader to conclude that the reckoning is separate from the belief in Genesis 15.

Furthermore, Romans painstakingly documents the particular promise in which Abraham believes, and is subsequently reckoned as righteous for believing. That promise is, word-for-word, the promise given in Genesis 15: “So shall your descendants be” (Romans 4:18, Genesis 15:5). While a somewhat related promise which also makes a reference (albeit brief) to descendants appears in Genesis 12, Paul does not quote from that Scripture to recount the point of Abraham’s justification. That is not to say that Abraham did not have justifying faith in Genesis 12, of course: Hebrews 11 makes this fact quite clear. Rather, it shows that Abraham experienced multiple instances of justification.

If we allow James’ discussion of justification to be considered in this exegesis, which I think we should for the reasons I outlined in my previous essay, the case becomes stronger still. James 2 references the events of Genesis 22—Abraham’s offering of Isaac—as a third moment of justification for Abraham. The sojourner from Ur is a classic example of how man is justified by faith, but he is also an example of how justification is a continual process. In the course of ten chapters, Abraham is (according to the New Testament) justified three different times.

Before we go into a linguistic analysis of Genesis 15 and Paul’s quotation of it, I should note that the phrase “reckoned to him as righteousness,” used to describe Abraham’s justification, only appears one other time in the Old Testament: Psalm 106. The relevant passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

“Then they attached themselves to the Ba′al of Pe′or,

and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;

they provoked the Lord to anger with their doings,

and a plague broke out among them.

Then Phin′ehas stood up and interposed,

and the plague was stayed.

And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness

from generation to generation for ever” (Psalm 106:28-31).

The incident which the Psalmist is recalling is recorded in Numbers 25. Phin’ehas, overcome by righteous anger, stabs an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who boldly engaged in inappropriate relations such that the spear went through the woman and into the man. On account of his action, the Lord stays a plague that He had inflicted upon the Israelites.

Phin’ehas’ act is clearly a work. Yet the Psalmist uses the exact same phrase to describe the reward for Phin’ehas’ action that he does to describe Abraham’s justification. Furthermore, it seems clear that the Psalmist (or, at the very least, the Holy Spirit) would be aware that the phrase “reckoned to him as righteousness” was only used in one other place in the Old Testament; Phine’has’ action and Abraham’s belief alone merit the usage of this precise expression. Therefore, it seems clear that the phrase “reckoned to him as righteousness” should be understood as something that can happen as a result of faith and works. It also seems clear, if one assumes that Phine’has’ righteous anger shows that he had, at some time prior, adopted a faith in God, that Phine’has also experienced multiple justification events. Therefore, in both cases that the phrase “reckoned to him as righteousness” is used (presumably used both times as a synonym for justification), it refers to a continual process that involves works as well as faith.

If we accept that everything I have said so far is true, then the interpretative battle between Catholics and Protestants on the meaning of Romans 4 is considerably weighted towards the Catholic side. Rather than a one-time event brought about by faith alone, justification seems to be a continual process that relies on both faith and works (keeping in mind, of course, that the works Paul condemns are works of the Law, a matter which I discussed in my previous essay).

The phrase “reckoned to him as righteousness” also helps clear up the matter of imputed vs. infused righteousness. The key word in this phrase is “reckoned,” or λογίζομαι (logizomai). While much more educated men than me have discussed the etymology, usage, and translation of this word, I will point out one important truth here: the lexical range of this word in the Scripture (and, to my knowledge, in the whole of Greek literature) indicates a consideration or a regarding of some such thing as being some such thing. That conclusion may, of course, be incorrect: for example, the Scripture says that Christ “was reckoned with transgressors” (Luke 22:37). However, in this context, Scripture heavily implies that there was in error in reckoning. The purpose of reckoning is to reckon correctly. For example, Paul uses this word in Romans 8:18 when he says that “I consider (Λογίζομαι) that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

God’s reckoning, of course, would not have any error. He would correctly judge the condition of a man. Therefore, when the Scripture says that “it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” it should be understood to mean that God correctly recognized that Abraham’s faith (or Phine’has’ work) was righteous. This is in stark contrast to the traditional Protestant interpretation, which casts God’s reckoning as a kind of transfer of alien righteousness. Given the Greek, this interpretation seems untenable.  

While I am performing this amatuer Greek translation, I might as well address the other crucial word in Romans 4: “justify,” or δικαιόω (dikaioó). Of course, this word implies a legal declaration of righteousness. What is less well-known is that the word entails an accurate judgment regarding the true state of something (or someone). Δικαιόω and its cognates are always used in this sense throughout the Bible. The clearest meaning of the word is apparent when people in the New Testament “justify” their actions or God’s actions (Luke 10:29, Acts 19:40, etc.). It is unthinkable to say that this justification is separate from reality. Yet Protestant doctrine teaches that justification is not a reflection of inward reality, but rather a judicial decree apart from our true state. This is simply not good Greek. Only Catholic doctrine of “infused righteousness” (that is to say, we are justified by God’s gracious renewal of our inward state) fits the obvious sense of δικαιόω.

We will discuss the interpretative ramifications for this in a moment. Before that, we must establish a basic understanding of the other text Paul quotes in Romans 4: Psalm 32. The quotation reads as follows: “So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin” (Romans 4:6-8).

Interestingly, this text (the second Old Testament text that Paul uses to discuss his view of justification) also does not point to an initial moment of faith. In fact, it refers to David’s faith in God after he committed some sin (possibly the sin with Bathsheba). In any case, this incident also occurs after David’s first justification. Our initial conclusions, drawn from Paul’s choice to quote Genesis 15 rather than Genesis 12, seem to be further reinforced by this second Old Testament reference. In neither case does Paul reference a one-time event; the Catholic view of continual justification seems to be a better fit for the argument Paul makes.

Of course, one could argue that David is merely making reference to his imputed righteousness when he pronounces this blessing. However, the context of Psalm 32 seems to heavily imply that David’s initial justification is not the justifying event to which the Psalm is referring. Instead, Psalm 32:3-5 says that:

“When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to thee,

and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my trangressions to the Lord”;

then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. Selah”

This portion of the Psalm seems to prove that the justifying event to which Psalm 32 points is an event of repentance, not of initial conversion. The last part of Psalm 32:5 indicates a chronological order: “I said, “I will confess my trangressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). It seems obvious that David experienced true justification before confessing the sin referred to in Psalm 32, but at the same time, David admits that the Lord forgave his sin after confessing. Once again, this seems entirely possible if justification is continual, but seems to undermine a view that justification occurs at one moment in time.

One last textual argument that regards Romans 4 should be addressed. I have already pointed out in a separate article how Romans 4:25 reflects upon the Catholic and Protestant theories of atonement, so rather than rehash my arguments I will merely link to that post and urge the reader to consider my commentary on Romans 4:25 an extension of this article.

In sum, I think that a Catholic reading of Romans 4, using the definitions of faith, works, justification, and reckoning that I have so far discussed, fits the text much better than the Protestant alternative. The Old Testament context, as well as the wording that Paul chooses to adopt, seems to strongly indicate uniquely Catholic presuppositions about soteriology. In my next post, I will continue this series by taking a broader look at the Pauline epistles, using the interpretative framework I have attempted to establish in this post.


Image from Daniel Steinberg and found here.

Christian McGuire

Christian McGuire

Christian was raised in an evangelical, Calvinist family with a deep love for Christ. However, his conversations with members of other Christian traditions gradually led him to question some of his preconceptions. After six years of research into Scripture, Church History, miracles, and philosophy, he was confirmed into the Catholic Church. His favorite Christian thinkers include G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, and Saint Augustine, his confirmation saint.

Previous post

The End of Protestantism | Book Review

Next post

The Insufficiency of Spontaneous Prayer