Abraham Was Justified

For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous [or justified]. – Romans 2:13

How exactly does this verse square with the doctrine of justification by faith? Even more importantly, how does this square with the statement in the next chapter of Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified [same word] freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24)? In Romans 2, it is obedience to the law which justifies; in Romans 3, it is the free grace of God which justifies. What’s up with that?

The answer lies in the notion of semantic range. Words can have a range of meanings. Which particular meaning is in view depends on the context in which the word is used.

The Greek word dikaioo, translated “justify,” can mean “count as righteous,” which is the sense Paul is using in Romans 3 (and elsewhere in Romans where justification by faith is expounded). But it can also mean “prove right.” A vernacular example of this usage of justify might be: “The Cardinals’ play in the National League Championship Series justifies my preseason prediction.” The fact that they are playing for the pennant justifies (proves right) my preseason claim.

It is this second use of dikaioo which both Paul (Romans 2:13) and James (James 2:24) are using when they speak of justification by works. The case study for both types of justification is Abraham (see Romans 4:1-3 and James 2:20-26), which should be your first clue that there is no tension between the two – the same guy demonstrates both. Here is a succinct quote from the study notes in my Bible that sums it up neatly:

Paul consistently referred to Abraham’s faith as exercised in Genesis 15:1-6 [as a model of justification by faith]. In the Genesis 15 account, justify means “count as righteous:” “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Ge 15:6). James, however, recalled an episode (recorded in Genesis 22) that took place after Isaac had been born and grown into young adulthood. In the Genesis 22 account, “justify” means “proved right,” as indicated by the fact that God was testing Abraham and that Abraham’s justification consisted in his passing the test: “Now I know that you fear God” (Ge 22:12). James agreed with Paul that Abraham was initially counted as righteous when he believed God’s promise (Jas 2:22-23), but he added that Abraham’s later obedience proved the earnestness of his earlier faith.

The proper understanding of Romans 2:13, in light of the rest of Romans, is that “a believer’s later obedience proves the earnestness of his (or her) earlier faith.” We are justified (declared righteous, at the moment of salvation) by faith. And we are justified (proved right, at the end of life) by obedience. Or, as the Reformers said, “We are saved by faith alone; but the faith that saves is never alone.”


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  1. You are close on your essay, but seem to be omitting a few things…

    Paul’s Ordo Salutis

    1. God has predetermined
    · That those with faith would be resurrected to glory (Rom. 8:29)
    · Predestination language highlights God’s sovereignty (Rom. 9:18-21) and the honor of the “elect”
    · without contradicting the possibility for any individual to call on the Lord (10:13)
    · or the need for human choice
    · Paul does not work out the philosophy (e.g., Rom. 11:11-12).
    · Paul is focused more on groups than individuals.

    2. Gentiles begin “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20)

    3. Jews begin “under the Law”
    · The Jewish Law
    · They don’t keep the Law to “get in” but to “stay in”—they have a covenantal relationship with Yahweh.
    · Jews do not believe that “works of Law” ultimately justify them—grace of God, who has set up things like repentance, sacrifice, etc… as a basis for acceptance.
    · But works of Law are an essential response to God’s patronage.
    · “Works of Law” refer in general to deeds of the Jewish law, but seem to refer especially to the finer points that related to Jewish ethnic boundaries like circumcision, food laws, etc…
    · Law confirms to a Jew that s/he is a sinner (Rom. 7:7).
    · Law aggravates sin—under the power of Sin makes the Jew even more sinful (Rom. 5:20; 7:8).

    4. Sanctification
    · Means made “holy,” touching God and thus “watch out; that wire is live.”
    · Can be used of unbelievers or children “sanctified” by a believing spouse or parent (1 Cor. 7:14).
    · Applies to believers who have received the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13), and involves the cleansing of past sins (1 Cor. 6:11)
    · Implies a certain care with regard to how we live—you don’t want to get shocked (“this is the will of God, even your sanctification”: 1 Thess. 4:3)
    · Demands a complete “purity” (otherwise the water conducts and will shock) (1 Thess. 5:23)

    5. Atonement
    · Reconciliation with God achieved solely through the offering of Jesus (5:10)
    · Satisfies God’s righteousness and wrath (Rom. 3:25)
    · Christ died “for us” and “for sin” but not “for our sin” in any legalistic way (2 Cor. 5:21)
    · We receive forgiveness and pardon (not prominent Pauline concepts)

    6. Justification
    · “Initial” justification relates to the non guilty verdict we receive when we trust in what God has done through Jesus Christ and confess Jesus as Lord (Rom. 5:1; 10:9).
    · The process is exactly the same for both Jew and Gentile (Rom. 3:23-24)
    · While Jesus was justified in accordance with his innocence, Jews and Gentiles are only justified because of his faithfulness unto death (Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:16).
    · However, “final” justification before the judgment seat of Christ requires us to remain blameless through the power of the Holy Spirit, to keep by nature Christ’s law, which is the law of love (2 Cor. 5:10).

    7. Salvation
    · Primarily future oriented for Paul—“having been justified we will be saved”—relates to the Day of Wrath when we escape God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9-10).
    · Paul can speak proleptically of it in the present or past tense

    8. Glorification
    · Paul can speak in the present of being transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18).
    · When we are resurrected, Christ will transform our bodies to be like his glorious body (Phil. 3:21)
    · We will then fulfill Psalm 8 and God’s initial intention for humanity.

  2. Wesley, thanks for your post. You obviously have a pretty deep understanding of the nature and order of salvation as taught in Romans.

    My point, however, wasn’t to outline Paul’s entire ordo salutis, but simply to speak to the language of Romans 2:13, which you did not address directly. Your point 6 does approach the same point (though I think your distinction between “initial” and “final” justification muddies the waters a bit. I see your point, but would prefer different language.)

    But hey, on a theological exam, I would give you a B+. Maybe an A-. You don’t get an A+ because your Wesleyan view of predestination (though clearly very well thought-out) does not square with Romans 8:29 (where the word “faith” is not mentioned, contrary to your very first bullet point).

    But that’s OK, we like thoughtful Wesleyans. We’ll keep you around, whomever you are. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

  3. Wesley,

    You might read Piper’s “Justification of God: Exegesis on Romans 9:1-23” if you believe that Paul is talking about groups instead of individuals in Romans 9…

    (not sure if these posts get bumped or if this will fall into oblivion but oh well)

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