Learning that Luther’s view of ‘justification’ was essentially brand new with him was a bit of a watershed moment for me.
It didn’t make me a Catholic. What it did was open me to the idea of looking again with fresh eyes at what Scripture had to say about justification. How strong are the biblical evidences in favor of Luther’s doctrine? How clear is it that justification should be understood as the ‘legal imputation’ of Christ’s righteousness? I was already familiar of course with the main passages and arguments, but learning that it had taken fifteen centuries for someone to see what Protestants took to be so clearly seeable in the New Testament (and especially in St Paul) that you’d almost have to be blind not to see it, well, this motivated me to take another look.
I began with the Old Testament.
WILL THE JURY PLEASE RISE
Deuteronomy 25:1 is a passage that appears in virtually every book written about justification by a Protestant theologian. The text is cited as evidence in favor of the Protestant conception that in justification we are ‘declared’ to be righteous (because Christ’s righteousness has been credited to us) and against the Catholic conception that in justification we are ‘made’ righteous.
“If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked…” (Deuteronomy 25:1).
There’s no doubt but that this passage supports the idea that ‘to justify is ‘to declare’ something as true. When a judge ‘justifies the righteous,’ he isn’t somehow making that person internally righteous. And when he ‘condemns the wicked’ he isn’t somehow making that person internally wicked. In both cases, what he’s ‘making’ is a declaration. To the righteous: “You are in the right. Go in peace!” To the wicked: “You are in the wrong. Off with your head!”
So the Protestant is correct in pointing out that the verb “to justify” (at least in the Old Testament) means “to declare one as being righteous,’ or ‘just,’ or ‘in the right” (all the same word in Hebrew).
But notice something: the declaration the judge makes is based on what he sees in the person.
He declares the ‘righteous’ to be ‘righteous’ because he sees him as actually being righteous. Not sinless. He’s not saying, “I see you as a sinless human being!” And neither is he saying, “I declare you righteous because the righteousness of this other person over there has been transferred legally to your account.” What he’s saying is, “So far as this court is concerned, you are in the right.”
This reading of Deuteronomy 25:1 fits beautifully with what we see in Isaiah 5:23, where the prophet mentions those “Who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away the rights of the ones who are in the right.”
Clearly, Isaiah is not envisioning a situation here where people are running around infusing righteousness into the wicked and making them internally just. Nor is he envisioning a situation where people are taking an ‘alien righteousness’ (Luther’s term) and crediting that righteous to the accounts of the wicked, making them righteous in the eyes of God.
His complaint is about those who for money declare the wicked to be just and those who are “in the right” to be guilty.
ABRAHAM RECKONED RIGHTEOUS
Now, in Genesis 15 we have the single most important example in the Old Testament of God declaring someone to be righteous. In fact, this is the key Old Testament passage Protestant theologians point to in support of their view of justification.
First, the setting. As Genesis 15 opens, Abraham is really struggling. After all, God has promised to make him the father of a multitude and nations and here he is almost a hundred years old with no offspring and a wife nearly as old and completely barren. The Lord takes him outside and says to him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your descendants be.” And then comes the crucial verse 6: “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
When Luther read this, and when Protestants read this, what they hear is, “Abraham believed God and God credited righteousness to his account.” They see this as a perfect illustration of someone being ‘justified by faith alone.’
However, think with me through the following three points and tell me if it doesn’t make more sense to read Genesis 15:6 as saying something very similar to what we just saw in Deuteronomy 25:1.
What does Genesis 15:6 actually say?
First, look at what the passage actually says when read in a straightforward and natural way.
It doesn’t say, “Abraham believed the Lord and Lord reckoned righteous to him.” What it says is: “Abraham believed the Lord and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” In other words, Abraham’s faith was reckoned as righteousness.
And since the word translated “reckoned” here can also be translated ‘credited,’ ‘imputed,’ ‘considered,’ ‘counted’ — any of these — the most natural reading is that the Lord looked at Abraham’s faith and counted his faith, reckoned his faith, considered his faith as righteousness. God declared Abraham to be a righteous man.
By the way, even if you choose ‘impute’ as your translation, the word doesn’t usually mean ‘legally impute.’ For instance, when my wife ‘imputes’ evil motives to me (it has happened several times) never even once has she meant that evil motives have been transferred in from another person and legally credited to me. She just means that she ‘considers’ my motives to be evil.
In the same way, I don’t believe this passage has anything to do with imputed righteousness in the Protestant sense. The idea that what Genesis 15:6 is talking about a moment in which Abraham believed and an alien righteousness was imported from the outside and credited to Abraham’s account, well, I think it’s this notion that being imported from the outside. It isn’t in the text.
What is being said here in Genesis 15:6 is similar to what we find in Nehemiah 9:7-8:
“You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham; and you found his heart faithful before you, and made a covenant to give his descendants the land…”
What does the closest parallel in the Old Testament say to us?
Second, there’s a parallel passage to Genesis 15:6 in the Old Testament that, to employ a technical exegetical term known only to learned biblical scholars, “totally blew me away” when I first saw it and realized its implications.
You will probably agree that Phinehas the grandson of Aaron isn’t exactly the most prominent figure in the Bible. In fact, he’s one of the more obscure Old Testament characters, making his appearance in one of the more obscure passages of the Old Testament, the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Numbers.
Here’s the setting. The Israelites have begun to ‘play the harlot’ with the daughters of Moab. They’re committing fornication with the women. They’re offering sacrifices and bowing down to their gods. The Lord’s anger is kindled and he sends a plague among them. Meanwhile, Moses and the faithful of Israel are weeping before the tent of meeting and crying out to God.
In the middle of all this, an Israelite man has the unmitigated gall to bring a Midianite woman into his tent in the sight of Moses and the whole congregation of the people of Israel.
It’s at this point that Phinehas makes his ‘grand entry’ into the story.
“When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed…” (Numbers 25:7-8).
Now, for those of you who are thinking, What in the world could this possibly have to do with the biblical doctrine of justification? all I can think to say is, strap on your theological seat belts.
In Psalm 106:28-31 this event is recalled. I ask you to listen carefully to what is said here about our hero Phinehas:
“[The Israelites] attached themselves to the Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; they provoked the Lord to anger with their doings, and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.”
Here’s why this passage is so important. Apart from Genesis 15:6 and Paul’s reference to it in the New Testament, this is the only place in the entire Bible where we find the words “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
If what Genesis 15 is teaching is that when Abraham believed, the Lord credited righteousness to Abraham’s account, then Psalm 106 must be teaching that when Phinehas ran into that tent and impaled those two, the Lord did the same for him. If Genesis 15 is teaching justification by ‘faith alone,’ is Psalm 106 teaching justification by ‘zeal alone’? Or justification by ‘execution alone’?
I’d like to see a show of hands. How many of you reading this think Psalm 106 is teaching us is that when Phinehas entered that tent and pinned that man and woman to the ground with his spear, God legally credited the righteousness of Christ to his account?
Isn’t the most natural reading of both Genesis 15 and Psalm 106 to say that in both cases God is looking at the heart of these men and simply ‘declaring’ them to be righteous men, ‘accounting’ them to be righteous, ‘considering’ them to be righteous?
In Abraham’s case, it’s his faith that is emphasized. In the case of Phinehas, it’s his zeal for God’s holiness. In other places in Scripture it is a person’s obedience that is emphasized. Thus Noah is described in Genesis 6:9 as being “a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” Thus Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist are described in Luke 1:6 as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” Thus we read that because Joseph was a “righteous man” (Matthew 1:19) he thought to put away Mary quietly when he discovered that she was with child.
As we saw in Deuteronomy 25, in the thinking of scripture, describing a man or woman as “righteous” doesn’t mean that the person is perfectly righteous, a sinless human being. Nor does it mean that a perfect righteousness must have been transferred to them and credited to some ‘account’ that they have. It just means: This is a faithful and obedient person.
And when God declares someone as righteous or reckons someone as righteous in the Old Testament, he’s just saying that this person is in ‘right standing’ within the covenant, that this is a faithful and obedient person.
When exactly was Abraham justified?
One final problem with the Protestant interpretation of Genesis 15:6 and support for the interpretation I’ve given here.
Imagine the Protestant view is correct. Imagine that Genesis 15:6 really is describing the moment when Abraham was ‘justified by faith alone’ and God’s own righteousness or the righteousness of Christ was legally imputed to Abraham and he was ‘saved.’
What are we to make, then, of the fact that at the time this event took place, Abraham had already been walking in the steps of faith for something like twenty-five years?
Doesn’t the Protestant doctrine insist that justification is something that takes place only once and is completed at the moment one first believes? But Abraham responded in faith to God’s call all the way back in Genesis 12, when God appeared to him and commanded him to leave his family and follow him to a land he’d never seen and Abraham “went, as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4). Are we to imagine that Abraham didn’t have ‘true faith’ back then and wasn’t ‘justified’ back then?
These are things I came to over time as I mulled over these passages with fresh eyes and read not simply what Protestant theologians had to say about them but (for the first time) what Catholic theologians had to say as well.
I knew that in Catholicism salvation is viewed as a process that involves not simply coming to Christ but remaining in him. “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me…” (John 15). I also knew that in Catholicism the declaration of God is viewed as based on what he actually sees as true in us, as God washes our hearts clean and gives to us the virtues of faith, hope and love. And so it made sense that God could look at someone like Abraham, maybe even numerous times throughout his life, see Abraham’s faith, his zeal, his obedience, his love and “reckon this as righteousness” — declare him to be a righteous man.
Exactly like when the Lord “found [Abraham’s] heart faithful . . . and made a covenant to give his descendants the land” (Nehemiah 9:8). Exactly like when the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation” (Genesis 7:1). God doesn’t have to see perfect righteousness to say that someone is righteous before him.
As evangelicals like to say, we’re not under law but under grace. God is merciful.
On the other hand, I didn’t see anything in the Old Testament that supported the idea that justification is all about the legal transfer of righteousness from one account to another. Worse, since I was still a Protestant minister at the time, it seemed that even the most important Old Testament illustration Protestants had been wheeling out for five hundred years to demonstrate that the Catholic view of justification is wrong and the Protestant view is right, backfired under close examination.
Abraham and Genesis 15:6 reminded me of Balaam, who was hired to curse Israel but found he could do nothing but bless him.
At the same time, I was eager to move from the Old Testament into the New and see if the landscape changed. After all, isn’t it the New Testament apostle St Paul who insisted that we are “justified by faith and not by works of the Law”?
In other words, don’t touch that dial.