Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood St Paul, Part 8: Justification in the Old Testament

By January 15, 2016 Apologetics 16 Comments

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.


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.


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.

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  • Sharon says:

    I have been Catholic all of my life, so for me it is not hard to understand your view point. Let me give you an example to show you what I see from your writing. Suppose you use the word innocent in place of justified. Now lets suppose you and three other guys are in a room and I am in another room in the same house. All of a sudden I hear a loud crash and go running towards the room where you are standing.. There on the floor is a vase smashed to pieces and you and two of the other guys are all staring at the fourth person. Now the person you are staring at says he did not break the vase. It goes in front of a judge and after viewing the video (nowadays there is always a video) the judge declares you are an “innocent” man. You did not do it, so you were innocent before the judge made his declaration. BUT, now everyone else also knows you are innocent. The judge did not legally transfer innocence into you, he just made the declaration, so everyone else would know what he already knew. It also does not mean you are entirely sinless. You may have committed all sorts of sins that you did not get caught doing. It just means you were innocent “this time” for breaking the vase.

    • Billy BEan says:

      That is an excellent illustration of the meaning of “justification” in this sense. To go a bit further, imagine that the person being stared at by the witnesses had actually been guilty of smashing the vase, but that the judge was also the owner of the vase. As such, the judge has every right to either impute guilt (which would actually make the guilty party “guilty”) OR to decline to press charges (would would legally justify the vase breaker, rendering him “not guilty”). Please notice that even in such a case, the judge has authority to actually MAKE a person “not guilty” by his decree, and in so doing, there is no mere “legal fiction” involved. If one of the witnesses or the guilty person himself had attempted this change of legal status by fiat, THAT would have been a “legal fiction,” and it would have been ineffectual. My point is that when God “declares” someone righteous, that person actually RECEIVES the status of righteousness. He BECOMES righteous before the divine law court. He WAS “guilty” before the judge, but is no longer so. The judge’s word has the power to EFFECT what it DECLARES.

  • LarryS says:

    For your comment pertaining to Gen 12 :4 – “Are we to imagine that Abraham didn’t have “true faith” back then…?” Well, Heb 11:8 tells us “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance, and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.” This is obviously referring to Gen 12:4. So it would appear, biblically, Abraham had “true faith” 3 chapters before Gen 15. Is this “saving faith”? In the context of Heb 11 it seems to be, unless you want to argue none of those in Heb 11 – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab – had “saving faith”, but some type of undetermined “faith”.

  • AnDrew Rahn says:

    as I finished reading this and “remaining” in Christ I kept thinking of Mary’s Assumption to heaven.
    Which I assume made her “righteous” “remaining in faith” ” to gnaw on”. I’ll let you add the foot notes “heare”. … . In tended.

    Was it not righteous and obedient that Abrham would have sacrificed his only Son . Especially for a God he had never seen. I assume the Lord Christ Jesus picked him up from the “quick and the dead”.

    Thank you for feeding us well with all the food for thought.

  • AnDrew Rahn says:

    Amen Amen Amen

  • Jeff Solinger says:

    Good series on describing very precisely the difference between the Catholic view on justification versus the Protestant view. However, when I was an Evangelical Protestant while in college, none of us could have explained the difference between imputed or infused righteousness. All of us would have stated that Christ had changed our lives – which we certainly would not have attributed to a legal declaration. My point: while the formal Protestant view of justification is not taught in the Bible, the reality of how most of them live their lives is consistent with Catholic doctrine. Faith Alone has been a sharp and divisive debate between Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation, but I think we violently disagree on a topic that in practice we are much closer on.

  • Done M Espina says:


  • Gabriel says:

    Hi Ken,

    I had never thought about those other instances in Scripture, particularly Psalm 106, to refute the Justification by faith as a one time thing. I have always used the fact that Abraham had already been a faithful man for a while to refute it. Thanks for your post. I am currently reading James White’s book and funny enough, some of his conclusions are more Catholic than Protestant.

  • Doug says:

    “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.”

    And, no doubt, herein lies the great divide between the Protestant reasoning from Scripture and the Church’s reasoning from Scripture. The implications of the above statement strike at the very heart of the atonement question and the nature of the Savior Himself. You rightly cite Deut.25 in conjunction with the judge declaring a person “righteous” who is, in fact, guiltless before the law. But when applying this to any of us standing inherently (actually) guiltless before God’s law how can we apply the same judgment? “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” You use the phrase (God) “sees him as actually being righteous” and surely that is true. But does the fact that God “sees” us as actually righteous mean that we ARE actually righteous? Paul tells us that God “calls those things that do NOT exist as though they did.” Isn’t that the traditional (not neo-evangelical) Protestant understanding of justification and how God “sees us” as truly righteous? Imputing the perfect obedience of Christ to our legal standing? If we are truly “in Christ” does God see only our righteousness? Too many questions from this one article to ask.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Hi Doug! You’re asking great and incisive questions but since I’m answering them in the next few posts I’m going to leave it for now.

      Just remember at this point that I’ve said a number of times that when God declares someone righteous it does’t have to mean that they are “perfectly righteous.” Options: God could “see” you as righteousness because Christ’s righteous has been legally credited to you (the Protestant view). God could “see” you as righteous because he has begun a process of making your righteous and he declares you to be now what you have begun to be but will fully be in the future. God could also “see”you as righteous because he forgives you. But I want to develop in the lessons…

      • Edward Hara says:

        I was just going to ask a question about the Christian and the Law, being that I am in a long-standing discussion with a Calvinist on this very issue – justification. The Calvinist insists that unless we are perfect keepers of the Law, we cannot be saved.

        Yet, reading Doug’s question, a thought suddenly hit me, and I would like to ask you if you think I am on the right track. Our relationship to God is not a relationship of LAW, but a relationship of father/child. In other words, it is not a legal relationship (or a relationship based on perfect law-keeping) but rather it is simply a relationship, that is, love between the Father and us as His children. We love God and express that love by our acts which come from a heart which desires to show Him love. He loves us not for being perfect, but simply because being Love itself, He can no other.

        And He accepts us as we are, not because we must be perfect.

        I would appreciate your comments on these thoughts.

        Thank you.

        • Ken Hensley says:

          Yes I think you’re on the right track, Edward.

          I’m going to be talking about this exact subject in the next post so I’ll leave it at that but yes. Even through Protestants think that their view is all about grace and the Catholic view about Law, ironically the entire Protestant way of looking at the relationship is one of LAW. God demands perfect Law-keeping. We can’t do it. So Jesus comes and keeps the Law perfectly and we are acceptable to God only if/when Christ’s perfect Law-keeping is legally credited to us so that God sees us as having perfectly kept the Law.

          Question: is that what the result of Jesus death and resurrection is — that God can look at us through the eyes of Law and accept us now because we appear as perfect Law-keepers?

        • Ken Hensley says:

          I’m imaging the father in the prodigal son saying, “Son, I can receive you but only if a perfect righteousness has been credited to your account. Otherwise, how can I possibly accept your imperfect repentance? I am of purer eyes then to behold iniquity!”

          Instead, before the son can even begin to mumble out his pathetic apology the father is embracing him and kissing him and calling to the servants to bring a robe and sandals and prepare a feast.

  • AnDrew Rahn says:

    Abraham was truly justified by faith alone because he believed in a God who no one has ever seen. But those who can not see the real presence of Jesus and knaw on His real presence have seen God.

    The old is also found in the new. Let us face it we do have to Work to true see the real Presence, heare. Pun intended.

  • Anzlyne says:

    ‘Joseph was a just man. and since he was just, he behaved in a righteous way after attending to the message from God. the man Abraham behaved (worked) in such a way that his action was accredited to him as righteousness.

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