Genesis 15:6 in Paul and James

As one my commenters noticed, I forgot to come back to the issue of Genesis 15:6 as it has been used in Paul and in James. So, let’s deal with that here. First, a brief look at Genesis 15:6.

וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה׃

“And he believed in YHWH, and He credited it for him righteousness.”

In the original context, Abram believed God’s promises, specifically concerning those of the (S)seed. Abram wondered about a few things (particularly concerning his heir, which at the time appeared to be Eliezer of Damascus). But finally the Lord told him that it would be an heir from his own body that would initialize the multiplication of the seed into a number too great to count, as great as the number of the stars. Therefore, we cannot separate the faith of Abram from the promise of the (S)seed. Abram not only believed the Lord’s Word, but he also believed in the promised Seed, Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham. Of course, there was a near fulfillment in the person of Isaac, and the multiplication of Israel. However, this is not the climactic fulfillment that Jesus Christ was. This will do for a basic understanding of the passage in its original context.

We need to raise the problem of Paul and James in its acutest sense so that we can get a feel for the issues involved. Paul and James seem to contradict each other right at this point. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 in order to prove that justification is by faith and not by works of any kind (the relevant passage here is Romans 4:1-8).  James quotes Genesis 15:6 in order to say that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” As many people have noted (somewhat gleefully, I might add), the phrase “by faith alone” technically appears only in here in James 2, and that to be denied! What are we to make of this?

The road that Shepherd takes us on is the Arminian interpretation of imputation with regard to Genesis 15:6, which is that it is faith itself that is reckoned to take the place of righteousness (see Way of Righteousness, p. 30). This is  what Shepherd says: “What is credited or imputed to Abraham? The answer is his faith. The faith he had was reckoned to his account as righteousness. Faith and the obedience flowing from faith are of a piece with one another and together they constitute the righteousness of Abraham” (emphasis original). Notice here that it is not Christ’s righteousness that is here imputed, according to Shepherd, but rather the believer’s own faith plus the obedience that comes from faith. This misunderstands the nature of faith. Faith is not a thing in itself. It has no substance that could stand in for righteousness. Instead, we could call the expression a metonymy of the adjunct. Faith is an instrument that lays hold of Christ. Faith is an adjunct, or it lays hold of, Christ’s righteousness. The only reason faith can be said to be imputed is that faith lays hold of what is technically imputed: Christ’s righteousness. So faith’s instrumental character is here put to the fore when it is said to be counted for (or towards) righteousness.

Now, let it be known here that Shepherd and I agree on one point at least: justifying faith always results in obedience. We can both say that. Where we disagree is on the place of that righteousness within the structure of justification. He argues most definitely that the obedience of faith lies within the structure of justification. I argue most vociferously that it lies outside the structure of justification. How is that shown from James?

The justification by works of which James speaks is Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac in Genesis 22, NOT Abram’s belief as recorded in Genesis 15:6. The way James quotes Genesis 15:6 is as fulfillment of promise. The fulfillment language (καὶ ἐπληρώθη γραφὴ) indicates that Genesis 22 is what we would expect from Genesis 15:6. Faith results in obedience. This is NOT saying that obedience (even Spirit-filled obedience) is part of the structure of salvific justification. When one combines this analysis with what I said previously, arguing that “justify” in James refers NOT to salvific justification, but to demonstration of true faith, then all becomes clear. When James in verse 24 says that a man is not justified by faith alone, he is saying that a man is not justified demonstrably (shown to be unhypocritical, shown to have a true faith, shown to be a true child of the King) by faith alone. His works prove that he is genuine.

The only way to get around this is to argue that Paul does not deny all works when it comes to salvific justification. This cannot be done. It would make no sense whatsoever for Paul to say that unbelieving works cannot be counted as part of justification. That is rather obvious, isn’t it? In Romans 3, Paul has been concerned to prove that all alike are under sin. Every mouth must be stopped, and the whole world must become guilty (3:19). Therefore, the law here is concerned about morality, obedience to God. It is in that context that “deeds of the law” first makes its appearance in the passage about justification (3:20). Deeds of the law here cannot possibly refer exclusively or even primarily to those works that separate Jew from Gentile. Rather it has to refer to works that might give someone a ground upon which to boast before God.

Then, in verses 27-31, Paul proves his point by saying that since the law was the primary possession of the Jews, if justification were by these deeds of the law, then Gentiles would not be able to be justified ever. N.T. Wright makes a huge deal about verse 29 and the little word “or” that starts this verse. However, the verse does not say what he thinks it says. The sweep of the passage has to do with obedience to the whole law, and how all have fallen short. But the law as a whole has been specially revealed to the Jews. So, it is not just part of law-keeping that is excluded from Paul’s structure of justification. Rather, all law-keeping is excluded. There can be no ground of boasting. See Simon Gathercole’s outstanding treatment of this theme in Romans 1-5. Boasting would still be possible if any works of any kind (obedient or non-obedient) could form part of the structure of justification. They form the necessary result of justification and sanctification, and therefore cannot be separated from saving faith. But they are distinct from saving faith.

One of the main problems here is that all too often “living” has been equated with “obedient.” Those who disagree with me will undoubtedly point to James again and say “well, living is equated with obedient there.” No one is saying that we are justified (even in a Pauline sense!) by a dead faith. But the living aspect of faith with regard to justification is not obedience but the fact that it truly grasps hold of Christ. The living aspect of faith with regard to sanctification is that it will really result in good works. The second aspect of the aliveness of faith is the necessary result of the first aspect of the aliveness of faith. They are inseparable, yet distinct. The first aspect of the aliveness of faith is the sole province of the realm of justification. The second aspect is solely within sanctification. These things must be kept distinct, or all sorts of problems will result.

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  1. June 18, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    If I may make a few quick comments here, though not because I really want to have an argument about Paul and James.

    (1) Gen 15.6 in the MT (i.e., in its “original context”) is much more ambiguous, especially in terms of the subjects of the verbs, than usually recognized. In context Abram does necessarily seem to be the subject of the first verb even though no subject pronoun or name appears in the Hebrew…we simply have a 3rd person singular hifil perfect plus a preposition connected with the object, “(He/Abram: implied) believed YHWH” or “(He/Abram) trusted YHWH” or “(He/Abram) was faithful to YHWH,” etc. To anticipate a possible objection, “be faithful to” is certainly within the semantic range of the verb here.

    The ambiguity strikes in the second clause. Your translation, most English Bibles, etc., assume YHWH as the subject of the next verb and Abram as the indirect object. This is by no means the clear or obvious understanding. Again, the text fails to specify the subject, but simply has a 3rd person singular Qal imperfect with a “waw-consecutive” and a 3rd person feminine singular suffix. As for the indirect object and its preposition, the text also does not specify the object but simply has a 3rd person masculine singular suffix attached to the preposition, “to him.” Here is the payoff, while your translation and most assume the text to mean “He (YHWH) credited it for him (Abram) righteousness,” grammatically and contextually Gen 15.6 could just as easily mean, “He (Abram) credited/considered it to him (YHWH) righteousness.”.

    This does seem to be an important issue to treat in any discussion of Gen 15.6 claiming to consider its original context. Personally I do not have strong leanings either way, though I do tend towards seeing Abram as the subject of the second verb. This does not necessarily undermine your overall argument in this post. I just thought the point to be worth making, especially since you put the Hebrew up there.

    (2) Though some of us do not like it, Paul clearly understands “faith(fulness)” as the thing “reckoned” as righteousness, at least in connection with his use of Gen 15.6 in Romans 4. See Rom 4.5 where “the faith of him (his faith)” is the subject of the verb logizetai. I bring this up since you write (though presumably discussing Shepherd on James’ use of Gen 15.6), “Notice here that it is not Christ’s righteousness that is here imputed, according to Shepherd, but rather the believer’s own faith plus the obedience that comes from faith.” Though this also does not necessarily undermine your argument, I thought this also worth mentioning since Paul quite explicitly DOES NOT have Christ’s righteousness as the thing “reckoned” in Romans 4, but rather the pistis of “the believer”…and because you somehow make this a point against Shepherd. Just for fun, but by no means a decisive point in a discussion about the doctrine, Paul never uses the phrase “Christ’s righteousness” or anything close to it. I have always found that interesting…

    (3) You mention Gathercole’s book, Where is Boasting? as an “outstanding treatment of the theme.” As I have asked you before, and never received an answer, how is it that you laud Gathercole’s book so much on some of these points when he has a chapter about “Jewish Soteriology in the New Testament;” a chapter where he discusses how parts of the New Testament DO consider our obedience as factoring into the verdict on the last day? I understand taking parts of what someone writes while disagreeing with other parts. Is that how you approach Gathercole on this point? Within your theological world, however, this seems to be a pretty BIG point of disagreement.

    So, there are my comments and points. Again, I do not offer them as critiquing your overall argument. Though I disagree with you, I do not really care about what Norman Shepherd says or agree with his take on the matter either. I am more interested in how you handle these issues when discussing Gen 15.6 in the MT and the use of it in the NT in relation to “imputation.”

    Back to unpacking…

  2. greenbaggins said,

    June 18, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Steve, on point 1, it was not really in the purview of my post to discuss the admittedly many difficulties in understanding Genesis 15:6. I was only pointing out the particular aspects I thought relevant to how Paul and James were quoting the verse.

    On point 2, I do not agree that faith is the thing imputed. You need to read some of the older Reformed exegesis here. You also need to take into account the very nature of faith. This I at the very least hinted at with the discussion of faith’s relationship to the righteousness of Christ. As Carson notes in his treatment of the passage, if faith itself is imputed as righteousness, then faith is a work, since it is a kind of righteousness if it is imputed. But if the righteousness that is imputed is the righteousness of Christ, as the context points to (3:25-26, 4:5), then the point becomes clear. You have not taken into account the telic use of “eis” in Romans 4:5, nor have you taken into account the righteousness spoken of in verse 6. Righteousness is accounted, not faith, since faith was just contrasted with works in verse 5. Righteousness has to consist in works in this passage, since faith and works are set in antithesis to each other with regard to justification. Then the only question remaining is this: whose righteousness is imputed? I hope to high heaven that it is NOT my own imperfect righteousness, for then I can never have assurance. Such imputation would never fulfill the requirements of there being no condemnation in Romans 8:1 for those who are in Christ Jesus.

    With regard to point 3, yes I would not agree with everything Gathercole says. However, his treatment of boasting is outstanding, and it is narrowly that aspect that I was referring to.

  3. June 18, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Fair enough on points 1 and 3, Lane…though I think Gathercole’s specific treatment of “boasting” (especially in relation to Rom 3.27-31) constitutes the main shortcoming of his book. Regardless, as I said, I did not intend my comment as something undermining your overall argument.

    As to point 2, it seems we disagree on numerous assumptions and interpretive points. Again, on the grammatical level, in Rom 4.5 “his faith” is the subject of the verb commonly translated “reckon” or “impute.” I guess I do not see how playing with the sense of eis (and I do not really disagree with what you say about it) changes the subject of the verb. Paul may still teach that God reckons/imputes Christ’s righteousness to us for our righteousness. I just do not see him doing it in Rom 4.5. Or at least, if he does, somehow Paul must also be able to say that pistis is considered/reckoned unto righteousness as well.

    Most of your argument here comes down to a larger theological model and framework within which you situate the passage and the words within it. I think you will agree with me on this. You do not point to specific passages where Paul or anyone else explicitly says God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us for righteousness. Instead you systematically relate various passages, all read within a specific theological framework, that together imply the doctrine in question. While I find much of this framework broadly Biblical and edifying, I do not think Paul operated with precisely the same one…though I do not see his necessarily undermining it at the level of theological discourse.

    I understand these passages in Paul within a different framework or type of model that I think Paul had. Thus I see no problem with a reading making pistis a “work,” when one brings our traditional questions to the text. I do not think a believing versus doing principle or transcendent salvation dynamic of “faith and not works” (in the Protestant senses of the terms) structures Paul’s thought, even if something resembling it seems to crop up in one or two places. I question the entire specific type of forensic-transactional framework and significance with which traditional readings charge Paul’s use of the logizomai verbs. This all said, I do not think this gives me a gospel requiring us to earn our salvation or in which we inherently “contribute” to the grace of God, etc. I just think Paul got at what we consider “salvation issues” in slightly different ways than we expect, though still having Christ as the exclusive locus of God’s rescuing and restoring actions…with God having to do entirely for us and creation what we cannot do for ourselves, etc.

    I would be happy to go into this more, to dig into the details of the text with you, and offer some positive readings of these passages, etc., if you would like and as I have time. But I will hold off on that for now and see what you want to do with this. I realize you started this thread for discussion about some different issues than I raise here, and certainly within a certain type of theological framework. I do not want to hijack this thread completely : )…

  4. Nicholas said,

    June 20, 2009 at 12:07 am

    I’m not sure if my last comment went through. My question is, what do you believe happened before Gen 15:6 (Abraham was certainly a believer before this time in his life)?

  5. theoparadox said,

    June 20, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Great post! I appreciate the way you are defining the senses of the seemingly contradictory statements Biblically, thereby solving the dilemma. No real contradiction here, after all.

    You said: “When James in verse 24 says that a man is not justified by faith alone, he is saying that a man is not justified demonstrably (shown to be unhypocritical, shown to have a true faith, shown to be a true child of the King) by faith alone.”

    In support of this point, we might point out that James compares faith/works with body/spirit. In doing so, he equates “faith” with “body,” (i.e., the VISIBLE part), not “spirit.” Our Pauline mindset automatically thinks of it the other way around (faith being invisible, like spirit, and animating the “body” of works). But James is referring to the “appearance” of faith. Just as there can be a body with no spirit in it (thus, a dead body), there can be a professed faith with no works to prove its genuineness (thus, a dead faith).

    When I saw this, I realized that the case of “James v. Paul” had long ago been thrown out of court by the Judge – for there is no disagreement at all between them. James offers the perfect response to a misinterpretation of Paul, and Paul offers the perfect response to a misinterpretation of James. This should never be taken as a disagreement between them, for they are in absolute harmony.

    Grace & peace,
    Derek Ashton

  6. pduggie said,

    June 26, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Lane, I guess I was confused as to the purpose of your post.

    It seemed to me that if you were going to show that Shepherd was wrong in his exegesis of Gen 15, you would show that, not take time to demonstrate that reformed theology, in explaining the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, doesn’t allow for the faith itself to be that which is imputed as righteousness because faith is not a thing.

    If, lexically, Genesis 15 is talking about Abraham’s faith being imputed as righteousness, don’t you have to deal with that exegetically? Shepherd is making an exegetical claim. Maybe FTH’s option above is right, but you aren’t claiming that when we read Genesis 15, we have to read that the “it” is actually the righteousness of Christ? Did that “exist” (yet) either?

    You seem to be ignoring the historical distance problem, willing to cut and paste Romans back into Genesis as if that was the exegetical meaning.

    I’m not sure what the exegetical answer is, but surely it can’t be that.

  7. August 18, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    [...] via Genesis 15:6 in Paul and James « Green Baggins. [...]

  8. May 10, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you for this. Excellent.

  9. July 10, 2013 at 6:04 pm


    I think that James 2 has been long misunderstood in Reformed/Evangelical circles as a ‘good works as evidence of faith’ paradigm. You seem to go toward the direction (but with possible misgivings) (i.e. “His works prove that he is genuine.”)

    But what if James is not speaking about the relationship between works and faith at all – but is actually providing a philosophical/psychological definition and dynamic of faith. Hebrews 11 gives examples. But James 2:14- unpacks the dynamics. In this way, Paul’s Justification and James are addressing two different aspects and not as mitigating checks against each other.

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