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.