How does justification relate to faith and obedience? Romans 4:9-12 Part 1

It can be shown that in Romans 4:1-8, Paul speaks of our justification in terms of the imputation of righteousness, through the phrase “faith counted for righteousness.”  In the verses under consideration, what Paul says is this: Abraham was justified many years before he was circumcised.  Therefore, circumcision has nothing whatever to do with justification.  And further, because one’s standing with God does not depend on circumcision, the blessing that David mentions is open to both Jews and non-Jews.
            That is the general scene before us.  However, we must not glaze over these words so quickly, because there are important lessons to be learned from them.  This is because in these verses are some plain lessons as to how justification relates both to faith and to obedience.  I am going to argue from these verses that Paul’s reasoning only makes sense if faith precedes justification and obedience follows justification.  That is, we believe in order to be justified and we obey because we already are justified. 


How does Paul address this matter?  Let us notice what he says: “Does this blessing [the blessing of verses 6-8] then come upon the circumcised or upon the uncircumcised also?  For we say, ‘Faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness.’  How was it then imputed?  When he was circumcised or uncircumcised?  Not when he was circumcised but when he was uncircumcised” (4:9-10).[1]  Now this is very important.  Paul makes a big point about when Abraham was justified.  He tells us that he was not justified when or after he was circumcised, but before he was circumcised.  Paul is of course referring again to his key text of Genesis 15:6 – coming in the narrative before Genesis 17 which is the account of God giving Abraham the rite of circumcision.  Obviously then, circumcision had little to do with a right standing before God since Abraham himself had it at least 12 years before he was ever circumcised.
But notice also that Paul does not merely say that Abraham was justified before Genesis 17, but fixes the time of it: namely, when he was uncircumcised.  I think this is very important for the following reason.  Due mainly, I think, to the influence of John Gill, some Baptists hold to a position known as eternal justification.  What Gill said, and what they say, is this: Because there is an eternal union of the elect with Christ, the elect have been justified from eternity.  For Gill and his followers therefore, justification by faith has nothing to do with the actual justification of the elect (since they were already justified from eternity); rather, it simply refers to their reception by faith of the assurance of justification.  It’s already theirs, and has been, from eternity; they just do not realize this until God grants them faith.  This position was enshrined in Gill’s Body of Divinity in his chapter on the eternal union of the elect with Christ.[2]
Now I think there are probably two main reasons why Gill and his followers took that position.  First, being avid opponents of Arminianism, they wanted to avoid any hint of human involvement with the work of redemption.  And to them, evidently, there was a danger of slipping into a synergistic-helping-out-God sort of salvation if you put faith as a condition for justification.  And second, I think they took their position because of logical commitments to other truths, especially the doctrine of the eternal union of the elect with Christ.  They reasoned that if there is indeed such a union – and there does seem to be if you take verses like Ephesians 1:3-4 seriously – then all that God is for us in Christ is ours from eternity.  And that – they say – would mean positional standing as sons and daughters of God and as recipients of divine righteousness are ours also from eternity.
That is fine reasoning, indeed, and there is only one problem with it: it is not Biblical.

Soundings from History

            Nor is it necessarily the historic Baptist view.  I think that needs to be said because some Baptists (albeit a definite minority) have the idea that Gill represents the sole historic Baptist stance on this matter.  He does not.  Though eternal justification has a long history among Baptists, it has never served as the exclusive (or even majority) position of Baptist orthodoxy.  Let me demonstrate that for you by a few quotations from the seventeenth century.
            First, there are the writings of Benjamin Keach, who was a famous Calvinistic Baptist pastor in London, England, during the seventeenth century.  In fact, Keach pastored the same church in which later on Gill himself would exercise his influential ministry.  In 1698, Keach published a treatise on justification entitled A Medium Betwixt Two Extremes.  In this he makes it clear that he sees the Scriptures as teaching that the elect are actually justified when they believe and not before.  He says on pages 20, 21: “All before they are in Christ are under condemnation, because the Holy Ghost frequently ascribes our actual or personal justification to faith; and can’t we read these Scriptures without offense?  Or do any think they understand this point better than Paul, or the other apostles? . . . [At this point, Keach quotes Rom. 5:1; 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:24; Acts 13:39; Jn. 3:36.]  Brethren, where is it said in the Scripture that any person was justified that believed not, or whilst an unbeliever, or before he believed?”  Good question.  A few pages later, he makes this point: “Tho Christ was . . . justified, and we virtually in him, when he arose from the dead, and he received for us an actual discharge as our Surety, yet the Elect do not receive any actual discharge, or are not in their own persons acquitted or pronounced justified and righteous persons, until they have actual Union with Christ [and for Keach, “union with  Christ” was established through faith, as he makes perfectly clear in other places in the same document]; and such as call this a contradiction, do but betray their own ignorance” (page 29).[3]
            Of course, the classic statement of Baptist faith during the seventeenth century was the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, modeled after the Savoy Declaration and Westminster Confession.  In chapter 11, we are told, “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”  A few paragraphs down, they distinguish between the eternal decree to justify, and the actual justification of the elect: “God did from all eternity decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did in the fullness of time die for their sins, and rise again for their justification; nevertheless they are not justified personally until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them.”  These statements – especially in light of the Puritan background of the confession – make it abundantly clear that at least most early Calvinistic Baptist pastors regarded faith as the instrument of actual justification.  There is no eternal justification in the Gillite sense in the confession.
            This does not settle the matter, because the basis of belief should not be what some Baptists may or may not have believed three or four hundred years ago.  What matters is what Scripture says.  But it is important for some to realize that we are not establishing anything new here.

Soundings from Scripture

            What then, does the Bible say?  Well, we begin with our text.  Paul, speaking of the justification of Abraham, says that this happened when he was yet uncircumcised.  Now Paul could clearly have made an even stronger case if eternal justification were indeed the case.  He could have said that circumcision makes no difference because God’s chosen people – including Abraham – are justified before they are even born, in eternity.  The fact he does not use such an argument (nor does he ever do so) probably means that the apostle did not consider it a valid one.  Paul says instead that Abraham was counted righteous, received the blessing, and was justified through faith.

Justification or Assurance?

            But is Paul speaking about actual justification?  Could he not be talking about how Abraham obtained the assurance of the blessing?  I think not, for the following reasons.
            First, Paul is not writing about how we obtain the assurance of justification because he frames the whole discussion in terms of Abraham’s position before God.  Notice those words “before God” in verse 1-2: “What then shall we say that Abraham our forefather according to the flesh has found?  For if Abraham were justified by works, he has a reason to boast, but not before God” (italics added).  In other words, the apostle is not concerned with Abraham’s conscience, but with Abraham’s standing before God.  If we were to use the language of those who espouse eternal justification, we might say that Paul is unconcerned with justification in the court of the conscience, and completely concerned with justification in the court of God.  So, in verses 9, ff Paul tells us how Abraham actually got right with God.
            In fact, when the apostle Paul expounds on the theme of faith and righteousness in chapter 3, he does the same thing; he discusses justification by faith within the context of the divine tribunal, not in the context of the human conscience, which would be expected if the eternal justification position was the Biblical one.  Romans 3:19, 20 make this unmistakably clear: “Now we know that whatever the law says it does so to those under law, in order that every mouth may be stopped and all the world become guilty before God.  Because by the works of the law no one will be justified, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”  This then sets the stage for and is followed by the declaration that all who believe will be justified (3:21-31).  Clearly the apostle’s main concern is not how uneasy consciences just unburdened, but how sinners get reconciled to God.  What kind of effect justification by faith has on the conscience is only of secondary interest to Paul; the truth in the balance that the apostle is laboring to establish is how men might get right with God.  This, he says, does not come through works-righteousness but through Christ’s righteousness apprehended through faith.  This is not to say that believing does not bring tremendous relief to guilty consciences; it does.  But this is a product of real reconciliation and justification received by faith, and without this foundation, the gospel merely becomes a panacea for the psychologically ill.
            The apostle also strikes this note elsewhere.  In Galatians he argues, “But that by the law no one is justified before God is obvious, since ‘The righteous by faith shall live’”(3:11).  Note how Paul denies that anyone is justified by the law, or works, before God.  And then as the Scriptural basis for such an assertion, he quotes Habakkuk 2:4 which connects righteousness and faith.  The irresistible conclusion of this connection is that for Paul we are not actually justified before God by our works but by faith.
            Second, Paul is not speaking merely of experimental justification because the Scripture makes it abundantly clear that before a person has faith he or she is under the wrath of God.  “The one who believes in him is not condemned; but the one who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn 3:18).  “The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who rejects the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (Jn 3:36).  “Among whom we also all walked once in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph 2:3).  This last verse is especially important because here Paul is explicitly referring to believers before they were converted.  To them he says, “You were under the wrath of God.”  Now, some may argue that because Paul does not actually say “of God” to describe whose wrath it is, he does not mean divine wrath but human wrath.  Thus, he would be describing unconverted people as wrathful people (cf. Tit 3:3).  But this is extremely unlikely, given the only other use of “wrath” (orge, Gk) in the letter to the Ephesians: “Let no one lead you astray with vain words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph 5:6).  Here Paul again links the two ideas of children of disobedience (cf. Eph 2:2) and the wrath of God.  The similarity of the verses makes it evident that in Ephesians 2:3, Paul is referring to divine wrath, not human anger.
            If this is true, however, then eternal justification cannot be true.  Since justification removes wrath (cf. Rom 1:16-18), the presence of wrath indicates the absence of a righteous status.  Scripture makes it clear that before a person believes, they are under the wrath of God, and therefore in need of actual justification, not just the realization that they are already justified.
            Third, there are two other texts that seem to make it very clear that faith precedes justification.  Romans 8:29-30 is a classic passage that links the beginning of the plan of salvation to its ultimate consummation in glory: “Because whom he [God] foreknew, he also predestined that they should share the likeness of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.  And whom he predestined, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified, and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”  The argument that these are not in their right order can hardly be the case.  Paul is showing the unbreakable link that exists in the salvation of the elect, beginning with God’s eternal decree in the past and extending to glorification in the future.  He is clearly interested in showing that not one element in the timeline of the believer’s salvation can be removed, thus jeopardizing his or her salvation; that each event necessarily secures the next.  The fact that this is a sort of timeline is indicated by the bookends of the events that Paul mentions, predestination and glorification; predestination coming first and glorification coming last – just as they do in the actual timeline of each believer’s salvation.  It would therefore seem extremely odd that Paul would intentionally or unintentionally misplace justification and calling in this timeline of salvific events.   Most likely – and this is the plain reading of the text – justification too occupies the place in the sequence in which it actually occurs.  That means that it comes after calling, which takes place during the life of the believer, not in the eternal distant past.  And Paul makes it plain elsewhere that calling involves faith in the gospel (cf. 2 Thess 2:13-14).  So calling produces faith, at which moment the believer is justified.  Just as Paul says in Romans 3-4.
            The second text that cannot be reconciled with the eternal justification scheme is Galatians 2:16.  It reads: “Having known that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ[4], even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, for by works of the law no person shall be justified.”  This verse clearly relates the order as faith, then justification.  For Paul says, “we believed . . . in order that we might be justified.”  In the eternal justification scheme, you don’t believe to be justified.  You believe because you are justified.  Did Paul use the wrong prepositions?  The question answers itself, unless, of course, you are a liberal theologian.
            However, some might respond by saying that again Paul is here speaking of experimental justification – how you become conscious that you are justified.  They would agree that this is by faith.  You believe in order that you might know you are justified.
            But that is not what Paul said.  He did not say, “We believed that we might know we were already justified.”  He said, “We believed that we might be justified.”  He simply says that by faith we are justified.  As John Murray has aptly pointed out, justification does not consist in that which is reflected in the consciousness; justification is the divine act of acquittal and acceptance, and it is precisely this which Paul says is by faith.[5]
            To take this verse as a reference to assurance of justification is to completely ignore the context.  Paul was not fighting heretics who argued that you receive the assurance of salvation by works.  He was fighting heretics who argued that you are actually saved and justified by the works of the law.  This is so obvious it is needless to point out the many, many passages throughout the letter.  This verse itself points to that.  What does Paul mean when he says, “by works of the law no person shall be justified”?  He means that no one will be actually justified by works.  Therefore, as the phrase “believed that we might be justified” is clearly parallel, it means that a person is actually justified when he or she believes.
            For these reasons, I believe that when the apostle Paul says that Abraham was justified when he was uncircumcised, it means that he was actually justified when he believed in the promises of God, not that he came to know he was actually justified when he believed.

Problem: Abraham had faith before Genesis 15:6!

            However, someone might dispute this conclusion for another reason.  It might be claimed that there is a problem in saying that Abraham was actually justified when he believed, because Paul’s argument is based on Genesis 15:6 which records an incident in the life of Abraham long after he initially answered the call of God to leave Ur and strike out in faith on the promises of God.  Hebrews 11 makes is very clear that Abraham had genuine faith all the way back in Genesis 12: “It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when he was called to go to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out not knowing where he was going” (v.8).  This took place years before God reconfirmed the promises in Genesis 15.  The problem then is this: how could Genesis 15:6 mean that Abraham was justified by faith then, when he already had faith, according to Hebrews 11?  Wouldn’t he have been justified before if it were true that a person is actually justified when they believe?
            It is important to underline the fact that Genesis 15:6 does not say that Abraham came to realize that he was a justified man at that point.  I also think Calvin was right when he pointed that Genesis 15:6 does not say that Abraham was justified right at that moment.  It just says that Abraham believed God and his faith was counted for righteousness.  Abraham was indeed justified at the very first moment of faith, but Moses waited until this example of a signal instance of the patriarch’s faith to note that this was the way Abraham was justified throughout his entire life. 
There might also have been another reason why Moses might have wanted to wait until this juncture in the narrative to say this.  Perhaps Calvin says it most clearly, so I will let him speak:

Abram was justified by faith many years after he had been called by God; after he had left his country a voluntary exile, rendering himself a remarkable example of patience and of continence; after he had entirely dedicated himself to sanctity and after he had, by exercising himself in the spiritual and external service of God, aspired to a life almost angelical. It therefore follows, that even to the end of life, we are led towards the eternal kingdom of God by the righteousness of faith. On which point many are too grossly deceived. For they grant, indeed, that the righteousness which is freely bestowed upon sinners and offered to the unworthy is received by faith alone; but they restrict this to a moment of time, so that he who at the first obtained justification by faith, may afterwards be justified by good works. By this method, faith is nothing else than the beginning of righteousness, whereas righteousness itself consists in a continual course of works. But they who thus trifle must be altogether insane. For if the angelical uprightness of Abram faithfully cultivated through so many years, in one uniform course, did not prevent him from fleeing to faith, for the sake of obtaining righteousness; where upon earth besides will such perfection be found, as may stand in God’s sight? Therefore, by a consideration of the time in which this was said to Abram, we certainly gather, that the righteousness of works is not to be substituted for the righteousness of faith, in any such way, that one should perfect what the other has begun; but that holy men are only justified by faith, as long as they live in the world.[6]

In other words, Moses waited until this point to emphasize that at no time in his life was Abraham justified by works.  It was by faith throughout.

Why is this important?

            These are the reasons why I believe that faith precedes justification.  Now, why is this all so important? 
            I think it is important because it does not honor God to go beyond Scripture.  I genuinely believe that Gill and his followers had and have a desire to magnify the grace of God in salvation by eliminating faith as a condition of justification.  And Gill certainly was not an antinomian, and many passages might be produced to show that he taught that all the elect without exception would come to faith in Christ and live a life of holiness in this world.  He simply wanted to make salvation as monergistic as possible.  But a noble aim is not necessarily a right aim.  For you do not magnify the grace of God in justification by short-circuiting what the Bible says about it.  Let us beware lest we overstep our bounds and go where God has forbidden.  I do not know of a single verse in the entire Bible that says that the elect are justified in eternity before they believe.  I know of many verses that plainly say that we are justified by faith.  It is better to stick with the plain meaning of Scripture than to opt for slick and fancy interpretations in the name of the grace of God.  Let God take care of his own grace.  He will magnify it.  We only need to be faithful to what God has written.
            Secondly, I think it is important because it affects how you preach the gospel.  I know of a lot of preachers who don’t know how to preach the gospel to the lost because to them the elect are already justified.  So they end of restricting themselves to calling “sensible sinners” to have faith that they might know they are justified, instead of calling men to faith in Christ that they might be justified.  In the first case, sinners are being called to the assurance of salvation; in the latter, sinners are being called to salvation (justification) itself.  And when you look into the book of Acts, you will notice that this latter way was precisely the way the apostles preached: they preached that men might believe and thus be forgiven and justified (Act 3:19; 13:38-39).

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are my own translation.
[2] John Gill, Body of Divinity (London, 1839; reprint, Atlanta, Turner Lassetter, 1950), 203-209.
[3] Of another early Calvinistic Baptist, Hansard Knollys, Barry Howson writes, “Moreover, Knollys did not teach eternal justification, a view characteristic of Hyper-Calvinism.  When Knollys deals with the subject of the sinner’s conversion in his 1681 tract The World that now is, and the world that is to Come, he plainly states that the sinner is justified, adopted, and sanctified when God works faith in his heart.”  The British Particular Baptists 1638-1910, Vol. 1, Michael A. G. Haykin, ed. (Springfield: Particular Baptist Press, 1998), 56-57.
[4] Literally, it is “faith of Jesus Christ,” since “Jesus Christ” is in the genitive case in the Greek.  However, it is best to translate this as “faith in Jesus Christ” since this is most likely an objective use of the genitive.  This is brought out in the phrase eis Christon Iesoun episteusamen – “we have believed in Christ Jesus,” which cannot be translated to mean the faithfulness of Jesus, or to refer to the faith that Jesus has.  It very clearly refers to faith that terminates on Jesus as its object.
[5] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 129.
[6] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Vol. 1, tr. by John King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996 [reprint]), 408.  Italics added.


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