I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.Here God recalls all the main promises God made to Abraham, including the famous account of Genesis 15:5f where God promises descendants as numerous as the stars. What is important to note is why God would bless Abraham in this way: because Abraham obeyed throughout his walk with God. The force of the commendation is too powerful to gloss over, for it mentions Abraham's keeping of God's requirements, commands, decrees, and laws. Now, this obviously poses a problem for Protestants, who claim God blessed Abraham on the grounds of faith alone. How do Protestants respond to the above verse?
I offer the thoughts of a few respected Protestant commentators:
John Calvin: Moses does not mean that Abraham’s obedience was the reason why the promise of God was confirmed and ratified to him; but from what has been said before, (Genesis 22:18,) where we have a similar expression, we learn, that what God freely bestows upon the faithful is sometimes, beyond their desert, ascribed to themselves; that they, knowing their intention to be approved by the Lord, may the more ardently addict and devote themselves entirely to his service (Commentary on Genesis 26, verse 5)In other words, this was not to be taken in any sense such that Abraham's obedience directly impacted the sustaining and (finally) confirming of these promises, but rather that his obedience merely served as an example of how someone who is promised such blessings should live in gratitude. While this goes against the 'plain reading of the text', the reasoning is obvious: such a notion runs contrary to the Protestant idea that Abraham received such blessings on the basis of faith alone (specifically in Genesis 15:6). This attitude simply exposes the Protestant bias that forces all texts to conform to their notion of Justification by Faith Alone.
John Gill: Here seems to be something wanting, for the words are not to be joined with the preceding, as if Abraham's obedience was the cause of the above promises made to Isaac, or to himself: but this is mentioned rather as an example to Isaac, and to stir him up to do the like, as if it was said, because or seeing that Abraham thy father did so and so, do thou likewise.
(Commentary on Genesis 26:5)
Catholics would say not only does the plain reading of Genesis 26:4f go against this, but James 2:14-26 does as well. Given this, it is no surprise that Protestants also claim James 2 is speaking of demonstrating one's justification rather than sustaining and increasing of it, and again this is primarily done for preserving the presupposition that justification is by faith alone. What is little known is that elsewhere in Scripture the correct understanding is just as strongly supported, in 1 Maccabees 2:52 it says,
Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reputed to him unto justice?The wording of the latter half (i.e. "it was reputed to him unto justice") is virtually identical in Greek to Genesis 15:6b where it says "it was reckoned to him as righteousness". What is amazing here is that in this case it is applying this to Abraham's test in Genesis 22 (esp 1, 9-12), which James 2 also calls a moment of justification! Now while Protestants would object primarily on the grounds that Maccabees is not Scripture and that such verses are heretical ("confirming" that it's not Scripture) - ultimately a bogus objection - the important thing to draw out of this is that this is indeed how the Jews understood "reckoned as righteousness." In fact, one could even argue that James 2 had this text in mind when speaking, appealing to it as Scripture.
The framework from which the Protestant makes this objection stems from their reading of Romans, especially chapter 4, where "works" are contrasted to "faith". Yet consulting the context, Paul's focus never was about "works in general" or "any and all works," the very thing Protestants would need for their claim to stand. Rather, Paul is speaking against a specific type of works, namely "works of the [Mosaic] law" (note: Rom. 3:20, 28f; 4:9f, 13; Gal. 3:10-12; etc. are all clearly speaking of the Mosaic Law). And this is made even more manifest in places such as Acts; here are two such examples:
Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. (13:38f)
So the dispute Paul and the Apostles were dealing with was very specific and not generalized. The problem was that there was confusion as to just what role the Mosaic Law played, especially in light of the Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. This problem is explicitly tied into Paul's teaching as he traveled about and the heart of the dispute the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was called to clarify; and all this was speaking directly upon the issue of justification. To suggest anything along the lines of what the Protestant is suggesting is more rooted in their presuppositions than in the text of Scripture itself.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." (15:5)
With all this in mind, the Catholic has a well grounded idea of what to expect in Romans 4, which is the chief proof-text Protestants appeal to for their doctrine of Justification. What most don't realize is that when Protestants appeal to Romans 4, they're really appealing to a very small portion of the chapter (usually as small as verses 2-8), and projecting a presupposed meaning upon it. But context militates against this approach:
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (3:28-31)
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin." Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. (4:1-14)All too often the reader disconnects chapter 3 (especially the final verses) from chapter 4, when such an approach effectively severs the latter from some critical context. All highlights in blue are critical for understanding the context, while the red highlights indicate the verses in dispute (i.e. the section Protestants appeal to). Taking verses 4-8 on their own, one could say the contrast is 'faith' versus 'works in general', but that only stands as one option (of many) and doesn't even conform to the context. Thus the Protestant reading is already doubtful.
The theme of chapter 3:28-31 is of Paul contrasting "faith" to "works of the law" and links this directly to a contrast between circumcision and uncircumcision and Jew and Gentile. A distinction of Jew and Gentile is not one of "works in general," but rather one of living according to the Mosaic Law or not, and the epitome of this distinction rests in whether one is circumcised or not. Rather than radically shifting gears, we would expect Paul to continue this theme, maintaining his terms into the following chapters. And this is precisely what we see him do, beginning in his opening comments on Abraham.
St Paul begins chapter four by examining how Abraham fits into all this, specifically making note that he is the father of the Jews "according to the flesh" (i.e. biological descent). This is an extremely important detail, yet often overlooked. The Jews saw themselves as a superior race, entitled to God's blessings. Paul's goal now is to refute that false idea. Paul is going back to the origin of the Jew-Gentile distinction, because he knows this is a decisive factor in this dispute. Paul first asks if Abraham was "justified by works." Based on the context, one can (and should) assume Paul is maintaining his theme from the previous chapter, which would mean Paul is speaking of "works of the law," especially since Paul concludes his inquiry in verses 9-10 by pointing out Abraham was justified before his circumcision - which was literally as "apart from the law" as one could get (3:28). Paul's point then was not so much faith versus the (Mosaic) law, as if the two were competing, but rather as it was faith and justification being independent of the (Mosaic) law.
Approaching the verses under dispute (highlighted in red), if one is taking context into account, one has no good exegetical reason for reading "works" as "works in general," even if such a reading could be logically coherent. Working 'backwards', Paul asked (in verse 9) if the "blessing" mentioned by David in 4:6-8 applied to the circumcised or uncircumcised, conforming perfectly to the already established context and theme. Given that David's example is a confirming of Abraham's (connecting verses 4-5), there is even stronger evidence Paul is speaking in terms of the Mosaic Law and not "works in general".
Finally comes two of the most disputed verses in the history of the Reformation: Romans 4:4-5. Taken alone, one can quite easily see how the works-wages analogy fits quite naturally into a 'faith versus works in general' theme - but given the solid context that's been established, it is not right to jump to such conclusions. Such would be the epitome of poor exegesis: tearing a verse out of it's context and turning around and projecting this "interpretation" of that bastardized passage onto the rest of the chapter (and even Scripture as a whole). With this, the Protestant claim is a long shot, by far - and to justify schism from the Catholic Church on such dubious grounds is the height of arrogance and wickedness.
It can safely be said that whatever Romans 4:4-5 is saying, it is confirming the established context and theme. The following are two good options for the worker-wage analogy: (a) Paul is speaking of those who would seek to put God in a position of debt, as if God owed them rather than God graciously rewarding. For example, there is a clear difference between a child cleaning his room and demanding allowance from his parent and a child who cleans his room with the good hope that the parent will be pleased to graciously reward the child with an allowance. (b) Paul is not attacking the notion that works deserve wages, but rather comparing this to the promise of the Gospel in contrast to the promise of the Mosaic Law. This fits in with 4:13-14, in which Paul says the Promise which Abraham put his faith in (before the Law or circumcision even existed), and which established him as father of all believers, was a walking by faith that looked toward eternal rewards and not that of the Mosaic Law which only promised rewards here and now, in this life only. Abraham was the "father" of the Jews in an (inferior) biological sense (4:1) contrasted to his being "father of all believers" (i.e. Jew and Gentile) based on the (superior) Promise. Compare this with the very informative parallel in Galatians 3:15-18,
This passage is probably the most important passage to consult when reading Romans and Galatians, for it lays out the heart of Paul's thesis: the law (which can only be the Mosaic Law) came after the Promise God gave to Abraham, and if the Promise were to then be attached to the Mosaic Law would in effect supplant the Promise to Abraham and render his faith in that promise "null and void". The parallel between this and Romans 4:13-14 is undeniable. This concept is is precisely the background from which Paul says "The [Mosaic] Law is not of faith" (in Gal 3:10-14) as he proceeds to quote the Torah. Christian faith has its sights set above and beyond what the Law ever promised, and this Abrahamic Promise not only preceded the law but outlived it (Gal 3:23-25). Paul is ultimately saying the one who takes the path of the Law (which only offers temporal blessings) is akin to working for an hourly wage, while the one who takes the superior path and walks by faith, setting their hopes on the future glory receives a gift-blessing that far outshines that 'minimum wage' mentality.To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring," who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
At the risk of dragging this article on too long, the final point to examine is the curious phrase, "justifies the ungodly". The classical Protestant understanding of this text is that God declares (legally) righteous the (legally) unrighteous believer. But such a reading is exceedingly problematic, if not blasphemous. For God to declare something to be other than what it really is is effectively telling a lie, or acting unjustly. Two plausible understandings of this phrase are now given: (a) the term "ungodly" is in reference to a sinner and "justify" here primarily refers to forgiving the sinner, removing their unrighteousness. This fits with verses 6-8 which says, "just as David says, Blessed is the man who's sins are forgiven." In other words, the ungodly is justified precisely in having their sins forgiven. (b) the term "ungodly" could be referring to one who is ungodly in reference to the Mosaic Law, in other words, a Gentile. The term "ungodly" is a negated form of the Greek word for "[true] worshiper." Thus when Paul says "justifies the ungodly," he is really saying saying God justifies the Gentile! Considering the context of which he is speaking, what could be more blasphemous to the ears of the Judaizers' pushing the Mosaic Law than this? Nothing! And to make matters worse, Paul's star witness for "ungodly" was Abraham, the justified Gentile who was not yet circumcised! And what of David? If he were speaking of his grave sin he committed as King, and was repenting in Psalm 32 (which Romans 4:6-8 is quoting), then this likely means David lost his status as circumcised through his breaking of the Law and effectively was a Gentile from the Law's perspective (see Rom. 2:25b).
With the cardinal text of the Protestant soteriology examined and refuted, the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is effectively obliterated.