Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed.As will be shown, this is one of the most devastating verses for Sola Fide in the whole Bible. It's right up there along with James 2:24 and Romans 10:9-10 (see this article and this article). I personally believe it has more to offer than those other passages because it hits the Protestant where he least expects it.
And that was counted to him as righteousness [ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην] from generation to generation forever.
Most people have never seen Psalm 106:30-31, and the tiny minority of Protestants who do know about it keep it under tight wraps. Why? Because it targets one of their most "sacred" passages in Scripture, Romans 4:3-5 quoting Genesis 15:6 (Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness - ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην), and utterly demolishes their entire understanding of it. (In case you didn't notice, both verses use the identical Greek phrase for "credited as righteousness".)
For apologetics purposes, what this means is that in order to take full advantage of the power contained in this verse, you must first know what the Protestant is thinking.
Reformed Baptist Pastor and writer John Piper has devoted a lot of time in recent history trying to defend the classical Protestant interpretation of Romans 4:3, which he rightly recognizes is the linchpin of Sola Fide and the Reformation. Here is what he said in a sermon devoted to interpreting the very phrase "credited as righteousness,"
Does Paul Mean "Our Faith Is Our Righteousness? So here is my answer to the question. No, when Paul says "Faith is credited to us as righteousness," he does not mean that our faith is our righteousness, or any part of our justifying righteousness. He means that faith is what unites us with Christ and all that God is for us in him. When God sees faith in Christ, he sees union with Christ. And when he sees union with Christ, he sees the righteousness of Christ as our righteousness. So faith connects us with Christ who is our righteousness and, in that sense, faith is counted as righteousness. Faith sees and savors all that God is for us in Christ, especially his righteousness. That's what faith does. Now what is the Biblical basis of that interpretation? John Owen, in volume five of his Works (pp. 318-319) gives five arguments, and John Murray in his commentary on Romans gives nine arguments (pp. 353-359) why "faith credited as righteousness" does not mean that faith is our righteousness. (Faith and the Imputation of Righteousness)In short, it is ultra-critical to properly understand the Biblical phrase "credited as righteousness," and note that it does not mean faith itself was credited as righteousness or anything similar, but rather that it means something along the lines of, 'faith grabs hold of Christ's Righteousness and transfers it to your account at the moment of justification'. Now, if it doesn't mean what Protestants have historically said it means, then the entire basis for the Reformation collapses.
Given that John Piper made reference to well respected Reformed scholar John Murray's thoughts on this matter, I believe it's important to see Murray's thoughts on Psalm 106:30f. It just so happens that Reformed apologist James White decided to tackle this verse in his book The God Who Justifies (pages 225-226), and in doing so appeals to Murray's own words:
If Phinehas was justified on the basis of what he did (an action), then clearly Paul is mistaken. Is this the case? Murray answers in the negative and argues as follows,
We must, however, recognize the difference between the two cases (Gen. 15:6 and Psalm 106:31). In the case of Phinehas it is an act of righteous zeal on his part; it is a deed. He was credited with the devotion which his faith in God produced - righteousness in the ethical and religious sense. But that which was reckoned to Abraham is of a very different sort. It is in Paul's interpretation and application of Genesis 15:6 this becomes quite patent. Paul could not have appealed to Psalm 106:31 in this connection without violating his whole argument. For if he had appealed to Psalm 106:31 in the matter of justification, the justification of the ungodly (cf. vs. 5), then the case of Phinehas would have provided an inherent contradiction and would have demonstrated justification by a righteous and zealous act. Though then the formula in Genesis 15:6 is similar to that of Psalm 106:31, the subjects with which they deal are diverse. Genesis 15:6 is dealing with justification, as Paul shows; Psalm 106:31 is dealing with the good works which were the fruit of faith. This distinction must be kept in view in the interpretation of Genesis 15:6, particularly as applied by Paul in this chapter.
Those who would point to this passage as subversive of sola fide likewise ignore a few other issues. The context of Genesis 15:6 is clearly that of God giving the promise to Abraham so that his faith is in that promise, a point Paul will stress in the rest of the chapter. There is no promise in Numbers 25 or Psalm 106. Abraham places faith in God as one capable of keeping His promises. Phinehas acts upon God's law and brings punishment upon evildoers, and as a result is rewarded. The righteousness he receives is, however, defined in the context quite differently than what we have in Genesis 15:6. Phinehas was already a man of faith, and his jealous for the glory of God resulted in his receipt of a "covenant of peace" and and "covenant of a perpetual priesthood." This was not Phinehas's initial encounter with God or with faith in Him.
Now it is clear just why Psalm 106:31 is so problematic: it states Phinehas performed a good work, and that good work was credited as a righteous action. More importantly, this means Phinehas was justified by a work, rather than by faith alone.
Notice that White and Murray are perfectly aware of this "dilemma," and frankly admit if Paul had appealed to this verse it would have refuted his "faith alone" argument in Romans 4:3 - but they forget it's not Paul that's in trouble but rather their incorrect interpretation of Paul! Their only chance at escape is spinning the issue, making all sorts of unsubstantiated and ultimately irrelevant claims, such as (a) saying the "righteousness" mentioned in Psalm 106:31 is "ethical" rather than "legal" as in Paul, (b) that Psalm 106 was not dealing with justification while Paul was, (c) that Psalm 106 was speaking of the good works that come after justification as the fruit of faith, (d) that there was "no promise" mentioned in Psalm 106:30f (recounting the event of Numbers 25:1-12), and (e) that this was not Phinehas' first encounter with God because he "was already a man of faith."
All those claims are nothing more than lame and desperate excuses. It's one big ad hoc claim that Psalm 106 cannot possibly be speaking of justification. White's additional claims are just as unfounded (for there is a promise made to Phinehas here, and Genesis 12 and Hebrews 11:8 show us Genesis 15:6 was not Abraham's first encounter with God).
Throughout all that smoke, not once did they focus upon the fact the same Greek phrase (not just the same word or two!) was used, and that grammar demands the same phraseology have the same meaning. Of course, if there is an exception here, the burden (and in this case a heavy one) is upon the Protestant to show this (which they've come nowhere close to doing).
Even if Psalm 106:31 was not speaking on justification, not once did White or Murray (nor any other Protestant) entertain the thought that if "it was credited as righteousness" means Phinehas work was counted as a righteous act that maybe - just maybe - it could mean Abraham's faith was credited as a righteous act as well. This 'minor detail' was conveniently ignored, but for the informed individual, we know why.
Most ironically, these Protestants violate their very rules of interpretation that their Westminster Confession of Faith lays down so firmly:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (Ch 1:9)If Psalm 106:30f doesn't fit this instruction, I don't know what does. At the end of the day, it is beyond a doubt that the phraseology and meaning of Psalm 106:30-31 powerfully and decisively refutes the Protestant interpretation of Romans 4:3, which Sola Fide rests upon.