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Romans 4:2 and Boasting before God

August 17, 2006

There are modern commentators who would redefine justification and have us believe that it is mainly about the horizontal relationship between Jew and Gentile and not about the vertical relationship between man and God.  They say that the Jews were not legalistic.  They say that the boasting in question here is Jewish boasting over Gentiles, and the works in question here are not good works to commend you before God, but works of the ceremonial law like circumcision that distinguish Jew from Gentile. 

But these commentators must stumble over verse 2.  Look at it again.  

Romans 4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

Clearly it is a vertical boasting before God that Paul is regarding here as inconceivable.   The reason that God has ordained that we are justified by faith apart from works is so that, as he said up in verse 27, boasting is excluded.  That is, boasting before God is excluded.  And if you believe that one is justified by works, then boasting is not excluded.  That is what Paul is saying in verse 2.


And why did he feel the need to say this?  Because the Jews did in fact believe then, as they still do believe now, that Abraham was justified by works.  They believe that Abraham was a righteous man because of his obedience, especially his obedience in Genesis 22 when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Listen to it in some of the writings of intertestamental Judaism.

From the book of Jubilees, 23:10 “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life”  The Prayer of Manasseh, verse 8, says that Abraham “did not sin against thee”.  And listen to this from 1 Maccabees 2:51-52 “Remember the deeds of the fathers, which they did in their generations; and receive great honor and an everlasting name.  Was not Abraham found faithful when tested and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?”

So the author of Maccabees is saying that when Abraham passed the test in Genesis 22 and obeyed God and offered Isaac on the altar, then it was because of that obedience that he was reckoned righteous by God.  But the author of Maccabees has misread his torah, and Paul is going to call him on it. 

It is not in chapter 22 of Genesis where Abraham is reckoned righteous by God, but it is way back in chapter 15:6.  And it is not because of his faithful obedience that he is reckoned righteous, but because of his faith alone.  “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  That’s Genesis 15:6, and Paul quotes it here in Romans 4:3 to prove that Abraham was not, contrary to the opinion of his Jewish opponents, justified by works. 

So never mind the objections of modern commentators, Judaism did and does teach a kind of legalistic merit theology, especially with regard to the example of Abraham. 

And we see even more clearly in verse 4 that it is merit theology, the belief that you can earn your salvation, that Paul is arguing against.  He’s saying that the difference between faith and works is like the difference between gift and wages.  Faith receives the gift of righteousness.  Works tries to earn the wages of righteousness.  So again, the problem with justification by works is not just that it leads to an ethnocentric prejudice against Gentiles.   The problem with justification by works is that those who try it think God owes them something.   But you do not earn a right standing before God by working for wages.  Our righteous acts are filthy rags before Him, says Isaiah 64:6.  If you insist God pay you your wages, you will receive what you deserve—condemnation.  For the wages of sin is death, Paul will say in Romans 6:23, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  The only wages that God is obligated to pay anybody is eternal death for our sins.  But thanks be to God he has sacrificed his only begotten Son Jesus Christ to pay that penalty for all those who will believe in Him and through that faith we receive the free gift of eternal life.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Oddball permalink
    August 17, 2006 11:13 am

    I’ve heard you deal with this before, but it might be helpful if you explained where James 2 fits into all this.

  2. August 17, 2006 12:22 pm

    See the sermon on James 2 found on this page

    and the sermon on Gen 22 found on this page

  3. Oddball permalink
    August 17, 2006 1:30 pm

    By defining faith as a “marker,” I wonder if Wright might be limiting the meaning of “justification” to James’ usage.

  4. August 17, 2006 7:10 pm

    I commented in your Rom 3:24 post, so this may be asking the same question.

    Since we can’t boast in our salvation, because we didn’t do anything to earn it, what’s to stop us form boasting in our faith, i.e. to boast in/for Christ?

    The correlative question would be, is boasting an appropriate word to use when we apply it to our salvation receive by faith? What would be a more appropriate way of speaking about it? I would guess the answer would be, “Boasting is self-centered not Christ-centered. Would you agree?

  5. August 17, 2006 7:12 pm

    I meant to end quote after “Christ-centered”.

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