The "Old Perspective" on Justification in the Genesis Patriarchal Narratives

In case you haven’t noticed, the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) is under attack. A growing number of modern scholars are conflating faith and obedience, confusing faith’s mode of operation in justification with its mode of operation in sanctification. This “new perspective” is based in part on a faulty reading of Genesis 15:6 where we read, “And [Abram] believed the LORD, and [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (ESV). What Luther and Calvin interpreted as a simple act of faith in God’s promise, some modern scholars are construing as a more complex demonstration of the patriarch’s faithfulness to God’s expectations. In such a case, God “counts” Abram “righteous” on the basis of the patriarch’s virtue, not in spite of his vice. Such a reading loses sight of the simple fact that the patriarchs were ungodly sinners in need of a righteousness from God. A more careful reading of the text in its larger context supports the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as I’ll attempt to demonstrate below.

The Plaster Saint Syndrome

Israel had just been redeemed from Egypt and was about to take possession of Canaan. It is likely Moses intended the Genesis narratives to do more than provide Israel with a historical record of humanity’s origins and Israel’s ancestral roots. Moses had a theological message for Israel. That message was about human sinfulness and divine grace.

Unfortunately, a review of Israel’s history, as recorded in both the Old and New Testaments, reveals that many Israelites made the same mistake many modern interpreters have made. They concluded that the story of sin ended where Israel’s history began. For some of these ancient Israelites, the result was more tragic. They assumed, wrongly, that the patriarchal narratives were mainly about good people (in contrast with bad people who predominated primeval history) and that God’s promises to these pious patriarchs were grounded on the patriarch’s personal merit.

From this reading, it was only a small step to the conclusion that Yahweh had ransomed Israel from Egypt and was about to gift them the Promised Land on the basis of the Israel’s intrinsic worth. Moses detected this self-righteous mindset among some of his contemporaries and warned them with words that allude to the patriarchal narratives:

Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from be fore you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Deut. 9:4-5)

With these strong words, Moses eliminates any fantasy his contemporaries may have entertained regarding their supposed superiority to their pagan neighbors.

“Ah!” says one of Moses’ fellow Israelites. “I agree that we have not established a good track record with Yahweh in our wilderness wanderings. But as your concluding words indicate, we will enjoy Yahweh’s blessing because of the fathers, that is, on account of their merit!” Moses replies, “My dear kinsman, you have greatly misunderstood the meaning of my words. It is not on account of the fathers’ merits that you will inherit the land. Rather, the land will become yours on account of God’s gracious promise to the ill-deserving among whom the fathers are included!” Then Moses encourages his Israelite neighbor to reread Genesis—especially the patriarchal narratives. There he will not find plaster saints and huge reservoirs of human merit. On the contrary, he will find that his patriarchs and matriarchs sometimes behaved worse than the pagans around them.1 There he will learn that salvation is by grace alone and not by works.

Saint Abraham, the “Ungodly”

Moses did not write Genesis for his generation only. He also wrote it for future generations. Fourteen centuries later a Jew named Saul of Tarsus would come to see that Genesis was not written to set off the Jews as the sole heirs of salvation, nor was it written to ground their hope in the piety of their ancestors (or their own for that matter). Once converted, this Saul-turned-Paul would argue that sin’s sway over Israel functioned as a portrait of sin’s sway over every man thereby condemning the entire human race (Rom. 3:9-19).2 Paul would even use Abraham as an example of one over whom sin had sway, placing him on the same level as the penitent yet forgiven King David—a sinner who rejoiced in the God who “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:3-8).

Paul’s characterization of Abraham as “ungodly” (ασεβη) cannot be limited to Abraham’s pre-conversion state. Paul bases his portrayal of Abraham as an ungodly man justified on Genesis 15:6, a text characterizing the patriarch some time after his initial conversion (compare Gen. 12:1-6 with Acts 7:2-4; Heb. 11:8). Although Abraham was justified once for all years before his act of faith described in Genesis 15:6, that simple faith remained paradigmatic of the patriarch’s first act of saving faith. Moreover, the blessing attributed to Abraham in 15:6, namely, being credited as righteous, continues to contemplate his state as “ungodly,” that is, as a sinner in need of saving grace. Similarly, Paul’s citation of David’s words in Psalm 32 applies to post-conversion experience (Ps. 32:1-2; Rom. 4:7-8). Thus, it seems likely that Paul’s characterization of Abraham as “ungodly” is not based merely on the patriarch’s pre-Canaan life (Josh. 24:2; Neh. 9:7) but embraces the totality of the patriarch’s life as depicted in the patriarchal narrative.

Think about that for a moment. Paul classifies Abraham as “ungodly”! Someone may object, “But does not Genesis 15:6 tell us that God counted him as “righteous” (Gen. 15:6)? “Yes,” says Paul. “But God reckoned him so on account of faith in [God’s] promise (Rom. 4:3-5). And if we examine Genesis 15:6 in its context, we’ll conclude that it was God’s faithfulness not Abraham’s faithfulness that Moses highlights.

Yahweh, the God Who Justifies the Ungodly

At that time Abram was struggling with doubts because he had neither an heir nor an inheritance. So God comes to him, and says, “Fear not, I am your shield [or Benefactor]; your reward shall be very great” (15:1). God’s admonition against “fear” does not refer primarily to the dread induced by an encounter with deity but to the circumstances in Abram’s life that were giving rise to anxiety. Abram identifies these circumstances as the lack of an heir (15:2-3) and an inheritance (15:8). God addresses the patriarch’s fears by reiterating the promises of an offspring (15:4-5) and an inheritance (15:7). And while Abram responds to God’s promise in genuine faith, God senses that the patriarch’s faith needs more than a bare word. Abram’s appeal, “Oh, Lord God, how am I to know I shall possess it?” (15:8) suggests that Abram needed greater assurance. Accordingly, God condescends to his weakness and places himself under a self-maledictory oath (15:9-21; Heb. 6:13-18). Thus, the accent of the chapter falls on God’s great faithfulness rather than on Abram’s great faith.

Reading the patriarchal narratives in a way that does not turn a blind eye to the many weaknesses and the sometimes large faults of the fathers will serve as a powerful antidote to a works-based religion. In fact, Paul himself argues that one of the primary functions of the law (of which the patriarchal narrative was an essential part!) was to increase the magnitude of Adam’s original trespass by means of displaying its spread among Adam’s progeny among whom death reigned (Rom. 5:14a, 20-21).3 Thus, the entire book of Genesis underscores man’s desperate need for saving grace.

The Modern Attack on Justification by Faith Alone

This point has relevance not merely for the Jewish contemporaries of Moses or Paul. It needs to be proclaimed in the church in every generation—especially today when contemporary Protestant scholars are conflating faith and obedience as the instruments of justification. For instance, some modern scholars argue that the faith that justifies must be understood in its active sense, namely, obedient faith or faithfulness. Hence, they understand Paul and James to be referring to the same genus of justification in their appeal to Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15:6 (see Rom. 4:3-5; James 2:21-24). Daniel Fuller argues that it was the combination of Abraham’s initial act of faith whereby he left Ur together with his ongoing perseverance in faiththat served as the condition for his justification.4 Not surprisingly, Fuller goes on to fault Luther and Calvin for interpreting Paul and James to be referring to two different kinds of justification.5. Don Garlington avers,

In keeping with the Hebrew term ‘emunah, the Greek noun translated ‘faith,’ pistis, is two-sided: faith and faithfulness. Given this set of data, righteousness does consist of pistis in the expansive sense of ‘emunah, that is, covenant conformity.6

N. T. Wright appears to be moving in the same direction when he remarks, “Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together. Indeed, the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness,’ which makes the point just as well.” Wright quickly assures the reader that his definition of faith does not compromise the doctrine of justification by faith alone by adding, “Faith, even in this active sense, is never and in no way a qualification, provided from the human side, either for getting into God’s family or for staying there once in. It is the God-given badge of membership, neither more nor less.”7Wright does not appear to understand the Protestant doctrine of sola fide.

The Reformers never denied that true faith eventuates in good works. What they taught was that the one and the same faith responds differently to divine promise than it does to divine law. Faith responding to promise is passive or receptive. Faith responding to law is active or obedient. Faith in its passive or receptive role is alone the instrument of justification. Faith in its active or obedient role may be viewed as the instrument of sanctification, as well as the evidence of one’s justification.8

Making Proper and Important Distinctions

I believe Paul was focusing on faith in its receptive role and James was focusing on faith in its active role. For this reason, they were each using the term “justification” differently. James Buchanan calls attention to this distinction in his classic work on the subject:

While ‘Justification’ is a forensic or judicial term, it is used in Scripture to denote, some times the acceptance of a sinner as righteous in the sight of God [e.g., Paul’s usage]—sometimes the manifestation or proof of his acceptance, by which it is attested and made sure [e.g., James’ usage]: and this variety in the application of it is the ground of an important theological distinction—the distinction between actual [Paul’s focus] and declarative [James’ focus] Justification.9

We cannot truly appreciate the grace of God unless we truly appreciate man’s sinful condition and his need for a righteousness that is not his own but is a gift from God. I believe a correct reading of the patriarchal narratives places the primary accent or emphasis on God’s faithfulness and grace, not on human piety. This, in turn, supports the traditional Protestant and Reformed understanding of justification by faith alone through grace alone based on the imputed righteousness of Christ alone.


Note: Some of the material posted above has been drawn from and adapted from my book Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

  1. I provide extensive support for this reading in my recently published book Where Sin Abounds: The Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010). []
  2. Specifically, Paul concludes that “the law speaks to those who are under the law [i.e., Jews], so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world [i.e., Jews and Gentiles] may be held accountable to God” (3:19, emphasis added). John Murray insists that the phrase “to those under the law” includes all people in light of the following universal descriptions: “every mouth” and “the whole world.” Murray also notes the universality of Rom. 2:14-15. Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), 1:106-07. The phrase “under the law,” however, is also used more restrictively to refer to the Jews (2:12). Consequently, Paul seems to be arguing that the law’s condemnation of the Jews (which is found throughout the Old Testament canon) serves as an indictment on the entire human race. See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICOT, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 204-06. []
  3. Romans 5:20 is key: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Interestingly, the Greek word translated “trespass” is singular and includes the article: to paraptoma.  In every other case it is used in this passage, it refers specifically to Adam’s one act of disobedience (5:15 [twice], 16, 17, 18; see also verses 14 [tes parabaseos], 16 [henos hamartesantos], 18 [tes parakoes tou henos anthropou]). Hence, Richard Lenski translates the verse, “Now the law came in besides so that the fall increased” (emphasis added). The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Colombus: Wartburg Press, 1945), 383-84. This raises the question of how the law, which was given millennia after Adam’s sin could cause his one sin to increase. Sensing the difficulty, some commentators interpret the singular to paraptoma as a collective noun, referring to the sins of men in general or Israelites in particular. See Charles Hodge, The Epistle to the Romans (1835; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 177. In this context, however, Adam’s transgression is chiefly in view, and whatever sins follow Adam actually point back to his own transgression. Accordingly, Leon Morris suggests that “the word may be chosen as a way of bringing out the continuity between his sin and that of his descendants.” The Epistle to the Romans, PNTC, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), 241. See also Robert Haldane, An Exposition of Romans (1839; reprint ed., MacDill AFB, Florida: MacDonald Publishing Co., 1958), 227. Hence, Paul’s allusion to the reign of death between the time of Adam and Moses as indicative of sin’s presence in the world (5:13-14) and his continuance of the sin-death-reign connection in the next verse (5:21) would seem to suggest that one of the law’s purposes is to “increase” Adam-like transgressions. The book of Genesis, as part of the Torah, certainly functions as a magnifying glass that demonstrates the spread of “the trespass” and “the reign of death.” Thus, even though men may not have reckoned their sinful behavior as transgression against the will of God prior to the law, the law, particularly Genesis, demonstrates that such sinful behavior is linked to Adam’s transgression and is therefore a violation of God’s will and worthy of his wrath. []
  4. The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 310. []
  5. Ibid., 311. []
  6. “Imputation or Union with Christ,” Reformation & Revival Journal 2 (2003): 52. []
  7. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Saul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 160. []
  8. For an analysis of Luther and Calvin’s conception of justifying faith, see Sam Waldron, Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures from Sola Fide (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2006), 13-71. []
  9. The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture (1867; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 233. For a helpful exegetical analysis of the respective ways in which Paul and James use Genesis 15:6, see G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, ed., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 622-24, 1003-05. []