Abraham’s Work-free Justification: A Catholic View of Romans 4


After reading through Romans 4 this fine evening, I decided that I must put into writing what I believe God has revealed to me in the reading of His holy word. This will in regard to the much debated subject of the justification of sinners, and particularly how a Protestant reading is undermined by Paul’s argument with Abraham.

However, in order to propitiate the wrath of the logic-chopping-John-Piper-loving Protestant (for which they are to be commended in many respects), I thought I would spend a brief paragraph with a preliminary comment on why some reach failure when trying to run through the exegesis of Romans 4.

What many interpreters do is that they will realize that Paul just flat out excludes works from Abraham’s justification, and so will then make Abraham’s justification his initial movement of conversion. This way, all subsequent movements in Abraham’s life toward God can be works and faith which lead to justification. However, we know this can’t be the case in the justification of Abraham that Paul speaks of in Romans 4, since Holy Writ tells us elsewhere that Abraham had saving faith, and therefore was justified, long before the time Paul is referring to when he says Abraham’s faith was reckoned as righteousness. Another problem is to understand that Paul means to exclude all inhering realities in Abraham as a means to his justification except for an empty-hand which receives the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ. We know this is false because the text tells us that Abraham’s faith is what is credited or calculated as righteousness. Well, either faith is righteousness or faith is not righteousness. If it isn’t righteousness, then how can God calculate it as such? The Reformed answer is usually that the righteousness is actually another Person’s righteousness, namely, Christ who is enthroned in heaven. In this case, faith is not really righteousness but it is the instrumental pipe through which the righteousness from Christ comes down by way of legal imputation and situates the legal standing of the sinner as justified in God’s eyes. As already said, however, this violates the text which clearly says Abraham’s faith is calculated as righteousness, and there is no indication from the text that Christ’s alien righteousness is being imputed to Abraham. So these two extreme interpretations are both wrong: (1) Abraham’s works-free justification is only the initial moment of his conversion, whereas subsequent to that it is a works-faith justification, and (2) Abraham is imputed with a righteousness not inhering in himself but inhering in another Person, Jesus Christ, and faith is merely the empty-hand or instrument through which that is received by way of imputation.

Let’s go through the text.

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” (1-2)

Here, Paul clearly is saying that Abraham possessed nothing which he produced by works which could render him justified in the eyes of God. If he had something by works, e would be able to boast about it before God.

For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’. Now to the one who works, wages are not reckoned as grace, but as something due. But to the one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (v 3-5)

Very clearly, Abraham does not achieve the state of being justified by performing works which earn the wage of being righteous before God. Had he done so, the wages would be reckoned as something due out of debt. In other words, if Abraham performed good works which earned the wage of being justified, then it would be a wage earned and which requires God to repay with the reward of life. However, Abraham trusts God without works and his faith is reckoned by God as righteousness.

Before we go any further, I would like to make some observations which will be needed to understand how Protestants and Catholics arrive at different conclusions from this text. For the Protestant, if what causes justification in Abraham is anything inhering in himself (other than the empty-hand of faith), then it subjugates God to being a debtor to the human being with justification and life, and thus would be a works-justification, which flatly contradicts Paul. But is the premise true?

Premise: “if what causes justification in Abraham is anything inhering in himself, then it is a works-justification”

Is that the case?

We know from Romans 2, that this cannot be the case. There, Paul describes the Jew who, although having the Law and being circumcised, breaks the Law. This Jew’s circumcision would be profitable if he kept the Law in obedience, but since he breaks the Law, his circumcision is to no avail in that regard. Moreover, the man who is uncircumcised, but who keeps the Law,  their uncircumcision is “reckoned” as real circumcision, i.e. he has what outward circumcision was but a mere sign for. The true Jew, therefore, is a not the one who is “outwardly” circumcision, “nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.” (2:28-29).  This inward circumcision of the heart which manifests itself in obedience to the Law of God allows for no boasting before God, but actually nevertheless involves an interior sanctity of righteousness inhering in the uncircumcised Gentiles who keep the Law. So it turns out, after all, that not all obedience performed before God such as Law-keeping is a sign that the obedient person is putting God in debt to him/her, and repaying the reward of life due to the earnings of obedience. So if we turn back to the justification of Abraham, we need not understand the imputation of faith as righteousness as an alien righteousness of which faith is a mere neutral instrument for receiving it. The Protestant wants this “righteousness” to be inhering in Christ alone and legally imputed to others by faith alone. However, if we can see that Paul does not believe that every time real righteousness inheres in the human being (2:28-29) they put God in debt to to save them, then we need not relegate faith as a neutral instrument by which ones receives an alien righteousness. In this way, we can hone in on what it means for Abraham’ faith, which inheres in Abraham, to be worthy, in itself, and not merely as instrument, of being calculated as righteousness. Does Paul indicate this explicitly anywhere in the text? He sure does:

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the Law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham….in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become the father of many nations, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be’. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body which was already as good as dead…or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v 16-22)

That last sentence wraps up this section. After explaining how Abraham (1) did not weaken in faith,  (2) did not waver concerning the promise, but (3) grew strong in his faith and (4 ) gave glory to God while (5) hoping against hope, Paul then believes that such interior commitment to God constitutes real righteousness before God, and so it was counted to him as such.

But does not this return us right back to the problem of the human being working for his justification, and therefore subjecting God to being in debt to save Abraham?

Not if we understand that, for Paul, faith itself is a gift of God ordered unto the full experience of interior salvation. Trying to obey the Torah in order to be perfect and be righteous before God might be the human being working to subject God in debt to save him or her (Phil 3:8-12), but not Abraham’s persevering faith. Making sure you are circumcised outwardly might be an attempt to make a quick debt on God’s account to save you, but not Abraham’s hoping in the promise. For Paul, having Abraham’s faith is nothing short of the supernatural top-down operation of God from heaven. The Jews seek for signs in order to believe, and the Greeks want their body of religious content to make them wise (in a worldly sense), but none of that seeking and striving amounts to anything in the eyes of God. Rather, it is the faith which hears the message of the Cross of our Lord Jesus and submits to Him as Lord and Savior. This faith, as 1 Cor 1-2 teaches us, is a gift given in order to draw the human being to God through Christ. Moreover, notice how it is not faith understood as mere mental assent which forms the basis of it being imputed as righteousness, but it is faith which was formed by a persevering hope unto the end, which must also imply that love or charity is also forming Abraham’s faith in God. This is why Paul says in Galatians that “in Christ, circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). That is a one sentence description of what Paul here is speaking of in Abraham’s life. In this way, we can account for Abrahm’s justification in Genesis 15 being something which takes place many years after his initial conversion, but which still retains the grace vs. works principle. No matter how far into one’s obedience to God they go, justification before God is always by grace through faith working through love. This is because the true Jew, which Abraham our Father was, is not only who is merely outwardly circumcised, in the flesh, but is one inwardly circumcised in the heart, whose praise is not from men but from God. Isn’t that precisely what Paul means when he says “..for we are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3) Is this worship of God in the Holy Spirit an attempt to subjugate God in debt to save us? Absolutely not, for Paul says right afterwards that his boast is in Christ, not Himself, and that his flesh gives him nothing! In the same way, Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15, which holds fast to God’s promise, is an act of worship in the Holy Spirit which is formed by love and hope, and is thus worthy of the accreditation as real righteousness, but yet *it is not* a works-justification in the sense that Paul wants to exclude. Paul is trying to say that nothing in Abraham’s flesh, where he can produce something from his own human nature in order to subject God in debt, can bring him to God. But those supernatural endowments from God upon Abraham, namely, the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, can produce a real ontological standing before God which involves being a righteous human being. Abraham, in himself, without any supernatural endowments of these virtues, is the “ungodly” man who needs the virtue of faith infused into him, and thus to become “just”.

Paul gives us further evidence as we continue in Romans 4:

So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin

Paul reads Psalm 32 and sees David describing the gift of the remission of sins, and deduces from it the imputation of righteousness apart from works. Is this not mere acquittal, rather than real righteousness inhering in the penitent? If we can here define “righteousness” as a state of being in God’s favor, then nothing in the text would exclude the idea that an interior repentance is necessary for obtaining the state of forgiveness, i.e. the state of justification before God. In that case, the will of the human being is making a move toward God in contrition, remorse, and godly sorrow. This is the soul moving towards God in a manner which pleases Him. Paul unpacks what this really looks like elsewhere:

Now I rejoice, not because you [Corinthians] were made sorrowful, but because your sorrow led to repentance; for you felt a godly sorrow, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly sorrow produces death. For see what earnestness this godly sorrow has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you proved yourselves in this matter.” (2 Cor 7:9-11)

Since Paul is speaking of David’s sorrow after his sinning with Bathesheeba (that is what Psalm 32 is – his Psalm of repentance), we may grant that this context involves a sinners transition from the state of sin to repentance, and so the absence of works is a given. Even though, there is also no “works” to be given by the penitent David even when his interior repentance is deemed to be an authentic measure of holiness and righteousness because, as we observed above, the heart circumcision that God performs is from first to last an act of grace through faith, and situates the man in no place to boast in himself.

One last point I want to make concerns the New Perspectives on St. Paul (NPP), a theological current in Pauline studies which emerged in recent history. There is a point where the NPP gets is right, and in another sense which many of its proponents get it wrong. They get it right insofar as they rightly identify Paul’s major point, which is the justification a human sinner is not achieved through outward Jewish ceremonial works such as circumcision, adherence to food laws, sabbaths, festivals, and liturgical days, etc,etc., since God, in the New Covenant, is after making an interior transformation which fulfills the righteous requirements of the Law for those who walk according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3). On the other hand, Paul also wants to emphasize that even moral works when done in the fallen Adamic state (Rom 7:1-5; 14-25) are impossible in order to achieve justification, and what is needed is the life-giving intervention of the holy Spirit through the sin-atoning death of Christ in order to rescue fallen humanity from that depravity. Luther here is mainly correct in that general gloss.


Paul’s point in Romans 4 is to prove to the 1st-century context of a Gentile mission is excluded from what may be called a Jewish insistence that outward circumcision and full adherence to the Mosaic Code is what is required to make a human being just in god’s eyes. If circumcision in the flesh really did accomplish salvation, then truly it would be a human work produced by human nature which puts God in debt. But since we know that God saves people by His own grace through the supernatural work of an inward heart circumcision, where He writes His own Law in our hearts, faith is the means of obtaining justification before God since it is faith, working through love, which welcomes and appropriates the divine operation of God. Abraham is not the “man who works” and thus receives justification as an earned wage by the form of debt. And yet he is also not the man who receives an alien righteousness. Rather, he is gifted with the grace of saving faith, which orders his own soul towards charity and hope towards God, and for this he is graciously endowed with real righteousness from Heaven, and this makes the best way of accounting for why faith is being credited for righteousness. Where Abraham’s justification is “work-less” is in the sense that nothing inhering in Abraham which originates from his own human nature, and which does not depend on divine grace, contributes to his right-standing before God. Since God infuses virtues into Abraham by divine operation, his justification is a product of divine initiative, and not human works.

1 thought on “Abraham’s Work-free Justification: A Catholic View of Romans 4

  1. Pingback: The Seed of Glory: Catholic Teaching on Theology of Grace Pt. 2.2 - Modern Catholic Theologians on Romans 4 - Folly of the Cross

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s