by Eusebio A. Tanicala, Ph.D.
Many religious teachers use this passage from the Book of Romans to convince people that sinners are initially forgiven of sins or are saved from past sins apart from any human activity.
Their definition of the term faith is “mental acknowledgement or a mental recognition that somebody or something exists and/or has the power to do something.” If faith that justifies or faith that is reckoned for righteousness merely resides in the mind without obeying God’s commandments, then that would mean forgiveness of sins happens without repentance, forgiveness of sins happens without confession of Christ’s name, remission of sins happens without obeying Christ’s command to be baptized in water, one is pleasing without presenting one’s body as a living sacrifice, one does not need to live a holy life and still hopes to enter heaven the holy abode of God. While these religious teachers deny the essentiality of the above prerequisite actions to salvation, these same religious teachers promote the recitation of the “Sinner’s Prayer” in order to receive Jesus Christ into one’s life. By adding the “Sinner’s Prayer” which is not commanded in the New Testament, these religious teachers necessarily put themselves under our Lord Jesus’ accusatory statement: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your traditions?” (Matt 15:3b).
The claim that righteousness is obtained through faith apart from any human activity is not warranted by the context of the passage in question. We are going to show the substance of our claim. Let’s analyze the context of the passage.
Firstly, let’s notice Romans 3:21-31 which lays down the premise of the apostle’s argument in Romans 4:1-6. It is clear that apostle Paul analyzed the old argument of the Hebrews that the Abrahamic & Mosaical covenants with God were both sealed and marked by circumcision. The Hebrews understood from Genesis 17:1-27 that God told Abraham that circumcision is the seal of the covenant with Abraham which contained God’s promises. And that his circumcision was reconfirmed by and was incorporated into the Law of Moses as evidenced by Exodus 12:44 and Leviticus 12:3. From these premises, the Hebrew Christians argued that circumcision was essential to becoming a Christian. This issue of circumcision was the main problem in the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15.
In Romans 4, the Apostle Paul asked the important question which is based on history: Were the promises of Yahweh to Abraham in Genesis 12 when Abraham was about 84 years old and reconfirmed in Genesis 17:1-27 given before or after Abraham’s circumcision? Was it before or after the giving of the Law of Moses? Obviously the answer in both is “before.”
The answer “before circumcision” gives Apostle Paul his strongest argument which states: If the promises made by Yahweh to Abraham were pronounced before circumcision became binding upon Abraham and the same promises were given long before the enactment of the Law at Mt. Sinai, therefore, faith in God is the right attitude NOT circumcision and law keeping. The coming of the Christ, the son of Abraham, is included among the promises. And if the coming and the saving ministry of Christ was promised to Abraham before the circumcision requirement was promulgated, therefore, faith in Christ is the one reckoned for righteousness NOT circumcision.
Secondly, Romans 4:1-6 does not talk about Abraham’s faith as the basis of Abraham’s forgiveness of his sins. Insist on this point. I repeat: Abraham’s sins are not included in the discussion of Apostle Paul in Romans 4:1-6. The passage does not talk about Abraham’s sins. The passage does not talk about Abraham’s faith as the basis of the forgiveness of his sins. But the religious teachers we have mentioned at the beginning of this article insinuate that faith in Christ today is the basis of remission of sins. Romans 4:3 merely states that the believing and trusting attitude of Abraham was “accounted for righteousness.” It means, it is the right thing to do as compared to an attitude of trusting on the merits of circumcision and merits of observing the Law of Moses.
Thirdly, the term righteousness (dikaiosuneen) reckoned to Abraham in Romans 4:3 (also used in James 2:23 when he believed God and offered Isaac at the altar) comes from the same word which is applied to the righteousness (dikaiosuneen) of Jesus’ submitting Himself to the baptism of John. Matthew 3:15b reads, “ … Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness (dikaiosuneen).” (KJV) Which means that the trusting attitude of Abraham was a righteous act, a correct act in pleasing God as much as the obeying attitude of Jesus Christ in undergoing water baptism was a righteous act, a correct act in pleasing God. In both cases (Abraham’s and Christ’s), we do not talk about remission of sins. So no one should use Romans 4:1-6 and James 2:23 to insinuate that all that is needed in the remission of sins is faith.
Fourthly, the believing/faith of Abraham which was reckoned for righteousness in 4:3,4 should be viewed as a germinal-lineal attitude, an attitude of continuous trusting in God. In the case of NT disciples, it is also a germinal-lineal attitude, an attitude of trusting in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as the basis of pleasing God. This belief/faith should be understood as a germinal-lineal action (line action, continuing action). Having faith or believing is not a point action. Faith/belief is not a momentary action. Romans 1:17 says that the just, the man with a living faith, always acts out of faith. Everything he does germinates from that faith in God and carries out any action to the very end possessing still that same faith in God. This is the meaning of “faith unto faith” or in other versions it is “faith upon faith.” Sa Tagalog, patong-patong na pagtitiwala. Mula sa umpisa ay may pagtitiwala hanggang sa dulo ng walang hanggan tiwala pa rin.
The idea of a lineal action in faith is sufficiently illustrated in the description of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. The germinal faith in one’s mind is perfected in an obedient action. All those heroes of faith mentioned demonstrated their faith with an action.
In the case of Abraham (Heb.11:8-10), one could notice the lineal characteristic of his faith: He was told to get out of Haran, so he and his family walked south to Beer-sheba, a distance of about 800 kilometers; he lived in tents for many years in Canaan until his death; and he was looking forward to arriving in the city built by God.
That lineal characteristic of Abraham’s faith is further demonstrated when God commanded him to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice at Mt. Moriah. He believed in God, yes, and he perfected that belief in God with activities to fulfill the commandment. When the word from Yahweh came, Abraham was living in Beer-sheba which is southwest of the Dead Sea. He prepared the firewood then he and Isaac hiked some 70 kilometers. He prepared the altar of heaped stones. All these activities took several days. From start to finish, faith/trust was in Abraham’s mind, heart and actions.
This lineal action of faith is the meaning of James’ demand that activity is an element of faith in Christian life. Mere knowledge, mere recognition of the being and state of God is faith/belief, that the demons have, says James. But this kind of faith is not the faith that is reckoned for righteousness.
If faith is lineal, if faith involves activities in obedience to a Master, would it not result to pleasing God by works? We’ll tackle this line of reasoning in another article.