Have you ever heard the idiom, “getting down to brass tacks”? It is an Americanism dating from the 19th century. It means to get down to the essentials. Let’s forget all the peripheral arguments, and maybe even the niceties, and let’s talk about what really matters. When Jesus wanted to get the Pharisees down to brass tacks, he brought up Abraham.
Why? Because, ultimately, if you asked a Pharisee what it meant to be a Jew (that is, why being a Jew mattered), if you could get him to forget all the traditions and extra laws they had piled on over the centuries, the one thing they could all agree on was that they were the children of Abraham.
This is because the key to God’s plan was the promise God made to Abraham. That is the very reason for the existence of the Jewish nation. The righteousness of God, the proof of his faithfulness, lies in His fulfillment of that Promise.
Paul therefore now does the same thing Jesus did, he says, ‘let’s bring Abraham into this conversation.’ What conversation? The argument that there is only One plan of salvation, that both Jew and Gentile are saved exactly by the same plan of God; and therefore, the Jewish believers cannot think of themselves as having an advantage based on their bloodline.
(Remember, I claim that Paul is still directly addressing the Jewish believers in the Church of Rome. And if he has to talk about this to them it must be because he knew there was a problem.)
Romans 4:1-3 What shall we say then that Abraham our father according to flesh has found? For if Abraham has been justified on the principle of works, he has whereof to boast: but not before God; for what does the scripture say? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Again we see this reference to boasting. And Paul simply says, look, of course we are descendants of Abraham – according to the flesh – but the way God declared him to be “in the right” with Him had nothing to do with anything flesh can do.
We know that what was special about Abraham was that he believed in the Promise God made Him. Right there, under the stars, faced with a promise that patently seemed impossible in the flesh, that, as those uncountable stars, that numerous would his children be, Abraham said ‘Yes!’ And God accounted to him that faith for righteousness.
We have to be careful to be consistent with the way we read this Greek word whose root is logizomai, and Darby translates as reckon. It has a financial connotation. It means, as Strong’s concordance puts it: to compute, “take into account”; reckon (come to a “bottom-line”), i.e. reason to a logical conclusion (decision).
It is a declaration that involves a decision about a situation or, we could say, the resolution of a situation and how that decision is recorded in your account(s).
In some translations of the letter to the Romans we find the word sometimes rendered reckon (or counted) and other times rendered imputed. That is unfortunate because it is the same word, and Paul is using it the same way over and over. The word “impute” in English also had a similar financial usage to “reckon” but, over time, it has come to mean some sort of transference. If that were the meaning, we would have to read into this statement of Paul’s that God was somehow “giving” righteousness to Abraham. Clearly, that is not the sense here and the King James version renders this instance of the word as “counted for”. But then starting in verse 6 and forward the KJV keeps translating that word as imputed.
(I will talk about why this is important, in a moment.)
Romans 4:4-5 Now to him that works, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but of debt: but to him who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Now Paul brings in Grace. Paul is saying: “It is an expression of the graciousness of God that He counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness.” God didn’t have to. But He did. Because it is Faith that pleases God. (see Hebrews 11:6). Then to make the point that this is all done by God’s exercise of His sovereign Grace, and not earned by anything the flesh could do (and therefore boast about), Paul brings in David as the next witness. (And, remember, next to the Promise to Abraham – which was passed on to Isaac and Jacob – the most important Promise regarding God’s path for the plan of salvation was the promise to David that his Messiah descendant would sit on the throne forever. Thence the expectant appellation that the people ascribed to Jesus: Son of David.)
How could David merit the promise of the Messiah? He couldn’t…
Romans 4:6-8 Even as David also declares the blessedness of the man to whom God reckons righteousness without works: Blessed [they] whose lawlessnesses have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered: blessed [the] man to whom [the] Lord shall not at all reckon sin.
Note again the use of the word “reckon”. It makes perfect sense in the sense of accounting. Namely, God’s forgiveness is a choice God makes of not taking into account my sin. That blessing has nothing to do with anything I did nor anything I am. It is a choice of God, a legal, even – if you want – a fiduciarily valid choice because God is the Judge of all the Earth and the One to whom everybody must give account.
But it would not make any sense if we used “imputed” anywhere in that verse while infusing the word with some sense of transference. Certainly, God imputing David’s sin could not mean that He is somehow adding sin to David. We don’t need God to add sin to us, we condemn ourselves just fine, thank you. Therefore, when the KJV translates these two instances of “reckon” above as “impute”, it cannot possibly imply any kind of transference.
Yet, this sense of “transference” is precisely the way in which the doctrine of the “imputed righteousness of Christ” uses that word. Where did this meaning of imputed come from? Most references say it originated or at least became established by Saint Augustine. But, for the life of me, when I read English translations of those passages in Augustine and replace the word imputed with reckon or counted, I see no change in the original meaning. Yes, Augustine says that being saved means that God “sees” us as righteous, but that statement doesn’t come close at all to the theological technicalities that we find by the time of the Reformation. (For an excellent and brief comment on this, see what Phillip Cary has to say.)
I had to bring this up because the doctrine of the “imputed righteousness of Christ” is one of those things that can strongly shape your worldview. Whether you think that is for good or for bad, is not the point right now. So, rather than take too much of a detour at this point, let me finish going through Paul’s argument here, using at all times the word “reckon” to simply express the way something is accounted to be so, by a decision of the will. (In this chapter that will is the will of God.)
Romans 4:9-12 [Does] this blessedness then [rest] on the circumcision, or also on the uncircumcision? For we say that faith has been reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then has it been reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
And he received [the] sign of circumcision [as] seal of the righteousness of faith which [he had] being in uncircumcision, that he might be [the] father of all them that believe being in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned to them also; and father of circumcision, not only to those who are of [the] circumcision, but to those also who walk in the steps of the faith, during uncircumcision, of our father Abraham.
We have to keep in mind that Paul is still expounding on the argument that he began when he said back in chapter 3:1 “What then [is] the superiority of the Jew? or what the profit of circumcision?” Circumcision is a big deal to the Jews of Paul’s audience because it is the first physical, visible sign ordained by God that proved that here was the family of people that belonged to Him. And it was given to Abraham, way before the Law came with all its other physical visible rites.
It separated them to God (the meaning of being “holy”.) It also separated them from the peoples around them and their false gods. But that separation was meant to protect the integrity of the family of God, not keep out those outside from ever entering that family. That family of God was supposed to be the light of the world.
As Moses told the Israelites:
Deuteronomy 4:4-7 but ye that did cleave to Jehovah your God are alive every one of you this day. See, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as Jehovah my God commanded me, that ye may do so in the land into which ye enter to possess it. And ye shall keep and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding before the eyes of the peoples that shall hear all these statutes, and say, Verily this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there that hath God near to them as Jehovah our God is in everything we call upon him for?
Paul, then, has just told his Jewish audience: ‘Don’t you see that Abraham was a “Gentile” to begin with? And wasn’t it while he was in that state that he believed in God’s promise? If so, then it follows that God will account righteous anyone – Jew or Gentile – who like Abraham embraces that same faith in God.
And this means that it has nothing to do with the rites of the Law…
Romans 4:13-14 For [it was] not by law that the promise was to Abraham, or to his seed, that he should be heir of [the] world, but by righteousness of faith. For if they which [are] of law be heirs, faith is made vain, and the promise made of no effect.
And now, finally, Paul has given them the “Either Or”.
- In Chapter 2 he showed them that having the Law and executing its rites did not have the power to change their hearts. And being a Jew must be about the heart (Duet 30:6 and Jesus’ constant insistence on this point).
- In Chapter 3 he tells them that that Law condemns all sinners the same, even those (maybe especially those), that know The Law. However, that selfsame Law already pointed the direction to the only way in which sins can be forgiven (and therefore – in agreement with Deut. 30:6 – the heart changed): it had to be through the redemption purchased by the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice freely given (by Grace) by God.
- Now in Chapter 4 he has shown that the access to that redemption, which logically could not have been through any power of the Law (since they too are under sin, see chapters 2 and 3), comes through the power of Faith, a faith all peoples – Jew and Gentile – can have. And since there is only One God, then there cannot be two ways of salvation, there can be only One. It is Either-Or.
And if there is any lingering hope on relying on the law for “working” salvation somehow, Paul returns to his argument of Chapter 2. All the Law is, is a compass. Yes, its arrow points the way to God and all that He calls righteous. But, in so doing, the opposite end of that same arrow points to all the ways to reject God.
The Law presents to us exactly the same problem that the fruit of the tree of all that can be known about good and evil presented to Adam and Eve. You get that knowledge, you end up choosing evil.
Romans 4:15a For law works wrath;
(Just like that tree).
So, even though it is right to rejoice in all that the Law reveals of God (e.g. Psalms 19, 119), and even though it is the Law that reveals to us the hope of the Promise fulfilled, preparing us for the time when God’s righteousness was going to be revealed, we cannot rely on that Law to save us. Only God can do that.
Romans 4:15b but where no law is neither [is there] transgression.
Now, this last statement sounds like a tautology… “If there are no rules then you can’t break them”. But I don’t think that is at all what Paul has in mind here. I think it is all about God being Just and God also being Love and Mercy. If the only way to declare me righteous is by me obeying the Law, then there is no hope for me because I am a transgressor. A Just God must condemn me.
BUT, if that same Judge has established a different way to be right with Him, and it has nothing to do with keeping those Laws, then within that “other” plan that exists outside the Law (without Law, where there is no Law) that same Just God can declare me right with him, and Justice is still maintained.
That other plan was demarcated long ago.
Spoiler alert #2
As we will see, Paul will explain this concept fully as he goes on. But he has to make his case methodically. Because it is not a trivial argument. I don’t think it is a case of him discovering new theology either. It feels to me like this is something Paul thought long and hard about; and is, above all, a logical argument.
Paul was faced with a deep longing for the salvation of Israel. And this was not out of fleshly pride or hope in his heritage (see Philippians). No, he knew there was nothing wrong with that longing because over and over Scripture talks about God restoring his faithful remnant in Israel. He also knows the Gospel; namely, that the salvation God promised comes by the forgiveness of sin. And that that salvation is for all humanity.
So, what is the relationship between sin, the sin under which all humanity is enslaved, and The Law? If sin is Law-breaking, namely, transgression of the Law of Moses, and Gentiles did not have The Law of Moses, why are they guilty of sin?
In Chapter 1, he gave us the first deduction he draws from that question: The Gentiles too have a Law. Not written on tablets of stone but written in the heart, by the same God. It plays the same role as the Law of Moses in pointing out what is the good we must do.
But the fact that all humanity is under sin means that neither the law of Moses nor the Natural law of the Gentiles can overcome the power of sin. We are helpless before the Law. Why? Because the law, in pointing out what is good also points out evil. And we know the problem we have with the tree of all that can be known about good and evil. So, Law always ends up bringing wrath. If we know it, eventually, we will transgress it.
That means that if we are to be saved, and therefore delivered from wrath, we cannot expect the law, any Law to be the means of that salvation. We cannot expect salvation to be the absence of transgression. Because it will never happen. But for there to be no transgression, we cannot be living under a Law.
Then, how are we saved?
Salvation can only happen by God’s power through his mercy and grace. And it must set us free from the compass of the Law. We cannot be depending on using that compass to make our decisions. Every time we do, we get lost. So how do we make our decisions? What is going to enable us to do the good that God desires, if not by that compass? There is only one thing: Love.
We will be able to do what God desires of us because we love him. And we will be able to love him with all of our heart, mind, and strength because He, sovereignly, will change our hearts (Deut. 30:6).