Abraham’s Justification by Faith & Works (vs. Jordan Cooper)

Abraham’s Justification by Faith & Works (vs. Jordan Cooper) March 1, 2024

+ Catholic Exegesis Regarding St. Paul’s Specific Meaning of “Works” in Romans 4

Rev. Dr. Jordan B. Cooper is a Lutheran pastor, adjunct professor of Systematic Theology, Executive Director of the popular Just & Sinner YouTube channel, and the President of the American Lutheran Theological Seminary (which holds to a doctrinally traditional Lutheranism, similar to the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod). He has authored several books, as well as theological articles in a variety of publications. All my Bible citations are from RSV, unless otherwise indicated. Jordan’s words will be in blue.

This is my 6th reply to Jordan (many more to come, because I want to interact with the best, most informed Protestant opponents). All of these respectful critiques can be found in the “Replies to Lutheran Theologian / Apologist Jordan Cooper” section on the top of my Lutheranism web page.


This is a response to one portion of Jordan’s YouTube video, “A Lutheran (Jordan B. Cooper) and Roman Catholic (Rob Koons) Debate Romans 4” (12-11-23).

Romans 4:2-9, 13-16, 20-22 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. [3] For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” [4] Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. [5] And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. [6] So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: [7] “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; [8] blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.” [9] Is this blessing pronounced only upon the circumcised, or also upon the uncircumcised? We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. . . . [13] The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. [14] If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. [15] For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. [16] That is why 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, for he is the father of us all, . . . [20] No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, [21] fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. [22] That is why his faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”

0:11 I always go to Romans 4, but there’s a reason for that. Romans 4 in particular does speak about the fact that Abraham is one who is not working; he does not work, and we even have the entire narrative that stands behind the Abrahamic promise, and in that narrative Abraham is literally put asleep when God makes this covenant with Abraham. So God is the one making the covenant. It is the model of what we call a suzerainty treaty, where God is essentially saying that he is fulfilling the terms of the covenant himself, which I would argue is very different from what we see in, for example, the Mosaic administration when we have the people saying “all of this we will do.” Abraham’s asleep; God makes the promises and Abraham trusts that God is going to do what God says he’s going to do. And that’s what we have [in] that text in Genesis 15:6: that Abraham believed, and it was credited him as righteousness, and in that context I would say that also gives us a really strong picture of what faith is, as something beyond historical knowledge. . . . even the example that Paul gives in Romans 4 is [that] he believes God’s promise to give him a son. The picture seems to be something beyond what we would call historical faith and it’s not love either . . . 

I think that Paul’s use of “work[s]” in Romans 4 is referring to what Anglican theologian N. T. Wright describes as “badges of Jewish membership (Sabbath, dietary laws, circumcision)” which separated Jews from Gentiles in his time. Wright contends that Paul’s topic in Romans 4 is not so much inclusion of the Gentiles, but rather, what caused Gentile Christians to wrongly exclude ethnic Jews from the Christian community. Wright thus interprets Romans 4:2 as meaning that Abraham was not justified by the “works” of Sabbath, dietary laws, circumcision, etc., and that Paul is making an argument for the primacy of faith, which transcends even adherence to the Mosaic Law.

Faith is regarded as superior to Mosaic Law, not to good works per se (as Protestants routinely misinterpret such passages in Paul). Accordingly, Paul contends that God’s blessings and forgiveness extends to the uncircumcised as well; that “faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness” (4:9) “before he was circumcised” (4:10), making him “the father of all who believe without being circumcised” (4:11) and also of the “circumcised” who “follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12). This is what the passage is about: faith in Jesus and belief in God’s grace over against observance of ritual Jewish laws (insofar as certain folks wanted to pit them against each other).

In five other passages: Romans 3:20 [cf. similar notions in 3:27-28; 9:31-32; 11:6; 2 Tim 1:9] and Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10, Paul uses the phrase “works of the law” in the same sense as he uses “works” in Romans 4, and with regard to the initial justification by faith alone (which Catholics do agree with, over against Pelagianism). In other words, we should strive to understand Paul’s overall message, by comparing relevant passages with each other and harmonizing them. Paul uses “works” or equivalent ideas in a positive, Catholic sense in several other passages:

Romans 2:6-8, 10, 13 For he will render to every man according to his works: [7] to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; [8] but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. . . . [10] . . . glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, . . . [13] For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

1 Corinthians 3:8-9 He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

All this being understood, we then realize that since Paul is not against all works whatsoever in Romans 4, therefore he is not against the notion of Abraham being justified by works as well as faith. He just happens to be addressing faith only in this passage because he is contending that faith has a primacy over OT Law, which in turn allows for the full inclusion of the Gentiles into the new Church. So now we must examine more closely the issue of Abraham’s justification, which was originally presented in Genesis chapters 12, 15, 18, 22, and 26. Let’s consider each in turn, and how they are interpreted in the NT.

In Genesis 12, God told Abraham to leave his home and trust him for the future, and he was obedient (see Heb 11:8) and did so (a work): Abraham “went, as the LORD told him” (12:4). That was a good work of obedience, and as a result, God blessed him greatly: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great . . . by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (12:2-3). Then he “built” two altars “to the Lord” (good works again): 12:7-8. Faith is never mentioned in the chapter (nor does “believe” appear). I would say that Abraham clearly exercised faith, and believed when he obeyed God’s instructions. But it seems to me that if the point of the narrative is to highlight faith as opposed to works, it’s odd that Abraham’s work (that he went where God told Him to go) is mentioned and commended, but not his faith.

What does Genesis 12 teach about Abraham’s justification, then? Do Protestants wish to argue that God said all this (in 12:2-3) about and to an unregenerate, unjustified, “totally depraved” heathen? That makes no sense. Whether Paul uses the term justification for Genesis 12 or not, does not determine what is being described in Genesis 12. This is an important factor to consider. The argument about Abraham and justification is a deductive one, incorporating systematic theology. It doesn’t only look for the words, “justification” or “justified.” The word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, either. It doesn’t follow that the doctrine is absent. Concepts are present in texts as well as words. The question is whether Genesis 12 describes a justified man who possesses faith or not. I say it clearly does do so. Therefore, Abraham must have been justified by then.

If it’s denied that Genesis 12 is about Abraham’s justification, then it has to be explained how Hebrews 11:8 describes it as Abraham exercising faith. This must be justification in the Protestant sense because unregenerate or “totally depraved” man cannot have or exercise true faith. Hebrews 11 is about the heroes of the faith. Faith is described as leading to men receiving God’s “divine approval” (11:2), which sounds a lot like justification to me. Abel “received approval as righteous” (11:4). Enoch is described as “having pleased God” (11:5). Noah “became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith” (11:7).

Then Abraham is mentioned. The overall thought is obviously the same as what came before. Works with regard to Abraham are mentioned by the text asserting, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go” (11:8) and “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise . . .” (11:9) and “By faith Abraham . . . offered up Isaac” (11:17). The Bible also refers twice to “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26) and twice to “work of faith” (1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:11). Works are always present where true faith exists.
In Genesis 12 (in light of Hebrews 11), Abraham is clearly justified by both faith and works. He had the faith to believe God, and he obeyed Him (a work). We can say that Abraham’s good works flowed from and were intrinsic to, his faith. None of this poses any problem for the Catholic view. But it’s a huge problem for the Protestant view, since it can only accept justification by faith and not by works.
In Genesis 15:6 Abraham was justified as a result of having “believed the Lord.” The word “justification” doesn’t appear there, but it does in Romans 4, where Paul offers an extensive interpretation of Genesis 15, as we’ve seen above. James 2:20-26 refers back to Genesis 15:6 (as well as Genesis 22), and gives an explicit interpretation of the Old Testament passage, by stating, “and the scripture was fulfilled which says, . . .” (2:23, RSV, as throughout). The previous three verses in James were all about justification, faith, and works, all tied in together, and this is what James says “fulfilled” Genesis 15:6. The next verse then condemns Protestant soteriology by disagreeing with the notion of “faith alone” in the clearest way imaginable.
James 2 is usually interpreted by Protestants as a teaching on sanctification, but that is not what the passage says. It mentions “justified” (dikaioo: Strong’s word #1344) three times (2:21, 24-25): the same Greek word used in Romans 4:2, as well as 2:13; 3:20, 24, 28; 5:1, 9; 8:30; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 2:16-17; 3:11, 24; 5:4; and Titus 3:7. If James actually meant sanctification, on the other hand, he could have used one of two Greek words (hagiazo hagiasmos: Strong’s #37-38) that appear (together) 38 times in the New Testament (the majority of times by Paul himself).
God reiterates that works are central to Abraham’s justification (and anyone’s) — without faith or belief being mentioned — in Genesis 18:
Genesis 18:17-19 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, [18] seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? [19] No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justiceso that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
After Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, God said:
Genesis 22:16-18 . . . “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, [17] I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, [18] and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Note how this talks about works and not faith (though I would say faith was certainly and obviously involved). But works cannot be separated from faith. It’s firmly established in Genesis 22 that it was a work of Abraham that brought about God’s renewed covenant with him. Knowing this, James simply called it what it was, using different but conceptually equivalent terminology:
James 2:21-24 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, [23] and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. [24] You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James — take note — doesn’t deny that Abraham also had faith, which was part of his justification as well (2:18, 20, 22-24, 26). We already knew Abraham was justified by a work in Genesis 22 because God rewarded him for something he had “done” and because he “obeyed” him. God repeats the same sort of thing again, in speaking to Isaac:

Genesis 26:3-5 “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfil the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. [4] I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give to your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves: [5] because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
The great faithfulness of Abraham is predominantly highlighted in the New Testament (Rom 4; Gal 3; Heb 11), without ignoring the fact that works also played a key role in Abraham’s justification (James 2). Scripture asserts that Abraham, Phinehas (Num 25:11-13), Rahab (Jas 2:25), Abel, and Noah were all justified by works. These three incidents in Abraham’s life (Genesis 12, 15, and 22) reveal initial justification and two instances of its renewal or reiteration, by both faith and works.
Our Protestant brethren say that one is justified by faith once for all and not at all by works. We say that initial justification is monergistic and by faith only, but ongoing justification is by faith + works. The Bible backs this up, as I have shown from the example of Abraham. Initial justification can be described as being “justified” just as we say of someone who got their license to drive a car for the first time: “she got her license.” But it has to be renewed (every four years in the US). So we “get” it more than once. We can also lose it due to drunk driving or excessive traffic violations (breaking of the law being similar to sins), and get it back again. The Catholic view of justification is somewhat analogous to this. If one can fall away from salvation and lose entrance to heaven, one can certainly lose justification, if they reject it and don’t follow God’s commandments.



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Photo credit: Sacrifice of Isaac (1635), by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: Jordan Cooper argues that Abraham’s justification (per Romans 4) was only by faith. I disagree & analyze Genesis 12, 15, 18, 22, & 26, & related Hebrews 11 & James 2.

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