Chemnitz on Abraham’s Justification

Chemnitz on Abraham’s Justification July 3, 2017

In what context does “justification” fit? Does the word describe what happens to sinners when they are restored to the favor of God in their individual experience? Or is it instead, or also, a description of something that happened in the life-history of Jesus, as He lives a life of perfect devotion to His Father, dies, and rises again?

Historically, theologians have taken the former context as the primary one for Paul’s teaching on justification. For Augustine and most of the medieval tradition, justification is “making-just,” just-facere. It describes what happens to sinners as they are restored to God and to righteousness. For John Owen, justification is the answer to how the sinner can be relieved of his affliction of conscience. He is more interested in the pastoral import of the doctrine – the relief of conscience – than in disputing theological points.

But this leads to some conundrums, especially in efforts to exegete Paul’s teaching in Romans and elsewhere.

Martin Chemnitz is commendably careful in his treatment of Paul’s use of Genesis 15 in Romans 4. There, Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith and cites Genesis 15 in support of his conclusion that justification is by faith and not by the works of the law. Against Catholics, Chemnitz insists that justification is not on the basis of works done after regeneration. His proof is that Abraham was justified by faith even though he had been following and worshiping God for a long time before he was declared righteous: 

“when he had obeyed God for a number of years from the very beginning of his call, from Gen. ch. 11 through ch. 15, then he was certainly renewed in the spirit of his mind and adorned with many outstanding works and fruits of the Spirit, according to Heb. 11:8-10. . . . It is to this already regenerate Abraham, adorned with spiritual newness and with many good works, that Paul applies these statements: ‘To one who does not work but trusts in Him who justifies the ungodly’ . . . at the time the already regenerate Abraham was certainly not without good works but had performed many truly good works through faith. . . . And yet the Holy Spirit through Paul clearly removes and takes away from the operation and works of the renewed Abraham the praise and glory of justification before God to life eternal” (Examination of Council of Trent, Part 1, 492-3).

This is an accurate reading of Genesis 15, but it creates significant problems for Chemnitz’s understanding of justification. One might take Romans 4 as proof that regeneration comes prior to justification in the order of salvation (ordo salutis), but the gap between new birth and justification isn’t a matter of nanonseconds but years, perhaps a decade (Abraham is 75 when he leaves Haran, 99 when circumcised, and Genesis 15 fits somewhere in between). What status did Abraham have before the events of Genesis 15? Was he regenerated but unjustified? If he had died in that liminal state, would he have been saved?

Besides, Paul describes Abraham’s faith as believing “in Him who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5), but on Chemnitz’s reading, Abraham has already been obeying and worshiping God. Again, Chemnitz is undeniably right, since, according to Hebrews 11, Abraham showed faith by leaving his home in Ur in response to God’s call, and that happened some considerable time before the events of Genesis 15. This is essential to Chemnitz’s polemical point against Trent: Even though Abraham has been a faithful, obedient man, those works are not the basis for his righteous status. But then how can godly Abraham serve as an example of the justification of the ungodly?

We could try to solve the problem by dischronologizing Genesis: Perhaps Genesis 15 did not, in fact, happen after Abraham’s call from Ur, but was simultaneous with it. But Genesis 15 begins with “after these things,” and the things in view are Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt (12:10-20), his settlement in the Negev and his separation from Lot (13:1-18), and his war to rescue Lot (14:1-24). Further, Paul thinks the chronological sequence of Abraham’s life is theologically important: He insists that Abraham was reckoned righteous before he was circumcised (Romans 4:10-12).

The solution, it seems, lies elsewhere. It lies in trying, with great effort, to unread our standard readings of Romans 4, and to consider the possibility that Paul does not present Abraham merely as an example of justification but as something else, and the possibility that by “justification” Paul means something else or more than an episode in the spiritual experience of Abraham.

I’ll explore what that alternative reading might look like in a later post.

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