Because Paul’s argument in Romans 4 is an extension of what he has already said, it is necessary to set up our analysis of Romans 4 by examining what Paul had just argued. The debate between traditional and “new perspectival” understandings of justification hinges upon one’s interpretation of the role of the “works of the law” in Paul’s thought. In Romans 3.20, Paul writes, “because by works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” Traditionally, “works of the Law” has “denoted good works done as an attempt to gain or achieve righteousness.” “New perspective” interpretations have challenged this, arguing that “works of the Law,” while also defining holiness, took on a role of separating Israel from surrounding nations. It is this latter sense of “works of the Law” that Paul is responding to, when he writes in 3.21, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” Moo’s succinct summary is helpful:
On this view, in other words, the problem Paul has with the Jews here does not have to do with their performance of the law but with their possession of it. Advocates of this view do not usually trace the inadequacy of the covenant to human inability; they think, rather, that Paul drew this conclusion because Christ’s coming rendered obsolete the Jewish covenant and/or because the Jewish covenant focused too narrowly on the Jewish people to the exclusion of the Gentiles.
Moo’s statement of the problem is illuminating for our task: it is either human ability to perform the works of the law that Paul is referring to, or it is a question of who is included in the covenant people.
Moo and others have pointed out that the new understanding of “works of the law” is clearly dependant upon Sanders’ reorientation of first-century Judaism. Moo also urges caution before accepting Sanders’s conclusions, arguing that the evidence is not as conclusive as Sanders thinks. Because many of the issues surrounding “works of the law” lie beyond my expertise, I will not offer a critical judgement here. Rather, I will argue that the dichotomy between “human inability” and “covenant inclusion” is a false one. In other words, I hope to make progress on a problem that Dunn identifies, when he states:
Presumably the resolution to the debate between the old perspective and the new lies in the clarification of the distinction between achieving righteousness and maintaining righteousness. But that resolution is still some distance away.
In order to make progress on this problem, I will merely point out that whatever the role of the “works of the Law” is, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from them. Paul’s argument is that it is not by the Law, but through faith that we are included in God’s righteousness. My method, then, is somewhat unusual. Rather than identify how Paul uses “works of the Law” before moving on to Romans 4, I will examine Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans 4 to illuminate the nature of Abraham’s faith, and then determine if that gives insight into Paul’s notion of the “works of the Law.” In doing so, I again hope to determine the nature of the relationship between the individual “achieving” righteousness and more communally oriented “maintaining.”
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.