There’s a famous passage in Genesis that often comes up in discussions of salvation. It says that Abraham “believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
Protestant pastors frequently preach on this passage, and they frequently get it wrong.
Here’s why . . .
Why It Comes Up
This passage comes up in preaching about salvation because it’s used that way in the New Testament. Paul quotes it in two places (Rom. 4:3-25, Gal. 3:6) and James quotes it once (James 2:23) in discussions of how we become justified (righteous) through faith in Christ.
This makes sense, because the Genesis passage connects faith and righteousness. It also makes sense for us today to use the passage whether we’re Protestant or Catholic. But we need to use it the right way.
Unfortunately, that’s not always done.
The Wrong Way to Use It
Protestant preachers use Genesis 15:6 (and Paul’s quotations of it) to argue for the classical Protestant understanding of justification. That model goes something like this:
- We are all sinners and therefore unrighteous before God.
- In our sinful state, we can’t become righteous before God by good works.
- However, if we place our faith in God, he will forgive our sins and reckon us righteous even though we are not.
- This reckoning is something that happens as a once-for-all event in the Christian life known as “justification.”
Points 1 and 2 are true, and points 3 and 4—though flawed—contain elements of truth.
The problem that concerns us here is that Protestant preachers tend to assume Genesis 15:6 maps onto the classical Protestant model in a straightforward way.
At first glance, this isn’t unreasonable, for Paul uses the verse to support justification by faith rather than works. But the matter isn’t as straightforward as people assume.
A One-to-One Mapping
If Genesis 15:6 mapped directly onto the classical Protestant model of justification, the following would result:
- Abraham was a sinner and therefore unrighteous before God.
- In his sinful state, Abraham could not become righteous before God by good works.
- But Abraham came to have faith in God, so God forgave Abraham’s sins and reckoned him righteous even though he was not.
- This reckoning was a once-for-all event in Abraham’s life, his justification before God.
But when you read Genesis 15, this is not what is happening.
Not. At. All.
Read the Context
To understand what’s happening, you need to start by reading the events that led up to it. Those are found in Genesis 14.
Basically, a war started between two groups of kings, one of whom was the king of the wicked city Sodom. During the war, Abraham’s kinsman Lot—who had been living in Sodom—was taken captive. When Abraham heard about this, he mustered a group of more than 300 fighting men from his own household and defeated the opposing kings. He thus rescued Lot, the other captives, and their goods.
Afterward, in thanksgiving for his victory in battle, Abraham goes to Melchizedek—a priest of God most high—and gives him a tenth of all the spoils.
Then the king of Sodom offers Abraham a reward, telling him, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself” (Gen. 14:21). Abraham refuses this reward, saying that he’d sworn an oath not to take anything from the king of Sodom.
God then comes to Abraham in a vision and says, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1). Abraham asks how this will be, for he has no children, and his current heir would be Eliezer of Damascus, a slave born in his household.
God tells him, “That man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.” Then he takes Abraham outside and has him look at the stars, telling him, “So shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:4-5).
At this point we read: “And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
An Initial Question
We should note there is an ambiguity in Genesis 15:6—it says that “he reckoned it to him” as righteousness. This can be read two ways: (1) God reckoned Abraham righteous or (2) Abraham reckoned God righteous.
The latter has been supported by some interpreters, including Jewish ones, and it makes sense in context: Abraham believed that God would give him a multitude of descendants, and he regarded this as a sign of God’s righteous goodness.
However, this is not the way the New Testament takes the verse. On all three occasions where it’s quoted, the authors understand God as reckoning Abraham as righteous. For Christians, that guarantees that this is a proper way of looking at the text—even if it is not necessarily the only way of looking at it, since Scripture operates on more than one level.
A Very Different Picture
If we understand God as reckoning Abraham righteous, how well does the passage match the classical Protestant view of justification?
Not well at all.
Notice how different the whole approach of the text is. Abraham is not being presented as a sinner who can’t redeem himself by good works but then comes to have faith in God and is then forgiven his sins and declared righteous (even though he is not) in a once-for-all, life-changing event.
Quite the opposite is true! Abraham is already a follower of God, someone who already has faith in him, and the context stresses Abraham’s good works and righteousness:
- He defeated the evil kings.
- He rescued Lot and the other captives.
- He went to a priest of God and gave thanks for the victory.
- He refused any reward from the wicked king of Sodom.
- And so God himself promised to give Abraham a reward instead.
The fact that God is rewarding Abraham for what he has done shows this isn’t a case of a sinner coming to God and repenting so he can obtain forgiveness. It’s God rewarding a follower for faithful service. That means Abraham isn’t acquiring righteousness here for the first time. He is already righteous, as his actions have shown.
Then Abraham believes the incredible promise that he will have a multitude of descendants, despite his age (cf. Rom. 4:19, Heb. 11:12), and God reckons that act of belief as a new act of righteousness on Abraham’s part.
Some translations bring this aspect out better than others. The New American Bible does a particularly good job. It says that the Lord “attributed it to him as an act of righteousness.”
Notice, by the way, that Abraham’s act of faith also wasn’t generic in nature. Abraham already believed in and trusted God in a general way. Here he is believing something very specific: that God will give him a multitude of descendants—a point Paul recognizes when he uses the verse (Rom. 4:17-22).
And notice that the righteousness isn’t a counterfactual, purely legal thing. Instead, believing God when he tells you he will do something is a righteous act. Abraham did something actually righteous here.
All of this means that we need to be careful when we apply this verse to discussions of justification.
It is relevant to the subject. Thus Paul makes the point that Abraham wasn’t circumcised at the time this happened (Rom. 4:9-12), so God can view someone as righteous even though he’s not circumcised and thus doesn’t have works of the Jewish law (Rom. 3:28-30).
But it’s a mistake to map the passage onto the classical Protestant view of justification.
Image: the Binding of Isaac, Romanesque wall painting