What was credited to Abraham by faith?

Read time: 5 minutes

Still on the subject of judgment and works, justification and faith, and the fundamental misalignment of Reformed theology… Darren asks: “What was credited to Abraham by faith?” I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at—he may just be asking what “it” refers to: “he counted it to him as righteousness”. If so, the answer is simply that God counted or reckoned his act of believing as righteousness. But it gives me an excuse to look a little more closely at Paul’s argument about righteousness and faith. We’ll begin with three other Old Testament passages:

  • Moses says that “it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut. 6:25).
  • Having been delivered by God from his enemies, David declares:

The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psa 18:20–24; cf. 2 Sam. 22:21-25)

  • When Phinehas killed the man of Israel and his Midianite wife, it was “counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever” (Ps. 106:31, with reference to Num. 25:7-8). This is the closest parallel to Genesis 15:6. Notice that it is what Phinehas did (he “stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed”) that is counted to him as righteousness.

These texts suggest that “he counted it to him as righteousness” means simply that in God’s eyes Abraham had done the right thing and would be rewarded for his belief in the promise regarding his descendants (Gen. 15:1, 6). If Israel had kept the commandments, that would have been righteousness for them, and they would have prospered in the land. David kept the ways of the Lord and was rewarded according to his righteousness. Phinehas’ violent response to Israel’s unfaithfulness was counted as righteousness, and he was remembered for his “good” deed from generation to generation.

Von Rad makes the further point that such “righteousness” is relational rather than absolute:

a man is called righteous who conducts himself properly with reference to an existing communal relationship, who, therefore, does justice to the claims which this communal relationship makes on him.1

So we should also highlight the covenantal dimension to the argument: Abraham’s trust is the ground not for his personal right standing with God as a sinner but for the future covenantal relationship between YHWH and his promised descendants. In Brueggemann’s words:

The faith of Abraham is certain of one point. There is a future to be given which will be new and not derived from the present barrenness. He believes that God can cause a break point between the exhausted present and the buoyant future. He believes in a genuine Genesis.2

Paul sees in Abraham a seminal example of faith rather than works being counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:3), but the point is still that Abraham did the right thing: he trusted YHWH to keep his promise, which is the basis for the future. This is underlined later in the chapter:

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:19–25)

It is not a single moment of belief: he did not weaken in his faith, he did not waver, he grew strong in his faith, he was fully convinced, he believed through to the moment when God made good his promise. This is the sort of faith(fulness) that Paul is looking for from the saints in Rome, who will have to face considerable opposition, who will be subjected to tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Rom. 8:35). As I argued in The Future of the People of God, these are not the general afflictions of humanity: they are specifically the sufferings of the apostles and of the missional churches of the ancient world during a period of eschatological crisis.

The saints, therefore, are justified for doing the right thing—for exercising the same manner of trust in the face of an uncertain future that Abraham demonstrated. It’s very simple. There’s nothing mysterious or metaphysical about it. The language of “imputation” or “impartation” or “infusion” is overblown.

The saints are reckoned to be right, in God’s eye, for believing that by raising Jesus from the dead God has both ensured the future of his “new creation” people and given notice of his intention to judge and rule the nations. They are right—in the context of the story of God’s relationship with his people—to believe that the descendants of Abraham will inherit the world on the basis of the “righteousness of faith” rather than through adherence to the Jewish Law (Rom. 4:13).

They will be reckoned to be right in God’s eyes if they persevere in this belief—and in the behaviour that springs from it—through to the moment when paganism collapses and Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations. And then—like Abraham, Israel in theory, David and Phinehas—they will be rewarded, they will be vindicated, they will be glorified along with their Lord when he “comes”.

  • 1Von Rad, G., Genesis (1961, 1972), 185.
  • 2Brueggemann, W., Genesis (1982), 144.

Excellent explanation,  Andrew.

One thing: you say, ‘The language of “imputation” or “impartation” or “infusion” is overblown.’ I think you are understating this. Such words are entirely inappropriate, completely out of place, category mistakes, the artefacts of Augustinian and Protestant theology, having nothing whatsoever to do with Paul’s thinking. 

peter wilkinson | Fri, 09/13/2013 - 20:12 | Permalink

So we should also highlight the covenantal dimension to the argument: Abraham’s trust is the ground not for his personal right standing with God as a sinner but for the future covenantal relationship between YHWH and his promised descendants.

Yes; absolutely. But I wonder if in emphasizing that the word “righteousness” means, on the whole, “doing the right thing”, you aren’t actually in danger of playing down its covenantal significance where it needs to be highlighted.

“Doing the right thing”, as you put it, was never simply abiding by abstract moral absolutes, or even doing what God tells you, but doing so within a covenant relationship. This was as true for Abraham as it was for Moses. You are quite right about Abraham; his faith being credited as righteousness was not to do with “his personal right standing with God as a sinner”. Sinfulness never came into it, and nor does it when Paul uses  his faith as an example of being “credited as righteousness” in Romans 4 (but it does in the immediately following example of David, and becomes inextricably linked with the previous covenant formation with Abraham).

So we need to look carefully at the whole context of Genesis 15 in which the phrase “credited as righteousness” appears. The whole episode, and not simply the animal carcass ceremony, describes the establishing of a covenant. The covenant was first in God’s promise to Abraham of an heir, conditional on his faith-response (from which he would have descendants by whom “all nations will be blessed”). The next part of the covenant is provision of the land which Abraham’s descendants would occupy.  The carcass covenant includes God’s prediction concerning the 400 year sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus, and then the return to the land. Although the episode here ends with the land, the full extent of the covenant goes further, as we know already from covenant promises made in Genesis 12:3 and 22:18.

It is this Gentile inclusion in the covenant that Paul takes up in Galatians 3:6-9, which is described in v.8 as the gospel announced “in advance”: “All nations will be blessed through you” (meaning through Abraham and his offspring).  How did this happen to Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s day? By believing God — v.6. What in particular were they, Jewish and Gentile Galatians to believe? “Jesus Christ clearly portrayed as crucified” v.1. What was the result of this belief? The gift of the Spirit to them both - vs.2,3,5.

The covenant sense of “righteousness”, and its verbal cognate “justify”, is developed in Paul’s argument in Romans 3 as well as Galatians 3. The “righteousness of God” — Romans 3:21, not simply “doing the right  thing” but his “faithfulness to the covenant”, testified to by “the Law and Prophets” (in other words the Torah as a whole), is fulfilled in “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” — v.22, “to all who believe” — Jew and Gentile. Believing is not simply loyalty, but faith in what Jesus accomplished, which was for all “to be justified freely by his (God’s) grace, and through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” — v.24. The necessity of this for “all” is explained in the immediately preceding verse (v.23): “For all (Jew and Gentile) have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God”. Sin was just as much an issue for Gentiles as it was for Jews, and is dealt with in the same way, through Jesus being “presented as a sacrifice of atonement/hilasterion/mercy seat, through faith in his blood”.

Paul describes the full meaning of justification as twofold, or one meaning containing the other. First was justification as covenant-formation, which is what happened when Abraham’s faith was “credited to him as righteousness” — Romans 4:1-5. “Righteousness” here means more than “doing the right thing”. God made a covenant promise to Abraham, the essence of which was the provision of an heir, as part of a wider promise of heirs to come who would bless all nations. Abraham could depend on God, and so could all who would follow, and those who would be the beneficiaries of  this covenant promise, the heirs to come and the nations who would be blessed.

The second meaning of “justified” was in dealing with sin — Romans 4:6-9, which is illustrated when David was justified — “Blessed is the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven’ “etc.

“Justified” is at the heart of the meaning of Jesus’s death as described in Romans 3:21-26. Traditionally, these verses and “hilasterion” (v.25) have been seen as having their meaning in the Day of Atonement. Mid 20th century interpretations veered away from this towards “hilasterion” as deriving meaning from its use in describing the suffering of the Maccabean martyrs. Nevertheless, strong voices (Cranfield, Moo) also asserted that the word as used in Hebrews 9:5 (“atonement cover”) is the key to Romans 3:25, and is borrowed from the word used to describe the covering of the ark of the covenant in Ezekiel’s eschatological temple (LXX Ezekiel 43:14, 17, 20).

In Ezekiel’s eschatological temple there is no mention of the Day of Atonement, but the sacrifices associated with it are described as being celebrated at the Passover feast. In Romans 3:21-26, Paul seems to have followed Ezekiel in giving atoning significance to the Passover celebration. In Ezekiel, the Davidic prince makes the Paschal-atoning sacrifices, and Paul follows Ezekiel here as well by indicating that it is the Son of David (Romans 1:3) who achieves his people’s redemption through his own death  (Romans 1:3-4; 3:21-26). There are many other examples of the influence of Ezekiel on Paul which could be provided to reinforce the borrowing here. More crucially, Paul was following Jesus in the last supper accounts — 1 Corinthians 15:3, Matthew 26:28 etc, where the Passover feast, rather than the Day of Atonement, was the setting for the crucifixion.

In Romans 3, the Passover is also the crucial event from which both these senses of “justified” are developed further in Romans 4. Passover echoes are provided with words like “redemption” v.24, and “blood” v.25 (as the object of faith in both Passover and Crucifixion). What is now added to the Passover significance in Romans 3 is the death of Jesus as a “sacrifice of atonement” — or “hilasterion” (mercy seat).

“Righteousness” and “justify” have covenant associations for Paul in what are arguably Passover contexts, just as the original Passover has significance for God’s covenant relationship with Israel. The words signify in the first place the forming of a completely dependable relationship. “Justify” is used in a similar way in describing God’s bringing his people out of the Babylonian exile in Isaiah, where echoes of the Exodus relate the word to the earlier release from exile, and even to a reversal of the original exile from Eden.

Short of going through every single use of the OT equivalents to the words “righteousness” and “justify”, I think the most important uses of the word have covenant significance as the key to their meaning, with the law-court metaphor of “righteousness” (proving faithfulness or otherwise to the covenant) as a secondary idea. I’m not asserting that every time the words are used they have this significance, but covenant in this historic sense should be the starting point for understanding their meaning, especially in passages like Genesis 15.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, that’s a very long comment that manages to miss the clear reference to covenant in the post (“we should also highlight the covenantal dimension to the argument”). Of course, it’s about covenant—frankly, I wonder if you actually read it—but it’s covenant under eschatological circumstances.

@Andrew Perriman:

No — I acknowledged your reference to covenant, and suggested that it had a more comprehensive significance than you had allowed. especially in Genesis 15. I said that very clearly. Try reading my comment.

@peter wilkinson:

“Righteousness” here means more than “doing the right thing”. God made a covenant promise to Abraham, the essence of which was the provision of an heir, as part of a wider promise of heirs to come who would bless all nations. Abraham could depend on God, and so could all who would follow, and those who would be the beneficiaries of this covenant promise, the heirs to come and the nations who would be blessed.

This is why I don’t think you read the post properly. You quoted this paragraph but then effectively ignored it:

So we should also highlight the covenantal dimension to the argument: Abraham’s trust is the ground not for his personal right standing with God as a sinner but for the future covenantal relationship between YHWH and his promised descendants.

That says what you seem to suggest was not said when you object that righteousness means more than “doing the right thing”.

You’ve added the bit about blessing the nations, but that’s beside the point. Abraham was justified because he believed that God would give him descendants, not because he believed that the nations would be blessed—that is not mentioned in 15:1-6. The issue in the passage is whether his reward would include having his own heir—rather than his inheritance going to Eliezer of Damascus (15:1-2). His trust in this promise about descendants is counted to him as righteousness, and this obviously has future consequences for his descendants—by definition. But all the idiom means is that he was reckoned by God to have done the right thing in the context of his relationship with God.

The second meaning of “justified” was in dealing with sin - Romans 4:6-9, which is illustrated when David was justified - “Blessed is the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven’ ” etc.

No, I think that’s wrong or at least misleading. Atonement is about dealing with sin. Justification is about believing that sin has been dealt with in this way. The issue is this: Was it right to believe the highly controversial apostolic message that God had secured the future of his people through the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than through works of the Jewish Law?

Jesus’ death was an act of atonement for the sins of Israel, for the “transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15). People are then justified, or counted to be in the right, for believing in the atoning significance of his death—just as Abraham was counted as being in the right for believing in the promise regarding his descendants. David is justified because he trusted in the God who forgives lawless deeds.

So both Jews and Gentiles are reckoned to be in the right—and more importantly, will be reckoned to be in the right—for believing, first, that God put Jesus forward as an atonement for the sins of Israel, and secondly, that the resurrected Jesus was judge and ruler of the nations in waiting.

And I still don’t get this argument about the passover. I see no reference to the passover in Romans 3:21-26. I can’t find any connection in the LXX between apolutrōsis (“redemption”) and the passover. The language of justification is nowhere associated with the passover. Ezekiel 43 makes no reference to the passover—sacrifices are made for the consecration of the altar (cf. Ex. 29:37). The nations are “justified” in Isaiah 45:25, but the nations do not take part in the return from exile, whether or not it is thought of as a second exodus. Where else is dikaioō used to describe “God’s bringing his people out of the Babylonian exile in Isaiah”? The passover itself was not in any case an atoning event, the passover sacrifice was not a sacrifice for sin. The “blood of the covenant” in Matthew 26:28 is a reference to Exodus 24:8, which is also not a sacrifice for sin, rather than to the passover lamb. When Paul describes Christ as “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7), he is not thinking of the atoning significance of Jesus’ death.

@Andrew Perriman:

People are then justified, or counted to be in the right, for believing in the atoning significance of his death.

Readers without paying careful attention to your wording might think this is repeating a conventional understanding of the atonement. It doesn’t - the key word being “significance”. You do not believe that Jesus’s death is directly applicable to all people, only to the Jews/Israel at that time.

Despite what you have said in your reply - and thanks for reading my long comment - I still think that you are evading a key issue in Genesis 15. You do not interpret “credited as righteousness” as covenant forming, as far as I can see. In Romans 4, Paul does, in the first place by quoting “credited as rigtheousnss” from Genesis 15 in relation to Abraham, but with no mention of sin. He then quotes the same phrase in relation to David from Psalm 51, where sin is the issue. The meaning is not that Abraham’s sins were being forgiven in Genesis 15, but that a covenant was being formed, which would later make provision for sins which needed to be dealt with if the covenant was to work. David points the way to this, but the full account of what this part of “justify” meant has been explained in Romans 3:21-26.

I also think you aren’t really seeing the full picture with “hilasterion” and Romans 3:25 (in the context of 21-26). How are we meant to understand this word which is a key to opening up the meaning of “justify”? The prevailing fashion has swung towards seeing “hilasterion” in terms of Maccabean martyrdom, where a martyr’s death avails in God’s eyes for a righteous atonement. If you follow my argument, which includes the only other use of the word “hilasterion” in the NT (Hebrews 9:5), you come to a different and more satisfactory interpretation, which does point to the Passover. That this must be the context for understanding the death of Jesus in relation to atoning for sin is obvious when you think that the death took place at the Passover, not the Day of Atonement. It was also the context which Jesus chose for explaining his death at the last supper, the outpouring of his blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Thank you again for bearing with me in these observations, which must be highly irritating to you.

@peter wilkinson:

I’ve just noticed God’s response to Phinehas’ righteous act in Numbers 25:12-13:

Therefore say, “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

The killing of the Israelite and his foreign wife is not merely counted as righteousness. It became the basis for a covenant with Phinehas and his descendants; and it had atoning significance for the people of Israel.

@Andrew Perriman:

Totally, and the use of exactly the same phrase in Psalm 106:31 as in Genesis 15:6 to describe Phinehas’s action: “counted/credited as righteousness”, illustrates the point I’m making, that “credited as righeousness” means the forming of a covenant. In this case, it was a “covenant of peace” because Phinehas had stood up against the Israelite and his foreign wife. He “made atonement” for the Israelites because his action averted judgment which would otherwise have surely come on Israel.

I’m finding your line of thought difficult to follow about “righteousness”. Sometimes you say it means being regarded by God as “doing the right thing”; here you say it means forming the basis for a covenant, which is exactly what I say it means with Abraham in Genesis 15, repeated in Romans 4:1-4. It was a covenant of inclusion in a relationship at that time, not just a pointer to a covenant in the future.

@peter wilkinson:

I wrote:

Abraham’s trust is the ground… for the future covenantal relationship between YHWH and his promised descendants.

That seems to me to entail the thought that God promised, Abraham believed, God counted that as righteousness, and this transaction (metaphorically speaking) became the basis for the future covenant between God and his people. But there is no reference to the need for atonement in Genesis 15. Significantly, in view of your insistence on the relevance of the exodus for understanding Romans 3:21-26, the exodus from Egypt is in view in Genesis 15:13-14. But this is regarded as a fulfilment of the promise, not a redemption from sin.

Thank you again for bearing with me in these observations, which must be highly irritating to you.

Not as irritating as having my blog hijacked by your “mini-blog within a blog”. That’s really not what the comments are for.

@Andrew Perriman:

Indeed. But my thoughts flowed in in an unstoppable tide. I thought you might have been rather more generous.

You interpret Genesis 15:6 as  “the basis for the future covenant between God and his people”. I was saying that it is the basis for a covenant made with Abraham at that time. The larger point is that “credited as righteousness” means “justified”, which means the formation of a covenant agreement, the bringing into a covenant. “Righteousness” means that Abraham was included in a covenant with God at that time.

This covenant-making activity supplies the meaning of  “justify” in other contexts, and especially the NT. “Credited as righteousness” here is not about "imputing" righteousness, nor is it simply saying that Abraham had “done the right thing”. Why is this important? Because “faith”, which includes loyalty as well as trust, becomes the central issue at stake in the history of God and His people, and the means for the fulfilment of His purposes.  It’s the central issue in Job, but that’s another story.

Your second paragraph seems to have missed entirely the point being made about “credited as righteousness”. There is of course no reference to the atonement in Genesis 15, because Abraham’s or his descendants’ or his predecessors’ sins didn’t at that point come into it. That isn’t the immediate significance of what is happening in Genesis 15.

Paul means nothing different in Romans 4:1-4 when he applies Genesis 15:6 to”justified” in relation to the death of Jesus (Romans 3:24). It was about the forming of a covenant, which did of course have in (distant) view the blessing of the nations through the heir and his descendants, if you read the Genesis account of Abraham, and more proximate view the provision of the land.

However, for this covenant to work, for the relationship God wanted with His people, through which creation was to be restored (Romans 8:19-21), Paul saw that sin did need to be dealt with. This is the meaning supplied to “credited as righteousness”, apart from works (of the Law), when applied to David in Psalm 32.

I'm not sure what point you are making by introducing the exodus from Egypt into your argument here in Genesis 15. It’s part of the whole story to which Abraham is connected, but at this stage, in Genesis 15, redemption from sin is not the primaryv focus. The focus is on the formation of a covenant relationship through which God’s activity in the narrative would come, which included His covenant commitment to His people in bringing them out of Egypt. We have to wait for Paul to introduce idea of redemption from sin being a necessary part of the covenant, if tis wider purposes were to be fulfilled.

All I’m doing is describing how the argument about covenant is developed. In the first place, it was much more than God responding to Abraham because he “did the right thing”.


I’m not particularly attached to the use of the terms imputation, impartation, or infusion. And I don’t think I require that concept to understand justification. Yet, I do wonder why you seem to be so opposed to the concept, especially since I think you said it was okay to use it as a metaphor. I guess I’m trying to figure out exactly what you are trying to counter.

Dwight D Osborne | Mon, 09/05/2022 - 23:44 | Permalink

The clear and very explicit meaning based on the context is that Abraham was saved because of his faith.  His faith saved him “on credit” as even though Messiah had not appeared on the scene yet, Abraham was aware of the gospel having been shared with him by God Himself.  God had preached it to him and then gave him an example of the gospel in Genesis 22.  How anyone could possibly miss this is totally beyond me.   There’s absolutely no need for conjecture.

@Dwight D Osborne:

Dwight, it may be obvious to you, but I don’t see how you arrive at the conclusion that Abraham was “saved” by his faith. Paul agrees with the author of Genesis that Abraham was justified by his belief in the promise that he would be the father of a great people and that through his descendants good news would be proclaimed to the nations (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:1-4). It is never said either that Abraham was a sinner or that he was in need of salvation, only that his trust in God in this critical respect meant that he was counted righteous before God in his lifetime.

Paul says that ‘Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you”’ (Gal. 3:8). But the point here is that Abraham was informed in advance that in the future the Gentiles would become part of his family by virtue of their their belief in the coming rule of Jesus over the nations. The gospel is not preached to Abraham as though he were a sinner and would need to be saved by the blood of Jesus.

I don’t think that this is conjecture. It’s reading the text rather than reading into the text. If I’ve misread the text, which is certainly possible, then show me where.