One of the more revealing aspects of Paul and James’ soteriology is the different ways they both use Genesis 15:6 (“And Abraham believed God and it was counted for him as righteousness,”) as a proof text to defend their comments about the gospel. The key observation to make is that in Romans 4, Paul views the birth of Isaac as the fulfillment of Genesis 15:6, whereas in James 2, James views the offering of Isaac as the fulfillment of Genesis 15:6.
These readings are not mutually exclusive, and ultimately serve as complementary theological readings of the same OT text. In what follows I offer a sketch (scratchy notes, if you will) of my reading of Paul and James’ use of Gen 15:6, with a view to showing how their use of this text sheds light on their respective soteriological frameworks.
Paul and Genesis 15:6
In Romans 1-3 Paul is laboring to show that righteousness comes through faith in Jesus, rather than the Jewish Law. The Law, as meaningful as it is, does not itself contain the righteousness of God, but rather testifies to it both typologically and prophetically (Rom 3:21). Paul then introduces the example of Abraham (Rom 4) as a type/proof to show that righteousness comes via faith, rather than the through the Law.
Following the Genesis narrative, Paul notes that Abraham was as good as dead, without an heir (the OT equivalent of damnation). In the midst of this deadness God promised Abraham an heir. Abraham, in hope against hope, believed the promise of God and received that which had been promised.
The immediate object of Abraham’s faith was God’s promise that he would have a seed. It was Abraham’s faith in God’s promise of “new life through a son” that counted as Abraham’s righteousness before God. (A contested claim, to be sure, but one I can only here assert without further space for defense. Just scratchy notes, you’ll recall.)
What’s more, the righteousness of faith is a real kind of righteousness, not a pretend righteousness. To believe the promise of God is considered by God true righteousness. 1 It is through this faith-righteousness that Abraham received the promise of God (i.e., a son) and was thus delivered from death.
Paul’s reading of Abraham is then rather obviously put to good typological use against his Judaizing opponents: Just as a Abraham, who was as good as dead, received new life apart from the Law by believing in God’s promise of a son, so too we who are also as good as dead receive new life apart from the Law by believing in God’s promise of a Son. (Paul doesn’t quite connect all these dots in Romans 4, but he has done so by the time he concludes Romans 5). For Paul, the key point of Abraham’s story is that Abraham gained the fulfillment of the promise (i.e. new life through a son) though the righteousness that comes from faith, rather than through the righteousness that comes through the Law.
Notably, Paul is focused (in Romans 4) on the “regenerative” experience of salvation; the beginning of salvation. Paul will go on in Romans 6 and following to insist that this new life—this Christ-life now alive in us—must result in actual righteous living. But in Romans 4 his primary aim is to show that we receive the promise of salvation through faith. Paul’s use of Genesis 15:6, then, is to underscore the point that we, like Abraham, receive new life through faith, not the Law. Or to use Johannine terminology, Abraham is born again through faith in the promise of Isaac; we are born again through faith in the promise of Christ—all apart from works of the Law. 2 Thus far the apostle Paul.
James and Genesis 15:6
James’ use of Genesis 15:6 moves in a different direction. It seems evident that James is reacting against misuses of Paul’s teaching on justification. Some folks are apparently claiming that the Pauline formula of “justified apart from works of the Law” means one can be in right standing before God regardless of how one is living his life. Both Paul and James repudiate this, of course. For James, faith without works is dead (James 2:26) and for Paul, faith without love is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). So they are in substantive agreement, even if there is semantic tension in how they talk about justification. In light of the misreadings of Paul, James offers his own reading of the Abraham narrative (including Genesis 15:6) as a corrective.
As noted above, the key insight for understanding James’ use of Genesis 15:6 is to see that he views the text in a prophetic, telic sense, seeing its fulfillment in Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Genesis 22). From James’ perspective, when Abraham offered Isaac on the altar—the quintessential act of obedience in the Jewish tradition that resulted in the re-ratification of the Abrahamic covenant—when Abraham did this great act of obedience, the Scriptures (i.e., Genesis 15:6) were “fulfilled” (eplerothe). The Greek term James uses in 2:23 is used all throughout the NT to denote the fulfilment of prophecy. For James then, this preeminent work of Abraham, insofar as it resulted in a re-ratification of the covenant, was the prophetic fulfillment of Genesis 15:6 and God’s counting of Abraham as righteous.
In Genesis 15:6 God reckoned Abraham as righteous. And in one sense (the Pauline sense) he truly was. But this prophetic “reckoning” points toward a natural and inevitable telos. It does not stand alone, but is “fulfilled” when Abraham offers Isaac. In other words, God’s counting of Abraham as righteous in Genesis 15:6 is vindicated only insofar as Abraham actually demonstrated real active obedience when he offered Isaac. Abraham’s faith is made visible in his good works, and thus Abraham’s faith is vindicated. And even more importantly, God’s word about Abraham is vindicated. God said Abraham was righteous, and behold! He really was righteous.
(This reading, by the way, is where one can locate a good dose of anti-Pelagianism in James; Abraham becomes righteous in Genesis 22 precisely because God has prophetically declared him to be such in Genesis 15:6. Insofar as Abraham’s righteousness in Genesis 22 is a fulfillment of divine prophecy, Abraham’s righteousness in Genesis 22 is an act of God’s power and providence. Augustine would say grace. Thus it is not ultimately Abraham who makes himself righteous, but God.)
Thus for James (like Paul), the “reckoning” of Genesis 15:6 is a reference to the beginning point of righteousness. But James wants to push beyond the beginning point and insist that everything God starts he also finishes. Real though it is, this beginning point of faith-righteousness is validated as genuine righteousness only insofar as it reaches the consummation and full maturity of active obedience. In James 2:14-26, James is not as concerned about the beginning of faith (Paul has that covered!), but rather about what faith ultimately secures—namely a righteous life.
Substantively, James and Paul are doing the same thing; insisting on the same soteriological trajectory. Where Paul is using Genesis 15:6 in Romans 4 to draw attention to the regenerative experience of faith (that will eventually and inevitably lead to good works), James is using Genesis 15:6 to underscore that true faith/regeneration must inevitably result in actual good works. 3
Or in the words of the Reformers, justification is by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone.