Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 21

I asked Jonathan MS Pearce to look over my reviews of the first five chapters of Christianity is not Great so I thought I would return the favor and review his chapter in the book. Chapter 21 is entitled: “Tu Quoque, Atheism?” — Our Right to Judge. He asks: “Do we nontheists have an epistemic right to judge Christians, to assign moral value to their actions? Are we throwing around accusations of harm without having our own foundation upon which to base them, as many Christians claim?”

Pearce’s first answer is that it doesn’t matter because Christians themselves are often critical of the actions of other Christians (past and present). It is true that we Christians can be self-critical of our actions, but this answer isn’t a true answer to the questions posed above. Perhaps Christians have a right to judge their own actions because they have a foundation on which to make such judgments, while non-theists have no such foundation.

The author’s second answer is that the book is testing the hypothesis that God is love. He asks: how is the fact that Christianity and Christians have contributed harm to the world coherent with the existence of an all-loving, morally perfect God? Allegedly this makes the problem of evil an even bigger problem than it otherwise would be. He then goes on to say that we can use the morality of the Bible to judge the actions in the Bible and in extra-biblical history. Pearce needs to explain what is meant when we say God is love in order to show that it is logically incompatible with the fact that Christianity and Christians contributed harm to the world. It is not clear to me what the alleged incompatibility is supposed to be or why this makes the problem of evil a more difficult problem. However, I can agree with the statement that the atheist can use the morality of the Bible to judge actions in the Bible and in extra-biblical history.

Pearce’s third answer is to affirm that atheists do have a right to judge Christians. This is the main focus of the chapter:

I will start by defining the relevant terms then briefly critiquing the main concepts of Christian ethical systems, with particular reference to the idea that (the Judeo-Christian) God himself appears to be a moral consequentialist. This refutes the claim of his acolytes that he is needed to ground morality. I will show that most philosophers are nontheistic and hold to a variety of nontheistic moral value systems that do not necessitate a god and invariably undermine Christian morality. I will go further to argue that morality indeed presupposes atheism in order to make sense.

Defining Our Terms

The author provides a couple definitions. He defines morality as a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. He defines objective morality as facts about what constitutes moral behavior that lie in the nature of the agent’s action, regardless of cultural and individual opinion.

On Christian Theories of Ethics

This section is only intended to cover two major Christian ethical theories.

Christian Natural Law Theory

I object to the title of this section because one does not need to be a Christian to be an adherent of natural law theory. Pearce seems to realize this but does not appear to understand the natural law position. He asks:

Of course, such a theory sounds nice, but what does it really mean to have something written on our hearts? What is the ontology of such morality? These fundamental philosophical questions remain unsatisfactorily answered.

When Paul speaks of the work of the law being written on pagan Gentile hearts he is merely saying that pagan Gentiles possess the moral norms of the law (see Commentary on Romans 2:1-16). The moral ontology of natural law is based on formal causes and final causes as described in the works of, for instance, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. These fundamental philosophical questions are answered and Pearce does not interact with them at all to show that they are unsatisfactory.

Divine Command Theories

Note the plural (theories) for this section title.

One kind of divine command theory says that we obey God’s moral commands because it is prudent. We obey God’s commands in order to inherit eternal life and avoid hell. Pearce asserts that this commits the appeal to force fallacy. The appeal to force is not always a fallacy and I’m not sure it’s a fallacy here. It seems to fit the author’s definition of morality as a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. If a rational person believed obeying God led to eternal life (a most excellent state of being) would he not obey God? Would this not be the agreed upon code of conduct of all rational persons?

A second kind of divine command theory says that we follow God’s commands because God is good. Pearce writes: “If God is good then we have a sort of tautology and cannot have any independent appreciation of the value of his goodness. But if there is an independent criterion then I have no need of God for a moral judgment.” I’m not sure such a divine command theorist can’t take a both/and approach. We follow God’s commands because they are good and we know they are good based on some independent criterion. God’s commands help us to better identify and adhere to this independent criterion.

Pearce also criticizes divine command theories because the commands of God are not always clear. There is some truth to this but I think it can be overstated. We also have to consider that there are difficult moral questions. We may all agree on basic moral principles but disagree on, say, whether country A should go to war with country B. I’m not aware of any ethical theories that will offer crystal clear moral advice for every situation. The ethics put forth by atheists will have the same problem.

On Atheist Ethics: What Philosophers Think

This section summarizes the results from the PhilPapers survey in order to lay out options for atheist ethics.

But the important result is as follows: 72.8 percent of philosophers are atheists, 14.6 percent being theists. A huge majority of philosophers deny the existence of a god of any kind. And yet we have just learned that some 67.7 percent believe in deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics. So, clearly, many philosophers believe that you do not need to believe in a god to coherently hold a moral philosophical worldview.

But note that 27.7% of philosophers are moral anti-realists, meaning they deny the truth value of moral statements. This group of philosophers cannot attack the actions of Christians because they do not believe there is any truth to whether Christians have been good or bad. An atheist can say that the arguments for the existence of objective morality are no better than the arguments for the existence of God and reject both kinds of arguments. A significant minority of atheist philosophers have no foundation from which to judge Christian actions.

Some Moral Theories That Atheists Can and Do Hold

In this section the author briefly describes three moral theories an atheist could hold: virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism. The three need not be mutually exclusive and a theist could could hold one of these positions too. It is strange that Pearce mentions virtue ethics positively since the Christian natural law theory panned earlier in the chapter can be seen as a kind of virtue ethics! Perhaps that is a danger in looking at morality through the theism/atheism debate.

God Is a Consequentialist

The precise theme of this section is hard to pin down. We seemed to have moved from judging Christian actions in history to judging God. The following quote may be the most important in the section:

Theodicies seek to provide answers as to why such suffering exists. Indeed, the job of a theologian in response to all of the examples given in this book is to defend God, and to justify his actions and inactions, with various consequentialist theodicies. If people are being used in service of a greater good then they are being used as a consequentialist means to an end.

All of the suffering described in this book can be morally permissible only if God is a consequentialist. And if he is, then he has no need of himself for his own morality. He can be judged quite easily by an atheist, thank you very much.

In the previous section Pearce seemed open to the idea that one could marry virtue ethics to consequentialism. In this section he does not seem to explore what relationship virtue ethics might have to theodicy. Perhaps God’s actions and inactions create an environment where mankind can grow in virtue. It is not clear to me that, in such a scenario, man is being used as a means to an end.

But let’s suppose consequentialism is true. In one sense an atheist could render a judgment on God; he can give God a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The problem is that God is omniscient and can quite simply tell the atheist he is wrong.

Morality Presupposes Atheism

The argument put forth in this section is intended to show that theological individualism (TI), the existence of God and the existence of intense suffering, together with our obligation to prevent it, are not mutually compatible. Pearce lays out the argument from Stephen Maitzen as follows:

  1. If God exists and TI is true, then, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer.
  2. If, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer, then (a) we never have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering or (b) our moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering derives entirely from God’s commands.
  3. We sometimes have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering, an obligation that does not derive entirely from God’s commands. Two subconclusions follow from the three premises just established:
  4. So: It isn’t the case that, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer. [From (2), (3)]
  5. So: God does not exist or TI is false. [From (1), (4)]
  6. If not even God may treat human beings merely as means, then TI is true.
  7. Not even God may treat human beings merely as means. It remains, then, only to draw the argument’s final two inferences:
  8. So: TI is true. [From (6), (7)]
  9. So: God does not exist. [From (5), (8)]

One response is to deny that TI is true. Pearce thinks that TI must hold if God has the attributes that theists claim. But why? If the theist believes that God is Goodness Itself (as opposed to being good because he performs actions A, B, and C) then he seems free to reject TI.

A second response, based off an idea from Randal Rauser, is that (2a) does not follow. It could be that God arranges things so that human suffering that does occur is to the net benefit of the sufferer and that God causes a Good Samaritan to intervene to prevent some cases of suffering from going on for too long.

A third response is to insist that our moral obligations do entirely derive from God’s commands. Those who believe otherwise are simply wrong.

Commentary on Romans 5:1-11

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory.

The phrase “we have been declared righteous by faith” summarizes 1:18-4:25. Justification is presented as a completed act. Paul now builds on the consequences and results of righteousness by faith. We have peace with God in the sense of being reconciled to God (5:10-11). In the OT peace is a gift given by God in the end times when he fulfills his covenant promises (Isa 9:6–7; 32:15–17; 48:20–22; 54:10; Ezek 34:25; 37:26; Mic 5:4–5; Hag 2:9; Zech 8:12). This peace and reconciliation is through the atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ (3:25-26). In the OT the promised peace was said to become a reality through the Davidic king (Isa 9:6-7; Ezek 24:23-31; 37:24-28; Mic 5:4-5). Christ’s atoning sacrifice provides access to the justifying grace of God. We rejoice, exult, and boast in the hope of God’s glory. God’s glory is the restoration of the glory humanity lost because of sin (3:23; 8:17-21, 30). We rejoice in the hope of being restored to a state of glory.

When Paul speaks of the hope of God’s glory, ἐλπίς (elpis, hope) means a sure confidence (cf. 4:18). It does not mean that believers long to experience God’s glory but are not sure whether it will come to pass. Believers are certain now that the glory Adam lost will be restored to them. Indeed, the glory restored to believers will be even greater than the glory Adam once had, for believers will be conformed to the second Adam, Jesus Christ (8:29).1

3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope.

To rejoice in sufferings means “to view them as a basis for further confidence in our redeemed status.”2 It is unclear whether sufferings in general or sufferings for the sake of the faith are in view. We can rejoice in sufferings because we know that suffering produces endurance, then character, and then hope. Endurance (hypomonen) means fortitude or perseverance. Character (dokimen) refers to a tested and approved character.

While it is easy to understand how suffering produces perseverance and how perseverance produces character, it is difficult to explain how character produces hope, and the apostle gives no indication of the way he thinks this occurs. We might surmise that, if the character produced by perseverance includes a greater trust in God, this in turn strengthens our hope of sharing the glory promised by God. The following comment by Moo is pertinent: ‘Sufferings, rather than threatening or weakening hope, as we might expect to be the case, will, instead, increase our certainty in that hope. Hope, like a muscle, will not be strong if it goes unused. It is in suffering that we must exercise with deliberation and fortitude our hope, and the constant reaffirmation of hope in the midst of apparently “hopeless” circumstances will bring ever-deeper conviction of the reality and certainty of that for which we hope (see Rom. 4:18-19)’.3

Thomas Schreiner provides another perspective:

Why does tested character spark hope? Because moral transformation constitutes evidence that one has really been changed by God. Thus it assures believers that the hope of future glory is not an illusion. There is a pattern of growth in the here and now, however imperfect, that indicates that we are changing. Believers, then, become assured that the process that God has begun he will complete (1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6).4

Of course, this chain only works if one responds to sufferings appropriately.

5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Hope will not disappoint us, meaning it will not be in vain and it will not put us to shame at the final judgment. The “love of God” is “the love of God for us” not “our love for God” (Rom 5:6-11; 8:39; 2 Cor 13:13). The phrase “poured out” indicates an abundance of love. The heart is the inner being of the believer. The Holy Spirit is the agent through whom the love of God comes into the believer’s heart. This verse is not speaking of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, but it does state that the Holy Spirit was given to us (cf. Rom 8:23; 2 Cor 5:5; Eph 1:13-14). “Believers know now in their hearts that they will be spared from God’s wrath because they presently experience God’s love for them through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”5

6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

Human beings are both helpless and ungodly. The Greek term asthenon (“helpless”) may refer to the moral weakness of human beings in this fallen world (1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10:10; 11:29; 12:10; 13:4, 9; Phil 2:26-27; 2 Tim 4:20) since the surrounding context focuses on human beings as sinners. “Ungodly” (asebon) is a strong pejorative term.

But what does Paul mean by saying that Christ died “at the appropriate time”? He may mean that it was the “right” time in world history for the sending of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel. Or he may be thinking of the time as “right” because it was the time when, had not Christ died, God’s wrath would have been poured out. Related to both these suggestions, but with better foundation in Paul’s theology, is the interpretation that takes “right time” to mean the culminating, eschatological “time” of God’s intervention in Christ (see Rom. 3:26; 8:18; 13:11). This last suggestion, which is the best of the three, is yet open to the objection that Paul usually adds a qualifier to “time” when it has this meaning. Considering the context, it is best to give the phrase a less theological and more prosaic meaning, and take it as further emphasizing “still”: “Christ died for the ungodly just at that very time when we were weak.”6

7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.)

The main point of this verse is to show that God’s love is not like human love. Someone might die for a good person or someone they were close to but God sent his Son to die for his enemies (5:10).

Despite agreement on the point of the verse, the exact meaning of the verse is disputed. Thomas Schreiner covers the following options:

  1. The two clauses are synonymous. This view is unlikely since the second clause is concessive, qualifying the first clause.
  2. The two clauses are nearly identical but the “good” person is more attractive or noble than the “righteous” person. Schreiner does not think we can distinguish between a “righteous” person and a “good” person in this way.
  3. The second clause is a correction or softening of the first clause.
  4. The words tou agathou (“the good”) may be identified as a neuter designating a good cause (as opposed to a good person) for which one is willing to die. This option is unlikely since both dikaiou (“righteous”) and agathou (“good”) are masculine, showing that dying for another person is in view. Masculine terms fit the context in which Jesus dies for human beings. Moreover, people have often died for good causes.
  5. The “good” person, unlike the “righteous” person, is a benefactor. Schreiner adopts this view because there is significant evidence that agathou was used for a person who was a benefactor.

Kruse adds:

In the client-benefactor relationship clients were under obligation towards their benefactors. Andrews concludes: ‘The obligations which were owed to one’s benefactor were socially binding, and it would not have been unthinkable for a man to lay down his life for such an honourable person’.7

8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

How very different is the logic here compared to Sirach 12.1-7, which advises to recognize whom you are doing good to and “give to the godly person but do not help the sinner.” Seneca advised giving help to those who deserved it (De Beneficiis 4.27.5), and Aristotle (Ethics 9.8.1169a) speaks of doing good for one’s friends. Paul’s logic runs counter to the normal conventions of the day. He stresses that God’s action in Christ is without human analogy.8

9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath.

Paul is making an argument from the greater to the lesser. If Christ has already declared us righteous by his blood (the greater) then how much more will he save us from God’s wrath (the lesser)! The preposition by in “by his blood” can denote either the means or the cost of justification.

Selecting the word αἷμα [haima, blood] was hardly due to the nature of Christ’s death, for little blood is shed during a crucifixion. The reference to blood is included because of its sacrificial dimensions, recalling the bloody animal sacrifices of Leviticus. Justification, therefore, was free but not cheap. It was obtained at the cost of Christ’s blood.9

10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?

The term “enemies” suggests open rebellion or warfare against God (cf. Rom 1:30; 8:7; 11:28; Phil 3:18; Col 1:21). The mention of God’s wrath in the previous verse (cf. 1:18; 2:5) reminds us that God can be hostile towards sinners. The death of the Son reconciles the two parties.

“To reconcile” means to bring together, or make peace between, two estranged or hostile parties (cf. 1 Cor. 7:11). The language of reconciliation is seldom used in other religions because the relationship between human beings and the deity is not conceived there in the personal categories for which the language is appropriate. Reconciliation in Paul has two aspects, or “moments”: the accomplishment of reconciliation through Christ on the cross (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself”) and the acceptance of that completed work by the believer (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20b: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God”). Naturally, while the focus can be on one of these moments or the other, the reconciling activity of God is ultimately one act; and in the present verse the complete process is in view.10

We come back now to the question of what the apostle means by ‘be saved through his life’. It has been suggested that Paul’s meaning is not so much that we are saved ‘through his life’ but rather that we are saved ‘in his life’? If the phrase were interpreted in this way, the apostle would be implying that our full salvation comes about by sharing in his risen life. While there is some truth in this suggestion, it has little support in the immediate context. The context (cf. 5:9) suggests that to be saved by his life involves being ‘saved through him from the wrath of God’. In this case Paul could have in mind the intercessory role of the risen Christ mentioned in 8:34 (‘Christ Jesus who died . . . is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us’) and in other NT writings (Heb 7:25: ‘he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them’; 1 John 2:1-2: ‘But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’). This latter alternative is preferable because it has contextual support as well as support in other NT documents that the first alternative lacks.11

11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.

“This” probably refers to all that has come before, so this verse acts as a climax.

The theme of boasting was introduced with the reference to hope in verse 2, but hope itself is not more important than the one in whom we hope. The capstone of the believer’s experience is boasting and exulting in God himself. Thereby he receives the glory and praise that sinful human beings have so long denied him (1:21–23; 2:24; 3:23).12

We have now been justified by faith (5:1) and we have now received reconciliation (5:11).

While justification and reconciliation are closely related, they are not identical concepts. Justification highlights the forensic aspect and reconciliation the relational aspect of the salvation made possible through Christ’s death, though, of course, justification cannot be said to be without its relational significance, and reconciliation presupposes a resolution of the forensic problem.13


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5262-5265 
  2. Moo 1996, 302 
  3. Kruse 2012, 230-231 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5288-5290 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5319-5321 
  6. Moo 1996, 307 
  7. Kruse 2012, 235 
  8. Witherington III 2004, 137 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5430-5432 
  10. Moo 1996, 311–312 
  11. Kruse 2012, 238 
  12. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5471-5473 
  13. Kruse 2012, 238-239 

Do we know what health is anymore?

In Medicine, Health, and Sexual Liberation: Friends or Foes?, Carlos D. Flores notes how many modern Americans (particularly political liberals) no longer have a grasp on what health is. He writes that “health is the proper functioning of bodily faculties.” He goes on to say: “But one should also speak of health as not merely the proper functioning of a particular bodily faculty but the proper functioning of the human organism considered as a whole. Thus, a healthy human is one whose parts function well in unison toward the end of the bodily life of the whole.” Medicine “restores bodily faculties to their proper function” and “prevents the dysfunction of bodily faculties.”

Flores points out that, generally speaking, contraception is not healthcare because it prevents the reproductive organs from their proper function. Abortion is not healthcare because it ends bodily life entirely. Sex-reassignment surgery is not healthcare because it damages otherwise healthy bodily faculties. I would add euthanasia to the list of the perversions of medicine we see today.

You would think every medical professional would know that a healthy eye sees clearly. But, via Lydia McGrew, I now learn that one Jewel Shuping, who suffers from Body Integrity Identity Disorder and believes she was meant to be born blind, found a so-called psychologist who put drops of drain cleaner in her eyes that eventually made her blind after a year and a half of “treatment”.

I implore the reader to recognize that we have a human nature (an essence in Aristotelian-Thomistic [A-T] language) that gives us certain ends (final causes in A-T language). What is good for us is determined by our nature and our ends, not by what we believe. Once our beliefs become the determining factor in deciding whether we are healthy, there is no objective standard to identify mental or physical illness. Be on the lookout for perversions of medicine and be prepared to fight against them.

Commentary on Romans 4:9-25

Notes (NET Translation)

9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.”

The blessedness in question is the blessing of righteousness through faith and apart from works of the law (4:6-7). Is this blessing limited only to the circumcised? Paul quotes Gen 15:6 to show that righteousness is by faith, not circumcision.

10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised!

He bases this assertion upon the fact that Scripture says that God credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6) well before it recounts God’s command to him to be circumcised (Gen 17:9-14).1

The argument is simple. If Abraham was righteous before his circumcision, then circumcision cannot be essential to righteousness.2

11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them.

Paul describes circumcision as a ‘seal’ of the righteousness he had by faith, and not as a ‘sign’ of covenant as it is described in Genesis 17:11. By describing circumcision as a seal of the righteousness Abraham had by faith, Paul is actually saying that circumcision functioned as confirmation of the righteousness Abraham had through faith. As has often been noted, Paul appears to avoid calling circumcision a sign of the covenant because his Jewish contemporaries regarded it as a sign of the Mosaic covenant, something that distinguished Israel from the nations (cf. Judg 14:3; 1 Sam 14:6). By describing it as a sign of the righteousness Abraham already had by faith before he was circumcised, he shows that this righteousness is universally available.3

Gentiles need only have faith to have righteousness credited to them.

12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised.

That Abraham received circumcision (as a sign of the faith he already had) means that he may be said to be the ‘father’ of the circumcised (Jews) also. But the apostle straightaway makes clear that this is not because they are circumcised but because they ‘follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised’. Faith is crucial in every case, not circumcision (or ethnicity)!4

Jewish Christians are those who are circumcised and share the faith of Abraham.

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.

God promised Abraham descendants (Gen 12:2; 13:16-17; 15:5; 17:4-6, 16-20; 18:18; 22:17), the land of Canaan (Gen 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:7, 12-21; 17:8), and that all nations would be blessed through him (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). By merging all these elements together, Paul and the Jews of his day understood that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the world (Jub 22:14; 32:19; 2 Bar 14:13; 51:3; 1 En 5:7; 4 Ezra 6:55-59; Sir 44:21).

If universal blessing for all peoples is guaranteed by God, then this is another way of saying that God will reclaim the world that was lost through Adam’s sin. The universal character of the promise is sounded forth in the rest of the OT (e.g., Ps. 2:7-12; 22:27-28; 47:7-9; 72:8-11, 17; Isa. 2:1-4; 19:18-25; 49:6-7; 52:7-10; 55:3-5; 66:23; Amos 9:11-12; Zeph. 3:9-10; Zech. 14:9) . . . . Paul’s view can be distinguished from other Jews in that he saw this promise fulfilled as Jews and Gentiles put their faith in Jesus as Messiah.5

14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified.

“They” are probably ethnic Jews who rely on observance of the law to inherit the promise. If obedience to the law makes them heirs to the promise then faith is empty (has no effect) because it is no longer the necessary condition for receiving the inheritance. The promise to Abraham would be nullified because Abraham could not follow the law since it had not been given in his lifetime. Moreover, as verse 15 states, no one can keep the law perfectly. Douglas Moo paraphrases the verse as follows: “If it is the case that the inheritance is to be based on adherence to the law, then there will be no heirs, because no fallen human being can adequately adhere to the law–and that means that faith is exercised in vain and the promise will never be fulfilled.”6

15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either.

The law does not qualify one to share the promised inheritance because no one keeps the law perfectly.

A word also needs to be said here about parabasis (transgression). When Paul says that there is no transgression without law, he does not intend to say that there is no sin (hamartia) apart from the Mosaic law. Romans 5:13 shows that sin existed before the era of the law. Thus parabasis is used technically to describe the violation of commandments that are specified and written. Romans 2:12-16 indicates that God’s wrath is also inflicted on those who do not have a written law (cf. 5:13-14). We should not conclude from 4:15 that wrath is experienced only when a written commandment is violated. Nevertheless, transgression of the law involves greater responsibility since the infraction is conscious and therefore involves rebellion against a known standard.7

Paul’s real point emerges in the application of this principle to the Mosaic law as an explanation of how it is that “the law works wrath.” Before and outside the Mosaic law wrath certainly exists, for all people, being sinners, stand under God’s sentence of condemnation (1:18). But the Mosaic law “produces” even more wrath; rather than rescuing people from the sentence of condemnation, it confirms their condemnation. For by stating clearly, and in great detail, exactly what God requires of people, the law renders people even more accountable to God than they were without the law.8

16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants — not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all

That the promised inheritance is by God’s grace, instead of the works of the law, means it is guaranteed/certain. In this context, “those who are under the law” are Jewish Christians because Paul rejects the possibility of righteousness by works. The inheritance is available to both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians who share the faith of Abraham.

17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed — the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do.

Paul sees the fulfillment of the promise given in Gen 17:5 not just in the physical descendants of Abraham, but in the multitude following in the footsteps of Abraham’s faith. The God who can raise the dead can bring nations forth from the “dead” bodies of Abraham and Sarah. At first glance, the phrase “summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do” seems to imply creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), a belief common in ancient Judaism (2 Macc 7:28; 2 Apoc Bar 21:4; 48:8; 2 Enoch 24:2; Philo, Spec Leg 4.187). However, Paul does not speak of calling things into being, but speaking of things as though they existed. In context, God speaks of the nations that will be descended from Abraham as if they already existed. The nations are not created out of nothing, but by normal human reproduction. Abraham trusted that God could call these descendants into existence.

18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.”

Despite the circumstances that militated against his becoming a father (spelled out in verse 19), Abraham still believed the promise of God.

We note here that Abraham’s faith is not described as a “leap into the dark,” a completely baseless, almost irrational “decision”–as Christian faith is pictured by some “existentialist” theologians–but as a “leap” from the evidence of his senses into the security of God’s word and promise.9

The quotation is from Gen 15:5.

19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.

A weak body did not lead to a weak faith. Most manuscripts read “he did not consider” by including the negative particle ou (D F G K P ? 33 1881 Byz Lect itd, g syrh al), but other manuscripts omit ou (? A B C 6 81 365 1506 1739 vg syrp copsa, bo, fay arm al). The reading that omits ou means, “His faith did not weaken when he considered . . .,” while the reading that contains ou means, “He was so strong in faith that he did not consider . . . .” In context, “Paul does not wish to imply that faith means closing one’s eyes to reality, but that Abraham was so strong in faith as to be undaunted by every consideration.”10 Note 36 of the NET says that the reading without the negative particle ou is preferred on both external and internal grounds.

Most manuscripts read “already dead” (? A C Dgr K P ? 33 81 Byz Lect syrh, copbo arm al), but some manuscripts lack the word “already” (B F G 630 1739 1881). The presence of “already” (hdh) “gives the impression of a certain heightening of the account. Moreover, who would have omitted the word had it stood in the text originally?”11 Due to the conflict between the internal and external evidence the UBS4 committee placed the words in brackets. The NET translation omits the word.

Since the word “deadness” is not the normal word for a woman’s barrenness, Paul has deliberately chosen his language to make clear that Abraham’s faith with respect to this promise was specifically faith in the “God who gives life to the dead” (v. 17b).12

20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God.

In Gen 12-24 there are regressions and advances in Abraham’s faith. Paul does not intend to provide a detailed narrative of the life of Abraham here. His point is that Abraham’s life was ultimately typified by faith in God. Abraham’s faith strengthened as he saw the evidence of God fulfilling his promises (e.g., the birth of Isaac).

21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do.

22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness.

Gen 15:6 is quoted again.

When Paul reaches the conclusion in verse 22 that such faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness, we perceive that the faith that results in righteousness is not a vague abstraction. Genuine faith adheres to God’s promise despite the whirlwind of external circumstances that imperil it. Most important, faith receives its nourishment by anchoring on the God who made the promises. He can and will fulfill his pledges because he is the resurrecting God who creates life out of death, and because he is the sovereign God who summons into existence that which does not even exist. Abraham believed that God would fulfill his covenantal promises, and he did. So too, Jews and Gentiles become part of Abraham’s family when they believe that God has fulfilled his saving promises in and through Jesus Christ.13

23 But the statement it was credited to him was not written only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.

Verse 23 implies that the statement was written for Abraham’s sake as well as ours. It may have been written to preserve the memory of Abraham or to honor him. Paul believes Scripture is relevant for all believers (cf. Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11). All who believe in the one who raised Jesus from the dead have their faith credited to them as righteousness. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates the new world promised to Abraham.

25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification.

This verse may allude to Isa 53:12 LXX. The passive voice (“given over” and “raised”) indicates that God performed the giving over and raising up.

Commenting on the phrase translated “was raised for (dia) the sake of our justification”, Thomas Schreiner says:

The meaning of the second dia is difficult to discern. There is virtually unanimous agreement that the first dia is causal: Jesus was handed over to death “because” of our trespasses. But does Paul intend to say that Jesus was raised from the dead “because” of our justification? The parallelism of the two clauses favors such a rendering, but many scholars resist the idea that the resurrection would depend on justification. Thus they suggest that the second dia is final, that Jesus was raised with a view to our justification. But a causal sense should be maintained if possible to preserve the parallelism of the two clauses, and a causal rendering makes good sense. To say that Jesus was raised because of our justification is to say that his resurrection authenticates and confirms that our justification has been secured. The resurrection of Christ constitutes evidence that his work on our behalf has been completed. The death and resurrection of Christ fulfill the promise of universal blessing made to Abraham, for they are the means by which all peoples enter into the new people of God.14

The NET provides an alternative interpretation of the words. Douglas Moo, who follows the NET interpretation, writes:

As Jesus’ death provides the necessary grounds on which God’s justifying action can proceed, so his resurrection, by vindicating Christ and freeing him forever from the influence of sin (cf. 6:10), provides for the ongoing power over sins experienced by the believer in union with Christ.15


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Kruse 2012, 209 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4695-4696 
  3. Kruse 2012, 209 
  4. Kruse 2012, 210 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4750-4755 
  6. Moo 1996, 275 
  7. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4815-4822 
  8. Moo 1996, 277 
  9. Moo 1996, 282–283 
  10. Metzger 2005, 451 
  11. Metzger 2005, 451 
  12. Moo 1996, 284 
  13. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4980-4985 
  14. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 5070-5078 
  15. Moo 1996, 290 

Logos Free Book of the Month

Readers of this blog may be interested in creating a Logos account in order to receive the Logos Free Book of the Month each month. There is usually a second book sold for about $1.99 as well.

Through this offer, I recently received Esther: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC). I believe the first commentary posted on this blog (way back in 2008) was on Esther. It was written using commentaries on the entire Bible so it only covered the main issues briefly. As I’ve read the EEC I’ve updated all the old Esther posts to provide more content. The updated posts can be accessed through the Bible Commentary link.

The Perils of Assisted Reproductive Technology #3

Canadian surrogate eliminated baby from triplet pregnancy at urging of overseas couple

Kari Smith felt a real rapport with the overseas couple who commissioned her to have their child: they were about the same age, seemed to hold similar values and even shared a love of craft beer.

Then the Nova Scotia-based surrogate discovered she was pregnant with three babies, and things took a “horrible” turn.

Smith wanted to carry all three but, without hesitation, the would-be parents insisted the trio of fetuses be reduced surgically to just two. As non-citizens of their Caribbean home, they were all but barred from bringing home more than two children to the island nation.

The convenience of the would-be parents is more important than the life of one of their children.

A lawyer advised Smith that the couple could cut off expense payments if she insisted on keeping all the babies. Not wanting to upend the couple’s lives, the surrogate eventually agreed to the reduction, then one of the remaining two fetuses died, too. It was a traumatic experience. . . .

Weeks later, the 38-year-old says she now believes the reduction was for the best medically, given the risks around multiple births, and realizes the couple was not as coldly calculating about the decision as first appeared. They wept when the reduction occurred.

Why weep if you’ve done nothing wrong? And if you’re weeping because you’ve done something wrong, why not allow the child to continue living in the first place?

But the case underlines the moral dilemmas that surrogacy can unexpectedly impose on women who lend out their wombs, as foreign demand for Canadian “carriers” surges. . . .

But these “moral dilemmas” are not unexpected. They are entirely predictable to anyone with minimal foresight.

Sally Rhoads-Heinrich, who runs the Surrogacy in Canada agency, says the husband told her by telephone that he would rather end up with no infants than three. . . .

Here’s a predictable “moral dilemma”. If the “product” is not up to standard the surrogate might be left on her own.

With triplets, the couple apparently would lose their jobs and have to leave the island, and Smith says she didn’t want that on her conscience.

Note that the abortion is not on her conscience.

The Perils of Assisted Reproductive Technology #2

Parental status ‘lost to incompetence in IVF sector’

Dozens of people who had fertility treatment might not be the legal parents of their children as a result of “widespread incompetence” in the sector, a judge has said. . . .

Consent forms, which give legal parental status, were not properly completed by clinics, it emerged. . . .

The case itself involved five heterosexual couples and two same-sex couples, but the BBC understands 85 other couples could have their parentage called into doubt because of inaccurate paperwork. . . .

“The picture revealed is one of what I do not shrink from describing as widespread incompetence across the sector on a scale which must raise questions as to the adequacy if not of the HFEA’s [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority] regulation then of the extent of its regulatory powers,” Sir James said.

He said that because of the sector’s “incompetence”, couples had been forced to come to court and reveal “intensely private” details in public.