Chapter 18 – Romans 4 Atonement Passages

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

This examination of Romans 4 may be the most difficult and controversial chapter of this book because it involves a fresh look at its historical context, the author’s intent, and the Greek words used within this context. Of particular interest are the words often translated “justify”, “credited”, “counted”, and “imputed”.

The Historical Context

The historical context of the Romans epistle must always be considered when translating and interpreting because an author must be understood as writing within what was the understood theological context of his day, unless the author clearly states that he is presenting something new. Jesus did this, for example, when he said, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you that…”. If Paul in Romans 3-5 is presenting a new doctrine of the Christian faith, then it should be presented as such, and it should also be expected to be mentioned in other writings by other apostles, taught to other churches, and stated or strongly implied in the book of Acts, as well as dealing with any objections which may be raised. Furthermore, Paul writes the book of Romans sometime around the years 52-57 A.D., near the end of his third missionary journey. If he is thought to be presenting a new doctrine of atonement, justification and forgiveness, then it would imply that for the first 20 years the church existed without this doctrine or had an erroneus or incomplete grasp of the subject!

Instead of presenting something new, Paul asks the readers to consider an ancient principle, the same principle found in Habakkuk 2:4 which he had already presented in his opening chapter, in Romans 1:17, that “the righteous live out from faith”, except that he now uses a much more ancient text from Genesis which states the same thing, that “Abraham’s faith reasoned him into righteousness.” In both cases Paul is pointing to the fact that genuine faith in a righteous God will produce righteous living, and that this righteousness superceeds the base righteousness that is laid out by the Mosaic Law.

The Greater Argument Context

This is a significant factor that often seems to be overlooked due to the tendency to focus too intently on individual phrases while missing the primary argument. It is missing the forest due to carefully examining the bark on each tree. Yes, each phrase is important, but they must be viewed and understood within the context of the greater argument. In this case, Paul is once again arguing against the Judaizers who insist that salvation requires maintaining the entire minutia of the Mosaic Law. Paul is not against that law in the sense that it does provide a basic moral standard, and he in fact endorses its proper use. (Romans 3:31 “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” and Romans 8:4 “In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”) The problem is that people were being taught that rigid fidelity to the law was the means of salvation and this created a slavery to the law. God became secondary in this view of the law, as the objective was to obsess about law instead of pleasing the God who authored the law. Paul is arguing that genuine righeousness living comes from living out godly faith from the heart, what he calls “living according to the spirit.” Paul’s point is that we should live rightously based on our faith in our righteous God, and in so doing we will not only fulfill the intent of the law, we will even go beyond its basic level of legal righteousness. Furthermore, God will be honored not only in our lives, but also due to the testimony it gives to those who observe us.

The Word Translation and Definition Context

Penal Substitution Atonement teachers have attached theological definitions to certain words, often making them go beyond their normal vocabulary meaning. On this basis, you would think that Paul, the author of Romans, sent a theological dictionary along with his epistle to ensure that the readers would not misread his letter. But in reality, Paul used normal words for non-theologically trained audiences, and it would behoove us to use appropriate words to re-read the epistle so as to remove the theological bias that has been taught for the last 500 years.

For example, the word “justified” has become “declared righteous”, even though this would involve using two words. Furthermore, the word “justify” simply means to set something right, to correct, to rectify, which is precisely what PSA teachers do not want it to mean! This word, the Greek word “dikaioó”, is examined more extensively in Chapter 9 of this book, so it will not have extensive coverage in this Chapter. The related word typically translated “righteousness”, the Greek “dikaiosynē”, is also covered in more depth in Chapter 9 of this book.

In this chapter the Greek word “logizomai” is a key word to examine. “Logizomai” involves making a logical conclusion or decision, to reason or to consider. However, in Romans 4 it is curiously translated as “credited”, “counted”, “reckoned”, “accounted”, or “imputed” and taught as if it is an accounting term used in crediting or asigning an extrinsic, external, or foreign righteousness to the person who has faith. Much of the time the word “imputed” becomes an accounting term describing God transferring some of Christ’s righteousness to the account of the recipient. Since PSA proponents do not believe that people can be righteous before God, they are forced to translate this word “logizomai” in a manner that lends support to their claim, even though this is not only the least likely meaning of the word, but there are also various other better words that could have been used if this is what Paul was intending to teach.

The primary statement upon which hinges the entire meaning of Paul’s argument in Romans 4 is found in verse 3, translated in the ESV as, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” The translation and interpretation of this phrase will make all the difference as to what Paul is trying to convey to his readers in the church at Rome, and by extension, to all other churches. If we get this phrase wrong, it will distort his entire premise.

In the phrase, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”, the biggest question involves the word “counted” (in the ESV). Other Bible versions will have “credited”, “reckoned”, “accounted”, (or “imputed” in 4:22, KJV). This is the Greek word “logizomai”, which means to think, to reason, or to consider, and is related to our English word “logic”. Claiming that “logizomai” means to credit, to account, or to impute is about as far as you can stretch this word, and is probably not even a valid meaning. Sadly, most Greek lexicons are compiled by PSA proponents and join in this scheme to stretch its meaning. However, as will be shown below, this is probably the least likely meaning of the word, not only due to the individual word, but also due to the greater contextual argument which Paul is intending to present to the readers so as to reason with them that righteousness comes out from, based from, living and active faith in a righteous God, and not from observing a list of legal restrictions.

Just as Paul showed that “the righteous live out from faith” (Romans 1:17), he is also using Romans 4:3 to show that “faith reasons into righteousness.” These are essentially the same claim, and will be demonstrated below. If Paul intended to say that righteousness is credited, numbered, added, or calculated, he had multiple words available to make this intention clear, but he never once used them to teach a crediting or transferring of righteousness from one person (Jesus) to another person. For example, Paul could have used one of these words:

  • Prostithémi, which means to put to, to add, used in Matthew 6:33, “…these things will be added to you.” (Also used in Acts 2:41, 47, 5:14, Galatians 3:19, and more.)
  • Auxanó, which means to grow, to increase, used in 2 Corinthians 9:10, “…increase the harvest of your righteousness.” (Also used in 2 Corinthians 10:15, Ephesians 2:21, and more.)
  • Arithmos, which means number, used in Acts 11:21, “…a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” (Also used in Romans 9:27, Acts 4:4, 5:36, 6:7,16:5, and more.)
  • Pséphizó, which means to count, to calculate, used in Luke 14:28, “…sit down and count the cost…” (Also used in Revelation 13:18.)

Instead of these mathematical terms, Paul uses the word “logizomai”. Here are a few of many passages where “logizomai” is used, and they always involve thinking and reasoning (except, conveniently, when the doctrine of “justification by faith” is under consideration!):

“…present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable [logikēn] service.” Romans 12:1 KJV

“And do you think [logizē] this, O man, who are judging those who do such things…” Romans 2:3

“Therefore we conclude [logizometha] that a man is justified/rightened by faith…” Romans 3:28

“So you too, consider [logizesthe] yourselves to be dead indeed to sin…” Romans 6:11

“I consider [logizomai] that our present sufferings…” Romans 8:18

“…to him who thinks [logizomenō] anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” Romans 14:14

“I do not consider [logizomai] myself to have attained…” Philippians 3:13

“…think [logizesthe] about these things.” Philippians 4:8

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned [elogizomēn] like a child.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

Now, based on the above, let’s take a closer look at Romans 4:3. In Greek it is written as, “τί γὰρ ἡ γραφὴ λέγει Ἐπίστευσεν δὲ Ἀβραὰμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην”. A word-for-word translation is, “what for the writing says believed then Abraham the God and reasoned him into righteousness.” The critical part in question is the last phrase of this verse, typically translated as “Abraham believed God, and it was counted [logizomai] to him as righteousness.”

There are several things to consider here beyond the word “logizomai”. First, the active verb is “believed”, not “logizomai”. This word “believed”, “episteusen” is a verb in the aortist indicative active tense. The word “logizomai” is a verb in the aortist indicative passive tense. This is critical because it shows that “logizomai” is caused by “episteusen”. This means that Abraham’s belief is causing the action of “logizomai”.

The next consideration is the word “to” in the phrase, “to him as righteousness.” The word “to” is not in the Greek! It would be the Greek word “pros”, a preposition meaning “to”, “unto”, or “toward”. Granted, there are times when translators may have to insert this English word to have something make sense in English, and this is indeed necessary if Abraham’s faith is causing God to credit the righteousness of Christ to, “pros”, him. However, there is another way this verse can be translated that does not add or need this word and is actually more faithful to the text. But it is a problem for the PSA doctrine.

Another significant consideration is the Greek word “eis”, which means “into”. Most translations show this word as “as” or “for”. However, a quick check shows this word listed as Strongs “1519 eis (a preposition) – properly, into (unto) – literally, “motion into which” implying penetration (“unto,” “union”) to a particular purpose or result.”Therefore, the most accurate rendering of the ESV phrase, “to him as righteousness” would be, “him into righteousness”, or “him unto righteousness”.

Once all the above information is gathered, it is plain to see that the most likely, and the most literal, translation of Romans 4:3 is, “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it reasoned him into righteousness.“ Remember, the ESV (and others) renders the critical phrase as, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” There is an enormous difference here! In the most literal translation we read that Abraham’s belief in God is what caused him to reason into doing right, meaning that Abraham lived as a righteous man because his living, active faith moved him to live right. In the other sloppy translations Abraham’s faith acted on God, not on Abraham! His faith caused God to consider him righteous, merely because he had faith.

Remember, Paul’s larger argument is against the Judaizers who made a god out of the Mosaic law, completely disregarding a God-focused faith. Paul is trying to show that genuine faith in a righteous God will affect the believer’s reasoning and thinking, thereby leading the believer to live right, thus voiding the need for the Mosaic law. If righteousness, however, is transferred from Christ as an exernal, extrinsic rightousness, then there would still be a need for the Mosaic law or some other law to govern our behavior. If we are merely credited with an external righteousness, Paul’s entire argument would be made void! With this we see that the correct translation should be the most simple literal translation with no need to add a word that is not in the Greek passage, and no need to stretch the word “logizomai” to its most unlikely meaning, and no need to ignore the active and passive verb forms in the sentence. Paul is simply saying that Abraham was righteous in his living because he truly believe in a righteous God. He is showing that the Genesis 15:6 text is saying the same thing as the text in Habakkuk 2:4, that “the righteous live out from faith.”

Based on the above reflections, here is this author’s rather literal rendering of Romans 4. In order to reduce the distortion caused by theological baggage, the Greek word “dikaioo” is translated as “set right” or “corrected”, and the Greek “logizomai” as “reasoned” or “considered”. Instead of “righteousness”, which is often thought of as being a status or a position, the word is “rightness”, indicating right living. Bracketed words are added when they are not in the Greek text, unlike most modern translations which leave readers in the dark when they do this.

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?

2 For if Abraham was righteous by works he has something to boast about, but not before God.

3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it [the belief] reasoned him into rightness.“

4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not considered as a favor but according to debt.

5 However, [for] the one who is not working, but believing on the one righting the ungodly, [his] faith has reasoned him into rightness.

6 And, even as David says, “Happy is the man whom God considers right apart from works [of the law];

7 Blessed [are] those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;

8 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reason sin.”

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we are saying that faith reasoned Abraham into rightness.

10 How then was it reasoned? [While] being in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.

11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the rightness of the faith that he had while uncircumcised, into him being the father of all those believing [while] in uncircumcision, into them also to be reasoned rightness,

12 And the father of circumcision, not only to those who are circumcised, but also to those walking in the steps of the uncircumcised faith of our father Abraham.

13 For the promise to Abraham or his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through law, but through the righteousness of faith.

14 For if those of the law are heirs, faith is voided and the promise is not effectual.

15 For law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

16 That is why it is out from faith, that it may be according to favor, into ensuring the promise to all the offspring—not to those of the law only, but also to those of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,

17 As it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, the one giving life to the dead and calling things not existing into existence.

18 In hope he believed against hope, into him becoming the father of many nations, according to what he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”

19 And being not weak in faith, as he considered his own body had already become impotent (being about a hundred years old), and the lifelessness of Sarah’s womb.

20 He did not waver, however, at the promise of God by unbelief, but was strengthened in faith as he gave glory to God,

21 Being fully assured that what He had promised He is also able to do,

22 And therefore it reasoned him into rightness.

23 Now it was not on account of him alone that it was written “it reasoned him”,

24 But also on account of us to whom it is intended to reason, to those believing in the one who raised Jesus our Lord out from the dead,

25 Who was delivered over through our trespasses and was raised for our rightening.

5:1 Having then been set right out from faith, we have peace with God through our lord Jesus Christ.

Notice again that Paul’s primary point is that Abraham’s active faith in a righteous God reasoned him into righteuous living, and this led God to consider Abraham as being righteous – not based on any personal merit, but because Abraham truly believed and lived according to his belief. His godly faith changed his thinking and actions, just as faith in a perverted pagan deity will lead or reason someone into wrong living. Active faith leads to acting according to the object of that faith.

When an ungodly person converts and truly and actively believes in a virtuous God, this active belief/faith leads, as in Abraham’s case, to right thinking and right acting, and then God sees that the person’s faith has taken root and God considers the person to be righteous, or virtuous. An ungodly person who comes to actively believe in the righteous God of the Bible will inevitably change and can therefore be said to have been changed, rectified, rightened, (justified – set right), due to his faith. In contrast, if a person chooses to believe in a perverse deity, would not his thinking and actions also follow this belief? Actions reveal true faith, and that is what Paul is pointing to in his argument. (See also Chapter 27, James: Faith, Works, and Justification.)

Paul is also contrasting godliness due to active faith in a righteous God, versus disregarding God and merely having a legalistic mindset, following laws, while thinking that God will be obligated to grant eternal life due to rote legal obedience, absent a God-centered faith. For example, king Ahab believed in the pagan god Baal, and this belief led him to act wickedly. In contrast, Abraham chose to believe in a righteous God and left Ur of the Chaldees where the moon god was worshiped. Furthermore, God promised him a son and therefore his faith led him to act rightly. Hebrews 11:8-19 also describes the effect of faith in Abraham’s life.


Translating with the understanding that Paul’s argument is from the perspective of, “godly faith can change an unrighteous person into a righteous person without needing to resort to the Mosaic law”, removes the contradictions that PSA must explain away, not only in Romans, but also many other verses. For example, 1 John 3:7, “Little children, let no one deceive you: The one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as Christ is righteous”, Acts 10:35, “in every nation, the one fearing Him and working righteousness is acceptable to Him”, and Matthew 5:20 “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”