Why Study Theology: John Murray's Answer

Recently, I was reading John Murray’s commentary on the book of Romans.  I was struck by what I read. In Romans 4:3 we read, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now, we know that our faith is not the ground of our justification but this is what Murray said,

In terms of the formula, it was faith that was reckoned to him for the righteousness with which justification is concerned. In each case of appeal to Genesis 15:6, therefore, we must not, for dogmatic reasons, fail to recognize that it is faith that is imputed (vss. 5, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23). How this comports with the truth attested so clearly elsewhere in this epistle that the righteousness of Christ is the ground of justification, the righteousness by which we are justified, is a question that must be dealt with in its proper place. It is not in the interests of exegesis to evade the force of the apostle’s terms here or fail to take account of the emphasis, so germane to the whole doctrine, that faith is reckoned for righteousness in justification.[1]

Now, I must admit, I was brought up short right there and then. Can faith be the ground of our righteousness?  Is that what Murray is saying? But I sat back and remembered something else I had read from Murray.  It was in his essay titled “Systematic Theology.” Here is what he said,

Systematic theology is tied to exegesis. It coordinates and synthesizes the whole witness of Scripture on the various topics with which it deals…. Thus the various passages drawn from the whole compass of Scripture and woven into the texture of systematic theology are not cited as mere proof texts or wrested from the scriptural and historical context to which they belong, but, understood in a way appropriate to the place they occupy in this unfolding process, are applied with that particular relevance to the topic under consideration.  Texts will not thus be forced to bear a meaning they do not possess nor forced into a service they cannot perform.  But in the locus to which they belong and by the import they do possess they will contribute to the sum-total of revelatory evidence by which biblical doctrine is established. We may never forget that systematic theology is the arrangement under appropriate divisions of the total witness of revelation to the truth respecting God and his relations to us men and to the world.[2]

Clearly, when commenting on Romans 4:3, Murray is adhering to his own convictions. In the work of exegesis, Murray is unwilling to do systematic theology. This is a valuable lesson. In our haste to prove a point we must not press a particular passage to teach more or even less than it does.  According to Murray, the point of Romans 4 is to teach justification by faith rather than works and we must not press it to say more than it says. 

However, when writing systematic theology, Murray is equally rigorous to his method of collating the total witness of revelation under the appropriate heads of theology. Consider what Murray writes in his wonderful little book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. He writes,

In Genesis 15:6 it is said of Abraham that he believed in the Lord and he reckoned it to him for righteousness.  This text is quoted repeatedly in the New Testament (Rom. 4:3, 9; Gal. 3:6; James 2:23) and it might appear that it was the faith of Abraham which was reckoned as the righteousness on the basis of which he was justified, that faith itself was accepted by God as fulfilling the requirements necessary for a full and perfect justification.  If this were the case then Abraham was justified and all other believers also are justified on the ground of faith and because of faith.  It is important to observe in this connection that the Scripture never uses such terms. It speaks always of our being justified by faith, or through faith, or upon faith, but never speaks of our being justified on account of faith or because of faith.[3]

Murray goes on to demonstrate from the totality of Scripture’s witness that our faith cannot be our righteousness. 

But let me go a step further. Murray was an exegete, a biblical theologian and a systematic theologian.  However, Murray was also a preacher. And Westminster Theological Seminary has recently put us all in their debt by publishing a volume of Murray’s sermons. In a sermon called “Reckoned to Us as Righteousness” Murray queries the congregation saying, “In order to have acceptance with him, there must be full credit, and credit that is unto everlasting life.  What is that credit?”[4] Now, we watched him exegete this passage in his commentary, we observed him work it out systematically and now we have the pleasure of hearing him preach it.

It’s interesting that in this sermon Murray doesn’t spend time helping us to understand how Romans 4:9 is understood individually even though that is his text. Instead he takes us through one passage after another wherein we are reminded that the righteousness of God is imputed by, through, or upon faith.  And then he reminds his hearers, “If I’m justified on the basis of what I am or on the basis of what I do, then, after all, my righteousness is human, and it doesn’t measure up to the gravity and to the desparateness of my need.”[5] What is credited must be God’s righteousness in Christ.

Thus, Murray teaches us an important lesson in pastoral theology. Murray especially helps us pastors to see why not only exegesis and biblical theology are important to the preacher but he goes on to demonstrate in his own preaching why it is that systematic theology is indispensible to the work of the pulpit. Why study theology? According to Murray, the answer is obvious.  

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] John Murray,  The Epistle to the Romans  (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 132.

[2] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 4, Studies in Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 19, 21.

[3] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 125.

[4] John Murray, O Death Where is Thy Sting? Collected Sermons (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Theological Seminary, 2017), 30.

[5] Ibid., 31.


Jeffrey Stivason