Everyone has phrases he tends to use repeatedly. Sometimes the words are “filler” when we don’t know what to say, other times they are affirmations that we tend to make in the same way. For instance, I tend to use the word “absolutely” and “precisely” when giving positive affirmation of a statement. Or when seeing someone in passing, rather than saying, “hi,” I frequently say, “Greetings” (which almost always makes them look at me with a quizzical look). Those in the under-40 crowd tend to use the word “like” frequently. (A book on language that I read recently counted seven different ways the word “like” is used in conversation; it’s apparently much more than just a “filler” when people don’t know what to say.) If you feel bad for someone — or even want to offer a gracious criticism — you might explain her poor predicament and then add, “Bless her heart.” Those three words soften the put-down and seemingly make it acceptable.
Authors also tend to use vocabulary and words repeatedly. And one of the apostle Paul’s favorite terms is, “as it is written.” He uses the phrase 19 times in his letters. And 14 of those phrases appear in the book of Romans. Of all his letters, Paul particularly uses the phrase “as it is written” to affirm an Old Testament quotation.
Why does Paul say, “as it is written” so frequently? Why is it so important to him that his readers understand that he is quoting from the Old Testament?
First of all, it is good to remember Paul’s purpose in writing the letter to the Romans. He is planning a mission venture to Spain (15:14) and he evidently wants the Roman church to serve as a base of operation for that venture and also provide financial support for him (15:26-29). Because he has never been to the church in Rome and because only a few members there personally know him, Paul writes this letter as a kind of treatise or doctrinal statement to affirm his theological orthodoxy. And in quoting from the Old Testament, Paul is repeatedly affirming something like, “my doctrine is not new; it is consistent with all that has been taught and revealed about God and Christ in the Old Testament.” And every time Paul says, “as it is written,” Paul is affirming to his readers the reliability of his words and doctrine.
But secondly, and even more significantly than his first purpose, when Paul says, “It is written,” he is affirming the integrity and authority of the Old Testament. He is saying essentially, “listen to what the Old Testament says because it is authoritative and true.” In a sense, Paul is using the Old Testament’s authority and power as a final convincing argument to defend his theological position.
And we see that throughout chapter four, where he is affirming the doctrine of salvation through faith alone. While affirming this doctrine that we have come to know and love, he also demonstrates that this doctrine is an old doctrine, going back to the first pages of the Old Testament Scriptures. So three times he directly quotes Genesis 15:6 (4:3, 9, 22) and then he also alludes to it two more times (vv. 5, 23). Abraham was saved not by his position or race or works, but by grace dispensed through faith; he received justification as a gift from God through the mechanism of faith. When he believed, he was declared just (vv. 16, 22) — and that means of salvation is the same for believers in the day of Paul and today (vv. 23-24).
And several of those quotations are introduced by “as it is written” or parallel statements (see v. 17 and also vv. 3, 6, 9, 23). As one writer has noted, “It was a valuable asset to be able to say, when dealing with doctrinal truth, it stands written.”
It is tempting to speed over so many repeated phrases like, “just as it is written,” assuming they are not much more than placeholders and trite authorial phrases. But because every word of Scripture has been breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16) and has His authority, they have a very specific purpose. And as Paul uses this particular phrase, it is a reminder that God has spoken, and He has spoken with compelling authority and power. And whenever we read any word of Scripture, we must read it in that way.