Romans 4:1-25

Submitted by admin on Sat, 2009-03-07 11:23.

Posted in | printer-friendly version »

Paul had stressed that humans had no ground for boasting. The Jews, though, would have thought of Abraham as an exception.

In the latter part of the second century BCE, the grandson of the compiler of Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach) translated his grandfather’s work from the original Hebrew into Greek. Some indication of the high value Jews in earlier times placed on this work is the fact that fragmentary Hebrew manuscripts of the book have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44:19, 20 (NRSV) contains a clear reference to Abraham’s being favored on account of law observance. “Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he proved faithful.”

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus referred to Abraham as meriting rewards. After relating the account about Abraham’s (Abram’s) rescue of Lot, Josephus continued, “God commended his virtue, and said, You will not, however, lose the rewards you have deserved to receive by your glorious actions. [Abraham] answered, And what advantage will it be to me to have such rewards, when I have none to enjoy them after me?” (Antiquities, I, x, 3) It is noteworthy that, although Genesis 15:1 includes the divine promise that Abraham’s reward would be great, no mention is made of this being on the basis of glorious deeds.

With apparent reference to the Jewish view of Abraham, Paul raised the question, “What, then, shall we say [regarding] Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?” (4:1; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

If, on the basis of works or personal efforts, Abraham had been justified or been divinely approved, he would have been able to boast. With God, however, he did not have a basis for boasting, and Paul backed this up with a quotation from Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (4:2, 3)

In the case of a worker, wages received for labor are not regarded as a favor but as a debt. (4:4) For the person who has not worked but believes in God who justifies the ungodly or considers them as approved, “his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” God looks upon the individual who manifests faith or trust in him as acceptable. (4:5)

Referring to Psalm 31:1, 2 (LXX; 32:1, 2, Masoretic Text), Paul called attention to the “happiness” or the enviable sense of well-being about which David spoke. Persons whom God credits as righteous without their having performed any works (fulfilling the requirements of the law) enjoy this happiness or this fortunate state of having been forgiven of their sins. “Fortunate [are] those whose lawlessness has been forgiven and whose sins have been covered over. Fortunate [is] the man whose sin the Lord [YHWH, Hebrew text] will not reckon.” (4:6-8)

These words reflected David’s own experience. He had not earned justification, acquittal, or forgiveness of sins, for he had seriously failed in living up to the requirements of the law. Exclusively owing to God’s unmerited kindness, David experienced the “happiness” or the welcome feeling of relief resulting from his having been forgiven. By no means did his deeds merit the desirable sense of happiness or well-being that he gained upon coming to know that God had not severed his relationship with him.

Was this happy or fortunate state of acquittal only possible for those who, like David, were Jews and identified by circumcision (the sign of their covenant relationship with God)? Or, could uncircumcised Gentiles also be justified or acquitted, becoming sharers in this happiness or fortunate condition? The apostle Paul provided the answer, again pointing to Abraham who was justified or credited as righteous on the basis of his faith. (4:9)

At that time, was Abraham circumcised or uncircumcised? He was uncircumcised and thereafter received the sign of circumcision as an authenticating seal of the faith-based righteousness he had in his former uncircumcised state. In this manner, Abraham could become the father of all uncircumcised believers, with their link to him being faith in God and the one promised to come in Abraham’s line of descent (the Messiah or Christ). As their father was counted as righteous based on his faith and while yet uncircumcised, they would be reckoned as righteous on the same basis. (4:10, 11; see the Notes section regarding verse 11.)

Moreover, as the one who had received the sign of circumcision, Abraham would also be the father of the circumcised. This, though, does not mean that Abraham is the father of all circumcised men in his line of descent, but he is the father of all who conduct themselves according to the faith he had while yet uncircumcised. (4:12; compare John 8:39-44; Romans 9:6-8; Galatians 3:29.) As Paul’s words have been paraphrased, “He is the father of the circumcised, provided they are not merely circumcised, but also follow that path of faith which our father Abraham trod while he was still uncircumcised.” (REB)

The promise to Abraham and his “seed” or offspring did not have its source in law, not being dependent on living up to certain legal requirements. Instead, God promised Abraham that he would be heir of the world “through [the] righteousness of faith.” (4:13) On account of his faith, he came to have a right standing with God and, therefore, was given the promise.

The fulfillment of this promise would mean that the Messiah or Christ, a descendant of Abraham, would exercise rulership as the one who inherited the world. Through this promised one, peoples of all nations would be blessed. (Genesis 15:5, 6; 22:17, 18; Psalm 2:8; Hebrews 1:2) Those who become children of Abraham by reason of their faith also become Christ’s fellow heirs.

If “out of law,” or on the basis of law observance, individuals were constituted heirs, faith would have no value and the promise would be nullified. (4:14) Law observance would not require faith, and a promise linked to living up to the law would be conditional. One could not rely upon the fulfillment of such a conditional promise.

Instead of providing hope, the law functioned in a manner that led to wrath. Because of failing to adhere to it flawlessly, all persons under the law were condemned by it and deserving of wrathful punishment. Where no specific law exists, there is no transgression. (4:15) No one can be charged with violating a nonexisting law.

“Therefore,” as Paul continued, the promise is “out of faith.” It was given to Abraham on the basis of his faith, and all who would share in its fulfillment do so on account of their faith. With faith alone being linked to the promise, the apostle could speak of it as being “according to grace,” unearned favor, or unmerited kindness. This guaranteed the promise (that is, its fulfillment) to all of Abraham’s seed, not only to the person under the law (literally, “the one out of the law”) but also to the individual who had faith like that of Abraham (literally, “the one out of Abraham’s faith”). (4:16)

Paul established the point that both Jews (who were under the law) and non-Jews (to whom the law had not been given) become sharers in the fulfillment of the promise. He did this by identifying Abraham as the “father of all of us,” supporting this with a quotation from Genesis 17:5, where God is represented as telling Abraham, “A father of many nations I have made you.” (4:16, 17)

The apostle’s next words (“before whom he [Abraham] believed”) could mean that Abraham, who believed, is our father in God’s eyes or that, in the presence of God, Abraham, the father of many nations, believed. God is the one who makes the dead alive and calls or summons into being the things that are not. (4:17) This proved to be true of Abraham and Sarah. Before the birth of Isaac, both of them were dead insofar as having a son was concerned. For the promise to be fulfilled required their being made alive and a calling into being of what did not exist.

From a human standpoint, Abraham had no hope of having a son by Sarah. God’s promise, however, gave him hope, and he believed that he would become the father of many nations, just as he had been told (Genesis 15:5), “So [as innumerable as the stars] your seed will be.” (4:18)

Despite what seemed humanly impossible at the time, Abraham did not weaken in his faith, but continued to believe God’s promise to him. As to what Abraham considered or did not consider, manuscript readings vary. The oldest extant manuscripts and a number of others represent Abraham as not weakening in faith even though he considered his own inability to father a child and Sarah’s being past the age of childbearing. Many other manuscripts may be understood to mean that Abraham’s faith was so strong that he did not consider his own situation and that of Sarah. He was nearly 100 years of age. Insofar as fathering offspring was concerned, his body was [“already,” according to numerous manuscripts] dead, and so was “the womb of Sarah.” (4:19)

Nevertheless, he did not succumb to unbelief or distrust in God’s promise, but came to be empowered by faith, “giving glory to God and being fully convinced that what he has promised he is also able to do.” (4:20, 21) Abraham’s faith or trust in God gave him the strength not to abandon hope. His giving “glory to God” may refer to his crediting God for remaining confident in the sure fulfillment of the promise.

Abraham’s faith in God’s word or promise was credited to him as righteousness. The Most High considered him as being in a right or approved relationship with him. (4:22)

It was not “only” for Abraham or with exclusive application to him that the words, “it [Abraham’s faith or his believing] was reckoned to him” (Genesis 15:6), were recorded in the holy writings. “But also for us,” Paul continued, “to whom it [faith] is to be reckoned [as righteousness], to [us] who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (4:23, 24) The case of Abraham revealed that a righteous standing before God was possible on the basis of faith. For Abraham, it was faith in God and the fulfillment of his promise about the “seed,” and now it is faith in the promised one, the Christ, and in God who resurrected him.

Jesus Christ was handed over to die sacrificially for “our trespasses.” The sinless one died for sinners. He was resurrected for “our justification.” (4:25) He maintained his uprightness in faultless purity, making it possible for all who put their faith in him and who come to be at one with him to have his righteousness attributed to them. Forgiven of their sins, they become sharers in his righteousness.


In Romans 4:1, numerous manuscripts include a form of the Greek word heurísko (find or obtain) before “Abraham” or after “our.” In fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, this word is missing. Depending on which manuscript evidence they have chosen to follow, translators vary in their renderings. “Well then, what can we say about our ancestor Abraham?” (CEV) “What, then, are we to say about Abraham, our ancestor by natural descent?” (REB) “What then can we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” (HCSB) “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?” (NIV) “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?” (ESV) “What then shall we say about Abraham our ancestor? What did he obtain according to the flesh?” (Que dirons-nous donc d’Abraham notre ancêtre? Qu’a-t-il obtenu selon la chair? [TOB, French])

After “counted” or “reckoned” (logízomai) in Romans 4:11, numerous manuscripts include kaí, meaning “also” in this context. Modern translations commonly do not include “also.” One exception is the New American Bible, where the “also” is printed in brackets. “Thus he was to be the father of all the uncircumcised who believe, so that to them [also] righteousness might be credited.”