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Advanced analysis of Romans 4:1-11

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

Pericope (aka Romans 4:1-11)

“What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.” Is this blessing pronounced only upon the circumcised, or also upon the uncircumcised? We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them.”

Historical Background

Scripture scholar Joseph Fitzmyer says that Paul’s epistle to the Romans is directed to Christians living in Rome, which is the capital of the Roman empire. His epistle would have been written under the rule of Nero, the leader of Rome from 54-68 AD. Now, a bit of background to the Eternal City: Rome possessed a large Jewish community, the roots of which are unknown, and a Roman-Christian community was founded “many years” (Romans 15:23) before Paul wrote his epistle, and its exact date is also unknown. That Christian community was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers based on the text of Paul’s epistle to them. The immediate background to the epistle is Claudius Caesar’s expulsion of all the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49. If they were expelled, then only Gentiles would have been running the Church at Rome. Once the Jewish Christians came back, however, there may have been problems. To sooth the tensions of the church at Rome, Paul writes his epistle to them, sitting, as it were, “as an arbiter…between the Jews and the Greeks.”

Context of Romans 4

The Gospel is the way God shows forth His righteousness (Rom. 1:16-17), but to understand its necessity, Paul must demonstrate the problem of mankind. Paul argues that both Gentiles (Rom. 1:18-32) and Jews (Rom. 2:17-29) are under the power of sin (Rom. 3:9, cf. Rom. 3:23). Although the Jews were blessed with the Scriptures, which allowed them to know the Law of God, they did not follow it (Rom. 3:10-20). God’s righteousness has now bypassed the Mosaic Law, which did not have the power to justify men, and since all of them have sinned, there needed to be a solution (Rom. 3:20, 23). Now, man has to come through Jesus, so that he is justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21). This teaching has actually been taught in the law and the prophets, that is, it is upheld by the first five books of the Bible, and the Old Testament prophets (Rom. 3:21, 31). Paul attempts to prove this in Rom. 4:3, which discusses God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis, and 4:7-8, which discusses the man blessed to not have sin reckoned against him. He then moves on to Rom. 4:13-25, which is about the second promise God makes to Abe, that is, that he will inherit the land of Palestine. The rest of Romans speaks about various topics, such as humanity lost in original sin (Rom. 5), baptism as the antidote to that (Rom. 6), our fleshly desires to sin (Rom. 7), the Spirit as the antidote to that (Rom. 8), where Israel stands in light of the Messiah (Rom. 9-11), etc.

Introduction to Romans 4

Paul argues in Romans 3:28-31 that the law and the prophets show that man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. To confirm that point, Paul directs the Romans to the example of Abraham. Abraham is not chosen at random, rather, Paul has to focus on him. This is because, “it was around the figure of Abraham that the key issues of Jewish identity and hopes for the future turned.” Abraham was the forefather to the nation of Israel, and they identified themselves as his offspring (Rom. 4:1). The way he acted defined how Israel would act. For if an Israelite is apart of his seed, as one of his children, then he should be acting the way his father acted. And if his father was justified by faith, meaning that he will be with God in Heaven by believing, then his children will be justified by faith, and they will go to Heaven. The problem, however, is that Judaism saw Abraham as the “model of classic Torah obedience,” rather than an example of faith. To give an outline of Romans 4, vv1-2 is an introduction to the example of Abraham, vv 3-5 is Paul’s example from the law in Gen. 15, vv 6-8 is Paul’s example from the prophets in Ps. 32, vv 9-11a is an analysis of Gen. 15 and 17, and vv 11b-12 is the conclusion that Abraham is both the father of Jews and Gentiles.

Exegesis of Romans 4:1-11

Romans 4:1

This is Paul’s first mention of Abraham in Romans, and as seen above, he does this because he has too. Abraham is the beginning, the locus-point of Israel, “our forefather according to the flesh.” He is vitally important in the minds of the Jews. After discussing salvation in terms of faith instead of works of the law (Rom. 3:28), Paul asks what Abraham “found.” Was salvation “found” by faith or the law? Paul is expecting his Jewish interlocutor to answer that Abraham was righteous on the basis of his obedience to the law, so that he could boast. The Apostle disagrees with his Jewish interlocutor, as we will see.

Romans 4:2

Paul entertains the expected the response of his Jewish dialogue-partner, saying that, if Abraham was justified by his obedience to the law, then he could boast. Abraham could have expected to be righteous in God’s sight, for he would have done it on his own - apart from God’s grace. Paul says immediately, though, that Abraham’s boast could not be “before God.” This is because Abraham really was not justified before God on the basis of his works, he had nothing to bring to the table.

Romans 4:3

Abraham was not justified by obeying the Law, for in Genesis 15:6, Abraham is said to be “righteous” by “faith.” Genesis 15’s context is where Abraham reminds God of His promise to give him a child, a male heir, and how God had not given him that child yet. God responds by taking Abraham outside, directs him towards all the stars in the sky, and says to him that he will have as many children as the stars. In v. 6, Abraham’s response is faith, he “believed God,” and was reckoned as “righteous” or holy in God’s sight. Paul points to this episode specifically because it says explicitly that Abraham was righteous, not by the law, but by faith. In Genesis 15, there is zero mention of Abraham doing any works of the Law, so he did not receive the declaration of “righteous” based on obedience to the Law. It was all through faith. Of note is also the fact that Gen. 15 was not the first instance of faith on the part of Abraham. He had shown faith and faithfulness way back in Gen. 12. As Heb. 11 says, Abraham had an entire life full of faith, and as Jas. 2:21 says, of faithfulness too. For the Greek word for faith, "pistis," can be translated either as faith or faithfulness.

Romans 4:4

Paul brings out an illustration of an employee, and how, when he goes to work, he receives a wage. This employee does his work on his own (not Spirit empowered), and receives his due payment, which allows him to boast in his work (for it was done apart from God's grace). For Paul’s interlocutor, a man is righteous based on that sort of image, where he obeys the Law like a slavish worker and receives the wage of righteousness. The promise given to Abraham, to be one of his children, is accomplished by obeying the Law – according to him. For Abraham (in the mind of the interlocutor) worked circumcision (Gen. 17), and got paid with the wage of righteousness.

Romans 4:5

Here, Paul contrasts the image of a worker with the story of Abraham in Genesis 15. Abraham was said to be righteous by faith in Gen. 15, which was two chapters before his circumcision in Gen. 17. In Gen. 15, God promised him many children as a gift, and Abraham received this gift based totally on faith, causing God to consider him “righteous.” Abraham did not obey the Mosaic Law like an employee and receive the wage of righteousness (see Rom. 4:13). According to the interlocutor, Abraham would have no right to be called righteous because he did not do any works. Yet the Scriptures point otherwise. Instead, Abraham is portrayed in Gen. 15 as a man who has “not worked” (Rom. 4:5), but only had faith in the “goodness and mercy” of the manager – who will give him a reward. One paradigm is seeing Abraham through the lens of grace (how Paul sees Gen. 15), and the other through the lens of Law (how the interlocutor would see things). Paul draws out the implications from the Abraham story to apply to Christians of his own 1st century day. Abraham is an “ungodly” person who “does not work” (Rom. 4:5), that is, he is a sinner who does not obey the Law to receive the reward of righteousness. Instead, he simply trusts that God will give him the promise of eternal life. Now, Paul calling Abraham “ungodly” probably indicates that Paul sees Abraham as similar to a Gentile, who are sinners in the eyes of Jews because they do not obey the Law (see Gal. 2:15). If someone lacks circumcision, he or she is seen as “ungodly.” All people, including Gentiles, who follow Abraham’s model of being a sinner yet trusting in God’s mercy (see Lk. 18:9-14) is righteous, however. This truth should cause an “overwhelming sense of amazement at what God has done for us,” for God gives us the gift of righteousness when we do not deserve it. Abraham trusted that God would give him the gift of children, and in the same way Gentiles trust that God will give them the gift of eternal life. These people, and in fact, all Christians, are included as apart of Abraham’s children and are reckoned as righteous like Abraham.

Romans 4:6

Paul, having already shown that the Pentateuch (“the law”) proves his case, turns to the prophets to give a thorough treatment of the issue, for most of Scripture was grouped under those two titles. Scholar Douglas Moo notes that Paul links together the law and the prophets through a common practice of the Jews, who use “a common word as the link between…passages: In both Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:1-2a we find the crucial term “credited” or “reckoned” (logizomai). The Jews called this technique gezerah shewa (“equal decision”).” So Paul quotes from the Psalms of David, which were included under the definition of “the prophets.” He does so because David pronounces a blessing upon the man who is without works and yet is reckoned by God as righteous. Abraham did not have any works, yet was considered righteous, so both Abraham and David say that such a path is the way one is reckoned as righteous. The Gentiles are like Abraham (without Law), and the Jews are like David (broke the Law).

Romans 4:7

Paul quotes David who says that man is blessed if his sins are covered and forgiven. David is envisioning himself as one who has broken the Law and has committed adultery with Bathsheba, yet repents and is re-gifted with righteousness here in Ps. 32 and Ps. 51. This disproves eternal security, for David used to be saved. He had been a man after God's own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), but turned away from God. Now, one might ask what this has to do with Abraham. The answer is that Paul is drawing a comparison between Abraham and David who both use the work “reckoned.” This is seen in the next verse.

Romans 4:8

Ungodly Abraham was “reckoned” as righteous, so also a repentant sinner, ungodly though he is, is not “reckoned” his sin. Abraham is actively said to be righteous, whereas the man in Ps. 32 is passively said to be righteous (because sin is not reckoned to him). Faith is the important theme in Gen. 15, and a repentant sinner who is not reckoned sin is in Ps. 32. Of note is also the fact that the Law did not save David, for David broke the Law, yet was reckoned as righteous. This disproves the notion that the Law brings justification.

Romans 4:9

Paul asks whether the blessing of being found righteous (which Abraham received) is for the Jews (“the circumcised”) or the Gentiles (“the uncircumcised”). If it is only for the Jews, then Abraham would have been circumcised. But, “contrary to the prevailing Jewish view of Abraham,” the progenitor of the whole Jewish race was uncircumcised when he was reckoned as righteous. This became the pattern for one to be righteous: Uncircumcised Gentiles receive the gift of righteousness in a similar way to Abraham.

Romans 4:10

Paul asks the question, when did Abraham receive righteousness? Before or after circumcision? It is clear he was righteous before circumcision. For Genesis 15:6 comes before Genesis 17:9-14, which is when Abraham was circumcised.

Romans 4:11a

Paul clarifies that circumcision was not pointless, but did in fact have a role. Circumcision acted as a sealing or outward sign of his faith. It did not confer righteousness, so it could no longer “be seen as a badge denoting the status enjoyed exclusively by one people (the Jews).”

Romans 4:11b

Paul says that Abraham is no longer simply the father of one nation (the Jews), but in fact many nations (the Gentiles). Abraham truly has as many sons as the “stars in the sky” (Gen. 15:5). This is a powerful teaching, implying for Christians today that all kinds of people are brought into God’s family. The Church is “to be genuinely ‘countercultural’” that is, that the barrier of “race, national background, economic status, etc. – have no relevance at all.”


Marshall, I. Howard. “New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel.” Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Byrne, Brendan J. “Reckoning with Romans: A Contemporary Reading of Paul's Gospel.” Wilmington, DEL: Michael Glazier, 1986.

Byrne, Brendan. “Sacra Pagina: Romans.” Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996.

“Dictionary of New Testament background: a compendium of contemporary biblical scholarship.”

Edited by Evans, Craig A., and Stanley E. Porter Jr. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. "Anchor Bible: Romans." New York: Yale University Press, 1993.

Moo, Douglas J. "The NIV application commentary: Romans." Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.

Origen of Alexandria, “Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.” Trans. Thomas Scheck. Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001.

Sungenis, Robert A. "Not by Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification." Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing Company, 1997.

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