Commentary on Romans 4:1-8

Notes (NET Translation)

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter?

The case of Abraham is used to show that justification is by faith, not works of the law, and that all people receive righteousness in the same manner. “The case of Abraham is introduced because he was the father of the Jewish people (Gen. 12-24), the promises of worldwide salvation were given to him, and the Jews highly esteemed him. Paul wants to demonstrate that Abraham, the fountainhead of the Jewish people, was justified by faith and that it was always God’s intention to bless the Gentiles through Abraham.”1

By speaking of “our ancestor according to the flesh,” Paul appears to continue his discussion with his imaginary Jewish dialogue partner. The question, “What then shall we say?”, is rhetorical: does the case of Abraham validate the contention in 3:27-28 that righteousness is by faith and not by works of the law?

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

Many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries thought Abraham was was justified by works of the law (1 Macc 2:51-53; Jub 23:10; Sir 44:19-21; m. Kidd. 4.14), especially in his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen 22:1-18). Paul is denying such assertions. If Abraham was righteous by works of the law then he would have had something to boast about. But, in actuality, the necessary works were lacking in Abraham so he had no grounds to boast in God’s presence (Abraham is implicitly placed among the ungodly in verse 5). Paul is not rejecting boasting and works of the law in themselves.

Paul’s understanding of the means of Abraham’s righteousness fits with the context of Gen. 15:1-6. When Abraham worried about his lack of offspring, Yahweh promised him that his seed would be comparable to the stars of heaven. Abraham was not in any position to accomplish the promise in his own strength since he was beyond the usual age for producing progeny. He trusted that God could accomplish what he promised (cf. vv. 17-22). Abraham’s faith honored God because he believed that God could do the impossible by making his offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven. By putting his faith and trust in God’s promise, he showed that righteousness lies in believing instead of working.2

3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

The quotation comes from Gen 15:6. Abraham believed God in the sense of believing that God would fulfill his promises for an heir and countless descendants. Gen 15:6 is a reiteration of the promise for worldwide blessing given in Gen 12:1-3. God crediting Abraham with righteousness is an act of undeserved grace. It means God was accepting Abraham as one fit for a relationship with him.

4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation.

This verse makes it clear that Abraham did not earn his right standing before God. An employer is obligated to pay the employee, but God was not obligated to credit Abraham with righteousness.

5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.

The clause “the one who does not work” is not endorsing laziness, it is merely saying that one’s standing before God does not depend on works of the law. God is described as “the one who declares the ungodly righteous” in order to say that our standing before God is the result of God’s free grace.

To appreciate the boldness of this characterization, we must set it beside OT condemnations of human judges who “justify” the guilty (Isa. 5:23; Prov. 17:15), and especially with God’s declaration in Exod. 23:7 that “I will not justify the wicked.” What is involved, of course, is a new application of the word “justify.” The OT texts refer to the declaration or recognition of an existing situation. But Paul has in mind a creative act, whereby the believer is freely given a new “status.” What is highlighted by the phrase is the nature of God–loving, freely giving, and incapable of being put under obligation to any human being. It is the person who believes in this God, and who thereby in his belief renounces any claim on God that his good works might exert, whose “faith is reckoned for righteousness.” Likewise, it becomes clear again that faith for Paul is something qualitatively distinct from any human-originated endeavor. We believe, but we can take no credit for it.3

6 So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count sin.”

Paul may quote David in order to establish the truth from the mouth of two witnesses. The quotation is from Ps 32:1-2 and is intended to affirm the example of Abraham. Paul uses the rabbinic exegetical principle of gezerah shawah, a verbal analogy based on the same word applied to two different cases. The word “credit/count” connects Ps 32:1-2 with Gen 15:6 (quoted in 4:3).

The psalm portrays a person weighed down by a sense of sin, but who receives forgiveness from God and is assured that his sin will ‘never’ be counted against him again, and this without any ‘works’ on the part of the person that might enable him to boast. Paul implies by this quotation that when God credits righteousness to people, it presupposes the forgiveness of their transgressions, the covering of their sins, and the decision on God’s part never to count their sins against them. This all serves to show that when faith is credited to people as righteousness, it is an undeserved gift of God. All that people contribute is their sin, for which they need forgiveness. Incidentally, Paul’s quotation of the psalm provides some insight into what the apostle considered to be the nature of forgiveness: the decision to waive the right to demand satisfaction from those concerned for the wrong done, so that the wrong is no longer counted against them.4

Douglas Moo adds:

Two other implications follow from the association of these Psalm verses with Paul’s exposition. First, it is clear that the forgiveness of sins is a basic component of justification. Second, Paul reveals again his strongly forensic understanding of justification. For he uses this quotation to compare justification to the non-accrediting or not “imputing” of sins to a person. This is an act that has nothing to do with moral transformation, but “changes” people only in the sense that their relationship to God is changed–they are “acquitted” rather than condemned.5

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4421-4423 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 4518-4523 
  3. Moo 1996, 264 
  4. Kruse 2012, 208 
  5. Moo 1996, 266 
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