Biblical Studies

An Exegesis on Romans 4

Paul associates Abraham as their ancestor “according to the flesh.” He asks his readers “what is to be obtained by Abraham?” Even if Abraham was justified by works he would have something to boast about, but not before God (Rom 4:2). Paul begins his discourse by asking the reader a question, “For what does the scripture say?” Paul refers to Gen 15:6 where Abraham believes God and because he believes God, it was credited to him as righteousness.

For Paul, if one is considered righteous because of their works, then righteousness would not be a gift but something that is owed to one because of their deeds. He says that “to the one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” It is interesting that Paul uses the same word for “justifies” here, referring to the ungodly, that he uses in Rom 4:2 to refer to Abraham. Is Paul considering Abraham ungodly? This idea seems to be countered in Rom 4:20 when Abraham is depicted as giving “glory to God.”

What works did Abraham have prior to believing God’s promise to him that he would have many descendants? God gave the promise to Abraham while Abraham had nothing to offer God in return. Abraham was, so to speak, bankrupt. God calls the promise with Abraham into existence and is able to keep it (referring to God as the one who “calls into existence the things that do not exist.” – Rom 4:17).

Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 LXX to use David as an example of one who speaks of the “blessedness” of those “to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works.” Righteousness is not mentioned in this Psalm, nevertheless, Paul associates “blessedness” with the forgiveness of sins. Paul presents a second question, “Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised?” Paul seems to use Socratic Method to present his argument to his readers in Rome. He acknowledges that those in Rome attest to the same interpretation of Gen 15:6 as he does. Paul affirms his readers that this is what “we” say in our interpretation of Gen 15:6.

In Rom 4:9b, Paul shifts his argument briefly to demonstrate that Abraham received “Faith” before he was circumcised. The main question is how and when did Abraham receive Faith? Did Abraham receive faith when it was reckoned to him as righteousness, before he was circumcised? Paul refers to circumcision as a “sign” of a seal that Abraham was considered righteous because of faith. For Paul, the purpose for Abraham receiving faith before he was circumcised was “to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Rom 4:11b). Paul adds that Abraham is also “the ancestor of the circumcised” whose circumcision is a sign of their following the example of faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Since Paul has shown through scripture that Abraham received faith and therefore righteousness before circumcision, his argument now moves to “the promise” (Rom 4:13). For Paul, God’s promise (What does it mean to “inherit” the world? – following the argument from Gal 3, “the promise” is the Holy Spirit) did not come through the law (Mosaic or circumcision) but through “the righteousness of Faith.”

Paul argues that if those who keep the law are the ones who will inherit the world (the promise), then faith is nothing and the promise is “void” since the promise came before the law (Mosaic and circumcision) (Rom 4:14). It seems that Paul is arguing that the law brings “wrath” because no one is able to keep it fully, and that without a law there is no violation. Therefore, since there is a law and a violation of that law, then the promise depends on faith so that the promise rests on grace (Rom 4:16). Paul acknowledges that the promise is guaranteed to all “his” descendants, “not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.” Interestingly, Paul equates those who would receive the promise by adhering to the law being the same as those who share the faith of Abraham. Is Paul referring to being united to Jesus Christ, the offspring of Abraham, that he mentions in Gal 3 as taking place in baptism? Paul speaks of those who “share the Faith of Abraham” in the presence of God. If Paul is referring to being united to Jesus Christ, then it is only because Jesus Christ has been given life from death that mortals would be able to exist in the presence of God in heaven.

“Hoping against hope” seems to stress the point that Abraham believed without seeing. Paul appeals to Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to him that he would become “the father of many nations” by highlighting Abraham’s inability to do anything on his own. Paul does this by directing attention to Abraham’s age (“as good as dead”) and Sarah’s barrenness. Paul portrays Abraham as completely trusting God’s ability “to do” what he had promised. God is doing, and Abraham is having faith that God is able to do what he promised. Therefore, Abraham received  righteousness through faith.

Paul is saying that Jesus was put to death for our violation (trespasses) of the law and was “raised to life for our justification.” Jesus’ resurrection along with his death together are necessary for our justification. Our justification comes through Faith, who is Jesus Christ. Paul is associating the faith of Abraham, by which he was justified, with Jesus Christ who was raised from death fulfilling the promise of God’s eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Jesus Christ is reckoned to us as righteousness.

Paul’s words in Rom 4:

1. Flesh (4:1)

2. Justify/Justification (4:2, 5, 25)

3. Works (4:2, 4, 5, 6)

4. Do (4:21) [God is the one “doing” work]

5. Reckoned (4:3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24)

6. Scripture (4:3)

7. Faith (4:5, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 19, 20, 22)

8. Ungodly/Glory to God (4:5, 20)

9. Believe (4:3, 11, 17, 18, 24)  [“being fully convinced” – 4:21]

10. Righteousness (4:3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 13, 22)

11. Gift (4:4)

12. Trust/Distrust (4:5, 20)

13. Blessedness (4:6, 7, 8, 9)

14. Circumcision (4:9, 10, 11, 12)

15. Sign-Seal (4:11)

16. Uncircumcision (4:9, 11)

17. Inherit/ heirs (4:13, 14)

18. Promise (4:13, 14, 16, 20, 21)

19. Law (4:13, 14, 15, 16)

20. Violation/Trespass (4:15, 25)

21. Wrath (4:15)

22. Grace (4:16)

23. Hope (4:18)

24. “Barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (4:19)

25. Dead/Death (4:17, 19, 24, 25)

26. Life, raised from death (4:17, 24, 25)


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