What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found 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 accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.” Roman 4:1-8

The Old Testament has many heroes. Paul pointed to two of those heroes who played a vital role in the history of Israel: Abraham and David.

Keep in mind that the original text of Romans did not have chapter and verse divisions. Those were added more than a thousand years after the writing of the New Testament. We are reading one continuous letter the Apostle Paul wrote to people in Rome almost two-thousand years ago.

Paul continued the theme from chapter three into chapter four: righteousness through faith alone.

Here’s a reminder of the context from the end of chapter three –

Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” Romans 3:27-31

Remember that phrase, “the law of faith,” because Paul continued to build on it with examples from the Old Testament.

Verse 1

“What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?”

τι ουν ερουμεν αβρααμ τον πατερα ημων ευρηκεναι κατα σαρκα

τι ουν ερουμεν (ti oun eroumen) “what then will we say”

This follows Paul’s claim that there is one God “who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” and his question about voiding the law through faith. Paul’s strong claim is – “Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” 

Paul then introduces a question Jews might ask – “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?”

Paul reaches back into the Old Testament to explain the doctrine he preached. Some have accused Paul of introducing new doctrines into the apostolic teachings of Christianity, but it’s clear from Paul’s letter to the Romans that he was building on ancient teachings that Jesus Christ and His apostles had been teaching for many years.

αβρααμ τον πατερα ημων ευρηκεναι κατα σαρκα (abraau ton patera hēmón eurekenai kata sarka) “discovered Abraham the father of us according to the flesh”

There is no greater name in Jewish history that Paul could have appealed to than Abraham. Jews respected Abraham highly and referred to him as “father.”

Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, was filled with the Holy Spirit when he spoke these words –

To perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to our father Abraham: To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.” Luke 1:72-75

The rich man in torment cried out to “Father Abraham” to have mercy on him (Luke 16:24).

Jews accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon. They asked Jesus if He was greater than their father Abraham. Jesus responded by saying –

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” John 8:56

The deacon Stephen addressed the priest’s question by telling the crowd in attendance –

Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.” Acts 7:2-3

Stephen reminded the crowd of what God said to Moses –

I am the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. ‘Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Acts 7:31-32

Paul also addressed Abraham as “father” and added the words “according to the flesh.” That would be important for Jews reading Romans to remember.

Paul referred to Abraham as “father” three times in Romans 4. Reminding the Jews of the ancient truths that he was expounding was a powerful way of communicating the truth God had given Paul.

Jews of the 1st century viewed Abraham as the highest example of justification by works. What Paul wrote in his letter to Romans may have sounded contrary to what the Jews believed to be true, so his addressing the Jews in Romans 4 was vital to their understanding the deeper meaning of Abraham’s relationship with God.

Verse 2

“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”

ει γαρ αβρααμ εξ εργων εδικαιωθη εχει καυχημα αλλ ου προς τον θεον

ει γαρ αβρααμ εξ εργων εδικαιωθη (ei gar abraau ex ergón edikaióthē) “if indeed Abraham by works was justified”

Paul gets right to the heart of Jewish belief – that Abraham was justified by works. They would have immediately understood the depth of what Paul was saying.

εχει καυχημα (echei kauchēma) “he has ground of boasting”

If Paul stopped right there, Jews would have agreed with him. That’s how they saw their own works and why they boasted of what they did. They viewed themselves as being very special because of God’s choice and their commitment to the Law of Moses.

However, Paul didn’t stop there. Remember what he wrote earlier in the letter?

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.” Romans 3:27

αλλ ου προς τον θεον (all ou pros ton theon) “but not toward God”

Paul was saying that though Abraham may have had something to boast about to other men, he certainly couldn’t boast “toward God.” No way. Paul is about to turn the Jews’ understanding of Abraham upside down.

Verse 3

“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 

τι γαρ η γραφη λεγει επιστευσεν δε αβρααμ τω θεω και ελογισθη αυτω εις δικαιοσυνην

Paul quoted an Old Testament verse that would have been familiar to the Jews in Rome – Genesis 15:6. Here’s the context –

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ Then Abram said, ‘Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!’ And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’ Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” Genesis 15:1-6

What “work” did Abraham perform? Nothing. He “believed” and God accounted that to Abraham “for righteousness.”

ελογισθη (elogisthē) “accounted” .. the Greek root word is logos, logic .. the idea is for computing, taking into account, adding to one’s account.

God added “righteousness” to Abraham’s spiritual account because he “believed” God.

That refers back to when Paul wrote –

Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”

It’s also important to remember that Abraham lived centuries before God gave His Law to Moses. There was no “law of works” for Abraham to fulfill. He was “justified by faith.”

Verse 4

“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.”

τω δε εργαζομενω ο μισθος ου λογιζεται κατα χαριν αλλα κατα το οφειλημα

τω δε εργαζομενω (to de ergazomenó) “to the one moreover working” .. ergazomenó means “perform, accomplish, acquire by labor”

ο μισθος ου λογιζεται κατα χαριν αλλα κατα το οφειλημα (ho misthos ou logizetai kata charin alla kata to opseilēma) “the reward not is reckoned according to grace but according to debt”

Paul used the word ελογισθη in verse three and λογιζεται in verse four. They both come from the same root and carry the idea of reaching a logical decision through reason.

Paul appeals to logic in something Jews would immediately understand. If a person works, the wages are counted as debt – not grace. If you work for wages, the idea is that the person you work for owes you. You earned your wages. That’s not grace (charin), which is based on “unmerited favor.” No one can earn something that can’t be earned.

Verse 5

“But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness”

τω δε μη εργαζομενω πιστευοντι δε επι τον δικαιουντα τον ασεβη λογιζεται η πιστις αυτου εις δικαιοσυνην

τω δε μη εργαζομενω (tó de mē ergazomenó) “to the one however not working”

πιστευοντι δε επι τον δικαιουντα τον ασεβη (pisteuonti de epi ton disaiounta ton asebē) “believing however on Him justifying the ungodly”

λογιζεται η πιστις αυτου εις δικαιοσυνην (logizetai hē pistis autou eis dikaiosunme) “is reckoned the faith of him for righteousness”

Paul used the word logizetai again. Interestingly, the word is used a total of 41 times in the New Testament and Paul used it 34 times – 19 times in Romans, 11 times in Romans 4. The idea of logical reasoning that led to an accounting/reckoning is central to Paul’s argument for salvation by faith without works. God is the one who reckons and the One to whom we must give an account.

Other Views

Here are other views from Romans 4:1-5:

“To meet the views of the Jews, the apostle first refers to the example of Abraham, in whom the Jews gloried as their most renowned forefather. However exalted in various respects, he had nothing to boast in the presence of God, being saved by grace, through faith, even as others. Without noticing the years which passed before his call, and the failures at times in his obedience, and even in his faith, it was expressly stated in Scripture that he believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness, Ge 15:6. From this example it is observed, that if any man could work the full measure required by the law, the reward must be reckoned as a debt, which evidently was not the case even of Abraham, seeing faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. When believers are justified by faith, their faith being counted for righteousness, their faith does not justify them as a part, small or great, of their righteousness; but as the appointed means of uniting them to Him who has chosen as the name whereby he shall be called, the Lord our Righteousness. Pardoned people are the only blessed people.” Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary

“The subject of the chapter is an application of the foregoing to the special (and crucial) case of Abraham, with particular reference to two ideas that are continually recurring throughout the last chapter: (1) the supposed superiority of Jew to Gentile (and, à fortiori, of the great progenitor of the Jews); (2) the idea of boasting or glorying based upon this superiority. Following out this the Apostle shows how even Abraham’s case tells, not against, but for the doctrine of justification by faith. Indeed, Abraham himself came under it. And not only so, but those who act upon this doctrine are spiritually descendants of Abraham. It is entirely a mistake to suppose that they of the circumcision only are Abraham’s seed. The true seed of Abraham are those who follow his example of faith. He put faith in the promise, they must put their faith in the fulfilment of the promise.” Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers

“The apostle, in the preceding chapter, having shown the impossibility of man’s being justified by the merit of his obedience to any law, moral or ceremonial, or any otherwise than by grace through faith, judged it necessary, for the sake of the Jews, to consider the case of Abraham, on being whose progeny, and on whose merits, the Jews placed great dependance; as they did also on the ceremony of circumcision, received from him. It was therefore of great importance to know how he was justified; for, in whatever way he, the most renowned progenitor of their nation, obtained that privilege, it was natural to conclude that his descendants must obtain it, if at all, in the same way. Was he justified by works, moral or ceremonial? That is, by the merit of his own obedience to any law or command given him by God? And in particular, was he justified by the ceremony of circumcision, so solemnly enjoined to be observed by him and his posterity? That Abraham was justified by one or other of these means, or by both of them united, the Jews had no doubt. To correct their errors, therefore, the apostle appeals to Moses’s account of Abraham’s justification, and shows therefrom, 1st, That he was not justified by works, but simply by faith in the gracious promise of God, independent of all works.” Benson Commentary

Next Time

In the next part of our study of Romans, we will see how King David’s story fits into Paul’s message to Jews and Gentiles.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.