Romans 4:1-3 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Romans 4:1
  • Romans 4:2
  • Romans 4:3

The competing Jewish “authorities” are arguing that we must do our part in order to be justified before God. Paul is now going to use Abraham as more proof that justification comes through faith and not through anything we can do.

It is important to bear in mind that the Apostle Paul did not divide his letter into chapters and verses; those were added much later as a convenience for study. Even though there is a chapter break here, there is not a break in the stream of Paul’s argument. Paul has just made the case that God is the only one whose actions affect our justification before Him, and we as humans simply accept that justification by faith. That is true of both Jew and Gentile alike.

Paul then went further, claiming this gospel he has spread (that faith alone is the basis upon which humans can be justified before God) does not set aside the law of Moses, as the competing Jewish “authorities” have asserted to the Gentile believers in Rome (Romans 3:8). Just the opposite, Paul says. In fact, faith establishes the law of Moses (Romans 3:31) through faith (when we walk by faith it fulfills the law). In this verse, Paul now introduces a new subject. Having addressed the false claims the competing Jewish “authorities” made about what Paul teaches about the law, Paul now turns to the greatest family figure in Judaism, the Patriarch of Israel, Abraham. Paul asks what Abraham can teach us. Will what we know about Abraham support Paul’s claims or the claims of these “slanderers” Paul asks.

Paul is defending allegations against his gospel, allegations that include a claim that Paul is setting aside the law as well as the relevance of Israel. The disagreement is between the competing Jewish “authorities” and Paul, who claims Apostleship appointed directly by Jesus, with specific authority over Gentile believers, including those in Rome (Romans 1:4-6).

Now, Paul embarks on a new line of argumentation surrounding the father of Israel, Abraham, the friend of God (James 2:23). The competing Jewish “authorities” who have slandered Paul’s gospel message, claim that adherence to the law is a necessary component of being righteous before God. “God does His part, we do ours” is the basic idea. It is likely that the philosophical basis for this position comes from the Pharisees. At the Great Council of Acts 15, we see Pharisees, who have believed in Jesus, maintain that Gentiles must be circumcised and adhere to Jewish laws in order to be saved, to be righteous before God (Acts 15:5).

The Apostle Paul begins this new argument with the statement in verse 2, directly challenging the assertions of his detractors: our Father Abraham was justified before God only by faith. Paul will now argue that the Scripture clearly teaches that Father Abraham himself was not justified before God by any deeds, or any rule following, but by faith alone.

It is worth mentioning that Abraham was indeed justified before men by what he did. In fact, the book of James says quite plainly that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered Isaac (James 2:21). But the context in James 2 is talking about faith being observed by other people rather than being observed by God. To determine what the word “justify” means in any context we always must evaluate three parts: the standard, what is measured, and the judge. A “center justified” text has a standard (the center of the page), it has observers (the readers), and it has editors that judge whether the text is in fact in the center. A defendant in a court of law has a standard that is the law they are accused of breaking, the defendant is the one being measured, and the judge is doing the judging. When other men judge Father Abraham against a standard of being faithful compared to other men, Abraham comes out with an A+. When God measures any human against His standard, Abraham as well as every other human, is found wanting.

The only way people can see faith is when it is being exercised in deeds. Paul does not contest this in the least. Since James was one of the earliest New Testament letters it is even possible Paul has the James 2 passage in mind when he makes the statement in Romans 4:2. Who would want to get into a bragging contest with Abraham over who had exercised the most faith? “Did you leave everything behind to go to a new country? I did,” Abraham could say. “Did you believe God could give you a large number of children when you were past childbearing age? Did you offer your only son because you believed God would raise him from the dead?” Abraham can boast of all these things, so he has a lot to boast about—before men, but not before God.

Paul is a man of the Word. He appeals to Scripture for his arguments. Here, Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6, which says that God counted Abraham as righteous because Abraham believed what God told him. The context of Genesis 15 relates to God promising Abraham that He would give Abraham a number of descendants like the number of stars in the sky: too many to count. God promised this at a time when Abraham was past childbearing age. Abraham believed in a resurrection of sorts, that a body devoid of life-giving power would give life. Abraham’s belief alone is what caused God to account Abraham as being righteous before Himself.

The root of the Greek word translated “credited” (logizoami) carries the notion of someone making a judgment about something based on his own evaluation. “I have decided something is a certain way” is the idea. The first occurrence of logizoami in Mark 11:31 is translated reasoned, considered, or discussed. In Luke 22:37 the same word is used when Jesus is said to be “numbered” or “reckoned” with transgressors, a prophecy that was fulfilled when Jesus was condemned to be crucified along with criminals.

In the case of God with Abraham, God looked at Abraham’s belief in His promise and made a judgment by saying, “I now declare Abraham is in righteous standing before Me.” Paul asserts that is the only way to become righteous before God, for God to declare you as righteous because you believe Him. Paul has already conclusively proven (again through Scripture) that no one can ever be righteous before God by keeping the law (Romans 3:9-20). No one will ever stand before God and be able to make a winning defense. All we can do to become righteous in God’s sight is to believe. In Galatians 3:17, Paul points out that the law came four hundred and thirty years after the time of Genesis 15 (Galatians is a letter that addresses the same dispute with the same competing Jewish “authorities” as Paul deals with in Romans).

Biblical Text

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 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 credited to him as righteousness.”

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