Commentary on Romans 4:13-25
Romans 4 is a short but dense essay concerned especially with Abraham and Abraham’s God. Concerning Abraham, Paul focuses on his role in God’s promise and, then, on his trust in God in the face of humanly insurmountable obstacles. Concerning God, Paul emphasizes God’s faithfulness to God’s own promise and God’s ability to bring life where only death seems to reign. As a result, Abraham’s unwavering trust in God serves as a paradigm for God’s people, both Jew and gentile. Trusting in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, believers participate in Christ’s death and resurrection.
These verses form the conclusion to the first half of Romans 4. First, Paul insists, Abraham was made right with God before he was circumcised (4:9–12). Second, Abraham was made right with God before Moses received God’s Instructions (or Torah) (4:13–15). In other words, neither circumcision nor following God’s Instructions generate life. This does not diminish the importance of either circumcision or obedience as responses to God’s graciousness, however. Paul’s concern lies elsewhere, in declaring that, all along, Abraham was to become the “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5; cited in both Romans 4:17 and 4:18)—that is, both Jews and gentiles who share Abraham’s faith would be numbered among Abraham and Sarah’s offspring (4:11–12).
Paul brings onto center stage God and God’s promise, on the one hand, and Abraham’s exemplary faith on the other. He first summarizes his preceding argument by underscoring the impotence of human activity to give life, then insists that God’s promise depends on and is actualized through God’s grace and power. Pivotal, then, is the apostle’s depiction of God—the one who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (that is, the God who creates) and the one “who gives life to the dead” (that is, the God who resurrects) (4:17). In this way, Paul sets the stage for the next stage of his argument: The realization of God’s promise depended on resurrecting Abraham and Sarah from death.
The desperate paradox in which Abraham and Sarah found themselves lies at the intersection of two realities: God’s promise of numerous offspring and the state of their bodies. God’s “promise” (4:20–21) has just been articulated, twice: God will make Abraham “the father of many nations” (4:17, 18). As to their bodies, the NRSV reports that Abraham was “as good as dead” and Sarah’s womb was barren, but Paul’s language is even more stark. Paul twice uses the language of death: Abraham was “already dead” (nekroō, “to be dead”) and Sarah’s womb, likewise, was “dead” (nekrōsis, “death”). The situation is hopeless. Accordingly, the fulfillment of God’s promise lay outside of human efforts, requiring God to perform acts of resurrection. Even so, in the face of death, Abraham did not waver but rather grew strong in faith (4:20), believing that God could transform Sarah’s body and his own in the service of life. On account of Abraham’s trust, then, God gave Abraham (and Sarah) life in the midst of death.
Given Paul’s reading of the story of Abraham and Sarah, we should not be surprised that he develops their story’s ongoing significance with reference to those “who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24). God’s saving acts, then, generate human transformation in order that people might participate in (new) life. Abraham thus serves as a kind of prototype of the Lord Jesus whose death and resurrection restore those who believe, to right relations with God.
Intertwining in this way the situation of Abraham and Sarah with God’s promise and power, Paul declares:
- God’s promise is God’s and is enacted through God’s grace. It cannot be actualized through human efforts.
- God’s gracious act centers on bringing life in the midst of death. This entails God’s intervention to restore human beings to relationship with God and involves a transformation of human beings to new life.
- Those with a claim to being Abraham and Sarah’s offspring are those who follow in Abraham’s footsteps. This entails an Abraham-like trust in God’s ability to bring life in the midst of death.
- God’s promise of life is for everyone who exercises faith in the one “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24)—for Jew and gentile.
- The story of Abraham anticipates the story of the Lord Jesus, whose death and resurrection both display God’s restorative power and bring to decisive fruition God’s promise.
June 11, 2023