Commentary on Romans 4:13-25
The overarching focus of Paul’s letter to Christian communities in Rome is the multifaceted nature of faith.1
Paul’s apostolic call to bring about the obedience of faith literally bookends the letter (1:5; 16:26). Throughout Romans, Paul declares that the gospel is the power of God whose goal is salvation for all who have faith, Jew first and also Greek (1:16). The dynamics of a right relationship with God are revealed from God’s faithfulness in order to bring forth our response of faith (1:17a). To seal his claims Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 that “the one who is righteous will live from faith” (1:17b).
In 1:18-3:20, Paul goes to great lengths to establish how God remains a faithful and righteous covenant partner, even though all humanity is in bondage to sin and under divine wrath. Next, Paul speaks of the cross, at once the act of Christ’s faithfulness and the object of human faith, as the divine solution to humanity’s helpless and hopeless dilemma (3:21-31).
In Romans 4, Paul goes on to present Abraham as the human paradigm for living in a right covenant relationship (i.e., righteousness) with God because Abraham trusts (or believes) God will fulfill God’s promise (4:1-5). Indeed, Abraham is not just the human paradigm for faith and right relationships. Abraham is the forebearer for all (both circumcised and uncircumcised) who are to live in right covenant relationships with God because the key to such a relationship is faith (4:9-12).
Our text seeks to explain this fundamental and foundational claim regarding God’s promise and Abraham’s faith forming the contours of a right relationship. God’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s inclusive descendants did not come through the law (4:13).2 Here, Paul builds on two prior points he has made regarding the law:
- Knowledge of sin comes through the law (3:19-20) and therefore the realization of God’s wrath.
- If Abraham’s relationship with God were founded on Abraham’s works than Abraham would be in a position to boast about what he had achieved! Instead, he trusted in the promise he had received (4:2-8).
Consequently any relationship with God which is grounded in and lives out of the law is not a right relationship. In that situation, humans receive divine wrath rather than divine promise (4:14-15). Hence, the right relationship is grounded in and lives by faith both for Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants (4:16).
It should be noted that most English translations (e.g., NRSV, NIV, RSV) insert the word “guarantee” in 4:16, which actually undercuts Paul’s entire argument and could take the preacher down the wrong road. Paul is writing about how the promise is firm and reliable rather than guaranteed. Guarantees are matters of law, not promise. If a customer receives a guarantee on a purchase, they have entered into a contractual relationship with the seller. If the purchase does not live up to the terms of the guarantee, the seller is bound by law to provide a repair, a replacement, or a refund. If not, the purchaser can take the seller to small claims court precisely because there is a law-based relationship.
Paul is arguing the exact opposite point when it comes to Abraham’s relationship with God. It is not based on law, and so it is not a guarantee. It is based on God’s promise. For us, that means we cannot wave our baptismal certificates at the pearly gates and claim we have been guaranteed eternal life. For Abraham, God’s promise that he would be a father of many nations (4:17-18 echoing Genesis 17:5) was not a guarantee. In fact, the divine promise flew in the face of all outward evidence when Abraham considered how his own body was as good as dead and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (4:19). Abraham did not have a guarantee but a promise. When all evidence pointed to “can’t happen,” Abraham trusted that “God will” (4:20-21).
This is what a right relationship with God entailed for Abraham. It was not a matter of legal claims, obligations, or challenges. Such is the stuff of works by which Abraham would have received his rightful due. But throughout Romans 4, Paul has rejected that as the nature and quality of the relational dynamics between God and Abraham. Instead, their right relationship is grounded in a gracious God who makes an incredible and at times seemingly unfulfillable promise to which Abraham responds by trusting that what God promises, God will accomplish.
In 4:17 Paul presents a characterization of God which he directly connects to our own lives in 4:23-25. The God in whom Abraham trusted is a God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things which do not exist. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God enacted such a divine characterization. In bringing us into a right relationship based on faith God enacts such a divine characterization.
Justification by grace through faith flows from the divine initiative achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It entails God drawing us into intimate relationship not through our works but through divine grace. It involves our response of trust and faith in what God did, does, and will do for us through Jesus Christ. No guarantees but divine promises. Even when human sin and death make it appear that “can’t happen,” we as Abraham trust “God will.”
1It is important for the preacher to realize that in Greek there are not distinctive nouns for faith, trust, faithfulness, and fidelity, but that they are all part of the Greek noun pistis. Similarly in Greek there are not distinctive verbs to denote having faith, believing, being faithful, and trust, rather. they are all part of the Greek verb pisteuō. Thus when Paul talks about Abraham’s faith, he also implicitly focuses on Abraham’s trust and faithfulness.
2Indeed, in the Greek of 4:13, Paul places the phrase “not through the law” in an emphatic position to drive home this point.