Commentary on Romans 4:13-25
Romans 1-3 indicates that God shows no partiality to humans. All have sinned, but God’s gift of righteousness is extended to all — both Jews and Gentiles — in Jesus Christ.
Paul uses Abraham’s story in Romans 4 to exemplify God’s initiative to set people in right relationship with God, and the appropriate human response being one of faith.
Genesis shows how God called Abraham and made amazing promises to him. Romans 4:1-12 argues that Abraham did not do anything to earn such divine favor, nor does it cite any intrinsic quality of Abraham that caused God to choose him in the first place. What makes Abraham special is that he trusted God and God’s promises: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3; see also Romans 4:22; Genesis 15:6).
Paul’s contrast between human works and faith in Romans 4:1-8 implies that Abraham’s faith is not to be seen as a work that earned him God’s favor. Rather, it is the appropriate response to God’s freely bestowed gift of righteousness — God acts to restore broken relationship with people (Romans 4:5-8; see also Romans 3:24-26).
The fact that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised (Romans 4:9-11), and before God gave the law through Moses, shows him to be the ancestor not only of those who are circumcised or follow the law, but of all who follow Abraham’s example by trusting the God who justifies the ungodly (verse 5). This is the “righteousness of faith” Paul speaks of in 4:13.
The promise that Abraham would be “heir” (to kleronomon) of the world (verse 13) is not specifically given in Genesis, but seems to reflect an expanded understanding in Jewish tradition of God’s promises to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham, to make him the ancestor of many nations and innumerable descendants, and to give them a land of their own (Genesis 12:2-3; 13:14-17; 15:5, 7; 17:2-8; see also Sirach 44:21).1
Paul draws on this concept to indicate that the descendants of Abraham, who also inherit his promises, are all who share in his faith in God (Romans 4:11-12, 16). In fact, the inclusion of the Gentiles in the community of faith comes in fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations (verse 17).
Paul briefly refers to the function of the law in Romans 4:15, but this is not his focus in this passage (see Romans 7). Paul has already expressed the goodness of God’s law and its role in making people aware of sin (for example Romans 2:13-16; 3:20-21). He is, however, emphatic that God’s promises are a divine gift, and do not ultimately depend on one’s relationship to the law (Romans 4:14-15; see also 3:21-28). This extends God’s promises to all people, and makes trust the basis upon which humans are to relate to God (4:16).
Romans 4:17-25 expands on this theme. Even though Abraham was an old man and his wife, Sarah, was barren, Abraham believed that God would give him the descendants God had promised (verses 17-19). Although all evidence from a human perspective suggested the improbability of this occurring, Abraham trusted that God was powerful and faithful to do what God had said (verses 20-21). This trust makes Abraham upright before God (verse 22).
And it does the same for all who trust in the God who makes promises to sinful human beings and fulfills them (verses 23-25). God’s ultimate promise is that of a Messiah, and it is fulfilled in Jesus, “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (verses 24-25). The God of Abraham is the same God who has dealt decisively with the sin that alienates humans from God through the death of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. By also raising Jesus from the dead, God makes it possible for people to live new lives in restored relationship with God and others. This is pure gift; people are merely called to trust the faithful and merciful Giver.
Accepting that life and relationship with God is a gift, based on trust, can be hard in a world where career advancement, good grades in school, and so many other things depend on our ability to perform. And we’ve all experienced the pain of broken promises, or, of promises being made lightly, so that we are skeptical when people say things like, “just trust me.” Perhaps some feel that their own faith is not nearly as unwavering as Paul says Abraham’s was, so that they may wonder whether they might fall out of God’s favor.
But the hope that Romans 4:13-25 gives Christians ultimately lies not in Abraham’s faith, but in God’s character and faithfulness. If we look closely at Abraham’s story in Genesis, we see that he was not perfect (for example Genesis 12:10-20). Even after he laughed at the seeming impossibility of what God promised him (Genesis 17:15-17), God still fulfilled the promise. We too can be encouraged that living by faith for a lifetime does not mean we will never have moments of doubt.
Romans 4:13-25 also shows that God has been in the business all along of creating out of nothing, and of bringing life to where there is only barrenness and death. As we reflect during Lent on the brokenness in our own lives, our families, and in the world, we can find hope knowing that God works where we least expect it. We can take God at God’s Word, trusting the promises made in Scripture and in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
- For this view, see, for example, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 384-385.