Commentary on Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The epistle lesson for the Second Sunday in Lent continues in Romans. After laying out his theology of sin and grace on the macro level in Romans 5:12-21, in Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 we see Paul’s theology of grace in the specific story of Abraham.
The justification of ungodly Abraham (4:1-5)
In Romans 3:10, Paul cites the Psalmist to make a sweeping declaration: “None is righteous, no, not one” (English Standard Version). Abraham, therefore, must be set on the same ground as all humans: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). The one who is “counted” or “reckoned” righteous is the one whose faith is in the God “who justifies the ungodly.” The justification of Abraham, therefore, is the justification of one whom Paul would label ungodly. Paul’s use of Psalm 32:1-2 in 4:7-8 makes this clear: David’s statement about how God does not count sin helps interpret Abraham’s justification. The person who is blessed by God is one whom God has forgiven for their lawless acts, covered their sins, and not reckoned sin. Abraham is set right before God solely because of his faith. He has no works or worth to place before God as the basis of his righteousness; Abraham is justified “as a gift.”
Understanding Paul’s dichotomies in Romans 4:4-5 is important. As Paul explains, the worker receives a “wage” but it is “not counted as a gift but as his due.” Abraham was not justified by works (4:2), so he has not been paid or rewarded out of obligation. Although Paul does not continue his distinction in a straightforward way, one might spell out the implied logic thus: if you don’t work but believe in the God who justifies the ungodly, righteousness is reckoned not according to obligation, but as a gift. Paul is using the verb “reckoned” from Genesis 15:6 in its basic economic sense: workers get paid—something is “reckoned” to them. But Paul’s argument is set forth in such a way that work precludes gift-giving, because God’s gift is given not to those who have worked for or are worthy of it—which would, in Paul’s mind, be no one (see also 3:9-20!). Instead, righteousness is given—reckoned—as a gift to those who believe, by the God who justifies the unworthy.
Jesus is not explicitly referenced in Romans 4:1-23. But the way Paul relates the Abrahamic promise to Jesus in 4:24-25 and his understanding of justification as a gift for the unworthy makes sense only as a reading of Abraham after the Christ-event. The death and resurrection of Christ for sinners has become Paul’s hermeneutic for interpreting the history of God’s promise, which has always been incongruous to those who receive it and always directed towards its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. In this way, it is not difficult to see how Abraham’s faith is tied to our own: we are all part of the story of the same promise.
The creation of a new family by grace (4:13-17)
In Romans 4:1-5 Paul’s argument is centered on his reading of Genesis 15:6; in 4:13-17 he is concerned with Genesis 17:5. For Paul, the promise of Genesis 17:5—that Abraham would be “the father of a multitude of nations”—is answered in the miraculous birth of Isaac. But Isaac’s birth is also read through and seen to be pointing to the ultimate fulfillment of the promise in the death and resurrection of Jesus, through which Abraham’s multiethnic family is created. The text has this logic: God justifies the ungodly (4:1-8); thus, God’s promise is for both Jews and Gentiles (4:9-23). Indeed, the hinge of Paul’s argument from one section to the next is verse 9: “Is this blessing [of righteousness] then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” God’s gift is given to both Jews and Gentiles, because it is an unfitting gift; God does not take into account human worth or works, because he is the justifier of the ungodly. His promise is received by faith that points away from oneself to look instead to God.
Abraham thus believes in the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17)—that is, his faith is in the God who raised Jesus Christ for our justification (4:25). The resurrection is an act of creation anticipated by the act of creation that is the birth of Isaac in and through the deadness of Abraham and Sarah (4:19). The story of the birth of Isaac is thus read by Paul as a story of death (deadness) and resurrection (birth): the Christ-event is both hermeneutic for and fulfillment of the Abrahamic story.
The other major correspondence between the two parts of this reading is that just as Abraham was justified while ungodly, he was also justified before he was circumcised. He had not done anything vis-à-vis the law to make himself worthy before God, so his circumcision could not be part of the equation in his justification. Thus, because Abraham received the promise not “through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13), Abraham is the father of all who believe. The law does not provide a human with resources for becoming worthy before God; indeed, it “brings wrath” rather than worth. As such, God’s promise is received by faith, so that the promise “may rest on grace” (4:16; the phrase is the same as 4:4). In both 4:4-5 and 4:16, grace is set over against works and the law, because God’s way of justifying is a gift that raises the dead and calls into being what does not exist (4:17). Precisely because there is no human criteria for justification but the faith that is the absence of worth, it is received by both Jews and Gentiles.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 is a powerful reading that sets forth the shape and story of grace, showing how all of life and history is, for Paul, interpreted through the death and resurrection of Christ. Just as there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in being under sin (3:22-23), God’s promise of righteousness is available to all by faith. One need not be deserving, be the right kind of person, or have the right kind of credentials. God has been and is still one who justifies the ungodly, loves sinners, and raises the dead.