Abraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe

by Michael CranfordThis article was originally published in New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 71-88.

In Romans 4 Paul turns to the scriptural figure of Abraham, a vivid personification of faith and obedience in Jewish thought. While the most obvious reason for Paul’s depiction of Abraham is to undermine any use of Abraham as a counterexample to his foregoing argument,1 Paul turns the common Jewish conception of Abraham on its head and offers him instead as positive support for his own position.2 The nature of Paul’s argument in the previous two chapters of Romans has been identified by James Dunn and others as rejecting the Jewish assumption that covenant privileges are strictly associated with ethnic Israel and therefore unavailable to Gentiles.3 Over against the Torah, Paul has instead offered faith as the identifier or boundary marker of those who are members in God’s people—a difference which allows Gentiles full participation in the covenant.

Silva remarks that Dunn does not appreciate how damaging Romans 4 is to his position, however, with its sharp antithesis between working and believing. Further, Silva asks why such a critical passage as 4.4-5 has played no significant role in the development of Dunn’s thesis, with the implication that Dunn has intentionally underplayed its importance.4 The relative significance of 4.4-5 has yet to be weighed, but Silva’s criticism is valid. As a latter development in Paul’s argument, the figure of Abraham, with its sharp ‘faith-works’ terminology appropriated by the Reformers, must either follow logically from Dunn’s perspective on Romans 1-3 or else stand at complete odds with it.

A primary issue to be resolved is how the figure of Abraham functions with regard to Paul’s argument in Romans 4. The traditional view is that Abraham is an example of Christian faith, demonstrating how we, as individuals, can be justified. If this is true, then the emphasis of Romans 4 is not primarily on the consequences of Abraham’s belief but on the mechanism of belief itself. Strong support for this comes later in the chapter, Boers argues:

    The decisive factor for the relation between Abraham’s faith and the faith of the believer, according to this chapter, is the fact that it is the same God who is the object of the faith of Abraham (4:17, cf. 5) and of that of the Christian believer (verse 24). The connection between them is established in verse 23 with the statement that the justification that was announced to Abraham, was not announced on his behalf only, ‘but also on our behalf’, i.e., on the behalf of Christian believers.5

Similarly, Hanson concludes, ‘Thus Abraham’s justification fulfils exactly the same function which is required at the point in Romans where it comes: he is the prototype of believing Christians, a sinner (whether from Judaism or from the Gentile world) justified by faith’.6

Proponents of this view naturally set Abraham’s faith over against his good deeds, emphasizing that it was by his faith alone that God pronounced him righteous. Similarly, it is by faith and not good deeds that God now pronounces the Christian righteous. While there are many problems with this view, not the least being that it forces a Western individualistic perspective on a scriptural figure who is consistently viewed as symbolic of his progeny (cf. 4.13), the most critical flaw is that it dichotomizes faith and obedience in a way which would be completely unintelligible to a Jewish reader. As Doughty notes of 4.1-5,

    It is important to recognize . . . that for the pious Jew this argument would hardly have been convincing or even understandable. . . Paul’s interpretation of the Genesis text [15.6] is a tour de force. For the radical distinction he makes here between pistis and erga cannot simply be derived from the text itself. This distinction breaks in such a decisive way with the traditional understanding of Judaism that his interpretation would be impossible for a Jewish reader to comprehend.7

Not only would this dichotomy be unconvincing to the Jewish or Jewish- Christian reader (cf. James 2.17-24), but it stands at odds with Paul’s earlier expressions of the connection between faith and obedience (1.5; 3.3; and implied in 2.7, 10, 13).

The interpretation of Romans 4 offered here is one in which Abraham is not viewed as an example of Christian faith, but is instead used by Paul to show why Gentiles can be considered members of God’s people. Gentiles share in the covenant because they, too, are children of Abraham. As Howard states, ‘The idea is that the Gentiles are blessed not simply like Abraham but because of Abraham’.8 Abraham provides the reason why Gentiles experience salvation, not the example of how an individual becomes saved. In Jewish thought, Abraham was viewed as the paradigm of obedience, but this obedience was directly connected to his having passed on covenant privileges to Israel.9 Paul breaks from this Jewish understanding in Romans 4 by showing that Abraham has passed on covenant privileges to all who believe, and not just to those who are members of ethnic Israel. This break is therefore not over belief and obedience as competing soteriological paradigms, but over Jewish ethnicity and faith as competing boundary markers of God’s people.


Rom 4.1 is known to be something of a crux, providing interpretational difficulties compounded by text-critical problems. The Nestle-Aland version is to be preferred, at least with regard to wording if not punctuation: Ti oun eroumen heurekenai Abraam ton propatora hehmon kata sarka? The problem of how to translate the infinitive remains, however. Traditionally, the subject of heurekenai has been understood as Abraham, with the resulting meaning, ‘What then shall we say Abraham our forefather according to the flesh has found?’ Michel has argued that behind this strange construction is the echo of Gen 18.3, where Abraham finds favor (heuriskein charin) in God’s sight.10 In Rom 4.1, Paul is thought to apply Gen 18.3 to the covenant blessing of Genesis 15, such that Abraham ‘gained’11 or ‘discovered’12 righteousness before God, and the discussion following is directed at explaining how he did so, so that believers might imitate his faith. An allusion to Gen 18.3 in the immediate context would be unexpected, however, and probably unintelligible to Paul’s readers. In fact, the expression heuriskein charin never appears in the Pauline corpus.13 It is also unlikely that Paul would designate Abraham as ‘our forefather according to the flesh’, given an apparent rejection of this fact in Rom 9.6-8 (cf. Gal 3.7). These difficulties commend a reconsideration of the text of 4.1.

Hays surveys Paul’s other uses of Ti oun eroumen, an expression which occurs only in Romans (3.5; 6.1; 7.7; 8.31; 9.14; 9.30).14 In every case but 8.31 this expression constitutes a complete sentence which is punctuated by a question mark after eroumen. In all six cases the expression introduces another rhetorical question which articulates an inference which might be drawn from the foregoing discussion, and in four of the six cases this inference is a false one.15 In light of Paul’s relatively consistent usage of the expression in Romans, Hays recommends punctuating Ti oun eroumen in 4.1 analogously: Ti oun eroumen? heurekenai Abraam ton propatora hemon kata sarka?16 Hays then offers the following translation: ‘What then shall we say? Have we [Jews] found (on the basis of scripture) that Abraham [is] our forefather according to the flesh?’17 If Abraham is the forefather of the Jews according to the flesh, as the Jew of Paul’s time would typically assume, then Abraham could not also be the forefather of Gentiles. But if he is the forefather of the Jews on some other basis than purely ethnic terms, then he could (on the same basis) be the forefather of certain Gentiles as well. It is precisely this point which Paul strives to make in the remainder of this chapter.

The resulting question in 4.1 lines up better with what Paul has to say elsewhere about the alleged benefits of physical descent from Abraham (Rom 9.7-8), and ends up proving a similar point to Paul’s use of Abraham in Galatians 3.18 This translation has not been well received by most recent commentators, however, on the grounds that it strengthens the link to vv. 11-25, but not to vv. 2-10, where the grace/works antithesis is strongest.19 That the proposition ‘Abraham is our forefather according to the flesh’ is an intelligible inference from the preceding context (3.27-31) is hardly debatable, though. Paul’s false inference in 3.29, that God is the God of the Jews only, clearly implies the proposition that Abraham is the forefather of the Jews only, and therefore not the forefather of all who believe. The expression kata sarka eludes to physical descent (Jewish ethnicity) in its primary sense, though the closely related sign of circumcision is suggested as well, connecting 4.1 with 3.29-30. The proposition ‘Abraham is our forefather according to the flesh’ also makes better sense if 3.27-31 deals not with the mechanics of justification, but with the relationship of Gentiles to God’s people. Hays concludes that

    Only a narrowly ethnocentric form of Judaism would claim that God is the God of the Jews only or that Abraham is the progenitor of God’s people ‘according to the flesh’, i.e., by virtue of natural physical descent. For the purpose of his argument, Paul associates these (evidently false) claims with the (disputed) claim that Gentile-Christians must come under the Law. Paul, speaking from within the Jewish tradition, contends that the Torah itself provides the warrant for a more universally inclusive theology which affirms that the one God is God of Gentiles as well as Jews and that Abraham is the forefather of more than those who happen to be his physical descendants. This is the case to be made in Chap. 4.20

Both 3.27-31 and the alternative translation of 4.1 suggest that Paul’s discussion in 4.2 and following is not directed at showing Abraham to be an example of how an individual becomes justified, but why Gentiles can be considered his progeny as much as Jews. The cogency of this point will be demonstrated in my ensuing treatment of Romans 4, with particular emphasis on vv. 4-5 as a potential counterexample to this line of argumentation.

In v. 2 Paul begins the rhetorical process of disconnecting Abraham’s privilege from his identification with ethnic Israel. The gar introduces the reason why the Jews cannot consider Abraham their forefather on purely ethnic terms, and not an explanation for how Abraham ‘found’ justification apart from good deeds. That Abraham was viewed as a model of obedience in Judaism is a fact well-represented in the literature of the intertestamental period (Jub. 16.28; 24.11; 2 Apoc. Bar. 57.1-2)21, but his obedience and resulting privilege was understood specifically in terms of his devotion to the Torah and therefore his separation from Gentiles. Watson notes that

    Abraham is thus seen in inter-testamental Judaism as a model of obedience to God. His function is to reflect and legitimate the self-understanding of the pious and loyal Jew of the present. He too, like Abraham, must separate himself from the ways of the Gentiles and devote himself wholly to the law of God, whatever the suffering this entails. The figure of Abraham symbolizes this sense of a unique status, privilege and responsibility. 22

As a result of this connection between covenant privilege and ethnic separation from Gentiles, Abraham’s righteousness under the covenant was integrally related to circumcision as the mark of his distinctiveness. The figure of Abraham, in the time of intertestamental Judaism, began to represent privilege and status which were thought to be inherently characteristic of Jews and therefore unavailable to Gentiles.

That Paul would connect boasting with Abraham’s privileged status (4.2) is completely in line with this, if we consider that boasting refers not to an unwarranted claim of obedience, but to a claim of honor on the false basis of an ethnic status which excludes non-Jews by its very nature.23 Paul states that if Abraham was justified on the basis of works then he does have a boast (a claim of privilege), with the implication that Abraham was not justified on that basis and therefore can make no claim to covenant privilege ex ergwn, as the large majority of his fellow Jews supposed. The ‘works’ in view here should not be lifted out of context and imbued with significance arising from the theological concerns of the Reformation; the works in view are clearly those which are of the law (3.20, 28) and which function primarily to designate who is and who is not a Jew (3.22, 29-30).24 Nothing about the specialized vocabulary ‘works of law’ itself mandates an interpretation which sets deeds in opposition to faith as a way to achieve salvation; the significance of the expression must be drawn from the context and not our presuppositions. The fact that the clarifying expression ‘of the law’ does not occur in 4.2-5 should not be used as a license to define ‘works’ as a general principle depicting man’s effort to merit salvation by his good deeds when indication of such a principle has not been expressed.

Cranfield states that Abraham’s boast would have been a boast of obedience,25 with the works in view here understood as generic ‘good works’.26 This rejection of boasting on the basis of good works does not mesh well with what Paul has earlier stated about the exclusion of boasting, since Paul makes it clear that the Jews were boasting not because of their obedience (as Abraham might) but in spite of their disobedience (2.23). In fact, if Paul were trying to invalidate reliance on good works in the light of human failure, Abraham would not be a suitable example for his task, since Abraham’s obedience was proverbial, even if that of the Jewish people was not. Abraham’s boasting on the basis of works must be excluded on the very same basis that it is excluded for all Israelites (3.27). What is rejected as the basis for boasting (claiming covenant privilege) in 4.2 is not obedience, since such obedience would form no analogical connection between Abraham and the Israelites of 2.21-24, but rather works which designate membership in Israel.27 This connection is valid whether obedience is present (as in the case of Abraham) or lacking (as in the case of the Jews as an ethnic group).28 In either case, ethnicity is not the grounds for covenant privilege.

Paul gives the reason why Abraham does not have a boast (a claim to covenant privilege) on the basis of works before God in v. 3: Abraham was reckoned righteous on the basis of his faith, and therefore not on the basis of works.29 The expression ‘not before God’ should not be taken as implying that Abraham did have a boast before men, since the protasis of the condition suggests that legitimate grounds for such a boast not only do not exist, but cannot exist, even though many Jews might suppose such grounds existed.30 Boasting on the grounds of works designating membership in ethnic Israel is completely excluded (3.27) since, as demonstrated by Abraham as the forefather of God’s people, covenant privilege was originally bestowed on the basis of faith (4.2-3).

Paul’s use of Gen 15.6 in v. 3 is a matter of some debate. Dunn states that it has often been explained in connection with Abraham’s faithful obedience in Genesis 22, and is therefore understood in light of his deeds.31 In contrast, Robertson has argued that the whole point of Gen 15.6, and therefore Paul’s use of it, is that Abraham trusted God rather than himself for his blessedness.32 An examination of the original context of Gen 15.6 reveals that faith as opposed to self-righteousness is not in view, which either makes Paul guilty of forcing an antithesis on the text which is not inherently there, or it makes Robertson guilty of forcing an antithesis on Paul’s use of the text which is not inherently there. This author has opted for the latter of these two possibilities. As Schoeps states, the OT concept of faith

    …never admits a spiritualized interpretation, but always connotes trust in the sense of fidelity. For scripture knows only one alternative as regards man’s position in face of God, His covenant and His law: namely, fidelity or infidelity. Faith means obedience towards God. The modern conceptual antithesis: faith or doubt, is as little known in scripture as the Pauline antithesis faith or works.33

Abraham didn’t believe God instead of trusting in his own efforts; he believed God over against not believing him. The context of Gen 15.6 does not dichotomize faith and obedience, but instead sets faith over against faithlessness, with Abraham’s victory of faith emerging as the basis for his righteousness—a righteousness which is worked out in direct connection with his descendants (Gen 15.5, 18; 17.7-9; Rom 4.13a). This supports Dunn’s assertion that eis dikaiosunen is not so much an individualistic designation as covenant terminology, thus ‘all parties presumably agreed that to be “righteous” is to be not so much acceptable to God as accepted by God—righteousness as the status which God accorded to his covenant people and in which he sustained them’.34 In this light, Rom 4.1-3 explains not how an individual finds righteousness, but rather the basis by which righteousness is associated with Abraham, and therefore with his descendants as well.


Most commentators arguing from the Lutheran perspective are not so bold as to find a faith/works antithesis inherent in Gen 15.6, but instead argue that Paul, in his exposition in vv. 4-5, deduces such an antithesis and thereby sets the common Jewish understanding of Gen 15.6 on its head.35 The image of the workman in v. 4 expresses the idea of a wage (misthos) which is reckoned according to what is due the worker (kata opheilema). The term misthos is probably suggested by its occurrence in Gen 15.1, where it refers to God’s promise of a reward to Abraham.36 The combination of this word, the term ‘works’ (v. 2), and the verb logizesthai probably suggested the workman metaphor to Paul, inasmuch as these are common business terms in secular Greek. Cranfield argues that the workman analogy is used as a contrast to the righteousness reckoned to Abraham by faith—a righteousness reckoned apart from his own efforts, and therefore in accordance with grace.37

As Howard points out, however, Paul makes no effort to explain how faith can be distinguished from attainment, which was the common Jewish supposition. That Abraham believed God is clear, but that this belief was somehow antithetical to obedience would have been unintelligible to the Jewish reader. ‘To construe Paul in this way is to have him base his argument on a reasoning which no one could accept’.38 Whatever the purpose of the metaphor of v. 4, it does not prove that faith is antithetical to obedience, but simply that however God reckoned Abraham righteous, it was not in the same fashion that a worker is reckoned his pay at the end of the day. Paul draws on the workman imagery for the specific purpose of explaining the term logizesthai, not the term erga, as traditional interpreters typically assume. ‘Working’ is an accidental aspect of the analogy, and therefore does not form the basis for Paul’s inclusion of the metaphor in his argument. Grabbing onto an accidental aspect of the analogy and treating it as the primary issue may result in a dichotomy between faith and human effort, but this dichotomy was neither intended by nor evident to Paul, nor would it be intelligible to any Jew of his time. Even more tendential is appropriating the dichotomy from this analogy and using it to interpret all other occurrences of the term erga in Paul, to the point where Rom 4.4-5 is seen as the most critical and decisive support for the Lutheran position.39 The key issue is not faith versus works, but reckoning according to obligation versus reckoning according to favor.40 While to some this speaks of human effort versus reliance on God, this antithesis need not be assumed.41

This is made even clearer by the fact that Paul’s argument in vv. 4-5 fails as a contrast between faith and human effort. Verse 4 suggests a works analogy well enough, but we would expect v. 5 to balance the analogy by stating something like, ‘but to the one who does not work and yet receives a payment, his reward is according to grace and not because of his own effort’.42 This parallelism never occurs, however, though traditional commentators assume it as if it was clearly expressed.43 As Gale points out, the picture presented in v. 4 does not, in and of itself, suggest such a development. ‘At least under normal circumstances the picture of a workman and his pay is not usually associated with the picture of one who receives a payment without working’.44 The workman metaphor in v. 4 only becomes evidence for the Lutheran position when the faith/works antithesis is already presupposed.

Building on the workman imagery in v. 4, Paul expresses the reality of Abraham’s situation in v. 5 in contrast to the reckoning in v. 4. Abraham did not ‘work’ but instead believed, and it was in accordance with that belief (and therefore not the work) that righteousness was reckoned. Nothing about v. 5 forces us to understand ‘work’ as mere human effort, and therefore antithetical to faith; the work in view is Abraham’s circumcision (vv. 9-12.), and it is this work which was unrelated to righteousness, not his obedience in general. Verse 5 highlights the fact that works were lacking in the case of Abraham’s justification—not to show that salvation is unrelated to obedience, but to show that faith and works of law mark out different boundaries. Since works of law were not present when righteousness was reckoned to Abraham, they can have no ability to identify God’s people today either.

That this is Paul’s focus is clear by the term asebes, which must be seen as denoting those who are excluded from the covenant, a form of address which would typically be applied to Gentiles.45 Abraham was justified at a point where he was as yet uncircumcised, and therefore one of the ungodly. Had his covenant works preceded his faithful obedience, God would have found himself in the tight spot of having to justify Abraham while real faith was yet lacking. Abraham’s circumcision would not have been an obedient response to inclusion among God’s people, but a sufficient condition for such inclusion. Since Abraham was justified while he was yet an ungodly Gentile (i.e., uncircumcised), it is clear that the sociological boundary of membership in Israel and the soteriological boundary of covenant membership are distinct.46

This understanding of v. 5 is supported by vv. 6-8, where Paul draws on Ps 32.1-2 to illustrate his point. Paul indicates that the man to whom righteousness is reckoned apart from works is blessed, in the words of David, and it is clear from such terminology as hai anomaai and hai hamartiai—terminology typically associated with Gentiles—that those whose ‘lawless deeds were forgiven’ and whose ‘sins were covered’ must particularly include non-Jews. This terminology in turn informs ‘apart from works’ (v. 6b), and demonstrates that ‘apart from works’ must refer to those who are outside of ethnic Israel. As Dunn states,

    It would be significant for Paul that anomia was another word associated with the hamartolos as indicating actions which characterized those outside the covenant . . . David can thus be said to envisage a forgiveness which goes beyond the bounds of the covenant, and which therefore is not dependent on the works of the covenant law. 47

Howard notes that the antithesis of faith and works does not occur in vv. 6-8,48 suggesting that Paul is not concerned with faith apart from works but rather forgiveness apart from membership in ethnic Israel. That this is precisely Paul’s point is confirmed by v. 9, where he asks, ‘Is this blessing then upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness”‘. The increasing specificity of his point, somewhat obscured in the metaphors and citations of 4.4-8, is made clear in v. 9. As Gen 15.6 is quoted a second time it becomes clear that Abraham’s faith is meant not as an example of Christian faith, nor as the antithesis of obedience, but rather as the reason why uncircumcised Gentiles can receive the forgiveness reserved for those in the covenant. The repetition of makäriov in vv. 6-9 stresses the unity of these verses, with v. 9 serving as the conclusion to the whole.


In asking how righteousness was reckoned to Abraham in v. 10, Paul makes it clear that he is still expounding on the significance of logizesthai. This question is not a break or transition from the argument which has preceded; it simply signals a growing specificity which is characteristic of Paul’s rhetoric as a whole.49 In asking whether this reckoning was en peritome or en akrobustia, Paul is applying the same set of distinctions he has been using all along: being justified on the basis of works (v. 2) or apart from works (v. 6b). The ‘works’ in question are not good deeds in general but rather works demanded by the covenant, with circumcision particularly in view. Verses 9-10, as a further development in Paul’s line of thought, must be allowed to clarify what has immediately preceded.

The point in asking how righteousness was reckoned (v. 10) is to emphasize that Abraham experienced the blessings of the covenant while he was yet uncircumcised (i.e., ungodly, lawless, and not identified by covenant works). The fact that righteousness was reckoned to Abraham while uncircumcised does not assert anything different than saying that he was reckoned righteous apart from works (v. 6b), but v. 10 is not a mere restatement. The blessing spoken of in vv. 6-8, a blessing bestowed apart from works, is specifically identified in vv. 10-11 as being the same blessing that was applied to Abraham while he was yet a Gentile. Boers notes that v. 11 points to a Jewish advantage which surfaces at points throughout Romans,50 though I would argue that the apparently occasional ‘surfacing’ of this advantage is, in fact, the underlying theme of chapters 1-4. The advantage of being part of ethnic Israel is no advantage at all, Paul has argued, when such ethnicity is not accompanied by faith. As Rom 4.1 indicates, and is confirmed by the discussion following, Abraham is not the forefather of those who are merely his physical descendants. There is no particular advantage in being Jewish with respect to membership in the covenant. The advantage associated with covenant membership is appropriated on the basis of faith, whether one is a Jew or a Gentile.

The priority of Abraham’s faith with respect to his circumcision is emphasized in v. 11. When Paul asserts that circumcision was a sign (semeion), he is using the terminology of Gen 17.11, though avoiding the full expression semeion diathekes. His caution is obvious, since he wants to distance circumcision as a sign of membership in ethnic Israel from its use as a sign of membership in the covenant. The term semeion refers to a distinguishing mark which identifies something or someone,51 and Paul has already expressed the circumstances under which circumcision does not identify membership in the covenant; namely, when it is not accompanied by faithful obedience (2.25). Paul therefore applies a different term to circumcision which better expresses its role with regard to the covenant: it is a seal (sphragis) of the righteousness of faith. Dunn cautions against seeing a distinction between the terms ‘sign’ and ‘seal’,52 but the lexical evidence itself permits finding a difference in Paul’s use of the terminology. The term sphragis designates a confirmation or authentication of a state of affairs.53 This term, applied to circumcision, highlights the fact that it follows upon faith rather than preceding it, the very point Paul is making about Abraham in v. 10. Circumcision was a confirmation of Abraham’s faith, not the sign or work which provided the basis for God justifying him. Consequently, circumcision functions as the seal of covenant membership for those Jews who have faith, and not as a sign (or work) of covenant membership for those Jews who do not. As Barrett says, ‘No outward incorporation into the visible ranks of Israel “after the flesh” by means of an ancient ceremony, but the trustful and obedient acceptance of God’s word admits [the Jews] to the family of God’s people’.54

This point is only secondary to the issue at hand, however. The critical point is that Gentiles can experience covenant privileges on the basis of faith, even when such works of the law as circumcision are lacking (v. 11b). Abraham has therefore been found to be ‘our forefather’ not according to the flesh, but according to faith. He is the patera panton ton pisteuonton. The unifying characteristic of God’s people is not that they are all physically descended from Abraham, but that they all have faith (3.22, 28). The purpose clause in v. 11b suggests that God accepted Abraham even when covenant works were lacking so that the promise might be realized by the uncircumcised. Paul doesn’t deny the sociological distinctions implicit in the ritual of circumcision, however; Abraham does not cease to be the father of those Jews who have faith (v. 12). The distinction between Jews and Gentiles is not sociologically irrelevant, in Paul’s view. It simply is not significant with regard to membership in the covenant.

Cranfield states that we must be careful not to conclude from v. 12 that Jews who do not have faith are in any way excluded from the covenant,55 though that is certainly the implication of the verse, as well as of the section as a whole. Abraham is the forefather of all who have faith and therefore not the forefather of those who do not, even if they are his descendants kata sarka.56 Cranfield’s comment does serve as a reminder that Paul’s concern in Romans 4 is not to correct a misconception of the election of the Jewish people so much as it is to argue for the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s people, in support of his foregoing argument in 3.21-31. Paul does address this issue explicitly in Romans 9, however, and we can see that his conclusions there are already anticipated in the implications of v. 12.57


Paul develops the relationship between Abraham and his descendants in v. 13 to apply the basis of Abraham’s righteousness to all who believe. The assumption, made explicit here in v. 13, is that Abraham is not functioning simply as an individual who was saved by grace through faith, but a representative figure who established the boundaries of covenant membership through his decisive intervention on the part of his descendants. The fact that righteousness was reckoned to him apart from works (2.2a, 6b) implies that the promise does not come to his descendants through the law, but though faith (v. 13).

Since Abraham is the father of all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile, it follows that the recipients of the promise will include members of both groups who have faith. Set against this is the Jewish conception of election which restricts Gentiles from enjoying covenant privileges by identifying God’s people with the Jewish people. Paul contests this conception in v. 14 when he states that ‘if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is rendered void and the promise is nullified’. The expression hoi ek nomou refers to all members of ethnic Israel, a group which is identified by the Torah in its social function (cf. those who are ‘under the law’ [2.12] and those who are ‘in the law’ [3.19]). Dunn notes that Israelites are

    ek nomou because their continuing existence as Jews arises out of the law; the law determines what is characteristic and distinctive in all they are and do as God’s people. . . The phrase is thus also an abbreviated form of the fuller phrase hoi ex ergon nomou, since the ‘works’ are what the law was seen to require of ‘the Jew’, with the work of circumcision in particular focusing the distinctiveness of the people of the law.58

Paul is saying in v. 14 that the promise is nullified if those who are of the law (i.e., ethnic Israel) are heirs (i.e., God’s covenant people), since the covenant was established on the basis of faith and not ethnicity. This point only follows, of course, if we assume that the boundary marking out ethnic Israel and the boundary marking out God’s people are distinct, and that not all members of ethnic Israel are included in God’s people.59 Cranfield avoids this conclusion by claiming that those who are ‘of the law’ are not the Jews as a people, but Jews who expected a share in the inheritance on the basis of having fulfilled the law.60 If they were made heirs on the basis of deeds which were not done perfectly, the argument goes, then salvation would not be by grace through faith. The problem with this view is that it assumes theological concerns which were probably not in Paul’s mind, inasmuch as they are not found in the text. There is no mention here of works-righteousness, the failure to achieve perfect obedience, or an antithesis between faith and human effort.

What is found in the text is a contrast between the law seen in its social function (v. 14, marking out ethnic Israel) and its role as a convictor of sin and bringer of accountability at the judgment (v. 15). It should be noted that this is precisely the same alternating series of roles of the Torah found in Rom 3.20, where the works of the law are set against the law’s role as a revealer of sin.

Since those who are of faith are heirs and not those who are of the law (v. 16), Paul states that the promise is certain to all the descendants, with those descendants who ‘believe without being circumcised’ in view particularly. Paul goes on in vv. 16-22 to argue that Abraham is the father of all who believe (v. 16b; cf. 4.1) by expounding on the Abrahamic promise, which guaranteed him descendants from all nations (Gen 15.5; 17.5). It is important to note that nowhere in these verses can an appeal be found for the believer to imitate Abraham’s example of faith.61 Abraham’s faith is not described here as an example of how to believe, but to show why he is the father of all who have faith, including those who are apart from the law.

Some commentators have found in vv. 23-24 the basis for viewing Abraham throughout this chapter as an example of Christian faith. Boers states that the connection between Abraham’s faith and the believer’s faith is explicitly drawn in v. 24, where righteousness was reckoned to Abraham and written of in Gen 15.6 not only for his sake, ‘but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned’.62 It is not at all clear, however, that ‘for our sake’ means that we should imitate Abraham’s faith. In light of my foregoing argument, the expression alla kai di’ hemos more likely refers to our sharing in the promise with Abraham, our forefather (4.13; Gal 3.8). That Abraham’s faith is not intended to be an example of Christian faith is further suggested by the fact that Paul nowhere connects Abraham’s faith to faith in Christ. Hanson, identifying Abraham as the paradigm justified sinner, forces this connection on the text:

    Can we therefore conclude that according to Paul Abraham believed in Christ? Very nearly, if not exactly. There is no difference between the character of his faith and that of Christians. He, like us, was justified by faith; like us he is a justified sinner.63

Even Boers admits, however, that this connection is never explicitly made.64 This presents a problem for Boers’s treatment of the entire chapter, since vv. 23-24 are his primary proof that Abraham is offered as an example of Christian faith in Romans 4, and the force of these verses is read back into his treatment of the earliest portions of the chapter.65 A careful examination of the chapter as a whole reveals that Abraham is not offered as a model for our faith; the figure of Abraham fulfills a similar role here as in Galatians 3—setting the boundaries for God’s people as their representative and forefather, not demonstrating how an individual Christian ‘finds’ justification.


Paul draws on the figure of Abraham in Romans 4 to argue that it was always God’s intention to include Gentiles among his people (3.29-30). Beginning in 4.1, Abraham functions as the forefather of all who believe and not of those who are merely his physical descendants, a point which allows Gentiles to share in the promises which Abraham received in accordance with his faith. This further demonstrates that ethnic boundary markers are not significant in the people of God (Gal 3.26; 5.6; 1 Cor 7.19), inasmuch as such markers were not present when righteousness was reckoned to their forefather. The figure of Abraham is not used in Romans 4 as a model for how an individual becomes justified by faith, as one might expect if such an issue were a point in contention, but rather as the representative forefather who brings righteousness to all those related to him by their faith, whether Jew or Greek.


1. C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975) 226.

2. Most commentators recognize this fact, though Paul is typically thought to be contesting a syncretistic combination of faith and deeds, or faith seen as a good deed. See, for example, Cranfield, Romans, 229; Matthew Black, Romans (NCB; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1973) 68; Darrel J. Doughty, ‘The Priority of charis‘, NTS 19 (1973) 166.

3. James D. G. Dunn, Romans (WBC; Dallas: Word Books, 1988); ‘Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law’ and ‘The New Perspective on Paul’, Jesus, Paul and the Law (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990) 183-241. See also Michael Cranford, ‘Election and Ethnicity: Paul’s View of Israel in Romans 9.1-13′, JSNT 50 (1993) 27-41; Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach (SNTSMS 56; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 110-11; N. T. Wright, ‘Romans and the Theology of Paul’, Society of Biblical Literature 1992 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992) 184-213. Wright reverses the emphasis suggested here and instead argues that the problem was not how Gentiles were included in God’s people, but rather the sentiment that would cause Gentiles to exclude their Jewish brothers from membership in the assembly (see esp. pp. 187-88).

4. Moisés Silva, ‘The Law and Christianity: Dunn’s New Synthesis’, WTJ 53 (1991) 352-53.

5. Hendrikus Boers, Theology Out of the Ghetto (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971) 84.

6. Anthony T. Hanson, ‘Abraham the Justified Sinner’, Studies in Paul’s Technique and Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974) 62. Similarly, see Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1980) 116. Even Watson identifies Paul’s use of Abraham as a model of obedience primarily and only secondarily as a recipient of the promise of salvation (Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, 139).

7. Doughty, ‘The Priority of charis‘, 165-66.

8. George Howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia (2nd ed.; SNTSMS 35; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 55, emphasis added.

9. Glenn N. Davies, Faith and Obedience in Romans (JSNTSup 39; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990) 145.

10. Otto Michel, Der Brief an die Römer (MeyerK; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978) 161-62; also Dunn, Romans, 198; Davies, Faith and Obedience, 148; Ulrich Wilckens, Der Brief an die Römer (EKKNT; Zurich: Benziger Verlag, 1978) I.261.

11. Jan Lambrecht, ‘Why is Boasting Excluded? A Note on Rom 3,27 and 4,2′, ETL 61 (1985) 366.

12. Black, Romans, 67.

13. This and other difficulties are summarized by Richard B. Hays, ‘”Have We Found Abraham to be Our Forefather According to the Flesh?” A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1′, NovT 27 (1985) 77-78. It will be profitable to briefly review Hays’s observations with regard to Rom 4.1 here.

14. Ibid., 78-80.

15. Stanley Stowers (The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans [Chico: Scholars Press, 1981] 133) notes that Ti oun eroumen as an interrogative explanation is used to introduce false conclusions. Postulating a hypothetical interlocutor at every turn, Stowers calls these conclusions ‘objections’ (133-37).

16. This punctuation has undoubtedly been avoided because it apparently leaves heurekenai (with the assumed sense of ‘gain, acquire’) without an expressed object, a condition unparalleled in the NT. If this sense of heuriskein is not assumed here, however, at least one other possibility presents itself; namely, that Abraam is not the subject but the direct object of the infinitive heurekenai, whose subject is the understood ‘we’ from the preceding eroumen. In this case, heuriskein is not a reference to something tangibly acquired, but to the ‘findings’ of a discussion or inquiry, a commonly attested meaning of the word (BAGD, 325). As Hays points out (‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1′, 82), Paul uses heuriskein in this sense in Rom 7.10, 21. The construction featuring this verb, an unexpressed einai, and a predicate nominative or adjective is common in Paul (1 Cor 4.2; 15.15; 2 Cor 5.3; 9.4; 12.20; Gal 2.17).

17. Hays, ‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1′, 82. Wright follows Hays’s translation of 4.1, but argues that the ‘we’ refers to both Jews and Christians, with the resultant meaning: ‘Does this [3.21-31] mean that we Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, now discover that we are to be members of the fleshly family of Abraham?’ (‘Romans and the Theology of Paul’, 191). Wright’s interpretation misses the point, however. The question is not whether Gentiles now discover that Abraham is to be their fleshly forefather, but whether they can be considered part of his family when he is clearly not their forefather on fleshly terms.

18. Boers believes that Paul uses Abraham differently in Galatians 3 and Romans 4. In Galatians 3 Paul argues ‘not by interpreting the character of faith, but by trying to prove that Abraham was the forefather of those who believe in Christ and not of those who are under the Law. . . In Romans 4, by contrast, it is specifically the structure of faith which Paul explicates, and in terms of which the relation between Abraham and the believer is established’ (Theology Out of the Ghetto, 82-83). The position adopted here is that both Galatians 3 and Romans 4 use the figure of Abraham to prove the same point.

19. Thus, Dunn, Romans, 199. It is surprising that Dunn so casually dismisses Hays’s appraisal of 4.1-8, since this translation of 4.1 has far more potential to rescue Dunn’s thesis from the counterexample of 4.4-5 than his own traditional reading of 4.1.

20. Hays, ‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1′, 88.

21. H. Schlier, Der Römmerbrief Kommentar (HTKNT; Freiburg: Herder, 1977) 123; Käsemann, Romans, 106-107.

22. Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, 137.

23. Thus, Halvor Moxnes states that ‘boasting is linked to the Law and to “works”. That is, Paul sees a direct connection between boasting and the Jewish law; and it was the Jewish law which explicitly upheld the distinctions between Jews and non-Jews. Thus, “boasting” . . . refers to that specific Jewish boasting of possessing the law, as a sign of special status and a means of comparison with non-Jews’ (‘Honour and Righteousness in Romans’, JSNT 32 [1988] 71).

24. For counterpoints to this view, see C. E. B. Cranfield, ‘”The Works of the Law” in the Epistle to the Romans’, JSNT 43 (1991) 89-101; Thomas R. Schreiner, ‘”Works of Law” in Paul’, NovT 33 (1991) 217-44. See also Dunn’s reply to recent critics, ‘Yet Once More—”The Works of the Law”: A Response’, JSNT 46 (1992) 99-117.

25. Cranfield, Romans, 227.

26. See Black, Romans, 68.

27. Contra Davies, who states that ‘in choosing the patriarch Paul has the opportunity of demonstrating that Abraham’s obedience was in no way a ground for his justification before God’ (Faith and Obedience, 143). This statement is somewhat surprising, since Davies himself argues throughout that faith and obedience cannot be dichotomized.

28. Thus, note Paul’s dismissal of deeds either good or bad in Rom 9.11.

29. Dunn, Romans, 201; Lambrecht, ‘Why is Boasting Excluded?’ 368.

30. Davies, Faith and Obedience, 149. Though cf. Howard (Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 56), who concedes the possibility that one might have a boast before God on the basis of works. If the basis for righteousness is not works (and, in fact, can never be works, even in the traditional view), then it is difficult to see how such a possibility might ever be realized.

31. Dunn, Romans, 202.

32. O. Palmer Robertson, ‘Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Expositions of an Old Covenant Text’, WTJ 42 (1980) 265.

33. H. J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961) 202. See also Neil Elliott, The Rhetoric of Romans (JSNTSup 45; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990) 217-18.

34. Dunn, Romans, 203.

35. Thus Cranfield, Romans, 229-30; C. K. Barrett, Romans (HNTC; Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957) 87; Douglas J. Moo, Romans (WEC; Chicago: Moody Press, 1991) 266.

36. Noted by Barrett, Romans, 88.

37. Cranfield, Romans, 231; Moo, Romans, 266.

38. Howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 56. See also Doughty, ‘The Priority of charis‘, 165-67.

39. Thus Silva, ‘The Law and Christianity: Dunn’s New Synthesis’, 353; and Schreiner, ‘Works of Law’, 228-29.

40. Similarly, Elliott states that the contrast in these verses is not to determine whether Abraham approached God by faith or works, since that point is already assumed in Gen 15.6, but ‘to establish how God “reckoned righteousness” to Abraham, whether, that is, it was under constraint (katôopheilema)’ (The Rhetoric of Romans, 160).

41. A more likely antithesis is suggested by Paul himself later in Romans. Paul sets Abraham’s justification in 4.5 against the workman’s wage in 4.4 which is not reckoned kata charin. Paul later states that the ‘free gift’ (charisma, 5.15a) is by grace (charis) and results in justification (5.16b) and righteousness (5.17b), making ‘free gift’ equivalent to the state of affairs we find in 4.5, and in contrast to 4.4. In Rom 6.23, however, Paul does not contrast the free gift with an alternative means of salvation based on human effort, but with the natural consequences of disobedience. The free gift results in life, but the wages of sin result in death. Similarly, in 5.15a Paul states that ‘the free gift is not like the transgression’. In both these cases, Paul sees a qualitative difference in the causal relationship between the human response and each of two resulting eternal destinies. One comes by grace and the other by necessity (‘what is due’). Seen in this light, the antithesis of 4.4-5 does not contrast two ways of gaining righteousness, but instead argues that the way God reckons righteousness is unlike how the natural consequences of human action are normally meted out. This point surfaces in chaps. 5 and 6 without a hint of two dichotomous roads to salvation.

42. Pointed out by Herbert M. Gale, The Use of Analogy in the Letters of Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964) 174.

43. Cf. Moo (Romans, 266), who notes that Paul’s argument is unclear in vv. 4-5 due to the disrupted parallelism. The perceived lack of clarity is more symptomatic of Moo’s expectations of where Paul is going than where, in fact, Paul’s argument ends up. See also Wilckens, Römer, I.262; Käsemann, Romans, 110.

44. Gale, The Use of Analogy in the Letters of Paul, 174.

45. Dunn, Romans, 204-205. See also Lloyd Gaston (‘Abraham and the Righteousness of God’, Paul and the Torah [Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987] 61), who notes that 4.5 parallels Gal 3.8, such that ‘godless’ must refer to the Gentiles. Cf. Käsemann, who states that ‘Abraham is ungodly, in so far as he cannot be called “good”, measured against the standards of the Jewish and Greek worlds. He does not deal in works. For that very reason he is, on the other hand, the prototype of faith, which always has to be viewed in antithesis to a piety of works’ (‘The Faith of Abraham in Romans 4′, Perspectives on Paul [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971] 85). Käsemann misses the fact that Abraham was not ungodly in a moral sense, nor would such a claim have been convincing to the Jewish listener who could recount the many tests of Abraham’s obedience prior to Genesis 15. The term ‘ungodly’ must refer not to Abraham’s sinfulness but to his status as an uncircumcised Gentile. Cf. Wilckens, Römer, I.263

46. This point amounts to a significant departure from Dunn’s position. For a more detailed discussion of these boundaries, see Cranford, ‘Election and Ethnicity in Rom 9.1-13′.

47. Dunn, Romans, 206. I would nuance this somewhat differently, and instead say that David envisages a forgiveness which goes beyond the bounds of ethnic Israel—not beyond the bounds of the covenant. The idea here is that the covenant is envisaged as larger than any one ethnic group (cf. Rom 1:16). Dunn adds the following citations as examples of terminology identifying those outside the covenant: Ps 28.3; 55.3; 92.7; 101.8; 125.3; cf. 1 Macc 1.34; 2.44; cf. Paul’s own use elsewhere—6.19; 2 Cor 6.14; 2 Thess 2.3, 7.

48. Howard, Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 56; also Gaston, ‘Abraham’, 61-62.

49. This is especially marked in Rom 2.1-29, where the phases of Paul’s argument reveal the growing specificity of the Jewish position being rebutted.

50. Boers, Theology Out of the Ghetto, 89.

51. BAGD; K. H. Rengstorf, ‘semeion‘, TDNT 7.219, 258.

52. Dunn, Romans, 209.

53. Thus, Barrett, Romans, 92; Moo, Romans, 274; Cranfield, Romans, 236; TDNT 7.949.

54. Barrett, Romans, 91.

55. Cranfield, Romans, 238.

56. Käsemann goes too far when he states that ‘only the Christian is the true Jew, and Abraham is called the father of the circumcision only as the father of Jewish-Christians’ (Romans, 116). Rather, Paul is arguing that Abraham has never been the forefather of Jews who did not have faith, at any stage in salvation history.

57. See Cranford, ‘Election and Ethnicity in Rom 9.1-13′.

58. Dunn, Romans, 213-14.

59. I have argued this point elsewhere (‘Election and Ethnicity in Rom 9.1-13′).

60. Cranfield, Romans, 240.

61. Hays, ‘A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1′, 93.

62. Boers, Theology Out of the Ghetto, 84.

63. Hanson, ‘Abraham the Justified Sinner’, 66.

64. Boers, Theology Out of the Ghetto, 91. While the object of Abraham’s faith (4.17) and that of the Christian (4.24) are ultimately the same (cf. Käsemann, Romans, 128), Paul never treats Abraham’s faith as exemplary. The fact that believing Gentiles have faith like their forefather is assumed, not prescribed. It is a premise in Paul’s argument which explains why Gentiles are as much Abraham’s offspring as believing Jews.

65. Ibid., 84.

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