Theological Reflections – Romans 4:1-3

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for a theology class this summer. The course was dedicated to studying the book of Romans. I am thankful for the amazing amount of information I learned from the class, which also strengthened my faith, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts. 


What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”


Context and Content
This portion of Romans sits in the middle of Paul’s exposition on justification by grace through faith. More specifically, this portion of the text is the introduction to Paul’s utilization of Abraham’s story as a parallel with the previous chapter, in which he described how righteousness comes through faith, apart from the law. By doing this, Paul uses Abraham as an illustration of his main point in 3:28 – “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

Although Paul is writing these words for the purpose of teaching all Christians in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, Paul’s exposition on Abraham would have been especially engaging and perhaps challenging for the Jewish people, who venerated Abraham for his trust in God and his moral uprightness. At the time of the writing of Romans, the Jews’ perception of Abraham had been somewhat skewed and corrupted by some of the apocryphal writings of the intertestamental period. “Some of these documents claimed to be written by people in the Bible from long ago (Pseudepigrapha, credited to people such as Enoch, Adam and Eve, and Moses…).”[1] One such pseudepigraphical work, “The Testament of Abraham,” was influenced heavily by rabbinic Jewish mysticism and speculation, and not on the actual canonical information about Abraham that is found in Genesis. In 10:14 of “The Testament of Abraham,” God’s voice comes from heaven, proclaiming: “For behold, Abraham has not sinned and he has no mercy for sinners.”[2] Much of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, as demonstrated in this example, perpetuated a false image of Abraham as a perfectly righteous, just, and sinless man, ignoring the fact that Abraham doubts God’s promises multiple times throughout Genesis.[3]

Before Paul could utilize Abraham as an example of God’s righteousness being imputed freely, he sought to dispel the false notions of Abraham’s perfection. Many Roman Jews originally hearing the book of Romans might have (falsely) seen Abraham as an example of justification by works.[4] Paul challenges this stance, establishing with apostolic authority that Abraham had nothing to boast about before God.

To make his case even clearer, Paul makes a direct appeal to Scripture. He quotes Genesis 15:6 – “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” The Jews and Christians of Paul’s time would have been familiar with the Greek Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The original Hebrew root word for “credited” is “chashab” (חָשַׁב), which can be literally translated as “to count, reckon, impute.” In the Septuagint from which Paul is quoting, the word “logizomai” (λογίζομαι) is used, which can be similarly translated as “to reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over.”[5] The meaning of this wording is clear and carries a sense of transaction or a debt being paid. Abraham was not credited God’s righteousness because he had earned it through his actions. Rather, it was given to him on the account of faith and trust in God.

The righteousness spoken of in this verse does not originate from Abraham in any way. Rather, it speaks of God’s own righteousness, given to Abraham as a free gift out of grace and mercy. This gives rise to the question: how could a just and holy God, one who despises sin, ignore Abraham’s sinful status as a human? In reality, Abraham’s sin was not ignored in the slightest. It was completely paid for, linked to the cross of Christ through space and time, and atoned for through the vicarious atonement of Jesus. The just punishment for Abraham’s sin was placed upon Christ in order that Abraham could be declared righteous.

Abraham is not the sole beneficiary of God’s declaration of righteousness. Paul was using him as an example to illustrate the nature of justification through Christ, who suffered and died for all mankind. Not everyone will be saved and be brought to faith in Christ. However, Christ died for all of humanity, as Paul says in Romans 5:6 – “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” It is clear from chapter 2 of Romans that the term “ungodly” applies to everyone in the world, not just the elect. Christ’s atonement was universal, and paid off the sins of every human to ever live. In order for one to benefit from righteousness, one must have faith in Christ, through which God saves. This saving faith is not of our own doing. Rather, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9 – “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Reflection and Application
Justification by grace through faith is at the very heart of the gospel message and Christ’s redeeming work. The entirety of Scripture culminates in this doctrine, and it is the means by which God claims sinners as his own. It is the foundation of the Christian’s comfort in this sinful world. As Gene Edward Vieth states in The Spirituality of the Cross:

When we come before the Holy God, He does not turn away in judgment; rather, He sees us through the lens of Christ—we might even say, he sees us as Christ. Our mediator claims all of our sins and has paid for them with His blood. He provides all of the good works we need, clothing us in His—not our—righteousness. This is what it means to be saved. [6]


While one may recognize that it is exceedingly clear from Scripture that man can contribute absolutely nothing to his justification, there are still hazardous falsehoods that distort the Christian’s understanding of this important doctrine. When faith is created in the heart, and God’s righteousness is imputed, the sinful human mind can quickly turn faith into the one good work that saves. Treating faith as a good work rather than the gift of God can lead to a multitude of problems. It can lead to doubtful questions like, “am I really saved? Do I have enough faith in God? Do I really even have faith?” Once this misconception takes root, faith suddenly becomes the work and responsibility of the believer, and, in turn, makes justification dependent on the Christian. As Christians journey through life, still being sinful humans, it will not always seem to them as if they are saved. They will still struggle with doubt, denial, vices, and sorrow. When these trials arise, looking inwards to the state of their faith is perhaps the most damaging thing that can be done. All they will find is sin and wretchedness. Instead, Christians must always look outside of themselves for their assurance of salvation. Specifically, because Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us, we turn ourselves to face him and his cross. We recall to mind the mark made on us at baptism, where God declared us to be His own, despite our sinful protests to stay as far away from God as possible. Our justification comes from outside of us; thus, it is outside of ourselves where we look for our reassurance.

The other extreme on the spectrum must also be avoided. There are those who reason that because they are justified by grace, and there is nothing they can add for their salvation, that there is no need to serve God and their neighbor as fruits of their faith. The law seems to have no use in this line of thinking, completely disregarded because Christ has already fulfilled it for us. This is true: Christ did fulfill the law in its entirety in order to redeem us from our inability to obey God. However, good works are necessary in the life of the Christian. They do not, however, contribute to our justification in any way. As Edward Koehler writes on good works in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

Good works are necessary because God asks them of His children. Furthermore, they are the necessary fruit of repentance or the inevitable product of faith. Without good works, faith is dead…Good works are not necessary for justification and salvation…When God justifies a person, He does not in any sense take into account the good a person may have done. Instead, God looks solely at the merits of Christ…Nor are good works necessary to give our faith strength and saving power, for faith trusts in the merits of Christ, not in its own fruits. Nor are good works necessary to preserve faith in our hearts, for this is done by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. [7]



[1] Engelbrecht, Edward. The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes: English Standard Version. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2012.
[2] James H. Charlesworth, ed. “The Testament of Abraham,” in The Old Testament Pseudopigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. NY: Doubleday, 1983.
[3] See Ge 12:10-16, 16:1-6, 17:15-19, and 18:10-15 for examples
[4] Hoerber, Robert G., ed. Concordia Self-Study Bible. New International Version. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1986. 1721.
[5] Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
[6] Veith, Gene Edward. The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Pub. House, 1999.
[7] Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine; a Popular Presentation of the Teachings of the Bible. 3rd Rev. ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1971.

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