Romans 4:1–12 – Abraham as Example


Romans 4:1–12


Romans 4:1–12 is part of Paul’s extended description, which occupies all of chapter four, of how Abraham is exemplary of the fact that both gentiles and Jews are brought into a right relationship with God by faith in God’s saving work in Christ, rather than by observing the Law.


Appealing to Abraham in Romans 4:1–12 provides additional scriptural support for the point Paul makes in Romans 3:27–31: that both Jews and gentiles are justified by faith in God’s saving action in Christ, apart from observing the Law. This affirms that there is only one God who deals with all people fairly.

In referring to Abraham as “our ancestor according to the flesh” in Romans 4:1, Paul speaks from the perspective of Jewish people who acknowledge Abraham as their patriarch and themselves as his biological descendants. It was well known that Abraham was righteous with God, but Paul’s point in 4:1–8 is that this righteousness came by believing (i.e., trusting) in God and God’s promises rather than by doing works required by the Law (cf. Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:13–22). In fact, God did not even give the Law until after Abraham lived (cf. Galatians 3:6–18).

If Abraham had gained righteousness through his works, then he would have been able to boast of his accomplishment. But in Romans 4:4–8, Paul clarifies that the very nature of righteousness as a gift from God means that no one can obtain it through their own deeds. In verses 7­–8, Paul draws on another Scripture, Psalm 32:1–2, to strengthen this claim. Just as God reckoned Abraham to be righteous as a gift (received by faith), so too does God not reckoning sin against people graciously bless them. Although “righteousness” is not explicitly mentioned in this psalm, Paul treats God’s blessing that the psalm speaks of as synonymous with it.

Furthermore, in Romans 4:9­–10 Paul clarifies that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. As in 4:5, this emphasizes the nature of God’s righteousness as a gift that is received solely by trusting in God, “who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). And because circumcision is a Jewish ritual that marks inclusion into God’s people, Paul boldly asserts here that Abraham was reckoned to be righteous when he was still a gentile—that is, before being circumcised. This means that Abraham is the ancestor of, and exemplar for, all people—whether gentile or Jew—who trust God’s work and promises in Christ and are thereby also declared to be righteous (Romans 4:11–12).