Abraham’s Faith and Works in Romans 4

Romans 4 offers an interesting application of the New Perspective on Paul. Paul seems to be making a contrast between his opponents who saw Abraham’s faith as meriting justification and his view that one cannot boast in salvation because it is wholly a work of God.

faith-of-abrahamThere does seem to be some evidence some streams of Second Temple Judaism considered Abraham’s faith so or faithful acts as something to boast in. For example, Sirach 44:19-22 claims Abraham “perfectly kept the Law.” In the Testament of Abraham, a young Abram rejects his father’s idols and mocks them as useless. In response to this, God gives the young Abram the promise of Genesis 12. In the Mishnah, Genesis 26:5 is interpreted as an indication Abraham kept the entire Torah before it was even given!

m.Qiddushin 4:14 “We find that the patriarch Abraham kept the entire Torah even before it was revealed, since it says, Since Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Gen. 26:5) (Neusner, The Mishnah, 499).

Another example is found in 1 Maccabees 2:51-52: Call to remembrance what acts our fathers did in their time; so shall ye receive great honour and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness?”  In Special Laws 4.164 Philo boasts his summary of the Law is “my incomparable boast and glory (καύχημα καὶ κλέος ἀνανταγώνιστον), a sign of sovereignty that none can challenge, formed in the image of its archetype the kingship of God.” (cited by Jewett, Romans, 310).

I would suggest another aspect of boasting in one’s faith is the Greco-Roman practice of boasting in honor. If a wealthy Roman did something worthy of praise, they might pay to have that deed inscribed on a monument or dedicate some public work in order to boast in their honor. If Abraham did something to merit God’s declaration of righteousness, it would be natural for a Roman to boast about it.

In each of these cases, it appears Abraham is righteous because he keeps the Law, or at the very least, the key boundary marker of Judaism of the first century, circumcision. Paul’s point is the exact opposite of this, Abraham’s faith was expressed before he had been given the first of the boundary markers (circumcision) and well before the Jewish people were given any of the Law. Although Sabbath was a part of the creation story, there is no indication Abraham kept the Sabbath in Genesis, and there is no hint he would have kept the food laws which separated Jews and Gentiles. Joshua 24:2-3 says Abraham had worshiped “other gods” when he lived in Ur of the Chaldees, so he cannot even be considered a monotheist!

It is hard to imagine how Paul’s suggestion that Abraham did not merit God’s declaration of righteousness would have sounded to a Jewish person in the Second Temple Period. For some, they might agree with Paul and consider the boundary markers of the Law a proper response to salvation rather than a requirement. But it is also likely there were some who saw boundary markers as non-negotiable, so that they do function as “required.”

In the present age, after the cross, this de-coupling of works and salvation is more clear, yet there is a human tendency to fall back to good works. How can we use Romans 4 to avoid this?



9 thoughts on “Abraham’s Faith and Works in Romans 4

  1. Paul uses the example of Abraham, which I think is very helpful, however it was probably much more helpful for the Jews in Paul’s day because Abraham was so iconic and revered by them back then. That is not as true for Christians today. Romans 4 is still full of helpful verses though regarding the issue of works. Paul even says about Abraham, “He is the father of us all” (4:16). So it does apply even to us today.

    It is so easy to fall into that mindset of doing good works to please God and “earn” his love. Works are something tangible that we can hold onto to make ourselves feel better sometimes. But then what would Jesus’ sacrifice mean for us? His grace would not be grace at all. Verse 4 says, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.” God is not obligated to grant us salvation, and he does not owe us anything. We are God’s creation, and he is our Lord. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (4:25). Verses 20-21 are also very powerful, reminding us of the importance of faith and the strength it brings. We can have this faith, like Abraham, because God will do what he has promised.


  2. New Perspective readings of Romans 4 don’t take Paul to mean this is how Abraham became righteous (or merited righteousness) in God’s sight. Rather we understand Paul to be discussing how one can tell a person is righteous in God’s sight. Hence boundary markers indicate ‘who is in’, not how they ‘got in’.

    You might want to flesh out what you mean by ‘merit’. Do you mean to suggest a system of interpretation where Abraham was a sinner or neutral before God, then he did enough works (can we quantify this?) to become righteous in God’s sight such that we can say he merited / earned it? You know the Law – Gospel / Covenant of Works theology? Is this what your pushing onto Jewish thought?

    Regarding good works and salvation (or better to say judgment leading to salvation) Paul is pretty clear in other areas:
    Rom 2.10 ‘for everyone who does good’ – eternal life,
    Gal 6.8-9 ‘one who sows to the Spirit’ and ‘doing good’ – eternal life.
    1 Cor 3.15 ‘If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’.
    This last passage suggests people with no good works can still be saved, but works provide greater assurance of the likelihood of salvation.
    None the less, the conflict should push us to reconsider how good works, final and -impartial- judgment and salvation work together in Paul’s theology.

    Regarding Testament of Abraham check this out http://www.thepaulpage.com/files/Testament_Abraham.pdf


  3. Everywhere I look, I see Christians who are involved in some sort of service, whether it is volunteering in the community or volunteering within the Church. There is nothing wrong with that. We ought to be compelled to serve the Lord and others after receiving our salvation, especially as we continue to grow in our faith and our relationship with the Lord. However, just because many Christians find it to be a natural compulsion to help others, it does not mean that we are required to do works to gain righteousness in God’s eyes. Often when I see Christians boasting about their works, I think back to the Bible about how we really have nothing to boast about. Our works, although a positive thing, can become centralized for us, and at times they are a way to show that we are more holy than other people. Romans 4 shows us that righteousness is only granted due to faith, and the Abraham story is meant to show not only the Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s day the truth, but also meant to show us the truth behind Abraham’s righteousness. Abraham was credited with righteousness because he believed in the Lord’s promise to him, no matter what happened, even to the extent of willing to sacrifice his son in obedience to the Lord. God saw Abraham’s faith, and told him to stop before he went through with the sacrifice. God counted Abraham righteous because of the faith he distributed. It is important for us to look at that example, and remember that none of us are righteous enough on our own, but through faith and the cloaking of Jesus’ sacrifice covering us, we are seen as righteous and justified in the eyes of the Lord. Keeping Romans 4 in mind will do Christians a good service by showing us that we are able to become righteous only through our faith and through the gift that Christ has presented to us all. As Moo pointed out Paul’s point to the Christians in Rome, “Paul next goes on to remind us of the way Abraham believed the promise of God even when all tangible evidence seemed to point in the other direction,” so too we current-day Christians should believe in God’s promise despite how the odds may seem to be stacked against us (Moo, 79).


  4. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). It was Abraham’s belief in God that made him justified and seen as righteous, not his works. Our society is so built up on doing little things and acting in a good and positive way to gain salvation. So often we (yes, Christians too) fall into the habit of wanting to do good deed simply to be recognized by God and especially those around us, when we should be doing these “good deeds” because Christ calls us to and because God is working in our lives. Romans 4 is so helpful in showing us even to this day that no special works or acts on our part will lead us to God or Heaven. If you think about it, the gift of Salvation through Jesus’s death on the cross is so much more simpler than works. If we could only get past our desire and false teaching inside our heads that we need to prove ourselves to God in order to be accepted, I personally think out lives would be more enjoyable and we’d have more peace. Romans 4 specifically tells us Abraham’s righteousness was not thanks to his obedience of circumcision, but thanks to his belief in Christ. His faith is what lead to his righteousness and his great testimony. Even back then people were pulled toward the need and want to do things (works) in order to gain approval and be seen. Times haven’t changed much. Using this chapter in Romans and so many other passages throughout the Bible, we can come to see that it is only through believing in Christ that we are saved and receive the gift of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:9). “God credits righteousness to Abraham immediately after Abraham believes God” (Moo, 1734).


  5. In my experience of being a Christian, even though we are saved only by faith and not works, there continues to be this struggle of wanting to behave as a “good Christian” should. Once engaged in this striving for perfection, the struggle of “being good” soon becomes a determiner of whether or not I believe that one is saved by faith. A Christian can hold such a high value on doing Christian things as evidence of their faith that it appears to take the place of Christ on the Cross. Paul numerously repeats this idea of being righteous because of faith through the whole fourth chapter. In verse 2-5, the Apostle speaks that someone can only be considered righteous by belief. If one does in fact believe, they should not boast about it. In Encountering Romans, Moo writes that Abraham’s righteousness would be boast worthy only if it had come from something he had done. (Moo, 75) As mentioned in the article, if a Roman citizen did a noteworthy action, they may put up a monument in honor of it. Because faith justifies Christians, however, one cannot “build a monument” because their salvation has nothing to do with their own actions. Romans 4 serves as a wake-up call also to those who believe that God’s love for us can change based on our doings. A Christian is only justified and declared righteous by belief.


  6. The idea of salvation by faith and not by works would have been quite the stir of conversation in Paul’ time. Many Jews and particular the Pharisees would try to show that they were “good” Christians through the things that they did. In Matthew, Jesus even tells that prayer should not be out in public and to be all showy, but to go behind closed doors (6:6). This proves that actions for the sake of appearance or boasting do not count so much as works our of genuine love and obedience to God. This is how the salvation by faith is to be, that the works are to follow the faith that you have initially, but they themselves cannot save you. Abraham indeed was counted as righteous before the Law or even before the command of circumcision, so how much more should we believe this? Non-believers can be “good” people, but that does not mean that they are saved. Similarly, we cannot be saved except by the faith in Christ which then should lead us to do good works out of faith and obedience to the commands that God has given to us.


  7. I agree Abraham is a righteous man. he may have even kept the law without knowing it. Needles to say he was righteous. However, Paul makes very clear that the law or circumcision given before his act of faith. Some of the believers in Rome may have been thinking keeping the law brought salvation when in reality faith was the factor that made Abraham right with God. I think that a similar thing happens far to often in the modern church. We Christians tend to put a label on Christianity, meaning, you have to look a certain way and act a certain way. Furthermore, some churches have a very legalist way of functioning, focusing on giving, membership and other guidelines and from there is it easy to forget the aspect of faith. The idea that faith is the key to being made right with God. I think this passage is a great resource for the modern church, diving into these principles and understanding how they work is important. We can use the example of Abraham and how it was his faith that made him right with God. Not because he was circumcised or he kept that law, but faith and faith alone.


  8. There are several verses in Romans 4 that could be used to counter any thought that good works can earn our salvation. Verse 13 and 14 may be best to refute this. In verse 13, Paul says that Abraham received the promise through “the righteousness that comes by faith,” and not by the law. In addition, verse 14 says that “faith has no value” if we can earn God’s favor through works. Therefore, we can try to earn our salvation by trying to adhere to a law that “brings wrath.” Or, we can trust in Christ’s perfect sacrifice. There is no middle ground or mixture.


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