Exposition of Romans 4:1–3 Faith has always triumphed over works

Time and events have a way of knocking us off course. In 1848, San Francisco had a population of 1,000, and then gold was discovered and caused the population to increase 25-fold in 1849. The city was never the same again.

The same type of thing can happen for a people or an individual. Abraham was declared righteous by God because of his faith, but over the years his descendants forgot about that and began to work for God’s approval. Some even followed after other gods. What is the moral to this story? Do not get distracted from fundamental values; not all that glitters is gold.

(ESV) Romans 4:1–3  What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

When debating Jewish opponents, Paul could no more avoid Abraham than someone writing a history of the United States could ignore Abraham Lincoln. Douglas Moo explains, “In keeping with the [law-observant] focus of first-century Judaism, Abraham was held up particularly as a model of obedience to God. . . . It [was] even being argued that he had obeyed the law perfectly before it had been given.”[1]

So, Paul dives right into the application to Abraham’s life of what he has said about justification by faith (4:1). If he can break Jewish resistance on that point, his argument is won. To do this he uses a critical verse: Genesis 15:6, which says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (HCSB).

Romans 4:2 is a little tricky, but we happen to have a contemporary idiom in English that matches it. Paul first concedes for the sake of argument that if Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, then he would have a basis for boasting. Then Paul uses the final phrase — “but not before God” (4:2) — to negate the whole idea. In contemporary English we might playfully say, “Yes, you actually are Superman. Not!!”

Paul swiftly supports his denial of Abraham’s basis for boasting (4:2) by quoting the pivotal passage Genesis 15:6, which says, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3b). Moo points out the power of this verse: “Not only is this [i.e. Gen. 15:6] the first time ‘believe’ occurs in Scripture, but it is connected with attaining righteousness — one of the very few times in the OT that this connection is made.”[2] Mention of Abraham is the other key to its power for Paul’s immediate purpose.

What about us?

Grant Osborne says, “People cannot seem to understand that no one can buy his or her way into heaven on the basis of being basically a ‘good guy.’”[3] This case of wishful thinking is going to leave a lot of people in a state of shock and disbelief when it crumbles.

1. Define biblical faith in your own words. If I said faith is an acceptant response to what God has said and done — which I consider accurate — how do you see that definition as either fitting or deviating from the biblical usage of “faith”?

2. What does living by biblical faith have in common with the American idea of being basically a “good guy”? How are they different?

Jesus had something to say to the Pharisees who had lost sight of the fundamentals of the faith: “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23, NET).

Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 256.

[2] Moo, Romans, 261.

[3] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 107.