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Justification by Faith: The Case of Abraham and David (Romans 4:1-8)

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A Translation

1. What, therefore (ou]n), shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, found (euJrhcevnai)1 according to (katav) the flesh? 2

2. For if Abraham was justified by works, (then) he has a boast, but not before God.

3. For what does the scripture say? “But Abraham believed God and it was reckoned (ejlogivsqh) to him as (eij") righteousness.”

4. But to the one who works, the wage is not reckoned freely (kataV cavrin) but as an obligation.

5. But to the one who does not work, but believes in3 the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness,

6. just as (kaqavper)4 also David says about the blessing of the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from (cwriV") works.

7. Blessed are those whose sins were forgiven and whose sins were covered.

8. Blessed is the man of whom the Lord will not reckon sin.


Paul proves from the Old Testament scriptures through the illustrations of Abraham and David that justification is the gift of God, appropriated by faith, not the payment for one’s works for which men would only receive judgment.

Exegetical Sentence Outline

    I. Paul gives the example of Abraham to show that even Abraham discovered that he was justified by faith. (1)

      A. Paul uses logic to prove that even if Abraham could boast before other men (and he could not), he still could not boast before God (verse 2).

      B. Paul uses Old Testament scripture which attests to the fact that Abraham was justified by faith. (3)

        1. Paul clarifies Gen. 15:6 by stating that justification for one’s works is payment for what is owed (verse 4).

        2. Paul further explains that justification on the basis of one’s faith is grace (verse 5).

    II. Paul gives an example from the life of David as further proof that one is justified by faith and should be grateful that he is not judged upon his deeds (4:6-8).



Paul has devoted the first three chapters to prove that the whole world is guilty before God. He has most recently made the point that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (3:20), that “none are righteous” (3:10) and that “all fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). But God in His graciousness provided justification through Jesus (3:26). Therefore, the only way to be justified in the eyes of God is by faith (3:28). To prove his point5 Paul shows that there are no exceptions and shows that this is not a new concept by giving scriptural examples from the lives of Abraham and David.

The Example of Abraham (4:1-5)

In first century Judaism, Abraham was considered to be a model of obedience to God. For example, 1 Maccabees 2:52 says, “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and was it not reckoned to him as righteousness?” And Josephus says, “He was a man of incomparable virtue, and honored by God in a manner agreeable to his piety towards him.”6 The Jews looked at Gen. 26:5 as further proof because in that passage God promised Isaac further blessing “Because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge.”7 Paul knows that in the Jewish mind, if anyone was justified by works, it was Abraham. If he can prove that this is not so, it will further his argument. Therefore, Paul shows that even for Abraham, who lead an exemplary life and for whom there is no scriptural record of heinous sins, that justification was still by faith.

Paul gives two arguments,8 one logical and the other scriptural, concerning Abraham’s justification.

    The Logical Argument (4:2)

His logical argument picks up on the concept of “boasting” in 3:27 as he asks “if Abraham was justified by works, then he has something to boast about.” This would seem to imply that Paul’s statement in 3:27 is not true, but he is doing two things here. Paul first defeats their argument by pointing out that even though one might boast before other men, it is unthinkable that one would boast before God. Second, one should recognize that this is a hypothetical argument.9 Paul is not actually agreeing that Abraham could even boast before men. He is simply saying that, even if Abraham were justified by works (but he was not), he still couldn’t boast before God. Some argue as to whether or not Abraham could boast before men or not. This is not the real issue. Abraham was not justified by works, so he could not boast before anyone, man or God.10 The issue is that faith excludes boasting because the one with the faith doesn’t do anything. Works is antithetical to faith.

    The Scriptural Argument (4:3)

The scriptural argument comes from Gen. 15:6 which says, “and Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This further validates Paul’s point that we are justified by faith because Old Testament scripture says that Abraham was also justified by faith. However, one must recognize that the scriptural argument would not be convincing to the Jewish audience because they typically saw Abraham’s faith as just another work.11 Consequently, Paul turns to an explanation of the difference between faith and works to validate his use of Gen. 15:6.

    Explanation of Genesis 15:6 (vs. 4-5)

Paul proceeds to explain what the Genesis passage means. The key to Paul’s explanation is in the terms “reckoned” and “believed.” The word “reckoned” means to take into account or credit something to someone (BAGD, p. 476). The readers have a choice. They can be credited for their works as payment for what is owed them, or they can be credited with righteousness for simply trusting God.

Expanding on his statement of 3:24 that justification is the result of grace, Paul points out that if justification was based on works, it would not be free. The word gift (carin) is significant because it shows that righteousness “credited” for “belief” is a gift. It relates back to the principle that justification is the result of grace. In other words, Abraham was credited with a righteousness that he did not deserve. Abraham’s justification was for his faith alone.

Paul will later show that Abraham was credited with righteousness before he was circumcised (vs. 10) and before the inauguration of the law (vs. 13).

The point of the passage turns on what you want credited to your account. Do you want God to credit you with what you are owed according to your works or do you want Him to credit you with righteousness for your faith.

The Example of David (4:6-8)

Lest his audience think that being credited with righteousness for one’s works is an option, Paul picks up on this last concept with a second example from another venerable “forefather,” namely, David.12 The Jews also held David in high regard. He was a man after God’s own heart (1Sa 13:14, Acts 13:22). In case his audience missed the point about Abraham, Paul drives the point home with a quote from Psalm 32:1-2. This passage makes it clear that the bestowal or “reckoning” of righteousness to David was not part of “what was owed” (cf. Vs. 4) but was in fact “in spite” of what was owed. David pronounces blessing on the man to whom righteousness is imparted apart from works.

The context of Psalm 32 and Paul’s quote in verse 7 is in the aftermath of David’s sin with Bathsheba. David had already committed the sin. There was nothing he could do except ask for forgiveness. Therefore, David supports Paul’s concept when he states that God was gracious to forgive him for his sins. He definitely did not deserve it, but this is certainly consistent with God’s character and the concept that God’s ways are not man’s ways.13

The point of his illustration is to show that man could not stand up under the scrutiny of God. If men were to receive what they deserved, they would not be credited with righteousness. They would, instead, be condemned to hell. That is what is meant when David says, “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin” (vs. 8). The only covering for sin (vs. 7) comes through faith in Jesus Christ.


Paul has demonstrated logically and scripturally that men are justified by faith. The core issue in this section draws on the first three chapters which teach that men’s works cannot stand up under the scrutiny of God. If men want God to “reckon” to them according to their works, they will be condemned. It is only when one accepts God’s undeserved gift of righteousness through faith that one is justified before God. Therefore, the church needs to be careful not to slip into the natural tendency to stress works as a way to gain merit with God.


Bauer, Walter and others, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

Cranfield, C. E. B., The Epistle to the Romans Vol. 1. (Edinburg, T. & T. Clark LTD, 1975).

Godet, F., Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House, 1956).

Josephus, The Works of Josephus, Trans. by William Whiston (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987).

Lenski, R. C. H., The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1945).

Metzger, Bruce, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stutgart: United Bible Societies, 1971).

Moo, Douglas, Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991).

1 Some see euJrhcevnai as meaning “concerning Abraham” cf. Douglas Moo, Romans 1-8, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991) p. 262-63. This is unlikely because it is redundant for Paul to say that Abraham is their forefather according to the flesh. Others see euJrhcevnai as going with ejrou`men. cf. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1945), p. 279. This is unlikely, because Paul cannot assume what “we have found” concerning Abraham. That is what is being discussed. This interpretation also does not adequately explain the phrase “according to the flesh.” It seems best to take this as related to Abraham’s discovery because it best fits the argument of the passage. The issue is whether one can be justified according to the flesh (works) or not. Consequently, Paul wants to look at what Abraham “found” concerning this topic.

2 The NA26 apparatus gives the following four readings: (1) Tiv ou ejrou`men jAbraaVm toVn propavtora hJmw`n B, 6, 1739 (2) euJrhcevnai jAbraaVm toVn pavtera hJmw`n a1, C3 D F G Y (3) jAbraaVm toVn patevra hmw`n euJrhcevnai. Majority Text (4) euJrhcevnai jAbraaVm toVn propavtora hJmw`n a*, B, C, D*, G, 1506(*) Explanation: Although BDF follows the first reading which omits the infinitive (BDF p. 254), it is unlikely because there appears to be no reason as to why the infinitive would be added if it were not original in the first place. Cf. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stutgart: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 509. The second reading simply smooths the uncommon word propavtora (a hapax legomena cf. BAGD p. 709) with the more common pavtera. The 3rd (Byzantine) reading in an attempt to indicate that the kata sarka is to be taken with the infinitive (euJrhcevnai) as opposed to the jAbraaVm toVn propavtora hJmw`n has placed the infinitive in juxtaposition to the prepositional phrase. In other words, the Byzantine reading is a scribal attempt to clarify the meaning of the text. The Byzantine reading also opts for the patevra. It is more likely that the last reading gave rise to the Byzantine reading. Conclusion: It seems best to go with the text as it stands in the NA26.

3 BAGD, p. 289 ejpiv = “in.”

4 NA26 cites kaqw" as a variant supported by D, F and G. kaqavper is more rare than kaqw" and is therefore to be preferred. kaqw" is simply a scribal attempt to make a more normal reading.

5 James Moo points out that the ou connects this section with 3:27-31 in Romans 1-8, p. 262

6 Josephus, Antiquities, I. 256.

7 Cf. Jubilees 24:11 which says the same thing.

8 The two gavr’s in vss 2 & 3 introduce the arguments concerning Abraham.

9 This is a first class condition which means Paul is assuming this to be true only for the sake of argument. The gavr connects the hypothetical question to the preceding argument and requires a negative answer to the question.

10 James Moo, Romans 1-8, p. 264, C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans vol 1, p. 228.

11 C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans vol 1, p. 229.

12 Not all agree that this is a second example holding that this is simply a quote from David which continues the argument from the example of Abraham. Cf. F. Godet, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1956), p. 172.

13 Compare Isa 55:8 which is given in the context of God’s forgiveness.

Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification

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