Attention! has pledged to build one church a year in Uganda. Help us double that pledge and support pastors in the heart of Africa.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Commentaries

Dunagan's Commentary on the Bible

Romans 4





I. The proof of the case of justification by faith: 4:1-25

A. The case established by the example of Abraham: 4:1-5

B. The case established by the witness of David: 4:6-8

C. The case established as independent of circumcision: 4:9-12

D. The case established as independent of perfect law-keeping: 4:13-25



"Paul has made a number of bold assertions concerning justification apart from law. He claimed (3:21) that it was witnessed by the law and the prophets. Here he will argue his case from Abraham and David..if Paul is able to establish his case through these gentlemen there is no appeal for these two are right on top in the Jewish hall of fame. One lived prior to the Law of Moses and the other lived while the Mosaic covenant was thundering along. One was justified before he was circumcised and the other after he was circumcised. So that faith was the basis of acceptance with God before the coming of the law and after it arrived."

Verse 1

Rom_4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, hath found according to the flesh?

'What then shall we say' -the phrase anticipates an objection or proposes an inference (4:1; 6:1; 7:7; 8:31; 9:14,30) (Vincent p. 50)

'according to the flesh' -'What did Abraham gain by his own human efforts', or, 'what did Abraham our fleshly father find'

'In the way of natural human effort'. (Gr. Ex. N.T. p. 615)

"Paul is essentially saying: 'Now, does the case of Abraham help us in determining what I've just said is true or false?' If his case in 3:21-31 is well-founded then it could be tested by Abraham's case. If anyone "according to the flesh" could come up with anything, surely Abraham could have managed it. If Abraham's case well-founded with Paul's thesis then it was made, for no Jew would have the nerve to deny justification on the ground of moral excellence to Abraham while claiming it for himself "

'What about Abraham, then? If it is a man's works that justify him in God's sight, Abraham would have a better chance than most--and he would be entitled to take some credit for it..'

'For the test he selects Abraham, the father of the more fitting individual could be chosen, for the nation had never claimed that it had risen higher than its head; therefore, whatever could be proved as to Abraham must be conceded to be true as to all..'

Verse 2

Rom_4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God.

'Justified by works' -we must point out that Paul in these verses holds "works" and "obedience" as two distinct concepts. It must be perfectly clear that Abraham did "obey" God. But it is also perfectly clear that Abraham didn't have anything to boast of. In 6:16 Paul talks about "obedience resulting in righteousness". I think McGuiggan is right when he says,

"In this argumentative section, 'works' stands for the full quota of works demanded by LAW and flawlessly carried out."

'Glory' -'then he would have something to boast about' (Tay)

'But not toward God' -'Abraham wouldn't have reason to boast in God if he had justified himself by his own effort. So "toward God" would mean "to God's honor". If the man had boasted about his own merit it wouldn't be to God's glory.'

Verse 3

Rom_4:3 For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.

'For what saith the scripture?' -in the scriptures we don't find Abraham 'boasting' before God, but rather we find the very doctrine that Paul is teaching!

'Abraham believed God' - Gen_15:6

'reckoned' -3049. logizomai log-id'-zom-ahee; middle voice from 3056; to take an inventory, i.e. estimate (literally or figuratively): -conclude, (ac-)count (of), + despise, esteem, impute, lay, number, reason, reckon, suppose, think (on).

-to set down accounts, it was set down on the credit side of the ledger. (Robertson p. 350)


It is a mistake to assume that Gen_15:6 is the point at which Abraham entered into a relationship with God. Paul cites this occasion in the life of Abraham because it contained the wording he needed to make his point. But Abraham had manifested "faith" prior to this ( Gen_12:1-20 / Heb_11:8 ). Which should tell us that justification is an 'on-going thing'. James will refer to Gen_22:1-24 and the offering of Abraham's son and claim that he was justified then. James even says that Gen_15:6 finds fulfillment in Gen_22:1-24 . ( Jam_2:23 )

Verse 4

Rom_4:4 Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt.

'Worketh' -in these verses (4-8), the "worker" is put in contrast to the "one who..believes" (5), "the forgiven man" (7-8). ***NOTE: The worker is not JUST an obedient man but the SINLESSLY obedient man. To what other man does God 'owe' acquittal? In such a case, a man that had flawlessly kept God's law, there is no need of grace, God simply 'owes' this man his reward.

'the reward is not reckoned as of grace' -'his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due' (NASV)

Verse 5

Rom_4:5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.

'Worketh not' -don't make the mistake of thinking that "worketh not" means, "obeyeth not". Remember: Abraham (an obedient man- Gen_18:19 ; Gen_26:5 ), falls into the category of a "non-worker" in these verses. Rather, the "worker" is the man that gains acceptance with God on the basis of flawless obedience. In addition, if the worker is the obedient man, then the non-worker is the completely disobedient man. But God has never justified the unrepentant. ( Heb_5:8-9 ; Eze_18:24 )

'but believeth' -the non-worker is an obedient man. ( Heb_11:6 )

'justifieth the ungodly' -Abraham sinned too ( Gen_12:11 ff; Gen_20:2 ff). In fact, David, a justified man (4:6), had committed some very 'ungodly' deeds.


Verse 6

Rom_4:6 Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, unto whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works,

'also pronounced' -Moses had pronounced the blessing on Abraham ( Gen_15:6 ). We heard that "faith" (obedient faith) was the way to righteousness before the Mosaic covenant..and now we hear that faith is the way to righteousness after the Mosaic covenant, or while under it.

'reckoneth righteousness apart from works' -Paul will now define for us what 'reckoning righteousness' means, or how 'God justifies ungodly men'.

Verse 7

Rom_4:7 saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered.

Verse 8

Rom_4:8 Blessed is the man to whom, the Lord will not reckon sin.

Paul says that verses 7-8, a quotation from Psa_32:1-2 , is how God makes the sinner to be "right", or how God can justify the man who fails to flawlessly keep the Law. 'In short, imputing righteousness is equivalent to not imputing sin, covering sin and forgiving iniquities'.


1. It is assumed that the 'sinful' man in verses 7-8 (and called 'ungodly' in verse 5), is a repentant man. There is not a single illustration in the Bible where God reckoned righteousness to a person in his impenitence. ( Rom_2:4-5 ).

2. Man finds himself in only two possible conditions. God either reckons sins to my account or righteousness.

3. Paul says that David is an example of 'justification by faith'. Yet that justification INCLUDES FORGIVENESS OF SIN. Therefore (something we always knew) the faith under consideration in the book of Romans, the faith that results in a right standing with God, is a faith that obeys, a faith that includes repentance, confession and baptism. ( Mar_16:16 ; Act_2:38 ; Act_22:16 )

4. God doesn't justify the ungodly (sinners) by ignoring their sins, but by forgiving them in view of the death of Christ.


Verse 9

Rom_4:9 Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness.

'This blessing' -'Is this blessing, then, for the circumcised alone?' (Con)

"Yes, the Jew for argument's sake might concede, but you notice that both Abraham and David were circumcised men. There is still the frantic juggling to retain the position of exclusive blessedness. Their inference would be, since both these men are illustrations of justified circumcised men, all justified men must be circumcised."

Verse 10

Rom_4:10 How then was it reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision:

'How then was it reckoned?' -'Under what circumstances, then, did this take place' (TCNT)

Here we see how prejudice can blind one. 'They hadn't a real grasp of the facts so he presses the opponent. Was Abraham reckoned righteous only after he was circumcised? The facts of the case were well-known but the sectarian heart didn't grasp their significance.'

In their eagerness to hold on to circumcision at all cost, they completely ignored the obvious fact that the justification recorded in Gen_15:6 was BEFORE Abraham was circumcised (chapter 17). Therefore, circumcision wasn't essential to one's right standing with God.

Verse 11

Rom_4:11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision; that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned unto them;

'Sign of circumcision' -the sign which consisted of circumcision, circumcision being the sign. ( Gen_17:11 ), a sign or token that one was a member of the covenant.

'A seal of the righteousness' -'as the stamp of God's acknowledgement of the uprightness based on faith' (Gspd) Circumcision wasn't a substitute for his faith; it was a token of the faith he already had.

'Seal' -an old word for the seal placed on books, for a signet-ring, that by which anything is confirmed. (Robertson p. 351)

'which he had while he was in uncircumcision' -someone might ask, 'Well, then why was Abraham circumcised?' Paul responds, 'It was God's stamp of approval on his previous faith'. NOTE: THIS WAS ONLY TRUE OF ABRAHAM. Abraham was declared righteous by faith before he was circumcised but none of his descendants were. ( Gen_17:12-14 ) To him alone it was a seal of previous righteousness.

'that he might be the father of all them that believe' -The Jews wish to deny blessing to those uncircumcised but this would EXCLUDE their famous father.

NOTE: Some try to parallel circumcision and baptism, and argue that baptism is simply a 'sign' of already established righteousness. The parallel breaks down when we realize that one is justified through forgiveness (4:7-8), but in order to obtain forgiveness/justification, baptism stands in the way. ( Mar_16:16 ; 1Pe_3:21 )

Verse 12

Rom_4:12 and the father of circumcision to them who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision.

'to them who not only are of the circumcision, but..' -'Every Jew knew that Abraham was the father of the circumcised, but not all Jews knew that Abraham was REALLY the father of those circumcised WHO HAD FAITH.' ( Joh_8:32-44 ; Mat_3:9 ; Rev_2:9 ; Rev_3:9 )

'The real descendants of Abraham, therefore..are not those who merely imitate his acceptance of ceremonial rites (like circumcision), but those who emulate and share his faith.'


Verse 13

Rom_4:13 For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he should be heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith.

'Through the law' -the promises given to Abraham were not given to him based on his flawless law-keeping, but on the basis of his faith.

'Heir of the world' -this is not a formal quotation of any recorded promise to Abraham, but an interpretation of those promises which make reference to 'all families of the earth' ( Gen_12:3 ); and 'all nations' (18:18; 22:18). Since Christ is the 'seed' of Abraham ( Gal_3:16 ); and Christ has inherited all ( Heb_1:2 ); in Christ Abraham and all believers inherit all things. ( Gal_3:26-29 )

Verse 14

Rom_4:14 For if they that are of the law are heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of none effect:

'they that are of the law' -'for if it is those who rely on Law who are the heirs' (Wey)

The Jews ought to be glad that what Paul says it true. There is no definite article before "law". They that are "of law" is anyone laboring under the necessity of personally fulfilling law's demands (flawlessly). If gaining the promise is dependent on that, no ONE WILL GET THE PROMISE ( Rom_3:23 ).

'faith is made void' -a system of perfect law-keeping doesn't demand faith, it demands flawlessness. And Abraham would be a nobody under such a system!

'the promise is made of none effect' -something gained by perfect law-keeping, really couldn't be called a promise, it would be a debt. In addition, none could inherit such a 'promise', for none can perfectly keep law (any law).

Verse 15

Rom_4:15 for the law worketh wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression.

'law worketh wrath' -when Paul mentions "law" it appears that he is speaking of a "legal arrangement", a perfect law-keeping system of rightness with God. He is arguing that God's promises weren't designed to be dispensed under such a system, because such a system only brings wrath (because people sin-3:23). The only promise that such a system realistically offers to mankind is wrath!

'no law, neither is there transgression' -in the context this phrase seems to be arguing, forgiveness (4:7-8) is only possible (including God's promises) under a system of justification different from perfect law keeping.

Verse 16

Rom_4:16 For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all

'For this cause' -'For this reason' (NASV); 'That it why it depends on faith' (RSV); 'The promise was made on the ground of faith' (NEB).

A system of perfect law-keeping couldn't dispense forgiveness or God's promises (4:13-15); that is the reason that such forgiveness and promises were to be made available on the basis of faith (again, faith in the whole book is a faith that obeys).

'to the end' -'in order that' (NASV). And why did God make it a matter of grace through faith?

'that the promise may be sure to all the seed'

'Sure' -'certain' (NASV). God didn't set it up this way to spite the Jews, but rather so that it would be within reach of every Jew and Gentile. Rightness with God based on a system of obedient faith and grace ENSURES that all who want it, CAN OBTAIN IT. Rightness with God based on perfect law-keeping ensures that absolutely nobody will obtain it ( Rom_3:23 ).

Verse 17

Rom_4:17 (as it is written, A father of many nations have I made thee) before him whom he believed, even God, who giveth life to the dead, and calleth the things that are not, as though they were.

'as it is written' - Gen_17:5 , this quotation proves the last line in verse 16, i.e. that Abraham is the father of believing Gentiles also.

'calleth the things that are not, as though they were' -specifically in this verse, calling Abraham a father of many nations, before Isaac and any other descendants were even born. 'Have I made thee'-long before the promise was fulfilled God had spoken it in the past tense.


The whole point of this section seems to be, that Abraham is praised for his faith and not his flawless law-keeping. The same case could be made for all those great heros of faith cited in Hebrews chapter 11.

Verse 18

Rom_4:18 Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be.

'Who' -i.e. Abraham.

'in hope believed against hope' -'past hope in (upon) hope he trusted.' (Robertson p. 353). Humanly speaking, what did he have going for him? A body now good as dead and a wife who couldn't bear children. There were no grounds for hope here. The only grounds for hope were in God and His word.

Verse 19

Rom_4:19 And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb;

'he considered' -'his faith never quailed, even when he noted the utter impotence of his own body.' (Mof)

"There are those who don't wish to hear about the difficulties. They tell us to always speak positively, 'don't bring up the obstacles'. The person who is always gushing about how wonderful everything is, is something of a simpleton. The word 'considered' speaks of reflection...Abraham knew exactly what he was up against. He looked at the obstacles right in the face, weighed them all up and didn't bat an eye! What did he care? These were only huge problems and his God was greater."

'Abraham DID take into consideration every relevant factor, including his great age and the high improbability, by all natural reckoning, that he would ever have a son...yet he concluded that the certainty of the divine promise outweighed every natural improbability.'

Verse 20

Rom_4:20 yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God,

'Wavered not through unbelief' -'He was not divided in his mind by unbelief' (Robertson p. 353); 'yet he never staggered in doubt at the promise of God' (Wms) The word implies a mental struggle. ( Jam_1:6-8 )

'waxed strong through faith' -'grew strong in faith' (NASV); 'faith gave him his strength' (TCNT)

'giving glory to God' -his conduct on this occasion glorified God.

Verse 21

Rom_4:21 and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was able also to perform.

'Fully assured' -'absolutely certain' (Wey); 'fully convinced' (Knox); 'in the firm conviction that' (TCNT) ( Heb_11:1 ).

Modern Application: Are we 'fully convinced' about the promises that God has given to us?

Verse 22

Rom_4:22 Wherefore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.

'Wherefore' -'For this reason' (Wey). This is the type of faith that enables a man to be justified by God. Clearly, 'faith only', is far removed from Paul's mind.

POINT TO NOTE: The situation in Abraham's life under consideration in 4:17-22, the event happening when Abraham was about a hundred years old (4:19), refers to Gen_17:1-27 (17:1,17). This event happened years after the event earlier cited in Gen_15:6 ( Rom_4:3 ). (For Ishmael had already been born in chapter 16, and Issac wouldn't be born for another year (17:21).

All of this makes the point that 'rightness' with God is a continual process, it's not a one time act, which is good for all time, i.e. once saved always saved.

Verse 23

Rom_4:23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was reckoned unto him; - Rom_15:4 .

Verse 24

Rom_4:24 but for our sake also, unto whom it shall be reckoned, who believe on him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,

'unto whom it shall be reckoned' -note, it's not "faith" that results in justification, but "faith" in the RIGHT PERSON! Apart from Christ and God, "faith" is powerless.

Verse 25

Rom_4:25 who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification.

'who was delivered up' -The Jews delivered him up, Judas delivered him, Pilate delivered him, AND OUR SINS delivered him up also! Our sins made His death NECESSARY!

'For' -'because of' (Wey). God searched high and low to find a way to justify ungodly sinners, and Jesus was the only way.

'Raised for our justification' -without the resurrection, the death of Jesus has no merit or redeeming value. ( 1Co_15:17-19 ). How foolish to claim to be a Christian and yet deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ!

'The resurrection was the visible proof that God accepted Christ's atoning work. The resurrection is the proof that righteousness DOES rule in this universe.'

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Dunagan, Mark. "Commentary on Romans 4". "Dunagan's Commentaries on the Bible". 1999-2014.