Abraham our Prototype of Participation in Romans 4

Some thoughts…

1. The traditional scholarly and reigning interpretation of the role of Abraham in Romans 4 is that of exemplum of justification by faith. This sort of interpretation is often quite thin, focusing merely on the claim that Abraham’s faith—not, as most Jews would have said, his obedience or faithfulness, or as others might think, his works/works of the law (whether deeds or identity markers)—was reckoned to him as righteousness. This approach assumes that faith basically means a non-doing trust (e.g., in the promise), without exploring in any depth the meaning of either faith or righteousness in the chapter, much less in Romans or Paul more broadly. The strength of this view is its apparent basis in the very Scriptural texts, especially Gen 15:6, that Paul cites. But this view over-privileges the accounting metaphor (“reckoned”) and sometimes neglects much of the second half of Romans 4, in which the language shifts from the accounting metaphor to language of death and resurrection. In other cases this sort of interpretation is much thicker, stressing at least the rather full picture of faith that emerges from this chapter: its relation to hope and its theocoentric focus on God’s ability to bring life out of death.

2. Dissatisfaction with certain aspects of these two versions of the reigning interpretation has led some scholars to look for another dimension of Abraham’s role in Romans. They would argue that Abraham’s faithfulness is in fact the focus of Romans 4, and that the chapter serves as a means of connecting the faithfulness of Abraham to the faithfulness of Christ displayed on the cross. It is this kind of faith—that is, faithfulness—that is exemplary in Abraham and that is Paul’s desideratum for the communities in Rome. Other interpreters may focus less on the nature of Abraham’s faith and more on its universal role in Romans 4, that is, to serve Paul’s thematic argument that both Jews and Gentiles who have Abraham-like faith are part of the new covenant community in Christ.

3. As tempting and promising as the “faithfulness” solution may be for those of us who prefer the “faith of Christ” interpretation of pistis christou, or as self-evidently correct as the focus on universality may be, I think we also need to look at another dimension of Romans 4 that has been neglected. I want to propose that Paul wants us to see the actual content of Abraham’s faith and the experience of that faith as a prototype of death and resurrection with Christ. If this is correct, then Abraham serves as an exemplum of Paul’s unique participatory understanding of justification by faith as co-crucifixion and co-resurrection with Christ.

4. The basic argument here is very simple: Abraham’s faith was not merely an attitude of trust versus a doing of deeds or faithfulness or confidence in possession of a “boundary marker” (circumcision); nor was it merely a general theological belief in, or even a trusting posture toward, God as the one who can raise the dead or bring life out of death. Rather, because Abraham himself was functionally dead—along with his wife’s womb—his faith was that God could bring life out of his death, could transform his dead-ness into life. In other words, his faith was completely self-involving and participatory. That he was justified by faith means that he trusted the promise of life-out-of-death given to him, and that he was justified by faith means not merely that he was fictitiously considered just or righteous, but that he was granted the gracious gift of new life out of death, which was concretely fulfilled in the birth of a descendant—a very Jewish notion of life. In retrospect, from Paul’s own position of having died and been resurrected in Christ, Abraham’s experience is prospectively analogous to what Paul says about all baptized believers in Romans 6: their justification by faith means a participatory experience of resurrection out of death.

5. All of this helps us understand, in part, why the resurrection is absolutely essential to justification (Rom 4:25).

Any thoughts about this?

21 Responses to “Abraham our Prototype of Participation in Romans 4”

  1. Jonathan says:

    I do think this understanding makes better sense of 4:18 “in hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told…” (that is he believed God would bring life – lots of it – from his death, or dead body) and 4:23-25 “not written for his sake alone but for ours also… who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

    Could we say something like… Abraham believed God to bring life (offspring and many nations) from his own death (being around 100 years old), and so too we now believe God to bring life (new creation based on resurrection of Jesus) out of Christ’s death (on the cross).

    I’m still trying to factor in v.25… is v.25 Paul’s ‘incorporation’ or ‘union’ idea which he will not begin to spell out in 5-6?

  2. Brian LePort says:

    No response, but it does make me rethink the context of Rom. 4 a bit. Thank you for giving me something to wrestle with.

  3. S. Daniel Owens says:

    I have just finished reading Campbell’s DOG and I think he might agree with you. I wonder if chapter four is Paul’s claim that while it is possible to understand the Scriptures as requiring ‘works of law’ the Abraham story seems to show that justification, that is life from death, has been portrayed as requiring an absolute loyalty to God’s promise that he would do it.


  4. This was one of the first passages that got me thinking that resurrection was Paul’s interpretive key for reading the OT in Romans. I think you’re spot on.

    I see the confluence of Paul’s resurrection faith and Abraham’s resurrection faith as part of the larger purpose of the book, in which the identity of God (“the one who gives life to the dead”) and the identity of the people of God (“we who believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead”) are inseparably linked to the biblical narratives and promises (“Abe considered his own body which had died” [perfect tense]).

    God is justified because this telling of the story shows how the God whom Paul proclaims, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is none other than the God of Abraham.

  5. MJG says:

    Douglas and I are often on the same page (except about Romans 1-3!).

    Let us know if any specific thoughts percolate.

    I define hope in Paul as the future tense of faith, so I like where you begin. But your “Could we say…” sounds a bit too much like faith as assent/conviction (only).

    I think 4:25 anticipates both chap. and chap. 6, the latter as the explication of justification in participatory terms. If Abraham is a prototype (which many have argued against), and specifically if he is a prototype of participatory justification, then we should not be surprised at these connections

  6. John says:

    While in general agreement with the trajecotry of your thoughts above, may I also suggest two other points from non-Pauline texts that further highlight the pneumatically dynamic nature of Abraham’s faith as articulated by Paul in Romans 4 in hopes of being helpful to the current discussion. .

    1.) As the author of Hebrews notes, Abraham had been walking with God through the “obedience of faith” ever since God had called him to leave his country and his father’s house (Genesis 12:1-3), for Abraham “obeyed when he was called, and went forth to the place he was to receive as a heritage” (Hebrews 11:8). Therefore, when Paul declares that Abraham was justified by faith in Romans 4, Abraham had already been walking by faith for decades, and as the author of Hebrews tells us, it was through this same “obedient” faith that he left his native land for the promised land of Canaan, demonstrating the same kind of faith that allowed the author (11:7) to say of Noah that he “became an heir of righteousness.” In other words, is it even possible to claim that Abraham was not justified by faith before Genesis 15:6? In this same light could one responsibly claim that the righteousness that was accredited to Abraham was imputed in an extrinsic manner?

    2.) Furthermore, another point that highlights the participatory and cruciform nature of the justifying faith of Abraham in Romans 4 is another passage in the NT which cites Genesis 15:6 in the context of the justification, and that is James 2:14-24. From my perspective, the more traditional Protestant reading of this text in relationship to Pauline justification runs into at least three serious problems in regards to the actual argument and language that James uses: first and foremost, James cites the very same passage that Paul does in discussing Abraham’s justification, and that is Genesis 15:6. After citing Genesis 15:6, James proceeds to claim that it is only after the Aqedah of Genesis 22 that Abraham’s faith was “completed by works”, so much so, that James can say in verse 24 that “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Therefore, the traditional Protestant interpretation of this verse that claims Abraham’s faith was proven to be a justifying faith, i.e. Abraham is justified in the sense that his living faith is vindicated (before others) is an incomplete explanation at best, for after citing Genesis 15:6, which most agree refers to justification in the proper sense in Romans 4, James then proceeds to teach that this very same justification of Genesis 15:6/ Romans 4 is “completed” only after the Aqedah. Second, in regard to the question of Abraham’s faith being vindicated or proven true, the only way that this ultimately works is in regard to Abraham being vindicated before God, and not primarily before men, if at all. This is readily apparent when one simply examines the context of the Aqedah, for nobody beside Isaac was present, and God responds to Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac by proclaiming “now I know that you fear God.” Third, the very context itself rules out the assertion that Paul and James are talking about justification simply in a different sense, for James begins this segment of his epistle with this question: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” (James 2:14). While it is possible to grant to the traditional Protestant perspective that Paul and James are referring to justification at different points in the journey of salvation, it is clear that they are not speaking of justification in a different sense of the term, but a different point in the process, which explains James’s use of the properly Pauline proof-text of Genesis 15:6 and how under he is able to assert that Abraham’s justification is contemplated with the Aqedah.

    To briefly conclude my thoughts, both of these aspects highlight what I take to be the participatory nature of Abraham’s justification in Romans 4, and serve to only further validate your line of thinking that an exclusively juridical (imputed righteouseness) understanding of Abraham’s justification in Romans 4 does not do full justice to the text, let alone its relationship to other NT texts that are directly related to it.

  7. Kyle SJ says:

    Wow! let me see if I heard you correctly. Are you saying that in Romans 4 the justification/vindication of Abraham is the birth of Isaac?

    if that is the case several questions pop into my mind.

    1.) why then move to an example of David not being reckoned with sin

    2.) why contrast faith with works of the law? Was it thought that keeping the law would bring about childbirth?

  8. Angela says:

    Hi, Michael,

    I am still mulling this around a bit.

    Is it somehow significant that this faith of resurrection (life-out-of-death) environment took place at (in the vicinity of) Mount Moriah, a place where later generations (in particular David) would experience the life-out-of-death–the destruction of Jerusalem by the Angel of the Lord to the building of the temple by Solomon?

    There are a lot of thoughts moving around in my mind on the meaning of justification by faith (with the resurrection element) and seeing Abraham as our prototype. I believe his setting at Mount Moriah is significant to Abraham’s faith. I need to think this through more.

    Thanks, Michael!

  9. I tried to comment here last week, but it didn’t go through.

    I completely agree. This is one of the first indications I had that Paul was using resurrection to reinterpret the stories of Israel–in large part to affirm that the same God is active now through the Gospel Paul proclaims. Both the Abraham narrative and Paul’s gospel proclaim the God who gives life to the dead.

  10. Siufung says:

    Thank you for this refreshing interpretation of Romans 4. I have been thinking sociologically and culturally the rejection, pain and disgrace that Abraham and Sarah might have experienced. For an ancient audience who were familiar a culture of ‘honour and shame’, I wonder what they would have thought about the story of Abraham and what Paul meant as he related the story to his hearers. I think Abraham’s experience of “from suffering to fullness of life” fits into your notion of participation really well. Anyway, these are just my initial thoughts.

  11. MJG says:


    Thanks for the response, but your way of putting it makes me a bit uneasy: “in Romans 4 the justification/vindication of Abraham is the birth of Isaac.” I am saying that the content or substance of justification is new life, resurrection, if you will. For Paul the demonstration of this reality is not merely the birth of Issac but the subsequent reality of “many descendants,” a kind of eternal life. This (implicitly, not explicitly here) foreshadows and signals the reality of new life, including eternal, provided by God in the resurrection of Jesus, which took place for OUR justification.


    I’m not sure that Paul ever thinks about such a connection to Mt. Moriah, but I would not be at all surprised if some patristic or medieval writers did. That would be worth exploring!


    Thanks for the feedback. I like the honor/shame connection, especially since it could fit in very well with Paul and/or the Roman audience and his/its possible understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection (4:24-25) in terms of shame and honor.

  12. MJG says:


    In fairness to you, it is I who spoke solely of Issac, so it is I who made me “uncomfortable.”

    As for the “reckoned” business, of course David is mentioned earlier in chapter 4 (v. 6), though he appears right after Abraham (and then disappears!) My point early on in the post (and in other things I have written about Rom 4) is that too often interpreters focus on the “reckoning” language as if that was the sum and substance of justification in chapter 4 and indeed in Romans and Paul as a whole! Rather, I think, the culmination of Paul’s argument in chapter 4 is not reckoning but resurrection! Reckoning is the starting point: yes, justification is an act of grace and is not earned but is appropriated by trust. But that only tells us about the MODE (subjective basis) of justification, not the MEANS (objective basis) or the SUBSTANCE. If justification is substantively about life, then no wonder it is connected to the resurrection and not merely the death of Jesus.

  13. MJG says:


    Thanks for your posts and sorry for the problems getting up. I want to commend your book to others: Unlocking Romans. It makes much the same argument about Romans 4 as I make here, though I think I’m pushing the participatory envelope just a bit harder.

    BTW, everyone should have a look at Douglas Campbell’s treatment of Abraham in his The Deliverance of God. It is similar to what Daniel and I are arguing, and he has a nice pair of graphics on 741-42 illustrating the difference between a “thin” and a “thick” reading of faith and resurrection in Romans 4. I still do not agree with Douglas about the volley between Paul and the Teacher in the early chapters of Romans, but his actual constructive treatment of Paul’s soteriology is really exciting.

  14. MJG says:


    I am not ignoring you but contemplating your comment and will respond.

  15. Mike Cantley says:

    Hey, who was that in the comments?! I miss J.R. Daniel Kirk blogging…I am holding out for resurrection there too!

    Mike C.

  16. MJG says:


    It was Daniel himself, no impostor. His resurrection is likely a bit in the future, I think.

  17. Mark Reasoner says:

    Some people in the comments here seem bothered by Michael Gorman’s statement that “he was granted the gracious gift of new life out of death, which was concretely fulfilled in the birth of a descendant—a very Jewish notion of life.” But see Jon Levenson’s book on resurrection in the Hebrew Bible. The birth of progeny was viewed as resurrection or life after death. So on this small point and your general take on Romans 4 I think you are right on, Michael.

  18. MJG says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Mark, and for the mention of Levenson’s book. In the footnoted version of this, I intended to add it.

  19. Mike Cantley says:

    Ha! You’re too quick Mike G!

  20. Mike, I’m really happy to have you pushing the participatory envelope hard here! Salvation through participation in Christ is one of the most important dynamics to grasp about Paul’s soteriology–and represents the best of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions as well.

    One reason I like it so much is that it not only keeps our soteriology focused on the accomplishment of redemption (too often, Reformed soteriology becomes “Salvation by the person’s act of faith”, dissociated from the accomplishing act of faithfulness and/or the saving object of faith) but it holds together the story of salvation accomplished, the sacraments which illustrate the story, the identity of the God who both accomplishes and applies and gives definition to the people so saved, and the life to which we are called to live into as a community.

    Participation can’t be pushed strongly enough. As crucial as it is for Paul, I couldn’t figure out how to bring that into Rom 4, and I love how you’ve worked it out here.

  21. MJG says:


    Thanks for the comment. My students are benefiting from your book! I will post more about it later, about Romans 6.

    The holistic sense you express here is right on target, in my view. You came close to seeing Abraham this way!

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