Paul states in Romans 4:22 that there was a reason that righteousness was imputed to Abraham ('therefore'). The reason (or reasons) are stated in 4:16-21:

  1. He believed God (who quickens the dead and calls those things that be not as though they were)
  2. Against hope he believed in hope (concerning the promise he would father many nations)
  3. He was not weak in faith considering his own body and Sarah's
  4. He staggered not in unbelief but was strong in faith giving glory to God
  5. He was persuaded that God was able to perform what He promised

My problem is this appears to contradict what Paul said earlier in the chapter. In Romans 4:3 Paul had just quoted Genesis 15:6 to show that righteousness was imputed to Abraham before he was circumcised. I notice that Genesis 15 is prior to the birth of Ishmael and at least 14 years prior to God's promise of Isaac in Genesis 17, at which time Abraham was 99. Why then does Paul discuss Abraham's faith in Genesis 17 and use it as the reason God had previously imputed righteousness to Abraham in Genesis 15? That Paul does so is clear, at minimum, because of point (3) above. Abraham's body was not said to be dead in Genesis 15. In fact, it appears that neither Abraham nor Sarah thought Abraham's body was "dead" at that time because Sarah later gave Hagar to Abraham in order to father a son.

Correctly understanding Abraham's imputed righteousness seems very fundamental. I'm not sure I understand what Paul is doing here. The best I can come up with is that the nature of justifying faith is directly related to faith in God's power to raise the dead (see also Romans 4:24-25 and 10:8-10) and that Abraham had such faith in Genesis 15 though it was not proved in time until Genesis 17 (and later in Genesis 22).

Paul clearly knew the Scriptures. Why did he intentionally conflate Genesis 15 and 17 when explaining why God imputed righteousness to Abraham?

  • 1
    If the faith reckoned as righteousness is not a one time act does your conflation vanish? This would make the birth of Ishmael a wavering of faith in the midst of the longer process and meshes well with James. Faith brought righteousness in Gen. 15, wavered in 16 but did not fail (God is faithful), and was strengthened again in 17. In Romans, Paul refers to the whole process. Nov 27, 2022 at 13:17
  • I do see a possible relationship between Paul and James in that faith must be living. Paul makes Abraham the father of all who walk in the steps of faith of Abraham. But Paul's emphasis on Abraham's strength appears to make Abraham's justification a matter of personal merit - that God justified Abraham in Genesis 15 because He knew Abraham would subsequently perform.
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 27, 2022 at 17:06
  • 1
    He did know Abraham would have and act on faith. It's okay if our faith is foreknown; that doesn't nullify choice. Either way, our faithful actions come from faith and it remains that justification is by faith and not works. Abraham's faith was strong such that it didn't stagger in unbelief at God's promise and staggered means "to separate from or withdraw". All he really did was cling to the promise of God against human reason. It's all any of us can do. The depth of the testing is up to the one who knows our hearts. Nov 27, 2022 at 22:27

6 Answers 6


This is a very interesting and astute question. I have to confess that, in haste, I down-voted it as I thought it was adversarial, but when I pondered it again, I realised there was much to be gained by considering it.

I have now been able to redress that situation, due to an edit having been performed. Thus my down-vote removed and an up-vote added.

There is no 'conflation' by Paul since Paul uses the name 'Abraham' not 'Abram'.

In Genesis 15:6, the words 'he believed God' refer to 'Abram'. But thereafter, as a sign of the new birth (which is part of the everlasting covenant) 'Abram' becomes 'Abraham' and it is αβραμα (Abraham) to whom Paul attributes both faith and righteousness in Romans 4:3.

Yes, Abram believed God, but that faith did not become visible until later, until he expressed that faith (as 'Abraham') in his works, that is to say in not being daunted by the prospect of he and his wife bringing forth the child whom God had promised.

James tells us very clearly that faith without works is dead, James 22:17, and Abraham is a prime example of that, as is Sarah his wife who, by faith, Hebrews 11:11, 'received strength to conceive seed'.

So, James also tells us that Abraham exhibited his faith (by which faith righteousness was accounted to him) when he offered up Isaac, James 2:23-24, and he shows that Abraham's faith was exhibited to be a lively faith by his effectual works.

After Abram believed God (and was righteous in the eyes of God for so believing, for it was God and no other who could see that faith), afterwards comes the interlude of Sarai (again, notice the name) who attempted to overcome the barrenness problem, resulting in another problem between Sarai, Hagar and Ishmael.

But once named 'Sarah' she fulfils her role, by faith, and as named 'Sarah' she is so described by the writer to the Hebrews.

'How shall I know ?' asked Abram, Genesis 15:8, of God, in regard to his inheriting all the world in his locality (a sign that the seed of Abraham would inherit the entire earth) and God responds - by sacrifice (Genesis 15:9-17) and by covenant (Genesis 15:18-21).

That covenant is an everlasting covenant, Hebrews 13:20 :

Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, [KJV]

That sacrifice (of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Revelation 13:8) is a matter of Deity, and, thus, is certain - absolutely - within time. The certainty of it is without doubt before it occurred, as it was occurring and after its event. It is always so, in the view of faith.

The sacrifice is certain throughout time. The covenant is everlasting.

Those of old, the partiarchs and others, even Abel who offered flock in obedient observance of God's previous example of skinned sacrifice, were justified by faith in a sacrifice yet to come, and they thus were part of an everlasting testament, established with blood, from one slain from before the foundation of the world.

Thus the faith of Abram, also. Even before we can see, in narrative, the full expression of the faith of the man 'Abraham' we can see the faith of 'Abram' since God, who saw it, attributed it with such profundity that Abram was then, and also afterwards (after his change of name and after his expression of effectual works) regarded, in the sight of God, who alone is such himself, to be 'righteous'.

  • 1
    Thank you for your reply. My question was certainly not intended to be adversarial. I have been trying to understand justification and this has been bothering me. I haven't seen it addressed in commentaries
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:25
  • 1
    @GarySears Thank you. My book Jehovah Tsidkenu ("The Lord our Righteousness") has a great deal more information. It is available, free of charge, as a PDF download, on my website. See my profile for the website. Kind Regards.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 28, 2022 at 16:11
  • I'll take a look. Thanks!
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 28, 2022 at 22:56
  • Nigel, thank you so much for writing your books and making them freely available.
    – Gary Sears
    Dec 1, 2022 at 18:36
  • @GarySears Thank you. You are most welcome.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 1, 2022 at 18:37

The five points you list - the five reasons for God attributing righteousness to Abraham - boil down to just one word, and one reason. Faith. Abraham showed faith in God and his promises. That is why the test of faith was met to God's satisfaction when Abraham showed he was prepared to sacrifice his child of promise, Abraham's hand being stayed and God providing a ram for sacrifice instead. Hebrews 11:17-19 shows that Abraham reckoned God would resurrect Isaac because God's promises are totally sound. Now, that's faith indeed!

The problem raised, however, is to do with what Paul had said a few verses earlier, and the timing of that evaluation of God, for it came before Abraham was commanded to be circumcised, and long before the law of God had had been given at Sinai (4:3).

Paul deliberately made the point that Abraham was evaluated to be righteous before God without circumcision, or having the law, because he was writing to Christians in Rome, most of whom would be Gentile converts but there would also be Jewish converts. There was a real risk, at that time, of Christian congregations being infiltrated by 'Judaizers' - Christians teaching that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and therefore obliged to keep the law. The book of Acts deals with that crisis, which did not go away, although it was exposed as totally corrupting the gospel of Christ.

The good news that is in Christ states that faith in Christ as the risen Son of God, the Christ, is what saves sinners. Paul's letter to the Romans is full of that, starting in its opening verses:

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith'." 1:16-17, quoting Habakkuk 2:4

Faith is one of the main themes throughout the entire letter to the Romans, the other being the righteousness of God that is revealed in Christ and evaluated to those who have faith in Christ. The problem of relying on circumcision has been dealt with by Paul in various writings of his (as well as in Romans chapter 2), and the problem of relying on law-keeping is exposed in this letter to the Romans. I have made a quick list of some 17 times he warns them about becoming legalistic in attempts to merit God's approval. Nobody without faith can gain God's approval. But those with the faith God looks for - in his risen Son - are evaluated to be righteous.

God's standard is consistently the same in the Old Testament as in the New - faith pleases God. And when people have faith that God is utterly righteous, as did Abraham, that is the faith that changes their standing before God. They are no longer sinners striving by their own efforts to merit salvation (an impossibility given "there is no-one righteous, not even one" as Paul said in Romans 3:10, quoting Micah 7:9). Those with faith are acceptable to God, hence these conclusions of Paul, also in chapter 3:

"To declare at this time his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we concluded that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also. Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith." vss. 26-30

Note, however, that it is not faith in itself that is meritorious, it is WHAT that faith is in that pleases God. It has to be faith in the utter righteousness of God. That's what enabled Abraham to be prepared to sacrifice Isaac. He believed that the righteous God would never lie or break his promise that, through Isaac, all nations of the earth would be blessed. Therefore, when God looked down on Abraham on Mount Moriah, knife raised, he saw faith in his own righteousness. When God looks down on Christians who believe God's righteousness was demonstrated at Golgotha, he sees faith in his own righteousness.

The answer to the problem you pose is to study the first three chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans, so that you will then understand the continuation of his argument in chapter four, when he introduces Abraham for our consideration, in relation to faith and being evaluated righteous by God.

  • Thank you for your reply.
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 28, 2022 at 23:29

To summarize, the issue for you seems to be a cause and effect question: which happened first, Abraham's imputation or his circumcision (and other examples).

Assuming I'm understanding you correctly, let me offer up some thoughts.

Earlier on, in Rom. 4:10, Paul asks "How is it then that [Abraham] was acquitted?" (“πῶς οὖν ἐλογίσθη” (Rom. 4:10 UBS5-T)). Paul answers by saying that it was before. ("while he was in his circumcision, not in his uncircumcizedness" (“οὐκ ἐν περιτομῇ ἀλλ’ ἐν ἀκροβυστίᾳ·” (Rom. 4:10 UBS5-T))

What follows then are the results of him being acquitted (justified, imputed as 'not guilty').

Finally then, Paul concludes by answering his earlier question. In vs. 10, he asks "how then was he acquitted?". In vs. 22 he answers by saying, "And so, [as you can see] it was credited to him as righteousness. And the context in that verse is: before he showed his faith in the ways listed above.

Perhaps the hangup is the word, "therefore." ⲇⲓⲟ draws a conclusion based on a previous thought. ("therefore"). The previous thought (with parallel language) is vs. 10. Here, in vs. 22, Paul is summarizing and concluding his thoughts before he transitions. ("Abe. was justified/acquitted before his circumcision."). In our own way of speaking we might say, "And so, as you can see, [insert conclusion here]"

Here's some lexicon & grammar references for you:


διό inferential conjunction (δἰ ὅ; s. B-D-F §451, 5) (Heraclitus, Thu.+) therefore, for this reason Mt 27:8; Mk 5:33 v.l.; Lk 7:7; Ac 15:19; 20:31; 25:26; 26:3; 27:25, 34; Ro 1:24; 2:1; 13:5 (RBultmann, TLZ 72, ’47, 200 would omit the two last verses as glosses); Hb 3:7, 10; B 4:9; 1 Cl 7:2; 9:1; AcPlCor 1:16 al. διὸ καί (B-D-F §442, 12; 451, 5) therefore . . . also, denoting that the inference is self-evident (Jos., Ant. 19, 294) Lk 1:35; Ac 10:29; 24:26; Ro 4:22;

BDAG, s.v. “διό,” 250.


89.47 διό; διόπερ: relatively emphatic markers of result, usually denoting the fact that the inference is self-evident — ‘therefore, for this reason, for this very reason, so then.’

7 Since the result is stated as an inference based upon what has preceded, one may translate this expression of result as ‘for this reason’ or ‘for this very reason.’ What precedes constitutes the reason, but the result may be effectively introduced by referring back to the reason.

L&N, s.v. “διό διόπερ,” 783.

I hope that both I'm understanding you correctly and that this is answer helpful to you.

  • Maybe you are correct that I am hung up on the word "therefore". It does seem that the context shows that Abraham's faith in Genesis 15 was the same faith in Genesis 17. It is just confusing that it appears to make Abraham's imputed righteous a matter of merit. That is, it appears to say something like because he was STRONG in faith God imputed righteousness. That might imply that a WEAK faith wouldn't be sufficient. Since I have weak faith it makes achieving justifying faith seem beyond me.
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 27, 2022 at 21:38
  • Ahh, indeed. Abe's imputed righteousness is not a matter of merit, cp. Rom. 3:28, 4:3-6, 9; Gal. 3:6-14. The "therefore" ⲇⲓⲟ goes back to vs. 10, not to the effects/fruits of faith in the middle section.
    – Epimanes
    Nov 27, 2022 at 22:50

He conflates the two very deliberately because Abraham was considered righteous for the same reason in each case: his faith. For St. Paul, a life must be permeated by faith in order to be a good life, and he thus proves the primacy of faith over the works - no matter how necessary they are. And this is St. Paul's point throughout all his discourses about the primacy of faith: that faith was what pleased God, and not the bare actions of faithful Abraham. Without them he would not be the faithful Abraham, nor could "his faith save him" in such a case, being "dead" (Jas. 2:14, 26), and in that case falsely called faith, but instead, the faith that instantiated itself in them was what pleased God.

And for St. Paul, righteousness is not a one-time imputation (and hence a once justified always justified Abraham should not be sought in Paul), but rather a person is either just or unjust as any given point in their life. It would indeed be superfluous if Abraham had righteousness imputed to him once and for all - twice. No, rather, Abraham was being called righteous for what he did, on a case by case basis - because it came from his faith: "now I know that you love God" (Gen. 22:12). And St. Paul's point in citing these examples is to show the primacy of faith - the Jews had come to have a very mechanical view of works, such that you could be saved "by doing" works, rather than "saved, which involves doing works."

His point is to get the Jews to realize that having faith in Christ as their redeemer doesn't replace good works, which they very much insisted on, and which in a good life, to be called a good one, are indeed necessary; but rather their lives must, going forward, being rooted in the understanding that without Christ and His sacrifice, no works would be necessary, and, more to the point, would not be pleasing enough to earn God's forgiveness for the infinite sin of offending the infinite God.

So with Paul, and the rest of the New Testament, there isn't a turning on its head of the notions of works, repentance, penance, etc. and how these mark the righteous, and make you more righteous, but rather a reorientation from the imperfect 'crutches' worldview - the Law - to the perfect law of Christ, which is based on the recognition of Christ as necessary and as Saviour. Such a recognition of necessity changes how you must think of your works, namely, as the fruit of the cross, rather than ourselves; and as only pleasing because of Christ, and not pleasing without Christ.

It is in this sense that St. Paul describes true righteousness as being "of faith, unto faith." At no point does a work punctuate or interact with the degree of faith, but rather faith leads to the works. And thus he quotes Habakkuk: "a righteous man lives by his faith" (Hab. 2:4). He's still righteous because he helped the widow and gave to charity, but these only happened because of his faith, they didn't come from some animal passion. The whole thing must be faith-based, instead of working from works up to faith (or, 'gaining righteousness by works unto faith'), as was a trap into which perhaps the majority of Jews of his day had fallen.

The whole episode at Mount Moriah was an image prophesying the cross, and the takeaway was: faith. The 'Father' offers 'his only begotten son whom he loves' who carries the wood of his sacrifice to the top of the mountain, and is tied to it. "God himself will provide the sacrifice" - not us. We must offer only faith, and receive, not bludgeon God to give a reward for our works we wouldn't even be able to do had Christ not humored us until the cross, and not sent us to hell where we'd all be.

  • I read verse 23 to mean there is a single imputation discussed throughout the chapter, not two separate imputations. God appears to have looked forward in Genesis 15 to the faith of Abraham in Genesis 17 as the basis for imputing righteousness in Genesis 15. I read your comment as if our justification depends on our relative faith or obedience at any point in time, which would make assurance of salvation impossible.
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 27, 2022 at 17:24
  • Not a single imputation - but a single unifying ground of justification, or, deeming righteous. "assurance of salvation impossible" Right, our deeds evince the presence or quality of our faith, and cannot be divorced. There is no assurance of salvation. The elect are assured, but we are not assured of who is elect. One can think himself to stand, whereas he will fall. Even St. Paul took care so that "after preaching to others, I myself might not be deemed unfit." Assurance of salvation is a very late doctrine/reading of the New Testament indeed, and should be rejected on that ground alone. Nov 27, 2022 at 18:48
  • If there is no assurance of salvation, why did John end the letter of 1 John by stating his purpose in writing was to provide such assurance?"These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life;" Is our possession of eternal life really in our own hands, dependent on our own efforts? Can we be made alive by God and then lose that life by unfaithfulness? How is a doctrine of salvation by faith, but only if subsequently proved by works, not merely salvation by works? Where is the grace in your doctrine?
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 27, 2022 at 21:30
  • "by this we know that we have known him, if we keep his commandments," (1Jn2:3) thus limiting those who have eternal life to those who truly know him, and thus keep the commandments. When he talks about 'you' and 'we' he's speaking to the elect, not to literally everyone reading or in that church - not everyone in the 'you' or the church is going to heaven. That's not my doctrine, that's Scripture's and the consensus of the past 2000 years of Christianity. Grace is the mercy of God towards us that we might repent and be saved, and not be in hell. Without Christ that's impossible.That's a gift. Nov 28, 2022 at 0:32
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    Thank you for clarifying your understanding. This is the first time I've heard someone positively assert that assurance of salvation is not possible. I found it surprising because of your screen name and because the reformed authors I am familiar with have strongly emphasized assurance. But I see how a commitment to a certain framework of interpretation could easily lead one to such a conclusion.
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:32

The story of Abrham believing and then it being "credited as righteousness" is often referenced in the Bible - see Appendix 1 below.

The Abrahamic covenant is stated in various places in Genesis, see Appendix 2 below. Both Gen 15 and 17 state the same set of promises to Abraham which established the famous Abrahamic covenant of Grace because Abrham's faith was "credited to him as righteousness", the very basis of NT faith (Rom 1:16, 17, 3:20-24, Eph 2:8-10, etc.)

Thus, God's covenant of grace with Abraham essentially consisted of a series of promised divine miracles, which Abraham had to accept by faith - he could not contribute to a miracle of God!

Thus, I agree with the OP that Paul is deliberately conflating Gen 15 and 17 in his remarks found in Rom 4: God promises, and mankind responds.

APPENDIX 1 - Abraham Believed and it was credited as righteousness

  • Gen 15:6 - Abram believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
  • Rom 4:3 - For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
  • Rom 4:9 - Is this blessing only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.
  • Rom 4:22 - Therefore also "it was credited to him unto righteousness."
  • Gal 3:6 - So also, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
  • James 2:23 - And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called a friend of God.

APPENDIX 2 - Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant is stated in two places, Gen 15 & 17, 13 years apart (and repeated in Gen 12:1-3, 18:9-15, 22:15-18 without using the word “covenant” nor formal sacrifices) and consisted of the following:

Genesis 15

  • God promises Abram a biological son
  • God promises Abram uncountable descendants
  • God promises Abram’s descendants the land of Canaan, “from the wadi of Egypt to the great river Euphrates”.
  • God promises to return Abram’s descendants to Canaan after Egyptian slavery of 400 years
  • God promises to punish the Egyptians
  • God promises great possessions to Abram’s descendants when they leave Egypt
  • The covenant was initiated and signified by a ceremony (significant to the culture of Abraham) of cutting several animals in half and God passing between the halves, and (and so solemnly promising) to keep the provisions of the covenant.

This ceremony of cutting sacrificed animals in half is a direct allusion of the word “berith” (= “covenant”), meaning, “to cut”. That this covenant was a covenant of grace is confirmed by Gen 15:6, “Abram believed the LORD and he credited it to him as righteousness”. (See also Rom 4:3, 22, Gal 3:6, James 2:23.)

Genesis 17, 18:9-15

  • God promises a biological son by Sarah, viz. Isaac
  • God promises to greatly increase Abram’s numbers
  • God promises Abram that he would be the father of many nations
  • God promises Abraham the land of Canaan
  • God promises that Ishmael would also be fruitful
  • Abraham and his descendants must promise to be faithful to God
  • The covenant is signified by the token/sign (Heb: “oth”, Gen 17:10, 11, 13, Rom 4:11) of circumcision (= circular cut), Acts 7:8, and a change of name from Abram to Abraham. The covenant sign (circumcision) was to be a perpetual of the covenant.

It is immediately clear that this covenant is a re-statement, with only slight variations, of the covenant in Gen 15, and was an eternal covenant, Gen 17:7, 13.

  • Thank you for your reply.
    – Gary Sears
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:06

God credited Abraham righteousness when he just took Him at His word.

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:5-6

God must've made it pretty easy for Abraham to believe Him since He came to Abraham in a vision and gave him hope.

Later on God expands on promises to Abraham. It was because of Abraham's faith in God that the promises would be passed onto his descendants. It was because of his faith. We have to remember that God is the one who spoke to Abraham directly and inspired that faith.

There is a very telling verse in John 8:56 .

your father Abraham was glad that he might see My day; and he saw, and rejoiced.” John 8:56

God must of showed Abraham ahead of time that Jesus would be his seed that would be delivered up for our transgressions and be raised from the dead as our justification. He too put faith in that as well, way ahead of time and that is what truly made him righteous. God had to have shown him this and he continued to grow strong in his faith in God to perform his word, even when everything was dead. He was even able to eventually offer up Isaac, knowing God can easily raise him from the dead.

He grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Romans 4:21-24

  • Thank you for your reply.
    – Gary Sears
    Dec 1, 2022 at 17:46

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