In a recent preaching class, we were looking at Romans 4:1-3 as a possible text and deriving the main point of this text. I was using the NASB. “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” (verse 1). One of the class members pointed out that the ESV uses “was gained” rather than “found,” as in the NASB. “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?” Why the difference and how do you handle the difference in a sermon?
After some study, two questions emerge. Question 1. What is the better translation? The better translation of the verb form, which is active voice, is “found.” If the verb form was passive voice, it could be translated “was gained.” Since the verb is active voice, NASB is the better translation.
It might be argued that the ESV takes the context into consideration. For example, Romans 3:27 asks, “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.” If salvation is gained by works, boasting is appropriate. As Romans 4:2 indicates, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Hence, there is a link back to the context in Romans 3. True enough. This fact does not obviate the coordinate fact that “found” is the better translation of the underlying Greek term.
Question 2 bears more directly upon the interpretation of Romans 4:1. What does the prepositional phrase, “concerning the flesh,” modify? Does “concerning the flesh” or “according to the flesh” modify Abraham, our forefather? Or, does this prepositional phrase modify “gained,” and read, “gained according to the flesh”? The latter translation points to justification by works and seems to take context into consideration.
This second question leads us to consider the underlying Greek structure more carefully. NASB follows the United Bible Societies Greek text; “according to the flesh” modifies “Abraham, our forefather.” The USB Greek New Testament is a critical text. That is, it considers the numerous copies of the New Testament, in whole or in part, including fragments, and makes a judgment as to the earliest readings and possibly the best readings of respective texts. The USB Greek New Testament favors the reading followed by the NASB.
The Geneva Study Bible of 1599 offers a different reading of Romans 4:1. “What shall we say then, that Abraham our father hath found concerning the flesh?” In this case, in my view, Geneva 1599 properly translates the text “found” rather than “gained.” However, notice that in Geneva 1599, the prepositional phrase, “concerning the flesh,” modifies the verb “found.” This reading of Romans 4:1 connects back more directly to the context of Romans 3. In other words, “found concerning the flesh” refers to justification on the basis of human effort or strength. Geneva 1599 follows the Received Text, Textus Receptus (TR), which is a Greek New Testament that provides the basis for translations of the Reformation period. The Received Text also underlies the King James Version.
Bottom line? In studying Romans 4:1, in teaching from Romans 4:1, or in preaching on Romans 4:1, we need to decide as to the best translation of the text as a whole. Overall, it seems to me that NASB offers the best translation of the text. In this case, I favor the reading in the USB Greek New Testament. Further, after analyzing Romans 4:1, I conclude that although the differences outlined above are real, they do not materially alter Paul’s purpose for introducing Abraham in Romans 4:1. His purpose is to use Abraham and then David as clear examples of justification by grace through faith. My study does influence how I handle Romans 4:1-3 in the specifics but it does not change what I understand Paul’s purpose to be—displaying Abraham as a preeminent example of free and gracious justification.
As to how I would address the difference between the NASB and the ESV in a sermon, I would simply say, that after careful study of the text, I think the NASB, in this case, gives us the better translation.
All of us who engage in the teaching and exposition of Scripture understand that the above study involves issues that we often encounter in our work of interpreting and preaching the Word of God.