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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Romans 4

Verses 1-99

Ch. 4:1 25 . Abraham, an apparent exception to the rule of gratuitous acceptance, really the great example of it

1 . What shall we say then? &c.] Here a new and independent objection is anticipated. Abraham, the great Head of the Old Covenant, would be appealed to by the Jew, as on the assumption that he at least was justified by its terms; and on him now the argument turns. See Appendix B.

The reading of the Gr. varies in MSS.; but the most probable reading will be rendered thus, What therefore shall we say that Abraham our father hath found, according to the flesh ? “ Therefore: ” this, in our view, refers to the general previous argument from 3:21, not specially to 3:31. “ Our father: ” i.e. of the Jews. “ Hath found: ” i.e., in the way of acceptance and privilege. The perfect tense suggests the permanence of Abraham’s position in men’s thoughts. “ According to the flesh: ” these words do not, as in E. V., belong to “our father,” but to “hath found.” To interpret them here we must remember (what will come out in the course of the Epistle) St Paul’s doctrine of “the flesh.” It is, briefly, that “the flesh” is human nature, in the Fall, as unrenewed and unassisted by Divine special grace . “According to the flesh” will thus mean here “in respect of his own independent works and merits.” Did Abraham win acceptance as meritoriously keeping the covenant of works, which demands obedience and provides no grace? In brief, was he justified by works?

2 . For ] Q. d., “the question is asked, because if the answer is yes , Abraham stands in a position of independence before God.”

by works ] Lit. out of works ; in consequence of them.

he hath ] “As he stands before us in Scripture;” a frequent and natural use of the present tense.

whereof to glory ] Lit. a boast ; a ground of self-congratulation. The word is nearly the same as that in 3:27. Both Gr. words are good or bad according to their connexion; meaning sometimes rightful and even holy exultation (e.g. ch. 5:2; Hebrews 3:6 , “rejoicing”), sometimes vanity and self-assertion.

but not before God ] Lit. but not towards God ; i.e. “not as looking Him in the face.” Before is thus a fair rendering. The phrase seems to be pregnant: instead of a mere negative to the question proposed, St Paul suggests the ultimate reason of the negative the impossibility that man can boast rightly before God. We may paraphrase: “But as a fact he had no ground of boasting; for, in view of the holiness of God, that could not be, even for him. And (ver. 3) Scripture bears this out in direct terms; for it records that he was accepted as believing.”

3 . what saith the scripture? ] See on 1:17.

Abraham believed , &c.] Lit. But Abraham believed , &c. The particle is, perhaps, significant; emphasizing the verb. The Gr. is verbatim from LXX. of Genesis 15:6 , save that “ but ” is “ and ” in LXX. See by all means Genesis 15:5 , Genesis 15:6 , as a leading illustration of what faith is in St Paul’s sense; personal trust in God; acceptance of His word absolutely, because it is His. (See further on ver. 22 below.)

it was counted ] The same Gr. verb is rendered in this chapter “reckoned,” vv. 4, 9, 10; “counted,” ver. 5; “imputed,” vv. 11, 22, 23, 24: see too vv. 6, 8. (In 2 Timothy 4:16 it is “laid to charge.”) Its plain meaning is (like that of the Lat. imputare ) to put down on an account (whether as debt or credit the context decides). The reason why of the “imputation” does not lie in the word itself, which may equally be used where merit and grace, wages and gift, are in question.

for righteousness ] i.e. “as if it were righteousness” (in respect of results) Same construction as 2:26, a passage which illustrates this. There the (supposed) Gentile who keeps the law, is treated as if he were circumcised, though he is not . Here Abraham, because he believes, is treated as having personal (justifying) righteousness, though he has it not . In other words, he is justified on a ground which is not his own works . It is specially needful to notice (what this particular passage brings out) that faith is in no sense regarded as, in itself, righteousness . (See below, on ver. 26.) The statement is that, “by grace,” the same result, viz. acceptance before God, follows faith that would follow the possession of merit. Faith is the condition, but not the ground, of this acceptance. The ground is the Propitiation.

[In Psalms 106:31 we have the very words used of Phinehas which are here used of Abraham. But comparing the Psalm with Numbers 25:11-13 we see the difference of application. In Phinehas, an act of holy zeal was honoured by a special temporal favour, the permanence of the priesthood in his family. It was no question of acceptance in respect of salvation; a matter which lies on a totally different level from that of temporal rewards. On that lower level, the act of Phinehas was one of merit, and was “reckoned” as such to him and his house. In Abraham’s case we have two notes of difference from that of Phinehas: (1) faith in God, not an act of zeal, is the occasion; (2) the “imputation” is mentioned absolutely and with peculiar solemnity, unconnected with any temporal results. And thus it is taken by St Paul here, as his whole reasoning shews, as a Divine intimation of the true conditions of the acceptance of man by God “without works.”]

On James 2:14 , &c., see Appendix C.

4 . to him that worketh , &c.] A general principle and fact, instanced here with special reference to human obedience to the Law of God. The terms of the Law are tacitly compared to a human contract, with definite pay for definite work.

of grace ] Lit. according to grace ; “on the principle of undeserved kindness.” So just below, according to debt ; “on the principle of obligation.”

5 . to him that worketh not ] The Gr. implies a general statement; Abraham’s case in universal application. “ Worketh not: ” i.e., of course, in respect of justification. It is another form of the truth expressed 3:28 and 4:6 by “ without works; ” and the phrases singly and together go as far as language can in defining faith to be the sole condition of Justification.

on him that justifieth the ungodly ] These words, with numberless others, remind us that justifying faith is not trust in “ anything ,” but trust in God and His Word. See below on vv. 20 22. “ The ungodly: ” a very strong word the impious man . Same word as ch. 5:6; 2 Peter 2:5 ; Jude 1:4 , &c. Here St Paul leaves the special features of Abraham’s case, to enforce the principle of Justification by an extreme case. He contemplates a man so emphatically “without works” as to be an open sinner: now, this man is justified, is declared to be accepted as righteous, on the sole condition of faith in the Justifier. And God is, as it were, characterized here as He who (habitually) so acts; doubtless to encourage the most unreserved trust. The word “ungodly” is not descriptive of every man: “all have sinned” fatally (3:19, 23); but not all are openly impious . And as men look on these latter as extreme cases, just these are selected for special mention as proper objects of Justification.

6 . Even as David also ] In Psalms 32:0 . This quotation is specially to the point, being not only an inspired statement of truth, but made by one who had been guilty of deep “ungodliness,” and had himself experienced justification under that condition. “ Also: ” i.e. as well as Moses in Genesis. Vv. 6 8 are quite subordinate to the main argument, which is throughout based on Abraham’s justification.

describeth the blessedness ] More lit. expresses the congratulation . The word rendered “blessedness” here and in ver. 9 is properly “the pronouncing happy.” It is just this which is done in Psalms 32:1 , Psalms 32:2 .

imputeth righteousness ] As it is implied that He does when we read that He “will not impute sin ” to him (ver. 8). Not that the two phrases are exactly coincident: to “impute righteousness ” implies a largeness of acceptance not necessary in the other phrase. But, taken with the word “ blessed ,” the non-imputation of sin is practically equivalent to the imputation of righteousness; for such “blessedness” imports a full and solemn acceptance. The latter phrase well illustrates the former: in the latter, man has sin, but is treated as having it not; in the former he has not righteousness, but is treated as having it: “righteousness is reckoned to him without works .”

7 . Blessed , &c.] The Gr. is verbatim from LXX. It is worth remarking that the words (in the Psalm) following this quotation (“and in whose spirit is no guile”) are in full accord with its application here. The “guile” there is evidently “ insincerity in coming as a penitent to God.” The “blessed” are they who are really forgiven who have really sought forgiveness.

are forgiven ] Gr. aorist; were forgiven . The probable reference is to the definite act, past and complete, of remission. So just below, were covered .

covered ] The literal translation of the Hebrew word very often translated “atoned for.”

8 . will not impute ] i.e. at any time of enquiry and judgment that may arise. They “shall not come into condemnation.” (John 5:24 .)

9 . Cometh this blessedness , &c.] Here the reference to David’s words merges again into the main argument from Abraham’s case. This is indicated by the word “then.” The literal rendering of this verse is, This assertion of blessedness therefore does it concern the circumcision, or the uncircumcision as well? For we say that to Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness . This may be paraphrased: “Can it then be applied only to the circumcised? (for it may be urged that David was a circumcised Hebrew); or can we extend it to the uncircumcised? We ask this; for Abraham’s is the case now in hand; and we may look to that case for an answer.”

10 . Not in circumcision ] Genesis 15:0 precedes Genesis 17:0 by at least fourteen years.

11 . the sign of circumcision ] i.e. circumcision as a physical mark to denote the accomplished fact of justification.

a seal of the righteousness ] A formal, legal attestation that He who prescribed the rite held to His grant already made.

the righteousness of the faith , &c.] Lit. the righteousness of that faith which was in his uncircumcision: i.e. “the righteousness (1:17) connected with the faith which he exercised in the days of his uncircumcision.” For a passage illustrative of the words “the righteousness of the faith” see Philippians 3:9 ; “the righteousness which is through faith of (in) Christ, the righteousness granted from God on condition of faith.”

that he might be , &c.] This refers to the whole previous immediate context. Q. d., “It was divinely ordained that Abraham’s justification should precede his circumcision, and so that his circumcision should not convey but attest his justification, in order that his relationship to all the believing, Gentiles and Jews, might stand clear of the circumcision-covenant.”

the father ] The progenitor; in a sense figurative but quite natural. It implies here not only priority in time and example, but that Abraham received a blessing which was the title-deed of inheritance to all who should “walk in the steps of his faith.” On the doctrine of this great spiritual Fatherhood cp. Galatians 3:7 , Galatians 3:9 ; and see Matthew 3:9 ; John 8:39 ; Galatians 6:16 .

them that believe, though , &c.] Lit. them that believe through uncircumcision . The Gr. idiom indicates merely the state in and under which the belief is exercised.

righteousness ] Lit. the righteousness ; i.e. perhaps “the righteousness in question, that which is by faith.”

12 . of circumcision ] Practically = of the circumcision ; (see last note on 1:4). Abraham is here said to be the (spiritual) Father of the circumcision; i.e. of the circumcised; and then at once this is limited to the believing circumcised.

to them who ] i.e. “to the benefit of those who, &c.” They inherit the eternal promise made to their great Father.

but who also walk ] There is a grammatical difficulty in the Gr.; but it leaves the sense exactly as in E. V.

in the steps ] Better, by the steps , as rule and model. Cp. Philippians 3:16 . In the Gr. the verse closes with the words “ of our father Abraham; ” thus with an emphasis on the fact and nature of the fatherhood.

13 . For the promise , &c.] Here again the Gr. order is emphatic: For not through the law came the promise, &c .

that he should be the heir ] Perhaps better, namely, his being: heir , in apposition with “the promise.” The promise made him heir at once , and foretold actual possession. The Gr. word rendered “heir” sometimes means one with a prospect of possession, more rarely an actual possessor.

the world ] Perhaps here in its widest meaning; “heaven and earth,” “the universe.” In Christ, the Son of Abraham, to whom “all power is given in heaven and earth,” the inheritance is seen to be universal. And even a Rabbinic phrase is quoted in which “heaven and earth” are named as promised to Abraham. (See too p. 260.) But looking at Genesis 12:3 , Genesis 22:18 , and at the frequent use of “the world” for “the world of man ” (e. g. ch. 1:8, 3:19; Colossians 1:6 ; 1 Timothy 3:16 ;) and at the special doctrine of this passage (that of a righteousness for believers of every nation ), it seems best to understand it here as = “every land.” Abraham was to possess, in “his seed,” every land; “all kindreds, peoples, and tongues.” Comparing Galatians 3:16 and its connexion, it seems clear that the reference here is to the dominion of Christ, “the Prince of the kings of the earth,” to whom “the utmost parts of the earth” are given “for His possession,” a possession real now, and indeed manifested as real in the important respect that the redeeming power of Messiah is felt in every region, and in an ever-growing degree.

14 . of the law ] Lit. out of the law . On the Gr. construction see on 3:26 ( ad finem ). “ Law ” here is without article, and possibly its reference is general; q. d. “If those who in any sense claim on grounds of a law , &c.” But it is far better to read (in English ) “ the law.” The lack of the article is quite natural where the thing is conspicuous and well known.

heirs ] i.e. of the world, as promised to Abraham.

faith ] Gr. the faith ; i.e., probably, “the faith in question;” justifying faith, and Abraham’s in particular.

made void … of none effect ] Both verbs in Gr. are in the perfect; and the probable point is q. d., “If the Law becomes the condition of heirship, ipso facto the faith and the promise are void;” they have been cancelled by the mere fact of a legal condition.

the promise ] i.e. “that he” (Abraham, in his seed) “should be heir of the world.” In other words, that Messiah, the Son of Abraham, (and thereby His “Israel”), should enjoy a sacred victory and dominion.

15 . the law worketh wrath: for ] “For” indicates that this statement confirms that just made, namely, that inheritance by law must bar the fulfilment of the promise. “The faith” in question was said to be “reckoned for righteousness” to the believer; “the promise” in question was that that believer, as such, should “inherit the world.” But if once the Law, with its only possible terms, interposes between the sinner and justification, he is hopelessly cut off (1) from a valid “righteousness,” and (2) therefore from the “heirship” attached to it. Justification and inheritance are equally out of his reach; because inevitably, as applied to fallen man , the Law (just because holy and absolute) “works wrath;” produces what in the nature of things calls down the Judge’s pure but inexorable wrath; for it produces “transgression” by the fact of its application to man as he is . Note that “ transgression ,” not “ sin ,” is St Paul’s word here. “Sin” is wherever the Fall is; “transgression” is a narrower word; the “overstepping” of a definite condition.

16 . Therefore , &c.] Lit. Therefore out of faith, that according to grace ; a singularly terse sentence even in Gr. “ Therefore: ” q. d., “such being the case under Law, the Divine mercy acted accordingly on our behalf.” The clause may be expanded: “Therefore God took faith as the one condition of justification, so that justification might stand clear of the conditions laid down necessarily in His Law; i.e. those of perfect obedience, outward and inward. That is to say, the justification was ‘according to grace,’ for it treated man as having what he had not meritorious righteousness.” We might of course supply “the promise,” or “the inheritance,” instead of “justification,” as the subject in these clauses. But the latter idea is so much the more prominent, that it is the safer suggestion.

sure ] i.e. not imperilled by the conditions of the Law for the Jewish believer, and by the lack of its privileges for the Gentile believer.

not to that only ] The Gr. has grammatical difficulties, but the sense is practically as in E. V. The “seed” is regarded as in its two great divisions; and here first, that which is “of the law,” i.e. Jewish believers, not as really having a claim from the law, but taken as having one , to bring out the validity of the claim of faith on the Gentiles’ part.

the faith of Abraham ] Abraham is here the example of manifestly extra-legal faith, and therefore the case in point for the Gentile. Not that the Jewish believer (ver. 12) did not equally need “Abraham’s faith,” but the stress here is on the case of the Gentile.

us all ] i.e. all believers; the “nations of the saved” (cp. Galatians 3:7 ). Here first St Paul seems distinctly to turn from his Jewish opponents to his co-believers, Jewish or Gentile. Henceforth there is little if any anti-Jewish reasoning. Wonderful was the triumph of the Gospel, which made it not only possible but profoundly natural for former Pharisees and former idolaters to unite as “we” and “us” in Christ.

17 . as it is written ] Genesis 17:5 , when the name Abraham was given. Cp. the remarkable phrase of Galatians 3:8 , where Scripture is, as it were, identified with its Inspirer, and the words of Genesis are distinctly claimed as a prophecy of the Gospel. It is a shallow criticism that objects that Moses probably had no such design. Whether so or not, the Apostle, like his brethren (1 Peter 1:11 ) and his Lord (Matthew 22:43 ), claims that behind the knowledge, thought, and words of the prophets, lies everywhere the thought and purpose of Him “who spake by them.” And if indeed Jesus is the Eternal Son, is such a preparation for Him out of proportion? The quotation here is lit. from LXX.

before him , &c.] More lit. in the presence (i.e. in the judgment) of the God whom he believed . The clause is connected with “who is the father of us all.” Q. d., “little as man may see in Abraham the forefather of believing Greeks and Scythians, God both ordained and acts upon such fatherhood.”

quickeneth ] i.e. (as always in Bible-English) maketh alive . This noble description of Omnipotence has immediate reference to the miracle of the birth of Isaac in the childless old age of Abraham and Sarah (see ver. 19, and cp. Hebrews 11:11 , Hebrews 11:12 ).

calleth ] i.e., practically, treats as being . Cp. the quotation at 9:25 for a similar use of the verb. The Almighty addresses (i.e. deals with) non-existent things, and even things which from man’s point of view cannot exist (e.g. a son of one who was “as good as dead”), as if existing, because soon to exist according to His purpose.

18 . against hope … in hope ] Lit. beyond hope … upon hope . Here perhaps the first is subjective hope, the second objective. Abraham was asked to believe in a way which went beyond all mere impressions of probability; but he rested upon the “hope set before him” by the Divine promise, and believed.

that he might become ] with a view to becoming . Not that this was the radical motive of his trust; knowledge of God was that motive. But this great “joy set before him” was strongly present in his believing soul.

So shall thy seed be ] Genesis 15:5 . This is interesting, as an example of allusive quotation. St Paul takes it for granted that the reader knows the context , and thus understands the force of the “so.” Cp. Hebrews 6:13 , Hebrews 6:14 , where the very point of the quotation lies in the unquoted context. But that passage, addressed to Jewish disciples, is less remarkable than this, addressed to a mixed, and chiefly Gentile, Church. We have here a significant note of the Apostle’s encouragement of minute study of the O. T. among his Gentile converts. No doubt allusive quotation was much used by the Rabbis; but St Paul would not have used it with Gentiles had he not felt it to be in place. Notice that the words here quoted immediately precede (in Genesis 15:0 ) the words “Abraham believed God, &c.”

19 . being not weak ] i.e., at that crisis; so the Gr. implies. Under that strain he did not succumb; in faith he rose to the effort.

he considered not ] So as to distract his view of the fact of the Promise. He was conscious of the physical impossibility (at least in Genesis 17:17 ), but he looked away from it, and rose above it. See below, vv. 20, 21.

now dead ] Same word as that translated “as good as dead,” Hebrews 11:12 .

about an hundred year old ] Ninety-nine (Genesis 17:1 ). Bengel remarks that between Shem and Abraham none of the patriarchs had begotten a first son (so far as recorded) when 100 years old. Indeed, none did so at above 34, except Terah.

20 21 . he staggered not , &c.] The Gr. suggests the paraphrase; “he looked away from his own physical state, only at the Promise, and did not doubt its terms just because they were the Promise. So he rose in a great effort and exercise of faith, which consisted in giving glory to God (the ‘glory’ of absolute and adoring trust in Him as God); in being perfectly sure of His ability to keep whatever promise He should in fact make.”

We have here a fuller account than anywhere else of the nature of Faith as essentially Trust; not mere historic belief, nor mental assent, but personal Trust; reposed, with application to self of the consequences, on the Divine Promiser as such. We have also a precious suggestion of some reasons (if we may say so) why God prescribes Faith as the condition of the justification of a sinner. Faith, we see, is an act of the soul which looks wholly away from “self” (as regards both merit and demerit), and honours the Almighty and All-gracious in a way not indeed in the least meritorious (because merely reasonable, after all), but yet such as to “touch the hem of His garment.” It brings His creature to Him in the one right attitude complete submission and confidence. We thus see, in part, why faith, and only faith, is the way to reach and touch the Merit of the Propitiation. This is suggested in the next verse.

22 . And therefore , &c.] This quality of faith accounts for its imputation in justification.

23 . Now , &c.] In this ver. and 24, 25, St Paul sums up this part of his argument; the proof from Abraham’s case. He shews its full applicability to those who now likewise “give glory” to the same God by like absolute trust in respect of His explicit Promise of Justification, a Promise finally sealed by the Resurrection of His Son.

for his sake ] Lit. because of him ; i.e. “because Abraham was justified by faith; merely to tell us that.”

24 . for us also ] Lit. also because of us ; “because we were to be likewise dealt with, and therefore needed to know it.”

shall be ] Lit., fully, is about to be . The reference of the futurity is to the abiding intention of the Justifier. Justification is, individually, present on condition of belief; but with regard to all who “shall believe,” it is in intention, a future thing.

if we believe ] More lit. even us who believe . The faith is assumed.

on him that raised up , &c.] The Father. (Cp. Psalms 16:10 ; Acts 2:24 , Acts 2:13 :30, Acts 2:17 :31; Ephesians 1:20 , &c.; Hebrews 13:20 .) His “bringing Jesus again” stands here as a Divine pledge of His infinite trustworthiness . “He hath given assurance unto all men,” not only of judgment (Acts 17:31 ), but of a present and complete justification, “in that He raised Jesus from the dead.” Abraham believed Him specially as the God of the primeval Promise, and of particular providence and love to himself: we believe Him now also as the Father who raised His Son to life after propitiatory death.

our Lord ] The title of Majesty enhances the significance of the Resurrection.

25 . delivered ] As the Victim. Cp. 8:32. Here the Father delivers up His Son. In Galatians 2:20 ; Ephesians 5:2 , &c.; we have the self-surrender of the Son. See Psalms 40:8 , Psalms 40:9 , for the union of the two truths. “Lo, I come; … I delight to do Thy will .”

for our offences ] Lit. because of our offences ; “because we had offended.” Such is the natural meaning of the Gr. The fact of our sins demanded, for their just remission, nothing less than the Lord’s Death.

for our justification ] Lit. because of our Justification . The construction is identical. This, and the balance of the clauses, seem to demand the exposition: “He was raised, because our justification was effected; ” not, “ in order to give us justification,” as many interpret it. The parallel is complete: “We sinned, therefore He suffered: we were justified, therefore He rose.” To this it is objected that the thought is not doctrinally true; justification being, for each believer, dated not from the Lord’s death, but from the time of faith (see ch. 5:1). But the answer is obvious: the Apostle here states the Ideal of the matter; he means not individual justifications, but the Work which for ever secured Justification for the believing Church. A close parallel is the “It is finished” (John 19:30 ). (See too the ideal language in 8:30; and instructive parallels in Hebrews 1:3 and 10:14.) In the Divine Idea every future believer was declared to be justified, through an accomplished Propitiation, when Jesus rose. His resurrection proved His acceptance as our Substitute, and therefore our acceptance in Him. No doubt the other interpretation is true as to fact: He was raised that, through the Gospel, (which but for His resurrection would never have been preached,) we might receive justification. But the Gr. construction, and the balance of clauses, are certainly in favour of that now given.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Romans 4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/romans-4.html. 1896.