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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

Romans 4

Verse 3


‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.’

Romans 4:3

What was Abraham’s standing before God? If it was one of blessed acceptance, how was that privilege secured and maintained?

I. The relation in which Abraham stood towards God was one of harmony and friendship.—If he was a pilgrim and a stranger so far as earth was concerned, he evidently had a rest and a home in God; so much so, that God speaks of him as ‘Abraham, My beloved.’

II. On what grounds did Abraham enjoy this privilege?

( a) Abraham was a justified man ( Romans 4:2). The Apostle, at the same moment that he declares that the justification of Abraham was not by works, implies also that he was justified, somehow or or other. The whole chapter involves this. Now ‘to justify’ is ‘to reckon, or to treat as just.’

( b) Abraham was justified freely by grace, not by law. Justification was his, not by equity, but by favour; and this gracious course of things was set a-going without any infringement on or impeachment of the rectitude of that which would have been simply an equitable course of things.

( c) Abraham was justified freely on grounds which were adequate to warrant his justification. God had made a great promise to Abraham ( Romans 4:20; Genesis 12:2-3). In that promise the Gospel was contained ( Galatians 3:8). All was included therein which laid the basis of Abraham’s justification—and of ours. The Apostle’s exposition of this point in Galatians 3 is exceedingly clear ( Galatians 3:8-18). The seed was Christ; the blessing was Justification.

( d) God having furnished the objective ground of Abraham’s justification, Abraham was justified actually the moment he believed! ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness.’ There is no trace here of any ‘legal fiction,’ as some have thought; nor yet of the ‘imputed righteousness of Christ,’ which phrase is not a scriptural one; the scriptural form of expression is, ‘the righteousness which is of God by faith.’ By graciously assuming new relations to us, God creates a new righteousness. God gave Abraham the promise; Abraham received it, and was righteous before God. God offers us Christ (in and by Whom the promise is realised); we accept the ‘unspeakable gift,’ and are justified freely by His grace.


‘To make justification a mere synonym for pardon is always inadequate. Justification is the contemplation and treatment of the penitent sinner, found in Christ, as righteous, as satisfactory to the Law, not merely as one whom the Law lets go. Is this a fiction? Not at all. It is vitally linked to two great spiritual facts. One is, that the sinner’s Friend has Himself dealt, in the sinner’s interests, with the Law, honouring its holy claim to the uttermost under the human conditions which he freely undertook. The other is that he has mysteriously, but really, joined the sinner to Himself, in faith, by the Spirit; joined him to Himself as limb, as branch, as bride. Christ and His disciples are really one in the order of spiritual life. And so the community between Him and them is real, the community of their debt on the one side, of His merit on the other.’

Verse 7


‘Blessed are they … whose sins are covered.’

Romans 4:7

How to get sin covered has been the question which has exercised man’s thoughts ever since he became a sinner. Consider—

I. What cannot cover sin.

( a) Distance from God does not cover up our sins. Wherever in the universe—out of Christ—God’s eye sees a sinner, there He sees the uncovered sin.

( b) Sins are not covered by lapse of time. Every unforgiven sin cries aloud for vengeance.

( c) Concealment from fellow-men of no avail. ‘There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed.’

( d) Suffering has no power to cover sin, even though it be the direct consequence and manifest punishment of sin. ‘Without shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins.’

( e) Every effort by keeping God’s commandments to cover past sin is vain.

( f) Repentance, sorrow for sin, is powerless to do away one particle of sin. Verse preceding text shows that.

II. With what can sin be covered?—The covering must be one that will stand in the Judgment Day. Obviously, it must be of God’s providing. Has God furnished it? Hearken while he speaks. ‘I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions.’ ‘He Who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.’ The sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is the only covering for sin. It is of God’s providing: it is adequate and effectual. On this covering God’s eye rests with satisfaction. ‘When I see the blood I will pass over you.’ The source and origin of salvation is God’s forbearing love to man as, and while, a sinner. Christ Jesus crucified for us, living for us—this is the covering for our soul.

Rev. E. P. Hathaway.


‘A woman came to a clergyman, carrying in her hands a quantity of wet sand. “Do you see what this is, sir?” she said. “Yes. It is wet sand.” “But do you know what it means?” “I do not know exactly what you mean by it. What is it?” “Ah, sir!” she said, “that’s me, and the multitude of my sins can‘t be numbered”; and she gave way to passionate weeping. The minister, calming her, asked her where she had procured the sand. “On the shore.” “Go back then and take a spade with you and dig till you raise a good mound, shovel it as high as ever you can and leave it. Stand back on the shore and see the effect of the waves upon it.” The meaning came home to the woman. The blood of Christ would wash all her sins away. Her sin would be covered.’

Verse 8


‘Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.’

Romans 4:8

The text is a part of the quotation from David ( Psalms 32:1-2), and it suggests these questions, viz.—

I. To whom will the Lord not impute sin?—The answer is—

( a) To those who believe in Christ. ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness’ ( Romans 4:3). But what did God reveal to Abraham which was the matter of his believing? The promise concerning his seed (cf. Genesis 12:3; Genesis 15:5-6). But that seed was Christ (cf. Genesis 3:15; Galatians 3:16). Agreeably to this God gave to Abraham ‘the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had’ ( Romans 4:11). For this was a sign of the cutting off out of the land of the living of the holy seed of promise. It was also a sign of the cutting off or removal from the believer of all concupiscence through Christ. This also was the case with David. He had wonderful insight into the ‘manner of man’ Messiah should be, who was to arise in his line, and who was to become, by imputation, ‘wicked,’ and suffer the punishment of sin for us, from the hands of God and man (see 2 Samuel 7:14; 2 Samuel 7:19; Hebrews 1:5).

( b) To those who believe in Christ alone. This was the point at issue with the Judaisers. They pleaded for the works of the the law in addition. They especially pleaded for circumcision as a condition of justification. But was Abraham justified by the law? Certainly not, for the law was not given till four hundred years after Abraham’s time (see Galatians 3:17-18). And as to circumcision: Abraham was justified by faith for at least fifteen years (some say twenty-five) before he received this rite. God’s mercy found Abraham a heathen ( Joshua 24:2). Then, he believed God, not as a righteous man, but being ungodly, and received the justification of faith. We are saved by grace, purely by God’s merciful prerogative, through the redemption of Christ. This also was the source of David’s justification, as expressed in the text. It is not in the nature of law to justify the ungodly. It will justify the innocent. To the ungodly law can only work ‘wrath,’ by discovering transgression, and bringing down its penalty.

( c) With what kind of faith must we believe? There are two kinds—viz. the faith of assent, and the faith of confidence or reliance. The former is the foundation of the latter. The former may exist without the latter. The latter is the saving faith. We must confide in Christ as our Saviour. We must rely upon Him for salvation. Justification by faith is so plain that all may comprehend it. It is so free that all may attain it.

( d) Here is no countenance to the Antinomian doctrine of imputed righteousness. That doctrine is that the active personal righteousness of Christ is imputed to every believer. But this is not St. Paul’s doctrine. It is nowhere stated in Scripture that Christ’s obedience to the moral law is imputed to any man. It is not common sense. For how could Christ, e.g., have fulfilled for us the moral duties of parents, husbands, wives, servants, etc., when He never sustained these relations? The meritorious cause of our justification, laid down in Scripture everywhere, is the death of Christ (cf. Romans 3:25; Romans 5:6; Romans 5:10; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 5:2; Colossians 1:14; Colossians 1:20; Colossians 1:22; 1 Timothy 2:6; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 10:10). In the death of Christ the requirement of the broken law is fully met. Before it was broken the law required obedience; but broken, it does not now look for obedience, but for the death of the sinner. This requirement Christ met by becoming the sinner, or sin-bearer, in our stead, and by suffering for us the penalty. The instrumental cause of our justification is faith. ‘Faith is imputed for righteousness.’ The ungodly is justified by his faith.

II. What is the blessedness of the believer?

( a) He is released from the punishment of sin. The death of hell is a fearful reality. Its fearfulness may be realised in the fact that it is the antithesis of the glorious life of heaven. The anger of God is a dreadful fire. It makes the death of the body a king of terrors. This death terminates our probation, as well as ends to the sinner the enjoyments of existence. It introduces him to the judgment seat. Release here is a grand relief. ‘Blessed is the man.’ ‘His iniquities are forgiven.’ He is healed as just. He has nothing now to fear.

( b) He enjoys the inheritance of the saints. He has the blessing of Abraham. For he is the son of Abraham. Not according to the flesh. To be lineal descendants of Abraham is not without its blessings (see Romans 9:1-5). But the ‘children of the promise’ are the children of faith. These are ‘counted for the seed.’ As Jabal was the father of shepherds, and Jubal of musicians, so is Abraham the father of believers. The blessing of Abraham makes us heirs of the covenant. It gives us the blessings of adoption into the family of God ( Ephesians 1:5-6). It entitles us to the inheritance of heaven ( Hebrews 11:8-10). He has also the ‘sure mercies of David.’ The royalty of the saints is brought out as the covenant was established with David (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-17; Psalms 89:1-4; Psalms 89:27-37; Daniel 7:18; Romans 5:17; 1 Corinthians 6:2; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 1:6; Revelation 5:10; Revelation 11:15; Revelation 20:6; Revelation 22:5).



Here is the gift of forgiveness in Christ, free to us as the air we breathe.

I. Man owes perfect obedience to the law of God.—God ‘imputes,’ reckons with, a man in the matter of obedience. God’s law is holy, just, good; is adapted to man’s nature. Whatever his bias to sin, the great word ‘ought’ is felt by man as that which describes his relation to the law of God.

II. Man has not paid this perfect obedience.—He must acknowledge ‘sin.’ A debt is due by him. Was there ever such a hopeless bankrupt as man in relation to the law of God? We ‘have sinned; what shall we answer Thee, Thou preserver of souls?’ ‘Wert Thou just to mark our iniquities we could not answer.’

III. God for Christ’s sake offers to remit the debt.—He ‘will not impute sin.’ Nature has no full forgiveness for any transgression of her laws. In the healing of disease, etc., she mitigates, but does not entirely pardon. Her freed men have an inferior place to her free men. But the ‘blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ It is a sea in which it is buried out of sight.

IV. This offer must be accepted by each man individually.—‘The man.’ You and I must have the announcement of forgiveness spoken into our ear. ‘Thy sins which were many are all forgiven thee.’

V. The great blessing of the Gospel.—‘Blessed is the man.’ ‘Redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sin.’ It is the first and direct gift of God to man as a sinner. It is the entrance to the home of God’s love and peace and joy. Blessed only the man by whom the doorway is entered.


‘If our sins were the cause of Christ’s suffering, the emotions which should be awakened in our breast should surely be a fear of sin. With the awful and mysterious declaration of the text before our eyes, what possible hope of escape can we have if we continue in sin? Another habitual feeling which the great truth of the text should leave in our hearts is a hatred for sin. Many reasons have we, indeed, to hate sin, for it is the degradation of our race, the cause of all our sufferings, and the peril of our everlasting future; and the more we are taught by God’s Spirit to see the beauty of holiness, and to love the just and the pure and the true, the more we shall hate sin for its own sake, its moral deformity, and its enmity to God and to good. But while fear and hatred of sin should accompany a belief in the atonement, the truth should be embraced by a trusting and cheerful faith. The mysterious greatness of the sacrifice offered when Christ suffered magnifies the Divine justice and the guilt of sin. It also demonstrates the infinitude of God’s mercy. The atonement thus embraced by faith should be the root and spring of a loving obedience. The highest conceivable instance of God’s love, it should enkindle in our hearts the love of God.’

Verse 12


‘That faith of our father Abraham.’

Romans 4:12

The Bible has been represented as a picture gallery. Abel, noted for his vicarious devotion; Enoch, for his angelic sanctity; Noah, for his unflagging obedience; Moses, for his gentle meekness; Job, for his wonderful patience; and Abraham, for his triumphant faith.

I. The lofty characteristics of Abraham’s faith.

( a) He believed in the being of God. This, in fact, was the prime article of his faith, as it must be of that of every man. He looked to God, therefore, far more than they did who worshipped the orb of heaven, and he relied upon Him more than they did who confided in immediate kindred or powerful tribe. God was verily ‘the all and in all’ of his creed and belief ( Hebrews 11:6).

( b) He believed in the promise of God. A promise relates to the future. Its aim and tendency is to beget or strengthen confidence in the God Who made it; and this was the effect of the promise on promise Divinely made to Abraham until his faith became so Samsonian and victorious that he believed when there appeared no possibility soever of the fulfilment of any one of them. His faith laughed at every impossibility, because he was absolutely sure that God’s hand would accomplish the word His lips had spoken ( Hebrews 11:8-12; Hebrews 11:17-19).

( c) He believed in the ordinance of God. Circumcision was enjoined by God upon him when He made His first covenant with him (Genesis 17). And circumcision was the seal of this covenant. Immediately after Abraham woke up and found himself in the possession of a new life. And so baptism, which circumcision prefigured by a sign, is a seal of the covenant of grace ( Romans 4:14).

( d) He believed in the heaven of God. He felt in his innermost self that there was another and higher and happier world than this in the deeps of infinite space, and his heart stole away from the desert to ‘the land that is very far off’—from the unsightly and shaky tent to ‘the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” ( Php_1:23 ).

II. The blessed results of his faith.

( a) He was justified by it. God accepted him because he exercised faith in God. He regarded him as justified; and justification is the non-imputation of sin and the actual imputation of righteousness ( Romans 4:3).

( b) He was sanctified by it. The moment he believed, his sanctification commenced. His justification was perfected instantly; but his sanctification progressed throughout his life. Justification gives a title to heaven; santification gives a meetness for heaven.

( c) He was honoured by it. He became not only ‘the father of circumcision,’ but the father of the Hebrew nation; nay, of all God’s elect, and therefore the father of the future Church of the Redeemer. At first he was a childless man; but at last his seed, both natural and spiritual, became as ‘the dust of the earth’ and ‘the stars of heaven.’

( d) He was at last beatified by it. His faith led Him first to God, and then, finally, to go up to God. ‘God is in heaven,’ and ‘heaven is His throne,’ and the place where His throne rests is the final home of all believers in Him. So faith begins, and so faith is consummated. There is no need for faith in heaven, but it certainly conducts to heaven, and is the golden key with which its pearly gates are opened.

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Romans 4". The Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.