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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Romans 4

Verses 1-25

Chapter 4


4:1-8 What, then, shall we say that Abraham, our forefather from whom we take our human descent, found? If Abraham entered into a right relationship with God by means of work, he has some ground for boasting--but not in regard to God. For what does scripture say? "Abraham trusted in God and it was accounted to him for righteousness." The man who works does not receive his pay as a favour; he receives it as a debt due to him. But, as for the man who does not depend on work, but who trusts in the God who treats the ungodly as he would treat a good man, his faith is accounted as righteousness. Just so, David speaks of the counting happy of the man to whom God accounts righteousness apart from works--"Happy they whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sins are covered! Happy the man to whom God does not account sin!"

Paul moves on to speak of Abraham for three reasons.

(i) The Jews regarded Abraham as the great founder of the race and the pattern of all that a man should be. Very naturally they ask, "If all that you say is true, what was the special thing that was given to Abraham when God picked him out to be the ancestor of his special people? What makes him different from other people?" That is the question which Paul is going on to answer.

(ii) Paul has just been seeking to prove that what makes a man right with God is not the performance of the works that the law lays down, but the simple trust of complete yieldedness which takes God at his word and believes that he still loves us even when we have done nothing to deserve that love. The immediate reaction of the Jews was, "This is something entirely new and a contradiction of all that we have been taught to believe. This doctrine is completely incredible." Paul's answer is, "So far from being new, this doctrine is as old as the Jewish faith. So far from being an heretical novelty, it is the very basis of Jewish religion." That is what he is going on to prove.

(iii) Paul begins to speak about Abraham because he was a wise teacher who knew the human mind and the way it works. He has been talking about faith. Now faith is an abstract idea. The ordinary human mind finds abstract ideas very hard to grasp. The wise teacher knows that every idea must become a person, for the only way in which an ordinary person can grasp an abstract idea is to see it in action, embodied in a person. So Paul, in effect, says, "I have been talking about faith. If you want to see what faith is, look at Abraham."

When Paul began to speak about Abraham, he was on ground that every Jew knew and understood. In their thoughts Abraham held a unique position. He was the founder of the nation. He was the man to whom God had first spoken. He was the man who had in a unique way had been chosen by God and who had heard and obeyed him. The Rabbis had their own discussions about Abraham. To Paul the essence of his greatness was this. God had come to Abraham and bidden him leave home and friends and kindred and livelihood, and had said to him, "If you make this great venture of faith, you will become the father of a great nation." Thereupon Abraham had taken God at his word. He had not argued; he had not hesitated; he went out not knowing where he was to go ( Hebrews 11:8). It was not the fact that Abraham had meticulously performed the demands of the law that put him into his special relationship with God, it was his complete trust in God and his complete willingness to abandon his life to him. That for Paul was faith, and it was Abraham's faith which made God regard him as a good man.

Some few, some very few, of the more advanced Rabbis believed that. There was a rabbinic commentary which said, "Abraham, our father, inherited this world and the world to come solely by the merit of faith whereby he believed in the Lord; for it is said, 'And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him for righteousness.'"

But the great majority of the Rabbis turned the Abraham story to suit their own beliefs. They held that because he was the only righteous man of his generation, therefore he was chosen to be the ancestor of God's special people. The immediate answer is, "But how could Abraham keep the law when he lived hundreds of years before it was given?" The Rabbis advanced the odd theory that he kept it by intuition or anticipation. "At that time," says the Apocalypse of Baruch (Baruch 57:2), "the unwritten law was named among them, and the works of the commandment were then fulfilled." "He kept the law of the Most High," says Ecclesiasticus ( Sir_44:20-21 ), "and was taken into covenant with God.... Therefore God assured him by an oath that the nations should be blessed in his seed." The Rabbis were so in love with their theory of works that they insisted that it was because of his works that Abraham was chosen, although it meant that they had to argue that he knew the law by anticipation, since it had not yet come.

Here, again, we have the root cleavage between Jewish legalism and Christian faith. The basic thought of the Jews was that a man must earn God's favour. The basic thought of Christianity is that all a man can do is to take God at his word and stake everything on the faith that his promises are true. Paul's argument was--and he was unanswerably right--that Abraham entered into a right relationship with God, not because he did all kinds of legal works, but because he cast himself, just as he was, on God's promise.

"If our love were but more simple,

We should take him at his word;

And our lives would be all sunshine,

In the sweetness of our Lord."

It is the supreme discovery of the Christian life that we do not need to torture ourselves with a losing battle to earn God's love but rather need to accept in perfect trust the love which God offers to us. True, after that, any man of honour is under the life-long obligation to show himself worthy of that love. But he is no longer a criminal seeking to obey an impossible law; he is a lover offering his all to one who loved him when he did not deserve it.

Sir James Barrie once told a story about Robert Louis Stevenson. "When Stevenson went to Samoa he built a small hut, and afterwards went into a large house. The first night he went into the large house he was feeling very tired and sorrowful that he had not had the forethought to ask his servant to bring him coffee and, cigarettes. Just as he was thinking that, the door opened, and the native boy came in with a tray carrying cigarettes and coffee. And Mr Stevenson said to him, in the native language, 'Great is your forethought'; and the boy corrected him, and said, 'Great is the love.'" The service was rendered, not because of the coercion of servitude, but because of the compulsion of love. That also is the motive of Christian goodness.


4:9-12 Did, then, this pronouncing of blessedness come to Abraham when he was circumcised? Or when he was uncircumcised? We are just saying, "His faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness." Under what circumstances was it then accounted? Was it while he was circumcised? Or was it while he was uncircumcised? It was not while he was circumcised, but while he was uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of that relationship to God whose source was faith while he was still uncircumcised. This happened that he might be the father of all who believe while they are uncircumcised, so that the accounting of righteousness may come to them too; and that he might also be the father of those who are circumcised, and by that I mean, not those who are circumcised only, but who walk in the steps of that faith which our father Abraham showed when he was still uncircumcised.

To understand this passage we must understand the importance that the Jew attached to circumcision. To the Jew a man who was not circumcised was quite literally not a Jew, no matter what his parentage was. The Jewish circumcision prayer runs: "Blessed is he who sanctified his beloved from the womb, and put his ordinance upon his flesh, and sealed his offspring with the sign of the holy covenant." The rabbinic ordinance lays it down: "Ye shall not eat of the Passover unless the seal of Abraham be in your flesh." If a Gentile accepted the Jewish faith, he could not enter fully into it without three things--baptism, sacrifice and circumcision.

The Jewish objector, whom Paul is answering all the time, is still fighting a rear-guard action. "Suppose I admit," he says, "all that you say about Abraham and about the fact that it was his complete trust that gained him an entry into a right relationship with God, you will still have to agree that he was circumcised." Paul has an unanswerable argument. The story of Abraham's call, and of God's blessing on him, is in Genesis 15:6; the story of Abraham's circumcision is in Genesis 17:10 ff. He was not, in fact, circumcised until fourteen years after he had answered God's call and entered into the unique relationship with God. Circumcision was not the gateway to his right relationship with God; it was only the sign and the seal that he had already entered into it. His being accounted righteous had nothing to do with circumcision and everything to do with his act of faith. From this unanswerable fact Paul makes two great deductions.

(i) Abraham is not the father of those who have been circumcised; he is the father of those who make the same act of faith in God as he made. He is the father of every man in every age who takes God at his word as he did. This means that the real Jew is the man who trusts God as Abraham did, no matter what his race is. All the great promises of God are made not to the Jewish nation, but to the man who is Abraham's descendant because he trusts God as he did. Jew has ceased to be a word which describes a nationality and has come to describe a way of life and a reaction to God. The descendants of Abraham are not the members of any particular nation, but those in every nation who belong to the family of God.

(ii) The converse is also true. A man may be a Jew of pure lineage and may be circumcised; and yet in the real sense may be no descendant of Abraham. He has no right to call Abraham his father or to claim the promises of God, unless he makes that venture of faith that Abraham made.

In one short paragraph Paul has shattered all Jewish thought. The Jew always believed that just because he was a Jew he automatically enjoyed the privilege of God's blessings and immunity from his punishment. The proof that he was a Jew was circumcision. So literally did some of the Rabbis take this that they actually said that, if a Jew was so bad that he had to be condemned by God, there was an angel whose task it was to make him uncircumcised again before he entered into punishment.

Paul has laid down the great principle that the way to God is not through membership of any nation, not through any ordinance which makes a mark upon a man's body; but by the faith which takes God at his word and makes everything dependent, not on man's achievement, but solely upon God's grace.

ALL IS OF GRACE ( Romans 4:13-17 )

4:13-17 It was not through law that there came to Abraham or to his seed the promise that he would inherit the earth, but it came through that right relationship with God which has its origin in faith. If they who are vassals of the law are heirs, then faith is drained of its meaning, and the promise is rendered inoperative; for the law produces wrath, but where law does not exist, neither can transgression exist. So, then, the whole process depends on faith, in order that it may be a matter of grace, so that the promise should be guaranteed to all Abraham's descendants, not only to those who belong to the tradition of the law, but also to those who are of Abraham's family in virtue of faith. Abraham who is the father of us all--as it stands written, "I have appointed you a father of many nations"--in the sight of that God in whom he believed, that God who calls the dead into life, and who calls into being even things which do not exist.

To Abraham God made a very great and wonderful promise. He promised that he would become a great nation, and that in him all families of the earth would be blessed ( Genesis 12:2-3). In truth, the earth would be given to him as his inheritance. Now that promise came to Abraham because of the faith that he showed towards God. It did not come because he piled up merit by doing works of the law. It was the outgoing of God's generous grace in answer to Abraham's absolute faith. The promise, as Paul saw it, was dependent on two things and two things only--the free grace of God and the perfect faith of Abraham.

The Jews were still asking, "How can a man enter into the right relationship with God so that he too may inherit this great promise?" Their answer was, "He must do so by acquiring merit in the sight of God through doing works which the law prescribes." That is to say, he must do it by his own efforts. Paul saw with absolute clearness that this Jewish attitude had completely destroyed the promise. It had done so for this reason--no man can fully keep the law; therefore, if the promise depends on keeping the law, it can never be fulfilled.

Paul saw things in terms of black and white. He saw two mutually exclusive ways of trying to get into a right relationship with God. On the one hand there was dependence on human effort; on the other, dependence on divine grace. On the one hand there was the constant losing battle to obey an impossible law; on the other, there was the faith which simply takes God at his word.

On each side there were three things.

(i) On the one side there is God's promise. There are two Greek words which mean promise. Huposchesis means a promise which is entered into upon conditions. "I promise to do this if you promise to do that." Epaggelia ( G1860) means a promise made out of the goodness of someone's heart quite unconditionally. It is epaggelia ( G1860) that Paul uses of the promise of God. It is as if he is saying, "God is like a human father; he promises to love his children no matter what they do." True, he will love some of us with a love that makes him glad, and he will love some of us with a love that makes him sad; but in either case it is a love which will never let us go. It is dependent not on our merit but only on God's own generous heart.

(ii) There is faith. Faith is the certainty that God is indeed like that. It is staking everything on his love.

(iii) There is grace. A gift of grace is always something which is unearned and undeserved. The truth is that man can never earn the love of God. He must always find his glory, not in what he can do for God, but in what God has done for him.

(i) On the other side there is law. The trouble about law has always been that it can diagnose the malady but cannot effect a cure. Law shows a man where he goes wrong, but does not help him to avoid going wrong. There is in fact, as Paul will later stress, a kind of terrible paradox in law. It is human nature that when a thing is forbidden it has a tendency to become desirable. "Stolen fruits are sweetest." Law, therefore, can actually move a man to desire the very thing which it forbids. The essential complement of law is judgment, and, so long as a man lives in a religion whose dominant thought is law, he cannot see himself as anything other than a condemned criminal at the bar of God's justice.

(ii) There is transgression. Whenever law is introduced, transgression follows. No one can break a law which does not exist; and no one can be condemned for breaking a law of whose existence he was ignorant. If we introduce law and stop there, if we make religion solely a matter of obeying law, life consists of one long series of transgressions waiting to be punished.

(iii) There is wrath. Think of law, think of transgression, and inevitably the next thought is wrath. Think of God in terms of law and you cannot do other than think of him in terms of outraged justice. Think of man in terms of law and you cannot do other than think of him as destined for the condemnation of God.

So Paul sets before the Romans two ways. The one is a way in which a man seeks a right relationship with God through his own efforts. It is doomed to failure. The other is a way in which a man enters by faith into a relationship with God, which by God's grace already exists for him to come into in trust.


4:18-25 In hope Abraham believed beyond hope that he would become the father of many nations, as the saying had it, "So will be your seed.?" He did not weaken in his faith, although he was well aware that by this time his body had lost its vitality (for he was a hundred years old), and that the womb of Sarah was without life. He did not in unfaith waver at the promise of God, but he was revitalized by his faith, and he gave glory to God, and he was firmly convinced that he who had made the promise was also able to perform it. So this faith was accounted to him as righteousness. It was not only for his sake this "it was accounted to him for righteousness" was written. It was written also for our sakes; for it will be so reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead, who was delivered up for our sin and raised to bring us into a right relationship with God.

The last passage ended by saying that Abraham believed in the God who calls the dead into life and who brings into being even things which have no existence at all. This passage turns Paul's thoughts to another outstanding example of Abraham's willingness to take God at his word. The promise that all families of the earth would be blessed in his descendants was given to Abraham when he was an old man. His wife, Sarah, had always been childless; and now, when he was one hundred years old and she was ninety ( Genesis 17:17), there came the promise that a son would be born to them. It seemed, on the face of it, beyond all belief and beyond all hope of fulfilment, for he was long past the age of begetting and she long past the age of bearing a son. Yet, once again, Abraham took God at his word and once again it was this faith that was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.

It was this willingness to take God at his word which put Abraham into a right relationship with him. Now the Jewish Rabbis had a saying to which Paul here refers. They said, "What is written of Abraham is written also of his children." They meant that any promise that God made to Abraham extends to his children also. Therefore, if Abraham's willingness to take God at his word brought him into a right relationship with God, so it will be with us. It is not works of the law, it is this trusting faith which establishes the relationship between God and a man which ought to exist.

The essence of Abraham's faith in this case was that he believed that God could make the impossible possible. So long as we believe that everything depends on our efforts, we are bound to be pessimists, for experience has taught the grim lesson that our own efforts can achieve very little. When we realize that it is not our effort but God's grace and power which matter, then we become optimists, because we are bound to believe that with God nothing is impossible.

It is told that once Saint Theresa set out to build a convent with a sum the equivalent of twelve pence as her complete resources. Someone said to her, "Not even Saint Theresa can accomplish much with twelve pence." "True," she answered, "but Saint Theresa and twelve pence and God can do anything." A man may well hesitate to attempt a great task by himself; there is nothing which he need hesitate to attempt with God. Ann Hunter Small, the great missionary teacher, tells how her father, himself a missionary, used to say: "Oh! the wickedness as well as the stupidity of the croakers!" And she herself had a favourite saying: "A church which is alive dares to do anything." That daring only becomes possible to a man and to a church who take God at his word.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Romans 4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.