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Bible Commentaries
Romans 4

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1

(1) To come back to the question of Romans 3:1, repeated in Romans 3:9, in what did the superiority of Abraham, the great representative of the Jewish race, really consist?

As pertaining to the flesh.—The construction of these words appears to be determined by their position in the sentence. According to the best MSS. they are distinctly separated from “hath found” and joined with “our father.” They would therefore mean simply “our father according to the flesh,” i.e., by natural descent, as in Romans 1:3.

Hath found.Hath got, or gained, by way of advantage.

Verses 1-25


(1-25) The subject of the chapter is an application of the foregoing to the special (and crucial) case of Abraham, with particular reference to two ideas that are continually recurring throughout the last chapter: (1) the supposed superiority of Jew to Gentile (and, à fortiori, of the great progenitor of the Jews); (2) the idea of boasting or glorying based upon this superiority. Following out this the Apostle shows how even Abraham’s case tells, not against, but for the doctrine of justification by faith. Indeed, Abraham himself came under it. And not only so, but those who act upon this doctrine are spiritually descendants of Abraham. It is entirely a mistake to suppose that they of the circumcision only are Abraham’s seed. The true seed of Abraham are those who follow his example of faith. He put faith in the promise, they must put their faith in the fulfilment of the promise.

Verse 2

(2) We know that he obtained justification. If that justification had been earned by his own works it would then have been something to be proud of; it would be a pride that he might fairly hold both towards men and towards God; for to men he could point to the privileged position that he had gained, and in the sight of God he would be able to plead a certain merit of his own. But he has not this merit. His justification was not earned, but it was bestowed upon him, not for the sake of his works, but of his faith. This is the express statement of Scripture. And hence it follows that though his privileged position in the sight of men remains, he has nothing to boast of before God.

But not before God.—This is an instance of the rapid and eager dialectic of the Apostle. If the whole train of thought had been given it would probably have run much as above, but the greater part of it is suppressed, and the Apostle strikes straight at the one point which he intended to bring into relief. (Whatever there might be before men) there is no boasting before God.

Verse 3

(3) The Apostle gives a proof of this from Scripture. Abraham was not justified by works, and therefore had nothing to boast of in God’s sight. He was justified by faith. His righteousness was not real, but imputed. His faith was treated as if it had been equivalent to a righteousness of works. It met with the same acceptance in the sight of God that a righteousness of works would have done. But—the argument goes on—faith carries with it no such idea of merit or debt as works. It is met by a pure act of grace on the part of God.

Abraham believed God.—The quotation is taken from Genesis 15:6, where it appears as a comment upon Abraham’s belief in the promise that he should have a numerous posterity. The same passage is elaborately commented upon by Philo and others, so that it would seem to have been a common topic in the Jewish schools. It should be noticed that the word “faith” is not used in quite the same sense in the original and in the application. In Abraham’s case it was trust in the fulfilment of the divine promise, in St. Paul’s sense it is rather enthusiastic adhesion to a person. This is part of the general enlargement and deepening of the Old Testament terminology by St. Paul. A writer of less profundity (though marked by striking and elevated qualities), the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, applies the word more strictly. (See Hebrews 11:8 et seq.) In James 2:23 the word has the still thinner meaning of a merely intellectual assent. St Paul quotes the same passage in the same sense as here in Galatians 3:6. (See Excursus B: On the Meaning of the word Faith.)

It was counted unto him.—It should be observed that the same words are translated by the Authorised version here, “it was counted unto him;” in Romans 4:9, “faith was reckoned to Abraham;” in Romans 4:22, “it was imputed unto him;” in Galatians 3:6, “it was accounted to him;” in James 2:23, “it was imputed to him.” A defect in the translation, which, however, hardly obscures the true meaning.

The sense of imputation is not to be got rid of. It is distinctly a forensic act. The righteousness attributed to Abraham is not an actual righteousness, but something else that is considered and treated as if it were equivalent to such righteousness. It is so treated by God acting as the judge of men. (See Excursus E: On the Doctrine of Justification by Faith and Imputed Righteousness.)

Verse 4

(4) This, then (the righteousness attributed to Abraham), was an act of grace on the part of God, and not of merit on the part of man. It therefore carries with it no ground of boasting.
The proposition is put in a general form. Those who base their claim on works have a right to their reward. It is not conceded to them by any sort of imputation, but is their desert. On the other hand (Romans 4:5), those who rely only upon faith, even though ungodly themselves, have righteousness imputed to them. This latter was Abraham’s case, and not the former. (The specific application to Abraham is not expressed, but implied.)

The reward.—Literally, his wages. The relation between what he receives and what he does is that of wages for work done. He can claim it, if need be, in a court of law. There is in it no element of grace, or favour, or concession.

Verse 5

(5) But to him who puts forward no works, but has faith in God, who justifies men, not for their righteousness, but in spite of their sins, &c.

The ungodly.—A stronger word is here used than simply “the unrighteous,” “the impious,” or “ungodly.” Their impiety is condoned to them in virtue of their single exercise of faith. It is characteristic of the Apostle not to flinch from the boldest expression, though, as a matter of fact, the two things, faith and positive impiety, would hardly be found together. “The ungodly” clearly belongs to the general form of the proposition, and is not intended to apply to Abraham.

Verse 6

(6) Even as.—In strict accordance with this description of the justified state we have another, that of David.

Describeth the blessedness.—Rather, speaks the felicitation, felicitates, or pronounces blessed.

Verses 6-8

(6-8) A further instance of the nature of the justification which proceeds from faith is supplied by David. From his evidence it will appear that such justification implies, not the absence of sin, but its forgiveness; not its real obliteration, but the forbearance of God to impute it. It is an amnesty, not an acquittal.

Verse 7

(7) Forgiven.—The stress is upon this word; “whose sins are not abolished, but forgiven; not annihilated, but covered up, removed from sight, hidden by the absolving grace of God.”

Verse 9

(9) Cometh this blessedness.—We shall, perhaps. best see the force of the particles “then” and “for” if we take the sentence out of its interrogative form. “It follows from the language of David that the blessedness thus predicated belongs to the uncircumcised as well as to the circumcised, for”—then comes the first premise of the argument by which this is proved. It was the act of faith which was the cause of Abraham’s justification. But both the act of faith and the justification consequent upon it were prior to the institution of the rite of circumcision. The narrative of this institution falls in Genesis 17:0, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and Ishmael, his son, thirteen (Genesis 17:1; Genesis 17:24-25), while the vision and promise of Genesis 15:0 apparently came before the birth of Ishmael.

Verses 9-12

(9-12) What is the bearing of this upon the relation between Jew and Gentile? Is the blessedness of the justified state reserved only for the former? Is it limited to those who are circumcised? On the contrary, the state of justification was attributed to Abraham himself before he was circumcised. Justification is the result of faith, not of circumcision. Circumcision is so far from superseding faith that it was only the sign or seal of it.

This, then, is the great test. Those who have it may hope for justification, whether their descent from Abraham is spiritual or literal.

Verse 11

(11) The sign of circumcisioni.e., circumcision as a sign. The expression is an instance of what is known in Greek as the “genitive of apposition,” but it is common in English. Thus we speak of the City of London, the County of Kent.

Abraham is the father (1) of faithful uncircumcised—he himself being so—and (2) of circumcised, but only of faithful circumcised.

A seal of the righteousness . . .—The Apostle here puts forth his view of the real import of circumcision. It was not (as so many of his contemporaries supposed) the cause or condition of Israel’s privileges so much as the sign or ratification of them. It ratified a state of things already existing when it was instituted. Hence, to those who inherited that state of things (justification by faith) the want of circumcision was no bar.

Verse 12

(12) And on the other hand, the mere performance of the rite was no guarantee for justification, unless it was attended with a faith like Abraham’s. Of the two things, faith itself, and circumcision the sign of faith, the first only was essential, and the second was useless without it.

Verse 13

(13) Abraham was the father of all who walk in his steps. For this all is not limited by the Law any more than it is limited by circumcision. The promise of that world-wide inheritance was not given through the agency of the Law (which at that time did not exist), but as an effect of the righteousness which proceeds from faith.

Heir of the world.—This promise was explained by the Jews of the universal sovereignty of the Messiah.

Through the righteousness of faith.—As a further consequence of that (imputed) righteousness which proceeds from faith. Three stages are indicated: (1) faith, (2) imputed righteousness, (3) access to the Messianic kingdom with all its privileges.

Verse 14

(14) Is made void.—Literally, emptied of its meaning, becomes an empty name, and the promise is rendered nugatory. There is nothing left for either to do, if the votaries of law, simply as such, are to be the inheritors of the Messianic kingdom.

Verses 14-17

(14-17) This Messianic kingdom cannot have anything to do with law; for if it had, faith and the promise would cease to have any office. Faith and law cannot co-exist. They are the opposites of each other. The proper effect of law is punishment; for law only exposes sin. Faith, on the other hand, is the real key to the inheritance. It sets in motion grace; and grace, unlike law, excludes no one. It is open alike to the legal and to the spiritual descendants of Abraham; in other words (as the Scripture itself testifies), to all mankind, as the representative of whom Abraham stands before God.

Verse 15

(15) But in reality the Law is unable to admit them to this. It has an entirely contrary function—namely, to call down punishment upon the offences that it reveals. The Law and faith, therefore, mutually exclude each other, and faith is left to be the sole arbiter of salvation.

Where no law is.—Transgression is ex vi termini the transgression or breach of law, and therefore has no existence in that age of unconscious morality which precedes the introduction of law.

Verse 16

(16) Therefore it is of faith.—The words “it is” have to be supplied. “It” stands for the Messianic inheritance, or, in common phrase, salvation. Faith on man’s part is correlative with grace on the part of God, and salvation being thus dependent upon grace is as wide and universal as grace itself. It knows no restriction of law.

Not to that only which is of the law.—Not only to that part of the human race which belongs to the dispensation of the Law, but also to that which is in a spiritual sense descended from Abraham by imitating his faith.

Verse 17

(17) Before him.—Rather, in the presence of. These words are to be connected closely with those which precede the parenthesis: “Who stands as the father of us all in the presence of that God in whom he believed.” Abraham is regarded as (so to speak) confronting the Almighty, as he had done when the promise was first given to him.

Who quickeneth.—“Who gives life to that which is dead, and issues His fiat to that which is not as though it were.” The words have reference, in the first instance, to the dealings of God with Abraham, described in the verses that follow—(1) to the overruling of the laws of nature indicated in Romans 4:19; (2) to the declaration, “So shall thy seed be.” There is, however, also an undercurrent of reference to the calling of the Gentiles: “I will call them My people which were not My people, and her beloved which was not beloved.”

Verse 18

(18) Who.—It must be noticed that the relative here refers to Abraham, whereas in the previous verse it referred to God.

Believed in hope.—The force of the preposition gives rather to the sentence the meaning of “grounded his faith upon hope”—that internal subjective hope that was strong within him, though there were no objective grounds for hoping.

That he might become.—So as by exercise of faith to carry out God’s purpose.

Verses 18-22

(18-22) Extended description of the faith of Abraham.

Verse 19

(19) Considered not.—The negative should, in accordance with the evidence of the best MSS., be emitted. “Who, because he was not weak in faith, considered indeed—took full account of—the natural impediments to the fulfilment of the promise, and yet did not doubt.”

Verse 20

(20) In faith.—Better, through or by faith, corresponding to “through unbelief” in the preceding clause. Unbelief did not make him doubt, but faith made him confident and strong.

Giving glory to God.—This phrase does not necessarily refer to a verbal ascription of praise, but may be used of anything which tends to God’s glory, whether in thought, word, or deed (comp. Joshua 7:19; Ezra 10:11; Jeremiah 13:16; Luke 17:18; John 9:24; Acts 12:23); here it seems to be applied to the frank recognition of God’s omnipotence involved in Abraham’s faith.

Verses 23-25

(23-25) Application of the foregoing. The history of Abraham is a type of the dispensation of grace; his faith, the imputation of righteousness to him, and his reward, each severally a type of the same things in the Christian. Even in details the resemblance holds. Abraham put faith in a God “who quickeneth the dead,” and in like manner the Christian must put faith in God as the Author of a scheme of salvation attested by the resurrection of Christ. The death of Christ was the ground of that scheme, the resurrection of Christ its proof, without which it would not have been brought home to man.

Verse 24

(24) That raised up.—It is an association of ideas which leads the Apostle up to this point. The birth of Isaac resembles the resurrection of Christ in that it involved the exercise of Omnipotence, and in that Omnipotence Abraham believed and we are to believe. The Apostle is further led to allude to the Resurrection (though he has not laid so much stress upon it hitherto) because of the place which it held in his theory of the gospel.

Verse 25

(25) Was deliveredi.e., to death, as in Isaiah 53:12 (LXX. version); Matthew 17:22; et al.

For our offences.Because of our offencesi.e., in order that He might atone for them.

For our justification.Because of our justificationi.e., that justification might take effect in us.

The death of Christ is the proper cause of justification, or means of atonement, according to St. Paul; the resurrection of Christ is only the mediate or secondary cause of it. The atoning efficacy lay in His death, but the proof of that efficacy—the proof that it was really the Messiah who died—was to be seen in the Resurrection. The Resurrection, therefore, gave the greatest impulse to faith in the atoning efficacy of the death upon the cross, and in this way helped to bring about justification. Comp. especially 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins”—i.e., you have no guarantee that your sins have really been remitted; if the death of Christ had not been followed by His resurrection, the inference would have followed that it was merely the death of an ordinary man, and without any special saving efficacy.

The distinction should be carefully observed between the bearing of these two acts, the death and the resurrection of Christ, on the doctrines of justification and sanctification respectively. For the latter see especially Romans 6:2 et seq.

In looking back over the argument of this fourth chapter, we feel that it is a keen and subtle argumentum ad hominem, addressed to Jews, and based upon their own method of interpretation. Its permanent value is derived from its bearing upon the theological system of St. Paul himself—the doctrines of faith, grace, no boasting, the supreme disposing power of God, the saving efficacy of the death of Christ.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Romans 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/romans-4.html. 1905.
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