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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Romans 4

Verses 1-25

Romans 4:3

In this word faith, as used by St. Paul, we reach a point round which the ceaseless stream of religious exposition and discussion has for ages circled.... It will at once appear that while it can properly be said of Abraham, for instance, that he was justified by faith, if we take faith in its plain sense of holding fast to an unseen power of goodness, yet it cannot without difficulty and recourse to a strained figure, be said of him, if we take faith in Paul's specific sense of identification with Christ through the emotion of attachment to him. Paul, however, undoubtedly, having conveyed his new specific sense into the word faith, still uses the word both in the specific sense of identification with Christ and also in all cases where, without this specific sense, it was before applicable and usual, and in this way he often creates ambiguity. Why, it may be asked, does Paul, instead of employing another term to denote his special meaning, still thus employ the general term faith? We are inclined to think it was from that desire to get for his words and thoughts not only the real but also the apparent sanction and consecration of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we have called his tendency to Judaise.

Matthew Arnold, St. Paul and Protestantism.

Compare the interesting discussion of this passage in Miss Wedgwood's Message of Israel, pp. 142-144.

Friends of God

Romans 4:3

The life of Abraham in the Bible begins with God speaking to him, and with Abraham believing and acting upon what God said. How God spoke to Abraham, or how he speaks to anyone, we may never be able to explain. The world has never been without men who are quite sure that they have heard God's voice. If there is a God at all, He is surely able to communicate with His creatures, to assure them of His presence, His interest in them, and His will on their behalf. He can impress them with such a sense of obligation as can only be understood as the will of God; He can inspire them with such sublime and solemn hopes as can only be understood as promises of God. What the text tells us is that when God has spoken and we have heard His word, there is only one thing for us to do, namely, to believe Him. That is the only right thing to do, and when we do it, we are made right with Him. It is not right to dispute God's command or to criticise His promise, or to try to make any kind of bargain with Him about either. It is not right to put anything into the scale against God's word, as if it might perhaps outweigh it. The only right thing to do, the only right attitude for the soul to take, is to recognise that in the word which God has spoken, whatever it may be, we are in contact with the final reality in the universe, and we invest our whole being in that. When we do so, God counts that to us for righteousness. And so it is. There is nothing in God's word artificial or unreal; the man is truly right with God for whom the word that God has spoken is the last reality in life.

I. The word that God spoke to Abraham was characteristically a word of promise. It is put in various forms at different periods of his life. 'I will make of thee a great nation;' 'Unto thy seed will I give this land'; 'Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them; so shall thy seed be'. If we put these in general terms, we may say Abraham had a Divine future held out to him in the word of God. When we are told he believed God, it means that that Divine future had a reality for him in comparison with which everything else was unreal. He left his country and his kindred for it; he renounced for it tempting openings which he saw around him, and the future which he might have carved out for himself. We must not forget that the life of Abraham was rich in natural possibilities. Abraham would have had a future in Ur of the Chaldees had he chosen to remain there, and to disbelieve the voice which said, 'Get thee out to the land that I will show thee'. No doubt a man of his power and enterprise would have had a future if he had chosen to settle in Sodom or in Egypt and to renounce a visionary prospect of inheriting Canaan. It is Abraham living out his long life still believing, still counting God's promises the final reality, which made and kept him right with God. He stood before God justified by his faith, a man with whom God was well pleased, a man who is called in Scripture the friend of God.

II. Every one must have noticed how much there is in the New Testament about Abraham and his faith. The reason is that for those who wrote the New Testament, Abraham is the type of true piety, he is the ideal of religion. Every one who wishes to prove anything about the true religion says, Look at Abraham. Paul does it here in Romans and again in Galatians. James does it in the second chapter of his Epistle where he seems as if he were controverting Paul and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who is so unlike both, does it in the passage we read a few minutes ago. The reason why everybody who wants to prove anything about true religion says, Look at Abraham, is that in true religion there is one thing that never changes from Genesis to Revelation the attitude of the soul to God. And the true attitude of the soul to God is perfectly illustrated in Abraham. God may make Himself known more fully in one generation than another, His word may be more articulate, more explicit in its commands, more spiritual and far-reaching in its promises, but the one thing which it requires under the surface is that which it finds in Abraham, to be treated as the last and absolute reality in life; so to treat it is to believe in God in the sense which makes and keeps us right with Him, so to treat it is to take our place among the children of Abraham.

III. The one condition on which this text has any interest for us is that God should have spoken to us, and in doing so, made an appeal for faith. It is the assumption of true religion always that God has so spoken. In the old Scots' Confession of Faith, drawn out at the Reformation, one of the most interesting chapters is headed 'of the Revelation of the Promise' The original form of the promise, the reformers tell us, is preserved in the third chapter of Genesis the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head. This is the elementary form of faith, to be assured that good will eventually triumph over evil; nay, that man himself with the help of God will one day destroy the works of the devil. The promise, the Confession goes on to say, is repeated and made more clear from time to time, till at last it has been made perfectly clear to us in what Knox and his friends call 'the joyful day of Christ Jesus'. And that is what we have to understand. We may not know how God spoke to Abraham, nor how Abraham was sure that it was God who had spoken, but we know that God speaks to us in Christ. What we have to say to ourselves is, There is God's will, purpose, and promise for me. There is the Divine future which God holds out as my inheritance. There is the final truth about God, the final reality in the world, presenting itself to us, the sin-bearing redeeming love which calls us to itself, and which is able to save to the uttermost. The Apostles were not afraid to believe a word so wonderful as this, or if they were, faith triumphed over their fears. John looked at Jesus and said, 'We shall be like Him'. Paul said, 'We have worn the image of the earthly, and we shall wear the image of the heavenly'. That is the true utterance of the Christian faith. That is the height to which the heart can rise in men who have heard the voice of God in Jesus, and believe it without reserve. And do we not know in our hearts that these are the men who are right with God, the men who believe His word in Christ?

James Denney, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxix. p. 296.

References. IV. 3. C. S. Horne, The Soul's Awakening, p. 215. S. Cox, Expositions, p. 211. IV. 3-8, 9, 11, 13, 16-24. W. P. Du Bose, The Gospel According to St. Paul, p. 113. IV. 4. Expositor (6th Series), vol. viii. p. 120. IV. 5. F. D. Maurice, Sermons, vol. vi. p. 17. IV. 6, 7. Expositor (4th Series), vol. viii. p. 83. IV. 6-25. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 206. IV. 7. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 172 ibid. vol. xii. p. 55. IV. 10. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. v. p. 461. IV. 11. Ibid, vol. viii. p. 294. IV. 12. Ibid. vol. i. p. 144. IV. 15. Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 143. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 286. IV. 16. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiii. No. 1347. IV. 16, 17. Ibid. vol. xxxvi. No. 2159. IV. 17. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 131. IV. 19. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. iv. p. 167. IV. 19-21. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii. No. 733. IV. 20. Ibid. vol. xxiii. No 1367. IV. 24. Ibid. vol. xlviii. No. 2806. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 432. IV. 24, 25. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xl. No. 2357. IV. 25. R. Flint, Sermons and Addresses, p. 204. R. M. Benson, Redemption, p. 183. E. A. Bray, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 40. Expositor (4th Series), vol. viii. p. 467; ibid. (7th Series), vol. v. p. 407. IV. 28-30. Ibid. vol. i. p. 291.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Romans 4". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. 1910.