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Bible Commentaries

Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament

Romans 4

Verses 1-8

Imputed righteousness

Romans 4:1-8

There are three prominent lessons set forth in Chapter Three:

1. There is absolutely no justification for Jew or Gentile before God by the works of the law (Romans 3:20).

2. There is the righteousness of Christ by which believers are completely justified and sanctified in the sight of God without our obedience to the law. This is free, full, and forever in Christ (Romans 3:21-22).

3. This perfect righteousness not only justifies the sinner but also honors the law and God's justice, thus enabling God to be just and justifier! (Romans 3:26).

Paul proceeds in Chapter Four to illustrate these truths, using two men held in the highest esteem by the Jews David and Abraham.

Romans 4:1 . In this chapter Abraham is referred to (in a spiritual sense) as the father of all believers, but this verse speaks of his relationship to the Jews (according to the natural descent) being the first of the circumcision. What did he find as pertaining to the flesh? Circumcision and the law? Did he find the way of life, righteousness, and salvation by his services and performances? There is no answer given; but by what follows the answer is, ‘no!’

Romans 4:2 . If Abraham were justified by his works, either moral or ceremonial, then, contrary to what Paul had taught, he had something in which to boast, but certainly not before God, who saw the sins of his heart and who was aware of all his failings (Luke 16:15).

Romans 4:3 . Having denied that Abraham (or any man) is justified by works, Paul appeals to the Scriptures. This is our foundation of faith, the rule of faith and practice, and the source of all information about God, sin, salvation, and eternal life the scriptures! (Genesis 15:6; Galatians 3:6; Romans 4:20-22.)

But does not James say that Abraham was justified by works? (James 2:21.) Paul and James are not speaking of the same thing. Paul speaks of the justification of the person before God. James speaks of the justification of the person's faith (or claim of it) before men. Paul condemns our works as a cause of justification before God. James praises works as the evidence of our Justification before God. Paul was writing to those who trusted in their works to save. James was writing to those who neglected or denied the necessity of obedience.

Romans 4:4 . To the laborer, what he merits or earns can never be called a gift, a favor, or mercy; but rather it is an obligation owed to him. If work is involved at all (regardless of the degree of work), it is a debt and not grace at all! (Romans 11:5-6.)

Romans 4:5 . It is not that the believer does no good works, but that he does not work in order to obtain life and salvation (Ephesians 2:8-10; James 1:20). We work because we love Christ, not in order to be justified (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). The elect believe God, who justifies the ungodly (Romans 5:6-8), even Abraham, who in his unregenerate state was ungodly. His faith (not the act of faith but the object of faith, who was Christ) is imputed to him for righteousness. Works mean nothing regarding justification, for even our best works are full of sin (Isaiah 64:6). But true faith will produce works of faith and labors of love.

Romans 4:6-8 . David, the chosen king, the man after God's own heart, is quoted on the subject of the blessedness of the man who believes God and seeks acceptance and righteousness in Christ, not in his works! (Psalms 32:1-2.)

1. ‘Blessed is the man whose iniquities are forgiven.’ They are removed from us as far as the east is from the west; they are cast behind God's back; they are cast into the depths of the sea; they are remembered no more.

2. ‘Whose sins are covered.’ They are covered from divine justice and shall never be seen again or brought into judgment (Romans 8:33-34).

3. ‘Happy is the man to whom God will not reckon or charge sin.’ We shall appear before him without fault or blame and shall be unreprovable. We are justified and acquitted (Colossians 1:22; Jude 1:24).

Verses 9-16

It is of faith that it might be of grace

Romans 4:9-16

The apostle fully establishes the truth throughout this epistle that a man is justified before God by faith and not by works. In these verses he shows in the most decisive manner that Abraham did not obtain Justification by circumcision, since he was justified BEFORE he was circumcised! Justification has no necessary connection with, or dependence on, circumcision. We are saved by free grace!

Romans 4:9 . Is justification only for the circumcised Jew or for the Gentile as well? Why does Paul ask a question such as this? Because the Jews not only believed that justification before God depended (at least in part) on their works, but that this blessing was connected with circumcision, therefore for the Jew only! The design of the following words is to prove that justification belongs to Gentile and Jew, and that it is by faith and not by circumcision. Abraham serves as the example.

Romans 4:10 . When was Abraham justified? If righteousness was imputed to him before he was circumcised, then circumcision was not the cause, nor is it necessary to justification. And it may come on the Gentile as well as on Jews. According to the Scriptures he was in a state of righteousness and justification before the birth of Ishmael (Genesis 15:6; Genesis 17:1-4; Genesis 17:9-14; Genesis 17:24-25).

Romans 4:11-12 . If Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, then why was he circumcised? His circumcision and the circumcision of all Jews was a sign or token of that covenant which God made with Abraham and his natural seed concerning the enjoyment of the land and his favor. It distinguished them from all other nations (Genesis 17:8-11).

Circumcision is also a typical sign of Christ (as all the ceremonies of the law were), of the shedding of his blood to cleanse from sin and the circumcision of the heart.

It was a seal to Abraham that he should be the father of many nations in a spiritual sense and that the righteousness of faith (which he had) should come upon them, Gentile and Jew, after the same manner--by faith (Romans 4:23-24). While all of Abraham's natural seed were circumcised, it was only to those who had his faith that he was a father in what is spiritually represented by circumcision.

Romans 4:13 . ‘Heir of the world’ means this world and the world to come. Abraham and all believers are the heirs of all things in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21-23; Hebrews 11:8-10; Hebrews 11:13; Luke 20:34-36).

‘Or to his seed.’ The covenant, in all its promises in reference to spiritual blessings, was established in Christ, who was Abraham's seed (Galatians 3:16), and was given to all his church in Christ (Romans 8:16-17).

‘Not through the law but through faith.’ Not through the law of Moses, nor the law of ceremony, nor the law of circumcision, but by faith in Christ (Galatians 3:21-22).

Romans 4:14-15 . If the Jews, who were seeking righteousness and eternal life by the works of the law, should, on account of their obedience to the law, obtain grace and glory, then faith is set aside; and the promise of righteousness by faith is of no effect. If salvation is by works, it is useless for God to promise life to those who, because of their inability to keep the law, seek it by faith. Salvation cannot be by faith and works (Galatians 3:18; Galatians 2:21).

It is the law broken that brings upon us the wrath of God. The law not only cannot justify (because of man's sinful state) but it curses and condemns the guilty (Romans 3:19; Romans 8:3-4).

‘Where no law is there is no transgression.’ This is sort of a proverbial expression. Sin is the transgression of God's law. But the law IS COME! Not only the written law, but that law which is revealed through creation, conscience, and written on the heart.

Romans 4:16 . Therefore, righteousness and justification are of faith and not of works. In no other way but through faith can salvation be by grace (Romans 11:6). A reward must be reckoned either all of grace or else all of debt on account of works performed; these cannot be combined. If God takes into account any works of men, then salvation is not by grace.

Also, the only way that salvation can be sure and the promise of eternal life certain, for Jew or Gentile, is for the whole of the work to be by the grace of God. We are born sinners, by practice and choice we have failed, and the future holds no hope for us apart from his grace (Galatians 3:10; Galatians 4:21; James 2:10).

Verses 17-25

Abraham father of many nations

Romans 4:17-25

Romans 4:16 declares some things that every believer has been taught.

1. Salvation is by faith that it might be by grace alone.

2. Salvation by grace is the only sure way of salvation. If by works, none could be saved.

3. Both Old Testament believers and New Testament believers, Jew and Gentile, are saved by grace through faith in Christ.

Romans 4:17 . Abraham, in a spiritual sense, is the father of all believers, not of the Jews only (Genesis 17:4-5), but of believers from all nations. At that moment when Abraham stood before God, though he was not then a father at all, it was as sure to him as if it had already taken place. God willed it, and the result would follow as sure as God calls into existence the things which exist not. For God, according to his eternal purpose, speaks of things which exist not in the same way that he speaks of things that exist (Romans 8:29-30; Acts 15:16-18).

‘Even God, who quickeneth the dead.’ Faith in God's power to give life where there is no life is the proper ground of believing anything which God purposes to do. If God quickens the dead, can he not give life to Sarah's dead womb? Can he not quicken dead Gentiles? Can he not raise our bodies from the grave?

Romans 4:18 . ‘Against hope’ That Abraham should be a father through Sarah was against all natural principles. She was almost l00 years old. But Abraham believed ‘in hope.’ His hope was in the promise of God; Abraham's expectation of becoming a father of nations of believers rested completely on the word of God! He believed God and hoped for the very thing that God said would come to pass. Our hope of redemption is not just a wish or a desire but expectation based upon the promise of God and the purchase of the Son (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17; 1 Peter 1:3).

Romans 4:19 . ‘So shall thy seed be’ (Genesis 15:5). Here stands a childless old man with an old wife, hearing God declare that through that wife his seed would be as numberless as the stars of the heavens. Abraham believed God! His age and impotence and the deadness of Sarah's womb did not shake his faith. This example ought ever to encourage our faith. There will always be obstacles and difficulties but none that our Lord cannot overcome! (Genesis 18:14; Matthew 19:26.)

Romans 4:20 . Abraham was not staggered with respect to the promise, for it was made by him who cannot lie and with whom all things are possible. He was not staggered by the difficulties and seeming impossibilities which stood in the way, for his faith in God was strong; therefore, he gave God all the glory. How did Abraham's faith glorify God? By ascribing to God all the glory of his faithfulness, his power, his grace, and his goodness. It is important that we glorify God by ascribing to him his attributes and believing that he will act according to them!

Romans 4:21-22 . ‘Fully persuaded’ means that he was convinced and confident that what God had promised, God was able to perform. Paul spoke in this fashion (2 Timothy 1:12; Hebrews 7:25; Philippians 3:20-21).

Because he believed God it was imputed to him for righteousness, not for the strength of his faith but because his faith truly rested and trusted in God, not in himself or his works (Romans 3:21-22).

Romans 4:23-24 . The account of how Abraham was justified and received righteousness was not recorded for his sake alone nor applicable to him only, but it is by faith that every believer is justified and sanctified. Others were justified by faith before Abraham, but the first recorded testimony respecting the justification of sinners by faith is that of Abraham. He was the first man singled out and designated as the progenitor of the Messiah (Galatians 3:16). Therefore, he is called the father of all believers.

Righteousness shall be imputed to us, as well as to Abraham, if we believe God, who is identified by the fact that he raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. To believe for salvation is not to believe only on the existence of God but to believe on him in regard to his gospel. Saving faith involves the person and work of Christ who was promised of God, sent by God, bruised by God, raised by God, and seated victoriously on the Father's right hand (John 3:14-16; John 3:36.)

Romans 4:25 . Christ was delivered up by his Father into the hands of justice and death (according to his divine purpose) to redeem us. Christ died in our stead and rose again as our Head and Representative and was legally acquitted and justified, and us in him. Christ's resurrection did not procure our justification; that was done by his obedience and death: but his resurrection testified of it sin's debt was paid (Romans 1:1-4).

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Bibliographical Information
Mahan, Henry. "Commentary on Romans 4". Mahan's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament. 2013.