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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

Romans 4

Verses 1-25

Romans 4:1 . What shall we say then that Abraham, our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? How was he a sinner, an idolater, justified? Was it by the flesh, as indicated by the word father? Was it by works in submitting to circumcision, on which ye jews lay the major emphasis? If so, he has the glory of boasting over the disobedient, but not before God, in whose eyes the brightest acts of human obedience are but defective duties. When God has promised, even believing can never be the meritorious cause of a sinner’s justification. It follows then, oh jews, that you must cease to lay the strong emphasis on circumcision, you must believe your own scriptures, and accede to the christian doctrine, that Abraham our father was justified by faith.

Romans 4:3 . Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. This history is laid down at large in Genesis 15:0. The Hebrew חשׁב chashav, or as the LXX, ηγεομαι , or δοκεω , to reckon or impute, implies first that he had not this righteousness before; though Abraham might be a righteous man, before he received these promises, high in the favour of God. Here was a cloud of new promises, or righteousness promised of God.

Abraham’s faith rested on the perfections of Him that had promised, and his faith was divine; for his own age, and that of his wife, forbade all hope. Yet Abraham believed in Him who is able and faithful to perform. He hoped against all probability of hope, that he should have a son, and be the father of nations, numerous as the stars of heaven; yea, that he should be the progenitor of kings and prophets, and eventually of the Messiah.

Romans 4:6-8 . David describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputeth righteousness. David is here with propriety introduced after Abraham, for he, equally with Abraham, had received the promise of the Messiah to be born in his line. 2 Samuel 7:0. Psalms 132:0. On the subject of justification, to use a word of Indian eloquence, “we stumble at noon, and are afraid of the thorns.” We have to avoid unitarianism on the one hand, and antinomianism on the other. Steering therefore between the rocks of Scylla on the Italian shore, and the subterranean river of Charybdis, on the opposite coast, we must take the bible, and the bible only for our pilot. In the above verses, two grand ideas are associated, ideas which can never be divided; the imputation of righteousness, and the remission of sins, otherwise called the nonimputation of sin.

Now, if it be really true, that pardon is all the justification of which the sinner is capable, why should David, in Psalms 32:0., here quoted, add four things.

(1) that he is blessed.

(2) that he is just.

(3) that this happiness follows great heaviness, and full confessions of iniquity, as in Romans 4:4-5.

(4) that his sorrows are succeeded by gladness and rejoicing in the Lord: as in Romans 4:11.

The antinomian gives joy from another source, and in language unknown to the primitive church. Que tous ceux qui sont entez au Seigneur Jesus Christ par l’ Esprit d’ iceluy, sont hors des dangers d’ etre condamnez, combien qu’ils soyent encore chargez de pechez. CALVIN, Geneva, 1562. “That all those who enter, or believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, are out of all danger of being condemned, how much soever they may yet be loaded with their past sins.” I would recommend all persons so burdened to take David’s course of humble confession, as in the above psalm.

Romans 4:10 . Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. Faith was reckoned to him for righteousness, before he was circumcised. Therefore faith shall be reckoned to us for righteousness, if we believe in him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. Abraham’s faith rested solely on the promises.

Romans 4:11 . He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith. The wound indeed by this rite designated death, but the seal designated life by the promised Seed, as is farther indicated by the Holy Spirit’s sealing us unto the day of redemption. This is the gift of righteousness by faith, or as in chap. 10., the righteousness of faith speaketh on this wise; including the gift of Christ, and all the blessings of his salvation.

Romans 4:16 . Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; not to that race of men only which are of the law, but to those gentiles also who are of the faith of Abraham. If salvation be then by grace, there is no merit in believing: on the contrary, it had been in Abraham the greatest demerit not to have believed the promise of God, who called him to leave his country.

Romans 4:17 . Before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and gave him Isaac in hoary age. Then, oh remember, that how depraved soever thy heart may be, however hard and stubborn its habits, this God can give thee a new, a circumcised heart, to love the Lord with all thy powers.

Romans 4:18 . Who [that is Abraham] against hope believed in hope, against every appearance of hope in the powers of nature.

Romans 4:23-24 . Now it was not written for his sake alone, but for us also, that we may believe as Abraham believed, and obtain all the righteousness of God by faith. Oh for a heart to follow this father of the faithful, that we may inherit with him all the promises of righteousness, and obtain an eternal inheritance.

Romans 4:25 . And was raised again for our justification. The resurrection of Christ demonstrated the completion and acceptance of his satisfaction for sin, and gave a triumph to his work upon the cross. As death is the punishment of sin, the glory of his resurrection was essential to the full assurance of the saints, that they also should rise, and reign with him in glory.


The apostle having stated his astonishing and most consoling doctrine of justification by faith, takes the lead of the pharisees in giving their objections in the fullest force. What say we then, did our father Abraham, according to the flesh, find this justification? No, most assuredly he did not. His piety, his probity, his obedience in leaving his country, were but preparatives. When he received the promise of a son, naturally impossible, because of Sarah’s age, he believed God, and it was reputed, as Calvin reads, or reckoned to him for righteousness. This is a very close and happy argument. Justification by faith was prior to the law, and Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.

Abraham was justified while in uncircumcision: it was fourteen years after the promise, before the ordinance of circumcision was instituted as a seal of righteousness by faith. This argument, however revolting to the jews, was unspeakably acceptable to the gentiles; for they being in Abraham’s situation in regard of circumcision, might unquestionably find the same favour. A justified state is pronounced doubly happy. Blessed is the man whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity. Who can describe the felicity of the soul when its fears of punishment are all removed by an assurance arising from the love of God shed abroad in the heart, and when it exults in all the privileges of adoption and grace.

A justified state is happy also in embracing all the promises, and in the anticipation of future glory. Abraham when he had no son, by virtue of faith in the promise, saw the Messiah as already born, and himself, though then childless, surrounded with nations of children. True faith staggers not at difficulties, but anticipates all the glories of sanctifying grace, and of the world to come.

But in what sense was faith accounted to Abraham for righteousness, and promised to be reckoned to us for righteousness, on condition of believing in the resurrection of Christ. Because it embraces Christ, all his merits and atoning blood, and is the sole ground of our justification. Hence, whether we are said to be justified by faith, by the knowledge of Christ, or by his blood, or by the grace of God through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, the several expressions have in substance the same import.

But what is meant by a justifying righteousness, so much debated in our theological writings. On this subject, after carefully reading the best writers on both sides, I must say that I know of no justifying righteousness but the blood of Christ, in which the gentile church washed their robes and made them white. Revelation 7:14. I verily believe that St. Paul by the imputation of righteousness, and nonimputation of sin, means negatively the same thing. The controversy on justification began by Zuinglius. Anxious to oppose the popish doctrine of justification which confounds the merits of Christ with penances and good works, he framed the notion of justification by the imputation of a double righteousness. This writer maintained that Christ fulfilled the whole law for us, having magnified and made it honourable; consequently, that our obedience is perfect and complete in him. This he called the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness, which gives a full title to eternal life. He further maintained, as the church of God has always done, that Christ was obedient unto death, and was made a curse for us. This he called the passive righteousness of Christ, imputed to us to take away our guilt and condemnation.

To the first part of this doctrine, which places to our account the satisfaction, merits, or passive obedience of Christ, no objection was ever made by men deemed orthodox. To it alone they ascribe the glory of their redemption, their justification, and eternal felicity. But to the second, which asserts that Christ’s active righteousness, including all his personal virtues, or human righteousness, serious and unanswerable objections have been made by Vorsius, Parcus, Piscator, Limborch, Wotton, J. Goodwin, Baxter, Bradshaw, Barrow, Bull, and many others.

(1) This statement supposes either the whole or a part of mankind to have actually obeyed and suffered in Christ, while they were in sin or yet unborn. It is true, the saints were elect according to the foreknowledge of God, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, there being no futurity with God, who calls things that are not as though they were. But to suppose that a man is so in Christ as to be justified from eternity, and to possess sinless purity and perfection, is language very assuming, and difficult to defend.

(2) It supposes God to have fixed and determined the nature and number of our crimes, and Christ to have supplied in every instance the defects of our obedience by his obedience, and to have atoned precisely in kind, by suffering for each of our crimes. Here indeed the whole mistake is couched. The fact is, he neither obeyed in kind, nor suffered in kind for us, as all the elaborate writers on the atonement have allowed. He paid what was an adequate ransom for man, or in other words, made plenary satisfaction for sin. The truth of this will further appear, if we consider, that punishment is but partially remitted. What are those groans and tears, those cries and lamentations which pierce the heart? What are all those displays of vengeance and wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men? What is the reign of death even over infants, and over men, none of whom have sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression. They are so many salutary visitations of God to diminish crime, and to aid the operations of grace; but at the same time so many proofs, that if Christ had both obeyed in kind, and suffered in kind for us, the righteous God would not have inflicted such tremendous punishments on all generations of men.

(3) This supposition of a double righteousness imputed, exclusively of the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, makes the righteous God speak in double language. To Adam he said, DO or DIE: to Christ, our second Adam, he said, DO and DIE. This is in effect the same error as that for which E. Irving was excluded from the church of Scotland, and others since from the church of England. Acting under the new covenant, the meritorious righteousness of his person, which obtained eternal life, must have corresponded with that economy. At the same time it is equitable to allow, that the removal of death by the oblation of the cross, of itself implies the gift of righteousness and life. But if that gift proceed from the equal imputation of Christ’s active merits, we must of necessity be all equally glorious in the life to come! All this redundancy and all these inconsistencies are avoided by saying, that the Father accepts the sufferings of his Son, as the satisfaction or meritorious righteousness, for the violation of the law; that he absolves and adopts offenders, when with a broken and contrite heart they believe in Jesus Christ. The propriety of this definition will farther appear, on considering in what views a sinner does not need the imputation of a double, or more properly a triple righteousness. By a participation in the satisfaction which Christ has made on the cross, connected with all the sufferings of his life, pardon is accompanied with adoption, and with the renewal of the soul in righteousness and true holiness. The scheme destroys itself: a sinner does not need an active and a passive righteousness imputed, and a righteousness wrought within by the Holy Spirit.

(4) If opinion had been all the difference, it would not have been great. But the chief point on which those great and good men took the alarm was, the licentious liberty of which they saw certain characters avail themselves. They saw men warmly attached to what they called the doctrines of grace, and ostentatiously zealous in ascribing to Christ the whole glory of their salvation, yet with passions unrestrained, and corruptions unsubdued. They lived in conformity to the world, and defended their liberty, affirming that they were not under the law, but under grace. They gloried to acknowledge their sinfulness, but maintained that they had in Christ a spotless robe of righteousness; his oblation having satisfied for their sin, and this personal righteousness being imputed to them for personal justification.

(5) Against these errors those ministers raised a high voice. They apprized the people, that no such imputation of double righteousness was to be found in the sacred writings, and warned them against reliance on any notions, or on any creeds which did not lead to sanctifying fear, and the imitation of the Lord Jesus. They regarded the doctrine of making void the law through faith with horror, how holy soever some might be who embraced the opinion, and called on heaven to forbid the thought. They affirmed that the law being an image of the immutable rectitude of God, was immutable in its obligation, and ready to be enforced against all apostates in full penalty for past and present sins. Hence they still required converted publicans and sinners to glorify God by the fruits of righteousness. “For wisdom is justified of all her children. And, as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

(6) They affirmed farther, that the faith by which we are justified was not a mere instrument, but the grand condition of conformity to the new covenant. An instrument, whether considered as a writing, or an implement of labour, is incapable of vice or virtue, all praise or blame being attached to him who made the writing, or to him who employed the implement. Whereas faith elevates the soul to God, and ennobles all the affections. The sinner viewing the glory and grace of Christ, penetrated with contrition for his past offences, says concerning every promise which God has made to man, “Let it be unto me according to thy word.”

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Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Romans 4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. 1835.