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Bible Commentaries

Grant's Commentary on the Bible

Romans 4

Verses 1-25

Abraham and David Justified by Faith

Now there is deepest patience and grace shown on the part of God through Paul, His instrument in writing this epistle: for it is blessed to see that He gives no mere peremptory statement of truth. There is rather a perfectly ordered reasoning from a basis of known and admitted facts - a reasoning that cannot but appeal to spiritual wisdom. Every objecting argument, whether of Jews or Gentiles, is fully met.

Romans 4:1-45.4.25 then takes up two test cases to confirm the conclusion ofRomans 3:28; Romans 3:28. The first of these is Abraham - a most important consideration for Jews in particular; for being the father of Israel (they making him their chief boast), Abraham was the original depositary of all the promises of God for blessing, to the nation Israel specially, but indeed also to Gentiles. No Israelite would dare to gainsay this truth, though doubtless they gave little attention to the distinct promise of blessing to Gentiles - "all nations of the earth."

But the matter of Abraham's own personal justification is first raised. Can it be said that Abraham was justified before God? - and while he was still in flesh? and if so, how was he justified? Did his works justify him? If so, he had an occasion for boasting, "but not before God." His works are doubtless a testimony that justify him before men, but "in God's sight" it is a different matter. The eye of God penetrates more deeply. James 2:18; James 2:18; James 2:21 reminds us of Abraham's being justified by works when he offered up Isaac; but James deals with justification before men, not before God. His words are "Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works" (James 2:18).

"But what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness." Now this is mentioned in Abraham's history many years before he "offered up" Isaac. The former is inGenesis 15:6; Genesis 15:6, the latter in Genesis 22:1-1.22.24. How thoroughly distinct then is justification before God, from justification before men.

It is blessed to contemplate this simple, sublime statement so early in the history of men - "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." This is the whole character of justification. For naturally man has utterly no righteousness. But God supplies the righteousness He demands. On man's account is a great debt of unrighteousness; but "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," God credits to the account of "him that believeth in Jesus" a righteousness that fully and forever removes all debt, all unrighteousness; and leaves an account in which God Himself can take unfeigned delight.

Now one who works for a reward does not at the end consider that it is given him by grace: he has earned it and would be most resentful if anyone suggested that it was a "gift of grace": his working has made his employer his debtor. Does God so employ men on this business basis? Men may suppose so, but their work is nothing to Him. He has given them no such contract. They are like men working, with no authoritative instruction, to build a railroad where no train will ever travel.

"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." God is no debtor to man: He is a Giver; and any blessing from God to man can never be on the ground of man's works, but only on the ground of God's grace. Judgment is according to works; but salvation, thank God, is according to grace. And this verse 5 is marvelously plain and decisive for eyes that have been opened by the Spirit of God. "Working" is put over against "believing on Him that justifieth the ungodly." Do I work for justification, or do I receive it freely by God's grace through faith in His Son? It is one or the other. There is no mixture: the two are distinct. But God cannot impute righteousness to my account in virtue of my works. Why?Because they are not perfect in righteousness: they savor all too strongly of unrighteousness. But the virtue of the work of Christ is a different thing: it is perfect, faultless, unadulterated; and on this ground God can freely impute righteousness to the account of "him which believeth in Jesus."

Now briefly considered, more or less as a parenthesis, is the testimony of "David also." Here is the first king of God's choice in Israel. Unlike Abraham, he was born, and lived "under the law." But did he therefore have a different means of justification than did Abraham? It is a vital question, but one that David himself answers with marvelous clarity and decision. InPsalms 32:1-19.32.2; Psalms 32:1-19.32.2 he "describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin." Where is the law in all this? Where are man's works? There is no place for them. David himself recognizes such blessing as absolutely and only the work of God in unmingled grace.

David here speaks of blessing to one who has disobeyed the law - a sinner, a transgressor. Now in such a case the law spoke only of cursing. Blessing was indeed promised by law, but only on the ground of obedience; while disobedience called from it an absolute curse.

David speaks of forgiveness as obtained: the law could accuse; it could not forgive. David speaks of sins covered now: the law exposed sins; it could not cover them. David speaks of the Lord not imputing sin; whereas the law had been compelled to impute sin: it could not do otherwise. But He who gave the law is greater than the law, and by the exercise of grace is able to reverse the imputation.

The reader ofPsalms 32:1-19.32.11; Psalms 32:1-19.32.11 will quickly see that David flies not to law for his refuge on the occasion of his grievous sin. When Psalms 51:1-19.51.19 (written concerning the same occasion) is also read, this will be most abundantly plain. He did not even seek relief by means of sacrifices provided under law (Psalms 51:16-19.51.17); for he knew that such sacrifices could not meet his case: his sin demanded immediate death, if law was to be carried out. But his plea is simply, "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions" (Psalms 51:1). Moreover, inPsalms 32:1-19.32.11; Psalms 32:1-19.32.11 (v. 5), he can say "Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." Blessed answer, according to mercy, certainly not according to law!

But verse 9 raises the question - is this blessedness obtainable only by those who are circumcised - that is, those outwardly connected with God's earthly testimony? The answer is evident: Abraham received this blessing - was counted righteous by faith - before he was circumcised - indeed at least thirteen years before.

Circumcision was a sign, however (and merely a sign) which he received as an identifying seal of the righteousness of faith he already possessed. It signified simply the cutting-off of the flesh - thus impressing the lesson that this righteousness was not mixed with any fleshly activity or merit, upon which circumcision put the outward stamp of death.

Abraham was thus the first man "in whom real separation to God was first publicly established." (See note in New Translation). Hence, he is "father of all them that believe" - that is, publicly their father - whether or not there is the same public separation with them. The point is not at all in their outward identification with Abraham, for Abraham's own outward sign was the seal of previously imputed righteousness - a seal that marks him as "the father of all them that believe; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also."

So that he is "the father of circumcision" not only to those who are circumcised, but to those who walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised" - those who have the same faith on account of which Abraham was circumcised.

For the promise to Abraham that he should be heir of the world was not by law, and not therefore conditional upon his obedience to law; but rather by the righteousness of faith - that is, as a result of righteousness already fully established, not required to be established by future works. The promise was therefore unimpeachable; there was no possibility of its failure. Genesis 17:1-1.17.8; Genesis 17:1-1.17.8 gives us the promise in no uncertain terms, as an absolutely settled issue with God, needing only time for its fulfillment. Only after this (in vv. 9-14) do we see God giving Abraham the sign of circumcision.

Now if, as the Jew would feign argue, only those who are of the law have title to the inheritance, faith would be made a vain, useless thing, and the promise of God would be as worthless and ineffectual as the word of a wicked man. What folly and virtual infidelity, what blind, unyielding unbelief, what vain confidence in flesh and despising of God is that man guilty of, who insists that he can be justified by works, or who objects to grace being shown to those who have gone out of the way.

"Because the law worketh wrath; for where no law is, there is no transgression." A sinner, forbidden under penalty, to sin, will only incur the penalty. Hence, to impose law upon a sinner is to bring him under wrath, for he becomes a transgressor (not merely a sinner: he was that before the law was given: transgression is disobedience to a given law). Sin was certainly in the world before, and for sin the Gentiles as well as Jews are under judgment to God; but the law put the Jew demonstratively under wrath by making him a transgressor.

"Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed." Not one of the true seed of Abraham is to be excluded, as would be the case if the promise were given on the principle of law; but the principle of faith is the only ground upon which all the seed could be blessed, while at the same time this principle shuts up all to the grace of God as the only spring of blessing. But only thus is the promise sure to either Jew or Gentile believers, yet absolutely sure.

Before God, Abraham "is the father of us all" - all those who are of faith. God declared this before Abraham had yet obtained Isaac - he whom God called his "only son," not considering Ishmael, for being born of a bondwoman, he was a bondman. But at the time all natural circumstances were utterly opposed to the fulfillment of the promise. Abraham was virtually dead, and Sarah also, so far as the birth of a child was concerned. But Abraham's faith rose far above circumstances when God spoke. So indeed did Sarah's (Hebrews 11:11), though at the first she doubted.

But this is a blessed example of the patience of faith that believed in a God of resurrection. At the birth of Isaac, just as at his being bound on the altar as an offering we see that Abraham recognized even in death no hindrance to the fulfillment of God's promise. Plainly he saw that it is God's prerogative to call "those things which be not as though they were."

Contrary to all natural hope, he "believed in hope" - that is, he fully trusted God although it meant purely anticipative faith, not that the word "hope" suggests the least thought of doubtfulness. The spoken word of God he bowed to, accepting it simply as such: in God's sight he was then made the father of many nations, according to the Word spoken in Genesis 15:1-1.15.21 - "So shall thy seed be."

He was not weak in faith: he simply accepted the Word of God as true and unbreakable, apart altogether from the consideration of circumstances - whether it was his own dead body or "the deadness of Sarah's womb." He knew that God was not dependent upon the energy of natural life, whether in himself or in another upon whom he might be naturally inclined to lean. Faith in the living God always involves the repudiation of confidence in flesh.

Only unbelief and confining God to man's limitations, would have caused Abraham to hesitate: but he "was strong in faith, giving glory to God." Blessed simplicity indeed; blessed reality! Yet it is the only proper attitude for any creature, let us mark well. To "give glory to God" is the very reason for our existence. If we do not practice "the obedience of faith," we are robbing God of His glory: we neither take our own proper place, nor give Him His. May our souls contemplate this seriously and well.

Are we "fully persuaded" of the truth of the Word of God? Are we prepared to stand upon it, whatever the expense or personal humiliation? Will we stake everything upon this, that what God promises, He is able to perform? To speak of our faith is one thing: to speak and act in faith is another. To be "fully persuaded" of the truth of God, is to be fully submissive to it, and to thereby have a character of calm, unruffled, uncomplaining patience - not indeed indifference, but the patience of an exercised and chastened spirit, that trusts the living God, and distrusts all that is of the flesh.

Abraham therefore was counted righteous because of faith in the God of resurrection. But the written Word concerning this result is not given merely for Abraham's sake. This is plain: there is a value far more comprehensive than this: the Word is written for the sake of souls in every age. "But for us also, to whom it (righteousness) shall be imputed if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus from the dead, Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification."

There is of course, a manifest distinction between Abraham's position and ours. Abraham believed the promise of God, though not accomplished. We are asked to believe God in regard to the accomplished work of Christ in death and resurrection. Abraham believed in the promise of resurrection: we believe in the fact of resurrection. Yet it is not merely belief in resurrection that is required, nor belief in any other truth, simply, but faith in the living God, who has raised Christ from the dead.

But our justification is inseparably bound up with His resurrection. He was delivered up to death for our offenses. But if He had remained in the grave, where would be our comfort and assurance? How could we believe He had justified us if He were not living? But He "was raised again for our justification." Blessed be God for the unspeakable peace of this knowledge! Faith can have no doubts as to the full accomplishment of righteousness when it beholds the One who suffered for sins now raised by the glory of the Father - perfectly accepted by the God who had judged Him fully for sins. Thus His resurrection is proof that He has utterly exhausted the judgment: sin put Him to death; righteousness raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory. That same righteousness now justifies "him which believeth in Jesus." He is a Savior whom death could not hold: He is "alive forevermore." Blessed Object for faith! Perfect, unchangeable assurance to the heart renewed by grace!

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Bibliographical Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Romans 4". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. 1897-1910.