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Bible Commentaries

Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible

Romans 4



Romans 4:1-8 Abraham himself was justified by faith,

Romans 4:9-12 which was imputed to him for righteousness before circumcision, that he might be the common father of believers, whether circumcised or not.

Romans 4:13-17 The promise was not given him through the law, else had it been void from the very nature of the law; but being of faith by grace is sure to all the destined seed, and not to those of the law only.

Romans 4:18-22 The acceptableness of Abraham’s faith,

Romans 4:23-25 which stands recorded not for his sake only, but for the sake of all who shall profess a like faith in God through Christ.

Verse 1

The apostle proceeds to prove his main conclusion, Romans 3:28, which is, that a sinner is justified by faith without works, from the example of Abraham. He was a man that had faith and works both, yet he was justified by faith, and not by works; and who doubts but the children are justified after the same manner that their father was: there is but one way of justification; this is the connexion.

As pertaining to the flesh: these words may either be referred to father; and then they import no more but that Abraham was their father according to the flesh, Romans 9:5. Or else they may be referred to the following word found; and then the question is, What hath Abraham found, i.e. got or attained, according to the flesh? The sense is, What hath he got by his righteousness, which stands in works, and are done in the flesh? Abraham obtained not righteousness by any works, ceremonial or moral. So the word flesh is taken, {see Philippians 3:3,Philippians 3:4} when under the word flesh came circumcision, our own righteousness, which is by the law, or whatsoever is or may be opposed to that righteousness which is by the faith of Christ.

Verse 2

He hath whereof to glory; he hath cause or matter of glorying and boasting; he hath something from whence he may take occasion of so doing.

But not before God; something must be supplied to fill up the sense, i.e. he hath nothing whereof to glory before God. The argument of the apostle might be thus formed: If Abraham had obtained justification by works, he should have had somewhat whereof he might glory before God: but he had nothing whereof to glory before God; therefore he was not justified by works. God’s way of justifying sinners is such, as shuts out all glorying and boasting, as he had before laid down, Romans 3:27.

Verse 3

The scripture referred to is in Genesis 15:6. The apostle a little varies the words; in Genesis it is he believed in God, but here he believed God: again, in Genesis it is expressed actively, he counted it to him for righteousness; but here passively, it was counted to him for righteousness. The answer is, That the apostle in both followed the Septuagint, which was then more in use than the Hebrew text; and both are capable of an easy reconciliation, the difference being more in sound than in sense.

Abraham believed God; i.e. the promises of God: that he would be his shield and exceeding great reward, Genesis 15:1; that he would give him an heir of his body, Genesis 15:4; that he would multiply his seed, Genesis 15:5, whereby he understood not only his fleshly seed, but also the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, which was come of his loins; He took on him the seed of Abraham, Hebrews 2:16. And besides these promises in Genesis 15:1-21, he believed that promise which was made him, Genesis 12:3, That in him and his seed all families of the earth should be blessed. That in these promises the Messiah is understood, is evident from Galatians 3:8,Galatians 3:16; and that Abraham had an eye to him is evident, without exception, from John 8:56.

It was counted unto him for righteousness; i.e. he was justified thereby: to have faith imputed for righteousness, and to be justified by faith, is the same thing. Faith is not our righteousness materially, but objectively and organically, as it apprehends and implies the righteousness of Christ, which is the matter of our justification. Our adversaries the papists oppose the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us; they cavil at the very word, and call it putative righteousness: and yet the apostle useth the word ten times in this chapter, and in the same sense that word ten times in this chapter, and in the same sense that we take it. But how shall we reconcile our apostle with St. James, about the manner of Abraham’s justification: he says expressly, James 2:21, that Abraham our father was justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac; and thence he infers, Romans 4:24, that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. They are easily reconciled, forasmuch as the one discourseth of the cause of our justification before God; the other, of the signs of justification before men. The one speaks of the imputation of righteousness; the other, of the declaration of righteousness. The one speaks of the office of faith; the other, of the quality of faith. The one speaks of the justification of the person; the other, of the faith of that person. The one speaks of Abraham to be justified; the other, of Abraham already justified.

Verse 4

He proceeds to prove, that Abraham was not justified by works, but by faith, and free grace, and so had no cause of boasting. This he illustrates by a comparison betwixt one that worketh, and one that worketh not, but believeth. To him that worketh; i.e. to him that worketh with a design or intent to obtain or merit justification by his works, for else he that believeth also worketh; only he is said not to work, secundum quid, after a sort, to the end or intent that he might merit by it.

Is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt; he speaks this by way of supposition, in case he should have fulfilled the condition of perfect obedience: and yet, to speak properly, there is no reward, as a due debt from God to him that worketh, Romans 11:35; only he speaks after the manner of men, and useth a civil maxim, taken from human affairs.

Verse 5

To him that worketh not; i.e. to him that worketh not to the end or intent before mentioned, or with respect to justification, but takes the other way to be justified and saved, and that is, the way of believing.

That justifieth the ungodly; that makes him, who is wicked in himself, just and righteous in Christ; or justifies him that was ungodly, but after justification is made godly. By ungodly, some would understand such as want that perfection of godliness, as they may build the hopes of justification upon; because the proposition is drawn from the instance of Abraham, a man not void of godliness.

His faith is counted for righteousness; not considered in itself as a work, but in relation to Christ, the object of it, and as an act of receiving and applying him; as eating nourisheth, though it be the meat that doth it.

Verse 6

To the example of Abraham taken from Moses, he adjoins the testimony of David, that so he might more fully prove what he had asserted, Romans 3:21; both the one and the other were of great authority amongst the Jews. Here it may be objected, that David no where says, that he is blessed

unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works.

Answer. Though the words be no where extant in David, yet the sense is, as appears in what follows. {see Romans 4:7}

Verse 7

This testimony is taken out of Psalms 32:1, and it is well enough accommodated to the occasion, for those two, to remit sin, and to impute righteousness, are inseparable. The one is put here figuratively for the other. They mistake, who take occasion from hence to make justification to consist only in remission of sin: the text will not bear it. The apostle’s design is, not hereby to declare the full nature of justification, which he had done before; but only to prove the freedom of it from any respect to works, in the instance of this principal and essential part of it. Remission of sin and the imputation of righteousness differ, as the cause and the effect. Remission of sin presupposeth imputation of righteousness; and he that hath his sins remitted, hath Christ’s righteousness first imputed, that so they may be remitted and forgiven to sinners.

Verse 8

The same thing is expressed three several ways; there are three things in sin to be considered:

1. There is an offence against God, which is said to be forgiven.

2. There is a filthiness in sin, which is said to be covered.

3. There is guilt in it, which is said not to be imputed.

Verse 9

This word cometh is not in the original, but it is aptly inserted by our translators.

Circumcision again is put for the circumcised, and uncircumcision for the uncircumcised: see Romans 2:28.

For we say; q.d. This we have proved, and it is on all hands confessed,

that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness: now, therefore, the question is, whether this blessedness of justification belongs to the circumcised only, or to the uncircumcised also.

Verse 10

And if this be the question, the way to resolve it, is, to consider in what circumstances Abraham was when his faith was thus reckoned to him for righteousness; it was a long time before he was circumcised. The promise to which Abraham’s faith had respect, was made to him fourteen years, at least, before his circumcision: compare Genesis 15:2, and Genesis 17:24,Genesis 17:25; also see Genesis 16:16. If the blessedness, therefore, of justification was not annexed to circumcision, the Gentiles are no less capable of it than the Jews.

Verse 11

The sign of circumcision; or, circumcision, which is a sign. Two things are here affirmed of circumcision:

1. That it was a sign. Of what? Of the circumcision of the heart, of original sin and its cure.

2. That it was a seal. Of what?

Of the righteousness of faith: of the meaning of which, See Poole on "Romans 1:17".

This is a periphrasis of the covenant of grace, wherein righteousness is promised, and made over to us in a way of believing: and this is not the only place where

the righteousness of faith is put for the new covenant; see Romans 10:6, and the notes there. Circumcision is called a

seal, because it was a confirmation of the covenant of grace, and the righteousness therein promised. The common use of a seal amongst men is to confirm and ratify a matter, and make it more firm and sure: it is joined often with an earnest, which is for the same end and purpose. The Corinthians’ conversion is said to be the seal of Paul’s apostleship; i.e. it was a confirmation of it, and made it more evident that he was sent of God. What the apostle says of an oath, that we may say of a seal; it is for confirmation, and for putting things out of controversy. When God made a promise to Abraham, he confirmed it with an oath; and when he made a covenant with him, and with his seed, he confirmed it by a seal, and that was circumcision, which he calls in Genesis the convenant of God, and here, the seal thereof. And what is said of circumcision is not spoken of it barely as circumcision, but as a sacrament; and it shows the nature and use of all sacraments, both of the Old Testament and New, that they are seals of the new covenant. That which the apostle mentions here of circumcision, hath nothing proper and peculiar in it to circumcision as such; but it may, with equal reason, be applied to any other sacrament: it belongs as well to the passover, yea, to baptism, and the Lord’s supper: e.g. The apostle first calls circumcision a sign; so was the passover, so is baptism, and the Lord’s supper. Again, he calls it a seal of the righteousness of faith, or of the new covenant, as before; and so is each of the other sacriments: take, for instance, the Lord’s supper; our Saviour calls the cup therein the new testament, or covenant, that is, it is a seal and confirmation thereof. And what is here affirmed of Abraham, may be affirmed as well of the eunuch, or the jailer, or any baptized person; he received the sign of baptism, a seal of the righteousness of faith, and of remission of sins, &c.

That he might be the father of all them that believe; i.e. that he might be known or declared to be the father of such: see the like phrase, Matthew 5:45. Though many of the fathers did believe before Abraham, yet none of them are said to be the fathers of the faithful, as Abraham was, because God made to none of them the like promise, concerning their posterity, as he did to Abraham. See the next verse.

Verse 12

The former verse tells you he was the father of the believing Gentiles, for the covenant was made with him, for all his believing seed, when he was uncircumcised, which shows, that righteousness is and may be imputed to them also without any outward circumcision: and then he is the father of the believing Jews; especially of as many of them as unto circumcision do add the imitation of his faith; who, besides circumcision, which they derived from him, do also transcribe his divine copy, and follow his example of faith and obedience; who leave their sins, as he did his country; who believe all God’s promises, and adhere to him against all temptations to the contrary.

Verse 13

Some by the world do understand, the world of the faithful, or believers dispersed over all the world: and so in effect it is the same which he said before, that Abraham should be the father of all that believe, whether of the circumcision or uncircumeision. Others by the world do understand the land of Canaan, under which also heaven was typically promised and comprehended: see Hebrews 4:3; Hebrews 11:9,Hebrews 11:10,Hebrews 11:16. This, by a synecdoche, is put for all the world; and so also Tabor and Hermen are put for the east and west of the whole world, Psalms 89:12. This was promised to Abraham and to his seed, Genesis 12:7; Genesis 15:18.

Was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith; i.e. it was not made to Abraham because he had merited it by keeping the law; but because he had believed God, and obtained the righteousness of faith. In the whole verse is couched an argument for justification by faith without works, which is the apostle’s drift; and it may be thus formed: If the promise of inheritance to Abraham and his seed was to be accomplished not by legal obedience, but by the righteousness of faith; then it follows, that we are justified by faith, and not by works; but the promise of inheritance to Abraham and his seed was to be accomplished, not by the law, but by the righteousness of faith.

Verse 14

i.e. If they that trust to the fulfilling of the law, be heirs of the promise of God, and so the inheritance come by works; then faith is to no purpose, neither is there any use of it; and so also the promises which are made to believers are vain and useless. This is the sun, of this verse; a more particular explication follows.

If they which are of the law: compare this with Galatians 3:9,Galatians 3:10. There the apostle sorts them that seek righteousness and salvation into two kinds. First, some are of faith, and they are such as seek salvation in that way. Again, others are of the works of the law, and they are such as seek salvation by means thereof. These phrases, of the law, and of the works of the law, are all one.

Be heirs; that is, of the promises of God; of the heavenly rest, of which, as before, Canaan was a type.

Faith is made void; i.e. if they which seek the inheritance of the law can by the law obtain it, then there is no use of faith: to what end should we by faith go out of ourselves to seek righteousness and salvation in Christ, if we could obtain it by the legal obedience? See the like, Galatians 5:4.

And the promise made of none effect; i.e. the promise itself, which was made to Abraham and his seed, that also is ineffectual, and brought to nought; no man shall be saved by it; forasmuch as the law can bring no man to the obtaining of what is promised.

Verse 15

The law worketh wrath; i.e. the wrath of God: and this it doth not of itself, but occasionally, in respect of our disobedience. This is a confirmation of what was said in the foregoing verse, that the inheritance is not by the law, and the works thereof; he proves it from the effect and work of the law, such as it hath in all men since the fall; it worketh wrath; it is so far from entitling men to the promised blessing, that it exposeth men to the curse and wrath of God, Galatians 3:10.

For where no law is, there is no transgression: q.d. And that it worketh wrath is evident, because it discovers and occasions transgressions, between which and God’s wrath there is an inseparable connection. This assertion is simply true of things indifferent, as were all ceremonial observations before the law required them, for then before the law it was no sin to omit them: but of things which are evil in their own nature, it must be understood respectively, and after a sort; that is, there was no such great transgression before the law was given, as afterwards. The reasons are; Because we are naturally bent to do that which is forbidden us; and so by the reproofs of the law, the stubbornness of man’s heart is increased. As also, because by the law comes the clear knowledge of man’s duty; and so the servant that knows his master’s will, and doth it not, is worthy of the more stripes.

Verse 16

Here are two new arguments to prove that the inheritance is not of the law, but of faith.

It is of faith, that it might be by grace; for to he justified by faith and by grace are all one with the apostle. Again, that the promise might be sure to all the seed; whereas if it were of the law, it would be uusure and uncertain, because of man’s weakness, who is not able to perform it. Abraham’s seed is of two sorts. One sort is of the law, to wit, the Jews. Another sort is of such as walk in the steps of Abraham’s faith, whether Jews or Gentiles. To all these the promise must be sure; which cannot be, if the law be made the condition or the means of the inheritance.

Verse 17

Before him whom he believed; i.e. in the sight or esteem of God. He was not the

father of many nations by carnal generation in the sight of men, but by spiritual cognation in the sight of God. Or, as it may be read, like unto God, after his example; and then the meaning is, that God so honoured Abraham’s faith, that he made him a father, in some respects like himself. As God is a universal Father, not of one, but of all nations, so was Abraham. Again, as God is their spiritual Father, not by carnal generation, so was Abraham also.

Even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were; i.e. Abraham believed in him as omnipotent. His omnipotency is described by two great effects of it. The one in making that to have a being again, which had ceased to be, as in the resurrection. The other, in causing that to be which never was; or to make all things of nothing, as in the creation: he expresseth this by calling things, to intimate the great facility of this work to God: he only spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and all was created. And as Abraham thus generally believed the power of God, so it is likely he made a particular application of it to his own state at present; as he believed that God could raise the dead, so, that he could raise him seed out of his own dead body, and Sarah’s dead womb. And as he believed that God could create things out of nothing, so, that he could give him seed that had none; yea, and make the Gentiles a people that were not a people.

Verse 18

Here the apostle digresseth a little from his principal argument, and falls into a commendation of Abraham’s faith.

Who against hope believed in hope: Abraham, when he had no natural or rational grounds of hope, either in respect of himself or Sarah his wife, did yet believe and hope he should have a son; and so be a root or stock, from whence many nations should spring: and this faith and hope of his was grounded upon the power and faithfulness of God.

So shall thy seed be; so as the stars of heaven for multitude, which must be supplied out of the promise, in Genesis 15:5.

Verse 19

He regarded not the impotency of his own body, which was as it were dead, because of his age, in respect of any desires or powers of generation. Abraham several years after married Keturah, by whom he had divers children; how then doth the apostle say his body was now dead, or unable for generation? Some say that the deadness of Abraham’s body was only in his own opinion. Augustine hath two answers:

1. That his body was not dead simply, but in respect of Sarah; he might be able to beget children of a younger woman.

2. His body was revived, and he received a new generative faculty of God. Another question may be moved, and that is, how the apostle could say that Abraham considered not his own body, being dead; seeing we read, Genesis 17:17, that Abraham, upon the promise of a son, fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? &c. Some answer, that Abraham at first doubted, but afterwards he recollected himself, and got over that unbelief; his faith overcame all difficulties. Others say, that he doubted not at all of the truth of God’s promise, but was uncertain only how it should be understood, whether properly or figuratively: see Genesis 17:19. Others say, that these words of Abraham are not words of doubting, but inquiring; they proceed from a desire to be further instructed how that thing should be. It was a question like that of the virgin Mary’s, How shall these things be? Augustine says, that Abraham’s laughter was not like Sarah’s. Hers proceeded from distrust; his, from joy and admiration.

Verse 20

The promise of God; viz. in Genesis 15:5, and Genesis 17:16.

Giving glory to God; as all do that rely upon the power and promise of God, setting to their seals that he is true.

Verse 21

He looked upon God as one that was perfectly able to do whatever he had promised, and as one that was most faithful, and sure never to fail in the performance; collecting nothing else from the difficulty and improbability of the matter, but that it was the fitter for an Almighty power to effect.

Verse 22

See Romans 2:3. By reason of his faith he was as sufficiently disposed and qualified for the obtaining of the promise, as if he had had all the righteousness required by the law.

Verses 23-24

Here it may be inquired, If Abraham’s faith did justify him, and it was imputed to him for righteousness, what doth this concern us? The apostle answers, it was recorded of him for our sakes; see Romans 15:4; and to us there shall be the like imputation, if we believe in God, that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. This a greater act of faith than Abraham’s was. And the nature of justifying faith lies rather in affiance, or in putttag trust in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, than in assent, or in giving credit, to the truth of his promise.

Question. Why doth the apostle single out this act of raising Christ from the dead to describe the Father by?

Answer. To maintain the proportion betwixt the faith or Abraham and the faith of his seed; that as his respected the power of God, in raising, as it were, the dead, so in like sort should ours. So some. But the apostle speaks as if there were some special reason and ground for confidence in God for justification in this act of raising Christ from the dead; and indeed nothing is more fit to establish our faith in persuasion of our justification than this; for when God raised up our Lord Jesus Christ, having loosed the pains of death, he gave full assurance that his justice is fully satisfied for our sins. Had not Christ Jesus, our surety, paid the utmost farthing that was due for our sins, he had still continued in prison, and under the power of death. Hence it is that the apostle Peter tells us, 1 Peter 1:3, that God hath begotten us to a lively hope of the heavenly inheritance by the resurrection of Christ from the dead; there being no more effectual means to persuade us of the pardon of sin, of reconciliation with God, and of acceptance to eternal life, than that Jesus Christ, our surety and sponsor, is risen from the dead.

Verse 25

Who was delivered; he saith delivered rather than crucified, to lead us by the hand to the first cause thereof, the determinate counsel of the blessed Trinity: see Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27,Acts 4:28; Romans 8:32.

For our offences; i.e. for the expiating of them, Isaiah 53:10.

And was raised again for our justification; not that his death had no hand in our justification; see Romans 3:24; but because our justification, which was begun in his death, was perfected in his resurrection. Christ did meritoriously work our justification and salvation by his death and passion, but the efficacy and perfection thereof with respect to us depend on his resurrection. By his death he paid our debt, in his resurrection he received our acquittance, Isaiah 53:8; when he was discharged, we in him, and together with him, received our discharge from the guilt and punishment of all our sins. This one verse is an abridgement of the whole gospel.

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Bibliographical Information
Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on Romans 4". Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. 1685.