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Bible Commentaries

McGarvey's Commentaries on Selected Books

Romans 4

Verse 1

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, hath found according to the flesh? [The word "found" means "obtained" (Hebrews 9:12) or "got" (Luke 9:12) Knowing that the Jew would resist and controvert his conclusion that the Jew would have to be justified by faith, just as the Gentile, Paul further confirms his conclusion by a test case. For the test he selects Abraham, the father of the race, and the earthly head of the theocracy. No more fitting individual could be chosen, for the nation had never claimed that it had risen higher than its head; therefore, whatever could be proved as to Abraham must be conceded to be true as to all. What, says Paul, in the light of our proposition, shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, hath obtained, by his fleshly nature, apart from the grace of God; i. e., as a doer of the law (Galatians 3:2-3)? Surely, he obtained nothing whatever in this manner.]

Verse 2

For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God.

Verse 3

For what saith the scripture? [Genesis 15:6] And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. [Now, of course, Abraham was some way justified. If he was justified by works, as you Jews suppose, he has ground for glorying toward God, for he can claim his justification from God as a debt due to him; but we hear of no such glorying toward God, and hence he was not justified by works. On the contrary, we hear that he was justified by faith, for the Scripture says that he believed God and his belief was counted unto him for righteousness.]

Verse 4

Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt.

Verse 5

But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. [Let us illustrate our point by the case of a workman. If the workman does all he agreed to do, then his reward or hire is due him, not as a matter of grace or favor, but as a just debt. But if, on the contrary, the workman does not fulfill his agreement at all, but merely believes the promise of his employer that he shall nevertheless be paid, then the hire is not hire at all; it is a mere gift of grace and favor, and not a debt. Now, this latter is the position occupied by Abraham, and by every one that believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, for their faith is reckoned unto them for the works of the law--those works of righteousness which they promised to do, but never performed. The sentence is very elliptical, the apostle mingling the illustration with its application, in the on-rushing of his thought.]

Verse 6

Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, unto whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works,

Verse 7

saying [Psalms 32:1-2], Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered.

Verse 8

Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin. [The quotation from David does not show a positive imputation of righteousness, but a negative one--a refusal to reckon the unrighteous. "It is implied," says Alford, "by Paul, that the remission of sin is equivalent to the imputation of righteousness, that there is no negative state of innocence, none intermediate between acceptance for righteousness and rejection for sin." This accords with the entire trend of Scripture, which recognizes but two great classes: those who shall stand upon the right, and those who shall pass to the left in the judgment. Paul has now concluded his first point in the test case of Abraham--he has shown that he was justified by faith, and that such a justification was recognized by David, and pronounced blessed. He now takes up the second point, and shows that if Abraham was not justified by the doing of the law, neither was he by the rite of circumcision. In this part of the argument it should be borne in mind that God declared Abraham justified by faith at least thirteen years before Abraham submitted to the rite of circumcision. Moreover, he unites Abraham with all the uncircumcised, and tries the case of all in Abraham.]

Verse 9

Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness.

Verse 10

How then was it reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision [Do the words of David apply only to the Jews, the circumcised, or do they likewise apply also to the Gentiles, the uncircumcised? Surely they apply to the uncircumcised, for they describe the blessing which Abraham enjoyed before his circumcision. Of what use, then, was circumcision, and why did Abraham receive it?]:

Verse 11

and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned unto them;

Verse 12

and the father of circumcision to them who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision. [Now, circumcision was not given to Abraham to justify him, but as a seal, or token, that he had obtained righteousness by faith. Moreover, it was given to him that he might become the father of all believing Gentiles, God having agreed to make him the head or spiritual father of all those saved by Christ on condition of his being circumcised, and Abraham having been circumcised in order to obtain this exalted honor, and thirdly, that he might be the spiritual father of those who are not only circumcised like him, but walk in the steps of that faith of his of which circumcision was the seal. Thus circumcision was the seal that God had made Abraham the father of all who believe in God, and are justified by their belief, whether they belong to the Jews, who, in the earlier ages, had the better opportunity to believe, or to the Gentiles, who had that better opportunity in these latter ages.]

Verse 13

For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he should be heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith. [In this third division of his argument Paul shows that Abraham did not obtain the promise of heirship for himself and his seed through the agency of the law, but by reason of the righteousness reckoned to him because of his faith. Many promises were given to Abraham (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:14-15; Genesis 15:13; Genesis 17:8; Genesis 22:17), and Paul sums them all up in the phrase, "that he should be heir of the world." This phrase has been variously explained, but it obviously means that Abraham should inherit the world as his spiritual children, and that his children should inherit it also as their spiritual family or household. The heirship of Abraham in no way conflicts with that of Christ or God. Comp. Romans 8:17]

Verse 14

For if they that are of the law are heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of none effect:

Verse 15

for the law worketh wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression. [Abraham had, by reason of his human nature, to be justified by his faith. If justification had to be earned, and men had to seek it by the works of the law, then faith--all the things which we hope for and believe in--would be made void.]

Verse 16

For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all

Verse 17

(as it is written [Genesis 17:5], A father of many nations have I made thee) before him whom ye believed, even God, who giveth life to the dead, and calleth the things that are not, as though they were.

Verse 18

Who in hope believe against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall thy seed be. [Now, since a righteousness of law is unattainable by men, the inheritance was bestowed because of a righteousness of faith, that it might be a free gift, and that all the promises concerning it might be sure, to the entire household. Not only to that division of Abraham’s spiritual children who are under the law (believing Jews), but also to that part who are only his children by reason of a like faith with him (believing Gentiles), for Abraham is the father of all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles; as it is written, "A father of many nations have I made thee." And Abraham was such a spiritual father in the estimate of God, who, in his omnipotence and omniscience, gives life to the dead (and, from a child-bearing standpoint, Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead), and speaks of unborn and as yet non-existent children as though they already had being. And God spoke thus to the man who, when nature withheld all reason to hope, still hoped for the purpose of obtaining from God the fulfillment of the promise that he should be the father of many nations, according to God’s gracious assurance, when he bade Abraham look upon the stars, and said, "So shall thy seed be." The word "made," in Romans 4:17; means to constitute or appoint. "This word," says Shedd, "denotes that the paternity spoken of was the result of a special arrangement or economy. It would not be used to denote the merely physical connection between father and son." Such a word is to be expected, for the promise was that Abraham was to be a spiritual, not a fleshly, father of many nations. Again, it is fittingly said that Abraham was such in God’s sight, for it was God, and not man, who thus anticipated the future. Though Abraham and Sarah were long past the age of child-bearing, and though it was to be many centuries before Abraham would have spiritual children, begotten of the gospel among the Gentiles, yet God spoke of him as the father of many nations; foreknowing his own power and foreseeing his own workings, God meant both to make him a father in the near future, and to give him a spiritual seed among the Gentiles in the remote future.]

Verse 19

And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb;

Verse 20

yet, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God,

Verse 21

and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was able also to perform. [This paragraph explains the clause in verse 18, which sets forth how Abraham "in hope believed against hope." God promised Abraham a son, and though nature told him that it was now impossible for him to have a son, by reason of his own age, and the age of his wife, yet Abraham believed that (the promise of) God was more potent than (the laws of) nature, and in this belief he waxed strong, and glorified God above nature, being fully assured that God was able to perform all that he promised.]

Verse 22

Wherefore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. [Abraham, like all others, could not honor God by rendering perfect obedience to his will, but he could honor him by being fully persuaded that he would keep his word, though to do so might seemingly involve an impossibility. It was this act of honoring God by belief which was reckoned unto Abraham for righteousness. Faith still thus honors God when it trusts that God can love a sinner and save him notwithstanding his lost condition. "The sinner," says Hodge, "honors God, in trusting his grace, as much as Abraham did in trusting his power."]

Verse 23

Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was reckoned unto him;

Verse 24

but for our sake also, unto whom it shall be reckoned, who believe on him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,

Verse 25

who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification. [Now, Moses, when he recorded the fact that Abraham was accounted righteous for his faith, did not do so for the sole purpose of giving Abraham the honor due him, but he also recorded the fact for our sakes also, unto whom a like righteousness shall be reckoned because we believe on God the Father that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, even Jesus who was delivered up to die for our sins, and raised from the dead for our justification. This paragraph shows that our belief is very similar to that of Abraham. If Abraham believed that God could accomplish seemingly impossible things concerning his son Isaac, so we likewise believe that God accomplished, and will accomplish, seemingly impossible things through Jesus, who, according to the flesh, was also a son of Abraham. In both cases it is no mere abstract belief in God, but a concrete belief as to certain facts accomplished and to be accomplished by God. In Romans 4:25 Paul presents the twofold nature of Christ’s propitiatory work, for he was both sacrifice and priest. He offered himself and was delivered up as a sacrifice for our sins, and he was raised from the dead and ascended to heaven that he might, as High Priest, present his blood before the face of God in a heavenly sanctuary for our justification, thus completing his high-priestly duties or offices-- Hebrews 9:11-28]

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
First published online at The Restoration Movement Pages.
Bibliographical Information
McGarvey, J. W. "Commentary on Romans 4". "J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on Acts". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/oca/romans-4.html. Transylvania Printing and Publishing Co. Lexington, KY. 1872.