For 10¢ a day you can enjoy ads
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!

Bible Commentaries

Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Romans 4


A.M. 4064. A.D. 60.

In this chapter, to confirm the doctrine of justification by faith, the apostle shows,

(1,) That Abraham was justified in this way, whose faith in God’s promise was counted to him for righteousness, not of debt, through the merit of his works, but of grace, Romans 4:1-5 .

(2,) That David also bears witness to the same way of justification, Romans 4:6-8 .

(3,) That Abraham was justified by faith even before he was circumcised, that he might be the father of all believers, whether circumcised or not, Romans 4:9-12 .

(4,) That the promise, that all nations should be blessed in him, was not made to him through the law, but through grace, by faith; that the blessing might be sure to all his spiritual seed of every nation and of every age, Romans 4:13-17 .

(5,) He describes the nature of that faith whereby Abraham was justified, and shows that it was illustrious, and intended for an example to us, Romans 4:18-25 .

Verse 1

Romans 4:1-2. What shall we say then The apostle, in the preceding chapter, having shown the impossibility of man’s being justified by the merit of his obedience to any law, moral or ceremonial, or any otherwise than by grace through faith, judged it necessary, for the sake of the Jews, to consider the case of Abraham, on being whose progeny, and on whose merits, the Jews placed great dependance; as they did also on the ceremony of circumcision, received from him. It was therefore of great importance to know how he was justified; for, in whatever way he, the most renowned progenitor of their nation, obtained that privilege, it was natural to conclude that his descendants must obtain it, if at all, in the same way. Was he justified by works, moral or ceremonial? That is, by the merit of his own obedience to any law or command given him by God? And in particular, was he justified by the ceremony of circumcision, so solemnly enjoined to be observed by him and his posterity? That Abraham was justified by one or other of these means, or by both of them united, the Jews had no doubt. To correct their errors, therefore, the apostle appeals to Moses’s account of Abraham’s justification, and shows therefrom, 1st, That he was not justified by works, but simply by faith in the gracious promise of God, independent of all works; and, 2d, That his circumcision, not performed till he was ninety-nine years of age, had not the least influence on his justification, he having obtained that blessing by means of his faith, long before that time. To this example the apostle appeals with great propriety, both because circumcision was the most difficult of all the rites enjoined in the law, and because Abraham being the father of believers, his justification is the pattern of theirs. Therefore, if circumcision contributed nothing toward Abraham’s justification, the Jews could not hope to be justified thereby, nor by the other rites of the law; and were much to blame in pressing these rites on the Gentiles, as necessary to their salvation, and in consigning all to damnation who were out of the pale of their church. He begins his reasonings on this subject thus: What shall we say that Abraham, our father Our great and revered progenitor, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found That is, obtained? Hath he obtained justification? The verse is differently understood by expositors. Chrysostom and Theophylact join the words κατα σαρκα , according to the flesh, with Abraham our father, thus: What do we say Abraham, our father according to the flesh, obtained, namely, by works? See Romans 4:3. But as in no other passage Abraham is called the father of the Jews according to the flesh, it seems the ordinary translation is to be preferred; and that flesh in this passage being opposed to spirit, signifies services pertaining to the flesh or body, on account of which the law of Moses itself is called flesh, Galatians 3:3. According to this sense of the expression, the verse may be paraphrased thus: “Ye Jews think ritual services meritorious, because they are performed purely from piety. But what do we say Abraham our father obtained by works pertaining to the flesh? That he obtained justification meritoriously? No. For if Abraham had been justified meritoriously by works of any kind, he would have had whereof to glory He might have boasted that his justification was no favour, but a debt due to him; but such a ground of boasting he had not before God.” Or more concisely thus: If Abraham had been justified by works, he would have had room to glory: but he had not room to glory: therefore he was not justified by works. By flesh here Bishop Bull understood those works which Abraham performed in his natural state, and by his own strength, before he obtained justification; but the above-mentioned interpretation seems more agreeable to the apostle’s design here. Nevertheless, in some other passages, where he speaks of justification by works, he hath in view, not ceremonial works only, but moral works also, as is plain from Romans 3:20; where he tells us, that by the deeds of the law, or by works of law, shall no flesh be justified in his sight.

Verse 3

Romans 4:3 . For what saith the Scripture? What is Moses’s account of this matter? Abraham believed God Namely, that promise of God, recorded Genesis 15:5, that he should have a seed numerous as the stars. As also the promise concerning Christ, mentioned Genesis 12:3, through whom all nations should be blessed. “The apostle mentions only this one instance of Abraham’s faith, because Moses had said of it in particular, that it was counted to him for righteousness. But we must not, on that account, think it the only act of faith that was so counted to him. He had an habitual disposition to believe and obey God, founded on just conceptions of his being and attributes. And he began to exercise it when God first called him to leave his native country. For by faith he went out, not knowing whither he went, Hebrews 11:8. The same faith he exercised through the whole course of his life; acting on every occasion as one will do whose mind is filled with a present sense of Deity. Of this the instance mentioned by the apostle is a great example. For, in the eightieth year of his age, when Sarah was seventy years old, he believed what God told him concerning the numerousness of his seed, though it was at that time contrary to the ordinary course of nature: nay, he continued to believe it from that time forth, for the space of twenty years, during which no child was given him: see on Romans 4:17. At length, in the hundredth year of his age, the son so long promised was born. But mark what happened! When this son, to whom all the promises were limited, became fourteen years old, God commanded Abraham to offer him up as a burnt-offering; and he, without hesitation, obeyed; firmly believing that, after he was burnt to ashes on the altar, God would raise him from the dead, Hebrews 11:19. By this and other instances, Abraham became so remarkable for his faith, that God, by a covenant, constituted him the father of all believers.” And it was counted to him for righteousness So our translators have very properly rendered the Greek phrase here, and Galatians 3:6, for the original word, ελογισθη , signifies to state, and sum up an account; also, to put a value upon a thing, Romans 8:18. The word count includes both meanings. The sense is, God accepted Abraham as if he had been altogether righteous: or, this his faith was accounted by God his gospel righteousness, as being the performance of the condition the gospel requires, in order to justification. See on Romans 3:28. “But neither here, nor Galatians 3:6, is it said that Christ’s righteousness was counted to Abraham. In both passages, the expression is, Abraham believed God, and it, namely, his believing God, was counted to him for righteousness; and Romans 4:9, of this chapter, we say that faith was counted to him for righteousness: so also Genesis 15:6. Further, as it is nowhere said in Scripture that Christ’s righteousness was imputed to Abraham, so neither is it said anywhere that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers. In short, the uniform doctrine of the Scripture is, that the believer’s faith is counted to him for righteousness, by the mere grace or favour of God, through Jesus Christ; that is, on account of what Christ hath done to procure that favour for them. This is very different from the doctrine of those who hold that by having faith imputed, or accounted for righteousness, the believer becomes perfectly righteous; whether they mean thereby that faith is itself a perfect righteousness, or that it is the instrument of conveying to the believer the perfect righteousness of another. With respect to the first, it is not true that faith is a perfect righteousness; for if it were, justification would not be a free gift, but a debt. And with respect to the second supposition, although the perfect righteousness of another were conveyed to a sinner by faith, it would not make him perfectly righteous; because it is beyond the power of Omnipotence itself, by any means whatever, to make a person not to have sinned, who actually hath sinned. And yet, unless this is done, no believer can be perfectly righteous. On account of the perfect righteousness of another, God indeed may treat one as if he were perfectly righteous. But that is all. Nor does the Scripture carry the matter further.” Macknight.

Verses 4-5

Romans 4:4-5. Now to him that worketh All that the law requires; is the reward not reckoned of grace Or mere favour; but of debt It is due to his merit. Not that God can properly and strictly be a debtor to any creature, in respect of communicative justice; but if man had continued in that state of holiness wherein he was made, that he should have been esteemed righteous, and have continued in God’s favour and lived, would have been according to the rules of distributive justice. But to him that worketh not In the sense above explained, who can by no means pretend to have wrought all righteousness; but Conscious of his sinfulness and guilt, and of his utter inability to justify himself before God; believeth on him Who, in his great grace, justifieth the ungodly person, when he truly repents and returns to God; his faith is counted Or placed to his account; for righteousness He is graciously accepted, and treated by God as if he were perfectly righteous. Therefore, God’s affirming of Abraham that faith was imputed to him for righteousness, plainly shows that he worked not; or, in other words, that he was not justified by works, but by faith only. Hence we see plainly, how groundless that opinion is, that holiness or sanctification is previous to justification. For the sinner, being first convinced of his sin and danger by the Spirit of God, stands trembling before the awful tribunal of divine justice, and has nothing to plead but his own guilt, and the merits of a Mediator. Christ here interposes: justice is satisfied: the sin is remitted, and pardon is applied to the soul by a divine faith, wrought by the Holy Ghost, who then begins the great work of inward satisfaction. Thus God justifies the ungodly, and yet remains just and true to all his attributes. But let none hence presume to continue in sin, for to the impenitent God is a consuming fire.

Verses 6-8

Romans 4:6-8. Even as David also David is fitly introduced after Abraham, because he also received and delivered down the promise; describeth the blessedness or happiness of the man Or affirms that the man is blessed, or happy; unto whom God imputeth righteousness Or whom he accounts righteous, accepts as such; without works That is, without regard to any former good works supposed to have been done by him. Saying, Blessed Greek, μακαριοι , happy are they whose iniquities are forgiven Are no longer laid to their charge, and therefore whose obligation to punishment is cancelled. Whose sins are covered

With the veil of divine mercy, being expiated by the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah. Blessed, or happy, is the man to whom Though he hath sinned formerly, perhaps very often, and very heinously, yet the Lord will not impute sin Here four expressions, the forgiveness of sin, the non- imputation of sin, the imputation of righteousness, and justification, are used as synonymous. Well might the psalmist say, that those who receive this inestimable blessing are happy; for surely, if there be such a thing as happiness on earth, it is the portion of that man whose iniquities are forgiven: and who enjoys the manifestation of that pardon, with all the blessed effects of it! Well may he endure all the afflictions of life with cheerfulness, and look upon death with comfort! O let us not contend against it, but earnestly pray that this happiness may be ours! We may observe further here, that these two examples of Abraham and David are selected and applied with the utmost judgment and propriety. Abraham was the most illustrious pattern of piety among the Jewish patriarchs, David was the most eminent of their kings. If then neither of these was justified by his own obedience, if they both obtained acceptance with God not as holy beings, who might claim it, but as sinful creatures who must implore it, the consequence is glaring. It is such as must strike every attentive understanding, and must affect every individual person.

Verses 9-10

Romans 4:9-10 . Cometh this blessedness Mentioned by Abraham and David; on the circumcision Those that are circumcised only? or upon the uncircumcision also? The circumcision are the Jews, the members of God’s visible church, and the uncircumcision are the Gentiles, who are out of the visible church. In this question, therefore, the justification of those who are out of the visible church, but who believe and obey God, is implied: for the apostle proves that such are justified, by appealing to Abraham’s justification while in uncircumcision. Abraham was not circumcised till he was ninety-nine years old, Genesis 17:24. At that time Ishmael was thirteen years old, Romans 4:25. But before Ishmael was born, Abraham had his faith counted to him for righteousness, Genesis 15:6, compared with Genesis 16:16. It is evident, therefore, that Abraham was justified in uncircumcision more than thirteen years before he and his family were made the visible church and people of God by circumcision. Heathen, therefore, who believe and obey the true God, as Abraham did, will, like him, have their faith counted to them for righteousness, though no members of any visible church.

Verses 11-12

Romans 4:11-12. And After he was justified; he received the sign of circumcision Circumcision which was intended to be a sign, or token, of his being in covenant with God, and an emblem of that circumcision of the heart, which, even under that dispensation of divine grace, was, and still is, necessary to salvation. A seal of the righteousness of faith An assurance on God’s part that he accounted him righteous, upon his believing, before he was circumcised. Circumcision seems to be called a seal, in allusion to the custom of affixing seals to written covenants, to render them firm. That he might be the father of all them that believe

With a true and lively faith; the father of all the faithful; though they be not circumcised Though they have not that sign of their being in covenant with God, nor that seal of the truth of their faith, and of their being accounted righteous. “Hence, Galatians 3:14. faith counted for righteousness is called the blessing of Abraham, and is said to come on the Gentiles through Christ. For the same purpose God ordered all Abraham’s male descendants to be circumcised, on the eighth day after their birth. The Israelitish children being thus early initiated into God’s covenant, their parents were thereby assured, that if, when grown up, they followed Abraham in his faith and obedience, they were, like him, to have their faith counted to them for righteousness, and be entitled to all the blessings of the covenant: or, if they died in infancy, that God would raise them from the dead, to enjoy the heavenly country, of which the earthly was the type. But the covenant with Abraham being in reality the gospel covenant, set forth in types and figures, according to the manner of ancient times, may we not from the use and efficacy of circumcision believe, that baptism, the rite of initiation into the Christian Church, is, like it, a seal of the gospel covenant, and a declaration on the part of God, that he will count the faith of the baptized person for righteousness? And that, like circumcision, it may be administered to infants, to assure the parents that their future faith shall be counted and rewarded as righteousness; or, if they die in infancy, that they shall be raised to eternal life? In this view the baptism of infants is a reasonable rite, and must afford the greatest consolation to all pious parents.” And the father of circumcision Abraham received this rite by divine appointment, that he might also be the father of those who are circumcised, and believe as he did: for, in the covenant which God made with him, he constituted him the father of all believers; and whatever promises were made to him and his seed, were in reality made to believers of all nations; to all who walk in the steps of that faith which he had being uncircumcised That is, who, like Abraham, exercise a continued faith, and who from faith live a life of obedience to God to the end of their days. To those who do not thus believe and obey, Abraham is not a father, neither are they his seed.

Romans 4:13-15 For As if he had said, And it further appears that Abraham was righteous, or justified by faith only, and not by the works of the law, because the promise that he should be the heir of the world Should have a numerous natural offspring, (and among them Christ, by whom blessedness was to be obtained,) who should inherit that rich and pleasant part of the world, Canaan, a type of heaven; and also that he should have a spiritual seed among all nations, all over the world; was not to Abraham or to his seed To true believers; through the law Of Moses, or any law except that of faith; was not made to him upon consideration of works done by him, and meriting that blessing; but through the righteousness of faith Upon account of his faith, which rendered him a righteous person in a gospel sense, and was manifested especially by his offering Isaac, which was a distinguished act of faith, Hebrews 11:17; and on occasion of which God made those promises to him, Genesis 22:17-18. Christ is the heir of the world, and of all things, and so are all that believe in him with the faith of Abraham. All things were promised to him and them conjointly. For if they only who are of the law Either of the law of Moses. or of the law of nature, who are righteous by their obedience to it; be heirs The only persons that have a title to the promised inheritance and blessedness: see Ephesians 3:6: faith is made void There is no use of believing in Christ, and depending upon him alone for blessedness; and the promise, mentioned Romans 4:13, is made of none effect Can do us no good, is to no purpose. The argument stands thus: “If Abraham and his seed were made heirs of the world, through a righteousness arising from a perfect, unsinning obedience to the law, their faith is rendered useless in this transaction; and the promise by which they became heirs through favour, had no influence in procuring that blessing, they having merited the inheritance by their works.” Because the law Of works, considered apart from that grace which, though it was in fact mingled with it, yet is, properly speaking, no part of it, is so difficult, and we so weak and sinful, that, instead of bringing us a blessing, it only worketh wrath It becomes to us an occasion of wrath, and exposes us to punishment as transgressors. In other words, it reveals God’s wrath against transgressors, and binds them over to punishment for the transgression of it, and so begets fear of wrath, instead of conferring happiness. For where there is no law Either revealed or intimated, or no law in force; there is no transgression Of it; but the multiplication of precepts increases the danger of offending; and the clearer declaration of those precepts aggravates the guilt attending the violation of them.

Verse 16

Romans 4:16. Therefore it The blessing; is of faith, that it might be by grace That it might appear to flow from the free love of God; that God might magnify the riches of his grace, in proposing justification and eternal life to us, in a way that might, in multitudes of instances, be effectual. A righteousness by the merit of works, or by perfect obedience to the law of nature, or of Moses, “being unattainable by men, the inheritance is by a righteousness of faith, that, being a free gift, it might be bestowed in the manner, and on the persons, God saw fit; namely, on believers of all nations, whether the objects of their faith were more or less extensive, and whether their good works were more or fewer; for in the faith and works of believers there must be great differences, according to the mental endowments and outward advantages bestowed on each. In this passage, by the most just reasoning, the apostle hath overthrown the narrow notion of bigots, who confine the mercy of God within the pale of this or that church; and by a noble liberality of sentiment, he hath declared that all who imitate that faith and piety which Abraham exercised uncircumcised, shall, like him, obtain the inheritance, through the free favour of God by Jesus Christ.” That the promise might be sure Might be firm and secure; to all the believing seed of Abraham; not to that only which is of the law, &c. “Here the apostle teaches, that Abraham had two kinds of seed; one by natural descent, called his seed by the law, and another by faith: see Galatians 3:26. To the natural seed the promise of the earthly Canaan was made; but to the seed by faith, the spiritual seed, the promise of a heavenly country, typified by the earthly one, was given. And to each the promise that was made to them was sure.” As it is written, Genesis 12:5, I have made thee a father of many nations That is, as I have received thee into favour upon thy believing, so many of several nations, both Jews and Gentiles, shall receive favour from me by believing, and so be justified in the way thou art: before him whom he believed, even God Though before men nothing of this appeared, those nations being yet unborn. To illustrate the greatness of Abraham’s faith, and to show with what propriety he was made the father of all believers, the apostle in these words observes, that the principles on which he believed the Lord, were proper views of his almighty power, and other perfections. Who quickeneth the dead The dead are not dead to him. And even the things that have no existence, exist before him. And calleth those things which be not as though they were Summoning them to rise into being, and appear before him. The seed of Abraham did not then exist, yet God said, So shall thy seed be. A man can easily say to his servant, actually existing, Do this, and he doth it; but God saith to light, while it does not exist, Go forth, and it goeth.

Verses 18-22

Romans 4:18-22. Who, &c. In this paragraph the apostle first takes notice of the difficulties which stood in the way of Abraham’s faith, and then of the power and excellence of it, manifested in its triumphing over them. Against hope Against all probability; believed in hope With an assured confidence, grounded on the divine promise; according to all that which was spoken When God called him forth abroad to view the stars of heaven. So shall thy seed be So numerous and glorious. And being not weak in faith That is, being strong in faith; for the Hebrews, when they meant to assert a thing strongly, did it by the denial of its contrary. He considered not his own body now dead With regard to the probability of begetting children. He did not regard it so as to be discouraged thereby, or induced to disbelieve the promise. The children which Abraham had by Keturah, after Sarah’s death, do not invalidate the apostle’s assertion here; for Abraham’s body, having been renewed by a miracle in order to the begetting of Isaac, might preserve its vigour for a considerable time afterward. Nor did he consider or regard the old age of Sarah. He staggered not Greek, εις την επαγγελιαν του θεου ου διεκριθη τη απιστια , against the promise of God he did not reason; through unbelief Did not call in question the truth of God’s promise, or the certainty of its fulfilment; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God Entertaining high and honourable thoughts of God’s power and faithfulness, and manifesting the same by his actions. “We are told, indeed, that when God declared that Sarah was to be the mother of nations, Genesis 17:17, Abraham fell upon his face and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? &c. But these questions did not proceed from unbelief, but from admiration and gratitude, as may be gathered from the posture into which he put himself. And with respect to his laughing, it did not imply any doubt of God’s promise, otherwise he would have been rebuked, as Sarah was for her laughing: but it means simply, that he rejoiced at God’s promise; for in the Hebrew language, to laugh signifies to rejoice, Genesis 21:6, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me; consequently the passage may be translated, Abraham rejoiced and said, &c.” And being fully persuaded Through the knowledge which he had of the divine perfections; that what he had promised Greek, ο επηγγελται , that what was promised; he was able, and willing also, to perform He believed God to be most faithful, and sure never to fail in the performance of his promises; collecting nothing else from the difficulty and improbability of the matter, but that it was the fitter for an Almighty power to effect; and therefore it His faith; was imputed to him for righteousness He was justified by it.

Verses 23-25

Romans 4:23-25. Now it was not written In the sacred records, which are to reach the remotest ages; for his sake alone Merely or chiefly to do a personal honour to that illustrious patriarch; but for us also For our sakes likewise; namely, to direct, encourage, and establish us in seeking justification by faith, and not by works: and to afford a full answer to those who say, that “to be justified by works means only, by Judaism: to be judged by faith, means by embracing Christianity, that is, the system of doctrines so called.” Sure it is that Abraham could not, in this sense, be justified either by faith or works: and equally sure, that David (taking the word thus) was justified by works, and not by faith. To whom it The like faith; shall be imputed Namely, for righteousness, if we steadily believe on him In the power, and love, and faithfulness of him, who not only brought Isaac from the dead womb of Sarah, but, in the most literal sense, raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead When he lay among them, slain and mangled by his cruel enemies. Here God the Father is represented as the proper object of justifying faith, in whose power, and love, and faithfulness to his promises, the penitent sinner, that would be justified, must confide for the pardon of his sins, acceptance with God, and the whole salvation of the gospel. For as Abraham’s faith, which was counted to him for righteousness, consisted in his being fully persuaded that what God had promised concerning the number of his seed, &c, he was able and willing to perform; so the faith which is counted for righteousness to believers in all ages must be so far of the same nature, as to imply a full persuasion that what God hath declared and promised, namely, in the revelation which he hath made us of his will, he is able and willing to perform, and actually will perform. This persuasion, however, must be in and through the mediation, that is, the sacrifice and intercession, of Christ. Who was delivered To ignominy, torture, and death; for our offences

Namely, to make an atonement for them. See note on Romans 3:25-26. And raised for our justification That is, for the perfecting of our justification; and that in three respects: 1st, To show us that the sacrifice which he offered for the expiation of our sins was accepted by the Father. Having, as our surety, engaged to pay our debt, he was arrested for it by divine justice, and thrown into the prison of death and the grave. If he had been detained in that prison, it would have been a proof that he had not paid it: but his release from that prison was the greatest assurance possible that God’s justice was satisfied, and our debt discharged. 2d, He was raised that he might ascend and appear in the presence of God, as our advocate and intercessor, and obtain from the Father our acquittance. And, 3d, That he might receive for us the Holy Spirit, to inspire us with the faith whereby alone we can be justified, to seal a pardon on the consciences of believers, and sanctify their nature; and thus to entitle them to, and prepare them for, a resurrection, like his, to immortal life and felicity. Accordingly, the apostle puts an especial emphasis on Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and intercession, with regard to our justification, Romans 8:34, saying, Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. We may add here, with Bishop Sherlock, that Christ may also be said to be raised for our justification, because his resurrection demonstrated him to be the true Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world; and so laid a firm foundation for that faith in him, by which we are justified.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Romans 4". Joseph Benson's Commentary. 1857.