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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament

Romans 4

Verse 1

As if the apostle had said, "What shall we say? Shall anyone affirm, that Abraham our father found or obtained righteousness by, or according to the flesh; that is, by being circumcised in the flesh, or by any works of righteousness which he had done? surely no: For if Abraham were justified by circumcision, or any other works of his own, he hath whereof to glory; that is, ground of boasting in these works by which he was thus justified. But manifested it is, that he had not whereof to boast and glory before God; therefore he was not justified by circumcision, nor any works of his own."

Learn hence, That no righteousness of our own, no services we can perform, are sufficient to procure our justification in the sight of God: For if we are justified by our works, it must be by works either before faith, or after faith. Not before faith; for the corruption of nature, and man's impotent condition thereby, will give check to any such thought. Surely, unrighteousness cannot make us righteous, no more than impurity can make us clean. Nor do works after faith, justify; for then a believer is not justified upon his believing, but by his works after his believing; and faith is not the justifying grace, but only a preparation to those works which justify; which is contrary to the whole strain of the apostle throughout the epsitle, who ascribes justification in faith in the blood of Christ without works.

In short, no righteousness of man is perfect; therefore, no righteousness of man can be justifying: There is nothing that a man doth, but is defective, and consequently, has matter of condemnation in it: Now, that which is condemning, cannot be justifying; that which falls short of the holiness of the law, can never free us from the condemnatory sentence and curse of the law. Now, all works after faith fall short of that perfection which the law requireth.

Learn, 2. That the design of God, was to justify us in such a way as to strip us of our own. Not of works, least any man should boast, says the apostle often. We are justified by faith, to exclude boasting, which would not have been excluded by the law of works.

Verse 3

Observe here, 1. The account which the scripture gives of Abraham's justification; it was by faith alone; He believed God and was accounted to him for righteousness: That is, he firmly believed the promise of God, that he would give him a son, in whom all the families of the earth should be blessed. And by means of his faith, he was reckoned or esteemed righteous before God, and not by means of his works.

Observe, 2. The apostle's argument, to prove that Abraham was justified by faith, and not by works; had he works of perfect holiness, then in strict justice a reward might have been expected by him as a due debt, and not given him in a way of grace and favour. For to him that worketh, that is, with a design and intent to obtain justification by his works, is the reward reckoned not of grace, but of debt; he having performed all that was required, in order to his being righteous before God. But to him that worketh not; that is, who worketh not to the intent and end forementioned; namely to procure justification by working, but seeks that in a way of believing; his faith is counted for righteousness. To him that worketh not, but believeth, &c. We must not understand it absolutely; for he that believeth, worketh: But, secundum quid, after a sort, he is said not to work; because he worketh not with a design to stand righteous before God by his works.

Again, by him that worketh not, we are not to understand an idle, lazy believer that takes no care of he duties of obedience; no, an idle faith is an ineffectual faith, and can never be a saving faith: But the meaning is, he worketh not in a law sense, to the ends and intentions of the first covenant, to make up a righteousness by the law, and seeing all his endeavours to obey the law-sense not to work, because he doth not work so as to answer the purpose and end of the law, which accepts of nothing short of perfect and complete obedience. And whereas it is here said, That God justifieth the ungodly; the meaning is, such as have been ungodly, not such as continue so.

The apostle describes the temper and frame of their hearts and lives before justification, and not after it; as it found them, not as it leaves them. True, Christ justifies the ungodly, yet such as continue ungodly are not justified by him: We must bring credential from our sanctification, to bear witness to the truth of our justification.

Verse 6

Observe here, That to the example of Abraham, the apostle subjoins the testimony of David, Psalms 32 . who describes the blessedness of that man to whom God imputeth righteousness, to wit, the righteousness of the Mediator, without any works brought before God to be justified by, saying, Blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered, and iniquity not imputed. Sin, in respect of the offence, is remitted; in respect of the filth or turpitude of it, is covered; in respect of the punishment, not imputed. This heap of words, serves only to amplify and set forth the abundant grace of God in the act of pardoning sin.

Learn hence, 1. That to pardon sin, is God's prerogative; he forgiveth iniquity, and covereth transgression.

2. That pardon of sin is a covering of sin; not such a covering of sin, as that God cannot see it in a justied person, to chastise him for it; but so covered, as not to punish him with wrath and condemnation for it.

Learn, 3. That God's act in pardoning and covering sin, is extensive and perfect, full and final: Iniquity, transgression, and sin, is forgiven covered, and not imputed.

Learn, 4. That transcendent is the blessedness of those whose iniquity is pardoned, and their transgression covered. Blessedness, says the original, belong to the man whos iniquity is forgiven, and whose sin is coveredd, and to whom the Lord will not impute transgression.

Verse 9

Here the apostle moves the question, namely, Whether the forementioned blessedness of pardon of sin, and justification by faith, belongs to the circumcised Jews only, or to the uncircumcised Gentiles also? which question carrieth with it the force of a strong affirmation, that seeing faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness, many years before he was circumcised; therefore the uncircumcised Gentiles, as well as the circumcised Jews, shall by faith be made partakers of the same blessedness, unto which Abraham wa intitled before he was circumcised.

Learn hence, That God has appointed one and the same way and method for the justification and salvation of all persons, circumcised and uncircumcised, Jew and Gentile, honourable and ignoble; namely, justification by faith in the blood of his Son, without which no church privileges, or spiritual prerogatives whatsoever, will intitle them to real blessedness. Cometh this blessedness on the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? Abraham believed unto righteousness before he was circumcised; therefore, the Gentiles by faith shall be accounted righteous, though they never be circumcised.

Verse 11

Here the apostle declares the reason why, and the end for which Abraham was circumcised, seeing he was justified by faith in the promised Messiah, long before circumcision, as a sign and seal of the covenant made with him, and to his seed, Genesis 17 . and as an obligation that the righteousness of faith was the true way for a sinner to become righteous; which righteousness Abraham had obtained whilst he was uncircumcised, that so he might be the father in a spiritual sense, of all believers, both Jews and Gentiles, who imitated him in his faith, and in the holiness and obedience of his life.

Note here, 1. The person instituting the sacrament of circumcision: God, and not Abraham: He received circumcision: that is, by the appointment of God he was circumcised. Sacraments must be of divine institution, not of human invention. The church can make no sacraments; her duty is, with care and caution to administer them.

There is a fourfold word requisite to a sacrament. A word of institution; a word of command; a word of promise; a word of blessing. The elements are cyphers: 'Tis the institution makes them figures. Divine institutionis as necessary to a sacrament, as the royal inscription is to current money.

Note, 2. The nature of sacrments in general, and of circumcision in particular. They are signs and seals; He received the sign of circumcision: a seal of the righteousness by faith.

The circumcision, 1. Was a sign and token of the covenant which God made with Abraham and the Jews. It was a commemorative sign of God's covenant with Abraham: A representative sign of Abraham's faith and obedience towards God: A demonstrative sign of original sin, and the depravity of human nture: A discriminating and distinguishing sign of the true church and people of God from all the rest of the world: An initiating sign, by which all stangers, that were received into the commonwealth of Israel, were admitted into the Jewish church: And lastly, It was a prefigurative sign of baptism, which, in the Christian church, was to succeed in the room of circumcision.

2. Circumcision was not a sign only, but a seal also. A seal of the righteousness by faith; it was a seal, both on God's part, and on Abraham's also. A seal on God's part, to confirm all the promises made to Abraham and his seed.

3. A seal on his and their parts, to bind them to renounce the service of all other gods, and to oblige them to the observation of the whole law.

Note lastly, The character and description here given of true believers; they are such as walk in the steps of faithful Abraham. They have not only Abraham to their father, but they walk in the footsteps of their father's faith.

As Abraham readily obeyed the call of God, so do they:

As Abraham left his idolatrous country and kindred, and though he had opportunity of returning, yet never returned more; so do the faithful sons and daughters of Abraham leave all known sins, and no temptations can prevail with them to return to the delightful practice of them.

Did Abraham break through all impediments, difficulties, and discouragements whatsoever?

So do and will all those that tread in the faith of their father Abraham, surmount all difficulties, bid defiance to all dangers, that they may yield a ready, cheerful, and persevering obedience to the commands of the God of Abraham: Few of the children of Abraham's flesh, but all the children of his faith, do thus walk in the steps of their renowned father.

Verse 13

That is, the great promise which God made to Abraham, and his seed, that they should possess that rich and pleasant part of the world, the land of Canaan, under which also heaven itself was typically promised and comprehended, was not made upon condition of their performing perfect obedience to the law, but they were to obtain it by faith; that is, by trusting to, and depending upon the gracious promise of a faithful God.

Note here, The argument couched for justification by faith without works, which is the apostle's grand scope, design and drift; it runs thus: "If a promise made to the father of the faithful was accomplished, not by legal obedience, but by the righteousness of faith; then it follows, that all his children are justified by faith, as Abraham their father was. But the promise of the earthly inheritance, and under it, of the heavenly one, was accomplished, not by the law, but by the righteousness of Abraham's faith: Therefore, justification is not to be expected by the works of the law, but by faith alone."

Verse 14

That is, If they which seem to be justified by the works of the law be heirs of this promised inheritance; then faith, that is, the way of justification by faith, prescribed by God, is to no purpose, for to what end should we by faith seek righteousness in another, if by our legal obedience we can find ourselves?

Here then lies couched another argument, to confirm the apostle's doctrine of justification by faith: Thus, that only justifies, unto which gracious promise of justification is made; but no such promise is made to any man for his weak and imperfect keeping of the law, but for his believing there is; therefore, by the law there can be no justification, but by faith only.

Verse 15

Here the apostle suggests another reason, why no justification can be executed by the law, because it condemns, rather than justifies. The law worketh wrath: that is, it discovers the wrath of God due to our transgression, and then pronounces condemnation upon the transgressor; for were there no law, either natural or revealed, there would be no transgression, and, consequently, no condemnation.

Here observe, 1. The use of the law; it discovers sin, it convinces of sin, it condemns for sin, it denounces the wrath of God due unto sin.

And note, 2. The apostle's arguments for the use of the law; he infers an utter impossibility of being justified by the law. That which condemns, cannot justify; but the law of God condemns the sinner for his transgression, therefore, it can never be the instrument and means of his justification.

Verse 16

The apostle here assigns a double cause, why the wisdom of God has appointed justification and salvation to be obtained in the way of faith:

namely, 1. That it might be of free and undeserved grace and favour; for to be justified by faith, and by grace, are all one with the apostle.

And, 2. That the promise might be sure to all the seed: That is, that God's promise might stand firm and sure to all the believing seed of Abraham, not only to all the children of the flesh, to whom the law was given, but to all the children of his faith, even Gentiles as well as Jews; he being the father of all that believe, whether Jews or Gentiles.

Learn hence, That if our justification and salvation did depend upon our performing perfect obedience to the law, it would never be sure, but always uncertain, because of our impotency and weakness to keep and observe it.

The apostle, Romans 8:3. tells us, That the law is weak through the flesh; though the truth is, the law is not weak to us, but we are weak to that; the law has the same authority for commanding that ever it had, but we have not the same ability for obeying. 'Tis our wickedness that is the sole cause of the law's weakness: Had every man the same integrity, the law would have the same ability that ever it had, both to justify and save us.

Verse 17

Our apostle, in this and the following verses, enters upon an high commendation of Abraham's faith, magnifying and extolling the same, for and upon account of sundry excellencies which are found in it.

And here, 1. He takes notice how Abraham's faith was strongly acted and exercised on the Almighty power of God: He believed in God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which are not, as though they were: That is, The Lord having promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, which he had no seed, nor was ever likely to have any; he believed the thing to be both credible and possible, because God had spoken it, how improbable soever. And although with respect to generation, he looked upon Sarah's body, and his own, as good as dead; for she was barren and past bearing, and he was an hundred years old, and past all hopes of having a child; yet he exercised his faith on the promise and power of God, who quickeneth the dead, that is, his own dead body, and Sarah's barren womb; and called those things which be not, that is, the Gentiles which were not then a people, as if they were.

Learn hence, That it is a noble act and exercise of faith, to believe God on his bare word, and to assent to truth, though never so improbable. As whatever God doth is good, because he doth it; so whatever God says is true, because he speaks it: And accordingly, faith, which is an assent of the understanding to what God reveals, depends upon the veracity of God, for making good his own word, and fulfilling his own promise. Faith though never so improbable; it puts men upon duties, though seemingly unreasonable (witness Abraham's offering up of Isaac); and it enable to sufferings, be they never so afflictive. But from believing plain contradictions and impossibilities, as the church of Rome would have us in the point of transubstantiation; Faith desires there to be excused.

Observe here, 2. That as Abraham's faith exceedingly honoured God; so God highly honours Abraham's faith, making him like himself, a father of many nations. As God is an universal Father, not of one, but of all nations, so was Abraham; as God is their spiritual father, not by carnal generation, so was Abraham: God made faithful Abraham like himself, a father, not of this or that nation only, but universally of all believers, among all nations, believing after his example. Thus Abraham's faith honours God, and God honours Abraham's faith, styling him the Father of the Faithful throughout all generations.

Verse 18

Here St. Paul farther expatiates in the commendation of Abraham's faith, telling us, That against hope he believed in hope; that is he had a strong hope, a firm faith and trust in the promise and power of God, against all natural grounds of hope; namely, that he should certainly have a son, and a seed like the stars of heaven for multitude.

He farther adds, That he considered not the deadness of his own body nor the barrenness of Sarah's womb: neither staggered at the promise through unbelief: That is, he regarded not any difficulties which lay in the way of his faith, he admitted no doubts or questions touching the promise or power of God; but without all disputing depended fully upon God for the performance of his own promise, and so gave God the glory of his omnipotency and faithfulness.

Observe here, 1. What was the ground of Abraham's faith; namely, the special promise, yea, the absolute promise of God, that he should have a son.

Observe, 2. The height and measure of his faith: He was strong in faith, and staggered not through unbelief; he was fully persuaded of God's all-sufficiency: it is a metaphor taken from ships that come into the harbour with full sail. Thus was it with Abraham, there was not any sail of his soul but what was filled with the wind of assurance. As a ship with full gale and strong sail is carried to the haven against winds and waves, so Abraham, by the strength of his faith, overcame all waves of doubts and difficulties beating upon his mind.

Observe, 3. What was the fruit and issue, the end and event of Abraham's faith, it brought glory to God: He was strong in faith, giving glory to God. All faith glorifies God truly, but strong faith glorifies him abundantly: It gives him the glory of his power and faithfulness, goodness and truth.

Quest. 1. But how could Abraham's body be said to be dead, when he had several children afterwards by Keturah? even six months, forty years after Sarah's death.

Ans. Abraham's and Sarah's bodies received now a blessing, or new generative faculty from God, which rendered them capable of begetting and bearing children, when by nature they were not so.

Quest. 2. Was Abraham's faith so strong as to exclude all doubting? Did not he distrust when he said, Shall a child be born to Abraham that is an hundred years old; and Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? Genesis 21 .

Ans. These words are not words of doubting, but inquiring; they proceeded from a desire to be further informed how these things could be. But Abraham laughed, and Sarah also at the mention of a son. True, they did both laugh, but not both alike; Abraham's laughter proceeded from admiration and joy, but Sarah's from diffidence and distrust: And accordingly we find Sarah reprimanded, but not Abraham reprimanded, for laughing: Abraham staggered not at the promise through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God.

Verse 22

Our apostle having, in the former part of this chapter, declared the manner of our justification, from an instance of Abraham, which having at large pursued, lest we should think that was Abraham's personal privilege, and did not concern us, he applies in the verses before us Abraham's example unto us, assuming us, that as Abraham's faith was imputed to him for righteousness, because he depended upon the almighty power of God in the promise, and also looked by faith to the Messias promised, who was to come of his seed; so, says the apostle, was this written for our sakes as well as Abraham's for our comfort and encouragement, to assure us that faith shall be imputed to us also for righteousness, if we firmly trust in God, through the merits and mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Where observe, The apostle's argument fully overthrows the Socinian doctrine, which teaches that the godly, under the Old Testament, were not justified in the same way with us under the New; whereas the apostle fully proves, that Abraham, and all the children of Abraham, who walk in the steps of him their father, are justified alike: And accordingly it was not thus written of him for his sake alone, that his faith was imputed to him for righteousness, but for the benefit of us also; to whom the like faith shall be imputed for justification, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus from the dead.

Learn hence, That the doctrine of justification by faith, through the imputed righteousness of the Mediator, is no new doctrine, but as old as Abraham. Some are much offended at this word imputed; but as the pious bishops, Downham and Davenant, on justification well observe, it is no less than ten times mentioned, either in the term or the signification of it, in this chapter: Their arguments for, and answers to, Bellarmin's objections against the imputed righteousness of the Mediator, runs thus: "If Christ's righteousness be not imputed, it is not accepted; if it be not accepted, it is not performed, and so there will be no redemption by Jesus Christ; without this, we would make Christ little, very little, in the justifying of sinners; And why is Christ called the Lord our righteousness, and how are we said to be made the righteousness of God in him? And why is faith so infinitely pleasing ot God, but because faith brings to God a righteousness which is highly pleasing to him, even that of the Mediator? for there is no standing before God for any creature in a creature-righteousness." -

The popish objections run thus: Objection, 1. If Christ's righteousness be imputed to us, then may we be reputed redeemers of the world, as well as he was.

Ans. It may as well be said, the debt may be accounted the surety, because the surety's payment is accepted for the debtor.

Objection, 2. If Christ's righteousness be imputed to us as ours, then we ought to be accounted as righteous as himself.

Ans. It may be as well argued and concluded, that the debtor is as rich a man as the surety, because the surety pays the debtor's debts.

Objection, 3. If Christ's righteousness be properly imputed to us, then our unrighteousness was properly imputed to him, and he may be strictly and truly called a sinner.

Ans. Just as if we should say! "If the acceptance of the surety's payment acquits the debtor, then the surety is as bad an husband, and as much a bankrupt as the debtor himself."

Objection, 4. But if Christ's righteousness be ours, no need of any righteousness of our own.

Ans. We plead for the meritorious righteousness of Christ to answer the demands of the law, and for a personal righteousness of our own, to answer the commands of the gospel: Let us render to all their due; let us render unto Christ the things that are Christ's, to faith the things which are theirs. Let us awfully adore the wisdom of God, who has made Christ unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

To relieve our ignorance and folly, he is our wisdom; to discharge us from guilt, and free us from condemnation, he is our righteousness; to relieve us against the filth and pollution, the power and dominion of sin, he is our sanctification; and to rescue us from our miserable captivity of Satan, he is our redemption.

Blessed be God for the benefit of imputed righteousness to such as live in the practice and power of inherent holiness. True, our sanctification and holiness, when most perfect, cannot justify us before God; but it will evidence our justification before men, and be a witness to our own consciences, that we are accepted in the Beloved.

Verse 25

In this one verse we have an abridgment of the whole gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ declared, and the benefit and advantages of both assigned. 1. For his death; he was delivered for our offences.

Here note, 1. The person delivered: He, that is, Christ Jesus the righteous; the Lord our righteousness.

Note, 2. The person delivering, not expressed, but necessarily implied and understood. Judas delivered him, the Jews delivered him, God the Father delivered him, and Christ himself delivered himself. All these did one and the same act, but not for one and the same end: Judas delivered him for gain, the Jews for envy, the Father delivered him out of love, and Christ delivered himself in great compassion to a lost world.

Note, 3. Unto what he was delivered, namely, Unto death, even the death of the cross. This in "God was an act of the highest justice, in Christ an act of wonderful obedience, in the Jews an act of the highest wickedness.

Note, 4. For whom, and for what he was delivered: for us and for our offenses: It notes the vicegerency of his sufferings, not barely for our goods the final cause, and for our sins as the meritorious cause; but for us, in our room, place and stead, dying under an imputation of guilt, and dying as the sacrificed beast for the expiation of that guilt: The original word here for offences signifies great falls, grievous offences, and heinous crimes.

This sacrificed lamb was delivered and died to expiate the guilt of guilt of great sins, and to make atonement for the greatest sinners.

Note, 5. It is here said, that Christ was delivered, rather than died for our offences, to lead us to the consideration of the first cause of his suffering for us; namely, The determinate counsel of God, pursuant to which there concession or permission given to wicked instruments to shed his blood; his own Father delivering him up to death for our offences.

Learn hence, That our sins were not only the occasions, but the moving and impulsive cause of Christ's sufferings. He died as a sacrifice to atone an offended Deity: As the sacrifices of old were brought to the altar, and there slain, so Christ, substituting himself in our room and stead, was brought ot he altar of his cross, and there died as a victim or expiatory sacrifice for our sins. Thus, He was delivered for our offenses.

Observe, next, Our Lord's resurrection asserted, He was raised again; and its end assigned, for our justification. Christ as our surety was under the arrest of death; but having given satisfaction by his sufferings, our discharge was published to the world by his resurrection; As by dying in our stead, he bare the curse of the law; so by rising again as a common person, we receive our acquittal from the hand of a judge. His death was our payment, his resurrection our discharge; He was raised again for our justification.

Learn thence, That Christ's resurrection was the cause of our justification; not the meritorious cause, for that was his death and bloodshed; but the declarative and perfect cause of our justification.

His resurrection was a declaration of our justification, the justice of God thereby declaring itself satisfied, by its prisoner being released. His resurrection is also the perfective cause of our justification. The work of redemption wrought for us by his death, is perfected, and made effectual by his resurrection. This makes our redemption complete, which otherwise had been partial and imperfect; nay, none at all. 'Tis upon Christ, as raised, that our faith must be settled: Had he not been raised from the dead, faith in his death had had no foundation, for it had been an unaccountable thing to believe in one that lay under he power of death.

By Christ's resurrection, the efficacy of his death was declared to all the world: Therefore, says the apostle, Who shall condemn us, when Christ hath died for us? yea, rather is risen again Romans 8 .

As our redemption was not in its glory till Christ's resurrection; so neither is our faith in its full strength and vigour, till it eyes him, Who was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification.

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Bibliographical Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Romans 4". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/wbc/romans-4.html. 1700-1703.