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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Romans 4

Verse 1

1. What A question not put by the Jew as objection, (as Stuart supposes,) but stated by the apostle to start his argument.

The flesh In opposition to the spirit, as in Galatians 3:3, where the flesh refers to legal works as a means of justification, and the spirit refers to spiritual faith as the means. Hence the present question signifies, What in the matter of justification did Abraham attain by legal works? The phrase as pertaining to the flesh cannot, according to the Greek, qualify father. (See note on Romans 9:8.)

Verses 1-25

Faith-justification shown by Abraham’s Case to lie at the Foundation of the Jewish, as well as of the Christian, Church , Romans 4:1-45.4.25 .

Abraham himself was gratuitously justified by faith, (Romans 4:1-45.4.5;) with a justification whose blessedness is attested by David, (Romans 4:6-45.4.8;) and which was conferred upon him in his Gentilism, and afterward sealed by circumcision, (Romans 4:9-45.4.11;) rendering him the father of the faithful by faith, (Romans 4:12-45.4.17,) insomuch that from that faith sprang by miraculous birth the very race of Israel, (Romans 4:18-45.4.22;) a faith identical with justifying faith in Christ, (Romans 4:23-45.4.25.)

ABRAHAM was to the Jew the most nearly divine of all human names. His venerable form, to their imagination, rose loftily from the mists of an early antiquity as the founder of their race, securing it a divine preeminence in this world, and a certain salvation in the world to come. He connected their lineal pedigree with Adam, which was yet to culminate in the Messiah. Hence, when Paul identified the Christian faith with the Abrahamic, he based Christianity on the deepest possible foundations, and showed that a great epoch in sacred history had here commenced. (Note Acts 7:2.)

Verse 2

2. Not before God Says old Bishop Jackson: “He [Abraham] might boldly contest (as Job did, and every godly man yet safety may) with others for integrity of life and plenty of works, in which he might justly rejoice or glory; yet with men, not with God.” Humanitarians and secular reformers largely boast of their own high moral standard and inflexible conscientiousness. They plume themselves (often very factitiously) even over the Christian Church, and rebuke the religious professors for their slowness to engage in moral enterprises for the removal of abuses and the advancement of the age. Christians should accept such rebukes as far as just, and arouse to nobler and holier zeal in good works. But let not the merely secular humanitarian fancy that his good works will recommend him to God’s favour. When the Most Holy walks into his heart with his lighted candle to make search, wickedness enough will be there found, even in his most righteous moments and his most conscientious performances, to damn his soul a thousand times forever. He has whereof to glory before men, but not before God! In the earnestness of his soul he should cry, Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord, for in thy sight shall no flesh be justified! He would do well to bow down with the humblest Christian whom he, perhaps justly, rebukes, while both smite upon their hearts and pray, like the Publican, God be merciful to me the sinner!

Many commentators suppose a very harsh ellipsis here; but not any man has whereof to glory before God. Paul assumes this universal principle, but he asserts it only of Abraham.

Verse 3

3. For He now proves from Scripture that Abraham was justified otherwise than by works before God.

Abraham believed God In Ur of the Chaldees, (Note Acts 7:3-44.7.4,) where Abraham dwelt, the true God, as an infinite, living and holy person was but dimly recognized. Jehovah had faded to the popular view into a thin and nebulous pantheism, far in the background of the upper sky. In that cold and colourless mist, neither warming man’s heart to love nor raising it to holiness, the dim figures of the nature gods, finite, elemental powers, were visibly nearer at hand as objects of worship. Or the sun, the moon, the stars presented themselves as the highest and most definite objects on which man, forgetting God and good, could fix his dependence and worship. It was the middle stage of that terrible apostacy described in Romans i, in which men, not liking to retain God in their thoughts, were being given over to vileness. In the midst of the process a single faithful one was found to whom the Infinite could unfold himself and be in faith received. God revealed himself in his reality to Abraham, and Abraham committed himself fully and absolutely to God. A covenant and compact was formed between them of mutual fidelity, ratified with all the forms, divinely prescribed, of a treaty between man and man. (Genesis 15:9-1.15.21.) Repeatedly was the firmness of Abraham’s faith put to the test by God, and completely did he stand the ordeal. Thereby did he become the founder of the Church and the father of the faithful.

Abraham believed Genesis 15:6. In the passage of Genesis from which the quotation is made a particular act of faith exercised by Abraham is specified, but not his first justifying act of faith. Abraham believed God, surrendered himself in faith to God, as early at least as he obeyed the divine call to leave Ur of the Chaldees and migrate to the promised land. He was in a permanent state of active faith, living by faith, and of ever-flowing, consequent justification and approval from God. And this being his continuous history, any marked act of Abraham’s faith upon which the consequent justification is clearly apparent is conclusively sufficient for the apostle’s argument. The phraseology of Genesis 15:6, thereby renders it a fit passage for his purpose.

For righteousness As a sinner, Abraham’s faith, being an entire self-surrender to God, pregnant with holy obedience, was accepted in the lieu of past and perfect righteousness; so that he was accepted and held just, as if he had never sinned.

And as of Abraham, so of every man. Acceptance, justification, the being held righteous, can be attained never by the righteousness of any one work or many works of ours; for our works benefit not God, confer nothing upon him, buy nothing of him. But it comes most freely and gratuitously upon us when we perform the unreserved act of self-surrendering faith unto God, not for the merit of that self-surrender, but because that is the only proper position for a subject of God’s mercy. (See note Romans 1:17; Romans 2:7; Romans 3:22; Romans 3:24.) And when such receptive position is assumed and maintained, God’s free and abounding mercy, consequent on the mediation of Christ, is ever ready to flow forth in a full stream of grace upon the soul. Like Abraham, we enter into compact with God, and will ever find the Holy One faithful to his covenant. Paul, therefore, reasons conclusively with the Jews when he bases justification by faith in the foundations of their history.

Verse 4

4. Worketh As a hired man, for pay. This exclusion of works as a condition means an exclusion of all merit or compensation to God. (See note on Romans 3:27.)

The reward The wages.

Grace No thanks are due from the employe for his pay. But it is not necessary to its being grace that God’s grace should be irresistible, or so conferred as to secure through exact force and measure of motives that it be not resisted. Irresistible grace is a forced grace, an iron grace, which it is not pleasant to attribute to God. “The quality of mercy is not strained.” (See note on Romans 3:24-45.3.27.)

Merit of a moral nature must be distinguished from mere excellence. A clock may possess great excellence as a perfect clock, but it is no merit in the clock that it is an excellent machine. So if man with his faculties and will is equally a spiritual machine, putting forth choice, as a clock-hammer strikes, precisely according to force applied, there is no merit in his choosing right. So, also, if a man be like a false clock, a bad machine, there is no moral demerit or desert of punishment for such a badness. If he be bound by God’s decree, or the force of motives on his will so as to nullify all power of will to choose right, (unless he has brought the incapacity on himself,) he cannot be rightly punished for wrong. He may deserve no special reward, but he does deserve exemption from penalty for his wrong.

Debt When it is debt the employer is bound to pay, and when payment is made the parties are even.

Verse 5

5. Worketh not For the due wages.

The ungodly The man is ungodly up to the time of his justification. He is not a sanctified or regenerate man. Regeneration does not precede justification, but follows it. The order is, first, faith under the convicting guidance of the Holy Spirit; second, justification, acquitting the man of guilt; third, the regenerating Spirit, making the heart right with God.

Verse 6

6. Even as David As Abraham is the instance, being the justified man, so David is the witness, describing the justified man.

Imputeth righteousness By holding him righteous, though intrinsically, through his past history, a sinner.

Without works As a hire or pay for the righteousness reckoned or imputed; though not without works as the sequence of faith’s true self-surrender unto all goodness, energized by the Holy Spirit.

Verse 7

7. Forgiven… covered A parallelism expressing the same thing in varied language. Covered, as it were, from God’s sight by Christ’s mediation and God’s mercy.

Verses 9-12

9-12. Not only was Abraham justified by faith, but he was justified as essentially a Gentile; he was justified for twenty-five years before he was circumcised. That circumcision was not the antecedent ground of his justification, but the subsequent sign and seal of it. So under Christian dispensation baptism is the seal of infant justification, or upon the adult convert is the sign and seal consequent upon the justification of actual faith.

Verse 10

10. How… reckoned The apostle puts this point in full dialogue (a dialogue which had, doubtless, often occurred between him and the Jews) in order to give it the emphasis due to its importance. All the blessedness over which David exults may come by faith to the uncircumcised.

Verse 11

11. Father of all Great was the reverence in primitive ages for paternity, and great was the name of Father. From the purely corporeal paternity the name was applied to any great founder, inventor, or model character, whose eminence attracted a retinue of followers, who became as their children. Jabal was father of all tent-dwellers, and Jubal was father of all harpers and organists. (Genesis 4:20-1.4.21.) So Abraham was held by the Jews as father of the whole Church of the faithful. One of their writers quoted by Schoettgen (Jalkut Chadash) says: “On this account Abraham was not circumcised until he was ninety-nine years old, lest he should shut the door on proselytes coming in.” Physical descent was not necessary in any age in order that a true believer should be reckoned among Abraham’s sons. While the Jewish Church stood, the Gentile world could enter into this sonship of Abraham by faith, of which circumcision was but the external sign. And now Paul preached that the Gentile world shall enter in by faith, endorsed by a simpler sign, baptism, and a lighter ritual, the supper. And of this new universal Church, in which Jew and Gentile distinctions no longer exist, the ancient father still is Abraham.

Not circumcised As circumcised, he was spiritual as well as corporeal father of the Jews; as uncircumcised, yet justified, he was spiritual father of faithful Gentiles.

Verse 12

12. Father of a spiritual circumcision to the physically uncircumcised Gentile.

Verse 13

13. Heir of the world Through his divine-human descendant, to whom all power in heaven and earth was given. (Note on Matthew 28:18.)

Verse 14

14. They… of the law Those who claim heirship in virtue of a fulfilment of the law.

Promise… of none effect The promise is God’s side of the Abrahamic compact by which he is the sun and shield of the faithful, which promise is not only to Abraham, out to his seed, (Romans 4:16.)

Verse 15

15. Law worketh wrath That is, where all are breakers of the law.

Wrath The legal requirement of penalty. Justice, by its own essential nature, does rightfully require of guilt, the suffering of expiation; that justice existing in the divine mind demands penalty. That holy justice as so existing in the divine mind and government is called wrath. It is a holy but, to the sinner, a terrible divine attribute.

No law… no transgression For beasts and machines (and for man if he is a machine) there is no holy moral law, and so for them no transgression. So for man the absence of law, just so far as it can be supposed to exist, is the absence of transgression. So, by contrariety, for sinful man the presence of law is the presence of transgression, and the presence of law and transgression is the terrible presence of wrath.

Verse 16

16. Father of us all A telling clause by which Paul boldly and forever inserts the Christian Church into sonship to Abraham.

Verse 17

17. Written Genesis 17:5.

Quickeneth the dead The deadness of his own and Sarah’s body, the type and equal of a resurrection power.

As though they were God’s words, “I have made thee father of many nations,” concentrated the wonderful future into the present. It called things future as if they now were. As quickening the dead designates God’s omnipotence, so gathering things that are yet to be into a now designates God’s foreknowledge. Abraham, then, with a large-minded and high soaring faith, realized that it was a God, an Infinite Eternal, with whom he had to do.

As it is the base quality of unbelief to be earthward, materialistic, and grovelling, so it is the noble quality of faith to be high, large, heavenward, and Godward. By it man aspires and ascends, and the man and the race become susceptible of, and tending to, a heavenly elevation. And when that faith fastens upon the True and the Divine, the soul, individual and collective, mounts up toward all goodness and glory. And this shows how infidelity tends to wickedness, and true faith to excellence and goodness. Faith is a moral and holy ambition.

Verses 17-22

The Jewish Race-Church was born by Miracle from Abraham’s Faith , Romans 4:17-45.4.22 .

It was a wonderful fact that not only Abraham’s spiritual seed, but even his bodily posterity, was born of his faith, and but for that faith had never existed.

In patriarchal times, as already remarked, great was a great paternity. To be a bountiful mother was the glory of a woman, (Genesis 30:1;) to be father of a family the power of a man. To be father of a tribe was power; to be father of a nation was greatness; to be father of many nations was the greatest of greatness. What higher honour did man then know than to be hailed by nations as their progenitor and founder, the head of their multitudinous pedigree, all springing and diverging in magnificent lines from his own body! Hence the details of birth were thought of in their true wonderfulness with reverence. (Note on Luke 1:37.)

The great promise had, then, been given to Abraham that he should be father of many nations. The stars of the firmament indicated their number and prefigured their glory. But a direful stoppage was in the way. The multitudinous streams of generations were dry at the fountain head. The birth of the future Church and its Messiah was naturally impossible. But Abraham was no mere naturalist. He believed in a God above nature, a God of holiness and truth; he held fast to the divine promise, and left to the divine will the question of the How. And so by divine miracle was Israel born: a miracle dimly shadowing the miracle of the generation of Israel’s Messiah, and the miracle of the regeneration through the Messiah. (Note Romans 9:8.)

Verse 18

18. Against hope Contrary to all ordinary human hopeful expectation. In a divine hope.

Verse 19

19. Weak in faith Grasping with all the energy of his higher nature, by a free and powerful exertion of his will, the promise of God.

Own body now dead The apostle here, as in Hebrews 11:8-58.11.12; Hebrews 11:17-58.11.19, expatiates with pleasurable repetition on that Abrahamic faith by which the very existence of the chosen race sprung from the renovated bodies of their illustrious progenitors, as if by a resurrection from the dead. But for that, where would have been these boasting and gainsaying Jews? where the race of Israel? where their Messiah himself?

Considered not Took not into consideration the obstacle.

Verse 20

20. Staggered not Wavered not in thought.

Glory to God For nothing so glorifies God as the illustrious faith of the greatly faithful. By this have martyrs and confessors rendered the name of God glorious in the earth.

Verse 22

22. And therefore It is clear that the apostle, even while maintaining that faith is not a merit-work, as earning and paying for and purchasing justification and heaven, does assert it to be a most glorious and meritorious act and quality, and so fitted to be the condition upon which God is rightly pleased to confer the free gift of justification and favour. (See note on Romans 3:24.)

Verse 23

23. The record that faith was imputed to him was not written for his sake alone. That record is an honour to him, but it is a lesson and an example for us.

Verses 23-25

Abrahamic Faith is identical with Justifying Faith in Christ , Romans 4:23-45.4.25 .

By a conclusive application of his argument St. Paul now asserts that Abraham’s faith and Christian faith are one. The Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church have the same foundation. Believers in Christ are the true sons of Abraham; the true Christian is the true Jew.

Verse 24

24. If we believe on him If we believe God now as Abraham did then. God promised the seed, and Abraham believed; God has now given the seed, and we must likewise believe. Both beliefs in their root are one, namely, faith in God. True justifying faith is trusting in God just so far as God has in faith and to faith revealed.

This is a true and great principle. The illustrious catalogue of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11:0, Abel, Enoch, Noah, and others, knew not definitely of the atoning Christ. And yet their justifying faith was identical in nature with Christian faith, for it was a true faith in the holy God. It was faith in whatever God presented as object of faith; and had Christ been definitely presented, Christ would have been explicitly believed. Hence millions who never knew Christ have had true Christian faith. Even in Christian lands we may cherish a degree of trembling hope for those who seem to exhibit the Christian spirit yet fail to understand Christ as he truly is, while we feel it to be a most dubious ground to stand upon. There possibly may be in them “the spirit of faith” where there is an invincible ignorance of the true object of faith. (See the chapter on “Equation of Probational Advantages” in our work on the Will.) (See note on Romans 2:6; Romans 3:22, and introductory note to 6.)

Verse 25

25. Raised… justification Christ atones for us on the cross; he justifies us on the throne. That he may purchase our pardon for us he must die; that he may secure the application of his blood to our case he must rise again. He must ever live to intercede for us by pointing to the merit of his death. He must ever live and reign, that he may apply the pardoning grace to the successive generations of the penitent as they appear in faith before him.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Romans 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.