Meditations on the Epistle of Paul to the Romans

Romans 4  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 11
From chapter 1:18, to chapter 3:20, the apostle has unfolded the sad condition of man—be he Jew or Gentile—and from thence to the end of chapter 3, presented the blood of Jesus as the only and perfectly satisfying answer to this state, in that he rejects all justification by works of the law. If now the Jew, through what has been said hitherto, was not sufficiently convinced, that man can only be justified before God by faith, so was there still another fact of greater weight for him, namely, that Abraham was called of God to be the father of all believers; and, in truth, those thoughts about the law in no wise touched the question of promises made to Abraham.
The apostle, therefore, here applies the doctrine of justification by faith to Abraham, in that he first puts forth most determinedly the doctrine itself (verses 1-8), and then assigns the right place (verses 9-16) to the character and extension of privileges, and blessings of Abraham, in which the Jews rightly beheld the root of their national prerogative. At the close of this chapter he discloses the new position which the resurrection gives us (verses 17-25). We receive in Christ Jesus both righteousness and life, and, therefore, also holiness in life cannot be separated from justification by faith. There are, therefore, especially three thoughts which are unfolded in this chapter:—
Abraham believed God.
Abraham entered into the blessings of faith, when he was yet uncircumcised; and
His faith embraced the power and the life of the resurrection.
“What shall we say, then, that Abraham, our father, as pertaining to the flesh has found?” (verse 1.) The contents of the whole chapter give a complete answer to this question. Abraham obtained righteousness, as well as the promise that he should be the heir of the world, upon the principle of faith, and not by deeds of the law; “For if Abraham has been justified on the principle of works, he has whereof to boast, but not before God” (verse 2). Man would have praised Abraham, justified by works, but God, with His gift of grace, would only meet believing Abraham. Scripture says, in the 1St Book of Moses (Gen. 15:66And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)): “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness” (Verse 3). God spake and Abraham believed. He spoke of Himself as of the giver of the blessing, as of the God of grace, and Abraham glorified Him through his faith. But this faith was imputed to him for righteousness. When the apostle James says in his Epistle, chapter 2:21: “Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works, when he had offered Isaac, his son, upon the altar?” speaking here of the trial of Abraham, which followed long after, he will simply expose false belief, and prove that the justifying faith of Abraham had not been a dead, but a living and effectual one. At the same time it is remarkable, that the works of faith, related by James, the work of Abraham as well as that of Rahab the harlot, had nothing whatever to do with the works of the law, but, on the contrary, were condemned by the law; for neither manslaughter nor treason were works the law would approve of. But they were the works of faith, and faith was reckoned unto them for righteousness.
The two following verses (4-5) contain general principles which prove, in the simplest and most distinct manner, that God justifies not him that worketh, but the one that believeth. Christ shed His precious blood for the ungodly, and on this ground only can God meet man, when He will bless him. He acts in perfect grace, in that He justifies the ungodly. To the one that works the reward would not be reckoned according to grace, but as of debt (verse 4). On the contrary, the one that does not work, who perceives that he is nothing else before God than a sinner, lays hold of God as the one who justifies the ungodly on the ground of the blood of Christ,—his faith is reckoned to him for righteousness (verse 5). This righteousness has nothing to do with works of man, it flows from God Himself in perfect purity; yea, it is His own righteousness that is given to the one that believeth through free grace.
David also, who found himself under the law, speaks not of the blessedness of the doer of the law, but “of the blessedness of that man, to whom God has reckoned righteousness without works.” He counts that man happy—wherever he may be—though in himself he is nothing else but a sinner, yet to whom God, acting in perfect grace, imputes not sin, but covers it, and reckons to him righteousness without works (verses 7, 8). Now, “this blessedness” —the righteousness of faith— “does it rest upon the circumcision, or also upon the uncircumcision?” (verse 9). The principle laid down is, that to Abraham his faith was counted for righteousness. Now, was Abraham circumcised when he was declared righteous! No, he was still in uncircumcision. The righteousness is therefore by faith, and therefore is reckoned to the uncircumcised on the ground of faith-a crushing witness to the Jew, who grounded all his ideas of advantages upon Abraham. This righteousness was reckoned to Abraham, not because of the circumcision, but because of faith, and this imputation took place when he was yet uncircumcised (verses 9, 10). Circumcision, therefore, was not the means of his justification, but only the seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had when yet in uncircumcision (verse 11). Abraham, therefore, is the father of all, in uncircumcision, who believe that righteousness may be also imparted to them, and is also the father of the circumcision. But it is not enough for the Jew to belong to the circumcision, but he must enter into the faith of Abraham, if he would have part in his blessings (verse 12). It is a question of true separation for God, which commenced in Abraham, in that God, amidst the evil, separated man for Himself.
The apostle proves now, that the promise made to Abraham and his seed, was precisely as little dependent on the law, as the righteousness of circumcision imputed to him by God. The promise stands only in connection with the righteousness of faith, which Abraham had already in uncircumcision (verse 13). But if those of the law were heirs of the promise, their faith would be vain, and the promise also would be annulled (verse 14), because the law works wrath and brings a curse instead of a blessing; then all who are under the law are in the transgression of it, and have therefore to expect not the promise, but the wrath of God (verse 15). The promise as such, however, by no means annuls the question of sin; but this does not hinder God from accomplishing what He has promised. But, in accomplishing His promises because of sin, He only can act in perfect grace, and, therefore, all—be they Jews or Gentiles—can be heirs solely upon the principle of faith. “Therefore it is on the principle of faith, that it might be according to grace, that the promise might be sure to the whole seed—not only to him who is of the law, but also to him who is of the faith of Abraham “ (verse 16). It is therefore faith, and not the law, which gives title to the inheritance. Even the Jews would inherit in no other way; and through the same faith the door was opened to the nations. On this wise was the word accomplished: “A father of many nations have I made thee” (Gen. 17:55Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. (Genesis 17:5)). Grace secures the promise to all believers, whether of the law or not.
We have seen now, that Abraham, when he was still in uncircumcision, was justified—without the law, and before it was given—by faith; but upon what did his faith rest upon the God “who quickens the dead, and calls that which is not, as though it were” (verse 17). Apparently there existed no hope of his becoming father of many nations. His body almost an hundred years old, and the dead womb of Sarah were both against hope; but his faith against hope held fast to the power of resuscitation of God. By no other way than by the way of faith-the faith that rested upon nothing visible, but held fast, unshaken to the promises of God-was it possible, in order to become father of many nations, that so his seed should be (verses 18, 19). “He (Abraham) staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God, and was of full persuasion that what he had promised he was also able to perform” (verses 20, 21). Faith alone gives God the glory; but unbelief dishonors Him. Therefore, faith alone finds glory before God; it was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness (verse 22).
But this imputation of righteousness is not only here for Abraham, but for all that believe, and, therefore, also for us, “who do believe in him that raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead” (verses 23, 24). The apostle speaks here not of faith on Jesus, but on God—on Him, who entered in power into the region of death, in which Jesus lay, because of our sins, and raised Him up. The resurrection—be it that of Christ or His purchased ones—is the fruit of the mighty action of the love of God, who delivered Him from under the consequences of sin, after that He had borne our whole debt of sin, so that we, when we believe on Him, who has raised Him thus out from the dead, lay hold on the whole extent of the work, upon which the resurrection has put the seal. We apprehend the grace as well as the power, which are presented in this work. In like manner as God has acted with regard to Jesus, so has He also acted with regard to us. He has once and forever made an end of our sins, and has in Jesus translated us who believe-justified through what He has done, because He has done it for all that believe in Him. His deliverance to death is the most perfect proof of our transgressions, and His resurrection the most complete proof of our justification (verse 25).
The resurrection, as it is presented in Christ, is not only simply a resurrection of the dead in general, but a resurrection out from the dead—the fruit of the intervention of God, in order in righteousness to deliver from the last consequences of sin (i.e. death), Him who has glorified God. Now, if we believe on this God, then we understand that it is He Himself who has redeemed us from all that sin has brought upon us, in that He made us alive; whereas Jesus, made sin for us, for all believers, has blotted out sin forever. The believers of the Old Testament believed that God had the power to fulfill His promises, but we believe on Him, as the One who raised up out from the dead, Jesus, our Lord (verse 24). We believe not that He can do it, but that He has done it.
The principle of the resurrection, which we find confirmed specially in the two last verses, is now applied in chapter 5 to justification; in chapter 6 to the life of the justified one; in chapter 7 to the law; and, in chapter 8 to perfect deliverance, and forms, as it were, the heading of these four chapters.