By David Brown
CHAPTER IV.—THE DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ILLUSTRATED FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT.
The apostle has been all along careful to guard his readers against the supposition that he was teaching them any absolutely new doctrine. New, it might indeed be called, in respect of the flood of new light which had been thrown upon it by the work of Christ in the flesh. But it was of the utmost importance to shew that God's way of justifying the ungodly had been from the first the same that it now is; not only that it had been predicted and foreshadowed under the ancient economy (ch. i. 2, iii. 21), but that it had been in operation from the first. This accordingly is what the apostle now proceeds to do. And as Abraham, "the father of the faithful," and David, the "man after God's own heart," were regarded as the very pillars of the ancient economy (see Matt. i. 1), he first adduces the Scripture testimony regarding the one, and then confirms this by the testimony of the other.
First: Abraham teas justified by faith (1-5). 1. What shall we then say—a favourite phrase of our apostle in argument (see iii. 5, vi. 1, vii. 7, viii. 31, ix. 14): also, "thou wilt say, then" (ix. 19, xi. 19), and, "But some one will say" (1 Cor. xv. 35, compare Jas. ii. 18). that Abraham, our forefather,1 according to the flesh, hath found? According to the order of the words in the received text, the question would be, 'What found he according to the flesh? 'that is, by all his natural efforts. But if that had been the apostle's meaning, his manner of expressing it is not very natural; whereas, supposing the reference to be to Abraham simply as the ancestral root of the Israelitish family, the question is this simple one, 'How stands it with that great head of our race in the matter of justification? '
2. For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God—'If works were the ground of Abraham's justification, he would have matter for boasting; but as it is perfectly certain that he has none in the sight of God, it follows that Abraham could not have been justified by works.' And to this agree the words of Scripture. 3. For what saith the Scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it (that is, his believing) was counted unto him for righteousness (Gen. xv. 6). Romish expositors and a class of Protestants make this to mean that God accepted Abraham's act of believing as a substitute for complete obedience. But this is at variance with the whole spirit and letter of the apostle's teaching. Throughout this whole argument, faith is set in sharp and emphatic opposition to works in the matter of justification, and even in the next two verses. The meaning, therefore, cannot possibly be that the mere act of believing—which is as much a work as any other piece of commanded duty (John vi. 29; I John iii. 23)—was counted to Abraham for all obedience. The case of Abraham here adduced (as Meyer justly observes) is not that of a man simply trusting to having confidence in God, but of one confiding in a promise which pointed to Christ. What makes Abraham the father of all believers is something far more than the subjective state of heart implied in the general state of trust in God: it is the essential oneness of the Object of Abraham's faith with that of all Christians—implicitly apprehended and embraced by him, and explicitly by them—it is this that makes the faith of Abraham, in the view of our apostle, the grand pattern case of justification by faith. Faith, in his case as in ours, is but the instrument that puts us in possession of the blessing gratuitously bestowed. 'The faith of Abraham,' says Jowett justly, 'though not the same with a faith in Christ, was analogous to it: (1) as it was a faith in unseen things (Heb. xi. 17-19); (2) as it was prior to, and independent of, the law (Gal. iii. 17—19); and (3) as it related to the promised seed in whom Christ was dimly seen '(Gal. iii. 8). 4. Now to him that worketh (as' a servant for wages) is the reward not reckoned of grace—as a matter of favour, but of debt—as a thing of right. 5. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted ('reckoned') for righteousness. The apostle in this verse expresses himself in language the most naked and emphatic, as if to preclude the possibility of either misapprehending or perverting his meaning. The faith, he says, which is counted for righteousness is the faith of "him who worketh not." But as if even this would not make it sufficiently evident that God, in justifying the believer, has no respect to any personal merit of his, he explains further what he means, by adding the words, "but believeth on Him who justifieth the ungodly"—those who have no personal merit on which the eye of God, if it required such, could fasten as a recommendation to His favour. This, says the apostle, is the faith which is counted for righteousness. So much for the case of Abraham.
Second: David sings of the same gratuitous justification (6-8). 6. Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the "man, unto whom God imputeth ('reckoneth') righteousness without ('apart from') works—whom, though void of all good works, He nevertheless regards and treats as righteous. 7. Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered. 8. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute ( 'reckon ') sin. These two first verses of Ps. xxxii. (which are taken verbatim from the LXX. and exactly correspond to the Hebrew) speak in express tenns only of 'transgression forgiven, sin covered, iniquity not imputed; 'but as the negative blessing necessarily includes the positive, the passage is strictly in point. And here we have another proof that the "righteousness" here, and throughout this whole argument, is used in a strictly judicial sense, since it is put in opposition to the imputation of sin. In any other sense the apostle's argument would be inept.
9-11. Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision only, etc. The import of these three verses may be thus expressed: 'Say not, All the blessedness of which David sings is spoken of the circumcised, and is therefore no evidence of God's general way of justifying men; for Abraham's justification took place long before he was circumcised, and so could have no dependence upon that rite: nay, the "sign of circumcision" was given to Abraham as "a seal" (or token) of the (justifying) righteousness which he had before he was circumcised; in order that he might stand forth to every age as the parent believer—the model-man of justification by faith—after whose type, as the first public example of it, all were to be moulded, whether Jew or Gentile, who should hereafter believe to life everlasting.'2
12. and the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only. Here the same sentiment is expressed, but in a somewhat unexpected form—namely, that Abraham is the father of circumcision to all uncircumcised believers. This cannot refer to the distinctive peculiarities of the circumcised, in which uncircumcised Gentiles could of course have no share: it simply means that all that was of essential and permanent value in the standing before God of the circumcised—all that circumcision chiefly set its seal on—is shared in by the believing children of Abraham who are strangers to the circumcision of the flesh.
What had just been said of circumcision is now, in the next five verses, applied to the law. 13. For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he should be heir of the world. To understand "the world" in any local or territorial sense—of the land of Canaan, as a type of heaven, or of the millennial reign over the earth—is surely away from the apostle's purpose. Nor does it seem to meet the case to view it as just a general promise of blessedness. The allusion seems clearly to be to the promise, "In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed." In this case Abraham is "the heir of the world" religiously rather than locally. By his Religion he may be said to rule the world. As the parent of that race from whom the world has received "the lively oracles," of whom it is said that "Salvation is of the Jews," and "of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever"—in this sublime sense is Abraham "the heir of the world." Furthermore, since Abraham is "the heir of the world"—all nations being through his Seed, Christ Jesus, "blessed in him"—so the transmission of the true Religion, and all the salvation which the world will ever experience, shall yet be traced back with wonder, gratitude, and joy, to that morning dawn when "the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran "(Acts vii. 2). but through the righteousness of faith—it was not given under Moses, or in virtue of their obedience to the law, but simply in virtue of Abraham's obedience, before the giving of the law. 14. for if they which are of the law be heirs—If the blessing is to be earned by obedience to the law, faith is made void—the whole Divine method is subverted. 15. for the law worketh wrath—has nothing to give to those who break it but condemnation and vengeance: for where no law is, there is no transgression. It is just the law that makes transgression, in the case of those who break it; nor can the one exist without the other. 16. Therefore it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end 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. We have here a general summary of the foregoing reasoning:—'Thus justification is by faith, in order that its purely gracious character may be seen, and that all who follow in the steps of Abraham's faith—whether of his natural seed or no—may be assured of the like justification with the parent-believer.' 17. (as it is written (Gen. xvii. 5), A father of many nations have I made thee) before him whom he believed. The construction here is a little difficult; but though critics differ about the grammatical form, the sense is the same in whatever way it is taken:—'Abraham is the father of us all, even of those who were not in existence in his day, in the eye of that God whom his faith apprehended.' even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which are not as though they were. To give life to the dead, and existence to the nonexistent, is the glorious prerogative of Him on whom Abraham's faith reposed. What he was required to believe being above nature, his faith had to fasten upon God's power to surmount physical incapacity, and call into being what did not then exist. But God having made the promise, Abraham believed Him in spite of those obstacles. This is still further illustrated in what follows. 18. Who in hope believed against hope (when the case seemed hopeless), to the end that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So—that is, "as the stars of heaven," Gen. xv. 5—shall thy seed be. 19. And not being weak ('weakened ') in faith, he considered not his own body now dead—reflected not on, paid no attention to, those physical obstacles, both in himself and in Sarah, which might seem to render the fulfilment hopeless, when he was about an hundred years old—he was then ninety-nine—neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb:3 yea, he staggered (or 'wavered') not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong ('strengthened'—shewed himself strong) in faith, giving glory to God—as able to make good His word against all obstacles. 21. and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was able also to perform. The glory which Abraham's faith gave to God consisted in this, that, firm in the persuasion of God's ability to fulfil His promise, no difficulties shook him. And in all cases, nothing gives more glory to God than unshaken confidence in His word when all things seem to defy the fulfilment of it. 22. Wherefore also it was reckoned unto him for righteousness:—a final statement of the fact, as if to say, 'Let all then understand that this was not because of anything meritorious on Abraham's part, but simply because he so believed.''
The application of this whole argument about Abraham (23-25). 23. Now, it was not written for his sake alone, that it was reckoned unto him—'These things were not recorded as mere historical facts, but as illustrations for all time of God's method of justification by faith.' 24. but for our sake also, unto whom it shall be reckoned, who believe on him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. The only difference between the two cases is, that our faith rests on the act of God in raising up Jesus our Lord from the dead as an accomplished fact, while Abraham's faith reposed on a promise that God would raise him up a seed in whom all nations should be blessed. 25. Who was delivered up for ('on account of) our trespasses—that is, in order that He might expiate them by His blood, and was raised for ('on account of') our justification—that is, in order to our being justified. Since the resurrection of Christ was the Divine assurance that He had put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself—but for which men could never have been brought to credit it—our justification is fitly made to repose on that glorious Divine fact.
1) This is evidently the original reading.
2) In the view here given of circumcision—as but "a seal" of the justified state in which Abraham stood before he was circumcised—we may see clearly what the sacraments of the Church were intended to be, namely, the means not of primarily conferring grace or saving blessings, but of confirming or sealing what is already possessed. Instead of creating, they presuppose a gracious state.
3) The Revised Version—on rather strong external evidence omitting the word "not"—translate thus: "And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body. . . . yea, looking unto the promise of God, he wavered not," etc. But it is difficult to see how the "not "could have got into the text if not genuine, nor does the "but "of ver. 20 agree well save as a contrast to the previous "not." Even the external evidence for "not" is far from weak.