The Righteousness of God Demonstrated from History, Rom. 4, 1-25.
The justification of Abraham: V.1. What shall we say, then, that Abraham, our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? V.2. For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God. V.3. For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. V.4. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. V.5. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Paul had taught that we are justified by faith. to demonstrate and confirm this doctrine, as well as to anticipate a probable objection on the part of the Jews, he now refers to the case of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. What, then, shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, has found according to the flesh? How must his case be judged? What did he gain according to the flesh, by his obedience to the Law and to all the commands of God, especially the rite of circumcision? If he obtained the unusual blessings he enjoyed, particularly his justification, on the strength of his outward observance of the Old Testament sacrament, then the Jews would certainly be entitled to consideration for the same reason. The answer is implied: We must say that Abraham was not justified by works. This conclusion the apostle defends. For if Abraham was justified by works, he has reasons for expecting glory and praise, he might indeed assert his claim to the confidence and favor of his fellow-men; but he would have no reason for boasting before God. The argument, which is contracted, would read in full: If Abraham was justified by works, he could boast of his merits: but now he has nothing which he could adduce as being worthy of praise; therefore he was not justified by works. That Abraham had no ground for boasting in relation to God, Paul proves from Scriptures. For what does the Scripture say, Gen. 15, 6? Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness. According to this infallible authority, Abraham was declared to be righteous and just; justification was credited to his account, since he accepted it by faith. In this way the faith of Abraham, in itself anything but righteousness, in itself without merit, was counted to him for righteousness. Although he had neither inherent nor habitual righteousness, he was looked upon and treated by God as righteous. The value of Abraham's faith, therefore, did not lie or 'consist in any subjective quality, but in its object and content; because the faith was directed to God, and, in God, to Christ, the Redeemer, therefore the righteousness of Christ was imputed to Abraham as his own, and he was declared to be acceptable in the sight of God.
This the apostle explains more fully in verses 4 and 5. Now to him that works, that keeps the Law with the idea of obtaining an equivalent reward, adequate wages for his labor, the reward is reckoned not of grace, but of debt. But to him who does not work, does not make his works a basis of hope toward God, but believes in Him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. There are only two possibilities that we can consider at all, to be justified and saved by works and by faith; there is an absolute contrast between righteousness of works and righteousness of faith. In the case of Abraham, therefore, who was justified by faith, the other possibility, righteousness by works, was excluded. The apostle here does not argue the matter that a complete and adequate righteousness of works is impossible for all men, as a simple matter of fact. If a workman has done his work according to specifications, he receives the promised and stipulated wages, as his due reward, which he can justly claim. So also in the spiritual field: If one that is active in works of the Law intends to satisfy the demands of God and keeps all the commandments, then God will give to him the promised reward, righteousness, as a matter of justice, provided, of course, that he has rendered a perfect obedience. The very opposite of such a man is the person that puts his faith, not as a mere assent, but as an act of trust, in Him that justifies the ungodly, that is, he that has violated the divine right, that has refused God the proper obedience, that has lacked all reverence toward Him. When a godless person of this kind stands before the judgment-seat of God, he can, by human computation, expect nothing but the sentence of everlasting condemnation. But instead of pronouncing this expected sentence, God declares the sinner to be just and righteous, Is. 1, 18. It is not the purpose of Paul to show here just how this sentence is possible, that the sinner must feel and acknowledge his guilt, that he must rely on the mercy of God in Jesus, his Savior: St. Paul deliberately makes the contrast as great as possible in order to bring out the unequaled consolation of the doctrine of justification. Truly, He is a wonderful God, as He has revealed Himself in Christ, in the Gospel, the God that justifies the ungodly, that imputes the sinner’s faith for righteousness. “It is a miracle. It is a thing that only God can achieve, and that calls into act and manifestation all the resources of the divine nature. It is achieved through an unparalleled revelation of the judgment and the mercy of God. The miracle of the Gospel is that God comes to the ungodly with a mercy which is righteous altogether, and enables them through faith, in spite of what they are, to enter into a new relation to Himself, in which goodness becomes possible for them. There can be no spiritual life at all for a sinful man unless he can get an initial assurance of an unchanging love of God deeper than sin, and he gets this at the Cross. He gets it by believing in Jesus, and it is justification by faith.” 12) Note: The act of justification, the imputation of righteousness, in itself has nothing to do with the moral character of those concerned. To declare that justification is the infusion of moral righteousness, as the Papists do, is to confuse justification and sanctification, Law and Gospel.
A proof from the Psalms: V.6. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, v.7. saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. V.8. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. The apostle here introduces a new witness to the truth of the comforting doctrine which he is teaching. Gen. 15, 6 agrees exactly with Ps. 32. 1. 2. Just as also David expresses, pronounces, blessing, speaks the felicitations of the man. The whole passage from David is a declaration concerning the happiness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness aside from works, without reference to anything that he has done. Here righteousness is represented as the immediate object of God’s imputation, identical with the imputation of faith unto righteousness. The absence of all possible merit on the part of man is most emphatically brought out. As in the days of Abraham, in the beginning of Old Testament history, so during the Golden Age of the Jewish people, the one way of salvation was taught, which is now proclaimed to all men through the Gospel. Blessed are the people whose transgressions of the Law are forgiven, and whose sins are covered over. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not impute. To impute righteousness without works, and freely to forgive sins, evidently are one and the same thing to Paul. Forgiving, or remitting, sin, covering up sin, not taking sin into account, are all parallel expressions for that of justifying a sinner. The declaration of the acceptability before God is thus also an actual bestowal of His grace, an actual acceptance with God. The consequences of sin may still be present, but the Lord’s forgiveness covers it up before His own eyes, “making it invisible before the holy God and just as if it had not happened.” The act of justification and the act of forgiveness of sins are identical. 13) “This word shows with more than sufficient emphasis how Paul understands justification. Not as a moral change of man, nor yet as a divine recognition of a corresponding moral condition of man, but identical with forgiveness of sins, as acceptableness of man in the eyes of God in spite of the absence of a corresponding moral quality.” (Luthardt.)
Justification does not presuppose the fulfillment of the Law: V.9. Cometh this blessedness, then, upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. V.10. How was it then reckoned, when he was in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. V.11. and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised, that righteousness might be imputed unto them also; v.12. and the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had being yet uncircumcised. St. Paul had proved that Abraham had not been justified on account of his keeping the Law, by reason of his merits in general; he now shows that circumcision is neither the basis nor the condition of his acceptance. That the joyful exclamation of David at the blessedness of the people whom he describes could be applied to the circumcised needed no proof: but the difficulty was whether it could be applied also to people that had not received the sacrament of circumcision. And so the apostle again takes up the case of Abraham. This blessedness now, does it come upon the circumcision or upon the uncircumcision? Does the psalmist’s declaration of blessedness concern the circumcised people only? Is circumcision necessary to justification? For we say that faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness. This declarative sentence serves as an illustration for the question, it states a concrete fact, on the basis of which alone the general question may be answered. How, then, was it imputed? In what condition was Abraham when he received the declaration of God concerning his justification? History gives the answer: Not when he was circumcised, but when he was uncircumcised, before the Lord had given him the rite of the Old Testament initiation. The justification of Abraham took place some fourteen pears before his circumcision; therefore it was not the specific Jewish rite upon which he depended for acceptance with God. What was the relation, then, between God’s declaration and between the institution of the sacrament? What was the true nature, design, and object of circumcision? Abraham received the sign of circumcision, the sign which consisted in the circumcision, as a seal of the righteousness of faith which he had had in his uncircumcised state. The Jews took a great delight in boasting of circumcision, not only as a mark to distinguish them from the heathen, but as a form of merit, teaching that every circumcised person by that token became a partaker of the blessings of the Kingdom. Thus they believed also of Abraham that he had been acceptable to God on account of the mere external work of carrying out the command of God to circumcise all the males of his household. But Paul here emphasizes that Abraham received the rite as a gift, not as a merit; and furthermore, that Abraham was circumcised only after he had been justified by the express sentence of God. And the purpose of God in ordering matters in this way was a twofold one. Abraham was to he the spiritual father, first, of those who, like himself, received justification while in the state of uncircumcision, in order that to them also righteousness might be imputed. And, in the second place, Abraham was to be the spiritual father of those that, having received the rite of circumcision, proved themselves true children of Abraham by walking in the footsteps of the faith that he had long before God instituted the sacrament and entrusted it to him. “It was God’s intention that Abraham should be the representative and typical believer, in whom all believers without distinction should recognize their spiritual father.” Note: The righteousness of the Christians is the righteousness of faith, that is, the righteousness which they receive by faith and apply to themselves. Mark also: All believers are spiritual children of Abraham, they have their father’s manner, they possess the same justifying faith. “Thus all those that, according to the model of Abraham, believe, are the seed of Abraham and partakers of the blessing, whether they be Gentiles or Jews, circumcised or uncircumcised.” 14)
The promise is not by the Law: V.13. for the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. V.14. For if they which are of the Law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect, v.15. because the Law worketh wrath; for where no law is, there is no transgression. V.16. Therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace, to the end the promise might 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. The apostle had explained that Abraham was intended to be the spiritual father of all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, circumcised or uncircumcised, because he had been justified by faith before he was under the rite of circumcision. For not through the Law did the promise reach, come to, Abraham or to his seed, his descendants, that he should be the heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith. If God had attached the promise which He made to Abraham to the order establishing the Old Testament sacrament, then it would have been connected with the Law. But the promise made to Abraham that he should be the heir of the world (since the earthly Canaan was only a type of the perfect heritage, of the heavenly Canaan), was connected with his being justified, and therefore: since the promise is not by the Law, justification cannot be either. This is confirmed by the history of Abraham; for to him as believer, after he had been justified by faith, the possession of Canaan and therefore also of the world to come was assured. And like Abraham, all his seed, all his spiritual children, have the promise of the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God, Heb. 11, 10. It is theirs through the righteousness of faith, through the acceptance, by faith, of the righteousness which is valid before God. He that is justified before God by faith thereby becomes an heir of the world of God, the world of glory, the home of everlasting righteousness, which God has prepared for the children of men.
On the other hand, Paul argues, if those of the Law be heirs, faith is emptied of all power, is made void and of none effect with respect to its object, and the promise is abolished. Faith was the original condition, that under which God gave the promise. If, therefore, a new condition be substituted, according to which the people that have the nature of the Law in themselves, that hope to be saved by the works of the Law, are made heirs, then faith, of course, is rendered useless, it is made empty and vain, it has nothing to hold to, and the promise is done away with: the entire plan and order of salvation is subverted. And this, in turn, follows from the fact that the Law worketh wrath: for where there is no Law, there is also no transgression. If the promise depended upon the Law, upon the fulfillment of the Law, then, since all men are transgressors of the Law, the wrath of God is brought upon them, and the promise of salvation will fall as a matter of consequence. The Law, from its very nature, demands perfect obedience and condemns all that are not perfect; therefore, by its very nature, it is unsuited to give life to sinners. If thus God had given the promise of salvation with the condition of keeping the Law, promising the inheritance of His eternal blessings to them that are of the Law, the promise of God would by that mere fact be rendered of none effect. It thus follows once more that the promise is attached to faith. For that reason it is of faith, that it might be according to grace. Because of this fact, that the promise of God would be useless from the start, it is attached to faith; the blessed inheritance of the happiness of heaven is of faith, in order to be in accordance with grace. Faith and grace are correlates: as a man is justified by grace; through faith, so he also is saved by grace, through faith. And to this end has God given the promise of the inheritance of the world to come out of free grace, without the slightest consideration of, and reference to, the works of men, in order that the promise of salvation might be sure and certain, being dependent, not upon any work or condition of man, but entirely and alone on the grace of God apprehended by faith. And Paul emphasizes the universality of the grace and promise by saying that it is to all the seed, to all the descendants of Abraham, not only to those that have the way and form of the Law, that is, the believing Jews, but also to that which is of the faith of Abraham, the spiritual children of Abraham among the heathen, who had nothing in common with Abraham except his faith. The promise is to all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles; for Abraham is the spiritual father of them all, and their faith makes them partakers of the inheritance promised to Abraham, Gen. 17, 5, Note: All Christians are Israelites in truth, children of Abraham indeed, by the faith which they hold in common with him, which unites them in a closer relationship with the ancient patriarch than mere blood and family ties ever could.
The Scriptural proof: V.17. (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before Him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. V.18. Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. v.19. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb; v.20. he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God, v.21. and being fully persuaded that what he had promised he was able also to perform. V.22. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. That Abraham is the father of all believers is in agreement with Scripture, Gen. 17, 5. Not only according to the inspired exposition of Paul, but also according to the evident understanding of the original text, the passage referred to must be understood of spiritual posterity. Now, in the time of the New Testament, Abraham is set as the father of many nations, of all the believers, of whatever race or nationality they may be. Before God, who had appeared to him, and before whom Abraham stood as the father of many nations, he also believed; his entire life, lived before the omniscient eye of God, was a life of faith. And this God possessed such attributes as would enable Him to fulfill His promise. He quickens the dead, He makes them alive; He calls that which is not as though it were. The conversion of the many nations to be the spiritual children of Abraham was a true raising from the dead, Eph. 2, 4 ff.; Col. 2, 13. And God calls that which does not exist as being, Is. 48, 13; 41,4; Eph. 2, 10; the conversion of the heathen is an act of the creative power of God. Thus Abraham, although without children, stood before God and was declared by God to be the father of many nations; and the God who quickens the dead and calls into being that which before did not exist will in due time awaken the heathen world, at present dead in trespasses and sins, to a new spiritual life and call the children of Abraham into being by His powerful, creative Word. And this was the content and object of Abraham’s faith: he believed the Lord, he trusted in His promises, also to the degree in which they were later fulfilled. This faith of Abraham is now described more exactly. He against hope believed in hope. So far as nature was concerned, his faith was contrary to hope; and pet it rested on hope, confidently believing that God could do in his case what nature could not. So he maintained his trust against all human hope and reasonable expectation, in order that he might become a father of many nations. That was the end and aim of God with reference to the faith of Abraham, in itself His work, that people of many nations should follow in the footsteps of Abraham and thereby become the children of Abraham. For the patriarch trusted firmly in the word of the Lord: So shall thy seed be, Gen. 17, 6; 15, 5. That is the characteristic of faith at all times, that against hope it believes in hope, that against nature and apparently against reason it relies simply upon the Word of the Lord. There follows a further statement concerning the faith of Abraham in its practical proof. He was not weak in faith and therefore did not consider, did not take note of, his own body, which was long past the age for the begetting of children, since he was now about one hundred years old; neither did he consider the barrenness of Sarah, now long past the age for bearing children, since she was ninety years old. These circumstances, these physical hindrances, Abraham did not consider, he did not permit them to have weight and to influence him, he did not fix his mind on the apparent difficulties of the case as it presented itself to him. Cp. Gen. 17. He put the thought of his own physical condition and that of his wife entirely aside, and did not let nature, reason, feeling, perception, affect and weaken his faith. Rather, on the contrary, he, so far as the promise of God was concerned, did not doubt through unbelief, though there was an inward conflict with doubt in his mind, Gen. 17, 17. But he became strong in faith with reference to the promise of God. Because, like all true believers, he directed his attention altogether and alone upon the promise of God and not upon reasonable understanding and explanation, therefore he was strengthened; he strengthened himself by the steadfast gaze of faith, thus also giving all glory to God. Unbelief robs God of His glory, but faith with its absolute, simple trust in the Word of God and in His almighty power thereby gives to the Lord the worshipful appreciation which is due to Him at ail times That is the characteristic of saving faith even today. The believer trusts God and knows that He will, in spite of all lack of merit and worthiness on the sinner’s part, give him what He has promised him in and through Christ: righteousness, life, salvation; and this faith redounds to the praise and honor of God. Thus Abraham was fully persuaded, altogether assured, that God is able to do what He has promised. He knew that the truth of God bound Him to fulfill His promise, and that His power enabled Him to do it. And for that reason His believing was imputed unto him for righteousness; for that reason God was graciously pleased to place his faith to his account for righteousness. Faith was not the ground, but the condition of his justification, “just as now we believe, and are accepted as righteous, not on account of any merit in our faith, but simply on the ground of the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to us when we believe” (Hodge). The conclusion of the argument: V.23. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him, v.24. but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus, our Lord, from the dead; v.25. who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification. What is written of Abraham in this chapter and in other parts of the Bible, especially in the book of Genesis, is not written for the sake of Abraham alone. The story of the faith and consequent justification of Abraham was not included in Scriptures with the mere intention of offering a correct history of the patriarch, to let posterity know that his faith was imputed to him for righteousness. Throughout the discussion, Abraham must he regarded as a representative of all believers. What became true in his case will become true of all men that stand in the same relation to God. The Lord has only one method of justifying sinners. So the record of Abraham’s faith is preserved for our sake, for the sake of the believers of the New Testament; for it is the intention of God that the same righteousness is to be imputed to us also, if we believe on Him that raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead. Jesus was not one of the ordinary mortals whom the almighty power of God called back to life in a miracle, such as are recorded in the gospels and in several books of the Old Testament, but He is the Lord, our great Representative and Head. And therefore the act of raising Jesus from the dead was a proclamation that He is in reality what He claimed to be, the Son of God and our Redeemer. Since the resurrection of Christ was the decisive evidence of the divinity of His work and the validity of all His claims, therefore to believe that He arose from the dead is to believe that He is the Son of God, the atonement for our sins, the Redeemer and Lord of men. He was delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification. On account of our offenses, our sins and transgressions, God raised Christ from the dead, because His object was to justify us, and this object was attained in the resurrection. Thus the resurrection of Christ effected our justification. The expiation through Christ’s sufferings on the cross, the atonement of death, have been sealed by the resurrection of Christ; for it is a declaration before all the world that the object of Christ’s death has been gained, that God has accepted the reconciliation, that the victory of Jesus is a formal and solemn absolution which God has pronounced upon sinful mankind. And so He is our Lord, and we have become His own. By the faith which God wrought in our hearts, we have accepted His atonement and are declared to be righteous in the sight of God.
Abraham is the spiritual father of all believers, inasmuch as they all,
him, are justified by faith alone, through grace, thus receiving the
inheritance, inasmuch as the faith of Abraham lives in all believers,
disregarding their own person and clinging to the promise of God alone.