Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
Abraham was justified by faith, and not by the works of the law; for his faith was imputed to him for righteousness, Rom 4:1-5. David also bears testimony to the same doctrine, Rom 4:6-8. Abraham, the father of the Jewish race, was justified by faith, even before he was circumcised; therefore salvation must be of the Gentiles as well as the Jews, Rom 4:9-12. And the promise that all the nations of the earth should be blessed in him, was made to him while he was in an uncircumcised state; and, therefore, if salvation were of the Jews alone, the law, that was given after the promise, would make the promise of no effect, Rom 4:13-17. Description of Abraham's faith, and its effects, Rom 4:18-22. This account is left on record for our salvation, that we might believe on Christ, who was delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification, Rom 4:23-25.
The apostle, having proved in the foregoing chapter that neither Jews nor Gentiles have a right to the blessing of God's peculiar kingdom, otherwise than by grace, which is as free for the one as the other, in this chapter advances a new argument to convince the Jew, and to show the believing Gentile, in a clear light, the high value and strong security of the mercies freely bestowed on them in the Gospel; and, at the same time, to display the scheme of Divine providence, as laid in the counsel and will of God. His argument is taken from Abraham's case: Abraham was the father and head of the Jewish nation; he had been a heathen, but God pardoned him, and took him and his posterity into his special covenant, and bestowed upon them many extraordinary blessings above the rest of mankind; and it is evident that Abraham was not justified by any obedience to law, or rule of right action, but, in the only way in which a sinner can be justified, by prerogative or the mercy of the lawgiver. Now, this is the very same way in which the Gospel saves the believing Gentiles, and gives them a part in the blessings of God's covenant. Why then should the Jews oppose the Gentiles? especially as the Gentiles were actually included in the covenant made with Abraham for the promise, Gen 17:4, stated that he should be the father of many nations: consequently, the covenant being made with Abraham, as the head or father of many nations, all in any nation who stood on the same religious principle with him, were his seed and with him interested in the same covenant. But Abraham stood by faith in the mercy of God pardoning his idolatry; and upon this footing the believing Gentiles stand in the Gospel; and, therefore, they are the seed of Abraham, and included in the covenant and promise made to him.
To all this the apostle knew well it would be objected, that it was not faith alone, that gave Abraham a right to the blessings of the covenant, but his obedience to the law of circumcision; and this, being peculiar to the Jewish nation, gave them an interest in the Abrahamic covenant; and that, consequently, whoever among the Gentiles would be interested in that covenant, ought to embrace Judaism, become circumcised, and thus come under obligation to the whole law. With this very objection the apostle very dexterously introduces his argument, Rom 4:1, Rom 4:2; shows that, according to the Scripture account, Abraham was justified by faith, Rom 4:3-5; explains the nature of that justification, by a quotation out of the Psalms, Rom 4:6-9; proves that Abraham was justified long before he was circumcised, Rom 4:9-11; that the believing Gentiles are his seed to whom the promise belongs, as well as the believing Jews, Rom 4:12-17; and he describes Abraham's faith, in order to explain the faith of the Gospel, Rom 4:17-25. See Dr. Taylor's notes. We may still suppose that the dialogue is carried on between the apostle and the Jew, and it will make the subject still more clear to assign to each his respective part. The Jew asks a single question, which is contained in the first and part of the second verses. And the apostle's answer takes up the rest of the chapter.
Jew. What shall we then say that Abraham, our father as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? - The κατα σαρκα, pertaining to the flesh, must here refer to the sign in Abraham's flesh, viz. his circumcision; on which the Jew would found his right to peculiar blessings. That this is the meaning of κατα σαρκα, according to the flesh, Dr. Taylor has proved by a collation of several parallel scriptures, which it is not necessary to produce here. We may, therefore, suppose the Jew arguing thus: But you set your argument on a wrong footing, viz. the corrupt state of our nation; whereas we hold our prerogative above the rest of mankind from Abraham, who is our father; and we have a right to the blessings of God's peculiar kingdom, in virtue of the promise made to him; his justification is the ground of ours. Now what shall we make of his case, on your principles? Of what use was his obedience to the law of circumcision, if it did not give him a right to the blessing of God? And if, by his obedience to that law, he obtained a grant of extraordinary blessings, then, according to your own concession, Rom 3:27, he might ascribe his justification to something in himself; and, consequently, so may we too, in his right; and if so, this will exclude all those who are not circumcised as we are.
For if Abraham were justified by works - The Jew proceeds: - I conclude, therefore, that Abraham was justified by works, or by his obedience to this law of circumcision; and, consequently, he has cause for glorying, καυχημα, to exult in something which he has done to entitle him to these blessings. Now, it is evident that he has this glorying, and consequently that he was justified by works.
Apostle. But not before God - These seem to be the apostle's words, and contain the beginning of his answer to the arguments of the Jew, as if he had said: - Allowing that Abraham might glory in being called from heathenish darkness into such marvellous light, and exult in the privileges which God had granted to him; yet this glorying was not before God as a reason why those privileges should be granted; the glorying itself being a consequence of these very privileges.
For, what saith the Scripture? - The Scriptural account of this transaction, Gen 15:6, is decisive; for there it is said, Abraham believed God, and it was counted, ελογισθη, it was reckoned to him for righteousness, εις δικαιοσυνην, for justification.
Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt - Therefore, if Abraham had been justified by works, the blessings he received would have been given to him as a reward for those works, and consequently his believing could have had no part in his justification, and his faith would have been useless.
But to him that worketh not - Which was the case with Abraham, for he was called when he was ungodly, i.e. an idolater; and, on his believing, was freely justified: and, as all men have sinned, none can be justified by works; and, therefore, justification, if it take place at all, must take place in behalf of the ungodly, forasmuch as all mankind are such. Now, as Abraham's state and mode in which he was justified, are the plan and rule according to which God purposes to save men; and as his state was ungodly, and the mode of his justification was by faith in the goodness and mercy of God; and this is precisely the state of Jews and Gentiles at present; there can be no other mode of justification than by faith in that Christ who is Abraham's seed, and in whom, according to the promise, all the nations of the earth are to be blessed.
It is necessary to observe here, in order to prevent confusion and misapprehension, that although the verb δικαιοω has a variety of senses in the New Testament, yet here it is to be taken as implying the pardon of sin; receiving a person into the favor of God. See these different acceptations cited in the note on Rom 1:17 (note), and particularly under No. 7. It is also necessary to observe, that our translators render the verb λογιζομαι differently in different parts of this chapter. It is rendered counted, Rom 4:3, Rom 4:5; reckoned, Rom 4:4, Rom 4:9, Rom 4:10; imputed, Rom 4:6, Rom 4:8, Rom 4:11, Rom 4:22-24. Reckoned is probably the best sense in all these places.
Even as David also, etc. - David, in Psa 32:1, Psa 32:2, gives us also the true notion of this way of justification, i.e. by faith, without the merit of works, where he says: -
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven - That is, the man is truly happy whose iniquities αι ανομιαι, whose transgressions of the law are forgiven; for by these he was exposed to the most grievous punishment. Whose sins, αι αμαρτιαι, his innumerable deviations from the strict rule of truth and righteousness, are covered - entirely removed out of sight, and thrown into oblivion. See the meaning of the word sin in the note on Gen 13:13 (note).
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin - That man is truly happy to whose charge God does not reckon sin; that is, they alone are happy who are redeemed from the curse of the law and the consequence of their ungodly life, by having their sins freely forgiven, through the mercy of God.
Cometh this blessedness - upon the circumcision only - The word μονον, only, is very properly supplied by our translators, and indeed is found in some excellent MSS., and is here quite necessary to complete the sense. The apostle's question is very nervous. If this pardon, granted in this way, be essential to happiness - and David says it is so - then is it the privilege of the Jews exclusively? This cannot be; for, as it is by the mere mercy of God, through faith, the circumcision cannot even claim it. But if God offer it to the circumcision, not because they have been obedient, for they also have sinned, but because of his mere mercy, then of course the same blessedness may be offered to the Gentiles who believe in the Lord Jesus. And this is evident; for we say, following our own Scriptures, that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness; he had no merit, he was an idolater; but he believed in God, and his faith was reckoned to him εις δικαιοσυνην, in reference to his justification; he brought faith when he could not bring works; and God accepted his faith in the place of obedience; and this became the instrumental cause of his justification.
How was it then reckoned? - In what circumstances was Abraham when this blessing was bestowed upon him? When he was circumcised, or before?
Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision - Faith was reckoned to Abraham for justification, as we read Gen 15:6, (see the note on Gen 15:6); but circumcision was not instituted till about fourteen or fifteen years after, Gen 17:1, etc.; for faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness or justification at least one year before Ishmael was born; compare Genesis 15, and 16. At Ishmael's birth he was eighty-six years of age, Gen 16:16; and, at the institution of circumcision, Ishmael was thirteen, and Abraham ninety-nine years old. See Gen 17:24, Gen 17:25; and see Dr. Taylor.
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal, etc. - So far was obedience to the law of circumcision from being the reason of his justification, that he not only received this justification before he was circumcised, but he received the sign of circumcision, as a seal of the pardon which he had before actually received. And thus he became the father, the great head and representative, of all them that believe; particularly the Gentiles, who are now in precisely the same state in which Abraham was when he received the mercy of God. Hence it appears, says Dr. Taylor, that the covenant established with Abraham, Gen 17:2-15, is the same with that, Gen 12:2, Gen 12:3; Gen 15:5, etc.; for circumcision was not a seal of any new grant, but of the justification and promise which Abraham had received before he was circumcised; and that justification and promise included the Gospel covenant in which we are now interested. St. Paul refers to this, Gal 3:8 : The Scripture foreseeing that God would justify us, heathens, through faith, preached before the Gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. The whole of the apostle's argument, in this fourth chapter to the Romans, proves that we, believing Gentiles, are the seed of Abraham, to whom, as well as to himself, the promise was made; and that the promise made to him is the same in effect as that promise which is now made to us; consequently, it is the Abrahamic covenant in which we now stand; and any argument taken from the nature of that covenant, and applied to ourselves, must be good and valid. It is also undeniably evident, from this eleventh verse, as well as from Gen 17:1-11, that circumcision was a seal or sign of the Gospel covenant in which we now stand. See Taylor.
There is nothing more common in the Jewish writers than the words אוה oth, Sign, and חותם chotham, Seal, as signifying the mark in the flesh, by the rite of circumcision; see on Gen 4:15 (note). Sohar Genes., fol. 41, col. 161, has these words: And God set a mark upon Cain; this mark was the sign of the covenant of circumcision. Targum, Cant. iii. 8: The seal of circumcision is in your flesh; as Abraham was sealed in the flesh. Yalcut Rubeni, fol. 64: Joseph did not defile the sign of the holy covenant; i.e. he did not commit adultery with the wife of Potiphar. Liber Cosri, part i., c. 115, p. 70: Circumcision is a Divine sign which God has placed on the member of concupiscence, to the end that we may overcome evil desire. Shemoth Rabba, sec. 19, fol. 118: Ye shall not eat the passover unless the Seal of Abraham be in your flesh. Yalcut Rubeni, fol. 36: God said to Abraham, I will seal thy flesh. Sohar Levit. fol. 6: Abraham was sealed with the holy seal. See Schoettgen.
And the father of circumcision - He is also the head and representative of all the circumcision of all the Jews who walk in the steps of that faith; who seek for justification by faith only, and not by the works of the law; for this was the faith that Abraham had before he received circumcision. For, the covenant being made with Abraham while he was a Gentile, he became the representative of the Gentiles, and they primarily were included in that covenant, and the Jews were brought in only consequentially; but salvation, implying justification by faith, originally belonged to the Gentiles; and, when the Gospel came, they laid hold on this as their original right, having been granted to them by the free mercy of God in their father and representative, Abraham. So that the Jews, to be saved, must come under that Abrahamic covenant, in which the Gentiles are included. This is an unanswerable conclusion, and must, on this point, for ever confound the Jews.
For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world - This promise intimated that he should be the medium through whom the mercy of God should be communicated to the world, to both Jews and Gentiles; and the manner in which he was justified, be the rule and manner according to which all men should expect this blessing. Abraham is here represented as having all the world given to him as his inheritance; because in him all nations of the earth are blessed: this must therefore relate to their being all interested in the Abrahamic covenant; and every person, now that the covenant is fully explained, has the privilege of claiming justification through faith, by the blood of the Lamb, in virtue of this original grant.
For, if they which are of the law be heirs - If the Jews only be heirs of the promise made to Abraham, and that on the ground of prior obedience to the law, then faith is made void - is entirely useless; and the promise, which was made to faith, is made of none effect.
Because the law worketh wrath - For law νομος, any law, or rule of duty. No law makes provision for the exercise of mercy, for it worketh wrath, οργην, punishment, for the disobedient. Law necessarily subjects the transgressor to punishment; for where no law is - where no rule of duty is enacted and acknowledged, there is no transgression; and where there is no transgression there can be no punishment, for there is no law to enforce it. But the Jews have a law, which they have broken; and now they are exposed to the penal sanctions of that law; and, if the promises of pardon without the works of the law, do not extend to them, they must be finally miserable, because they have all broken the law, and the law exacts punishment. This was a home stroke, and the argument is unanswerable.
Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace - On this account the promise is mercifully grounded, not on obedience to a law, but on the infinite goodness of God: and thus the promise is sure to all the seed - to all, both Jews and Gentiles, who, believing in Christ Jesus, have a right to all the blessings contained in the Abrahamic covenant. All the seed necessarily comprehends all mankind. Of the Gentiles there can be no doubt, for the promise was given to Abraham while he was a Gentile; and the salvation of the Jews may be inferred, because they all sprang from him after he became an heir of the righteousness or justification which is received by faith; for he is the father of us all, both Jews and Gentiles. Dr. Taylor has an excellent note on this verse. "Here," says he, "it should be well observed that faith and grace do mutually and necessarily infer each other. For the grace and favor of God, in its own nature, requires faith in us; and faith on our part, in its own nature, supposes the grace or favor of God. If any blessing is the gift of God, in order to influence our temper and behavior, then, in the very nature of things, it is necessary that we be sensible of this blessing, and persuaded of the grace of God that bestows it; otherwise it is not possible we should improve it. On the other hand, if faith in the goodness of God, with regard to any blessing, is the principle of our religious hopes and action, then it follows that the blessing is not due in strict justice, nor on the foot of law, but that it is the free gift of Divine goodness. If the promise to Abraham and his seed be of faith on their part, then it is of grace on the part of God. And it is of faith, that it might be by grace: grace, being the mere good will of the donor, is free and open to all whom he chooses to make the objects of it: and the Divine wisdom appointed faith to be the condition of the promise; because faith is, on our part, the most simple principle, bearing an exact correspondence to grace, and reaching as far as that can extend; that so the happy effects of the promise might extend far and wide, take in the largest compass, and be confined to no condition, but what is merely necessary in the nature of things."
As it is written, I have made thee a father - That Abraham's being a father of many nations has relation to the covenant of God made with him, may be seen, Gen 17:4, Gen 17:5 : Behold my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations: neither shall thy name any more be called Abram; but thy name shall be Abraham, for a father of many nations have I made thee, i.e. he was constituted the head of many nations, the Gentile world, by virtue of the covenant, which God made then with him.
God, who quickeneth the dead, etc. - God is the most proper object of trust and dependence; for being almighty, eternal, and unchangeable, he can even raise the dead to life, and call those things which be not as though they were. He is the Creator, he gave being when there was none; he can as infallibly assure the existence of those things which are not, as if they were already actually in being. And, on this account, he can never fail of accomplishing whatsoever he has promised.
Who against hope believed in hope - The faith of Abraham bore an exact correspondence to the power and never-failing faithfulness of God; for though, in the ordinary course of things, he had not the best foundation of hope, yet he believed that he should be the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken; namely, that his posterity should be like the stars of heaven for multitude, and like the dust of the earth.
He considered not his own body now dead - He showed at once the correctness and energy of his faith: God cannot lie; Abraham can believe. It is true that, according to the course of nature, he and Sarah are so old that they cannot have children; but God is almighty, and can do whatsoever he will, and will fulfill his promise. This was certainly a wonderful degree of faith; as the promise stated that it was in his posterity that all the nations of the earth were to be blessed; that he had, as yet, no child by Sarah; that he was 100 years old; that Sarah was 90; and that, added to the utter improbability of her bearing at that age, she had ever been barren before. All these were so many reasons why he should not credit the promise; yet he believed; therefore it might be well said, Rom 4:20, that he staggered not at the promise, though every thing was unnatural and improbable; but he was strong in faith, and, by this almost inimitable confidence, gave glory to God. It was to God's honor that his servant put such unlimited confidence in him; and he put this confidence in him on the rational ground that God was fully able to perform what he had promised.
And being fully persuaded - πληροφορηθεις, his measure: his soul was full of confidence, that the truth of God bound him to fulfill his promise and his power enabled him to do it.
And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness - The verse is thus paraphrased by Dr. Taylor: "For which reason God was graciously pleased to place his faith to his account; and to allow his fiducial reliance upon the Divine goodness, power, and faithfulness, for a title to the Divine blessing, which, otherwise, having been an idolater, he had no right to."
Abraham's strong faith in the promise of the coming Savior, for this was essential to his faith, was reckoned to him for justification: for it is not said that any righteousness, either his own, or that of another, was imputed or reckoned to him for justification; but it, i.e. his faith in God. His faith was fully persuaded of the most merciful intentions of God's goodness; and this, which, in effect, laid hold on Jesus Christ, the future Savior, was the means of his justification; being reckoned unto him in the place of personal righteousness, because it laid hold on the merit of Him who died to make an atonement for our offenses, and rose again for our justification.
Now it was not written for his sake alone - The fact of Abraham's believing and receiving salvation through that faith is not recorded as a mere circumstance in the patriarch's life, intended to do him honor: see Rom 4:24.
But for us also - The mention of this circumstance has a much more extensive design than merely to honor Abraham. It is recorded as the model, according to which God will save both Jews and Gentiles: indeed there can be no other way of salvation; as all have sinned, all must either be saved by faith through Christ Jesus, or finally perish. If God, therefore, will our salvation, it must be by faith; and faith contemplates his promise, and his promise comprehends the Son of his love.
Who was delivered for our offenses - Who was delivered up to death as a sacrifice for our sins; for in what other way, or for what other purpose could He, who is innocence itself, be delivered for our offenses?
And was raised again for our justification - He was raised that we might have the fullest assurance that the death of Christ had accomplished the end for which it took place; viz. our reconciliation to God, and giving us a title to that eternal life, into which he has entered, and taken with him our human nature, as the first-fruits of the resurrection of mankind.
1. From a careful examination of the Divine oracles it appears that the death of Christ was an atonement or expiation for the sin of the world: For him hath God set forth to be a Propitiation through Faith in His Blood, Rom 3:25. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ Died For the Ungodly, Rom 5:6. And when we were Enemies, we were Reconciled to God by the Death of his Son, Rom 5:10. In whom we have Redemption Through His Blood, the Forgiveness of Sins, Eph 1:7. Christ hath loved us, and Given Himself for Us, an Offering and a Sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour, Eph 5:2. In whom we have Redemption Through His Blood, the Forgiveness of Sins, Col 1:14. And having made Peace Through the Blood of his Cross, in the Body of His Flesh, through Death, Col 1:20, Col 1:22. Who Gave Himself a Ransom for all, Ti1 2:6. Who Gave Himself for Us, that he might Redeem us from all iniquity, Tit 2:14. By which will we are sanctified, through the Offering of the Body of Jesus Christ, Heb 10:10. So Christ was once Offered to Bear the Sins of many, Heb 9:28. See also Eph 2:13, Eph 2:16; Pe1 1:18, Pe1 1:19; Rev 5:9. But it would be transcribing a very considerable part of the New Testament to set down all the texts that refer to this most important and glorious truth.
2. And as his death was an atonement for our sins, so his resurrection was the proof and pledge of our eternal life. See Co1 15:17; Pe1 1:3; Eph 1:13, Eph 1:14, etc.,etc.
3. The doctrine of justification by faith, which is so nobly proved in the preceding chapter, is one of the grandest displays of the mercy of God to mankind. It is so very plain that all may comprehend it; and so free that all may attain it. What more simple than this? Thou art a sinner, in consequence condemned to perdition, and utterly unable to save thy own soul. All are in the same state with thyself, and no man can give a ransom for the soul of his neighbor. God, in his mercy, has provided a Savior for thee. As thy life was forfeited to death because of thy transgressions, Jesus Christ has redeemed thy life by giving up his own; he died in thy stead, and has made an atonement to God for thy transgressions; and offers thee the pardon he has thus purchased, on the simple condition, that thou believe that his death is a sufficient sacrifice, ransom, and oblation for thy sin; and that thou bring it as such, by confident faith, to the throne of God, and plead it in thy own behalf there. When thou dost so, thy faith in that sacrifice shall be imputed to thee for righteousness; i.e. it shall be the means of receiving that salvation which Christ has bought by his blood.
4. The doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, as held by many, will not be readily found in this chapter, where it has been supposed to exist in all its proofs. It is repeatedly said that Faith is imputed for righteousness; but in no place here, that Christ's obedience to the moral law is imputed to any man. The truth is, the moral law was broken, and did not now require obedience; it required this before it was broken; but, after it was broken, it required death.
Either the sinner must die, or some one in his stead: but there was none whose death could have been an equivalent for the transgressions of the world but Jesus Christ. Jesus therefore died for man; and it is through his blood, the merit of his passion and death, that we have redemption; and not by his obedience to the moral law in our stead. Our salvation was obtained at a much higher price. Jesus could not but be righteous and obedient; this is consequent on the immaculate purity of his nature: but his death was not a necessary consequent. As the law of God can claim only the death of a transgressor - for such only forfeit their right to life - it is the greatest miracle of all that Christ could die, whose life was never forfeited. Here we see the indescribable demerit of sin, that it required such a death; and here we see the stupendous mercy of God, in providing the sacrifice required. It is therefore by Jesus Christ's death, or obedience unto death, that we are saved, and not by his fulfilling any moral law. That he fulfilled the moral law we know; without which he could not have been qualified to be our mediator; but we must take heed lest we attribute that to obedience (which was the necessary consequence of his immaculate nature) which belongs to his passion and death. These were free-will offerings of eternal goodness, and not even a necessary consequence of his incarnation.
5. This doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is capable of great abuse. To say that Christ's personal righteousness is imputed to every true believer, is not Scriptural: to say that he has fulfilled all righteousness for us, or in our stead, if by this is meant his fulfillment of all moral duties, is neither Scriptural nor true: that he has died in our stead, is a great, glorious, and Scriptural truth: that there is no redemption but through his blood is asserted beyond all contradiction; in the oracles of God. But there are a multitude of duties which the moral law requires which Christ never fulfilled in our stead, and never could. We have various duties of a domestic kind which belong solely to ourselves, in the relation of parents, husbands, wives, servants, etc., in which relations Christ never stood. He has fulfilled none of these duties for us, but he furnishes grace to every true believer to fulfill them to God's glory, the edification of his neighbor, and his own eternal profit. The salvation which we receive from God's free mercy, through Christ, binds us to live in a strict conformity to the moral law; that law which prescribes our manners, and the spirit by which they should be regulated, and in which they should be performed. He who lives not in the due performance of every Christian duty, whatever faith he may profess, is either a vile hypocrite, or a scandalous Antinomian.