Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, by John Wesley, [1754-65], at sacred-texts.com
rom 4:1That our father Abraham hath found - Acceptance with God. According to the flesh - That is, by works.
rom 4:2The meaning is, If Abraham had been justified by works, he would have had room to glory. But he had not room to glory. Therefore he was not justified by works.
rom 4:3Abraham believed God - That promise of God concerning the numerousness of his seed, Gen 15:5, Gen 15:7; but especially the promise concerning Christ, Gen 12:3, through whom all nations should be blessed. And it was imputed to him for righteousness - God accepted him as if he had been altogether righteous. Gen 15:6.
rom 4:4Now to him that worketh - All that the law requires, the reward is no favour, but an absolute debt. These two examples are selected and applied with the utmost judgment and propriety. Abraham was the most illustrious pattern of piety among the Jewish patriarchs. David was the most eminent of their kings. If then neither of these was justified by his own obedience, if they both obtained acceptance with God, not as upright beings who might claim it, but as sinful creatures who must implore it, the consequence is glaring It is such as must strike every attentive understanding, and must affect every individual person.
rom 4:5But to him that worketh not - It being impossible he should without faith. But believeth, his faith is imputed to him for righteousness - Therefore God's affirming of Abraham, that faith was imputed to him for righteousness, plainly shows that he worked not; or, in other words, that he was not justified by works, but by faith only. Hence we see plainly how groundless that opinion is, that holiness or sanctification is previous to our justification. For the sinner, being first convinced of his sin and danger by the Spirit of God, stands trembling before the awful tribunal of divine justice ; and has nothing to plead, but his own guilt, and the merits of a Mediator. Christ here interposes; justice is satisfied; the sin is remitted, and pardon is applied to the soul, by a divine faith wrought by the Holy Ghost, who then begins the great work of inward sanctification. Thus God justifies the ungodly, and yet remains just, and true to all his attributes! But let none hence presume to "continue in sin;" for to the impenitent, God "is a consuming fire." On him that justifieth the ungodly - If a man could possibly be made holy before he was justified, it would entirely set his justification aside; seeing he could not, in the very nature of the thing, be justified if he were not, at that very time, ungodly.
rom 4:6So David also - David is fitly introduced after Abraham, because be also received and delivered down the promise. Affirmeth - A man is justified by faith alone, and not by works. Without works - That is, without regard to any former good works supposed to have been done by him.
rom 4:7Happy are they whose sins are covered - With the veil of divine mercy. If there be indeed such a thing as happiness on earth, it is the portion of that man whose iniquities are forgiven, and who enjoys the manifestation of that pardon. Well may he endure all the afflictions of life with cheerfulness, and look upon death with comfort. O let us not contend against it, but earnestly pray that this happiness may be ours! Psa 32:1-2.
rom 4:9This happiness - Mentioned by Abraham and David. On the circumcision - Those that are circumcised only. Faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness - This is fully consistent with our being justified, that is, pardoned and accepted by God upon our believing, for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered. For though this, and this alone, be the meritorious cause of our acceptance with God, yet faith may be said to be "imputed to us for righteousness," as it is the sole condition of our acceptance. We may observe here, forgiveness, not imputing sin, and imputing righteousness, are all one.
rom 4:10Not in circumcision - Not after he was circumcised; for he was justified before Ishmael was born, Gen. 15:1-21; but he was not circumcised till Ishmael was thirteen years old, Gen 17:25.
rom 4:11And - After he was justified. He received the sign of circumcision - Circumcision, which was a sign or token of his being in covenant with God. A seal - An assurance on God's part, that he accounted him righteous, upon his believing, before he was circumcised. Who believe in uncircumcision - That is, though they are not circumcised.
rom 4:12And the father of the circumcision - Of those who are circumcised, and believe as Abraham did. To those who believe not, Abraham is not a father, neither are they his seed.
rom 4:13The promise, that he should be the heir of the world - Is the same as that he should be "the father of all nations," namely, of those in all nations who receive the blessing. The whole world was promised to him and them conjointly. Christ is the heir of the world, and of all things; and so are all Abraham's seed, all that believe in him with the faith of Abraham
rom 4:14If they only who are of the law - Who have kept the whole law. Are heirs, faith is made void - No blessing being to be obtained by it; and so the promise is of no effect.
rom 4:15Because the law - Considered apart from that grace, which though it was in fact mingled with it, yet is no part of the legal dispensation, is so difficult, and we so weak and sinful, that, instead of bringing us a blessing, it only worketh wrath; it becomes to us an occasion of wrath, and exposes us to punishment as transgressors. Where there is no law in force, there can be no transgression of it.
rom 4:16Therefore it - The blessing. Is of faith, that it might be of grace - That it might appear to flow from the free love of God, and that the promise might be firm, sure, and effectual, to all the spiritual seed of Abraham; not only Jews, but gentiles also, if they follow his faith.
rom 4:17Before God - Though before men nothing of this appeared, those nations being then unborn. As quickening the dead - The dead are not dead to him and even the things that are not, are before God. And calling the things that are not - Summoning them to rise into being, and appear before him. The seed of Abraham did not then exist; yet God said, "So shall thy seed be." A man can say to his servant actually existing, Do this; and he doeth it: but God saith to the light, while it does not exist, Go forth; and it goeth. Gen 17:5.
rom 4:18The Apostle shows the power and excellence of that faith to which he ascribes justification. Who against hope - Against all probability, believed and hoped in the promise. The same thing is apprehended both by faith and hope; by faith, as a thing which God has spoken; by hope, as a good thing which God has promised to us. So shall thy seed be - Both natural and spiritual, as the stars of heaven for multitude. Gen 15:5.
rom 4:23On his account only - To do personal honour to him.
rom 4:24But on ours also - To establish us in seeking justification by faith, and not by works; and to afford a full answer to those who say that, " to be justified by works means only, by Judaism; to be justified by faith means, by embracing Christianity, that is, the system of doctrines so called." Sure it is that Abraham could not in this sense be justified either by faith or by works; and equally sure that David (taking the words thus) was justified by works, and not by faith. Who raised up Jesus from the dead - As he did in a manner both Abraham and Sarah. If we believe on him who raised up Jesus - God the Father therefore is the proper object of justifying faith. It is observable, that St. Paul here, in speaking both of our faith and of the faith of Abraham, puts a part for the whole. And he mentions that part, with regard to Abraham, which would naturally affect the Jews most.
rom 4:25Who was delivered - To death. For our offences - As an atonement for them. And raised for our justification - To empower us to receive that atonement by faith.