NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson I)
Verses 1-2: So what can we say about Abraham, the father of our people? What did he discover about good works? If Abraham was made right by the things he did, he had a reason to boast about himself. But God would have none of that.
Now Paul calls Abraham as the primary witness to the fact that the believer’s justification for receiving forgiveness of sins and everlasting life is by faith, not by works, ceremonies, or sacraments. That was God’s message to Israel: “Listen to me, those of you who are trying hard to live good lives, those of you who seek the Lord for help: look at the Rock from which you were cut, the Quarry out of which you were taken – look at Abraham is your father, and Sarah, who gave birth to you. Abraham was the only one I called. Then I blessed him, and he started a great family which now has many descendants.”1 Therefore, if Abraham didn’t boast about his pedigree or good works being the basis for his relationship with God, why should these Christians now make such a claim?
Perhaps Paul heard about the confrontation John the Baptizer had with the Pharisees and Sadducees when he told them: “I know what you are thinking. You want to say, ‘but Abraham is our father!’ That means nothing. I tell you, God could make children for Abraham from these rocks. The ax is now ready to cut you down like trees. Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”2 No doubt, that is why Paul warned the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia not to follow the example of those back in Jerusalem who refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.3
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster has this to say: “After showing that no one can be justified before God by the works of the law, Paul goes on to say that Abraham could not merit anything according to the flesh either. In saying ‘the flesh,’ Paul meant circumcision because Abraham sought nothing on the basis of his circumcision. For he was already justified before he was circumcised.”4 To this, early church preacher Chrysostom adds: “The Jews kept repeating that Abraham, the friend of God, was the first to be circumcised. Paul wants to show that he was justified by faith before he was circumcised.”5 Today, by substituting the term “baptism” for “circumcision,” we can argue the same principle for those who style themselves as Christians.
Reformer John Calvin sees it this way: “This is a confirmation by example; and it is a very strong one, since all things are alike with regard to the subject and the person; for he [Abraham] was the father of the faithful, to whom we ought all to be conformed; and there is also but one way and not many ways by which righteousness may be obtained by all. In many other things one example would not be sufficient to make a common rule; but as in the person of Abraham there was exhibited a mirror and pattern of righteousness, which belongs in common to the whole Church, rightly does Paul apply what has been written of him alone to the whole body of the Church, and at the same time he gives a check to the Jews, who had nothing more plausible to glory in than that they were the children of Abraham; they could not have dared to claim for themselves more holiness than what they ascribed to the holy patriarch. Since it is then evident that he was justified freely, his posterity, who claimed a righteousness of their own by the law, ought to have been made silent even through shame.”6
John Bengel sees Paul using Abraham as an example to prove that justification is by grace, not by works because in verse 9 the same justification is provided for the Gentiles. For this reason, both Jews and Gentiles can refer to Abraham as the spiritual father of their faith. It would not be possible for the Gentiles to refer to Abraham that way according to the flesh.7 Bengel agrees with other scholars who say that to abound in good works might bring honor to Abraham, but it could not exhibit God’s mercy as the reason for their justification.
Henry Alford takes what Paul says here in the opening line as contending with the Jewish members of the congregation, including himself, that as upholders of the law, what could Abraham’s experience teach them. Alford says that Paul’s question does not take away anything pertaining Abraham’s spiritual qualities. In fact, it is a comparison of the two that leads to a revelation that even in Abraham’s case, God would not credit justification to any of the works that Abraham did, but to the faith in which he performed them. Then, to prove that justification by works did not leave Abraham any room to boast, Alford writes: “Whatever men might think of him, or attribute to him (for example, the perfect keeping of the law, as the Jews did), one thing at least is clear, that he has nothing [to present] before (in the presence of ) God.”8 So, if it did not work for Abraham, Paul is more or less saying to the Jews that it will not work for them, and we can say that it will not work today.
British theologian Charles Hodge makes this point: “The connection of this verse with the preceding train of reasoning is obvious. Paul had taught that we are justified by faith; as well in confirmation of this doctrine, as to anticipate an objection from the Jew, he refers to the case of Abraham: ‘How was it then with Abraham? How did he obtain justification?’ The point in dispute was, how justification is to be attained. Paul proposes to decide the question by reference to a case about which no one could doubt. All admitted that Abraham was justified. The only question was, How?”9 Hodge goes on to point out that Paul makes it clear that Abraham did not earn justification from God by works, but was granted justification through faith.
So, there was no reason for them to claim privilege just because they were descendants of Abraham. Rather, look at what God saw in Abraham and used that as a motivation to walk by faith rather than using the law to seek justification. In fact, this is what Paul told the Philippians: “All I want now is Christ. I want to belong to Him. In Christ, I am right with God, but my being right does not come from following the law. It comes from God through faith. God uses my faith in Christ to make me right with Him.”10
In other words, Abraham had a lot to brag about concerning his faith, obedience, and trust in God, as did Paul, but not as a bargaining chip to use with God to secure justification for removal of the penalty of sin. This is in line with the message God had for the children of Israel about what they should be proud of.11 And to the Ephesians Paul said: “You are not saved by the things you have done, so there is nothing to boast about. God has made us what we are.”12 So Paul wanted these Messianic leaders in Rome to know they were not an exception to the rule. Now that Paul laid this groundwork, he will begin to build on it in the following verses.
Early church scholar Origen makes this point: “In this whole passage, it seems that the Apostle wants to show that there are two justifications, one by works and the other by faith. He says that justification by works has its glory in and of itself, but not before God. Justification by faith, on the other hand, has glory before God, who sees our hearts and knows those who believe and those who do not believe. Thus it is right to say that it has glory only before God, who sees the hidden power of faith. But the one who looks for justification by works may expect honor mainly from other persons who see and approve of them. Let no one think that someone who has faith enough to be justified and to have glory before God can at the same time have unrighteousness dwelling in them as well. Faith cannot coexist with unbelief, nor can righteousness with wickedness, just as light and darkness cannot live together.”13
And Bishop Cyril gives this commentary: “What can we say to those who insist that Abraham was justified by works because he was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar? Abraham was already an old man when God promised him that he would have a son and that his descendants would be as countless as the stars in the sky.14 Abraham piously believed that all things are possible with God and so exercised this faith. God reckoned him to be righteous on this account and gave Abraham a reward worthy of such a godly mind, namely, the forgiveness of his previous sins.… So even if Abraham was also justified by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this must be regarded as an evident demonstration of a faith which was already very strong.15”16
Reformist John Calvin gives this explanation: “If Abraham was justified by works, he might rightly glory: but he had nothing for which he could glory before God; then he was not justified by works. Thus the clause, but not before God, is the minor proposition; and to this must be added the conclusion which I have stated, though it is not expressed by Paul. He calls that glorying when we pretend to have anything of our own to which a reward is supposed to be due at God’s tribunal. Since he takes this away from Abraham, who of us can claim for himself the least particle of merit?”17
Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke states: “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 marvelous light, and rejoice 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.”18
Every Christian should learn what Paul is teaching here. We may be a member of the church, sing in the choir, serve on the usher committee, belong to a prayer group, do part-time missionary work, pay our tithes and offerings, and work in the church office. But none of this can count one penny toward paying for our justification and having a personal relationship with God. In fact, sometimes they can get in the way. We are justified solely through our faith in the work Christ did on the cross and entirely dependent on the grace and mercy of God for having been redeemed, called, and set apart for His glory.
1 Isaiah 51:1-2
2 Matthew 3:9-10
3 Acts of the Apostles 13:26-28
4 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 8
6 John Calvin, On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 247
8 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 30
9 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 163
10 Philippians 3:8b-9
11 Jeremiah 9:23-24
12 Ephesians 2:9
13 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 See Genesis 22:1-14
15 See Hebrews 11:8-19
16 Cyril of Alexandria: Explanation on Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 John Calvin: op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.