NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson II)
Reform theologian Robert Haldane also expresses his thoughts on the good works factor: “The term ‘works’ is here explanatory of the word flesh in the first verse, signifying any works, whether moral or ceremonial. If Abraham were justified on account of his works, as the Jews believed, it must be admitted that he had something to boast about, contrary to what the Apostle had just before declared, that all boasting on such grounds is excluded… No objection that could be offered would appear to the Jews more forcible; it was, therefore, important to advert it. Being, however, entirely groundless, the Apostle at once repels it, and replies to the question previously proposed, respecting circumcision, or any work or privilege, in that prompt and brief manner of which we see an example at the end of the 8th verse of the former chapter. He answers, But not before God. Abraham had no ground of boasting before God, not having been justified either by the observance of the rite of circumcision or by any other work of obedience which he had performed; and this Paul fully proves in the sequel.”1
Charles Ellicott writes: “We know that he [Abraham] obtained justification. If that justification had been earned by his own works it would then have been something to be proud of; it would be a pride that he might fairly hold both towards people and towards God; for to people he could point to the privileged position that he gained, and in the sight of God he would be able to plead a certain merit of his own. But he has no such merit. His justification was not earned, but it was given to him, not for the sake of works, but for his faith. This is the express statement of Scripture. And hence it follows that though his privileged position in the sight of people remains, he has nothing to boast of before God.”2
Professor F. F. Bruce introduces this chapter as follows: “Paul has already said that this ‘righteousness of God … apart from law’ is attested by the Law and the Prophets. This must now be shown more fully, and Paul undertakes to show it principally from the story of Abraham, with a side-glance at the experience of David. Of all the righteous people in the Old Testament, none could surpass Abraham —‘Abraham, my friend’, as God calls him in Isaiah 41:8. God’s own testimony to Abraham is recorded in Genesis 26:5, ‘Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.’ What about Abraham, then? If it is by works that a person is justified in God’s sight, Abraham would have a better title than most, and he would be entitled to take some credit for it. But that is not God’s way. God’s way is clearly indicated in the record of Genesis 15:6: when the divine promise came to Abraham, in spite of the extreme improbability of its fulfillment by all natural considerations, ‘he believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ Paul had already made this statement the basis of an ad hominem argument to the churches of Galatia when some of their members were disposed to abandon the principle of faith for that of legal works.”3
Dr. Bruce then makes this point: “Abraham’s acceptance with God was clearly not based on his works, good as they were. Paul’s argument is not merely textual and verbal, dependent on a selection of Genesis 15:6 in preference to other texts from the patriarchal narrative which might have pointed in another direction. For Abraham’s good works and his obedience to the divine commandments were the fruit of his unquestioning faith in God; had he not first believed the promises of God he would never have set out for the promised land or conducted his life there in the light of what he knew of God’s will. No; when God gave Abraham a promise (in the fulfillment of which, incidentally, the whole gospel was bound up), he simply took God at His word, and acted accordingly.”4
Jewish theologian David Stern says that by the time Jesus came, it was a widespread doctrine among the Jews that they could benefit and even claim salvation based on the righteous works of their ancestors. They made this claim before Jesus in John 8:33, and some of Paul’s opponents made use of the same idea.5 The seed for the Jews belief is found in Deuteronomy 4:37.6 But the error made by the Jews is that while God is faithful to His promises to their forefathers, it does not take away their own responsibility to have faith.
Stern then goes on to say: “Even Abraham’s trust is of no avail to his descendants; they must have trust of their own. Romans 9–11 can be viewed as an elaboration of this principle. The present chapter investigates the nature of Abraham’s own ‘merit:’ what is it that he obtained by his own efforts? Didn’t he have ‘works,’ meritorious ‘deeds’ that earned him his salvation? This is what Paul’s hypothetical questioner is asking. In one sense the answer is ‘Yes’ — if trusting can be counted as a ‘work,’ or if trusting in its proper sense implies appropriate good works that stem from it, which is what Paul himself speaks about in Ephesians 2:8–10, and James [says] in 2:14–26.7 But, as explained in Chapter 3:20b above, ‘works’ here are understood in contradistinction to ‘faith’ as legalistic observances. If James’ point is that ‘faith without works is dead,’8 Paul’s point here is complementary and equally true: works without faith are dead.”9
Verse 3: That’s why the Scriptures say, “Abraham believed God, and because of this he was accepted as one who is right with God.”
Paul now refers his readers back to the Torah where it clearly states: “He [Abraham]believed in Adonai, and He credited it to him as righteousness.”10 It was important that they listen to what the Scriptures had to say. God reminded His people of this back in Isaiah’s day.11 The Apostle James put the same emphasis on believing what was written in Scripture.12 And the Apostle Peter exhibited the same frame of mind.13
Paul pointed this out when he wrote the Galatians: “The Scriptures say the same thing about Abraham. ‘Abraham believed God, and because of this faith he was accepted as one who is right with God.’ So you should know that the true children of Abraham are those who have faith,”14 and the Apostle James echoed this doctrine: “This shows the full meaning of the Scriptures that say, ‘Abraham believed God, and because of this faith he was accepted as one who is right with God’.”15
The Jews were accustomed to establishing their teaching on the Scriptures with the words: “Because it is written.” And Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai quotes Scripture as he points out: “For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light, and reproofs of sufferings are the way of life.16”17 In fact, in this same Tractate the term “it is written” appears some 192 times as Rabbis support their teaching on the basis of Holy Writ.
Several early church scholars have various thoughts on what Paul says here. Ambrose writes: “I do not demand a reason [for my justification] from Christ. If I am convinced by reason, I deny faith. Abraham believed God. Let us also believe, so that we who are the heirs of his race may likewise be heirs of his faith.”18 And Chrysostom points out: “The Master proclaimed that Abraham was justified because he outran the weakness of his human nature. He strained with his whole mind toward the power of Him who had made the promise.”19 And Pelagius adds: “Abraham’s faith was so great that his earlier sins were all forgiven him, and righteousness was counted as credit for every one of them by faith alone. Later he was on fire with such love for God that he piled one good work on top of another. Therefore, he has glory in God’s eyes.”20 What Pelagius does not say is that all of those works were based on faith in God’s promise, not in what Abraham accomplished through obedience based on that faith.
John Calvin sees it this way: “If Abraham was justified because he embraced, by faith, the bountiful mercy of God, it follows, that he had nothing to glory in; for he brought nothing of his own, except a confession of his misery, which is an appeal for mercy. He, indeed, takes it as granted, that the righteousness of faith is the refuge, and, as it were, the asylum of the sinner, who is destitute of works. For if there be any righteousness by the law or by works, it must be in people themselves; but by faith, they derive from another what is wanting in themselves; and hence the righteousness of faith is rightly called imputative.”21
Robert Haldane shares this: “Having denied in the foregoing verse that Abraham was justified, or had any ground of boasting, either on account of his circumcision or his obedience, Paul next supports his denial by an appeal to Scripture, which was calculated to carry stronger conviction to the Jews than anything else he could have alleged. His proof is drawn from the historical records of the Old Testament, and thus he places his seal on its complete verbal inspiration, quoting what is there recorded as the decision of God.”22
What we have read written by scholars in early church history, followed by the insights and confirmation of those who were inspired in the Reformation period, right up until this day about the futility of getting right with God by dutifully participating in rites, rituals, and regulations of the church is just as valid today. To claim union and fellowship with God because of being born in a Christian family, or being alive in Christ because of being baptized as an infant before there was any awareness of right and wrong, sin and evil, or claiming heaven as one’s destination because of all the good works and charity one participates in, is just as baseless and useless today as when the Apostle Paul wrote these words. It is a gift from God by faith alone.
1 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 161-162
2 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 115–116
4 F. F. Bruce: ibid., p. 116
5 See 2 Corinthians 11:22
6 See Exodus 32:13
7 See James 3:27–28
8 James 2:26
9 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Genesis 15:6
11 Isaiah 8:20
12 James 4:5
13 2 Peter 1:20-21
14 Galatians 3:6-7
15 James 2:23
16 Proverbs 6:23
17 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Beracoth, folio 5a
18 Ambrose: On the Death of His Brother Satyrus 2.89
19 Chrysostom: Baptismal Instructions 8.7
20 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
21 John Calvin: op. cit., loc. cit., Charles Hodge has an excellent exposition on this subject of imputation in his commentary on this verse that is worth reading for those who have access to his work.
22 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc cit., p. 162