NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson III)
British Bible scholar Henry Alford indicates that what Paul said here had sparked a controversy between Protestants on the one hand, and Catholics, Arminians,1 and Socinians2 on the other. The whole question was whether the righteousness Paul speaks of here with regard to Abraham was reckoned (1st) by means of faith, being God’s righteousness imputed to the sinner; or (2nd) on account of faith, so that God made Abraham righteous on account of the merit of his faith. Alford says: “The Apostle has proven that Jews and Gentiles are all under sin: utterly unable by works of their own to attain righteousness. Now faith, in the second sense mentioned above, is strictly and entirely work, and as such would be the efficient cause of man’s justification – which by what has preceded, it cannot be. It will, therefore, follow that it was not the act of believing which was reckoned to him as a righteous act, or on account of which perfect righteousness was credited to his account. Rather, the fact of his trusting God to perform His promise ushered him into the blessing promised.”3 Let me present this in a simpler manner for clearer understanding. Paul will write later, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”4 It is not making the confession that will save you, but it is God who will save you in response to your confession made by faith.
As H. A. Ironside put it: “The promise that he [Abraham] should be an heir of the world was not given to him ‘through the law,’ that is, it was not a reward of merit, something he had earned by obedience. It was on the basis of sovereign grace. Hence, his righteousness like ours, if we believe, was a ‘by-faith righteousness.‘ The heirs of the promise are those who accept it in the same faith, otherwise, it would be utterly invalidated. It was an unconditional promise.”5 In other words, no amount of praying, confessing, repenting, or pleading with God will result in justification. The old saying, “They prayed through to salvation,” misrepresents justification by faith. Only God can make the decision to justify, and such justification is not based on a person’s works, but the work of Christ. What a person praying, confessing, repenting, and asking for mercy will do, is show God that they are earnest and sincere in their belief that He and He alone is the only One who can save them.
Charles Hodge makes this comment: “The connection of this verse with the preceding is this: Paul had just said that Abraham had no ground of boasting with God; for, what does the scripture say? Does it credit the basis of Abraham’s justification to his works? By no means. It declares he was justified by faith; which Paul immediately shows is equivalent to saying that he was justified gratuitously.”6 This is an important point. Faith does not earn justification. Faith is the key that opens the door to God’s gift of being declared free of sin’s punishment. That should give every believer even more reason to thank God and serve Him out of love and loyalty.
Then Frederic Godet provides a scholarly exposition of verse three: “Scripture contains a declaration in which there is revealed the judgment of God respecting the way in which Abraham was justified. This saying is to be found in Genesis 15:6. Called by God out of his tent by night, he is invited to contemplate the heavens, and to count, if he can, the myriads of stars; then he hears the promise: ‘so numerous shall your seed be.’ He is a centenarian and has never had children. But it is God who speaks; that is enough for him: he believed God. Faith consists in holding the divine promise for the reality itself, and then it happens that what the believer has done in regard to the promise of God. God, in turn, does in regard to his faith: He holds it for righteousness itself.”7
Charles Ellicott offers this commentary: “The Apostle gives proof of this from Scripture. Abraham was not justified by works, and, therefore, had nothing to boast of in God’s sight. He was justified by faith. His righteousness was not real but imputed. His faith was treated as if it had been equivalent to a righteousness of works. It met with the same acceptance in the sight of God that a righteousness of works would have done. But – the argument goes on – faith carries with it no such idea of merit or debt as works. It is met by a pure act of grace on the part of God. The sense of imputation is not to be gotten rid of. It is distinctly a forensic act. The righteousness attributed to Abraham is not an actual righteousness, but something else that is considered and treated as if it were equivalent to such righteousness. It is so treated by God acting as the judge of mankind.”8
Jewish scholar David Stern makes reference to a teaching among the Jews, contained in Midrash Rabbah (Great Commentary), that reads: “In the world-to-come, Israel will sing a new song, as it is said, ‘Sing unto Adonai a new song, for He has done marvelous things.’9 By whose merit will they do so? By the merit of Abraham, because he trusted in the Holy One, blessed be he, as it says, And he trusted in Adonai.10”11 Stern goes on to say: “Paul quotes the same verse [Genesis 15:6] as cited in the Midrash Rabbah. The one ‘deed’ that ‘earned’ Abraham being declared righteous by God was not a deed at all, but the non-act (the heart attitude) of trusting God.”12
Verses 4-5 When people work, their pay is not given to them as a gift. They earn the pay they get. But people cannot do any work that will make them right with God. So they must trust in Him. Then He accepts their faith, and that makes them right with Him. He is the one who makes even evil people right.
The Apostle Paul now begins to show the Roman believers that God’s grace is not given as a reward, but as a gift. No one works for a gift, otherwise, it would not be an endowment, but a wage. This was clearly taught by the Rabbis. In their writings we find it written: “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master, not for the sake of a reward.”13 In other words, do not consider what you do for God as a job, but an expression of love. Because God does not pay His servants but rewards them with more than they could ever earn.
This was part of Paul’s message to the people in Antioch in Pisidia. He told them: “Brothers, understand what we are telling you. You can have forgiveness of your sins through this Jesus. The Law of Moses could not free you from your sins. You can only be made right with God if you believe in Jesus.”14 Paul had the same message for the believers throughout Galatia.15 And Paul gave the Philippians his personal testimony: “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.”16
Early church scholar Origen has this comment: “Faith relies on the grace of the justifier. Works rely on the fairness of the employer. When I consider the greatness of Paul’s speech, by which he says that the worker receives what is due to him, I can hardly persuade myself that there is any deed which could claim a wage from God as its due.”17 The Apostle Paul talks about a crown of righteousness being kept in store for him after he crosses the finish line at the end of life.18 This is not a participation prize nor a wage, but it is a reward given to him by the very One who gave him the strength, patience, and motivation to go all the way.
Then, fellow scholar Ambrosiaster has this point of view: “No merit is imputed as a reward to the man who is subject to the law—either to the law of works, i.e., of Moses or to the law of nature. For he who is obliged to keep the law is a debtor. A necessity is imposed upon him by the law to keep it whether he wants to or not, so as not to be guilty, as Paul says in another passage: ‘Those who resist will incur judgment.’19 On the other hand, to believe or not to believe is a matter of choice. No one can be required to accept something which is offered as a gift. But he is invited to receive it. He is not forced but persuaded. He believes what he does not see but hopes for. This is what glorifies God.”20
Then Augustine makes this comment: “Paul was speaking here of the way wages are given. But God gave by grace because he gave to sinners so that by faith they might live justly, that is, do good works. Thus the good works which we do after we have received grace are not to be attributed to us but rather to Him who has justified us by His grace. For if God had wanted to give us our due reward, He would have given us the punishment due to sinners.”21
With regard to the subject of how the expectation of reward from God for good works signifies the payment of a debt, John Calvin has this to say: “It is not the one Paul calls a worker, who is given to good works, to which all the children of God ought to emulate, but the person who seeks to merit something by his works… He would not, indeed, have the faithful to be idle; but he only forbids them to be mercenaries, so as to demand anything from God, as though it were justly their due.”22 We cannot earn heaven nor the reward of eternal life that goes with it. Nothing we can say or do can raise us to that level. It is all a merciful gift from God the Father on behalf of Christ His Son who did what was needed to get us there.
1 Arminians, followers of Dutch theologian Jacob Hermann Arminius (1560-1609), differ primarily from Calvinists by teaching that each person is not totally depraved. They are not spiritually helpless. They are capable of choosing to accept God and goodness. Everyone has free will and can choose to be saved, among other things.
2 Socinianism is an unorthodox form of non-trinitarianism developed by Italian humanist Lelio Sozzini (1525-1562). The Socinians rejected the historic, orthodox beliefs concerning the nature of God, especially His omniscience. They rejected the doctrine of the Trinity in favor of Unitarianism, a belief system they promoted in their “Catechism of Unitarians” (1574). They also rejected the orthodox belief of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
3 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 30
4 Romans 10:9
5 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Charles Hodge: op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Frederic Louis Godet: On Romans, loc. cit.
8 Charles Ellicott: op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Psalm 98:1
10 Genesis 15:6
11 Exodus Rabbah 23:5
12 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot): Ch. 1:3
14 Acts of the Apostles 13:38-39
15 Galatians 2:16-17; 3:9-14
16 Philippians 3:9
17 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 2 Timothy 4:8
19 Romans 13:2
20 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Augustine: On Romans 21
22 John Calvin: op. cit., loc. cit.