NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson IV)
Bible scholar John Bengel suggests that by using the word “works,” Paul means those who, by their good deeds, perform all that the moral laws given to Moses requires to be right with God. But since this is impossible, their works are in vain. The point here is to show the excellence of faith which God ordained as the only way for the ungodly to be justified, thereby saving them from the sentence of death for their sins. But Bengel also points out that “Justification is an individual act.”1 This eliminates the Jews’ claim that they are justified because they are descendants of Abraham. The same is true with Christians. No child can pretend to be justified before God just because they were born into a Christian family.
Henry Alford also makes a good point, that if a person’s good works could gain them justification and salvation, it would be another way of saying that God was indebted to them. Instead, it’s the other way around. Knowing that without God’s help they are lost, they then go to Him in faith because they know that once they are redeemed, called, chosen, and glorified as His children, it’s all because of His love, grace, and mercy.2 Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke confirms the same thought: “Now to him that works 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 wage for those works, and consequently his believing could have had no part in his justification, and his faith would have been useless.”3 Although Abraham did not understand God’s promises and blessings as being a reward for work, Sarah did. That’s why she told Abraham to go to Hagar and work on getting them the baby that God had promised. But God was not impressed and told both Abraham and Sarah to have faith in His promise to give them the promised child, not to try and earn it.
Scottish Bible scholar Robert Haldane gives us his summary of these two verses: “In the 4th and 5th verses before us, the distinction between receiving a reward for works, and receiving it through faith, is clearly established. In the first case, a man receives what is due to him as his wages; in the second, all comes in the way of favor. Here also faith and works are directly opposed to each other. To preserve the doctrine of these verses from abuse, it is only necessary to recollect that works are denied as having anything to do with justification, but that they are absolutely necessary in the life of the believer. People are prone to magnify one part of the Divine counsel, by disparaging or denying another, which to their wisdom appears to stand in opposition to it. Some speak of faith in such a manner as to disparage works; others are so zealous for works as to disparage faith; while some, in order to honor both, confuse them with each. The Apostle Paul gives every truth its proper value and its proper place. In this Epistle, he establishes the doctrine of justification by faith alone and speaks not of the fruits of faith till the fifth chapter. But these fruits he shows to be the necessary result of that faith which justifies.”4
Theologian Charles Hodge makes a point: “These verses are designed, in the first place, to vindicate the applicability of the quotation from Scripture, made in verse 3, by showing that the declaration ‘faith was imputed for righteousness,’ is a denial that works were the ground of Abraham’s acceptance. And, secondly, that to justify by faith, is to justify gratuitously, and, therefore, all passages which speak of gratuitous acceptance are in favor of the doctrine of justification by faith.”5 And British pulpiteer Charles Spurgeon expressed it this way: “That is meant for him who hopes to be saved by his works, to whom salvation is of merit. He has worked for the reward. He has earned it. Do not talk about grace in that case. He gets what he earns, what he deserves to have, what he receives is ‘not reckoned of grace, but of debt.””6
What Paul is writing here about salvation as a gift from God, not something that can be earned, was not just his idea. It is firmly established on the teachings of Jesus Himself who said: “I assure you, anyone who hears what I say and believes in the One who sent me has eternal life. They will not be judged guilty. They have already left death and have entered into life.”7
So there should not be any misunderstanding on the part of these Messianic Jews in Rome about what constitutes authentic justification through faith in Christ. There is only one way, and that way is through Jesus the Messiah. Paul shares with Timothy how his conversion made a new person. He wrote: “In the past, I insulted Christ. As a proud and violent man, I persecuted His people. But God gave me mercy because I did not know what I was doing. I did that before I became a believer. But our Lord gave me a full measure of His grace. And with that grace came the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a true statement that should be accepted without question: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I am the worst of them.”8
So what God gave Habakkuk to write down long ago is just as true today as it was then and also in Paul’s day: “This message cannot help those who refuse to listen to it, but those who do listen will live because they believe it.”9 Paul now calls David, a man after God’s own heart, to the witness stand to tell what he understood about being rewarded for faith, not for works.
Early church preacher Chrysostom said this in his homily: “Think how great a thing it is to be persuaded and have complete confidence that God is able not only to set an ungodly man free from punishment but also to make him righteous and count him worthy to receive these immortal honors.… This is what makes a believer glorious—the fact that he enjoys so great a grace and displays such great faith. Note too that the recompense is greater. For the one who works receives his reward, but the one who believes is made righteous. Righteousness is much greater than a reward because it is a recompense which includes many rewards.”10
Then, a contemporary of Augustine’s remarked: “When an ungodly person is converted, God justifies him by faith alone, not for good works which he does not have. On that basis, he would have been punished for his ungodly works. But note that Paul does not say one who remains in sin is justified by faith but rather the ungodly, i.e., one who has just come to believe.”11 So it is evident, salvation is not a reward but a gift; not something that can be earned, but received; not by works, but by faith; and not to the self-righteous, but to the admitted sinner.
Reformist John Calvin makes this commentary: “This is a very important sentence, in which Paul expresses the substance and nature both of faith and of righteousness. He indeed clearly shows that faith brings us righteousness, not because it is a meritorious act, but because it obtains for us the favor of God. Nor does he declare only that God is the giver of righteousness, but he also arraigns us of unrighteousness, in order that the bounty of God may come to aid our necessity.”12 Adam Clarke offers his views on this subject: “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.”13
Professor F. F. Bruce says this: “Abraham was not ungodly; he was a man of outstanding piety and righteousness. But the principle on which Abraham was justified, being one that excludes the idea of accumulating merit by works of piety and righteousness, is one that is equally available to the ungodly, who have no such works to rely on. So the tax-collector in the parable went home ‘justified’ rather than the Pharisee, not because his merit was greater (it was much less) but because, realizing the futility of self-reliance, he cast himself entirely on God’s grace.14 But the description of God as the one ‘who justifies the ungodly’ is so paradoxical as to be startling – even shocking.”15 Dr. Bruce goes on: “No wonder that Paul thought it necessary to maintain that God, in justifying sinners, nevertheless preserves His personal integrity. Once they are justified, indeed, the ungodly should cease to be ungodly, but it is not on the basis of any foreseen amendment of their ways that they are justified. If we fail to appreciate the moral problem involved in God’s forgiving grace, it may be because we have ‘not yet considered how serious a thing is sin.’ The paradox of the justifying of the ungodly is resolved in Romans 5:6, ‘Christ died for the ungodly.’”16
Octavius Winslow said this in his sermon on Self Communion: “It is not for your worth that you are saved, but for Christ’s worth. It is not on the ground of your personal merit that you are justified but on the ground of Christ’s merit alone. It is not upon the plea of your fitness, your tears, your confessions, your prayers, your duties, that God forgives and accepts you, but simply and exclusively upon the one plea of the Savior’s sacrifice. The BLOOD of Christ pardons, the RIGHTEOUSNESS of Christ justifies you, and this is all that you require, or that God demands. The great work is all done – it is not to be done. It is complete, finished, accepted, sealed. And you, as a lost sinner, without holiness, without strength, without one plea that springs from what you are, have nothing to do. Believe, and you are saved. Believing is not doing, it is not meriting, it is TRUSTING- it is the simple exercise of a faith in Christ which God gives, and which the Holy Spirit produces in the heart; so that your salvation, from beginning to end, is entirely out of yourself, in another.”17
One Jewish writer gives his thoughts: “Paul is not presenting an argument of ‘Law versus Grace.’ This idea, (that there is such a thing as ‘law versus grace’) is taught throughout much of Christianity. It is a theology that pits God’s Torah against His mercy, which is something completely contrary to the Hebrew Scriptures, that instead reveal that God gave His Torah out of His mercy. What Paul ‘sets against’ each other, in this and in all of his letters (including Galatians and Colossians, which are consistently misunderstood), is the idea of, ‘doing works apart from faith’ in order to ‘earn’ salvation, versus trusting in God’s provision, and then living according to His revealed will – the Torah.”18
1 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 249
2 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 31
3 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 167
5 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 175
6 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 John 5:24
8 1 Timothy 1:13-15
9 Habakkuk 2:4
10 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 8
11 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
12 John Calvin: Op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Luke 18:9-14
15 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 117
16 Bruce: ibid., Vol. 6, p. 118
17 Octavius Winslow: The Works of, Sermon, Self-Communion, Text: Psalm 4:4
18 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.