NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson V)
Verses 6-8: King David spoke about this when he described the happiness of an undeserving sinner who puts his trust in God without working to be saved from the punishment of sin. “Blessed and to be envied,” he said, “are those whose sins are forgiven and put out of sight. Yes, what joy there is for anyone whose sins the Lord chooses no longer to hold against them.”1
What Paul says now must be understood as the unbelievable realization that comes to anyone after they have been chosen, redeemed, and glorified by being made the children of God. We can see that the heading of this Psalm Paul quotes describes it as a “maskil” of David. In Hebrew, the word means “enlightened.” Therefore, a maskil psalm is one that is designed to teach the reader something that wasn’t clear to them before. After David opened his maskil with the words contained in the first two verses, he then goes on to tell his own personal story of how it worked in his case. This is also the way several Psalms are introduced.2 It is also interesting that David starts this psalm much the same way Jesus began His beatitudes.3
But the main lesson here is that having one’s sins forgiven and erased so they can be accepted by the Lord is called a “blessing.” It signifies someone who is fortunate, well-off, and content while living a fulfilled life. Paul uses David’s words because he clearly points out that this blessing comes from the Lord as a gift. It is not something that is bought, bartered, or begged for. As it is so clearly stated by God through the prophet Isaiah: “They will say, ‘Goodness and strength come only from the LORD.’”4 And God reiterates the same truth through the prophet Jeremiah: “Let the boaster boast about this: that he understands and knows Me — that I am Adonai, practicing grace, justice, and righteousness in the land; for in these things I take pleasure, says Adonai.”5
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster makes this point: “Paul backs this up by the example of the prophet David, who says that those are blessed of whom God has decreed that, without work or any keeping of the law, they are justified before God by faith alone. Therefore, he foretells the blessedness of the time when Christ was born, just as the Lord Himself said: ‘Many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and to hear what you hear without ever hearing it’.6”7 To this, another scholar adds: “After demonstrating by the example of the Patriarch Abraham that faith is older than the law, Paul quotes a further witness in support of his position, namely, David the prophet and king.”8
There is an interesting homily on Psalm 32 in Jewish writings that goes like this:
These words are to be considered in light of a verse from another Psalm: You have taken away the guilt of your people and pardoned all their sin. Selah.9 You know that Satan comes on the Day of Atonement to accuse Israel and he specifies the iniquities of Israel, saying; Master of the universe, there are adulterers among the nations of the earth; so, too, among Israel. There are thieves among the nations of the earth; so, to, among Israel. But the Holy One, blessed be He, lays out the just deeds of Israel. Then what does He do? He suspends the beam of the scales and looks to see what the balance or imbalance is between the iniquities and the just deeds. And as they are weighed – the iniquities against the just deeds, these against those – the two pans of the scale balance exactly. Thereupon, Satan goes out to fetch more iniquities to put in the pan of iniquities and bring it down. What does the Holy One, blessed be He, do? Even while Satan is going about seeking iniquities, the Holy One, blessed be He, takes the iniquities out of the pan and hides them under His royal robe. Then Satan comes and finds no iniquity on the scales, as it is said The iniquity of Israel shall be sought for; and there shall be none.10 When Satan see there is no iniquity, he cries out before the Holy one, blessed be He: Master of the universe, You have carried away the iniquity of Your people!11 When David realized what God does, he said: How mercifully He carries away iniquity, how mercifully He hides their sin! Thereupon David went on to praise Israel as Happy is he whose transgressions are carried away, whose sin is hidden.12
Paul expressed this same thought of God being the only source for such blessings when he wrote to the Corinthians: “It is God who has made you part of Christ Jesus. And Christ has become for us wisdom from God. He is the reason we are right with God and pure enough to be in His presence. Christ is the One who set us free from sin.”13 Paul then goes on to quote the word of God from Jeremiah mentioned above. We should all be justly proud of being God’s children and counted among the redeemed and chosen, but that pride is not in ourselves or anything we may have done, but in the One who gave His life so that we could be given such an immeasurable and eternal gift.
This is why Paul wanted the Christians in Rome to know that it was accomplished by grace, not by our good deeds. He may have taken some of this from his letter to the Ephesians: “God did this so that His kindness to us who belong to Christ Jesus would clearly show for all time to come the amazing richness of His grace. I mean that you have been saved by grace because you believed. You did not save yourselves; it was a gift from God. You are not saved by the things you have done, so there is nothing to boast about. God has made us what we are. In Christ Jesus, God made us new people so that we would spend our lives doing the good things He had already planned for us to do.”14 This is the same message Paul had for his young protégé Timothy.15
Early church scholar Origen gives this explanation: “Note the order here. First, comes the forgiveness of iniquity, then the covering of sin, then the non-imputation of the sin to the sinner. This is the order: First, the beginning of the soul’s conversion is the renunciation of evil. Second, the soul begins to do good works, which eventually become more numerous than the evil deeds which preceded them, and in this sense, those sins may be said to be covered over. Finally, the soul reaches maturity. Every trace of sin is uprooted from it so that not even the smallest trace of wickedness remains The height of perfect blessedness is promised. The Lord will not impute any sin to the soul. Wickedness is different from sin in that it applies to things which are done without the law. In Greek, the word for this is ‘anomía,’ meaning something which is done without the law. Sin, on the other hand, refers to something which is done against the dictates of conscience and nature.”16 What Origen says here is what God does at the moment of conversion when confessed sins and sincere repentance leads God to let them start over with a new slate. But as Paul will go on to say, it will always remain a goal to stay this way. That’s why God’s grace is needed throughout the life of the believer, and it is the only thing that will help him, or her achieve a victorious ending to their journey.
Reformist John Calvin also explores this subject on people being declared right with God so that He is then justified in removing their penalty for sin. He writes: “But some one may say, “Why may we not maintain, on the ground of these testimonies, that man is justified and made blessed by good deeds? Because the words of Scripture declare that man is justified and made blessed by works as well as by faith.” Here indeed we must consider the order of causes as well as the dispensation of God’s grace: for inasmuch as whatever is declared, either of the righteousness of works or of the blessedness arising from them, does not exist, until this only true righteousness of faith has preceded and does alone discharge all its offices, this last must be built up and established, in order that the other may, as a fruit from a tree, grow from it and flourish.”17
John Bengel points out that in David’s recounting the basis for which God bestows salvation on a person, he does not mention good deeds at all. Says Bengel: “The argument from the silence of Scripture is very often conclusive.” But Bengel adds that some might say that if the LORD accepts them as if they are without sin, that must mean they met all the requirements of the Law. But Bengel answers: “It is not the same thing.” He then writes: “This… has nothing to do with the description of the subject; it is part of the predicate; even if it were such a description, the merit of works would not be established; for the thief who confessed his crime, and does not craftily deny it, merits no pardon for his offence by his confession.” What Bengel contends is this: “The meaning of all this is as follows: Blessed is the man to whom the LORD has not attributed sin: blessed is he, and in his spirit there is no deceitfulness; that is, he is now sure of his condition, of the forgiveness of his sins; he can be assured that his spirit and his heart are not deceiving him.18”19
Henry Alford sees this as a confirmation of the assertion involved in verse 5 that a person may believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and have his faith reckoned for righteousness. Alford goes on to say: “The Psalm, strictly speaking, says nothing of the imputation of righteousness, – but it is implied by St. Paul, that the remission of sin is equivalent to the imputation of righteousness – that there is no negative state of innocence – none intermediate between acceptance for righteousness, and rejection of sin.” In fact, Alford says it is a blessing, which makes it very clear that this righteousness must be apart from works, because its imputation consists in the remission and hiding of offences, whereas none can be legally righteous in whom there is any, even the smallest offence found.20
1 Psalm 32:1-2
2 See Psalm 1:1; 33:12; 112:1; 146:5
3 Cf. Matthew 5:3ff
4 Isaiah 45:24
5 Jeremiah 9:24 – Complete Jewish Bible
6 Matthew 13:17
7 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
8 Theodoret of Cyr: Interpretation of Romans, loc. cit.
9 Psalm 85:3
10 Jeremiah 50:20
11 Psalm 85:3
12 Pesiq. Rabbati 45:2; translation according to William G. Braude, Pesikta Rabbati: Discourses for Feasts, Fasts, and Special Sabbaths, Vol. II, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968
13 1 Corinthians 1:30
14 Ephesians 2:7-10
15 2 Timothy 1:9
16 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
17 John Calvin: op. cit., loc. cit.
18 See Psalm 78:57
19 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 249
20 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc cit., pp. 31-32