NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XII)
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster gives an interesting commentary on verse 15: “In order to show that no man can be justified before God by the Law, nor can the promise be given through the Law, Paul says that ‘the Law brings punishment.’ It was given in order to make transgressors guilty. But faith is the gift of God’s mercy, so that those who have been made guilty by the Law may obtain forgiveness. Therefore, faith brings joy. Paul does not speak against the Law but gives priority to faith. It is not possible to be saved by the law, but we are saved by God’s grace through faith. Therefore, the Law itself is not punishment, but it brings punishment to the sinner, for punishment is born from sin. For this reason, Paul wants the Law to be abandoned so that the sinner will take refuge in faith, which forgives sins, that he may be saved.”1
John Calvin offers a convincing argument on this point: “The Apostle teaches us, that faith will perish, unless the soul rests on the goodness of God. Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of His truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that His Word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God’s mercy, which is received from the Gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind. The sum of the matter then is this, — that if salvation depends on the keeping of the law, the soul can entertain no confidence respecting it, yes, that all the promises offered to us by God will become void: we will then become wretched and lost if we are sent back to works to find out the cause or the certainty of salvation.”2 Then Calvin adds: “But the Apostle speaks not of the mere transgression of what is right, from which no man is exempt; but he calls that a transgression, when man, having been taught what pleases and displeases God, knowingly and willfully passes over the boundaries fixed by God’s word; or, in other words, transgression here is not a mere act of sin, but a willful determination to violate what is right.”3
John Bengel rightly says that Promise and Faith complete the whole of God’s salvation plan and we need not add the Law as if it were something homogeneous that would make it better. Therefore, those who depend upon the Law must be told that because of the work and sacrifice of Christ, the Law has been made void in bringing salvation. Bengel goes on to say, that the entire purpose of the Law was to expose sin so that the need for a Savior is more clearly evident. Nowhere can we find where God said that the Law was part of the Promise and Faith.4
Adam Clarke puts it this way: “[Having] laws, necessarily subjects the transgressor to punishment; for where no law is – where no rule of duty is enacted and acknowledged, there is no transgression; and where there is no transgression there can be no punishment, for there is no law to enforce it. But the Jews have a law, which they have broken; and now they are exposed to the penal sanctions of that law; and, if the promises of pardon without the works of the law, do not extend to them, they will be miserable in the end because they have all broken the law, and the law exacts punishment.”5
Henry Alford explains why successfully following the Law would make faith unnecessary. The reason this is so is because righteousness comes freely by faith, not by obligation based on their legal standing. Alford then asks: “How and why so? The Apostle himself immediately gives the reason. For the Law brings about, gives occasion to, wrath (which from its very nature excludes promise, which is an act of grace, – and faith, which is an attribute of confidence).”6 In other words, while the Law shows the path to righteousness, it does not give the key to the gate that needs to be opened in order to enter into a right relationship with God. Only Christ has that key, and only He has the power and authority to use it.
Frederic Godet simply says: “Faith deprived of its object, the promise made void for those who are under the Law, why all this? Simply because the Law, when not fulfilled, brings upon man God’s condemnation and wrath, which renders it impossible on His part to fulfill the promise.”7 Christ was the only one who could meet the demands of the Law. Therefore, He is the only one through whom man can be saved because His work on the cross is the only sacrifice God is willing to accept as an atonement.
Charles Spurgeon preached it this way: “This is plain enough. You cannot break a law if there is none; and thus, through our sinfulness, the Law becomes a cause of sin, and never does it become the cause of justification. So that the Law is not for justification, but for condemnation. It is the Law that reveals sin, and that shows sin to be sin; so men can never become right with God by the Law.”8 Thus Spurgeon makes the necessity of Christ’s coming to earth even clearer in order to free those imprisoned by the Law. No wonder Paul was so upset that the Jewish leaders of the church in Rome insisted that the Law be a mandatory part of the plan of salvation.
Says Charles Ellicott: “This Messianic kingdom cannot have anything to do with Law; for if it had, faith and the promise would cease to have any office. Faith and Law cannot co-exist. They are the opposites of each other. The proper effect of law is punishment; for law only exposes sin. Faith, on the other hand, is the real key to the inheritance. It sets in motion grace; and grace, unlike law, excludes no one. It is open alike to the legal and to the spiritual descendants of Abraham; in other words (as the Scripture itself testifies), to all mankind, as the representative of whom Abraham stands before God.”9
Verse 16: So people get what God promised by having faith. This happens so that the promise can be a free gift. And if the promise is a free gift, then all of Abraham’s people will get that promise. The promise is not just for those who live under the Law of Moses. It is for all who live with faith as Abraham did. He is the father of us all.
With what Paul says here being true, this then makes us heirs to the Promise through Abraham’s faith as the father of our spiritual nation, not just the Israelites. Even though the Jews received the invitation first, the right given to us to call Jesus our Messiah is more than a second thought. Thank God for a Savior that was promised to us from the beginning, rather than being offered some rejected and discarded Redeemer from the spiritual trash heap of another religion. We are His, and He is ours by the will of the Father, not by some stroke of luck, good or bad.
Paul made this abundantly clear to the believers in Galatia: “You should know that the true children of Abraham are those who have faith. The Scriptures told what would happen in the future. These writings said that God would make the non-Jewish people right through their faith. God told this Good News to Abraham before it happened. God said to Abraham, ‘I will use you to bless all the people on earth.’ Abraham believed this, and because he believed, he was blessed. All people who believe are blessed the same as Abraham was.”10
This Promise of God to Abraham was the center of Paul’s argument. The writer of Hebrews saw it the same way: “God made a promise to Abraham. And there is no one greater than God, so He made the promise with an oath in His own name – an oath that He would do what He promised. He said, ‘I will surely bless you. I will give you many descendants’.”11 And, another important factor is that this promise was made long before the Law was given. Therefore, the reason for the Law was not simply to help people live right, but to show them that it was impossible to do so without help, God’s help. Yet, even with God’s help, they failed, so a Savior was needed. Not one chosen at the last minute out of panic, but One chosen long before the Law came into effect. Unlike the theory of evolution, God’s plan of salvation did not come into existence by accident.
Early church scholar Pelagius makes this point: “The Law does not forgive sins but condemns them, and, therefore, it cannot make all nations children of Abraham, because in the end all must be punished since all are found under sin. But faith makes all believers children of Abraham because their sins have been forgiven by grace.”12 This is followed by Theodoret who states: “Paul humbled the pride of the Jews by calling all those who imitated Abraham’s faith ‘the seed of Abraham,’ even if they were of a different race. For if the law punishes those who break it, grace gives forgiveness of sins and confirms the promise of God, giving a blessing to the Gentiles.”13
To put this another way, if we look at God’s promise to Abraham like a bank account, and that Abraham made a deposit in that account with a currency called “Faith.” Therefore, as children of Abraham, when shopping in God’s department store of blessings, items can only be obtained by using the currency of Faith. You cannot bring you own currency, nor can you charge it to some other account, nor can you debit it to be paid in installments. That’s not how Christ paid the price for our salvation. Otherwise, He would need to keep doing it over and over and over again, just like the sacrifices under the Law.
Reformist John Calvin sums up what Paul has been saying here: “If the heirship of salvation comes to us by works, then faith in it vanishes, the promise of it is abolished; but it is necessary that both these should be sure and certain; hence it comes to us by faith, so that its stability being based on the goodness of God alone, may be secured.”14 Then Calvin adds this: “See how the Apostle, regarding faith as a thing firm and certain, considers hesitancy and doubt as unbelief, by which faith is abolished, and the promise abrogated. And yet this doubting is what the schoolmen15 call a moral conjecture, and which, alas! they substitute for faith.”16
1 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
2 John Calvin: Op. cit., loc. cit.
4 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 251
5 Adam Clarke: Op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 34
7 Frederic Godet: Op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Charles Spurgeon: Op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Charles Ellicott: Op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Galatians 3:7-9
11 Hebrews 6:13-14
12 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
13 Theodoret of Cyr: On the Letter to the Romans, loc. cit.
14 John Calvin: Op. cit., loc. cit
15 “Schoolmen” was a medieval term for a Scholastic scholar or philosopher, especially those who were masters in one of the schools or universities of the Middle Ages that were run by the Roman Catholic Church.