NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XIII)
Methodist scholar Adam Clarke gives his commentary on how God’s Promise to Abraham became ours: “On this account the promise is mercifully grounded, not on obedience to a law, but on the infinite goodness of God: and thus the promise is sure to all the seed – to all, both Jews and Gentiles, who, believing in Christ Jesus, have a right to all the blessings contained in the Abrahamic covenant. All the seed necessarily comprehends all mankind. Of the Gentiles there can be no doubt, for the promise was given to Abraham while he was a Gentile; and the salvation of the Jews may be inferred, because they all sprang from him after he became an heir of the righteousness or justification which is received by faith; for he is the father of us all, both Jews and Gentiles.”1
Charles Hodge then adds his understanding: “The inheritance promised to Abraham and his seed must be either of the Law [of Moses], or of faith. It cannot be of the Law, for the Law works wrath. Therefore, it is of faith’.”2 Then Hodge adds: “If salvation is in any form or to any degree dependent on the merit, the goodness, or the stability of man, it never can be sure, no, it must be utterly unattainable. Unless we are saved by grace, we cannot be saved at all. To reject, therefore, a gratuitous salvation, is to reject the only method of salvation available for sinners. Salvation being of grace, suspended on the simple condition of faith, without regard to parentage, to national or ecclesiastical connection, it is available for all classes of men.”3
Then, Frederic Godet gives his comments: “The last words [of verse 16]: ‘He is the father of us all,’ sum up all that has been developed in the previous context. Believing Jews and Gentiles, we all participate by faith not only in justification but also in the future possession of the world; for the true seed to whom this promise was made was that of faith, not that according to the Law [of Moses]. Abraham is, therefore, the sole stem from which proceed those two branches which form in him one and the same spiritual organism.”4
Jewish writer David Stern shares with us an important truth that shows how even great Jewish scholars in the past understood this principle. He asks the question: Can a Gentile speak of Abraham as his father? He offers the following condensed form the Rambam’s5 well-known “Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte.” He does so because its sentiments are so precisely appropriate when you imagine it as a letter written to a Gentile follower of Yeshua.
“You ask me if you are permitted to say in the prayers, ‘Our God’ and ‘God of our fathers,’ and ‘You who worked miracles for our fathers.’ Yes; you may say your blessing and prayer in the same way as every born Jew. This is because our father Abraham revealed the true faith and the unity of God, rejected idol-worship, and brought many children under the wings of the Sh’khinah [see Genesis 18:19]. Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of our father Abraham, peace unto him. In the same way, as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts later generations through the testament he left his children and household after him. Thus our father Abraham is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.
“Since you have come under the wings of the Sh’khinah and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done, as it were, both to you and to us. Thus it is said in the book of Isaiah, ‘Let not the son of the stranger who follows Adonai say, “Adonai has completely separated me from his people”’ (Isaiah 56:3). There is no difference whatsoever between you and us.
“Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Moshe Rabbenu [Moses our teacher], who separated us from the nations, brought us under the wings of the Sh’khinah, us and all proselytes, and gave all of us one Law.
“Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5).”6
Verse 17: As the Scriptures say, “I have made you a father of many nations.”7 This is true in God’s eyes, the One Abraham believed – the God who gives life to the dead and speaks of things that don’t yet exist as if they are real.
Now Paul makes another important point. It was not Moses with the Law who was the father of the faith, but Abraham without the Law of Moses who was given that honor by God. This is clearly articulated in the Torah: “Then Abram bowed down before God. God said to him, “This is my part of our agreement: I will make you the father of many nations. I will change your name from Abram8 to Abraham,9 because I am making you the father of many nations.”10
The Apostle Paul’s point here is that God has the ability and power to forecast things and with just a word say them as though they already existed. As the writer of Hebrews was inspired to say: “Abraham was so old he was almost dead. But from that one man came as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. So many people came from him that they are like grains of sand on the seashore.” When thinking of the nations that came from Abraham, we must look at those descendants of Abraham through Sarah, his maid Hagar,11 and also his second wife, Keturah.12 But Paul was thinking of those considered spiritual descendants. And if we counted all those from Abraham’s day, including those who became his spiritual descendants through Christ up unto this day, they certainly would fill the sky with stars.
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster comments: “Paul invites the Gentiles to share the faith of Abraham, who believed God while he was still uncircumcised. Now that that faith is preached in Christ, he has been raised from the dead, along with his wife. For when they were already very old, they sprang back to life so that Abraham did not doubt that he would have a son by Sarah, whom he knew to be sterile and who had long since ceased to have her menstrual period. Paul said this so that they would not worry about circumcision or uncircumcision but that they would respond eagerly because of their faith, secure in the knowledge that the One in whom they believe is no other than the One who gives life to the dead, who has the power to bring things which do not exist into being by His will.”13
Reformist John Calvin has an excellent way of putting what he finds here in Paul’s message. He writes: “We have here also a type and a pattern of the call of us all, by which our beginning is set before our eyes, not as to our first birth, but as to the hope of future life, — that when we are called by the Lord we emerge from nothing; for whatever we may seem to be we are not, no, not a spark of anything good, which can render us fit for the Kingdom of God. That we may indeed, on the other hand, be in a suitable state to hear the call of God, we must be altogether dead in ourselves. The character of the divine calling is, that they who are dead are raised by the Lord, that they who are nothing begin to be something through His power. The word ‘call’ ought not to be confined with preaching, but it is to be taken, according to the usage of Scripture, for raising up; and it is intended to set forth more fully the power of God, who raises up, as it were by a nod only, whom He wills.”14 In other words, since we were all dead in trespasses and sin, our new birth was, in fact, God calling us forth from the dead so that we could be alive in Christ.15
John Bengel makes this point: “The dead are not dead to God because to God things which don’t exist really do. The seed of Abraham did not yet exist, yet God said, “So shall your seed be.” The multiplication of the seed takes the existence of the seed for granted… God speaks to the light, while it is not around, as if it were, [and tells it] to come forth into existence. Think of the often-recurring ‘be,’ Genesis 1, which expresses the transition from non-existence to existence, produced by God’s summons.16”17 In other words, God does not need anything to already exist before He calls for its revelation. His words alone are powerful enough to create on the spot something that has never before existed except in His omniscience. That’s why He could say to Abraham that he would become the father of many nations before those nations were ever formed.
Henry Alford also addresses this concept. He writes: “Much difficulty has been found here: and principally owing to an idea that this clause (calls those things which are not as though they were) must minutely correspond with the former (who quickens the dead), to furnish [make possible] another instance of God’s creative Almightiness. Hence, commentators have given to call the sense which it has sometimes, ‘to summon into being,’ and have understood as though they were as if it were so as to be.” The use of old English by Alford makes this somewhat hard to understand. What the theologian is saying can be repeated this way: To summon something into existence, it must be understood that it already existed in that form before it was revealed. Alford goes on to say: “I see however in this latter clause not a repetition or expansion of the former, but a new attribute of God’s omnipotence and eternity, on which Abraham’s faith was fixed.”18 To rephrase, Alford is saying that the statement by Paul that God had the power to call forth from the dead should not be confused with His ability to call things into existence that, heretofore did not exist, such as a dead body would be needed to call someone back from death. That means although we were physically alive we were spiritually dead until we heard God’s call, and He made us spiritually alive, but only in Christ. Therefore, the only way to stay spiritually alive is in Christ.19
1 Adam Clarke: Op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Charles Hodge: Op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Frederic Godet: Op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Also known as Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides
6 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Genesis 17:5
8 Hebrew for “exalted father”
9 Hebrew for “father of many”
10 Genesis 17:3-5
11 See Genesis 25:12ff
12 See Genesis 25:4ff; 1 Chronicles 1:32ff
13 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
14 John Calvin: Op. cit., loc. cit.
15 See Ephesians 2:5
16 Ezekiel 36:29
17 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 252
18 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 35
19 See Galatians 2:20