II.2. Romans 4. The True Seed of Abraham.
St. Paul has been repudiating the principle of justification by works of the law. To those with whom he had been brought up, this was in the highest degree to dishonour the Jewish law, and indeed the principle of divinely-given law at all. But in the last words of the previous chapter he refuses to admit this inference. 'God forbid that we should make law of none effect. No, we establish law.'
This idea of the Gospel, rightly understood, establishing the law even while it superseded it, is with St. Paul a very favourite one, and he elaborates it in different ways. Sometimes he shows how the function of the written law, or 'the letter,' is only to awaken the conscience and make men know their sinfulness. It can give men no help in corresponding to the moral requirement which it expresses. Having convicted the conscience of sin, it has done its work, and must yield its place to a more effective spiritual agency. The letter kills, in order that the Spirit may give life to those whom it has killed. And, on the other hand, the one object of this new spiritual agency, this life-giving Spirit, is to infuse the power of moral obedience, which the law could not give, into men's lives, 'that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk after the Spirit.' In this place, however, St. Paul only alludes to this argument and in the main adopts another. He shows from the Book of the Law, that the father of the faithful, himself the typical instance of a justified man, was justified, not by works which he had done, but simply because he believed; not upon the basis of any law or covenant, but as a man simply and not as a circumcised man; and again, that David, the man after God's own heart, living under the law, would have us rest our hopes of blessedness, not on our merits as having kept the law, but simply on the forgiving bounty of divine grace.
Let us inquire, he says, into the case of Abraham, whom we Jews are proud to own for our national ancestor. What are we to say of him? If Abraham approached God in virtue of his merits in having kept a law, and so was accepted by God because of what he had done of himself, there is something for him to boast of. But this in fact is not his relation to God according to the scripture at all. There —
'merit lives from man to man,But not from man, O Lord, to you.'
The whole initiation is God's. He simply makes a promise of His own pure goodwill — 'Your seed shall be as the stars of heaven' — and Abraham simply believed Him; and this, and nothing but this, was 'counted to him for righteousness.' The two suggested relations of Abraham to God are broadly contrasted and can be generally applied. In the one case you have a compact between God who imposes, and man who accepts, an allotted task with a payment attached to its fulfilment. If the man fulfils it, his payment can be classed as due to him under the compact. In the other case you have nothing done, no claim alleged, but a pure act of God, accepting one of our sinful race, as he is, simply because he takes God at His word. And this is how David also views our relation to God. You find him opening his mouth to tell us what sort of man is truly blessed, truly to be congratulated. And he thinks not of one who claims a reward because of his merit, but of one who has found no comfort or resource except in penitent confession of his sins, and whose sins God has forgiven and has consented to treat as if they did not exist. It is the unmerited act of the divine bounty, it is God justifying the sinful, which is the source of blessedness (vers. 1-8).
Now we go back to the case of Abraham to inquire whether the blessing of divine acceptance was pronounced upon him because he was the head of the chosen race marked out by circumcision — which was, so to speak, the first part of the law. No, it was before he was circumcised. The token of circumcision came afterwards, as the seal or external confirmation of what he had already received simply as a believing man; so that he might have for his true sons believers, whether uncircumcised or circumcised, and they might share his acceptance simply by believing God as he believed Him (vers. 9-12).
Plainly when God made Abraham the promise that he should be the heir of the world, no law was introduced into the relationship. It was purely a matter of God promising and Abraham taking God at His word. Indeed it could not have been otherwise. Introduce law, and you introduce a compact between God and man which annuls the relationship of God simply promising and man simply believing — a compact which throws a strain on man's independent powers, which they are not able to bear. The one inevitable result of the law is to put man in the position, in which apart from law he cannot find himself, of a defaulter who knows himself, as a defaulter, under the divine wrath. The true relationship leaves matters in the hands of God, who purely promises of His good favour — man simply in faith receiving (vers. 13-16a). This resting everything on God's promise and man's faith gives security for the fulfilment of the promise to 'all the seed.' And the 'seed to whom the promise was made' includes, not only the race chosen later to receive the law, but believers of all races; Abraham being in this sense 'a father of many nations,' as he stands under the eyes of God whom he believed in — God who had power to make His promise good, even by recalling to life again the dead faculties of Abraham's old age, and summoning children which did not yet exist as if they were already there. Here is the point: Abraham believed that God had the power to be as good as His word, in spite of all obvious reasons to the contrary. Therefore he looked the facts steadily in the face — his own and Sarah's great age. But he did not suffer this to weigh in the balance against God's promise. He made quite sure that God would do as He promised, and glorified God by this strong act of faith. This it is that was reckoned to him for righteousness, i.e. this it is that enabled God to accept him as righteous without any consideration of deeds done. And the record of this acceptance is made for our sakes to-day. God is still taking men into the number of the righteous, and He still does it on the same principle. He will reckon us for righteous if we will take Him at His word, and believe in His power to do as He has promised. And in our case He has given us fresh ground for such confident belief; for Jesus, on whom as Lord our hopes rest and who died to make atonement for our sins, He has by His power raised up from the dead, that by faith in Him, dead and yet alive again, we might be taken like Abraham without more ado into the number of the righteous.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has of what to glory; but not toward God. For what said the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. Now to him that works, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. But to him that works not, but believes on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness. Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, to whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works, saying,
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven,And whose sins are covered.Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin.
Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness. How then was it reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision: and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned to them; and the father of circumcision to them who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision. For not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed, that he should be heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise is made of none effect: for the law works wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression. For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written, A father of many nations have I made you) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calls the things that are not, as though they were. Who in hope believed against hope, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, So shall your seed be. And without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb: yea, looking to the promise of God, he wavered not through unbelief, but waxed strong through faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. Why also it was reckoned to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was reckoned to him; but for our sake also, to whom it shall be reckoned, who believe on him that raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification.
1. No doubt, on the text of Gen. xv. 6, St. Paul is right. It was Abraham's faith that is declared to have been reckoned to his account by God as equivalent to righteousness. But when we get beyond a mere text, is it not, we are inclined to ask, more true to the general spirit of scripture to say, with the author of the First Book of the Maccabees, 'Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness?' or with St. James, 'Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? You see that faith created with his works, and by works was faith made perfect.' No doubt certain Rabbis state the principle pedantically when they speak of Abraham having kept the whole Mosaic law by anticipation, but is it not true to say that Abraham was accepted by God, and on the whole is represented in the Bible as so accepted, not only because he believed, but also because he 'was found faithful in temptation,' and did good works, or acted as a good man?
Now, if by 'accepted' is meant 'finally accepted,' St. Paul would say this as of Abraham, so of every other accepted man. He must be finally judged and must receive according to his works or character. As we shall see, there is no real discrepancy between St. Paul and St. James on this matter. And St. Paul never disparages 'good works' which are the fruit of faith, only 'works' or 'works of the law' which represent a false attitude of man to God. But the question which he is here asking is, What is the ground of acceptance for a man at starting? What is it puts him at starting in the right relation to God? In other words, What is the root of real righteousness? And his answer to this question is, it is only self-surrendering faith which brought Abraham, or which brings any other man, into acceptance.
In giving this answer St. Paul had in view another attitude with which he had been long familiar, and which he calls 'seeking to be justified by works of the law.' It was the attitude of the Jews, especially as they appear in St. John's Gospel. They were proud of their divine law and of belonging to the chosen people, the children of Abraham and Moses. They knew how to make good their standing-ground with God. By keeping the law, as the law had come to be understood among themselves, they could accumulate merits altogether out of proportion to their failures or demerits. They could even be helped by the merits of the old saints. Thus they could stand before God on the basis of a certain engagement or covenant, into which God had entered with His people, and claim their due reward.
This utterly demoralizing attitude — leading as it does to formalism and hypocrisy, or, at the best, unprogressive stagnation — this attitude, which left out of sight all the higher and infinite elements in the Old Testament, was the actual attitude of contemporary Pharisaic Jews. The characteristics with which it endowed them were pride in the law; a sense of personal merit coupled with a contempt for 'sinners of the Gentiles,' or the common 'people which knew not the law'; a self-satisfied stagnation which made them utterly resent the new light of the gospel; a regard for the public opinion of their class, which made them slaves to convention; and moral hollowness and rottenness within. It was because this was their attitude that they rejected the Christ. 'Going about to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God.' It was because St. Paul had been brought up in the school of the Pharisees, but had come to perceive its moral rottenness and to accept Jesus as the Christ, that he bases all his doctrine on the substitution of justification by faith for justification by works.
By 'works' or 'works of the law' he means an attitude towards God which left a man largely independent of Him. Under the divine covenant the man of the covenant has a certain task to do, a certain law to keep: that kept, especially in its external requirements as contemporary authority enforces it, he is his own master. He is entitled to resent any further claims upon him. This religious ideal means, as we have seen, pride, stagnation, conventionalism, hypocrisy. And the more it is considered the more unnatural it appears. For
(1) It ignores the fundamental relation of man to God, viz. that, as a creature, he depends absolutely and at every stage on God. He has no initiative in himself. Thus the only attitude towards God which expresses the reality is one in which God is recognized as continually supplying, or promising, or offering, or claiming, and man is continually accepting, or believing, or corresponding, or obeying.
(2) It ignores the ineradicable taint of sin in man, and the accumulated guilt of particular sins. A man may gloss over his inward sinfulness, and cloak and ignore his secret sins; he may live outwardly in high reputation; but if he comes to know himself, he knows himself as a sinner, who depends, at starting, absolutely on God for forgiveness and 'deliverance from coming wrath.'
(3) It is quite contented to leave all mankind, except a small elect body, out of the conditions of acceptance with God.
In substituting 'faith' for works of the law, then, as the principle of justification, St. Paul was really 'returning to nature'; he was realizing facts, and supplying a basis for a morality both progressive and universal. Further, he was true to all the highest teaching of the Old Testament, which continually finds the source and ground of sin and failure in man's independence of God; which is averse to nothing so conspicuously as to substituting external conformity for moral character; which is heavy with the consciousness of sin; which humbly expects a fuller, wider, and richer disclosure of the kingdom of God. Finally, he was true to that deep and summary teaching of our Lord to the Jews, 'This is the work of God, that you believe on him whom he has sent.' No doubt it may still be said St. Paul argues in an 'uncritical' manner on the basis of a particular text. But in doing this he was doing as his Jewish contemporaries did; and if the particular text is used to prove a real or true principle, who shall complain of it?
2. And now to conciliate St. Paul and St. James. It is a satisfactory task, for the statements which appear so contradictory admit, when they are examined, of an easy harmony.
Let us suppose, what is highly probable, that the report of St. Paul's teaching reached St. James at Jerusalem at second-hand, in a fragmentary and perverted manner — perhaps as illustrated by unfortunate specimens of its influence where it was wilfully misunderstood. 'Men are justified before God by faith without consideration of works.' St. James' holy and beautiful, but no doubt somewhat unphilosophical mind, was alarmed and scandalized. By faith he understood an intellectual quality — the acceptance of the divine truth revealed; and he points out with the simplicity of moral common sense, that never in the Old Testament is right belief represented as the ground of acceptance with God without the right conduct which is its natural sequence. Who can deny that the devils have a 'right belief' in the existence of God? Faith, in fact, without works — orthodox belief without moral obedience — is a lifeless form, a body without spirit.
To all this St. Paul would of course have agreed, in St. James' sense of the word faith. In fact, St. James' faith, i.e. bare orthodox belief, is closely akin to, and apt to keep company with, formal ecclesiastical observance, which is part of what St. Paul means by 'works.' Both were characteristic of the Pharisaic Jews. St. Paul and St. James would have been at one in saying, 'There must be life in this dead shell of orthodox belief, if it is to have value with God; and what alone can give it life is the real spirit of moral obedience to the will of the holy and good God' — which is what St. James means by 'works.' The disagreement between them is then, so far, only verbal. But St. Paul goes deeper, into a region where St. James does not follow him, and asks what is the real starting-ground of the truest obedience — the real root of the moral life? And he finds this starting-ground, this fundamental establishment of the right relation to God, in what he called faith; that is, no mere orthodoxy of intellect, but a fundamental relationship of man towards God — the utterly receptive faculty, the profound quality of the self-surrendering will.
3. There is a young philosophical inquirer in Plato's Dialogue of the Republic who is so anxious to get at the ultimate principle of justice, as distinct from its consequences and secondary qualities, that Socrates laughingly tells him he is 'scrubbing and polishing it like a statue.' Now St. Paul has the philosopher's instinct to get at a principle in its pure simplicity. He scrubs faith clean of all extraneous accidents. He is most anxious that we should disengage its activity from all the other closely-interconnected elements in human nature; and so perceive that, whatever a man has been or is in race or conduct or antecedents, once let him exhibit faith, the faith which takes God at His word, and by that very fact and no other, all the obstacles to God's acceptance of him are overcome. The true relation of the man to God is restored in its elementary principle. And nothing but this, however elaborate its apparent performances, can restore the fundamental relationship. It is faith only, and not works, however splendid, which justifies or enables God to take a man, place him among the righteous, and work upon and in him. But this elemental act of simply abandoning independence, trampling on pride and taking God at His word, is an act or attitude of the whole man which necessarily (granted that it be not withdrawn) becomes correspondence of the whole being with God, a lifelong obedience, an allegiance and homage of every faculty of will, and emotion, and intellect. 'Faith,' then, as Calvin once said, 'is pregnant with good works, but it justifies before they are brought forth.'
That the rudimentary justifying faith, on which St. Paul is here insisting, is a developing thing, a living and germinating principle, the basis of a life which grows — but always 'from faith to faith,' from one stage of faith to another — will appear clearly enough as we go on. But even here, in this chapter, it appears already that faith is something quite inconsistent with remaining as we are. Faith looks to a divine promise — a promise of astounding change — and believes that God is able to realize it in us. Such was Abraham's faith. Such, we may add, was the faith of those in the Gospels who came to be healed, and to whom it was said, 'According to your faith be it to you.' Our faith then also must expect and desire some amazing transformation of our human nature, according to a divine promise — nothing less than power out of impotence, life out of death.
And it is from this point of view that the Resurrection is apparently regarded in this chapter, as holding the place it does in the 'scheme' of our justification by faith. We are to believe that God is able to bring life morally out of death. He makes that act of faith possible or easier for us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This evidence of God's power in the case of Jesus, the person on whom our divine faith is to rest, gives an adequate support and reasonable security to our faith. 'He was designated as the Son of God with power, by the resurrection from the dead,' and thus becomes the natural object for such a faith in the power of God to carry out His promises as is necessary for our justification. This is probably the meaning of the particular words with which the fourth chapter closes — 'Who died for our sins (that is, in order that, in virtue of His atoning sacrifice, our sins might be forgiven) and rose again for our justification' (i.e. in order that our faith might have in the risen Lord an adequate object). But of course the relation of faith to the risen Lord is by no means exhausted in this thought.
4. We Englishmen are possessed with the idea that there is nothing so alien to our characters as the temper of the Pharisees or the doctrine of the merit of good works. But if we can look at the matter below the surface, we can hardly fail to realize that the spirit which St. Paul so mightily repudiates lies in some respects very close to our natural instincts. The Englishman has a standard, of his class, his college, his profession, which it is his pride not to fall short of; but he is intensely alarmed at any claim upon his moral independence over and above this allowed standard; he is inclined to turn his back completely upon the idea of fundamental surrender to the unknown and infinite claim of God; he is contented with himself and his standard, and occupies himself in comparing it favourably with the standards of other classes, or still more of other nations. But what is this spirit but, for good or for evil, the spirit of Pharisaism under a wholly different dress? 'They going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God.' 'How can you believe which seek glory one of another, and the glory that comes from the only God you seek not?' 'They measuring themselves by themselves and comparing themselves among themselves are not wise.' Here are typical condemnations of the self-satisfied Pharisaic temper so expressed as to prevent us from supposing that we shall escape condemnation with the Pharisees merely because we do not say long prayers in public places, or distinguish ourselves by a careful ritualism.
 Gen. xv. 5, 6.
 Ps. xxxii.
 Gen. xvii.
 None of the promises are verbally to this effect. But this is the substantial outcome of them.
 Or 'of Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh' (margin).
 1 Macc. ii. 52; cf. Ecclus. xliv. 20.
 James ii. 21, 22.
 Cf. S. and H. p. 101.
 There is contemporary evidence for this illustration of their position; see Ephesians, app. note C.
 James ii. 14-26.
From St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I A Practical Exposition by Charles Gore D.D. Reprinted in 1900. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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To the Romans, vol I - C. Gore
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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