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Romans iv. 1-12

THE Jewish disputant is present still to the Apostle's thought. It could not be otherwise in this argument. No question was more pressing on the Jewish mind than that of Acceptance; thus far, truly, the teaching and discipline of the Old Testament had not been in vain. And St Paul had not only, in his Christian Apostleship, debated that problem countless times with Rabbinic combatants; he had been himself a Rabbi, and knew by experience alike the misgivings of the Rabbinist's conscience, and the subterfuges of his reasoning.

So now there rises before him the great name of Abraham, as a familiar watchword of the controversy of Acceptance. He has been contending for an absolutely inclusive verdict of "guilty" against man, against every man. He has been shutting with all his might the doors of thought against human "boasting," against the least claim of man to have merited his acceptance. Can he carry this principle into quite impartial issues? Can he, a Jew in presence of Jews, apply it without apology, without reserve, to "the Friend of God" himself? What will he say to that majestic Example of man? His name itself sounds like a claim to almost 104 worship. As he moves across the scene of Genesis, we—even we Gentiles—rise up as it were in reverent homage, honouring this figure at once so real and so near to the ideal; marked by innumerable lines of individuality, totally unlike the composed picture of legend or poem, yet walking with God Himself in a personal intercourse so habitual, so tranquil, so congenial. Is this a name to becloud with the assertion that here, as everywhere, acceptance was hopeless but for the clemency of God, "gift-wise, without deeds of law"? Was not at least Abraham accepted because he was morally worthy of acceptance? And if Abraham, then surely, in abstract possibility, others also. There must be a group of men, small or large, there is at least one man, who can "boast" of his peace with God.

On the other hand, if with Abraham it was not thus, then the inference is easy to all other men. Who but he is called "the Friend" (2 Chron. xx. 7, Isai. xli. 8)? Moses himself, the almost deified Lawgiver, is but "the Servant," trusted, intimate, honoured in a sublime degree by his eternal Master. But he is never called "the Friend." That peculiar title seems to preclude altogether the question of a legal acceptance. Who thinks of his friend as one whose relation to him needs to be good in law at all? The friend stands as it were behind law, or above it, in respect of his fellow. He holds a relation implying personal sympathies, identity of interests, contact of thought and will, not an anxious previous settlement of claims, and remission of liabilities. If then the Friend of the Eternal Judge proves, nevertheless, to have needed Justification, and to have received it by the channel not of his personal worth but of the grace of God, there will be little hesitation about other 105 men's need, and the way by which alone other men shall find it met.

In approaching this great example, for such it will prove to be, St Paul is about to illustrate all the main points of his inspired argument. By the way, by implication, he gives us the all-important fact that even an Abraham, even "the Friend," did need justification somehow. Such is the eternal Holy One that no man can walk by His side and live, no, not in the path of inmost "friendship," without an acceptance before His face as He is Judge. Then again, such is He, that even an Abraham found this acceptance, as a matter of fact, not by merit but by faith; not by presenting himself, but by renouncing himself, and taking God for all; by pleading not, "I am worthy," but, "Thou art faithful." It is to be shewn that Abraham's justification was such that it gave him not the least ground for self-applause; it was not in the least degree based on merit. It was "of grace, not of debt." A promise of sovereign kindness, connected with the redemption of himself, and of the world, was made to him. He was not morally worthy of such a promise, if only because he was not morally perfect. And he was, humanly speaking, physically incapable of it. But God offered Himself freely to Abraham, in His promise; and Abraham opened the empty arms of personal reliance to receive the unearned gift. Had he stayed first to earn it he would have shut it out; he would have closed his arms. Rightly renouncing himself, because seeing and trusting his gracious God, the sight of whose holy glory annihilates the idea of man's claims, he opened his arms, and the God of peace filled the void. The man received his God's approval, because he interposed nothing of his own to intercept it.


From one point of view, the all-important view-point here, it mattered not what Abraham's conduct had been. As a fact, he was already devout when the incident of Gen. xv. occurred. But he was also actually a sinner; that is made quite plain by Gen. xii., the very chapter of the Call. And potentially, according to Scripture, he was a great sinner; for he was an instance of the human heart. But this, while it constituted Abraham's urgent need of acceptance, was not in the least a barrier to his acceptance, when he turned from himself, in the great crisis of absolute faith, and accepted God in His promise.

The principle of the acceptance of "the Friend" was identically that which underlies the acceptance of the most flagrant transgressor. As St Paul will soon remind us, David in the guilt of his murderous adultery, and Abraham in the grave walk of his worshipping obedience, stand upon the same level here. Actually or potentially, each is a great sinner. Each turns from himself, unworthy, to God in His promise. And the promise is his, not because his hand is full of merit, but because it is empty of himself.

It is true that Abraham's justification, unlike David's, is not explicitly connected in the narrative with a moral crisis of his soul. He is not depicted, in Gen. xv., as a conscious penitent, flying from justice to the Judge. But is there not a deep suggestion that something not unlike this did then pass over him, and through him? That short assertion, that "he trusted the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness," is an anomaly in the story, if it has not a spiritual depth hidden in it. Why, just then and there, should we be told this about his acceptance with God? Is it not because the vastness of the promise had made the man see in contrast 107 the absolute failure of a corresponding merit in himself? Job (xlii. 1-6) was brought to self-despairing penitence not by the fires of the Law but by the glories of Creation. Was not Abraham brought to the same consciousness, whatever form it may have taken in his character and period, by the greater glories of the Promise? Surely it was there and then that he learnt that secret of self-rejection in favour of God which is the other side of all true faith, and which came out long years afterwards, in its mighty issues of "work," when he laid Isaac on the altar.4646On St James' use of that great incident, see detached note, p. 115.

It is true, again, that Abraham's faith, his justifying reliance, is not connected in the narrative with any articulate expectation of an atoning Sacrifice. But here first we dare to say, even at the risk of that formidable charge, an antique and obsolete theory of the Patriarchal creed, that probably Abraham knew much more about the Coming One than a modern critique will commonly allow. "He rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad" (John viii. 56). And further, the faith which justifies, though what it touches in fact is the blessed Propitiation, or rather God in the Propitiation, does not always imply an articulate knowledge of the whole "reason of the hope." It assuredly implies a true submission to all that the believer knows of the revelation of that reason. But he may (by circumstances) know very little of it, and yet be a believer. The saint who prayed (Psal. cxliii. 2) "Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord, for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified," cast himself upon a God who, being absolutely holy, yet can somehow, just as He is, justify the sinner. Perhaps 108 he knew much of the reason of Atonement, as it lies in God's mind, and as it is explained, as it is demonstrated, in the Cross. But perhaps he did not. What he did was to cast himself up to the full light he had, "without one plea," upon his Judge, as a man awfully conscious of his need, and trusting only in a sovereign mercy, which must also be a righteous, a law-honouring mercy, because it is the mercy of the Righteous Lord.

Let us not be mistaken, meanwhile, as if such words meant that a definite creed of the Atoning Work is not possible, or is not precious. This Epistle will help us to such a creed, and so will Galatians, and Hebrews, and Isaiah, and Leviticus, and the whole Scripture. "Prophets and kings desired to see the things we see, and did not see them" (Luke x. 24). But that is no reason why we should not adore the mercy that has unveiled to us the Cross and the blessed Lamb.

But it is time to come to the Apostle's words as they stand.

What then shall we say that Abraham has found—"has found," the perfect tense of abiding and always significant fact—"has found," in his great discovery of divine peace—our forefather, according to the flesh? "According to the flesh"; that is to say, (having regard to the prevailing moral use of the word "flesh" in this Epistle,) "in respect of self," "in the region of his own works and merits."4747We see much reason, however, in the explanation which connects κατὰ σάρκα with πατέρα(or προπάτορα) ἡμῶν: "our father according to the flesh," our natural progenitor. For if Abraham was justified as a result of works, he has a boast; he has a right to self-applause. Yes, such is the principle indicated here; if man merits, man is 109 entitled to self-applause. May we not say, in passing, that the common instinctive sense of the moral discord of self-applause, above all in spiritual things, is one among many witnesses to the truth of our justification by faith only? But St Paul goes on; Ah, but not towards God; not when even an Abraham looks Him in the face, and sees himself in that Light. As if to say, "If he earned justification, he might have boasted rightly; but 'rightful boasting,' when man sees God, is a thing unthinkable; therefore his justification was given, not earned." For what says the Scripture, the passage, the great text (Gen. xv. 6)? "Now Abraham believed4848In the Greek, ἐπίστευσε stands first in the clause, and is thus emphatic. God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to the man who works, his () reward, his earned requital,4949Not that μισθὸς always gives the thought of earning as a right. It may mean merely "result, issue," however realized. See e.g. 2 John 8. But the context here decides the reference. is not reckoned grace-wise, as a gift of generosity, but debt-wise; it is to the man who does not work, but believes, confides, in Him who justifies the ungodly one, that "his faith is reckoned as righteousness." "The ungodly one"; as if to bring out by an extreme case the glory of the wonderful paradox. "The ungodly," the ἀσεβής, is undoubtedly a word intense and dark; it means not the sinner only, but the open, defiant sinner. Every human heart is capable of such sinfulness, for "the heart is deceitful above all things." In this respect, as we have seen, in the potential respect, even an Abraham is a great sinner. But there are indeed "sinners and sinners," in the experiences of life; and St Paul is ready now with a conspicuous example of 110 the justification of one who was truly, at one miserable period, by his own fault, "an ungodly one."

"Thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme" (2 Sam. xii. 14). He had done so indeed. The faithful photography of the Scriptures shews us David, the chosen, the faithful, the man of spiritual experiences, acting out his lustful look in adultery, and half covering his adultery with the most base of constructive murders, and then, for long months, refusing to repent. Yet was David justified: "I have sinned against the Lord"; "The Lord also hath put away thy sin." He turned from his awfully ruined self to God, and at once he received remission. Then, and to the last, he was chastised. But then and there he was unreservedly justified, and with a justification which made him sing a loud beatitude.

Just as David too speaks his felicitation (τὸν μακαρισμὸν) of the man (and it was himself) to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works, "Happy they whose iniquities have been remitted, and whose sins have been covered; happy the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin" (Psal. xxxii. 1, 2). Wonderful words, in the context of the experience out of which they spring! A human soul which has greatly transgressed, and which knows it well, and knows too that to the end it will suffer a sore discipline because of it, for example and humiliation, nevertheless knows its pardon, and knows it as a happiness indescribable. The iniquity has been "lifted"; the sin has been "covered," has been struck out of the book of "reckoning," written by the Judge. The penitent will never forgive himself; in this very Psalm he tears from his sin all the covering woven by his own heart. But his God has given him remission, 111 has reckoned him as one who has not sinned, so far as access to Him and peace with Him are in question. And so his song of shame and penitence begins with a beatitude, and ends with a cry of joy.

We pause to note the exposition implied here of the phrase, "to reckon righteousness." It is to treat the man as one whose account is clear. "Happy the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin." In the phrase itself, "to reckon righteousness," (as in its Latin equivalent, "to impute righteousness,") the question, what clears the account, is not answered. Suppose the impossible case of a record kept absolutely clear by the man's own sinless goodness; then the "reckoned," the "imputed, righteousness" would mean the Law's contentment with him on his own merits. But the context of human sin fixes the actual reference to an "imputation" which means that the awfully defective record is treated, for a divinely valid reason, as if it were, what it is not, good. The man is at peace with his Judge, though he has sinned, because the Judge has joined him to Himself, and taken up his liability, and answered for it to His own Law. The man is dealt with as righteous, being a sinner, for his glorious Redeemer's sake. It is pardon, but more than pardon. It is no mere indulgent dismissal; it is a welcome as of the worthy to the embrace of the Holy One.

Such is the Justification of God. We shall need to remember it through the whole course of the Epistle. To make Justification a mere synonym for Pardon is always inadequate. Justification is the contemplation and treatment of the penitent sinner, found in Christ, as righteous, as satisfactory to the Law, not merely as one whom the Law lets go. Is this a fiction? Not at 112 all. It is vitally linked to two great spiritual facts. One is, that the sinner's Friend has Himself dealt, in the sinner's interests, with the Law, honouring its holy claim to the uttermost under the human conditions which He freely undertook. The other is that he has mysteriously, but really, joined the sinner to Himself, in faith, by the Spirit; joined him to Himself as limb, as branch, as bride. Christ and His disciples are really One in the order of spiritual life. And so the community between Him and them is real, the community of their debt on the one side, of His merit on the other.

Now again comes up the question, never far distant in St Paul's thought, and in his life, what these facts of Justification have to do with Gentile sinners. Here is David blessing God for his unmerited acceptance, an acceptance by the way wholly unconnected with the ritual of the altar. Here above all is Abraham, "justified in consequence of faith." But David was a child of the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham was the father of that covenant. Do not their justifications speak only to those who stand, with them, inside that charmed circle? Was not Abraham justified by faith plus circumcision? Did not the faith act only because he was already one of the privileged? This felicitation therefore, this cry of "Happy are the freely justified," is it upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision? For we say that to Abraham, with an emphasis5050By the position of the name in the Greek sentence. on "Abraham," his faith was reckoned as righteousness. The question, he means, is legitimate, "for" Abraham is not at first sight a case in point for the justification of the outside world, the non-privileged races of man. But consider: How 113 then was it reckoned? To Abraham in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision; fourteen years at least had to pass before the covenant rite came in. And he received the sign of circumcision, (with a stress upon "sign," as if to say that the "thing," the reality signed, was his already,) as a seal on the righteousness of the faith that was in his circumcision, a seal on the acceptance which he received, antecedent to all formal privilege, in that bare hand of faith. And all this was so, and was recorded so, with a purpose of far-reaching significance: that he might be father, exemplar, representative, of all who believe notwithstanding uncircumcision,5151Διὰ ἀκροβυστίας: as if passing through its seeming obstacle. that to them righteousness should be reckoned; and father of circumcision, exemplar and representative within its circle also, for those who do not merely belong to circumcision, but for those5252So the Greek precisely. But practically the words "for those" may be omitted here. who also step in the track of the uncircumcision-faith of our father Abraham.

So privilege had nothing to do with acceptance, except to countersign the grant of a grace absolutely free. The Seal did nothing whatever to make the Covenant. It only verified the fact, and guaranteed the bona fides of the Giver. As the Christian Sacraments are, so was the Patriarchal Sacrament; it was "a sure testimony and effectual sign of God's grace and good will."5353See Article xxv. But the grace and the good will come not through the Sacrament as through a medium, but straight from God to the man who took God at His word. "The means whereby he received," the mouth with which he fed upon the celestial food, "was faith."5454See Article xxviii. The rite came 114 not between the man and his accepting Lord, but as it were was present at the side to assure him with a physical concurrent fact that all was true. "Nothing between" was the law of the great transaction; nothing, not even a God-given ordinance; nothing but the empty arms receiving the Lord Himself;—and empty arms indeed put "nothing between."


Detached Note to Chapter X

The following is extracted from the Commentary on this Epistle in "The Cambridge Bible" (p. 261).

"[What shall we say to] the verbal discrepancy between St Paul's explicit teaching that 'a man is justified by faith without works,' and St James' equally explicit teaching that 'by works a man is justified, and not by faith only'? With only the New Testament before us, it is hard not to assume that the one Apostle has in view some distortion of the doctrine of the other. But the fact (see Lightfoot's Galatians, detached note to ch. iii.) that Abraham's faith was a staple Rabbinic text alters the case, by making it perfectly possible that St James (writing to members of the Jewish Dispersion) had not Apostolic but Rabbinic teaching in view. And the line such teaching took is indicated by Jas. ii. 19, where an example is given of the faith in question; and that example is concerned wholly with the grand point of strictly Jewish orthodoxyGod is One.... The persons addressed [were thus those whose] idea of faith was not trustful acceptance, a belief of the heart, but orthodox adherence, a belief of the head. And St James [took] these persons strictly on their own ground, and assumed, for his argument, their own very faulty account of faith to be correct.

"He would thus be proving the point, equally dear to St Paul, that mere theoretic orthodoxy, apart from effects on the will, is valueless. He would not, in the remotest degree, be disputing the Pauline doctrine that the guilty soul is put into a position of acceptance with the Father only by vital connexion with the Son, and that this connexion is effectuated, absolutely and alone, 116 not by personal merit, but by trustful acceptance of the Propitiation and its all-sufficient vicarious merit. From such trustful acceptance 'works' (in the profoundest sense) will inevitably follow; not as antecedents but as consequents of justification. And thus ... 'it is faith alone which justifies; but the faith which justifies can never be alone.'"

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