Father Callan’s Commentary on Romans 4:1-8

ABRAHAM WAS JUSTIFIED BY FAITH


A Summary of Romans 4:1-8~
To prove that the Old Testament (see Rom 3:31) had already taught that man was justified by faith and not by works, St. Paul cites the case of Abraham, who was declared just by the Scripture (Gen 15:6), and was regarded by the Jews not only as their father, but as a type of justice (Rom 9:35; Gal 4:22), and as the norm according to which his descendants should model their lives. He then goes on to show that Abraham did not receive his justification as a reward of his works, but as a gratuitous gift through faith. David is likewise cited (Ps 32:1-2) as proclaiming that man blessed whose justice is conferred by God independently of works.


Rom 4:1. What shall we say then that Abraham hath found, who is our father according to the flesh.


What shall we say then
Then (ουν, “therefore”) shows the connection between this and verse 31 of the preceding chapter. If it be true that justification through faith was taught by the Old Testament, how was Abraham justified? by works or by faith? From the following verse it is evident that Abraham’s justification was not by works, but by faith.


According to the flesh
. These words, according to the best authorities, should be joined to our father, thus: “What hath Abraham, our father according to the flesh, found?” i.e., how was he justified? Abraham was called the father of the Jews “according to the flesh” in opposition to a more extensive spiritual paternity which belonged to him by reason of his faith; by faith he became the spiritual father of all who believe.

Some exegetes join the above phrase to hath found, thus: “What hath Abraham found according to the flesh?” i.e., what profit or advantage had Abraham from circumcision? In this interpretation “flesh” means circumcision. Others understand “flesh” to mean works performed by natural strength, hence the meaning would be: “What profit had Abraham in the works performed by his natural strength?” “Before Abraham believed God, what justice do we hear of in him accruing from works?” (Theodoret). This last interpretation is made probable by the sense in which “works” is used in the following verse.


Rom 4:2. For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory,

but not before God.


By works
. There is question here only of natural works performed without the aid of grace. The works of the Law of Moses could not be referred to, since the Law did not exist in Abraham’s time. The sense of the verse, therefore, is: If Abraham were justified by natural works, he would have reason to glory before men, i.e., in the natural order, but not before God, i.e., in the supernatural order of grace, because in that case justification would not be so much a benefit from God as a reward due to Abraham. We know, however, from the Scriptures that Abraham was justified in the supernatural order, and that, consequently, his justification was due to faith and grace, and not to works.


Rom 4:3. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice.

St. Paul now appeals to Scripture (Gen 15:6) to prove whereby Abraham was justified, and he finds there no mention of works, but of faith only; it was, therefore, on account of his faith, and not on acount of his works, that Abraham was declared just by God. We have not, however, in this verse an explanation of the manner in which Abraham acquired his justification; this is the problem which engages the Apostle’s attention in the following verses (Lagrange).


Abraham believed God
, i.e., when God promised him a numerous progeny, although he was without child at the time. Of course, the Apostle is speaking here of the faith which animated the whole life of Abraham, beginning with his vocation (Gen 17:4: Gen 17:15; Gen 4:19-21).


It was reputed
, i.e., it was reckoned (ελογισθη).

The Lutherans pretend to find in this verse a basis for their doctrine of imputed justice, according to which one’s sins are not really pardoned, but only covered by God for Christ’s sake. They say Abraham believed in God, and this faith sufficed that God should declare him just without his actually being so. This is as contrary to the true sense of Gen 15:6, as it is opposed to the doctrine of St. Paul.


Rom 4:4. Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned according to grace, but according to debt.

Rom 4:5. But to him that worketh not, yet believeth in him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reputed to justice, according to the purpose of the grace of God.

In these verses St. Paul adduces an example drawn from daily life to show that Abraham’s justification was not due to works, but was a gratuitous gift of God. A workman, he says, is rewarded not according to favor, i.e., gratuitously, but according to what he deserves in strict justice for his labor. Hence the laborer has a claim to his wages. If, therefore, without works, and only on condition of faith, which is a gratuitous gift of God, one is freely justified, as in the case of Abraham, it cannot be said that one is receiving what is his due; but rather that he is the object of favor and of a gratuitous benefit because of which he has no reason for boasting, either before men or in the sight of God. The works to which St. Paul is referring here, as elsewhere in the same connection, are those which are performed without faith and the help of grace.


(vs 5)
. In him that justifieth, etc., i.e., in God who has the power to render just him who is unjust or sinful.


His faith is reputed
, etc., i.e., his faith is reckoned, etc. Faith does not merit justification, but is the necessary foundation of it. “Nothing of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace itself of justification” (Conc. Trid., Sess. VI. cap. 8).


According to the purpose of the grace of God
, i.e., according to the decree of God’s mercy by which He has determined from all eternity gratuitously to save men through faith in Christ. These words, however, are most probably a gloss, since they are not found in the Greek MSS., nor in any of the versions, except the Latin. Being a marginal explanation of how “faith is reputed,” they at length crept into the text.

In the Vulgate imputantur and reputatur would better be deputatur. Secundum propositum gratiae Dei should be omitted (see previous paragraph).


Rom 4:6. As David also termeth the blessedness of a man, to whom God reputeth justice without works:

In Romans 3:21 St. Paul showed that justification through faith was not something new and strange, having been witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets. Likewise here, after having invoked the authority of the Law, the Apostle adduces a passage of David to prove the gratuitousness of justification. The passage cited is Ps 32:1-2. The royal Prophet composed this Psalm after having done penance for his sins of murder and adultery (2 Sam 12:1-25) and been pardoned by God according to the promise of Nathan. Supposing that sins cannot be remitted without an infusion of sanctifying grace the Apostle argues as follows: David declares his sins remitted without making any mention of works; therefore justification is not due to works, but is a gratuitous gift of God. David believed that God spoke to him through Nathan, and this faith was reputed to him unto justice; hence justification is due to faith and not to works, as explained above.

Here also the Protestants falsely claim to find an argument for their imputed justice. If sins are not imputed by God it means that they do not exist—that they have never existed, or have been forgiven. It is absurd and impious to think that God, who hates sin, could impute justice in any way to one whose sins still existed. The reconciled are holy and unspotted, and blameless before him (Col 1:22).


Rom 4:7. Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.

Rom 4:8. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord hath not imputed sin.


(vss 7, 8)
. Blessed, i.e., happy, because just, free from sin.


Iniquities forgiven, sins covered, not imputed sin
, are synonymous phrases which express in different ways how sins no longer exist in the sight of God. There is question throughout here of sins being forgiven without works and without any merits on the part of the sinner. The example of Abraham illustrates the positive side of justification through the infusion of grace in view of faith, but without regard for works; while the example of David, the justified sinner, shows the negative side, i.e., the forgiveness of sins without works. In both cases, however, faith is supposed, and this shows the connection between the ideas of verses 5-8.

The imputavit of the Vulgate does not so well express the Greek as would imputaret (according to Lagrange).

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