THE UNIVERSALITY OF JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH IS PROVED BY THE EXAMPLE OF ABRAHAM, WHO WAS JUSTIFIED BEFORE CIRCUMCISION
A Summary of Romans 4:9-16~After having proved, by the example of Abraham and the words of the Psalmist, that justification is a gratuitous gift to those who believe, the Apostle now demonstrates its universality by an appeal to the same authorities. It extends to the circumcised and to the uncircumcised alike, as is clear from the case of Abraham, who was justified by faith before he was circumcised, and afterwards received that rite in confirmation of the righteousness he had obtained through faith in order that he might be the father of all who would believe, whether Jew or Gentile. For the promises were not given under law, but under a state of justice which was due to faith. If the inheritance of Abraham is conditioned by the Law, then Abraham’s faith is without effect, and the promises made to him by reason of his faith are annulled, because the effect of the Law is wrath. But God made faith the condition of the promises given to Abraham and his seed, that is, to all believers, in order that they might never be annulled.
Rom 4:9. This blessedness then, doth it remain in the circumcision only, or in the uncircumcision also? For we say that unto Abraham faith was reputed to justice.
The Apostle now asks if the blessedness of justification through faith which the Psalmist extols for the circumcised, i.e., for the Jews, is applicable also to the uncircumcised, i.e., to the Gentiles. First of all, it may be noted that David’s words are general, making no distinction or restriction. Further, Scripture gives the answer; for in Gen 15:6 we are told that Abraham, who had not received circumcision, was justified by faith regardless of works. The case of Abraham, therefore, proves the universality of justification by faith for all, Jews and Gentiles, without the works of the Law.
Rom 4:10. How then was it reputed? When he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
St. Paul asks in this verse whether Abraham was justified before or after circumcision; and he replies that the Patriarch was justified before he was circumcised. Abraham’s justification is narrated in Gen 15:6, and his circumcision, some fourteen years later, is recorded in Gen 17:24. Hence, as said above, justification by faith, without the works of the Law, is possible to all, Gentiles as well as Jews.
St. Jerome, St. Chrysostom and others have thought that Paul was not alluding here to the first justification of Abraham, since it seems quite impossible to suppose that the Patriarch had remained a sinner up to the time indicated in Gen 15:6. Abraham was certainly the friend of God when he left Chaldea. Estius has, therefore, suggested that the Apostle is speaking here of progress in justification; but this seems unlikely, because the Apostle is speaking of justification in an absolute sense. St. Thomas has carefully avoided indicating any time for Abraham’s justification other than that it was anterior to his reception of circumcision; and this is really the only point St. Paul is wishing to make. Abraham was a type of justification before he was circumcised. The first mention in Scripture of the Patriarch’s justification was prior to his reception of circumcision, and that is all the Apostle is concerned with.
Rom 4:11. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the justice of
the faith, which he had, being uncircumcised ; that he might be the father of all them that believe, being uncircumcised, that unto them also it may be reputed to justice:
If circumcision had no part in the justification of Abraham, why did he receive it? The Apostle here tells us. Abraham received circumcision as an external sign or seal of the justification which he had before received by faith. A seal was an external sign fixed to a contract which guaranteed the mutual agreement of the contracting parties. Seals of clay attached to objects were an indication of property or possession (Lagrange). Accordingly, circumcision was a seal of the alliance or contract between God and His people, a sign showing that a man belonged to Yahweh, that he was the property of Yahweh. It was also, as here stated, a seal or guarantee of the justification received through faith, i.e., of the justification of which faith is the beginning.
That he might be, etc. (εις το εινα) governs all that follows in this and the next verse. Hence the meaning is that by justifying Abraham before circumcision God wished to make him the father and model of all the Gentiles who would believe, as well as of all the believing Jews; so that justification might come to all as it came to him, namely, through faith. The paternity of Abraham, therefore, was not only carnal and national, but also spiritual and universal, extending to all believers.
Rom 4:12. And might be the father of circumcision; not to them only, that are of the circumcision, but to them also that follow the steps of the faithful, that is in the uncircumcision of our father Abraham.
Abraham received circumcision that he might also be the spiritual father of the Jews, or of the circumcised, provided they imitated the faith which he had before he was circumcised. Circumcision of the flesh and carnal descent from Abraham, if they are not accompanied by faith, do not give the Jews any right to regard him as their spiritual father. “Then will you have Abraham for your father, when you walk in the steps of his faith” (St. Chrysostom).
The reading of the Vulgate is not exact here. We should read sed et ipsi in place of sed et iis qui (Cornely).
Rom 4:13. 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 justice of faith.
Since the giving of the Law intervened between the promise and its realization, it might appear that the observance of the Law was a condition of inheriting the promise. But it was not on account of Abraham’s observance of the Law (which did not exist at the time), but on account of the justification he received through faith that God promised to him and to his posterity the inheritance of the world. Hence it is not the Law of Moses, but faith, that gives the right to have part in the promises made to Abraham and his spiritual children. To make a promise given to faith depend on the Law is to nullify faith; the function of the Law was to emphasize the nature of sin, and thereby work wrath.
The promise which God made to Abraham and his descendants was the land of Canaan (Gen 13:15; Gen 18:8), which was a figure or symbol of the Messianic kingdom and of all the spiritual blessings and benefits of that kingdom; for God also promised that in Abraham and in his seed, i.e., in the Messiah who would be born of the line of Abraham, all the nations of the earth should be blessed (Gen 12:3-7; Gen 18:18; Gen 22:17-18).
The aut of the Vulgate here is equivalent to et, because the Greek η after a negative amounts to a copulative conjunction.
Rom 4:14. For if they who are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, the promise is made of no effect.
It is clear from the preceding verse that the promises made to Abraham did not depend on the Law of Moses, but rather that they pertained to all who would imitate the faith of Abraham. And if it were otherwise, if the heirs of the promise were only those who observed the precepts of the Mosaic Law, faith would be made void and rendered useless, because in that case the inheritance would be a reward due to works. Likewise the promise would be abolished, because it was a unilateral contract by which God freely and gratuitously bound Himself to give the inheritance to those who would have faith; whereas justification by the Law would imply a bilateral contract between the people who pledged themselves to observe the Law, and God who pledged Himself to give the inheritance. Thus, contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, neither justification nor the inheritance would be from faith and a gratuitous gift of God (Sales).
Rom 4:15. For the law worketh wrath. For where there is no law, neither is there transgression.
Another proof that the promise and the inheritance did not depend on the observance of the Law is drawn from the very nature of the Law, which gave no help for its own observance, but made man a transgressor, and thus a violator of the conditions needed on his part for obtaining the promise and the inheritance. By commanding some things and forbidding others the Law was the indirect cause, or the occasion of sin, and consequently of divine wrath, because it did not give the help and strength necessary to carry out its commands and prohibitions. That the Law was not observed is clear from Chapter 2. Hence if the Law had anything to do with the promise, it would be only an obstacle to the latter’s fulfillment.
For where there is no law, etc., i.e., where there is an absolute promise, not dependent on the observance of the Law, there can be no prevarication which would prevent God from fulfilling His promise (Cornely).
Transgression means a sin committed against the positive law given after the alliance between God and man was entered into. That which especially excited the divine anger was not so much sin in itself, as transgression, or the violation of the positive contract made with God (St. Aug., St. Thomas, etc.). Cornely objects to this opinion and says that sin in itself, i.e., the violation of the natural law, excited the divine anger, and that transgression only caused greater indignation on the part of God. At any rate, if the promises depended on the actual observance of the Law, the non-observance of the latter would have frustrated all hope of the fulfillment of the former.
The enim of the Vulgate is according to γαρ, instead of δε, of the Greek. The reading γαρ is to be preferred (Nestle).
Rom 4:16. Therefore is it of faith, that according to grace the promise might be firm 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,
Since the promise could not be realized if it depended on the observance of the Law, God made it depend on faith, a gift of God, so that it might be a gift according to grace, i.e., entirely gratuitous, and firm, i.e., absolute, not dependent on any condition; and that it might extend to all the seed, i.e., to all Jews and Gentiles, who would imitate the faith of Abraham. The Law is excluded in order that the promise may be entirely the work of grace, and that it may be assured to all.
St. Paul, although writing to the Romans, who were mostly of Gentile origin, speaks of Abraham as the father of us all, because the great Patriarch was in fact the spiritual father of all, Gentiles as well as Jews, who imitate his faith.
The Vulgate ut secundum gratiam firma sit should be ut secundum gratiam, ut firma sit, so as to distinguish the two finalities of the promise (Lagrange).