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Bible croppedThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (as cited below).

Romans 4:6-12

just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

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Last week’s post focussed on Romans 3, including these important verses:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

In Romans 4, Paul looks at the justification of Abraham, who was also circumcised — albeit some years later after God chose him to be the father of nations.

Paul’s objective was to convince the Jews that circumcision did not confer salvation or righteousness.

That means that Gentiles could also be justified via faith through grace.

Here are the first five verses of Romans 4:

Abraham Justified by Faith

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Matthew Henry explains (emphases mine):

St. Paul observes in this paragraph when and why Abraham was thus justified; for he has several things to remark upon that. It was before he was circumcised, and before the giving of the law; and there was a reason for both.

I. It was before he was circumcised, Romans 4:10. His faith was counted to him for righteousness while he was in uncircumcision. It was imputed, Genesis 15:6, and he was not circumcised till Genesis 17:1-27. Abraham is expressly said to be justified by faith fourteen years, some say twenty-five years, before he was circumcised. Now this the apostle takes notice of in answer to the question (Romans 4:9), Cometh this blessedness then on the circumcision only, or on the uncircumcision also? Abraham was pardoned and accepted in uncircumcision, a circumstance which, as it might silence the fears of the poor uncircumcised Gentiles, so it might lower the pride and conceitedness of the Jews, who gloried in their circumcision, as if they had the monopoly of all happiness.

John MacArthur has more:

Paul has told us how to be right with God and he said a man is right with God not by what he does but by what he believes, by believing in Jesus Christ and His perfect work. And now it is very important that Abraham be his illustration because this that he has just taught would be unacceptable to the Jewish mind. And so he selects Abraham to make his point.

Let me give you some reasons why. First, Abraham would show the eternal truth of righteousness by grace through faith since Abraham was an Old Testament character. In other words, by using Abraham, Paul is saying this is nothing new, this is something very old. Abraham even preceded Moses. Abraham even preceded the identity of the nation Israel. Abraham really belongs in the patriarchal period, the very primitive time. He appears early on in the book of Genesis. And if Paul can establish that a man in the book of Genesis was saved by grace through faith and not of works, then he has given to us a timeless truth and nothing new at all.

Secondly, he selects Abraham because Abraham is also the supreme example of faith. Nobody in the Old Testament exercised as much or more faith than Abraham. And the New Testament even tells us that Abraham — the book of Galatians tells us — is the father of all who believe. In a very real sense, all who come to God by faith are children of Abraham, who sort of set the standard for faith by believing God in a most incredible way.

Abraham obeyed God without question. He left his extended family to go to a new land. He believed that his wife Sarah would bear a son, even when she had been barren and long past child-bearing age. He was willing to sacrifice his only son for God, although God relented in that test of faith.

Here is a bit more about Abram/Abraham from MacArthur:

Abram was his name first. It means “exalted father.” God changed his name to Abraham which means “the father of many nations,” for He had given him that promise. And it was twofold. Physically from the loins of Abraham would come multitudes of people, millions of people. The Semitic world, Arab and Jew alike, descended from Abraham. Genesis 17, the first 8 verses, talk about how God said Abraham will produce generations of people. In fact, it is said that they would be as the sand of the sea, or the stars of the heavens. He was the father of many, but not only physically, spiritually as well; for he is the father of all those who are of faith. He is the pattern established, and all others who put their faith in God follow the pattern of their father, Abraham.

Galatians makes this abundantly clear. Paul, writing in chapter 3 verse 6, says: “Even as Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness, know ye therefore that they who are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham, and the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham saying, in thee shall all nations be blessed, so then they who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”

So, not only did Abraham in a sense produce physical seed, but as well set the standard for spiritual production. And so, as millions follow his directive of faith, they occupy a place uniquely identified in the Scripture as children of Abraham. And that is because he is the example of justification by faith. And Paul makes that point in Romans and as I noted, he makes it in Galatians because it is so very important.

The Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion have liturgical prayers that mention Abraham as being ‘our father in faith’.

In verses 6 – 8, Paul mentions David in his discourse by citing Psalm 32:1-2. It is further proof that we are justified by faith, not works. None of our works can ever measure up to righteousness, because we are always imperfect, always prone to sin. We need God’s infinite grace at all times.

MacArthur provides the background to David’s life in the context of Psalm 32. David had committed adultery by the time he wrote it:

Now, basically you have in verse 7 a sinner characterized by iniquity and sin, you have in verse 8 a sinner characterized by sin, and in both cases the Lord forgives and does not hold that sin against the person. So, we know that that didn’t happen by works because both verses define the individual as a what? As a sinner. So how can you say a sinner is blessed? Well, you can only say that if he’s been forgiven, or if the Lord does not put his sin to his account, and that is exactly the case. And it doesn’t come by works, it comes by faith. You see, the truly blessed man is the one who is forgiven of his sin. And by the way, this is a quote from Psalm 32 verses 1 and 2. And believe me, at that juncture of David’s life, he knew guilt. He had been involved in an adultery. He had been involved in what amounts to murder. He had desecrated his throne and the sanctity of his own virtue. He was a vile wretched sinner. In Psalm 51, he went through such agony and such pain. He felt as if God had abandoned him. He was under the horrible experience of guilt. He says in Psalm 32 that his life juices dried up, and that’s what happens when guilt occurs. Saliva, one of the life juices, dries up. Anxiety creates pressure in the head that restricts the flow of the blood, another of the life juices. And the lymphatic system is affected and the nervous system is affected and he began to be old before his time and he began to ache in his joints and he began to be sick. Guilt does that.

And then in the midst of all of that he experienced the goodness of God. No wonder he said twice, “Blessed is the man.” “Blessed is the man whose sins the Lord forgives.” “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute sin.” That’s the truly blessed man. He knows forgiveness. And so David supports Paul’s point. And it’s helpful for us to know that Abraham was a pre-Mosaic figure, David was a Mosaic figure. Abraham predates the clear definition of the Mosaic covenant and so we see that God redeems people pre-Mosaic by faith. David shows us that God redeems people in the Mosaic era by faith. And the New Testament carries it into our own era. Always at all times redemption is a matter of faith resulting in imputed righteousness.

Paul then asks the Jews if imputed righteousness is only for the circumcised, then, how was Abraham included when he was not circumcised yet God found him to be righteous (verses 9, 10)?

Paul answers his question by saying that Abraham’s circumcision was the ‘seal’ of his righteousness before God. Furthermore, as he was righteous in God’s eyes before his circumcision, then, He would consider other uncircumcised men to also be righteous (verse 11).

Therefore, Abraham became not only the father of the circumcised, but also of the uncircumcised who walk in his same journey of obedience in faith through grace (verse 12).

Henry says that sacraments are the seals of the covenant that has been agreed between God and man, thanks to the blood that Jesus shed on our behalf:

The tenour of the covenants must first be settled before the seal can be annexed. Sealing supposes a previous bargain, which is confirmed and ratified by that ceremony. After Abraham’s justification by faith had continued several years only a grant by parole, for the confirmation of Abraham’s faith God was pleased to appoint a sealing ordinance, and Abraham received it; though it was a bloody ordinance, yet he submitted to it, and even received it as a special favour, the sign of circumcision, &c. Now we may hence observe, (1.) The nature of sacraments in general: they are signs and seals–signs to represent and instruct, seals to ratify and confirm. They are signs of absolute grace and favour; they are seals of the conditional promises; nay, they are mutual seals: God does in the sacraments seal to us to be to us a God, and we do therein seal to him to be to him a people. (2.) The nature of circumcision in particular: it was the initiating sacrament of the Old Testament; and it is here said to be, [1.] A sign–a sign of that original corruption which we are all born with, and which is cut off by spiritual circumcision,–a commemorating sign of God’s covenant with Abraham,–a distinguishing sign between Jews and Gentiles,–a sign of admission into the visible church,–a sign prefiguring baptism, which comes in the room of circumcision, now under the gospel, when (the blood of Christ being shed) all bloody ordinances are abolished; it was an outward and sensible sign of an inward and spiritual grace signified thereby. [2.] A seal of the righteousness of the faith. In general, it was a seal of the covenant of grace, particularly of justification by faith–the covenant of grace, called the righteousness which is of faith (Romans 10:6), and it refers to an Old-Testament promise, Deuteronomy 30:12.

What does this mean in a Christian context? The grace God confers on us in the Sacraments enables us to live a holy life, which we are obliged to do in faith.

This is Henry’s caveat about the Jews of Paul’s day and ourselves as Christians:

See here who are the genuine children and lawful successors of those that were the church’s fathers: not those that sit in their chairs, and bear their names, but those that tread in their steps; this is the line of succession, which holds, notwithstanding interruptions. It seems, then, those were most loud and forward to call Abraham father that had least title to the honours and privileges of his children. Thus those have most reason to call Christ Father, not that bear his name in being Christians in profession, but that tread in his steps.

The sacraments and holy ordinances impart grace, although they are not salvific in and of themselves, as MacArthur explains:

Listen very carefully. Many people today are basing their salvation from eternal hellfire on some infant baptism, or some confirmation, or some adult baptism, or some communion involvement, or some religious rite and ceremony. There are many people who call themselves Christians in our society who even would call themselves evangelical, who actually believe that their children are secured eternally for the covenant by infant baptism. And many are hoping in their religious rites, and though they be not circumcision they be basically the same perspective. They parallel …

So, Paul is dealing with a bigger picture than at first we might understand. And he’s dealing with the issue that religious rites and ceremonies do not justify, and when saying that he talks to our time.

Ultimately:

We are saved by grace through what? Faith. These symbols are only symbols and signs. You say, “Well, can I get to heaven if I haven’t been baptized?” Yes. You say, “Then I don’t have to be baptized!” No. “Why?” Because baptism is an act of… You say it: obedience. And if you have confessed Jesus as Lord you will what? Obey Him, and it becomes the point of your testimonyAnd that’s what Paul is teaching us.

Obedience to God characterised Abraham’s life. Jesus was — and is — fully obedient to His Father.

Let us, therefore, obey Him, too.

Next time — Romans 5:20-21

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