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clared purpose of the whole scheme of grace to shut the mouths of men, and reduce them to silence and implicit dependence on grace. “And I will establish my covenant with thee, and thou shalt know that I am the Lord; that thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God.” Ezek. xvi. 62, 63. Forbearing further quotation, we may see that our apostle, who drew his theology from elder scripture, proceeds on sound warrant, when he assumes that glorying is prohibited. His axiom is perfectly sure. There must be no glorying. Therefore Abraham was not justified by works, because in that case he could have gloried, a thing that cannot be.
The clause, “but not before God,” is difficult to understand. The commentators have recourse to various shifts to dispose of it suitably to the general argument. Some suppose a supply of words needful to supplement it, and accordingly expand it to mean “ but he has not room to boast before God." The critical reader must consult authorities for himself. What we draw attention to the clause for is, to enter our protest against the use which some have put it to, as if it meant to distinguish Abraham's standing with men as contrasted with his relation to God. Candour obliges us to say that it sounds as if it favoured such a distinction. Accordingly some have boldly adopted the explanation, that the patriarch was honour-worthy with men and justified by works, so far as they were concerned, but that he could not hold up his face before God. Without envying Abraham the honour due to him, we cannot consent to grant him this proud position, to be justified by works
We know his history too well to allow this. He was but a sinner, in relation to men, even after he was justified by the grace of God. The idolater's son (Josh. xxiv. 2, 3) was guilty of social faults after he was freed from religious errors. When danger was apprehended on Sarah's account, he lacked moral courage to keep to the plain truth, and told a specious and truth-seeming lie. He was willing to risk his wife's person and honour and bring sin upon individuals and cities already deep enough in crime, rather than tell the truth and face the consequence. He distrusted God, who was engaged to defend him, and had recourse to ingenious falsehood. And he was weak enough, after he had once done so, and been reproved upon detection, deliberately to do it again. Knowing these his social blots, if indeed these be all, we cannot admit that he was justified by works as it respected men. As it respects God he was upon a level with any sinner of us all, since all the world is guilty. And though he might be of purer character, socially considered, than most of his compeers, yet he could not challenge their unqualified approval. These facts being against him, we cannot interpret the clause in hand as some have done. We
think it means only that he was not justified by works, and had no ground of boasting before God, without any reference to his standing or his reputation with men.
Verse 3. “For what saith the scripture ? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." The appeal to scripture was beautifully appropriate, as there was a considerable Jewish element in the church that received this epistle. In dealing with either Jew or Gentile, the ultimate appeal in matters of theological doctrine must be to those venerable writings that bear on them the hoar of ages and show the stamp of inspiration. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God." 1 Pet. iv. 2.
The first argument was substantially from scripture, since the axiom it tacitly borrowed is found in Holy Writ. But this before us is expressly scriptural, with the solemnity of an appeal and the formality of a quotation. Gen. xv. 6, is the place quoted. “ And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to bim for righteous
What did Abraham believe? He believed the promise, there and then made to him, as he stood abroad from his habitation under the glowing firmament of night thick set with stars. The promise was that he should have a son, one particular son, and through him a posterity numerous as the lights that over-arched him. This promise was made to him at a time when the vigour of his body was well nigh faded, and his heart yearned in its desolateness for some offspring to inherit his wealth and bear his name to coming times. He had opened his mind on this subject in terms bordering upon despondency, when the Lord told him he would raise him up a seed that would baffle arithmetic to reckon. This promise he believed. Was Christ included in this promise ? In the mind of God he was. But did Abraham's faith recognise Christ in it, and reach the atonement that was to be made ? If it did not just then it did at an after period, when that promised son was given back to him from the very brink of death, “in a figure,” as a type of Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Perhaps at the time the promise was made he was partly dark as to its import. But he believed it with all that it involved. And it was counted to him for righteousness—it, his faith was counted. That faith had reference to his seed, and his seed, as an apostle has told us, was Christ. His faith was accepted for righteousness out of respect to Christ, its ultimate object, whether his mind apprehended him at that time or not, -a matter we cannot so easily determine. We know there is no justification apart from Christ. It is not the act of faith that justifies. It is not the virtue, merit, or moral excellence of faith that brings us into Divine favour, but the object that faith looks to, leans on, and holds fast by,--namely, Jesus the Saviour. This faith of his was counted for righteousness. Two questions more we ask on this verse. The first is,
What is righteousness ? It is one of two things; either it means complete obedience which spans the full demands of law, or it means justification, which such perfect rectitude would enable a man toclaim. The patriarch had no such entire conformity to the law to show. He had no righteousness. Now he comes into possession of one by an act of faith, which by the grace that is in Christ is accepted in lieu of the full obedience he lacked. We will not be wrong if we say that righteousness means justification. The next question is,
What is the import of the term counted ? In its simplest signification counting is the arithmetical process by which we deal with a number of particles or items to come at the whole sum. From this root idea it shades off into other meanings related to this, as, to reckon, to account, to estimate, to value, to impute. Its theological phase is that of setting down to a person's benefit some particular act, not in reality worth what it is counted for. Say that it is his own act that is counted to him as righteousness, and not the act of another person. We do not see that this admission trenches at all on the gratuitousness of his acceptance, or gives bim
any legal foot-hold. If the said act is taken for more than its true and proper weight, by the kindness of the party whose right it is to demand, it is still an act of grace. Can such a thing be done, as justice relax its claim ? Can commutation have place ? Can something compensative be introduced to save the offender or culprit from the penalty or due consequence? We can only lisp, and falter, and halt, in dealing with this great question. There is nothing in human affairs that is the very type and pattern of God's treatment of sinners in the way of grace. There is, however, some approach to it. In human usages we find less than the full count accepted as if it were the whole sum. A bankrupt counts as low as five, or three, or even one for twenty. We are not deceived in this way of reckoning. We know that five are not twenty. But custom, yea, law has ruled the matter in his case, that the fraction shall count up to the whole. An adjustment is made, and the short reckoning is accepted as if it were complete, and no further liability holds him in thrall who has counted in this short style. We are aware this reference fails in certain points. A moral bankrupt, a sinner, cannot pay even a part. He has nothing. He cannot meet any part of his liabilities. If he is not befriended to the full amount, there is nothing for him but to encounter the penalty. The case quoted shows that something else and something less than the whole amount is counted as the whole. So faith is counted for full obedience, or is accepted for justification. It is reckoned as if we had met every claim. Of course it is not the very thing it is counted for. If we are charged with this difficulty, and exception is taken to the representation, as if it made the Almighty, whose judgment is according to truth, put a false value on faith and over-rate its worth, we can only have recourse to Christ, with whose vicarious death our faith connects us. Join the act of faith with the object of faith, whose meritorious suffering it cognises and holds by, and we think you will find a good reason for faith counting so largely. We plead not for the deserving goodness of faith. Let it rate as low as any other act a sinner can perform. Still, as it grapples us to Christ, we can step into the scale with him in the arms of our faith, and hear justice say It is enough. The two next verses require to be read together.
Verses 4, 5. “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." The counterbalancing terms in these connected verses are “worketh” and “ believeth," grace" and "debt.” “Reward” is a term that properly belongs to a legal economy. Yet we find it employed by a free usage either under grace or law. Scholars find it in Greek classics signifying a gift of favour. And we know how often it occurs in scripture in relation to the system of grace we are under. The final reward which so far transcends the worth of service done, or suffering endured, is expressed by the self-same word. It will be a reward of grace. By a liberty of language such an application of the term is allowed. Yet the proper notion of it is, wages, hire, or fair recompense. And when critical distinctions are wanted between things that differ, the scripture is very definitive and exact. Wages and gifts are marked off by a clear broad line. How sharp a contrast we have for example in Rom. vi. 23: “ For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The italics, which are ours, exhibit the differing nature of two things. A gift is free. It may be given or withheld, and no wrong be done. A reward for work executed is not free, but due, and cannot be held back without injustice. “ The workman is worthy of his meat." He deserves more than his meat, or his toil must be of a humble quality. “The labourer is worthy of his bire.” The work concluded and executed in a satisfactory workman-like style, the capitalist or employer is in the workman's “ debt.” When the hour of payment arrives, a sweet hour to the tired labourer, he steps into the office to receive his due, without being considered an intruder. He goes thither, not with the bashful downcast bearing of a pauper seeking alms. He holds his head up and his hand open to receive what is his own. And although he speaks a customary “thank you" as he quits the table, yet both he and his employer understand that it is mere conventional gratitude. Obligation is mutual. He is even with his master, who got value received for his money, and had it secure before he paid the price. With very different feelings he
would thank his master for a pure present kindly bestowed as a holiday gift, or in recognition of long and faithful service. It would be too much to expect this servant to melt into floods of gratitude over his bare wages, which have cost him sweat and skill and solicitude, early rising and late toiling. A feeling of right and claim gathers in his breast as he closes his fingers upon his winnings. Though he says "thank you,” he knows it is all a just demand. If you wish to see real gratitude, you must suppose his master to call him back and tumble out an additional half-crown piece to him, and say “ There, John, take that to keep your pocket with.” He will pick that piece of coin up with another kind of gratitude, and say “thank you” under feelings of another complexion. For that he had done no work. That was a reward of grace.
Our justification is a pure gift, "the gift by grace." Ver. 5. “ But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." To him that worketh not before justification for it, in order to obtain it--such must be the meaning. It cannot signify that a believer after justification will be indifferent about good living, or be slack in good works. The new life that is always cotemporary with the act of acceptance will develop itself in beautiful and beneficent action. Gratitude, inclination, and a sense of moral obligation stronger than ever before, will dictate and prompt a holy activity. But this is the sequence, not the forerunner. A man who knows the plan of salvation will not do a single day's work, no, not an hour's work, to find acceptance, since not work but faith is the grand requisite. And the difference between these two is such that they cannot be confounded. That faith is an act of obedience we
And we are aware that it is, at least in one instance, called a work, though in that instance it is so called for a corrective purpose. The Jews asked the Great Teacher: “ What shall we do that we might work the works of God ?” His answer includes their phraseology, but contradicts their notions: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.” John vi. 28, 29.
“ Work” was their word, not his, and he used it only to cancel it by the other terms which he set over against it. Work is one thing and faith is another. A man must work out his salvation after it is initiated. But he does not work himself into it. It is begun by faith. We cannot but admire with what painstaking the scripture, according to its custom, wedges the truth in between a negation on one side and an affirmation on the other. It is careful to tell us both how peace is not obtained, and how it is obtained. Negative side,
Negative side, “worketh not;” positive side,“ but believeth."
The circumlocution, “Him that justifieth the ungodly,” is worthy of notice. Paul abounds in these roundabout expressions.