Here the apostle proves that Abraham was justified not by works, but by faith. Those that of all men contended most vigorously for a share in righteousness by the privileges they enjoyed, and the works they performed, were the Jews, and therefore he appeals to the case of Abraham their father, and puts his own name to the relation, being a Hebrew of the Hebrews: Abraham our father. Now surely his prerogative must needs be as great as theirs who claim it as his seed according to the flesh. Now what has he found? All the world is seeking; but, while the most are wearying themselves for very vanity, none can be truly reckoned to have found, but those who are justified before God; and thus Abraham, like a wise merchant, seeking goodly pearls, found this one pearl of great price. What has he found, kata sarka—as pertaining to the flesh, that is, by circumcision and his external privileges and performances? These the apostle calls flesh, Phil. 3:3. Now what did he get by these? Was he justified by them? Was it the merit of his works that recommended him to God’s acceptance? No, by no means, which he proves by several arguments.
I. If he had been justified by works, room would have been left for boasting, which must for ever be excluded. If so, he hath whereof to glory (Rom. 4:2), which is not to be allowed. “But,” might the Jews say, “was not his name made great (Gen. 12:2), and then might not he glory?” Yes, but not before God; he might deserve well of men, but he could never merit of God. Paul himself had whereof to glory before men, and we have him sometimes glorying in it, yet with humility; but nothing to glory in before God, 1 Cor. 4:4; Phil. 3:8, 9. So Abraham. Observe, He takes it for granted that man must not pretend to glory in any thing before God; no, not Abraham, as great and as good a man as he was; and therefore he fetches an argument from it: it would be absurd for him that glorieth to glory in any but the Lord.
II. It is expressly said that Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness. What saith the scripture? Rom. 4:3. In all controversies in religion this must be our question, What saith the scripture? It is not what this great man, and the other good man, say, but What saith the scripture? Ask counsel at this Abel, and so end the matter, 2 Sam. 2:18. To the law, and to the testimony (Isa. 8:20), thither is the last appeal. Now the scripture saith that Abraham believed, and this was counted to him for righteousness (Gen. 15:6); therefore he had not whereof to glory before God, it being purely of free grace that it was so imputed, and having not in itself any of the formal nature of a righteousness, further than as God himself was graciously pleased so to count it to him. It is mentioned in Genesis, upon occasion of a very signal and remarkable act of faith concerning the promised seed, and is the more observable in that it followed upon a grievous conflict he had had with unbelief; his faith was now a victorious faith, newly returned from the battle. It is not the perfect faith that is required to justification (there may be acceptable faith where there are remainders of unbelief), but the prevailing faith, the faith that has the upper hand of unbelief.
III. If he had been justified by faith, the reward would have been of debt, and not of grace, which is not to be imagined. This is his argument (Rom. 4:4, 5): Abraham’s reward was God himself; so he had told him but just before (Gen. 15:1), I am thy exceeding great reward. Now, if Abraham had merited this by the perfection of his obedience, it had not been an act of grace in God, but Abraham might have demanded it with as much confidence as ever any labourer in the vineyard demanded the penny he had earned. But this cannot be; it is impossible for man, much more guilty man, to make God a debtor to him, Rom. 11:35. No, God will have free grace to have all the glory, grace for grace’s sake, John 1:16. And therefore to him that worketh not—that can pretend to no such merit, nor show any worth or value in his work, which may answer such a reward, but disclaiming any such pretension casts himself wholly upon the free grace of God in Christ, by a lively, active, obedient faith—to such a one faith is counted for righteousness, is accepted of God as the qualification required in all those that shall be pardoned and saved. Him that justifieth the ungodly, that is, him that was before ungodly. His former ungodliness was no bar to his justification upon his believing: ton asebe—that ungodly one, that is, Abraham, who, before his conversion, it should seem, was carried down the stream of the Chaldean idolatry, Josh. 24:2. No room therefore is left for despair; though God clears not the impenitent guilty, yet through Christ he justifies the ungodly.
IV. He further illustrates this by a passage out of the Psalms, where David speaks of the remission of sins, the prime branch of justification, as constituting the happiness and blessedness of a man, pronouncing blessed, not the man who has no sin, or none which deserved death (for then, while man is so sinful, and God so righteous, where would be the blessed man?) but the man to whom the Lord imputeth not sin, who though he cannot plead, Not guilty, pleads the act of indemnity, and his plea is allowed. It is quoted from Ps. 32:1, 2, where observe, 1. The nature of forgiveness. It is the remission of a debt or a crime; it is the covering of sin, as a filthy thing, as the nakedness and shame of the soul. God is said to cast sin behind his back, to hide his face from it, which, and the like expressions, imply that the ground of our blessedness is not our innocency, or our not having sinned (a thing is, and is filthy, though covered; justification does not make the sin not to have been, or not to have been sin), but God’s not laying it to our charge, as it follows here: it is God’s not imputing sin (Rom. 4:8), which makes it wholly a gracious act of God, not dealing with us in strict justice as we have deserved, not entering into judgment, not marking iniquities, all which being purely acts of grace, the acceptance and the reward cannot be expected as debts; and therefore Paul infers (Rom. 4:6) that it is the imputing of righteousness without works. 2. The blessedness of it: Blessed are they. When it is said, Blessed are the undefiled in the way, blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, etc., the design is to show the characters of those that are blessed; but when it is said, Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, the design is to show what that blessedness is, and what the ground and foundation of it. Pardoned people are the only blessed people. The sentiments of the world are, Those are happy that have a clear estate, and are out of debt to man; but the sentence of the word is, Those are happy that have their debts to God discharged. O how much therefore is it our interest to make it sure to ourselves that our sins are pardoned! For this is the foundation of all other benefits. So and so I will do for them; for I will be merciful, Heb. 8:12.