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Calvin's Commentaries  
Commentary on Romans (Volume XVI)
Romans 4:9-12

Romans 4:9-10
9. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, [This “only” is not in the original, but is supplied by most commentators: yet it is not necessary, nor makes the meaning consistent with what follows in Romans 4:10. The Κα?; in the next clause is omitted in many copies; but if retained, it will not alter the sense. We may render this part of the verse thus, “Came then this blessedness on the circumcision, or even on the uncircumcision?”  Then in the tenth verse he answerers in the negative, — that it was not to Abraham while “in circumcision,” but while he was a “in uncircumcision.” The reference is evidently to the first state of things, to the case of Abraham himself. Abraham is supposed to have been justified by faith about fourteen years before he was circumcised. — Ed.] or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.
9. Beatudo ergo ista in circumcisionem modo, an et in præputium competit? Dicimus enim quod imputata fuit Abrahæ fides in justitiam.
10. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.
10. Quomodo igitur imputata fuit? In Circumcisione quum esset, an in præputio? Non in circumcisione, sed in præputio.

9-10. As circumcision and uncircumcision are alone mentioned, some unwisely conclude, that the only question is, that righteousness is not attained by the ceremonies of the law. But we ought to consider what sort of men were those with whom Paul was reasoning; for we know that hypocrites, whilst they generally boast of meritorious works, do yet disguise themselves in outward masks. The Jews also had a peculiar way of their own, by which they departed, through a gross abuse of the law, from true and genuine righteousness. Paul had said, that no one is blessed but he whom God reconciles to himself by a gratuitous pardon; it hence follows, that all are accursed, whose works come to judgment. Now then this principle is to be held, that men are justified, not by their own worthiness, but by the mercy of God. But still, this is not enough, except remission of sins precedes all works, and of these the first was circumcision, which initiated the Jewish people into the service of God. He therefore proceeds to demonstrate this also.

We must ever bear in mind, that circumcision is here mentioned as the initial work, so to speak, of the righteousness of the law: for the Jews gloried not in it as the symbol of God’s favor, but as a meritorious observance of the law: and on this account it was that they regarded themselves better than others, as though they possessed a higher excellency before God. We now see that the dispute is not about one rite, but that under one thing is included every work of the law; that is, every work to which reward can be due. Circumcision then was especially mentioned, because it was the basis of the righteousness of the law.

But Paul maintains the contrary, and thus reasons: “If Abraham’s righteousness was the remission of sins, (which he safely takes as granted,) and if Abraham attained this before circumcision, it then follows that remission of sins is not given for preceding merits.” You see that the argument rests on the order of causes and effects; for the cause is always before its effect; and righteousness was possessed by Abraham before he had circumcision.

Romans 4:11-12
11. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:
11. Et signum accepit circumcisionis, sigillum justitiæ fidei quæ fuerat in præputio; ut esset pater omnium credentium per præputium, quo ipsis quoque imputetur justitia;
12. And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.
12. Et pater circumcisionis, non iis qui sunt ex circumcisione tantum, sed qui insistunt vestigiis fidei, quæ fuit in præputio patris nostri Abrahæ.

11. And he received the sign, etc. In order to anticipate an objection, he shows that circumcision was not unprofitable and superfluous, though it could not justify; but it had another very remarkable use, it had the office of sealing, and as it were of ratifying the righteousness of faith. And yet he intimates at the same time, by stating what its object was, that it was not the cause of righteousness, it indeed tended to confirm the righteousness of faith, and that already obtained in uncircumcision. He then derogates or takes away nothing from it.

We have indeed here a remarkable passage with regard to the general benefits of sacraments. According to the testimony of Paul, they are seals by which the promises of God are in a manner imprinted on our hearts, (Dei promissiones cordibus nostris quodammodo imprimuntur,) and the certainty of grace confirmed (sancitur gratœ certitudo ) And though by themselves they profit nothing, yet God has designed them to be the instruments (instrumenta) of his grace; and he effects by the secret grace of his Spirit, that they should not be without benefit in the elect. And though they are dead and unprofitable symbols to the reprobate, they yet ever retain their import and character (vim suam et naturam:) for though our unbelief may deprive them of their effect, yet it cannot weaken or extinguish the truth of God. Hence it remains a fixed principle, that sacred symbols are testimonies, by which God seals his grace on our hearts.

As to the symbol of circumcision, this especially is to be said, that a twofold grace was represented by it. God had promised to Abraham a blessed seed, from whom salvation was to be expected by the whole world. On this depended the promise — “I will be to thee a God.” (Genesis 17:7.) Then a gratuitous reconciliation with God was included in that symbol: and for this reason it was necessary that the faithful should look forward to the promised seed. On the other hand, God requires integrity and holiness of life; he indicated by the symbol how this could be attained, that is, by cutting off in man whatever is born of the flesh, for his whole nature had become vicious. He therefore reminded Abraham by the external sign, that he was spiritually to cut off the corruption of the flesh; and to this Moses has also alluded in Deuteronomy 10:16. And to show that it was not the work of man, but of God, he commanded tender infants to be circumcised, who, on account of their age, could not have performed such a command. Moses has indeed expressly mentioned spiritual circumcision as the work of divine power, as you will find in Deuteronomy 30:6, where he says, “The Lord will circumcise thine heart:” and the Prophets afterwards declared the same thing much more clearly.
As there are two points in baptism now, so there were formerly in circumcision; for it was a symbol of a new life, and also of the remission of sins. But the fact as to Abraham himself, that righteousness preceded circumcision, is not always the case in sacraments, as it is evident from the case of Isaac and his posterity: but God intended to give such an instance once at the beginning, that no one might ascribe salvation to external signs.

[The word “sign” in this passage, σημε?ον, seems not to mean an outward token of something inward, but a mark, circumcision itself, which was imprinted, as it were, as a mark in the flesh. So Macknight renders it, “The mark of circumcision.” That circumcision was a sign or a symbol of what was spiritual, is evident: but this is not what is taught here. Circumcision is expressly called “a token,” or a sign, in Genesis 17:11; but it is said to have been “a token of the covenant,” that is, a proof and an evidence of it. The design of circumcision is expressed by the next word, σφραγ?δα — seal. This sometimes signified the instrument, 1 Kings 21:8; and sometimes the impression, Revelation 5:1: and the impression was used for various purposes, — to close up a document, to secure a thing, and also to confirm an agreement. It is taken here in the latter sense; circumcision was a “seal,” a confirmation, an evidence, a proof, or a pledge, “of the righteousness” obtained “by faith.” We meet not with any distinct statement of this kind in Genesis: it is what the Apostle had gathered, and rightly gathered, from the account given us of what took place between God and Abraham. — Ed.

That he might be the father, etc. Mark how the circumcision of Abraham confirms our faith with regard to gratuitous righteousness; for it was the sealing of the righteousness of faith, that righteousness might also be imputed to us who believe. And thus Paul, by a remarkable dexterity makes to recoil on his opponents what they might have adduced as an objection: for since the truth and import (veritas et vis) of circumcision were found in an uncircumcised state, there was no ground for the Jews to elevate themselves so much above the Gentiles.

But as a doubt might arise, whether it behoves us, after the example of Abraham, to confirm also the same righteousness by the sign of circumcision, how came the Apostle to make this omission? Even because he thought that the question was sufficiently settled by the drift of his argument: for as this truth had been admitted, that circumcision availed only to seal the grace of God, it follows, that it is now of no benefit to us, who have a sign instituted in its place by our Lord. As then there is no necessity now for circumcision, where baptism is, he was not disposed to contend unnecessarily for that respecting which there was no doubt, that is, why the righteousness of faith was not sealed to the Gentiles in the same way as it was to Abraham. To believe in uncircumcision means, that the Gentiles, being satisfied with their own condition, did not introduce the seal of circumcision: and so the proposition δια, by is put for εν, in [See a similar instance in Romans 2:27. — Ed.]

12. To them who are not, etc. The verb, are, is in this place to be taken for, “are deemed to be:” for he touches the carnal descendants of Abraham, who, having nothing but outward circumcision, confidently gloried in it. The other thing, which was the chief matter, they neglected; for the faith of Abraham, by which alone he obtained salvation, they did not imitate. It hence appears, how carefully he distinguished between faith and the sacrament; not only that no one might be satisfied with the one without the other, as though it were sufficient for justifying; but also that faith alone might be set forth as accomplishing everything: for while he allows the circumcised Jews to be justified, he expressly makes this exception — provided in true faith they followed the example of Abraham; for why does he mention faith while in uncircumcision, except to show, that it is alone sufficient, without the aid of anything else? Let us then beware, lest any of us, by halving things, blend together the two modes of justification.

What we have stated disproves also the scholastic dogma respecting the difference between the sacraments of the Old and those of the New Testament; for they deny the power of justifying to the former, and assign it to the latter. But if Paul reasons correctly, when he argues that circumcision does not justify, because Abraham was justified by faith, the same reason holds good for us, while we deny that men are justified by baptism, inasmuch as they are justified by the same faith with that of Abraham.

Romans 4:13
13. For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
13. Non enim per Legem promissio Abrahæ et semini ejus data est, ut esset hæres mundi; sed per justitiam fidei.

13. For the promise, etc. He now more clearly sets the law and faith in opposition, the one to the other, which he had before in some measure done; and this ought to be carefully observed: for if faith borrows nothing from the law in order to justify, we hence understand, that it has respect to nothing else but to the mercy of God. And further, the romance of those who would have this to have been said of ceremonies, may be easily disproved; for if works contributed anything towards justification, it ought not to have been said, through the written law, but rather, through the law of nature. But Paul does not oppose spiritual holiness of life to ceremonies, but faith and its righteousness. The meaning then is, that heirship was promised to Abraham, not because he deserved it by keeping the law, but because he had obtained righteousness by faith. And doubtless (as Paul will presently show) consciences can then only enjoy solid peace, when they know that what is not justly due is freely given them.

[Critics have differed as to the disjunctive ?, or, “or to his seed.” Some think it is put for κα?, and: but Pareus thinks that it has a special meaning, intended to anticipate an objection.
The Jews might have said, “If the case with Abraham is as stated, it is not so with his seed who received the law.” Yes, says Paul, there is no difference, “The promise to Abraham, or to his seed, to whom the law was actually given, was not by the law.”
Hammond renders the whole verse more literally than in our version, — “The promise to Abraham or to his seed, that he should be the heir of the world, was not by the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” — Ed.]

Hence also it follows, that this benefit, the reason for which applies equally to both, belongs to the Gentiles no less than to the Jews; for if the salvation of men is based on the goodness of God alone, they check and hinder its course, as much as they can, who exclude from it the Gentiles.

That he should be the heir of the world, etc.

[There is in Genesis no expression conveyed in these words; but the probability is, that he intended to express in another form what he distinctly quotes in Romans 4:17, “I have made thee a father of many nations.”

The word “father,” in this case, has been commonly understood to mean a leader, a pattern, a model, an exemplar, a forerunner, as Abraham was the first believer justified by faith, of whom there is an express record. But the idea seems to be somewhat different. He was a father as the first possessor of an inheritance which was to descend to all his children. The inheritance was given him by grace through faith; it was to descend, as it were, to all his lawful posterity, to all his legitimate seed, that is, to all who possessed the like faith with himself. He is therefore called the father of many nations, because many nations would become his legitimate heirs by becoming believers; and in the same sense must be regarded the expression here, “the heir of the world;” he was the representative of all the believing world, and made an heir of an inheritance which was to come to the world in general, to the believing Jews and to the believing Gentiles. He was the heir, the first possessor, of what was to descend to the world without any difference. He was the heir of the world in the same sense as he was “the father of all who believe,” as he is said to have been in verse eleventh.

The inheritance was doubtless eternal life or the heavenly kingdom, the country above, of which the land of Canaan was a type and a pledge. See Hebrews 11:12, 13, 16. — Ed. ]

Since he now speaks of eternal salvation, the Apostle seems to have somewhat unseasonably led his readers to the world; but he includes generally under this word world, the restoration which was expected through Christ. The chief thing was indeed the restoration of life; it was yet necessary that the fallen state of the whole world should be repaired. The Apostle, in Hebrews 1:2, calls Christ the heir of all the good things of God; for the adoption which we obtain through his favor restores to us the possession of the inheritance which we lost in Adam; and as under the type of the land of Canaan, not only the hope of a heavenly life was exhibited to Abraham, but also the full and complete blessing of God, the Apostle rightly teaches us, that the dominion of the world was promised to him. Some taste of this the godly have in the present life; for how much soever they may at times be oppressed with want, yet as they partake with a peaceable conscience of those things which God has created for their use, and as they enjoy through his mercy and good-will his earthly benefits no otherwise than as pledges and earnests of eternal life, their poverty does in no degree prevent them from acknowledging heaven, and the earth, and the sea, as their own possessions.

Though the ungodly swallow up the riches of the world, they can yet call nothing as their own; but they rather snatch them as it were by stealth; for they possess them under the curse of God. It is indeed a great comfort to the godly in their poverty, that though they fare slenderly, they yet steal nothing of what belongs to another, but receive their lawful allowance from the hand of their celestial Father, until they enter on the full possession of their inheritance, when all creatures shall be made subservient to their glory; for both heaven and earth shall be renewed for this end, — that according to their measure they may contribute to render glorious the kingdom of God.

Romans 4:14
14. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:
14. Si enim ii qui sunt ex Lege hæredes sunt, exinanita est fides et abolita est promissio:

14. For if they who are of the law, etc. He takes his argument from what is impossible or absurd, that the favor which Abraham obtained from God, was not promised to him through any legal agreement, or through any regard to works; for if this condition had been interposed — that God would favor those only with adoption who deserved, or who performed the law, no one could have dared to feel confident that it belonged to him: for who is there so conscious of so much perfection that he can feel assured that the inheritance is due to him through the righteousness of the law? Void then would faith be made; for an impossible condition would not only hold the minds of men in suspense and anxiety, but fill them also with fear and trembling: and thus the fulfillment of the promises would be rendered void; for they avail nothing but when received by faith. If our adversaries had ears to hear this one reason, the contest between us might easily be settled.

The Apostle assumes it as a thing indubitable, that the promises would by no means be effectual except they were received with full assurance of mind. But what would be the case if the salvation of men was based on the keeping of the law? consciences would have no certainty, but would be harassed with perpetual inquietude, and at length sink in despair; and the promise itself, the fulfillment of which depended on what is impossible, would also vanish away without producing any fruit. Away then with those who teach the common people to seek salvation for themselves by works, seeing that Paul declares expressly, that the promise is abolished if we depend on works. But it is especially necessary that this should be known, — that when there is a reliance on works, faith is reduced to nothing. And hence we also learn what faith is, and what sort of righteousness ought that of works to be, in which men may safely trust.

The Apostle teaches us, that faith perishes, except the soul rests on the goodness of God. Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of his truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that his word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God’s mercy, which is received from the gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind. The sum of the matter then is this, — that if salvation depends on the keeping of the law, the soul can entertain no confidence respecting it, yea, that all the promises offered to us by God will become void: we must thus become wretched and lost, if we are sent back to works to find out the cause or the certainty of salvation.