Thomas Chalmers


ROMANS, iv, 1—8.

"What shall we then say that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? for if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 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. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin."

PAUL never forgets, in the course of this argument, that he is addressing himself to Jews; and, bred as he was in all their prejudices, he evinces a strong and a ready sense of the antipathies, that he would ever and anon be stirring up in their minds, by the doctrine on which he expatiated. He knew how much they all gloried in Abraham and how natural it was for them therefore to feel that Abraham had something to glory of in himself; and, as he urged that faith which excludes boasting, the case of the patriarch occurred to him; nor could he have selectcd a better than that of one so eminently the favourite of God as he was, for illustrating the principle upon which God holds out friendship and acceptance to mankind.

Ver. 1. The term flesh does not stand related to the circumstance of Abraham being our father. It does not mean what is it that Abraham, our father by earthly descent, hath found - but what is it that Abraham our father hath found by his natural or external performances. Whatever can be done by the powers of nature, can be done by the flesh. The outward observances of Judaism can be so done; and thus the Mosaic law is termed by Paul the law of a carnal commandment. In the question he puts to the Galatians - " Having begun in the Spirit are ye now made perfect by the flesh " he is expostulating with those who thought that the rite of circumcision, one of the Jewish observances, was necessary to perfect their acceptance with God. Paul professes of himself, that he gloried not in the flesh; and, in enumerating the real sons which might have led him so to glory, he refers, not merely to his descent, but to his circumcision, and to his pharisaical zeal, and to his blamelessness in regard to the righteousness of the law. Abraham had rites and performances laid on him, and he was punctual in their observation; and the question is, What did Abraham procure by these services?

Ver. 2. If by these services he was justified, he has whereof to glory, whereof to boast himself. But no! his boasting too must be excluded. He has nothing whereof to glory of before God.

Ver. 3. Genesis, xv, 6. This is said of Abraham, previous, by several years, to the institution of the great Jewish rite of circumcision. He was in favour with God, before this deed of obedience. He was dealt with by God as a righteous person, before this work of righteousness was done by him. God had declared Himself to be his reward; and by his trust in this declaration, did be become entitled to the reward. This conferred on it the character of a gift. Otherwise it would have been it the payment of a debt, as of wages rendered for services performed.

Ver. 4. It would not have been regarded as a gratuitous thing but, a thing due.

Ver. 5. Observe a few things here. The man who has obtained justification may be looked upon as in possession of a title-deed, whieh secures to him a right to God's favour. The question is, How comes he into possession of this title-deed? Did he work for it, and thus receive it as a return for his works? No, he did not work for it; and thus it is that justification is to him who worketh not - that is, he did nothing antecedent to his justification to bring this privilege down to him; and it is a contradiction to allow that it is by doing anything subsequent to justification that he secures this privilege, for it is secured already. He is now in possession of it - He has not. to work for the purpose of obtaining what he already has. Arid neither did he work for it at the time that he had it not. He came to it not by doing but by behieving. His is like the case of a man getting in a present the title to an estate. He did not work for it before it was presented, and so get it as a reward. It was a gift. He does not work for it after it is presented, for it is his already. But you must remark here - though it is not in consideration of works done either before or after the grant that the privilege was bestowed - yet that is not to say, but that the person so privileged becomes a busy, diligent, ever-doing, and constantly-working man.

When it is said that the faith of him who worketh not is counted for righteousness - it is meant, that he does not work for the purpose of obtaining a right of acceptance, and that it is not upon the consideration of his works that this right has been conferred upon him. But it is not meant that such a person works not for any purpose at all. To recur to the case of him who has a gratuitous estate conferred upon him, he neither worked for the estate before he obtained it, nor for it after he has obtained it. But from the very moment of his assured prospect of coming into the possession of it, may he have become most zealously diligent in the business of preparing himself for the enjoyment of all the advantages, and the discharge of all the obligations connected with this property. He may have put himself under the tuition of him who perhaps at one time possessed it, and knew it thoroughly, and could instruct him how to make the most of it. He did not work for it; but now that he has got it he has been set most busily a-working, though not for a right to the property, yet all for matters connected with the property. He may forthwith enter on a very busy process of education, to render him meet for the society of those with whom he is now in kindred circumstances.

And thus with the Christian, who by faith receives the gift of eternal life. It cannot be put down to the account of works done, either before or after the deed of conveyance has passed into his hands. But no sooner does he lay hold of the deed, than he begins, amid that most strenuously, to qualify himself for the possession - to translate himself into the kindred character of Heaven - to wean himself away from the sin and the sordidness of a world, which he no longer regards as his dwelling-place - and, with a foot which touches lightly that earth from which he is to ascend so soon into the fields of eternal glory that are above him, to aspire after the virtues which are current there; and, by an active cultivation of his heart, labour to prepare himself for a station of happiness and honour among the companies of the celestial. We would further have you to remark, that you must beware of having any such view of faith, as will lead you to annex to it the kind of merit or of claim or of glorying under the gospel, which are annexed to works under the law. This in fact were just animating with a legal spirit, the whole phraseology and doctrine of the gospel. It is God who justifies. He drew up the title-deed, and He bestowed the title-deed. It is ours, simply by laying hold of it. The donor who grants a worldly estate to his friend, counts his friend to have right enough to the property by having received it. God who offers us an inheritance of glory, counts us to have right enough to the possession of it by our relying on the truth and the honesty of the offer. Under the law, obedience would have been that personal thing in us which stood connected with our right to eternal life. Under the gospel, faith is that personal thing in us which stands connected with this right; but just as the act of stretching forth his hand to the offered alms, is that personal doing of the mendicant that stands connected with his possession of the money received by him. Any other view of faith than that which excludes boasting, must be altogether unscriptural; and will mislead the enquirer; and may involve his mind in much darkness, and in very serious difficulties. Where is boasting then It is excluded. By what law! of faith. It is of faith that it might be by grace - not that it might be a thing of merit, but a thing of freeness - a present. Ye are saved by grace through faith. Conceive it a question, whether a dwelling house is enlightened by a candle from within, or by an open window. The answer may justly enough be that it is by the window - and yet the window does not enlighten the house. It is the sun which enlightens it. The window is a mere opening for the transmission of that which is from without. Christ hath wrought out a righteousness for us that is freely offered to us of God. By faith we discern the reality of this offer; and all that it does is to strike out, as it were, an avenue of conveyance, by which the righteousness of another passes to us; and through faith are we saved by this righteousness.

Ver. 6 - 8. They are Jewish authorities which Paul makes use of, when he wants to school down Jewish antipathies - thus meeting his countrymen on their own ground; and never better pleased than when, on the maxim of all things to all men, he can reconcile them to a doctrine which they hate, by quoting in favour of it a testimony which they revere. Take sin in its most comprehensive sense, as including in it both the sin of omission and the sin of performance; and then the opposite to this, or sinlessness, will imply, not only that there has been no performance of what is wrong, but no omission of what is right. In this sense sinlessness is not a mere flea but is fully equivalent to righteousness; and not to impute sin, is tantamount to the imputation of righteousness. It is clear that the righteousness thus imputed, which the Psalmist refers to, was a righteousness without works - that is, without such works as could at all pretend to the character, or to any of the claims of righteousness. For what were the works of those who had this righteousness imputed to them? They were iniquities which had been forgiven, and sins which had been covered.

There are certain technical terms in theology which are used so currently, that they fail to impress their own meaning on the thinking principle. The term "impute" is one of them. It may hold forth a revelation of its plain sense to you - when it is barely mentioned that the term impute in the 6th verse, is the same in the original with what is employed in that verse of Philemon where Paul says, "If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account." To impute righteousness to a man without works, is simply to put righteousness down to his account - though he has not performed tho works of righteousness.
The following is the paraphrase of the passage.

"What shall we make then of our father Abraham; and how shall we estimate the amount of what he procured by those works of obedience which he rendered, and are still required of us by a law that lays such things upon us as we are naturally able to perform For if Abraham did procure justification to himself by these works, he hath something to glory of - though we have just now affirmed that all glorying is excluded. Our affirmation nevertheless stands good, for he hath nothing to glory of before God. And what saith the Scripture about this Not that Abraham obeyed, and his obedience was counted; but Abraham believed God, and his belief was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that workcth and getteth reward for it, reward is not a favour ; but the payment of what is due. But it is to him who worketh not for a right to acceptance, but believeth on Him who offereth this acceptance and justifieth the ungodly, that his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of him to whom God reckoneth a righteousness without works - saying, blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are so hidden from remembrance, that they are no longer mentioned. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not reckon the guilt of his sin."

The first lesson we draw from this passage is one which we have often urged in your hearing; but aware of the difference that there is between the work of urging a principle for the moral purpose of influencing the heart, and the work of urging a principle for the purpose of informing and rectifymg the judgment - we do not feel it so much a vain repetition to come over and over the same thing, for the one of these purposes, as for the other of them. To say what is thoroughly apprehended already, and that for the purpose of informing the mind, were tiresome and inapplicable ; but to say what, when present to the view of the understanding, It is fitted to work a spiritual impression, is said for the purpose of stirring up the mind. And this may be done, not in the way of presenting it with novelties; but the mind may be so stirred tip in the way of remembrance. And this, by the way, suggests to us a very useful test of distinction, between one set of hearers and another, which may be turned by you all into a matter of self-application. The hearer, whose main relish it is to regale his intellect, will, in his appetite for what is original and argumentative and variegated, nauseate, as tasteless and fatiguing, the constant recurrence of the few but all-impressive simplicities of the gospel. The hearer, whose ruling desire it is to refresh and to edify the spiritual life, will no more feel distaste to the nourishment that he has already taken in for the food of the soul, than to the nourishment that he has already and often taken in for the food of the body. The desire for the sincere milk of the word, is not desire for amusement that he may gratify a thirst for speculation - but a desire for aliment, that he may grow thereby. And thus it is, that what may be felt as unsufferable sameness by him who roams with delight from one prospect and one eminence to another in the scholarship of Christianity, may in fact be the staple commodity of a daily and most wholesome ministration to him who, seeking like Paul for the practical objects of an acceptance and a righteousness within God, like him counts all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of the Saviour; and like Him is deternuined to know nothing, but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Let us not therefore be prevented from detaining you a few moments longer, by the doctrine, that, however much the most perfect of the species may have to glory of in the eye of his fellows, he has nothing to glory of before God. The apostle affirms this of Abraham, a patriarch whose virtues had canonized him in the hearts of all his descendants ; and who from the heights of a very remote antiquity, still stands forth to the people of this distant age, as the most venerably attired in the worth and piety and all the primitive and sterling virtues of the older dispensation. As to his piety, of this we have no document at all, till after the time when God met him - till after that point in his history, which Paul assigns as the period of his justification by faith - till after he walked in friendship with the God who found him out an alien of nature ; and stretching forth to him the hand of acceptance, shed a grace and a glory over the whole of his subsequent pilgrimage in the world.

"Now if thou didst receive it, wherefore shouldst thou glory as if thou hadst not received it ?" It is this question of the apostle, which, among the varied graces and accomplishments of a Christian, perpetuates his humility, as the garb and the accompanirnent of them all. " Nevertheless not me, but the grace of God that is in me," is the great principle of explanation, which applies to every virtue that springs and grows and expands into luxuriance and beauty on the character of man, after his conversion; and so keeps him humble amid all the heights of progressive excellence to which he is conducted. Certain it is, that it is not till after this period; that he acquires the right principle, or can make any right advances in the path of godliness; and that, whatever he had antecedently - whether of affection to parents, or of patriotic regard to country, or of mild and winning affability to neighbourhood, or of upright duty in the walks either of public or relative life to society around him, or of all that which calls forth the voice of man to testifyin behalf of the virtues that are useful a a and agreeable to man - certain it is, that with every human being, prior to that great transition in his history which, in the face of all the ridicule excited by the term, we denominate his conversion - God is not the Being whose moral and judicial authority is practically recognized in any of these virtues, and he has nothing to glory of before God.
It is thus we should hike to convince the good man of this world of his wickedness, and to warn him that the plaudits of the world's admiration here may be followed up by shame and everlasting contempt hereafter. In this visible and earthly scene, we are surrounded with human beings, all of whom are satisfied if they see in us of their own likeness and, should we attain the average character of society, the general and collective voice of society will suffer us to pass. Meanwhile, and till God be pleased to manifest Himself, we see not God; and, not till the revelation of His likeness is made to us, do we see our deficiency from that image of unspotted holiness - to be restored to which is the great purpose of the dispensation we sit under

And thus, in spiritual blindness and spiritual insensibility, do the children of alienated nature spend their days - lifting an unabashed front and bearing a confident pretension in society, even as the patriarch Job challenged the accusation of his friends and protested innocence and kindness and dignity before them; but who, when God Himself met his awakened eye, and brought the overpowering lustre of His attributes to bear upon him, said of Him whom he had only before heard of by the hearing of the ear, that, now he saw Him with the seeing of the eye, he abhorred himself and repented in dust and in ashes.

This is the sore evil under which humanity labours. It is sunk in ungodliness, while blindness hinders the seeing of it. The magnitude of the guilt is unfelt; and therefore does man persist in a most treacherous complacency. The magnitude of the danger is unseen; and therefore does man persist in a security most ruinous. There may be some transient suspicion of a hurt, but a gentle alarm may be hushed by a gentle application; and therefore the hurt, in the language of the prophet, is healed but slightly. Peace when there is no peace forms the fatal lethargy of a world lying in wickedness - a peace which we should like to break up, by setting in prospect before you now the dread realities of a future world; but a peace, which, with the vast majority we fear is never broken up, till these realities have encompassed them by their presence - even the sound of the last trumpet, and the appearance of celestial visitors in the sky, and all the elements in commotion, and an innumerable multitude of new-risen men whose eyes have just opened on a firmament which lowrs preternaturally over a world that is going to expire - O! it is sad to think that pulpits should have no power of disturbance, and the voice of those who fill them should die so impotently away from the ears of men who in a few little years will be sealed to this great catastrophe of our species - when tokens so portentous and preparations so solemn as these will mark that day of decision, which closes the epoch of time and ushers in an irrevocable eternity!

The second lesson which we should like to urge upon you is, that this disease of nature, deadly and virulent as it is, and that beyond the suspicion of those who arc touched by it, is not beyond the remedy provided in the gospel. Ungodliness is the radical and pervading ingredient of this disease; and it is here said of God that He justifies the ungodly. The discharge is as ample as the debt; and the grant of pardon in every way as broad and as long, as is the guilt which requires it. The deed of amnesty is equivalent to the offence; and, foul in native and spiritual character as the transgression is, there is a commensurate righteousness which covers the whole deformity, and translates him whom it had made utterly loathsome in the sight of God, into a condition of full favour and acceptance before Him. Had justification been merely brought into contact with some social iniquity, this were not enough to relieve the conscience of him, who feels in himself the workings of a direct and spiritual iniquity against God - who is burdened with a sense of his manifold idolatries against the love of Him, who requires the heart as a willing and universal offering - and perceives of himself that the creature is all his sufficiency; and that, grant him peace and health and abundance in this world, he would be satisfied to quit with God for ever, and to live in some secure and smiling region of atheism.

This is the crying sin with every enlightened conscience. It is the iniquity of the heart that survives every outer reformation, and lurks in its profound recesses under the guise and semblance of many outward plausibilities - it is this, for which in the whole compass of nature, no healing water can be found, either to wash away its guilt, or to wash away its pollution. It is a sense of this which festers in the stricken heart of a sinner, and often keeps by him and agonizes him for many a day, like an arrow sticking fast. And it is not enough that justification be brought into contact with the sin of all our social and all our relative violations. It must be made to reach the deadliest element in our controversy with God, and be brought into contact, as it is in our text, with the sin of ungodliness.

And, to complete the freeness of the gospel. There arc many who keep at a distance from its overtures of mercy, till they think they have felt enough and mourned enough over their need of them. Now we have no such command over our sensibilities; and the most grievous part of our disease is, that we are not sufficiently touched with the impression of its soreness; and we ought not thus to wait the progress of our emotions, while God is standing before us with a deed of justification, held out to the ungodliest of us all. To give us an interest in the saying, that God justifieth the ungodly, it is enough that we count it a faithful saying, and that we count it worthy of all acceptation. It is very true, that we will not count it a faithful saying, unless, from some cause or other, (and no cause more likely than a desire to escape from the consequence of sin,) we have been induced to attend to it. And neither will we count it worthy of all acceptation, unless our convictions have led us to feel the need of a righteousness, and the value of an interest therein. But if your concern about your soul has been such, that you have been led to listen and that for your own personal behoof, to the offer of the gospel - that is warrant enough for us to explain to you the terms of it, and to crave your acceptance of them.

Whatever your present alienation, whatever the present hardness of your heart under the sense of it, what ever there be within you to make out the charge of ungodliness, and whatever to aggravate that charge in your wretched apathy amid so much guilt and so much danger - here is God with a deed of righteousness, by the possession of which you will be accepted as righteous before Him; and which to obtain the possession of, you are not to work for as a reward, but to accept by a simple act of dependence. It becomes yours by believing; and while it is our office to deal out the doctrine of the gospel, we do it with the assurance, that, wherever the belief of its truth may light, it will not light wrong; but that, if the faith of this gospel be formed in the bosom of any individual who now hears us, it will be followed up by a fulfilment upon him of all its promises.

But thirdly, while the office of a righteousness before God is thus brought down, so to speak, to the lowest depth of human wickedness, and it is an offer by the acceptance of which all the past is for given - it is also an offer by the acceptance of which all the future is reformed. When Christ confers sight upon a blind man, he ceases to be in darkness; and when a rich individual confers wealth upon a poor, he ceases to be in poverty - and so, as surely, when justification is conferred upon the ungodly, his ungodliness is done away. His godliness is not the ground upon which the gift was awarded, any more than the sight of him who was blind is the ground upon which it was communicated, or than the wealth of him who was poor is the ground upon which it was bestowed. But just as sight and riches come out of the latter gifts, so godliness comes out of the gift of justification; and while works form in no way the consideration upon which the righteousness that availeth is conferred upon a sinner, yet no sooner is this righteousness granted than it will set him a-working. So that while we hold it a high privilege, that we can say to the ungodhiest of you all, Here is the free and unconditional grant of a justification for you, the validity of which you have simply to rely upon. -the privilege rises inconceivably higher in our estimation, that we can also say, how the unfailing fruit of such a reliance will be a personal righteousness emerging out of the faith which worketh by love, and which transforms into a new creature the man who truly entertains it.
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