What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, has found?…
1. St. Paul has lust shown how the gospel method of justification shuts out the usual Hebrew boast in the Mosaic law as a pathway to eternal life. But some might ask, Did it not set it aside altogether?
2. To this there were two answers possible.
(1) The most obvious would be this: The law had other ends to serve (Galatians 3:19, 23, 24; Romans 3:19).
(2) Here, however, Paul answers by alleging the ease of Abraham. The force of the argument may be somewhat like this: The reward which the Jew hoped to secure for himself through his circumcision and his observance of the Mosaic law was the national blessing which God had originally conferred by covenant upon the ancestor and representative of his race. It was in his character as a descendant of Abraham that each Jew received in his flesh the seal of the national covenant, or had a right to aspire after the national hope. Nothing higher, therefore, could be looked for by any Israelite than to attain to the blessedness of his forefather Abraham (Luke 16:22). Yet this favour had been promised to and received by him, not in consequence of his observance of the Mosaic law, which was not given for a great while after, not even in consideration of his being circumcised, but solely because he was a believer. Instead of God's covenant with Israel resting on the law, the law on the contrary rested on the covenant. That covenant was, to begin with, one of grace, not of works. So far, therefore, from Paul's doctrine of justification upsetting the Mosaic law, it was just the old teaching of the very earliest "Book of the Law." "Do we, then, make the law of Moses void? God forbid. On the contrary, we establish that law; since we find for it its ancient basis on which alone it can serve those helpful uses for which it was given."
3. The case of Abraham was thus, as St. Paul clearly saw, a crucial instance in which to test his doctrine of justification by faith. Abraham was not merely the first of Israelites or the greatest of them; he was all Israel in his single person. It would never do for a Jew to pretend that a principle which ruled the relations of Abraham to Jehovah could by any possibility make void the law of Moses.
4. But the example of Abraham proves fruitful for Paul's purpose in more ways than one.
I. HIS CONTROVERSY UP TO THIS POINT HAS INVOLVED TWO MAIN POSITIONS. The first is Romans 3:28. The second, Romans 3:30. Both positions he now proceeds to illustrate and confirm by the case of Abraham.
1. It was by his faith Abraham was justified, not by his works of obedience (vers. 1-8). Paul finds a remarkable proof-text in Genesis 15:16.
(1) The religious life of Abraham gathers round three leading moments. The first, when God bade him emigrate to Canaan (Genesis 12:1-5); the second, at Mamre, when God first made with the childless and aged man a covenant that he should have a son, etc. (Genesis 15); the third, when, after the first portion of this promise had been fulfilled, as well as the whole of it sealed by circumcision, Jehovah commanded the child of promise to be sacrificed (Genesis 22). At all these three turning times in Abraham's history his confidence in God appeared as the most eminent feature of his character. But plainly, the first of these was preliminary to the second, which conveyed to him the promises of God; and the third was a consequent of the second. The central point, therefore, in the patriarch's history is to be sought in the second, to which St. Paul here refers. On God's side there was simply a word of promise; on the man's side, simply a devout and childlike reliance upon that word. God asked no more; and the man had no more to give. His mere trust in the Promiser was held to be adequate as a ground for that sinful man's acceptance into friendship and league with the eternal Jehovah.
(2) The apostle's argument is a very obvious one. There are only two ways of obtaining Divine approval. Either you deserve it, having earned it; then it is a pure debt, and you have something to boast in. Or else you have not earned the Divine approval, but the wages of sin, which is death; only you trust in the promised grace of One who justifies the ungodly; then it may be said that this trust of yours is reckoned as equivalent to righteousness. Now, Abraham's acceptance was plainly of this latter sort. He therefore, at least, had no ground for boasting. His, rather, was such blessedness as his great descendant David sang of so long after (Psalm 32:1, 2).
2. Abraham was justified by his faith, not as a circumcised man, but as an uncircumcised (vers. 9-16). It lies in the very idea of acceptance through faith, that God will accept the believer apart from nationality, an external rite, or church privilege, or the like. This inference Paul has been pressing on his Jewish readers, and here is a curious confirmation of it. Abraham, through whom came circumcision, etc., was taken into Divine favour previous to his circumcision. Circumcision came in simply to seal, not to constitute, his justification. And the design of such an arrangement was to make him the type and progenitor of all believers — of such believers first, as are never circumcised at all, since for thirteen years or more he was himself an uncircumcised believer; then of such also as are circumcised, indeed, yet believers. He is "the father of us all." The only people whom his experience fails to embrace, whose "father" he really is not, are those Jews who trust in their lineage and their covenant badge, and expect to be saved for their meritorious observance of prescribed rules, but who in the free and gracious promises of Abraham's God put no trust at all.
(1) Having got thus far, St. Paul has reached this notable conclusion: that so far from his doctrine making the law of Moses void, it is the Jewish figment of justification by the law which makes void God's promise, and Abraham's faith, and the whole basis of grace on which the privileges of the Hebrew people ultimately reposed. Here, therefore, he fairly turns the tables upon his objectors (ver. 14).
(2) Nay, more, another conclusion emerges. It turns out now that instead of St. Paul being a disloyal Jew for admitting believing Gentiles to an equal place in the favour of Israel's God, it is his self-righteous countryman, who monopolises Divine grace, that is really false to the original idea of the Abrahamic covenant. All who have faith, whatever their race, are "blessed with faithful Abraham," and he, says Paul, writing to a Gentile Church, "is the father of us all." The apostle has now completed his polemic against Jewish objectors. Before, however, he is done with the case of Abraham, there is a further use to be made of his bright exemplar.
II. THE FATHER OF BELIEVERS STANDS OUT AS NOT SIMPLY A SPECIMEN OF THE FAITH THAT JUSTIFIES, BUT AS THE HIGHEST PATTERN AND LESSON IN THIS GRACE TO ALL HIS SPIRITUAL PROGENY (vers. 17-25).
1. I spoke of three leading moments in the spiritual life of the great patriarch. In the roll of heroes in faith given in Hebrews 11, stress is laid upon the first and upon the last. Here, it is the second; and it is this proof of faith, therefore, which Paul now proceeds to examine. The particular promise was that when he was ninety-nine, and his wife ninety, a son should be born to them. On this child of promise were made to depend all the other promises — numerous descendants — the land of inheritance — a perpetual covenant — seed, in whom all earth's families should be blessed. To believe in this explicit word was to believe substantially in the whole of God's grace to men as far as it was then revealed. It was gospel faith so far as there was yet any gospel on earth to put faith in. Dimly and far off Abraham saw the day of Christ, and at God's bare word he risked his spiritual life upon that hope. This was his faith.
2. Now note its characteristics. On the one side lay the improbabilities of an unheard of miracle, to be believed in before it happened; a needless miracle, too, so far as man's reason could discern; for was not Ishmael already there? On the other side, what was there? Nothing but a word of God. Between these two conflicting grounds of expectation a weaker faith than his might have wavered. But Abraham was not weak in faith. Therefore he did not shrink from considering the physical obstacles to the birth of a son. On the contrary, he could afford to fasten his regard on these, without his confidence, in the promise suffering any diminution; since he kept as clearly in view the character of the Almighty Promiser. God is the Quickener of the dead. He can give a name and virtual existence to the yet unbegotten child. Isaac lives in God's counsel and purpose before he has actual being. So Abraham dared to trust in the hope of paternity given him of God, and gave God glory, by honouring the truthfulness of His word and the power of His grace. Such is faith; so it always works. Without calling its eyes off from the objections and difficulties which are present to sense, it fastens itself, nevertheless, on the veracity of Him who speaks words of grace to men.
3. These things were not written for Abraham's sake alone, but for ours. Abraham trusted in God to quicken his unborn son — by and by to raise him (if need were) from the dead. We trust Him who did raise from the dead His own Son Jesus. The gospel facts, the promises, and blessings of the new covenant in Christ are to us what the birth of Isaac was to Abraham: things all of them beyond the reach of experience or against it; resting for their evidence solely on the word of the living God. Such a faith in God is reckoned for righteousness to every man who has it, as it was to Abraham, the father of all believers.
(J. Oswald Dykes, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?