15. Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.
15. Fratres, (secundum hominem dico) Hominis licet pactum, tamen si sit comprobatum, nemo rejicit aut addit aliquid.
16. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
16. Porro Abrahae dictae sunt promissiones, et semini ejus. Non dicit, Et seminibus, tanquam Deuteronomy multis, sed tanquam Deuteronomy uno, Et semini tuo, qui est Christus.
17. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.
17. Hoc autem dico: pactum ante comprobatum a Deo erga Christum, Lex, quae post annos quadringentos et triginta coepit, non facit irritum, ut abroget Promissionem.
18. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.
18. Nam si ex Lege haereditas, non jam ex Promissione; atqui Abrahae per Promissionem donavit Deus.
15. I speak after the manner of men. By this expression he intended to put them to the blush. It is highly disgraceful and base that the testimony of God should have less weight with us than that of a mortal man. In demanding that the sacred covenant of God shall receive not less deference than is commonly yielded to ordinary human transactions, he does not place God on a level with men. The immense distance between God and men is still left for their consideration.
Though it be but a man's covenant. This is an argument from the less to the greater. Human contracts are admitted on all hands to be binding: how much more what God has established? The Greek word diatheke, here used, signifies more frequently, what the Latin versions here render it, (testamentum,) a testament; but sometimes too, a covenant, though in this latter sense the plural number is more generally employed. It is of little importance to the present passage, whether you explain it covenant or testament. The case is different with the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the apostle unquestionably alludes to testaments, (Hebrews 9:16, 17;) but here I prefer to take it simply for the covenant which God made. The analogy from which the apostle argues, would not apply so strictly to a testament as to a covenant. The apostle appears to reason from human bargains to that solemn covenant into which God entered with Abraham. If human bargains be so firm that they can receive no addition, how much more must this covenant remain inviolable?
16. Now to Abraham, and his seed. Before pursuing his argument, he introduces an observation about the substance of the covenant, that it rests on Christ alone. But if Christ be the foundation of the bargain, it follows that it is of free grace; and this too is the meaning of the word promise. As the law has respect to men and to their works, so the promise has respect to the grace of God and to faith.
He saith not, And to seeds. To prove that in this place God speaks of Christ, he calls attention to the singular number as denoting some particular seed. I have often been astonished that Christians, when they saw this passage so perversely tortured by the Jews, did not make a more determined resistance; for all pass it slightly as if it were an indisputed territory. And yet there is much plausibility in their objection. Since the word seed is a collective noun, Paul appears to reason inconclusively, when he contends that a single individual is denoted by this word, under which all the descendants of Abraham are comprehended in a passage already quoted, |In multiplying I will multiply thy seed, zr (zerang,) or zrk (zargnacha,) as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore.| (Genesis 22:17.) Having, as they imagine, detected the fallacy of the argument, they treat us with haughty triumph.
I am the more surprised that our own writers should have been silent on this head, as we have abundant means of repelling their slander. Among Abraham's own sons a division began, for one of the sons was cut off from the family. |In Isaac shall thy seed be called.| (Genesis 21:12.) Consequently Ishmael is not included in the reckoning. Let us come a step lower. Do the Jews allow that the posterity of Esau are the blessed seed? nay, it will be maintained that their father, though the first-born, was struck off. And how many nations have sprung from the stock of Abraham who have no share in this |calling?| The twelve patriarchs, at length, formed twelve heads, not because they were descended from the line of Abraham, but because they had been appointed by a particular election of God. Since the ten tribes were carried away, (Hosa 9:17,) how many thousands have so degenerated that they no longer hold a name among the seed of Abraham? Lastly, a trial was made of the tribe of Judah, that the real succession to the blessing might be transmitted among a small people. And this had been predicted by Isaiah,
|Though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return.| (Isaiah 10:22.)
Hitherto I have said nothing which the Jews themselves do not acknowledge. Let them answer me then; how comes it that the thirteen tribes sprung from the twelve patriarchs were the seed of Abraham, in preference to Ishmaelites and Edomites? Why do they exclusively glory in that name, and set aside the others as a spurious seed? They will, no doubt, boast that they have obtained it by their own merit; but Scripture, on the contrary, asserts that all depends on the calling of God; for we must constantly return to the privilege conveyed in these words, |In Isaac shall thy seed be called.| (Genesis 21:12.) The uninterrupted succession to this privilege must have been in force until Christ; for, in the person of David, the Lord afterwards brought back by recovery, as we might say, the promise which had been made to Abraham. In proving, therefore, that this prediction applies to a single individual, Paul does not make his argument rest on the use of the singular number. He merely shews that the word seed must denote one who was not only descended from Abraham according to the flesh, but had been likewise appointed for this purpose by the calling of God. If the Jews deny this, they will only make themselves ridiculous by their obstinacy.
But as Paul likewise argues from these words, that a covenant had been made in Christ, or to Christ, let us inquire into the force of that expression,
|In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.| (Genesis 22:18.)
The Jews taunt the apostle with making a comparison, as if the seed of Abraham were to be quoted as an example in all disastrous omens and prayers; while, on the contrary, to curse in Sodom or Israel is to employ the name of Sodom or Israel in forms of cursing. This, I own, is sometimes the case, but not always; for to bless one's self in God has quite a different meaning, as the Jews themselves admit. Since, therefore, the phrase is ambiguous, denoting sometimes a cause and sometimes a comparison, wherever, it occurs, it must be explained by the context. We have ascertained, then, that we are all cursed by nature, and that the blessing of Abraham has been promised to all nations. Do all indiscriminately reach it? Certainly not, but those only who are |gathered| (Isaiah 66:8) to the Messiah; for when, under His government and direction, they are collected into one body, they then become one people. Whoever then, laying disputing aside, shall inquire into the truth, will readily acknowledge that the words here signify not a mere comparison but a cause; and hence it follows that Paul had good ground for saying, that the covenant was made in Christ, or in reference to Christ.
17. The law which was four hundred and thirty years after. If we listen to Origen and Jerome and all the Papists, there will be little difficulty in refuting this argument. Paul reasons thus: |A promise was given to Abraham four hundred and thirty years before the publication of the law; therefore the law which came after could not disannul the promise; and hence he concludes that ceremonies are not necessary.| But it may be objected, the sacraments were given in order to preserve the faith, and why should Paul separate them from the promise? He does so separate them, and proceeds to argue on the matter. The ceremonies themselves are not so much considered by him as something higher, -- the effect of justification which was attributed to them by false apostles, and the obligation on the conscience. From ceremonies, accordingly, he takes occasion to discuss the whole subject of faith and works. If the point in dispute had no connection with obtaining righteousness, with the merit of works, or with ensnaring the conscience, ceremonies would be quite consistent with the promise.
What, then, is meant by this disannulling of the promise, against which the apostle contends? The impostors denied that salvation is freely promised to men, and received by faith, and, as we shall presently see, urged the necessity of works in order to merit salvation. I return to Paul's own language. |The law,| he says, |is later than the promise, and therefore does not revoke it; for a covenant once sanctioned must remain perpetually binding.| I again repeat, if you do not understand that the promise is free, there will be no force in the statement; for the law and the promise are not at variance but on this single point, that the law justifies a man by the merit of works, and the promise bestows righteousness freely. This is made abundantly clear when he calls it a covenant founded on Christ.
But here we shall have the Papists to oppose us, for they will find a ready method of evading this argument. |We do not require,| they will say, |that the old ceremonies shall be any longer binding; let them be laid out of the question; nevertheless a man is justified by the moral law. For this law, which is as old as the creation of man, went before God's covenant with Abraham; so that Paul's reasoning is either frivolous, or it holds against ceremonies alone.| I answer, Paul took into account what was certainly true, that, except by a covenant with God, no reward is due to works. Admitting, then, that the law justifies, yet before the law men could not merit salvation by works, because there was no covenant. All that I am now affirming is granted by the scholastic theologians: for they maintain that works are meritorious of salvation, not by their intrinsic worth, but by the acceptance of God, (to use their own phrase,) and on the ground of a covenant. Consequently, where no divine covenant, no declaration of acceptance is found, -- no works will be available for justification: so that Paul's argument is perfectly conclusive. He tells us that God made two covenants with men; one through Abraham, and another through Moses. The former, being founded on Christ, was free; and therefore the law, which came after, could not enable men to obtain salvation otherwise than by grace, for then, |it would make the promise of none effect.| That this is the meaning appears clearly from what immediately follows.
18. If the inheritance be of the law. His opponents might still reply, that nothing was farther from their intention than to weaken or disannul God's covenant. To deprive them of every kind of subterfuge, he comes forward with the assertion, that salvation by the law, and salvation by the promise of God, are wholly inconsistent with each other. Who will dare to explain this as applying to ceremonies alone, while Paul comprehends under it whatever interferes with a free promise? Beyond all doubt, he excludes works of every description. |For,| says he to the Romans,
|if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.| (Romans 4:14.)
Why so? Because salvation would be suspended on the condition of satisfying the law; and so he immediately concludes:
|Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace, in order that the promise might be sure to all the seed.| (Romans 4:16.)
Let us carefully remember the reason why, in comparing the promise with the law, the establishment of the one overturns the other. The reason is, that the promise has respect to faith, and the law to works. Faith receives what is freely given, but to works a reward is paid. And he immediately adds, God gave it to Abraham, not by requiring some sort of compensation on his part, but by free promise; for if you view it as conditional, the word gave, (kecharistai,) would be utterly inapplicable.