…him who justifies the ungodly. —Romans 4:5
Here’s the most wonderful thing in this passage. Verse 5: “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Who is the “him” there? God. What does God do? He justifies the ungodly. What does the word “ungodly” mean? The apostle Peter put Sodom and Gomorrah in the category of “the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5-6). In Classical Greek, the word “ungodly” meant sacrilegious. The “ungodly” are all who refuse to bow to God. What does the all-holy God do with people like that? God justifies them, he gives them his approval, he treats them like saints, and they don’t even have to try. They don’t have to work for it or deserve it or clean up their lives first. All they have to do is receive Christ. That’s all. God justifies ungodly believers. Could he set a lower standard than that?
The gospel says that everyone in Christ, just because they are in Christ, has already stood before the judgment of God and is already pronounced righteous in his sight – even now while we remain desperate sinners. God completely accepts the prodigal son with the filth of the hog pen still all over him. Why? Because that prodigal son is in Christ. How did that grace become his? He just straggled home.
Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is God’s one-way love to desperate sinners like us. It creates wonderful new possibilities. Tony Campolo was preaching away from home, I think in Hawaii. One night he couldn’t sleep. So he got up at 3:00 AM and went down to the hotel coffee shop. Some prostitutes were there. He overheard one of them saying that tomorrow was her birthday, then she soon left. He said to one of the others, “If you’ll get her back here tomorrow night at 3:00, we’ll have a party for her. I’ll bring the cake and balloons and gifts. You just get her here.” They asked him, “Who are you?” He said, “I’m a preacher.” “What kind of church do you belong to?” “A church that throws parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning.” And every one of us is living proof of it. God justifies the ungodly.
Paul has been teaching us about justification by faith. Romans chapter 3 was about “justification.” Now chapter 4 is about “by faith.” Our text moves forward in three steps. First, in verses 1-3, we see Abraham as a test-case of what God does for sinners who will trust him. Secondly, in verses 4-5, we see the same thing in the form of a sort of policy statement from God. Thirdly, in verses 6-8, we see David as a second test-case. Let’s think it through, and let’s really enjoy this.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” —Romans 4:1-3
From the beginning, God has been justifying, accepting, approving of sinners in one way only – by grace. Abraham was the forefather of all of God’s people. So Abraham is the precedent everyone can look to. The trouble is, Abraham has been misunderstood. The rabbis of Paul’s time taught that Abraham was so good, so obedient to God, that he built up a fund of merit with God by his obedience, more than he needed for himself. Not only did Abraham win his own way into God’s good graces by his obedience, but everyone who follows Abraham now can tap into that fund by meriting the merit of Abraham. That is what the rabbis taught. It’s like having old family wealth. Our forefather Abraham was a diligent investor, and now we can all benefit. You may not be a great saint yourself, but as long as you’re not a slacker the family fund will make up the difference. That’s how Abraham was perceived. And the Old Testament is clear. Abraham was a radically obedient man (Genesis 22). If anyone could gain God’s favor by his own obedience, it was Abraham. And if Abraham didn’t gain God’s favor by his obedience, who can?
What the rabbis didn’t understand was this. There is a world of difference between keeping God’s law and using God’s law. Keeping God’s law is what faith does – or tries to do. It’s like a sick person going to a doctor and believing that the doctor has the cure and therefore follows doctor’s orders. That sick person doesn’t want to slow down his recovery. He believes his doctor, he follows through, and he gets better. That’s keeping God’s law. It’s what faith moves toward. But using God’s law is completely different. It’s a mentality that says, “I will comply with God’s law as leverage to get his attention, to position God where he owes me.” Now, that mentality might obey at a behavioral level. But it always turns poisonous. As Paul says here, that kind of obedience ends up boasting before God, demanding things of God, saying to God, “Look what I’ve done. Now give me what I deserve.” And no one can boast before God. Abraham didn’t.
What was the deepest truth of Abraham’s life? What is the takeaway God has for us here? Not that Abraham obeyed God but that he trusted God. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 here: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” That’s one of the most important verses in the whole Bible. We must understand Genesis 15:6. Do you remember what was happening? God made the first move toward Abraham when he was still a pagan idol worshiper (Joshua 24:2). God set his love on Abraham and made him a promise that had nothing to do with Abraham’s obedience or disobedience. It was a promise of God’s grace. God promised that he would restore this crazy world to peace and justice through a renewed human family, and Abraham would be the father of the miracle family. Ignore the fact that Abraham and his wife Sarah were beyond childbearing years. God was out to prove what he alone can do. So for the sheer hilarity of it, God promised this old couple with no children and with a pagan background that their redemptive family would be as numerous as the stars. The conversation may have gone like this:
God: Nice night out, Abraham. Want to go for a walk? Abraham: Sure. [They go outside.] God: The stars are clear tonight. Abraham: Brilliantly clear. God: So, count them. Abraham: Count the stars? Lord, where do I begin? God: So shall your descendants be. I promise.
At that moment I see Abraham hesitating, taking it in, going back and forth in his thoughts, gulping a few times, but eventually giving in and collapsing in a sort of happy defeat: “Lord, I knew your plan would be big, but I thought it would be possible – the two of us pulling it off. But you’re talking miracle now, Lord. I can’t even help you. You’re going to have to do this alone. But since it’s you, okay, I believe you.” And God said, “I’ll take care of everything from here. All you need to stand before me forever with no barriers between us to prevent my promise from coming true for you, with nothing limiting the success of it and the joy of it – I’ll take care of everything. I am a miracle-working God of grace, and I want you to experience that. Your small thoughts cannot diminish me, Abraham; my promises will change you.”
If you have difficulty trusting God – and all of us do – if you have difficulty even believing in God at all, the remedy is not to scale God back to believable size but to let God be as hugely audacious as he claims to be and let his magnitude sweep you away into the happy defe at called “faith.” Give up your small thoughts of God. They aren’t true. The root sin of all our other life-depleting sins is not believing that God is as massively good as he says he is. You can even obey his law, in a way, without any sense in your heart of his goodness; but it’s sinful obedience. Or you can struggle to obey him and fail a lot, but if your heart cherishes his promise of grace in the gospel, God promises, “I’ll take care of everything from here.” How could it be otherwise? After all, who is God? Not primarily a lawgiver, not a playground monitor, not a Santa Claus figure making a list and checking it twice. Above all else, God is a promiser. If you want God, if you want his goodness to open your life up in new ways, see him as he is and look away from yourself and let his promises in the gospel redefine your future. God will then say to you, “I’ll take care of everything from here.” He did with Abraham, and he’ll do the same for you. Stop defining your life by the smallness of your obedience and let God redefine you by the magnitude of his promises. Will you?
God’s policy statement
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. —Romans 4:4-5
Between his two test-cases, Abraham and David, Paul states God’s policy toward sinners. The most important thing we must see here is the stark contrast. God’s policy is not a both/and, it is an either/or. In God’s thinking, there is a clear difference between works and faith, wages and gift, resting and boasting, law and grace. We mix them. We think, “As a Christian, now I’m partly good and partly bad. So I can get more cooperation from him by enhancing my good side and submerging my bad side.” It’s our natural feeling. It’s why we need to be re-saturated in the gospel and re-amazed by Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners, over and over again.
Here is the point of verses 5-6: We cannot buy what isn’t for sale. No one earns from God, because God isn’t running a business. There is no earning mixed in. Verse 5: “And to the one who does not work but trusts . . . .” It’s a case of not this but that. What is Paul saying?
Paul is using a financial metaphor to explain how we access God – or, better, how God gives himself away. Anyone can have God, but only in one way. Conceivably, there might be two ways to access God – the pay-as-you-go plan, and the bail-out plan. You either pay as you go by your own works and wages, or someone else bails you out and your future opens up in spite of what you deserve. And the Bible is telling us here God’s way for us to access God. It’s a bail-out plan, and it’s completely free from beginning to end. God’s grace doesn’t exclude our obedience, but he isn’t activated by our obedience. What moves God is Christ’s obedience for us. The Father said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Here is the gospel: You are more evil than you’ve ever feared and more loved than you’ve ever dreamed. It’s why Jesus came and lived the life we’ve never lived and died the death we deserve to die. He is the one who counts with God. The only response to Christ that means anything to God is for us to stop trying to replace his Son with our own fifth-rate works and hold out the empty hands of faith to receive grace upon grace forever. In our relationship with God, he is the one who works. There is no mixture of our works in there. But God, for all that he is, can be accessed forever by anyone who will trust him. That’s what God himself says.
It’s so freeing to get our focus off ourselves and live by faith in Someone Else. It’s how you actually experience Christ as your Savior. He heals your conscience. He tells your heart, “I haven’t justified you partly but completely. You are completely free from your past. You face your future without any possibility that God’s promises might unravel, because I’ve already earned them for you. Be at peace.” That is God’s policy statement. Here is another test-case.
…just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. —Romans 4:6-8
Unlike Abraham, David sinned spectacularly. He committed adultery and then orchestrated the husband’s death. He deserved the wrath of God, and he knew it. What did God do? God didn’t count David’s sins against him. David’s behavior was sin – not a mistake but sin. God did not say to David, “That guilt you feel – guilt is such a negative emotion. You really should get over it and just move on.” God didn’t say that. David didn’t want to hear that. He had sinned. He knew it. He wanted forgiveness. Not therapy. Not excuses. Forgiveness of his sins. So he cried out to God, and God forgave his sins. God didn’t count David’s sins against him. God covered them all forever in Christ. And David couldn’t contain his joy. It’s why he wrote Psalm 32. It’s why the word “blessed” is there in Psalm 32. That word “blessed” means happy.
What was it about God that made David, the desperate sinner, so happy? The key is the word “count.” We see it in verses 6 and 8. We’ve already seen it in verses 3, 4 and 5. Verse 6: “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.” What does God do that can make desperate sinners happy? Theologians find it in this word “count.” They call it imputation. It means that God credits to sinners what we don’t deserve. Christ obeys God, we disobey God, our disobedience counts against him at his cross, and his obedience counts for us every moment of every day. God credits to us what only Christ deserves. That’s imputation, and it changes us.
Imputation changed me in the course of five minutes one afternoon in May, 1965. I was in tenth grade, and it was spring football practice. I’d tried out for the team before, but I’d never been able to break the fear barrier. I’d never been able to throw myself into the game with abandon. But that afternoon our Athletic Director, Coach Pete Pappas, a big barrel-chested Greek man we all loved and feared, subbed for our coach. At one point he got me into a one-on-one blocking drill. It was exactly the kind of face-to-face, all-or-nothing drill I’d never succeeded in before. But Coach Pappas didn’t limit me to my past. He didn’t treat me like a loser. He treated me like a football player. In the course of about five unforgettable minutes, his voice and manner and authority convinced me and motivated me and redefined me as a football player. And I believed him. Actually, I didn’t feel I had much choice. This was Coach Pappas! But he changed me by imputation, from then on I started loving the game and succeeding. Coach Pappas spoke into my life a new word of hope, and I was never the same again.
Many of us could tell stories of imputation disarming us, freeing us, opening up a new future. We poke along in our oldness and sameness and stuckness. Then God enters in. What does he do for us? Exactly what he did for Gideon back in the Old Testament. God had big plans for Gideon, but Gideon was a wimp. So God sent him an angel who greeted him this way: “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor!” (Judges 6:12). God not only forgives us in Christ, he re-names us as righteous and qualified and significant and destined for great things, and he declares it to us in the gospel. Let’s believe the good word of the Lord!
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the British preacher, guides us safely home when he says this,
Would you like to be rid of this spiritual depression? The first thing you have to do is to say farewell now once and forever to your past. Realize that it has been covered and blotted out in Christ. Never look back at your sins again. Say, “It is finished, it is covered by the blood of Christ.” That is your first step. Take that and finish with yourself and all this talk about [your own] goodness, and look to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that true happiness and joy are possible for you. What you need is not to make resolutions to live a better life, to start fasting and sweating and praying. No! You just begin to say, I rest my faith on Him alone Who died for my transgressions to atone.”
Will you hold out those empty hands of faith before Christ today? If you will, he promises you everything your sad heart can desire.