002. Justifying the Ungodly

Justifying the Ungodly

Texts that Transform

Romans 4:5

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

I grew up in a Missionary Baptist church that used the revival meeting format for its worship service. The service begins with the first and last stanzas of favorite gospel songs led by a gregarious “song leader” (these were pre- “worship leader” days). Offering – Special Music – Sermon – Altar Call – Multiple verses of “Just As I Am.” The deacons would then go out and have a smoke.

I heard the gospel call to repentance and faith in Christ on every single Sunday.  Never, not once, not for a moment did I ever believe that one could be saved except through faith in Jesus, apart from any works. That was clear. Good works could never get a person into heaven.

Yet, as a teenager I became highly uncomfortable with what I later heard called “easy-believism.” Scores of people in our ecclesiastical circle had walked the aisle, prayed the “sinner’s prayer,” were born again and saved, and yet never showed the least sign of authentic Christianity. They were immoral. They had foul mouths. They were drunks. They were mean. They were prideful. Yet they had assurance. Oh yes. They knew they were saved. I may have been a mushy-headed teenager, but I knew something was wrong with that. The real gospel changes people. Too many people weren’t changed.

I grew rapidly in my faith during my sophomore and ensuing years. As I matured I became even more troubled by “cheap-grace” evangelicalism, seen everywhere in Southern California. I had bumped into James and “faith without works is dead,” heightening my confusion (Jas 2:26). However, I continued to devour my Bible. One day I came to this verse:

But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, (Rom 4:5, NASB)

Here was the confirmation of my childhood faith. The Apostle’s subject is Abraham’s salvation as an illustration of the salvation of which he had been writing in the immediately preceding paragraph: justification by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, faith in His atoning, propitiating sacrifice apart from works of the law (Rom 3:24-28). He now writes,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (Rom 4:2)

Notice the connection between boasting and works. If my religious works and moral behavior earn salvation, I might boast of my accomplishments. “Look at how moral I am, how religious, how devout.” Surely, one might think, if anyone is to get into heaven, I will. Not so with Abraham, and not so “before God.” Rather than salvation through works about which Abraham might boast, he was justified by faith.

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3)

The Apostle’s citations from Genesis 15:6 are a clear Old Testament statement of salvation by faith. Abraham was instructed to look at the stars of heaven and promised “so shall your descendants be” (Gen 15:5, NASB). Abraham’s response: “He believed the Lord and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:5, 6). Right then and there, before he could do any good works, God counted him as righteous on the basis of faith alone. Then Paul contrasts the principle of works and its necessary wages (earnings, merits) with faith and its gift.

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. (Rom 4:4)

When I carried furniture up and down steps, in and out of houses, all day long during my college summers, my paycheck was not a gift from the owner of the moving van and storage company. My “wages” were not “counted as a gift, but as (my) dues!” He owed me that check. This is exactly what salvation is not.  

Finally, the Apostle clinches his argument:

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, (Rom 4:5)

Could the graciousness of the gospel possibly be stated more clearly?

“Does not work”

What is necessary for salvation? The Apostle has already concluded that “every mouth” is “closed” to all self-justifying claims or excuses. All of us, whether Jews who have the law or Gentiles who don’t, are “accountable” and condemned. The law condemns the “whole world” (Rom 3:19, NASB, summarizing Rom 1:18-3:18). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). How do we escape? “The one who does not work.” Works are not only not required, they are excluded. Works are given no consideration, no place, no credit in relation to justification/salvation. One must “not work,” that is, one must not attribute any meritorious value to good deeds whatsoever. Salvation is “not according to works” (Eph 2:8, 9). When our Savior appeared, says the Apostle again, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy” (Titus 3:4, 5). Once more: “A person not justified by the works of the law… because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:16).

If it were the case that we are saved by the works of the law, by good moral and religious habits, then “grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6). Grace would be replaced by justice and merit if salvation were by works and law. The whole gospel would be lost in the process, which is why the Apostle Paul calls any compromising of the grace-faith principle “a different gospel” which is not really another, but a “contrary” gospel, and pronounces curses upon it (Gal 1:6-9). Then we would get only what we earned and merited, and no more. Given that we could never sufficiently earn or merit anything from God, we would be hopelessly lost, which is exactly what the Bible teaches we are apart from Christ (Eph 2:12). “A man gets to heaven by works?” the great evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) asked. “I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand.”

“Believes in Him”

What is necessary for salvation? One must only “believe.” “‘What must I do to be saved?’” “‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’” (Acts 16:30). One must only have “faith” in Jesus Christ, His cross, His atonement, His victorious resurrection, and one is saved. The texts cited above concur. “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). A person is justified “through faith in Jesus Christ, so also we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ” (Gal 2:16). We have not “a righteousness of (our) own that comes through the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9). Back to the book of Romans: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28).

How do I receive the benefit of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? I need only open the empty hands of faith and receive it as a gift. Salvation “is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8, 9). “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). This leads to our next point.

“Who justifies the ungodly”

It gets better. One’s faith is in the God who “justifies the ungodly.” “Justifies” is the language of the courtroom. To be justified is to be considered “not guilty,” even innocent in God’s court. The Judge’s verdict is that we are righteous. Who gets justified? The ungodly, while still ungodly. They don’t first clean up their act, or straighten up their lives, or turn over a new leaf. They merely look to Christ and His cross. Though they are still “ungodly,” they are “reckoned” or “counted” as “righteousness.” They’re not righteous. Yet they, the ungodly, though still ungodly, are considered righteous in Christ. The righteousness of Christ is imputed or credited to them. We receive what Luther called “an alien righteousness,” a righteousness foreign to us and outside of us. We are rendered, said Luther again, simul jus et precator, at once (by God’s verdict) just and sinner (by nature and practice). The gospel reveals not a righteousness that we achieve through moral and religious deeds, but a righteousness “of God,” meaning “from God,” received as a gift (Rom 1:16, 17). It is a “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:22). In Christ we have a righteousness that is not our own, “that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9, 10).

“Counted as righteousness”

“Counted” or “reckoned” is an accounting term. The faith of the ungodly is counted or considered as righteousness. There are two sides to justification. There is both the negative and the positive. Debts are removed and assets are deposited. Christ bears our sin, eliminating our debt of sin, taking our spiritual bank account back to zero. Yet it doesn’t remain there. We are credited with a vast, even infinite sum of righteousness, Christ’s own righteousness. Guilt is removed by the cross, and an infinite treasure of righteousness is credited. Jesus “fulfilled all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). The righteousness of His perfectly righteous life is credited to us, even as “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin,” that is, the guilt of our sin, “that we might be the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21, NASB).

Back at college I read Romans 4:5 to a confused sorority girl at a social event, pausing on each word: who does not work but believes, my voice rising with enthusiasm. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?! Salvation is free. It is a gift. It is all of grace. It is all of Christ. We may well understand why Luther would refer to this arrangement as a “wonderful exchange.”

The sola fide part of my unrest was nailed down, closed, shut, never to be reopened. I wasn’t entirely sure of what to do with works considered positively. Jesus says others are to see our “good works” and “glorify your (our) Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16, NASB). We are to be “zealous for good works,” says the Apostle (Titus 2:14). Concern about works will have to await another study. Yet, a critical hurdle in understanding had been cleared and the graciousness of the gospel was unshakably grasped, with floods of accompanying gratitude and relief, not to mention motivation to spread the good news around.

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