We considered Paul’s thesis statement, his definition of justification by faith last time when we examined vv. 21-26. Sinners are made righteous in God’s sight and so escape punishment for their sins – punishment for sin is what is meant by the wrath of God – by receiving the gift of righteousness from God. They have no righteousness of their own so God must give it to them! This righteousness is given to them when they believe in Jesus Christ – trust in him as their savior – because that righteousness itself is his achievement. We must believe in Christ because it is Christ who acquired the righteousness for us. By his death on the cross he redeemed sinners – that is, liberated us from bondage, to sin and to death, by paying the price required for our deliverance – and he offered propitiation to God – that is he turned God’s holy wrath away from us by satisfying divine justice on our behalf. He did this by bearing in himself the punishment we deserved. Redemption and propitiation are two complementary ways of describing the result of Christ’s death on the cross. We know that is what Paul means because he also describes the faith by which sinners become righteous in God’s sight as a faith in Christ’s blood, which in the language of the Bible can only mean, confidence in the efficacy of Christ’s sacrificial, substitutionary death bearing in our place the punishment we deserve.
It is by this means and this means only, Paul says, that God can remain a just judge and still pardon and acquit guilty sinners. In other words, the message of the gospel is that God will pardon sinners but he will not and cannot relax the standards of his justice. Justice must be served and so Jesus Christ had to come and offer himself in our place, bearing in our stead the punishment we deserved; paying the ransom required for our deliverance from bondage to sin and guilt. In this way and this way only God remains just as he pardons and acquits sinners and declares them righteous. The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ in our place is what makes that possible. Or, to put it this way: the righteousness that is from God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ our substitute. Everything that now follows, from 3:27 to the end of chapter 5, is a demonstration, an elaboration, and a further explanation of what has already been said about the sinner’s justification.
v.28 Given that Paul himself elsewhere will “boast” in the Lord and boast in the cross, the boasting that is excluded is a self-righteous and self-centered boasting, a boasting in one’s moral works, as Paul will say again in 4:2. Other interpretations of these remarks have become popular recently, as efforts have been made to rehabilitate the theology of first century Judaism, but I will simply say that at the end of the day they fail to convince. Paul is plainly, here and elsewhere in his letters, setting over against one another two theories of how one becomes right in God’s sight, how one obtains the forgiveness of sins, and how one is saved from sin and the punishment of sin. He has already described sinful man as “boastful” in 1:30. In 2:17 he has described a typical Jew of his day – of which he himself was a perfect example before he became a Christian – as relying on the law, that is relying on his obedience to the law, and boasting in God. In Ephesians he explicitly says that salvation is by grace so that no one may boast, indicating, it would seem incontrovertibly, that the boasting Paul is concerned to decry, is the self-congratulation that stems from a view of salvation in which grace or gift is not the fundamental principle but rather some form of human achievement. Paul’s view of man as desperately needy and utterly helpless in his sin before the judgment of God contrasts radically with much evidence that demonstrates that in the Judaism of the period it was widely believed that men could not only keep the law, but that by keeping it they would secure their salvation. Remember the rich young ruler in the Gospels who told Jesus with a straight face that he had kept all the commandments from his youth! That would not have been a controversial remark among the Jews of the day. The rabbis spoke of those who kept the law of God from A to Z. Paul himself, as a Jew raised in the theology of first century Judaism, indeed trained in it, thought that he had kept the law of God until he was overcome with the shattering realization that he had not. You rarely hear among Jews of the Second Temple period, what you hear so often from Christians, such as this remark from Bernard of Clairvaux: “So far from being able to answer for my sins, I cannot answer even for my righteousness.” That is, even my good deeds are not truly good and certainly not good enough for God. [cf. S. Gathercole, Where is Boasting? 163-194] It is all such boasting and self-confidence that is excluded when righteousness is given to unworthy, helpless sinners on the basis of what Christ did for them and not what they did for themselves. In any case, Paul is clearly talking about how one is saved, put right with God, and he is clearly at pains to make clear that man is not saved by doing but by believing in Christ.
v.30 Circumcision figures here as it does because it was part of the basis for Jewish confidence in salvation, a kind of ritual passport to heaven, as we read in 2:25-29. Clearly the Jews felt about circumcision the way many so-called Christians have felt about baptism through the ages: a ritual act that brings salvation irrespective of the presence of a living and active faith in Jesus Christ.
v.31 Paul anticipates the objection – an objection brought against his doctrine of justification by faith as much today as then – that he will deal with in detail beginning in chapter 6. If Christ’s righteousness becomes mine by faith, what difference does it make if I keep God’s commandments?
4:1 It is very typical in Paul to provide anticipations of his argument as it will unfold. We noticed that in the previous verse. We already read in 3:21 that the doctrine Paul is expounding was taught in the ancient Scriptures. As his Jewish audience especially would care to know that this is actually so, Paul now turns to demonstrating that fact: viz. that what he is saying is nothing more or less than what Holy Scripture has always taught about the justification of sinners.
v.3 The word “credited” is the word that used to be translated by the word “imputed” or, as the ESV has it, “counted.”
v.5 Again, see the alternative, at every point in the argument it is the same: justification as attainment or as free gift. In any case it is clear: we are put right with God not by our doing something, not by our being good or obedient or moral, but by trusting the act and the provision of the Lord. Again, there are but two theories in play: you either earn something from God or you receive a gift from God. But we cannot earn, so we must receive.
v.12 Lurking behind all of this exposition is the problem that bedeviled first century Christianity and the proclamation of the gospel virtually from the very beginning: the Jewish demand that the Gentiles effectively become Jews in order to become Christians. Paul illustrates his point from the life of Abraham, who was the greatest Jew of all, and is said to have been righteous before he was circumcised. Genesis 15:6, where we read that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness, comes before Genesis 17 where we find the account of Abraham’s circumcision. It wasn’t submitting to circumcision – so important to Jewish self-consciousness – that made him righteous in God’s sight but believing in God. It wasn’t his ritual obedience; it was his faith that put him right in God’s sight. And this means that salvation comes and must come to every man in the same way. Whether a person is a Jew or a Gentile is not the issue, but whether a person has real faith in Jesus Christ. It must be so for this is the only way anyone can be made right with God.
Now the drift of the argument of the verses we have read seems clear enough. But, typical of Paul, it is dense and in it Paul deploys a manner of speaking that can be confusing. This is particularly so for Christians nowadays because in these verses, central as they are to the Protestant understanding of the way of salvation, Paul does not say things precisely in the way we have become used to saying them. Even in a matter as fundamental, as central as justification – the sinner’s pardon and acceptance with God – Paul says some things that we find surprising, accustomed as we are to our way of speaking about justification. The burden of Paul’s argument is clear enough, but the terminology and the progress of the argument can be confusing. The fact is our theologians do not use terms the same way the same terms were used by the Apostle Paul. Perhaps we wish that they had, but they do not. I know that many of you think carefully about your faith, you want to understand it accurately, and in Romans 4 we are dealing with the heart of the heart of our faith. And we have some thinking to do.
Take his statement in 4:3 and again in vvs. 5 and 9 that Abraham’s faith and the believer’s faith is “credited to him as righteousness.” That verb “credited” or “reckoned” or “imputed” we are accustomed to employing in a different way. The classic Protestant definition of justification is that of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
“Justification is the act of God’s free grace by which he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us and received by faith alone.”
In that definition it is Christ’s righteousness, not our faith, that is imputed to us, or reckoned to us, or credited to us. In the catechism’s definition Christ’s righteousness is the ground or the basis or the reason for our being judged righteous in God’s sight. Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us, and as a result, as we read in the Heidelberg Catechism, God judges me “as if I had never sinned or been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.” Things would be simpler if Paul had simply said that.
But, in fact, Paul never says in so many words that Christ’s righteousness is credited or reckoned or imputed to us. He never uses that important term “credit” or “impute” quite that way. Instead, as here, he says that our faith is reckoned, or imputed or credited to us as righteousness. I don’t want to confuse you unnecessarily, but we are talking about something fundamental to our faith as Christians and fundamental to one of the great controversies of Christian history and thought. We need to understand this. I know you want to understand this.
Protestant theology, Reformed and Lutheran theology together, has taken Paul’s argument as a whole in these three chapters – Romans 3-5 – and concluded that Paul teaches that the ground or basis of justification is Christ’s righteousness. What Christ did for us is the righteousness from God that is received by faith. This is the righteousness that Christ obtained for us as our substitute dying in our place on the cross. This is the consequence of Christ’s paying our ransom, of his propitiating God’s righteous anger, as we have already read in 3:24-25.
And this certainly is the burden of Paul’s entire argument that justification comes to us by faith and not by works. The righteousness which we obtain is not our own, it is the achievement of another and given to us as a gift. All of that seems unmistakably what Paul is at pains to assert in this section of Romans.
But, it remains the case that Paul never says this precisely in the terms we are accustomed to using. He doesn’t say that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us. We wish he had; it would have solved some problems down the road; but he didn’t. However, it is not, for that reason, any less the case that Paul’s argument amounts to the assertion that Christ’s righteousness in justification is credited to us, reckoned to us, imputed to us. That is what Paul means, even if he did not say it in the way we are used to hearing it.
When Paul says that faith is credited as righteousness or for righteousness he means that faith was the instrument by which Abraham, or for that matter any sinner, became or becomes righteous in God’s sight. In this section of his argument Paul is not talking about the ground or reason for a sinner’s justification as he was in 3:24-25; he is only talking about the means by which we secure that justification. Throughout he is pitting faith against works, however pious the works may be, even the works of the great patriarch Abraham. His point is to say that justification is by grace and so by faith; it is not by works and so by achievement. The proper way to summarize his argument in this section is to say that we are justified through faith on account of Christ.
It is perfectly clear in Paul’s argument, from 3:21 through 5:21 that what Jesus did on the cross is the basis or ground of our justification. Not only does he says this, as, for example, in 5:18-19; not only has he already said this in 3:24-25 when he related our justification, or being declared right in God’s sight, to what Christ did as our redeemer and as our propitiation; but it is the burden of his dramatic insistence on the fact that in acquitting sinners God is not being unrighteous and dishonest as the judge of all the earth. He already made the point briefly in 3:26 that it was necessary that God find a way of forgiving sinners that did not betray his justice and truthfulness.
And this same point Paul raises in a striking way in 4:5. The phrase Paul uses in v. 5 “trusts God who justifies the wicked…” may seem quite straightforward to us who are used to reading it in this context and think we know what it means. But it is and must have struck particularly Paul’s Jewish readers, who knew their Bible very well, especially as a shocking statement and very confusing and even upsetting and offensive. This indicates surely how important the point was to Paul that he should speak in such a way designed and calculated to rock Bible readers back on their heels.
You see the statement that God “justifies the wicked” or “justifies the ungodly” amounts, at first glance, to the assertion that God does what unjust judges do; that God exercises a corrupt judgment. “Justifying the wicked” is the very thing that God says that he will never do in Exodus 23:7 and similarly it is the very thing that is said to characterize a corrupt judge in Isa. 5:23. We understand that very well. A just judge should condemn the wicked and acquit the righteous. We are offended when a judge allows a guilty man to go free. Justice has been subverted; a great wrong has been done. But that seems to be the very thing that Paul says God does. He justifies the wicked! He acquits the guilty. He lets the criminal go free. It is striking that Paul, in saying that God justifies or declares righteous the wicked, uses the very same words that the Greek translators of the OT used in Exodus and Isaiah to describe unjust judgment. And it is not only there we read such a thing. In Proverbs 24:24 we find a similar thought:
“Whoever says to the wicked, ‘You are in the right, will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations, but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight.”
God has said that as a just judge he will not acquit the wicked! But here Paul is saying that he will. Now you realize why Paul was so concerned to maintain that God, in justifying sinners, took steps to preserve his own righteousness and justice untarnished. How can a just judge acquit sinners? How can a righteous judge declare the unrighteous to be righteous? That is the question and Paul answers it by saying that it is possible for God to declare sinners righteous because he has dealt with their sin in the sacrificial death, the substitutionary death of his son, Jesus Christ. Our sin was punished: not in ourselves but in Christ. God’s justice was satisfied in the punishment that Christ endured in our place. That is the burden of the language of redemption and propitiation and blood in 3:24-26. Sinners, wicked men and women can be declared righteous because someone else has acquired a righteousness on their behalf; because God exacted from Jesus Christ the debt of their sin.
As Anselm puts it to Boso, his conversation partner, in Anselm’s great work Cur Deus Homo? [Why did God become Man?]; if a person does not appreciate the moral problem involved in God’s forgiving sinners, it is because he has “not yet considered how serious a thing sin is!” [I, xxi; cited in Bruce, 115] The only way God could be a just judge and acquit guilty sinners is by having dealt with their guilt in the punishment of their substitute. For us who are sinful to be declared righteous in God’s sight required the greatest things that ever happened in the world or ever will happen: God the son, the creator of heaven and earth, entering the world incognito, as a mere man; his suffering and death on the cross; and his resurrection from the dead.
So, in this way too, the entire argument deployed by the great apostle is that it is what Christ has done for us, not what we do ourselves that is the basis of our being declared right in God’s sight. And so it is true that Christ’s righteousness is reckoned or credited or imputed to us who believe in Jesus even if Paul does not precisely put it in those terms and even if he uses the term “credit” or “reckon” or “impute” in a different way in these verses.
Martin Luther’s groundbreaking discovery was nothing more nor less than that what Paul was asserting in chapter 4: faith is the instrumentality of justification, not its ground or its reason or its basis. What Paul is saying here is that faith is the instrument, the means of our becoming righteous; it is not the righteousness itself. Romans 4 is not concerned with the ground of our justification but the means of our securing it.
It is upon the argument of this passage that Martin Luther based his assertion that we are justified by faith alone. That assertion became the motto of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century as you know, one of the solas that defined the Protestant versus the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. In his day and ever since Luther has been sternly criticized for the addition of that word alone. The word “alone” does not appear in the text. Indeed, it is never actually said in the Bible that we are justified by faith alone. Luther has added to the Bible and changed the Bible’s message. That was the charge in his day and has been the charge since. But Luther was unimpressed by this criticism and rightly so. He was well aware that, as he said, his critics were making “a tremendous fuss because the word sola is not in Paul’s text…” [cited in Bruce, 109] But Luther had in fact accurately summarized Paul’s meaning. What Luther meant by saying that we were justified by faith alone is that it is not by our works, our moral efforts, our acts of ritual or moral obedience, or by any other fancied means of justification that men are put right with God, but only through faith. We are made righteous by grace, by the gift of God – what Paul says in 4:16 – that is was it means to say that we are saved by faith alone. We are saved by what we receive from God as a gift. That is the meaning of faith: receiving a gift, looking to another for what we cannot do ourselves. And that is precisely what Paul has argued here. It is not too much to say that Luther improved on Paul’s argument by summarizing it more succinctly: justification is by faith alone. I don’t mean that Luther improved on the Bible, but only that he made Paul’s argument clearer to vast multitudes of people. He digested Paul’s argument and then put it in a summary form that made it much easier for interested folk to understand. Justification is by faith alone or, justification is only by faith and not by achievement. He got Paul right even though Paul never said “by faith alone” just as our theologians got Paul right even though Paul never said that Christ’s righteousness is reckoned or imputed to those who trust in him. Those are the best ways to summarize what Paul said and what Paul meant by what he said!
Thank you for staying with me so far. I realize that arguments of this kind, close analyses of a text such as the one we have read this morning, can leave people glassy-eyed. Are we deepening understanding or are we simply adding to the confusion? Well, let me say this. It all depends upon how seriously you consider the issue that Paul is raising. This is doctrine, theological teaching, it is even polemical doctrine, the kind of doctrine that gets bandied back and forth in arguments, and for many people doctrine is dry and dusty and remote from the true-life interests of people. And, I will not deny that sometimes Bible doctrines are preached in ways calculated to put people to sleep. But shame on the preacher who preaches justification that way! This doctrine is as relevant, as interesting, as thrilling as a rope thrown to a drowning man or a cup of cold water offered to someone dying of thirst.
But to appreciate that requires the conviction of sin or what Paul calls in v. 20, being “conscious of sin.” It requires a man or woman to feel their unrighteousness and to feel and appreciate the righteous anger of God against them on account of their sin and their hopelessness in anticipation of the last judgment. As Robert Trail put it in the 17th century:
“The theme of justification hath suffered greatly by this, that many have employed their heads and pens, who never had their hearts and consciences exercised about it.” [Works, i, 288]
But let a man or woman realize the full extent of his or her moral failure, the impossibility of offering to God any obedience worthy of God’s verdict of acquittal, the reality of divine wrath, and Paul’s exposition of justification by faith, of the righteousness that comes from God becomes life itself.
And so it has been to countless multitudes of sinners who have come to faith in Christ. Whether or not they appreciated at first the intricacies of Paul’s argument, they knew themselves guilty sinners, they knew that God’s justice was a terrible threat to them, not a comfort; they knew they had no chance before God’s judgment. But when, by the Spirit of God, it became clear to them that God had provided righteousness for them through his Son and that they had only to believe in Jesus to receive that righteousness, that realization utterly transformed them, filled them with hope, and changed their fears into peace and love. There had been no way for them to escape God’s condemnation; they had felt that in their own consciences, they deserved it absolutely. But God found a way – even though it was at terrible cost to himself – and what was impossible became possible.
Paul has described God’s justification of sinners in his own way, but it is certainly no innovation on his part. This is the message that Abraham understood and believed, he tells us here in chapter 4. It is in fact the message Jesus himself taught in other terms. When Jesus, in his parable, compared two men praying in the temple – the despised tax collector who beat his breast and cried out to God, “God be merciful to me a sinner” and the Pharisee who in his pride thanked God that he was not such a sinner as that tax collector – and when he said that the tax collector conscious of his sin and guilt went home justified he was teaching nothing other than what Paul is teaching here.
And all Bible writers agree – no matter how they put the point – because this is the only possible way God, the just judge of all men, could declare sinful people righteous. For us to be put right with God, God had to forgive us in a manner in keeping with his own justice. Christ on the cross is the only possible solution to that problem! Therefore, we believe on the strength of the teaching of Holy Scripture as our theologians teach us, in the consequent, absolute necessity of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Consequent: that is, Christ did not have to save us; God did not have to save us, he did not have to send his Son into the world to save us. He could have left us to ruin! We deserve our punishment and he could have let us get what we deserve. But once he decided to save, there was no other way to save sinners but through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. That is the consequent, absolute necessity of Christ’s atonement.
Many of us have known this and believed this for years. We run the risk of thinking it old hat. We must take hold of ourselves and consider the facts again. Go over the ground again. Try your very best to be good, your very best; you sin still and you know it. You sin all the time. You sin in every conceivable way. You are thinking of new ways to sin every day you live. You are inventing new sins in your life everyday you live, and you know it! A man attempting to meet the perfect standards of God’s holiness is like a man trying to climb out of the water on a ladder made of water. He gets nowhere! You and I were facing the wrath of God and were helpless to change our fate. And God intervened and offered us a life jacket, a rope – righteousness through faith in his Son.
“A story is told of a traveler in Switzerland arriving on horseback in the middle of the night at an inn on the shores of Lake Constance, having lost his way in a great snowstorm. When the astonished innkeeper told him that the roads had all been impassable for days, and that he had actually ridden not along the road but over the frozen lake, the man blanched…in horror at the thought of how near to death he had been as his horse’s hoofs had pounded not on the road, but the thin layer of ice on the lake’s surface.” [J. Atkinson, “A Truth for Our Times,” Here We Stand: Justification by Faith Today, 71-72]
The realization of justification by faith should produce a similar reaction in a Christian man or woman: how near we were to ruin; how safe and warm we are now in the refuge Christ has provided. We take fresh heart and go on: saved but chastened; justified, right with God, deeply grateful and joyful for what the Lord has done for us, but not forgetting how close we came to utter ruin. That is what the gospel means and what thoughts and feelings it creates in the believing heart!