God Credits Faith As Righteousness

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How Do We Guilty Sinners Escape Condemnation?

So today - very simply - in Romans 4:1-5, what is the answer to the question: How shall we who are condemned, guilty sinners escape the wrath of God and have our guilt taken away so that we are no longer under the just sentence of condemnation from a just Judge?

Paul answers the question by using Abraham as an example. Romans 4:1, "What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?" You know the old spiritual, "Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord." That's based on Genesis 6:8. Well, what did Abraham find? Did he also find grace? Was his relationship with God based on grace?

In verse 2 he begins his answer. And he picks up the issue of boasting that he dealt with in Romans 3:27-28, "Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." Someone might say, "O really! What about Abraham?" because Abraham was renowned for his works of obedience, especially his willingness to give up his son Isaac (Genesis 22). So here is Paul's answer in Romans 4:2.

"If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God." What does that mean? Does it mean he might be justified by works and able to boast before men, but not before God? No, because look at how verse 3 supports verse 2: "For what does the Scripture say [in Genesis 15:6]? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'" So the point of verse 3 is not that people who are justified by works can boast before men but not before God. The point of verse 3 is that Abraham was not justified by works. "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."

Here is the way I would paraphrase verse 2: "If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about. But before God such a thing is inconceivable." In other words, verse 2 rules out all boasting in relation to justification, because there simply is no such thing as justification by works in the presence of God. The "if" clause in verse 2 is ruled out.

Why? Paul bases his argument on Genesis 15:6. He argues that Genesis 15:6 does not say "Abraham worked for God and therefore was justified." Nor does it say, "Abraham did acts of love and therefore was justified." Nor does it say that Abraham made progress in character formation and therefore was justified. It says, "Abraham believed God [trusted God, banked on God's free mercy, looked away from his hopeless, ungodly self to God's grace] and that faith was credited to him as righteousness."

What did Abraham find? Abraham found grace in the eyes of the Lord, through faith alone. God drew him to faith and God counted the faith as a righteousness - as a right standing with God. Abraham became right with God -acquitted, forgiven, accepted, justified - by faith alone apart from works.

Now Paul is very eager to pick up on the words "faith" and "credited" in Genesis 15:6 to show why they rule out boasting and support justification by faith alone. Verse 4: "Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor ['according to grace'], but as what is due ['according to debt']. "This is why justification by works would not put an end to boasting. If you work for your justification, what you are doing is trying to get God to owe you something. And if you succeed in getting God to owe you something, then you can boast - before men and God. If you worked for justification and you succeeded, you would not get grace, but a wage. God would owe it to you. And when you get, you would be able to say, "I deserve this." And that, Paul says, is not what Abraham did.

Justification Is by Faith Alone - Nothing but Faith

Well, what did he do? Verse 5 is perhaps the most important verse on justification by faith alone in all the New Testament. There are three bright signals in this verse that teach that justification is by faith alone and nothing but faith. Read it with me: "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness."

Notice these three signals that justification is by faith alone.

1. "To the one who does not work"

First, he says, "To the one who does not work." Here is a portrait of the moment of justification. This moment could happen for you this morning, because it is not a long process (like sanctification is). Justification is a verdict delivered by God in a moment: not guilty, acquitted, accepted, forgiven. And Paul says it happens to one who "does not work"! That means it comes by faith alone.

2. God justifies "the ungodly"

The second signal that justification is by faith alone is the word "ungodly." After Paul says, "To the one who does not work," he says, "but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly." This was utterly shocking. It jars all of our judicial sentiments (see Exodus 23:7; Proverbs 17:15). It makes us cry out, "How can this be?" And the answer is, of course, that "Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). God can justify the ungodly because his Son died for the ungodly.

The point of the word "ungodly" here is to stress that faith is not our righteousness. Faith believes in him who justifies the ungodly. When faith is born, we are still ungodly. Faith will begin to overcome our ungodliness. But in the beginning of the Christian life - where justification happens - we are all ungodly. Godly works do not begin to have a role in our lives until we are justified. We are declared righteous by faith alone while we are still ungodly. And that is the only way any of us can have hope that God is on our side so that we can now make headway in the fight against ungodliness. He is for us. And if God is for us, who can stand against us?

3. "His faith is credited as righteousness"

Finally, the third signal that justification is by faith alone is the last phrase in verse 5, "His faith is credited as righteousness." Not his works or his love or even his fruit of faith, but his faith - his faith alone - is credited as righteousness.

Trust in the One Who Justifies the Ungodly

So here we are this morning as sinners on the brink of hell - not a mere self-imposed condition of alienation, but a God-imposed sentence of condemnation. How shall we escape? How shall we get right with God, be forgiven, acquitted, counted as righteous in his presence rather than guilty and ungodly? Answer: By trusting in the One who justifies the ungodly.

Christ died to pay our debt. Christ lived to provide our righteousness. When we despair of ourselves and trust the God who justifies the ungodly, God reckons our sin as punished on the cross, and God reckons Christ's righteousness as imputed to us.

Do you want to be right with God? Do you want to have under you a firm unshakable foundation for life and eternity? Do you want peace that passes all understanding? Trust in the One who justifies the ungodly.

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By John Piper. ©Desiring God Ministries.
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